What’s This Got to Do With the Price of Oil in China?

I am one of many who are guilty of promoting energy panic, the fear that the world’s diminishing supply of renewable energy sources poses a threat, not only to continued economic growth, but to civilization itself. But some pause must be taken when supporting such extreme platforms.

Slate points out that only 40% of Western energy usage depends upon oil. The rest comes from gas, uranium and coal. Now, clearly there are environmental and health consequences to having such great dependence on such sources, but at least things like uranium have the potential to sustain civilization for centuries to come, assuming care can be taken to safely dispose of nuclear waste. Hydroelectric power also continues to grow as a source of societal energy. The role of oil, then, is mostly in keeping our cars running.

This is not a small thing, as the running of vehicles, primarily trucks and ships, is what makes our modern industrial economy possible. If North America’s truck fleet were grounded for two days, cities would begin to starve. I suppose it’s possible to gradually shift transportation demands to less convenient but more oil efficient methods, such as via train. But that would be costly over the short-term; one of the reasons we presently enjoy comparatively cheap prices for our goods is that the cost of transporting them from areas of cheap production has declined over the past few decades –though threaten to rise again with the rise in oil prices.

And why are oil prices rising? Because there is a limited supply of the stuff and an accelerating demand, due in large part to the voracious expanding economies of China and India.

But wait… Respected astronomer and geologist Thomas Gold (1920-2004) expounded a revolutionary theory for years: that oil and other so-called “fossil fuels” (which include natural gas and coal) are not made by dead organic matter, like vegetation and dinosaurs, but rather are continuously produced by the planet. If true, this means that there is no long-term oil shortage crisis, though it’s possible that human demand may still outstrip the Earth’s ability to produce the stuff.

Does this mean I will abandon my crusade to get the world to become less dependent on oil? Not at all. Until more evidence is obtained and a scientific concensus is achieved, we must proceed on the assumption that the old “fossil fuel” model holds; best to err on the side of conservatism in this case, much like erring on the side of preventing global warming. There is also the political dimension to consider, that there is leverage and advantage to be gained in diversifying one’s energy portfolio.

But while we stay the conservation course, we should remain open to the possibility that current scientific belief is wrong. As Michael Crichton said, we must be led by the data.