Richard Heinberg. The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism and Economic Collapse. Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers, 2006. Paperback, xii + 194 pp.
Richard Heinberg is the author of half a dozen books, including The Party’s Over and Powerdown, and the editor of MuseLetter (1992-). Over the years, he has proven an insightful and often radical critic of our postindustrial civilization, and I have come to appreciate his writings for their vision and clarity.
In The Oil Depletion Protocol, he treads a more conciliatory path by endorsing the British petroleum geologist Colin J. Campbell’s so-called Oil Depletion Protocol. The idea behind this Protocol is fairly straightforward. In the author’s words, “signatory nations would agree to reduce their oil consumption gradually and uniformly according to a simple formula that works out to being a little less than three percent per year” (p. xi).
Heinberg’s latest book is an extensive explanation of the Protocol, which is meant to be a solution to the recently recognized problem of Peak Oil.
Peak Oil is the name given to the fact that oil, which is the natural resource that powers our modern civilization, is being consumed faster than it can be produced. Oil, then, is running out. In The Party’s Over, Heinberg wrote: “Petroleum will run out. Moreover, it will do so much sooner than the economists assume – and substitutes will not be easy to find.” (p. 4) Estimates for Peak Oil vary from 2006 to 2035. After reviewing various expert predictions, he concluded: “I personally am convinced of the correctness of the Cassandras’ message that global conventional oil production will peak some time during this first decade of the 21st century” (p. 118). And: “The global peak of extraction for all fossil-fuel liquids is unlikely to occur earlier than 2006, or later than 2015” (p. 119). The latter date seems to be favored in the present book.
Whenever the point of Peak Oil is reached, it most certainly will spell economic chaos and great political instability around the globe. The Oil Depletion Protocol was designed to prepare for the far-reaching changes that will occur and in fact to initiate them now while there is still time.
The question of course is whether there is still time for the kind of transitional period envisioned by the Oil Depletion Protocol. Heinberg concedes (p. 125) that if the phenomenon of Peak Oil were to happen within the next couple of years, this would indeed constitute a major challenge to all nations.
He has avoided the politically most obvious issue, which is that the U.S. government has made it clear that come what may it intends to remain the sole superpower. The recent wars in the Middle East, which are unquestionably resource wars, have demonstrated this intent and the extent to which the United States is willing to go in order to secure its premier position in the world.
While the Oil Depletion Protocol is obviously the sanest proposal around, it also is highly idealistic. In the real world of governmental and corporate power play, it is unlikely to find sufficiently widespread implementation. Given the United States’ record of inordinate consumption and the U.S. government’s declared intention to remain the leading world power, as well as its abysmal record on environmental issues, we must not expect that the U.S. government or Americans will embrace the kind of egalitarianism implicit in the Oil Depletion Protocol.
Beyond this, Heinberg, I submit, seems to have ignored the environmental tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes. We are in the midst of what the majority of biologists believe is the Sixth Mass Extinction, which exceeds in speed and scope the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. With tens of thousands of species becoming extinct every year, there may not be enough time left for us to implement the Oil Depletion Protocol or anything like it!
In view of what is happening with our environment, concern over oil seems almost a minor issue. It will primarily affect only the lifestyle of the industrial nations and their citizens. The scarcity of potable water will affect the life of every being alive. The next wars, we are told, will be fought over drinking water, and they are likely to be even more ruthless than the United States’ recent oil wars.
Thus, while Heinberg’s championing the Protocol is commendable, it may turn out to be somewhat quixotic. Having been an avid reader of his earlier, more radical writings, I cannot help but wonder whether academic life has not deprived him of the edge that I and no doubt many of his readers have found so admirable.
Copyright ©2007 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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