Thursday, February 24, 2005


Is Cheap Oil Good?

Cheap energy is seen as a good thing. Without it, we’re told, we can’t have economic growth (whether continuing economic growth is a good thing or not is another matter), and our politicians and economists and business types tell us that continuing economic growth is the only way to lift the have-nots out of poverty. Cheap oil in particular is considered necessary and good.

But is cheap energy (especially cheap oil) really a good thing? Hasn’t it proved itself a bane? There is no need to go into the deleterious environmental impacts of cheap energy because they are so obvious. But there are other very harmful impacts as well. For example, cheap oil allows lots of illegal dumping, and even legitimate waste hauling is not good because it creates huge waste dumps. If hauling waste away was not possible, we would have had to do something about our waste problem long ago. Thanks to cheap oil, we’ll make future generations pay.

How about hauling raw materials and products long distances? Cheap oil has made it possible to extract huge quantities of raw materials from one side of the globe, take them to the other side, and make them into products that are sent around the world. Sounds good, but globalization also fosters destructive exploitation and destroys local economies that have long sustained human communities. How many countries are not self-sufficient in food because of cheap oil?

Cheap oil means long commutes. Are all those people really happy sitting in cars and trains for hours?

Cheap oil means waste. Too much lighting and no dark skies at night. Vehicles are too numerous and too large. More and more land paved is over for roads, parking lots, and malls. Noise. People leaving their TVs and other appliances on all the time. When energy and resources are too cheap, people waste them.

But now we are confronted with the reality of peak oil. Of course there are some people who believe that peak oil is just a ruse by elites to hoard the oil, drive up the price, and make a killing. There is always a possibility they are right, but in either case, the scenario is that fuel gets more expensive for the masses.

And from the Earth’s point of view, that is a good thing. If the elites are making a fast buck at our expense that is not good, but it’s good for the Earth if fossil fuel consumption declines.

I’ve seen supposed environmentalists and liberals/progressives complain that the oil companies are trying to make Americans pay European and Japanese prices for gas, as if that were a bad thing. In my opinion, even the Europeans and Japanese don’t pay enough. People who complain about elites hoarding oil and driving up the price ought to change the focus of their argument. If they can expose the elites’ plot (assuming that peak oil is a scam), that’s fine, but if their purpose is to keep gas cheap, they ought to have their heads examined.

There is no need for all this energy consumption. Human needs can be met with substantially less energy by cutting waste and — call me “socialist” if you want — the equitable redistribution of energy and resources.

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