ecostory 3/2006
The New Cold War - The battle for ressources
"Der neue Kalte Krieg - Kampf um die Rohstoffe"

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The short-term and incomplete analysis
of Germany's leading weekly, Der Spiegel, 27.3.2006

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Seeing the cover picture, I got this queasy feeling in my tommy (mulmiges Gefühl im Bauch - ce sentiment tout drôle dans le ventre)
The images frightened me! Not that the notion of the coming ultimate resource wars was new to me. But seeing it pictured on the cover of Der Spiegel made it become more real and immanent.

Yet, precisely this is what the title does not say - real, hot war! The Spiegel title says cold war, as if the real wars for oil and gas hadn't yet started. In fact wars have always been for ressources and for land.

Energy security, the editorial says, has always been an important subject but now it has become a matter of survival because of the tearing speed of China's and India's ascent with their enormous hunger for resources. ("Energiesicherheit war immer ein wichtiges Thema, aber nun ist es durch den rasanten Aufstieg Chinas und Indiens mit ihrem riesigen Hunger nach Ressourcen zu einem überlebenswichtigen Thema geworden.")(editorial, p.3).

This is short-sighted. Energy and resources in general have allway been primordial for life and survival. Ancient civilisations disappeared because they overexploited their local environments. Modern mankind started overexploiting the resources of the entire planet at the advent of industrialisation, around 1750. In the short lapse of time of only 225 years - equivalent to 9 human generations - we have managed to get humanity to the brink of catastrophe because of resource depletion and environmental pollution.

The fact that we, i.e. the rich North, are now allowing China and India to follow our example on the road of irretrievably wasting resources is only speeding up the total depletion by a couple of years. In other words, not China or India are guilty. We are ourselves. We do not admit that resources are finite. But worse, we still push for economic growth, which speeds up depletion even more.

"Ein neues Zeitalter der Energiekonflikte hat begonnen", A new era of energy conflicts has started, writes Erich Follath (p.70). Should we be afraid of resource wars, he asks, imediately providing the soothing answer himself. (Dass fossile Rohstoffe sozusagen über Nacht zu dem vielfach zitierten, kaum mehr erschwinglichen "schwarzen Gold" werden oder womöglich gar nicht mehr ausreichend erhältlich sind, ist trotz aller Gefahren und Engpässe unwahrscheinlich.) Erich Follath deems it improbable that fossil resources will become too expensive over night or would no longer be available in sufficient quantities (p.79). But why not? Western Europe, the USA, Japan, we are all dependent on imported fossil fuels, up to 50 per cent and more, and other resources. A natural disaster, a political event could suffice to rupture the flows of fossils to our regions.
And what is "over night"? Peak oil is nigh. 25 years is nothing. Once the stark reality and effects end of oil and gas flows become clear to the masses, people will panic, do whatever possible to get their share of what pityful quantities remain. Because there are no alternitives, neither technically not in quantity.

The good news according to the Spiegel: "Und immer wieder hat menschlicher Erfindungsreichtum vermocht, neue Energiequellen zu erschliessen oder zu erfinden." (p.79) Again and again human inventiveness has discovered or created new energy sources. Ecoglobe thinks this is misleading since it denies that there are very real and physical limits. People cannot invent ressources that are no longer available. And who guarantees that we will make the right inventions in time. The reality of past development was the other way around. We first invented or hit on new sources. And only then this allowed us to expand our consumtion and boost our lifestyles to the present luxury levels. Erich Follath confuses event and effect, as do so many euphemistic optimists.

The Spiegel's bad news is this. During the next generation at the latest [i.e. after maximum 25 years] humanity [in other words our own children] will dearly pay for our thoughtless depletion of energy sources. An energy mix of renewable sources and oil, gas, coal and nuclear will at its best cover one quarter of the present energy consumption of the industrialised nations. Peak oil, i.e. the highest production ever, will be reached within five to ten years. Thereafter it will go down, whilst worldwide demand is rising.

Doesn't sound good, does it? Yet our political and business leaders keep quarreling and fighting about a few barrels of oil more. Military power will go some way to obtain oil and gas a couple of years longer. But finally not even the largest army or nuclear bomb potential will prevent depletion. On the contrary, it will only hasten our race to catastrophe.

Now, what should we do to avoid the worst? First and foremost we have to stop economic growth. Secondly all wasteful and unnecessary resource consumption must be stopped, in order to strech resources to more than two or three generations. We can't count with inventions. But we can calculate the number of years that resources will last with or without certain human activities. So, if we want to maintain vital services, such as food, heating, health, electricity, we must reduce and even abolish unnecessary, such as high speed transportation of people and merchandise. There's a host of absolutley unecessary machines and gadgets that we can do without. We must again produce locally what we consume locally. In a sustainable society private moterised transportation will be a thing of the past.

How do we get people to do this? Well, given the choice, people will choose for the good feeling of having a future, rather than luxury and the certainty of a coming catastrophe. The problem is the opinion leaders who frequently live in sky castles of illusions and ideology, with no understanding of physical realities. The challenge is getting these leaders back - down to earth.

PS - for the Spiegel editors: Energy data should be brought in such a way that people understand what we are talking about. Citing barrels and exajoules and tons of Oilequivalent is confusing. Those figures must be linked to values that people know from their daily life. And the figures must be linked to available reserves so that we know how long it could last, before resources run out. The same is applicable for all those beautiful ideas for alternatives, most of which are techniques that can not be generalised.

Helmut Lubbers 29 March 2006
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