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Soon to be a Small World After All

Published on August 31, 2010 by in InSite Review

Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalisation by Jeff Rubin. Virgin Books; Croydon, UK, 2010. (286 pages). Reviewed by Donald R. Officer.

I’ve tried to find a flaw in Jeff Rubin’s argument not because I don’t like him or want to compete with him, but because the implications are stern and frightful if he is right. Most prescient, Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalisation begins with a disturbing discussion of the high risk of drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico. If it was disturbing when the author penned it, how disturbing is it now! Granted, he believed the greatest risk lay in hurricanes like Katrina that bedevil the region with increasing ferocity, but a rig explosion and unprecedented slick the size of a small country will do.

What is most important in Rubin’s analysis seems to be being seriously underplayed in the ecological crisis of 2010. The issue is not simply that a huge oil company was seriously negligent or that the regulatory framework was woefully inadequate. It is not even that the leakage fix and the cleanup are slow starters or that Obama is not seen to be “engaged or angry enough” in his response.

The underlying issue (so to speak) is that the world economy is desperately thirsty for more accessible oil and that everybody involved is taking terrible risks to slake it. British Petroleum looks like a corporate Oil Can Harry, the perfectly named arch villain from the Mighty Mouse comics, but the giant company is nevertheless a scapegoat for collective denial.

Jeff Rubin has a more than plausible explanation of what is going on although he does not explore the psychology of denial as much as we will need to in the years to come. We have made strides in some areas. We are increasingly aware of the impact of the carbon footprint and are closer to general acceptance of the dangers of global warming.

Engineering has delivered significant fuel efficiency and consciousness of the value of recycling and conservation are nearly universal. However, we have still not grasped how serious our immediate situation really is because we do not really understand what oil does for us and means for our survival.

Did you realize that the savings we made through fuel efficiency have been nullified because we drive and fly more? The success of consumer capitalism is creating runaway demand in the developing world and worst of all, the oil producers squander huge amounts of the black liquid because they seem able to afford to kowtow to local demand, at least for now. I suspect Iran’s nuclear ambitions are largely fueled by the need to curtail runaway local demand in a nation that must sell the inevitably diminishing resource abroad to survive.

Most controversial of Rubin’s points may be his attribution of the 2008 financial collapse to oil not financial market or banking hubris. Granted, there was serious overreaching, but basically, the author notes it is expensive oil eventually that kills every boom these days. In the subsequent recessions the price of oil always falls because nobody can afford it. Then the recovery stalls as it rises again. This cycle mesmerizes us and we lose sight of the cause – a major source of the denial. Our world is an oiloholic with all that entails.

When oil is expensive we do stupid things like the tar sands project or dangerous drilling. What will we eventually have to face? You guessed right. Stay home, live local and revive the skills and production strategies of yesteryear. This will be an enormously complex, fractious undertaking filled with paradoxes, ambiguities and sacrifice. Oil will have to figure hugely in getting there so we had better consume what can still afford very wisely to that end.

The solution to the peak oil predicament is outside the scope of this particular book as most of the chapters can’t even be imagined let alone written. Imagination must play a huge part in the survival of what we regard as civilization. Like oil we appear to have an enormous, perhaps unlimited supply of imagination. Alas, as with the liquid slave we’re overworking we don’t always get a great return on investment.
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