Oil – the long and short of it

In the last days of 2005, leading thinkers and scholars from around the world share their fears, hopes and expectations of 2006. As Isabel Hilton asks: What does 2006 have in store? (Part one)
Alfred W Crosby
22 December 2005

Oil is a miracle fuel to which we are understandably addicted. It has roughly twice the energy value per unit of weight of coal and takes up per available calorie of energy much less space than natural gas. It is a liquid and as such is easily stored and transported. It can even be pumped from one airplane to another in flight. The west’s demand for it in 2006 will not diminish and the developing world’s thirst – China’s and India’s most impressively – will increase.

In the short run we in the west have no choice about participating in the worldwide competition to find and tap new sources of oil, and therefore of colliding with other nations in the oilfields of central Asia and under the waters of west Africa. We should anticipate those collisions with pre-emptive negotiations: the alternative is an increase in the likelihood of war.

In the long run we must defang energy rivalries by moderating the world demand for oil. That certainly won’t happen in 2006, but at least we should be able to slow its rocket rise. We must adopt the more fuel-frugal internal combustion engines, turn away from private automobiles to public transportation, exploit the so-called “renewables” — biofuels, sun energy, wind energy, and so on — hoping that these measures will suffice to fend off a pandemic of armed conflict until a plentiful, cheap, and energy-rich substitute for oil can be found. Hydrogen is currently the most popular nominee for the role of energy-manna from heaven.

It might help if we recognize that Moses did not descend Mount Sinai carrying a jerry can of gasoline. Queen Elizabeth and George Washington may have dabbed their chapped lips with a bit of oil, but did not use it as a fuel. Our addiction to oil is not much over 100 years old. We are like a beer and ale fancier who has recently discovered vodka and cannot imagine a world without it.

In 2006 oil will influence all our major decisions, for instance, on where we choose to live — city or suburbs — and on whether we munch on apples raised locally or mangos imported from far away. It will also, if we aren’t very wise, dictate why, where, when and with whom we fight.

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