War for oil, and oil for war

As a giant black slick from a crippled British Petroleum oil rig makes its way across the Gulf of Mexico toward the sensitive coastline of the Southern US, C130 Blackhawk helicopters rush to combat the blight by dumping chemical dispersants on the oil.

As a giant black slick from a crippled British Petroleum oil rig makes its way across the Gulf of Mexico toward the sensitive coastline of the Southern US, C130 Blackhawk helicopters rush to combat the blight by dumping chemical dispersants on the oil. For each hour that they perform this heroic feet, each Blackhawk consumes between 750 and 1,100 litres of fuel.

The Gulf oil spill is the direst of emergencies, and of course authorities will do everything in their power to control the situation, but if efforts to mitigate the damage from this oil spill jack up consumption and lead to new drilling, could the irony be any sadder?

Not to worry though, if it hadn’t been for the oil slick, the choppers would not have sat idle in their hangars for long. Helicopter pilots need to keep their hands in. Even in times of peace, if we ever see such a thing again, the giant military machine never sleeps, and never stops consuming oil.

According to Forbes magazine, the American military gobbles about 40 million litres of fuel per day, making it the world’s largest consumer of oil. The bulk of that fuel is employed in regions whose geopolitical significance arises from the presence of oil, making the entire operation one great tail-chase. We need the oil to wage war, and we need the wars to maintain oil production.

Caught up in this vicious cycle, US Joint Forces Command tend to keep a close eye on the oil situation. Last month they released a report which states, among other things, that “By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day.”

All the Blackhawks in the world will not stop the sludge in the Gulf of Mexico from making landfall, and even if they could, oil in the ocean is not a lot better than oil on land. The destruction will not be unprecedented – much of the Niger Delta today is a festering stew of spilled oil – but it will get much more public attention, because Louisiana is America, while Nigeria is only Africa.

So where will all this attention lead? Will there be a slowdown in oil production? Not likely, unless there’s a slowdown in demand. But how to achieve this in a world where oil means modernity, and the lack thereof means crisis in every area of our lives? Normally we would expect the largest consumer to bear the brunt of reductions, but when the largest consumer is also in charge of protecting the world’s supply, you can be sure they will get priority on whatever oil is to be found.

As oil supplies shrink, drilling will increase, environmental controls will weaken, and the need to ensure supply will lead to more wars. The military will demand priority access to fuel, and the rest of us will have to get used to living with less.

So it starts at home. We can’t get military consumption down so long as individual consumption remains high. That doesn’t mean that once you go out and buy a hybrid car and a woodstove you’re off the hook. Personal steps are essential, but political steps make a lot more difference. National highway speed limits, fleet average fuel consumptions standards, restrictions on gas-guzzling toys, government incentives for green technology, all of these matter, though they are baby steps compared to what’s really required.

The big steps are harder to take, but they’re crucial to success. First, globalization has got to go. There will always be international trade, but so long as we permit corporations to ship natural resources all over the globe in search of the cheapest labour to turn them into consumer goods to be shipped back again, there will be no serious reduction in energy use.

We need to make huge cuts in the amount of fuel it takes to move people around the globe. We need to fly less, in more efficient aircraft. We need to change the way we grow our food. When it comes to energy efficient farming, three principles apply: small scale, organic, and local. The trend today is to replace all of these with heavily subsidized giant factory farms that consume mountains of petrochemicals and lakes of oil.

These are all significant changes that must be made, but they are only precursors to the biggest step of all. If we want to save the planet from the horrors of the oil economy, we have to reduce the international war machine. The world’s military will have to be a skeleton of its present self before there can be any real hope to stem this crisis.

Canada is, of course, heading in the opposite direction, determined to have a bigger military, to be, as Stephen Harper has said, a “credible player on the world stage”. Let’s stop. Let’s instead become a credible force for change. Abandon our military adventures, reduce our armed forces, and concentrate on being a player in the biggest game there is: the push to end oil dependency in a planned and rational way, instead of waiting till it’s all gone and then trying to figure out where we go next.

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.

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