industry's oil deficit

susan eberhard

Industrialization is a process of completely transformative social and economic change that spans a large period of time and is markedly revolutionary in scope, changing completely most if not all aspects of human society. Manifest within the concept are profound environmental aftereffects that will resonate far into the future. It is a phenomenon that unequivocally finds its roots and impetus in the development of technology, in particular that of “large-scale energy production and metallurgy” (Industrialization). Though standards of living rose drastically due to the tremendous increase in readily available energy capital and influx of innovation, the prevalent environmental attitudes tend to shift and people grow psychologically and physically detached from the bounty of nature. There is movement away from agricultural labor that severs the immediate connection between man and the earth. Thus, it becomes morally justifiable to rape the land, exploiting natural resources for personal gain. Our consuming energy demands necessitate the availability of oil stores in an amount that defies comprehension. Very soon, the supply will reach its peach just as the demand, due to rapidly industrializing third-world nations, has begun to escalate at an unprecedented rate. Consequently, industrialization is in effect depleting our fossil fuel resources in its drive for energy, and as no viable alternative currently exists currently, we are inextricably dependent and addicted to this finite good.

This dependence can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution, the effects of which were widespread and pervasive throughout the structures and institutions of society. The transition was the second great step in human progress following the agricultural revolution, when we relinquished our nomadic hunter-gatherer conventions in favor of settled agricultural societies. During the Revolution, manual labor was supplanted by industry and manufacturing based on mechanical processes. Textile industries underwent a period of mechanization, and iron-making technology received a surge in maturity and refinement. Canals, improved roads, and ultimately railways were conducive to an increase in trade (Industrial). The initial Industrial Revolution, the phase that set everything in motion, occurred in late 18 th and 19 th century Britain, with the invention of the Watt steam engine. Used to pump water from coalmines, it allowed the deepening of these mines below the level of groundwater. From the start, industrialization moved us to trawl the depths of the earth, siphoning from the ground abundant amounts of precious earthly resources for exploitative purposes.

Accordingly, industrialization facilitates, even mandates, the sphere of productivity and innovation to increase, perpetually widening to encompass larger amounts and different fonts of resources. There was a transition from the fossil fuel of coal to that of the cleaner-burning oil in our society as the internal combustion engine was invented and its use became prevalent. We mine copious amounts of oil to power the basics of our daily lives; from transportation to food and pharmaceutical production, oil is utilized to the utmost extent.

This is a dangerous stratum, however, as there exists a looming danger of imminent oil depletion often ignored by the majority of society as well as government. King Hubbert, an oil company geologist, forecasted in 1956 that in twenty years from the date that American oilfields undertook production, output would start to decline in a bell-shaped pattern (Phillips). This theory, though critiqued and ridiculed from the outset, has rung true; in 1970, American production did fall. Even the addition of more recent oil field discoveries in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico were unable to compensate, relieving American from her position as the world’s lead producer and exporter of oil. Now, the United States imports nearly two-thirds of its oil (Heinberg). Canadian oilfields witnessed a similar phenomenon, and thus, this model of the after-two-decade decline can be expected to align with world production (Phillips). According to ChevronTexaco, it has already started. There are forty-eight considerable oil-producing nations, and out of these, thirty-three are beginning to note output decline. Global oil discovery rates have fallen since the early 1960s, a figure substantiated by ExxonMobil. The future of our oil supply is a bleak certainty. World oil productions rates will soon peak, and then fall; this development is known as peak oil, and it is a modern crisis, probably the defining catastrophe of our century. It is impossible to pinpoint an exact year, but estimates by the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) indicate that it should occur around 2010, 2020 at the very latest (Aleklett). Due to the demands of industrialization, the natural resources our planet provides are dwindling to nothing.

One of the main ironies of this spectacle of overconsumption is that even as world oil supply shrinks, demand has risen exponentially. The world consumed 4 billion barrels of oil per year fifty years ago, and the discovery of new oil fields yielded approximately 30 billion barrels. The situation today is reversed; we consume 30 billion barrels of oil while only discovering 4 billion barrels (Aleklett). This trend will persist as increasingly third-world countries are industrializing, creating new oil markets. As gross domestic product of a country grows, there is a corresponding growth in oil quantity demand. Over the last five years, the Chinese GDP has increased by 8.2%, and oil consumption has increased by 8.4%, on average. If this trend continues for the next five years, as is predicted, then China will need to augment oil imports by three million barrels per day, a total import increase of one hundred percent over that period (Aleklett). It is prudent to wonder from what well all of this oil will emerge. The introduction of lower-income countries into the world of industry necessarily unrealistically escalates the demand for its favored form of energy.

Another irony of peak oil is the effect it foreshadows for the future of industry; oil is truly a self-defeating addiction. Transportation and thus trade, hallmarks of an industrialized country, will falter significantly at the dearth of oil; transportation accounts for about two-thirds of oil usage. The scarcity of petroleum will cause the price of transportation to rise, which will make it more expensive to import and export goods, mirroring the effect of a tariff. Consequently, international trade will be restricted, and Americans will suffer from higher prices and less choice, a situation that runs counter to most capitalistic endeavor. Also, we will suffer food shortages as our highly oil-dependent industrial agricultural system will disintegrate as a result of crippling expense. Ninety percent of an Iowa farmer’s budget is spent on fossil fuels, not including the costs of transporting their good 1500 across country to market (Phillips). Hence, the peak of oil will have severe consequences for the framework and practice of industry itself.

The threat of peak oil and its potential consequences for production, resulting from the effect of industrialization on the environment is real, and alarmingly so. Alternatives exist, but the problem is being ignored, and thus the steps are not being taken to promote a shift away from oil dependence. Natural energy sources such as water, wind, and solar power are not yet widely embraced and maximized to their full potential. Many argue that the invisible hand of the market will lessen oil demand as prices become extremely steep. This mechanism will doubtless be effective to some extent, but as no viable alternative exists to oil as of yet, there will be considerable societal backlash as oil supplies decline. As an industrialized world, we are utterly dependent on our major energy source. That very industry that constructs the landscape of our economy has taken its toll on this source, an element of our natural environment. It is impossible at this point to defeat the complete consequences of peak oil. However, the warning signs are clear. We must act now to reduce our dependence in as many ways as possible to keep ourselves afloat in the future.

Works Cited

Aleklett, Kjell. “Oil: A Bumpy Road Ahead.” World Watch. Washington: Jan/Feb 2006. Vol.19, Iss. 1; pg.10, 3 pgs.

“Industrialisation.” Wikipedia. 11 May 2006. 11 May 2006. < http://en.wikipedia . org/wiki/Industrialisation>

“Industrial Revolution.” 11 May 2006. 11 May 2006. < http://en.wikipedia . org/wiki/Industrial_revolution>

Heinberg, Richard. “The Challenge of Peak Oil.” The American Prospect. Princeton: Apr 2006. Vol. 17, Iss. 4; pg.A22, 1 pg.

Phillips, Paul. “The American Empire Meets Peak Oil.” Canadian Dimension. Winnipeg: Jan/Feb 2006. Vol.40, Iss.1; pg. 30.




Susan Eberhard

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last updated 5/12/06