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Why not an oil war?
by Bruno Caudana
Copyright 2003
2 March 2003

True wealth comes from burning oil to get mechanical work and heat to sustain whatever leisure we want. Without energy, no agriculture (subsidized, accounts for 5% of employment), no industry (some-subsidized with production largely delegated to developing countries, with cheap labor, accounts for 30% of employment), no services (accounts for 65% of employment, most of it redundant), here in Western countries. So no employment, no welfare, with related charities and hand-outs, etc. Without a consistent energy supply, this whole social structure simply stops working. Every one of us living in Western countries enjoys the equivalent work of 25-30 slaves supplied by the conversion of oil. This is the core of the matter. Any other assessment is randomly based on evaluations relying on those wacky units called money.

What really matters for a Western country's citizen is that oil keeps flowing without restriction and without being controlled by any hypothetical Islamic theocracy (or by any other homogeneous political group far from or unrelated to the benefits of burning oil). If that should happen, that group would be in complete control of the Western world. And that would be true at least until we would be able to convert our oil dependency to nuclear dependency (after a short span of natural gas and coal dependency, but the problems related to burning coal could jeopardize the effort of a transition from oil to coal).

If the political or military control on oil is not achieved we will commit the control of our way of life to a possible United Islamic Theocracy (a political project explicitly claimed by Osama Bin Laden, but I think that a huge united Islam is the vision of almost all the Imams addressing Muslims throughout the world). The attempt to secure control on oil sources may in fact help the political agenda inspired by the huge united Islam vision. This is why Osama Bin Laden has got a point on us. It is impossible to know if the vision of a huge United Caliphate (Umayyad) will become true. Given the internal divisions among Islamic people of that region, this scenario does not seem very likely to happen in the short time. But I have no competence to assess it. In any case the West will try anything to promote internal confrontations.

Some commentators assume that oil cannot be a reason for war. But oil is food. Even more so for the so called developed countries. To make myself clear: the present total population on the Planet adds up to more than 6 billion people. More than 9 billion people are expected by 2050. By then, almost all the oil on earth will be gone. When the industrial revolution started (say 200 years ago: the first efficient steam engine with condenser and speed regulator of James Watt dates 1769) only 1.0 billion people populated the Planet, whereas the total population of the Planet 2000 years before was 0.3 billion people (look at the curve here).

Almost all (if not all) our cultural and behavioural patterns, political paradigms, ways of thinking, economic theories, ethical and religious beliefs have roots that date back to the time of the industrial revolution or of its very beginning. Some of them have been slowly shaping up during the last 2500-1500 years. Are they suited to manage the problems and challenges of an overcrowded world that recently doubled its population in less than 50 years?

The Industrial revolution essentially allowed us to convert the power of fire into mechanical work, that is the ability of exploiting a finite stock of fossil fuels and add it up to the constant flow of energy that annually comes from the sun and makes vegetation the very base of food chain. Social organization and efficiency of food production before the industrial revolution were not bad, given the limited means: muscular work of animals and humans. That efficiency evolved in several thousands years and we cannot expect to be able to do much better now, given those means. Hence, it seems reasonable to assume that, without the contribution of fossil energy, no more than 2 billions people could survive on our planet. Maybe more, but not many more. This means that, lacking that extra energy, 6 billion people may be in excess by 2050. Which means that if they will be born they will have to die of starvation.

About 85% of that extra energy now comes mainly from oil, some natural gas and some coal. The rest comes from nuclear plants and renewable sources. Near half of the oil discovered is gone by now. A good 2/3 of it has gone during last 30 years (the life span of a young man). No major discoveries are expected and new discoveries are almost negligible. There is some natural gas. There is coal, but coal has drawbacks. It throws radioactivity into environment and causes acid rains. There is some possible further exploitation of renewable sources. There is nuclear energy.

If all the world's population of today should rely on nuclear energy for an energy quota comparable to the one that allows the present Western life standard, that goal would mean to multiply current world production of nuclear energy by a factor of 40-50 (and maybe even more). That would mean on the order of 20,000 nuclear plants, compared to current 450 or so. This would imply a diffusion of nuclear technology and, above all, a pervasive diffusion of fissionable and radioactive materials for possible nuclear weapons production (both dirty and full-fledged). Such diffusion of nuclear technology would be potentially disastrous without the exertion of an inflexible military control by a politically tight caste present in every corner of the world with the power and tools to implement absolute repression for thousands of years to come. Since for several reasons it is difficult to grant the establishment, integrity and duration of such a caste, I don't know whether a transition to nuclear energy should be really sought for, though it will be, sooner or later, because there may be no alternative to starvation. If we add the fact that scarcity of other resources will plague humanity, the perspective of dire confrontations for water solved with nuclear bombs doesn't seem to be great fun.

By the way: I often hear that hydrogen will substitute oil. It is not so. Anyone that practice some physics or chemistry knows it. Hydrogen used in chemical reactions is not an energy source. It is a way to store energy. Hydrogen does not come from wells. It must be produced by breaking a molecule that contains it, like water. To do that, energy must be found elsewhere. It takes more energy to fuel that reaction than the energy that the hydrogen fuelled motor returns. Hydrogen would be an energy source in nuclear reactions. But, at the moment, nobody knows whether we will ever be able to control hydrogen nuclear reactions with an active energy balance. For the time being, we only know how to provoke uncontrolled hydrogen nuclear reactions, that is H bombs.

So, if we do not consider a nuclear transition (that would take at least 40 years to complete), we must face a condition of scarcity and the consistent struggle for life. With the current world pattern of energy demand we may have supplies for the next 30-40 years maybe even less: see The End of Cheap Oil [Scientific American, march 1998] [], and that can be achieved only if current inequalities are maintained or increased.

It is in this context that we should evaluate any geo-political or military strategy to control the Gulf region. This region contains over 50% of the remaining world oil reserves, in 2010 perspective. Nobody knows if this will be successful. In an important game nobody knows in advance who wins.

If that control will be unsuccessful, a sudden and radical change in our life style is in the cards. A change that will heavily affect current food production and food availability, current health-care standards, welfare, and even freedom and democracy that we say to love so much. All this will be combined with a mad race towards nuclear energy and coal use (with all inherent drawbacks).

Energy efficiency increase (less energy, same benefits) and further exploitation of renewable sources cannot be practiced in the size that would be necessary to balance a reduced availability of oil at relatively low prices (under 30$/barrel). This scenario might easily arise without tight political or military control of oil producing regions outside the borders of Western countries. In fact, the oil flow could be directed to emerging economies (that now manufacture under Western license and direction, but dissipate less). A process that could take place without Western control, managed by those who control oil sources, with consequent possible sudden loss of value of Western currencies. The energy efficiency increase that leads to a decreased energy demand did not take place in the past (some figures here) The rigidity of oil fractionation (process that produces gasoline, kerosene, gas oil and other oil by-products) does not help energy saving strategies. Maybe the most effective way of saving energy is to reduce economic activities, which implies a radical re-design of our way of life: difficult to achieve on purely voluntaristic basis.

To practice an equitable worldwide distribution of resources (that is: each person on the earth receives an equal amount of resources), without expanding the demand of primary resources (energy) and without altering the proven way of manufacturing things and the consolidated way of living, would imply for the Western people, to live with 1/4 of what everyone of us uses every day ON AVERAGE. That is, for example: current health-care services should be enough for 4 times the population, our houses should shelter 4 times the people they do now, our current schools should educate 4 times the students they do now, etc. A radical subversion of the Western way of life and culture. But even more important is the consideration that follows. Since nobody wastes a great deal of food not even in rich countries, a simple proportional reduction to 1/4 of the current mix of resources would imply not enough food for the daily metabolism, that is would mean to die of starvation. Obviously, before dying of hunger, people would drastically cut other consumption, thus creating mass unemployment in services and industry, along with a consistent demolition of those activities. Moreover, this scenario would require that people either return to efficiently grow their own food leaving metropolitan regions or survive inactive on public welfare. All this could not happen quickly. In my opinion it would require at least 40-50 turbulent years.

I don't know if I could get accustomed easily to such a condition. Maybe I could: one gets accustomed to almost everything, and most people in the world already are worse off. But I could tell that only after trying, and I should be coerced a little. But the real question is not what I could do. We live in democracies that elect their desires. The real question is: how could a politician be elected with the political ticket of implementing such a transformation? How could he compete with a proposal that, in different fashions, promises to defend the "besieged fortress" in the name of freedom and democracy?

The answer of US politicians is sharp: the US way of life is not negotiable. What have the European politicians to say about that?

Our attempt to control the Gulf region is the act of a "besieged fortress". A prospect considering some 30% of world's population that tries to maintain a Western way of life, while another 30%-40% of world's population that fights to get there, and the rest that struggle for survival and starve, as described in Lorenzo Matteoli's short note []

I tried to define the limits within which we can act. Things probably will settle on some average combinations within these limits (some efficiency increment, some reduction of our life style, some nuclear energy, etc.). But these are the limits, as far as I can see.

The best placed candidate to represent the desperation of the world's poor seems to be Islam. The message is simple and straight. Much simpler than the complex reality, but that does not matter. Religions always tell beautiful tales. To muster young followers you need charming calls, not sharp analysis. As for charm to poor hopeless young boys, any Osama Bin Laden martyr beats any G.W. Bush 100 to nil. Those people feel/know that our life style is not for everybody. Age structure and fertility rate play for Islam, and Islam leaders do not hide to use this fact as a weapon in the political struggle. It could be fun to see how they will handle overpopulation and poverty, and how they will handle the differences that will originate anyway, after having wiped us out as strong squanderers. But we will not be there to witness.


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Thanks to Lorenzo Matteoli for all his support.