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Sustainable Society:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.









What is the Role of Economics in Hastening Oil Depletion?


Dr. Cóilín  Campbell
Petroleum Geologist
December, 18 2002


I think we have to say something to the subject of economics.

I am a geologist, not an economist so I suppose geologists shouldn’t throw rocks at greenhouses, but my understanding is that the whole subject of economics was developed at the end of the industrial revolution or during it, 2-300 years ago, at which time man was perceived to be the master of his environment in a planet of near limitless resources which with his ingenuity and Superbia you could say, which he would convert to his use.  And this, in a way, reflected certain Darwinian attitudes at the time of survival of the fittest and all of those things.

So there’s the notion that economics developed with its ineluctable laws of supply and demand whereby in an open marked provided there were no external constraints, demand would always be met by supply.  If wheat prices went up, the farmer would grow more wheat and the system would automatically return to certain equilibrium.  And the world was perceived to be some kind of a marketplace of limitless possibility.

And this mindset, as far as I can judge, has developed over the years and it is extremely difficult for anybody with that background to accept resource constraints, most of all of something as critical as oil.  We have all been parallel with that.  We have the notion of substitution whereby, as we have said before, the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stone.  Due to man’s ingenuity, we found something to take the place of stone that was better – bronze, iron, steel, computers, whatever you’d like to say.

And so this too, reflects itself in the way they view oil depletion.  They say, “Oh, well, once you got rid of the conventional, you can turn to the non-conventional.  When the demand for it will inevitably be matched.

The high priest of this whole viewpoint is Professor Adelman of MIT.  I can’t quote his statements exactly but it is something to the effect that how much oil was in the ground to begin with and how much is in at the end is irrelevant.  The amount is infinitely large and investment creates a continual supply of new reserves.  This is the commonest view of things.  And it is very widely held.  But it just doesn’t stand up to this.

Actually, this is the first time in the history of man that the world has faced the depletion of a very critical commodity for which there is no better substitute.  There may be less satisfactory substitutes, by all means.  We can capture solar energy and we can do wind farms and there are many things that we can do.  We are not running out of energy, by any means.  But none of these things compare in economic benefit of cheapness and ease of use and convenience to good ‘ol oil.  So we face the really radical change for which the whole subject of economics is not well adapted.

So I think one of the consequences of this whole subject ... See, we are natural scientists who observe nature and are like historians and can’t change what nature gives.  This is an entirely different mentality from economists who don’t recognize these constraints because everything is within the power of man.  I even hear it said that to consume is almost become a moral obligation.  If the economy begins to lag for some reason, they try to get people out into the Highstreet to consume.  That’s the economist’s view of solving problems.

From the other standpoint, you would say this is simply accelerating our path towards the abyss where all of this stuff just isn’t there.  How soon you produce things is just a question of rate.  Do you want to burn it all up like Britain or do you want to conserve things and find more sustainable ways to live more simplistically.

That you could end with a comment from the Postmistress of Ballydehob in Ireland.  In this little village I asked her not long ago—I said, “Peggy, do you think the world has gotten better in the last 50 years?”  Without hesitation, she said, “Yes, of course it has.”  And then I said, “Well, was it bad before?”  And she thought a bit at that and she said, “No, it wasn’t bad before.  We were as poor as church mice.  I can remember the first electric lamp bulb coming to Ballydehob in 1951.  I was a school girl then 50 years ago.  We would all wear long black stockings and every evening us girls would spend our evenings down in Downing and we used to enjoy it.  And my family clung together during the war to put together our clothes rations in order to buy a white shirt for my father who was the school master here and had to have a white shirt for his job.”  And she said that, “This was a community that had very little but whatever we did have was shared and we helped each other and we’d meet for parties at people’s houses and we’d sing songs.  She said, “No, life was not bad under those conditions.”  It was really quite good.”  So I said, “The message from the Postmistress of  Ballydehob is that while affluence doesn’t necessarily bring happiness or satisfaction, there are many other simpler ways to live and at the end of the day, are probably rather more rewarding.

There is a bit of a gold and silver lining I would say to the depletion of oil: if the depletion of oil should force us against our will back to a more simple way of life.  Here in Ballydehob potatoes are grown and put on trucks, trucked 300 miles to Dublin to market and then trucked back again.  This is a very strange way to run anything, choking the road to Ballydehob.  So, would it not be better to return to more local communities, a simpler way of living that people sort of be in better relations with each other and with their environment and with the resources that nature has endowed them?  This, to end on a more optimistic note, would be perhaps the consequence of what we’ve been discussing, which really wouldn’t be too bad, in my humble opinion.
*  Used with permission of Global PublicMedia.com.
Interviewed December 18, 2002 in Ballydehob, Ireland.
See at < http://www.globalpublicmedia.com/index.php >.
GlobalPublicMedia.com is part of the MetaFoundation People & Environment Initiative.

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