I was asked to write an article for Dilema Veche on the theme “what can we expect in 2010?” and this is what I think. But what do you think? Please leave your comments below. Rupert Wolfe Murray
This year will be much like 2009: political infighting, economic crises and passive discontent. Nothing new or useful can be expected from the new government and the media will be filled with the arguments and illicit affairs of Romania’s irresponsible leaders.
Things will function in Romania as they have done for the last 20 years: the gas will continue to flow (although this season’s Kremlin-Kiev gas row is still due) and the water and food supply systems will continue to function. Despite problems and price rises, these utilities have become so reliable that we take them for granted. We don’t think about what would happen if the gas and food supplies suddenly stopped. We don’t realise how vulnerable we are.
Because they are only elected for a few years at a time, and are generally only interested in the welfare of their own tribe, most politicians have no interest in telling us that our fuel and food supplies – indeed our very way of life – are at risk. These risks are global warming and peak oil. Even in western Europe there is much complacency about these issues, and the one risk that is taken seriously – the banking crisis – is a micro problem compared to what the Peak Oil crisis will be like.
2010 will be another year of lost opportunity, another year in which we should (but won’t) prepare for the coming crises. It will be a year in which untold billions of EU Structural Funds will not be invested in setting up the renewable energy systems that Romania so desperately needs to replace its ancient coal-fired generators, a year in which the over-staffed government agencies will argue continually with each other about whose responsibility it is to unlock the 32 billion Euros that Romania has been allocated by the EU. It will be another lost year.
Of the three crises facing us – financial, global warming and Peak Oil – two are well known. But there is almost no public debate about Peak Oil – the least known of the big threats but the one that is likely to have the most dramatic impact. They say it will take 20 years to develop alternatives to the oil and gas that we currently rely on for our transport, heat and food supplies. 2010 could be the first year in which we start making serious preparations for the oil shock that will probably hit us in 2012.
According to Wikipedia, “Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline.” In other words, global oil supplies are running out and the consequences of this happening are so catastrophic that politicians everywhere prefer sticking their heads in the sand and pretend it isn’t happening. But it is.
The Peak Oil theory was developed in 1956 by M. King Hubbert, an American geologist who worked for Shell Oil in Houston, Texas. Hubbert predicted that American oil supplies would “peak” in 1970 and then enter a slow decline. When this was proven to be correct he became famous and the Peak Oil theory entered into scientific lexicon. And oil companies still use Hubbert’s methodology to plan the extraction rate from individual oil wells (each oil well has a peak of production and then starts to run out).
Hubbert originally predicted that oil would run out in 1995 but new oil discoveries have postponed the date to around 2012. Some say that we have already hit peak oil. The problem is that the whole world is reliant on a few massive oil wells in Saudia Arabia, Kazakhstan and Russia (each of which will peak and decline) and the replacement oil from deep sea and Arctic locations is so expensive to extract that no oil companies are investing in these sources.
If global oil supplies will peak in 2012, as I expect they will, we will be hit by a series of economic crises. The price of oil will rise to $300 a barrel and our economies may collapse. When people think of oil running out they assume the main impact would be on transport; in the worst case scenario they won’t be able to drive. But personal transport issues are irrelevant compared to the impact Peak Oil will have on our food supply.
There is a saying in the environmental movement that “we eat oil” and if one studies food production it makes perfect sense. Modern agriculture is totally dependent on diesel fuel for operating tractors and the other machines that the system depends. And the high yields that the global population has come to depend on is dependent on fertilizers which are produced with natural gas.
If one takes into account the trucks which take the food from farm to supermarket it becomes clear how vulnerable we are. Even small peasant farmers can’t get their produce to market without a van (and horses and carts were banned from Bucharest when Basescu was mayor).
The situation in the more developed countries like USA and Germany is particularly grim, as well over 90% of the population are reliant on supermarkets. In the UK less than 2% of the population work the land and a farm of several thousand hectares might only have one or two workers (and scores of sophisticated machines). Western man lost his connection with the land hundreds of years ago, he has forgotten how to plant and grow, and farmland is owned by big investors who have no intention of breaking them up into small family plots (which would be the only way to survive a Peak Oil crisis).
Romania and the less developed countries of the world are better placed to deal with the Peak Oil crisis, as a large part of the population still work the land. I remember visiting Bosnia during the recent war and visiting families in Tuzla without electricity, food or water. They were totally reliant on the local peasants who would get the most fabulous sums of money in exchange for basic food supplies. Overnight, they became the new aristocracy. This is the shape of things to come and the least we can do is 2010 is to start a public debate on the issue.
Rupert Wolfe Murray can be followed on Twitter @wolfemurray