The civilization we live in has already peeked and its steep decline is imminent. Call it western or Faustian civilization which in its present form has almost engulfed the entire globe, its technological prowess lay mainly in the invention of combustion engine and the discovery of fossil fuels. From the industrial revolution to the birth of corporate-capitalism and from the globalized world of internet and marvels of space exploration to the luxury of modern living, the story of western civilization is basically the story of mindless exploitation of gasoline. The Age of Oil has been, for most of us, an awe abounding time of technological wonders; it radically changed the way we lived, thought or felt. For the first time in human history, our planet supported some 6 billion people and yet there was abundance of food supplies, we travelled across the globe and even far beyond in space, lived a longer and painless life that the anti-biotic and painkillers could ensure and even believed that the solution to all our economic and civilizational ills was to pump out more and yet more oil.
Today when oil is trading at an all time high, a price simply unimaginable a few years ago, we have suddenly awakened to the fact; Lo! Ours is an oil-based civilization, without oil this civilization is doomed. And with the depletion of oil reserves and ever growing demand, it does not need a lot of intelligence to conclude that the modern oil civilization as we know it is on a fast track to oblivion. This is not the end-time forecast of an apocalyptic cult but a natural corollary of reasoned thinking.
Let us take a close look. Each litre of bottled water before it reaches our table burns at least double the amount of oil; from its drilling, refining, packaging and transportation to far off places to the use of plastic bottles – again a petrochemical extract. In the US which consumes almost one fourth of the global oil production the situation is much grimmer. According to a 2002 estimate, each calorie of food produced in the US requires at least 10 calories of fossil fuels (Dale Allen Pfeiffer, “Eating Fossil Fuels” in fromthewilderness.com). Given the heavy dependence of modern food production and management on oil, from pesticides and agro-chemicals to the farming tools like tractors and trailers to irrigation technology and finally to the storage and transportation, such figures are no exaggeration. In the Age of Oil it is a general norm that food stuff, despite being locally available, is imported from far off lands. Non-alcoholic bear proudly brewed and canned in Holland and Switzerland is consumed in the spiritual comforts of Makkah and Medina. What otherwise should be dubbed as bad planning or unmindful waste of natural resources is mistakenly termed as fruits of globalization.
Whatever we lay our hands on we find that it owes fossil fuels for its present shape. From automobiles to computers and from microchip to high-rise buildings, nothing could have been possible without oil. Take for example the case of microchip to visualise the enormous amount of energy consumed for this small piece of sophistication. According to the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology (Dec 2002) production of a 32 MB DRAM consumes 3.5 pounds of fossil fuels in addition to 70.5 pounds of water. Joel Garreau explains:
… microchips are not made one by one. They are printed in a batch on a silicon wafer, say, four inches in diameter. Each time a layer of stuff is printed on this silicon wafer, the wafer must be treated so the stuff you’ve laid on will stay there. This process is achieved through the application of monumental quantities of energy. In effect, as each layer of the circuit is laid on, the whole wafer is “baked” at temperatures sometimes high enough to reach the outer limits of technology.
(The Nine Nations of North America, p.276, 1981)
Oil derived products such as plastics, synthetic fibres, synthetic rubber, nitrogen fertilisers and detergents have built a whole new world around us. Be it construction material, PVC’s, electronics, furniture, photographic films, pipes, construction material or highly finished material for interior decoration, they are different forms of oil waste. Carpets, curtains, extra-light foams, transparent glasses, swim suits, water resistant clothing, or fine lingerie, you name any item and you will find it is just another form of polyester or synthetic fibre. Automobile industry is heavily dependent on synthetic rubber and acrylic fibre has substituted wool and cotton to provide clothing and shelter at such a large scale. And without detergent or industrial fertilizer our agriculture simply cannot feed more than 6 billion people. Oil is not simply energy that keeps our world on the go; petrochemical products are steeped deep in the making of modern civilization.
Then we have the internet, the biggest machine that the humans ever made. With billions of computers and peripherals scattered all over the world and ever growing server farms, the online virtual reality consumes enormous amounts of energy. Despite the fear that internet may collapse due to ever increasing number of users, there is a mad race to make almost everything available online. If you are not on the internet you simply do not exist, the maxim goes. Financial institutions, scientific labs, health care system, entertainment industry and academia, all are heavily dependent on the internet. And contrary to the common perception, internet infrastructure consumes 9.4% of electricity demand in the U.S. and 5.3% of global demand according to a new research from Uclue.com. Given the standard of living in the developed world, J.H.Kunstler in his exciting book The Long Emergency estimates that cheap oil has given us equivalent of three hundred slaves per person. This serfdom however is no longer sustainable.
Depletion of oil then is the decline of oil civilization. Not long ago we discovered and employed petrochemicals to transform almost everything around us. The transformation was bewildering and instant. With the oil wells gone dry our transformation to post-carbon society will also be sudden and devastating. Imagine what will happen to us if the energy flow that we take for granted is put to hold just for a few days. The modern world will crumble. From food supplies to water and sanitation to intra-national institutions; the vanities of oil civilization will cease to exist. Unfortunately, that era is no science fiction; it’s quite at hand now.
Oil, the blood of our civilization, is going dry. During the last hundred years or so from the time we discovered huge amounts of oil and built a civilization around it we have already exhausted about 50% of recoverable oil. With the rapid industrialisation in India, China and other developing nations the race is about who consumes the rest. The American and European experiments have displayed well that consuming more oil means more industrialisation, more production and hence more prosperity. If a nation of 300 million Americans consumes about one-fourth of the global energy share, imagine what future holds for the emerging Ch-india which together boast a population of more than two billion people. In the coming years nations will fight to monopolise or get their due share in whatever is left of oil. The pace of industrialization in south-east Asia will demand more oil, throwing the demand-supply mechanism out of gear. What the developed nations have consumed in 70 years time, the adoption of American development models in Asia is bound to consume the remaining 50% in a much shorter span of time, say between 25 to 30 years. The future is frightening. Are we sleepwalking into a post-carbon era where a new dark age awaits us?
It took some 500 million years for nature to store sun energy in the form of oil. The one-time golden Age of Oil that effectively started during the 1930s will unfortunately come to a close in 2030s, if our calculations of the known oil reserves are true. Peak-oil theoreticians have long been telling us how soon we are going to hit the peak. As early as in the 1950s geophysicist M. K. Hubbert had rightly predicted that American oil production would peak in 1970s. Despite the seriousness of this issue the media played it down because new oil fields were still being discovered. But now the problem is twofold; not only we are going to touch the peak sometime very soon, the discovery of new oil or gas reserves has almost collapsed. The graph is frighteningly declining; 16 in 2000, 8 in 2001 and none in 2003 (J. H. Kunstler). There are many calculations about the peak. Some believe that the world oil production has already peaked in 2006, some point to the year 2008 as the peak year yet others believe that there are still a few more years left. Once we hit the peak, oil production will steadily decline unable to cope up with the rising global demand. Oil prices will steadily increase causing serious financial imbalance. Whether we have touched the peak or are going to touch it soon, what matters most is the remaining half of world’s oil. How we manage it will determine the future of humanity. As competition for oil grows, I’m afraid, nations will find themselves locked in prolong battles that will end only with the end of oil. In 2006 when George W. Bush admitted in his state of the union address: ‘America is addicted to oil’ he was pointing to a horrific future that ‘addicts’ can inflict upon the people around receding oil wells in the Middle East. Insiders of oil industry as they are, Bush and Cheney know it well what future holds for them without oil. Seen in this broader perspective, the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan can help us connect many dots. We are faced with a delicate question: who deserves to survive? With more than 4000 American lives lost in Iraq and some 29,000 seriously injured, unfortunately, the trading of blood for oil has already begun.
In 2005, I happened to be in Venice for the First World Conference on Future of Science and the topic of discussion that lasted many hours was future energy, more specifically hydrogen fuels. Using hydrogen for our engines can no doubt be alluring but it is far from being a substitute for cheap oil. The same is true of solar panels which cost more energy to create them than what they produce. Coal and natural gas are also diminishing and as long as we depended on them we were unable to conceive a civilization like this. At most they can sustain a 19th century world model without much of the blessings of the oil civilization. Nuclear energy too is no answer. If the entire world switches over to Uranium its peak can be reached much earlier than the year predicated, 2100. Above all, none of the energy generation sources are oil-free. Winds and waves no doubt are natural sources that we can turn to when no drop of oil is left but that will be a different time, altogether a different setting.
In the media galore of science f(a)iction the looming danger of a dark age is generally missed. In a new BBC4 series ‘Visions of the Future’ we hear some of the best minds in science talking about lab-grown human organs, 3D televisions, human-like robots and the possibility of teleportation. Michio Kaku even believes, and rightly so, that soon we will have the power to animate the inanimate, the power that rested so long with gods. One wonders if our scientists have some practical knowledge of the civilization that made it possible for them to carry on researches and thinking in the isolation of most sophisticated oil-powered labs. So far the common mantra, ‘come on, by the time oil is over we will find something new’, has been a great failure, pushing us almost on the verge of a full-fledged oil-war. Kaku’s approach to future energy has been evasive, though galactic in his own eyes. Once we exhaust the planet earth, Kaku tells us, we will look to other planets. He believes that some dead planets might be ready reservoirs of future fuels. To Kaku, our civilization is moving from earthly to planetary to galactic. And if that be the case there should be no point in worrying much about the future of life on this planet. Why should we think of a ‘space-age Noah’s Ark’ on the moon, a library of human civilization in case of a cataclysmic event, as suggested by Jim Burke, a retired NASA expert?
Since Carl Sagan popularised science and brought astrophysics to our drawing rooms, there has been a general trend of talking about future in terms of science fiction. The common man cannot appreciate tough calculations or grim facts and the media finds only those items worthy of reporting that carry sufficient amount of awe and wonder. Look at the BBC4 recent programme about Vision of Future; we are assured of electricity from nuclear fusion rather than fission in just 15-20 years, nanobots for the battlefield, eradication of cancer, heart disease and other major killing diseases, perfecting and moulding of human body as per our will and above all, bringing aging to a complete stop. A very luring future indeed! Sagan himself always romanticised about billions and billions of galaxies, which he believed were full of life, sending electromagnetic signals to other planets. Sagan enriched our understanding about the cosmos like nobody else, nonetheless, by being too galactical he missed some of the very hard facts that surround each space mission of NASA – a huge amount of money, sometime amounting to a billion dollar or more and an enormous amount of oil. One wonders how our future mission will go to dead planets in search of energy – still a loud thinking though, when in the coming years nations will be fighting for each drop of oil and for their temporary survival. What about bio fuels? Yes, a theoretical possibility. But with the dipping of oil levels when petrochemical fertilisers decline and so do the agricultural produce, we will be faced with this dilemma: to plough for what? food or fuel!
Who high jacked our future?
Riding on the same world or propelling the same civilization will simply accelerate the process of our undoing. And this we have been doing for quite sometime. We live in a time about which there is a widespread feeling that it is already over; that something very essential has moved out from our being and we live as residue of a civilization past. What we call post-modern; ‘an incredulity towards meta-narrative’ – as described by Jean-Francois Lyotard or, ‘the situation the world finds itself in after the breakdown of Enlightenment project’ – as David Harvey puts it, rightly sums up our predicament. One wonders how we moderns who are very much alive on this planet, can live in post-modern times. But those aware of the civilizational impasse know it well that the more we confront a sense of loss and the possibility of an escape diminishing, the more we are struck by inexplicable feelings of an impending doom. Travelling back to historical times when sheer living was an adventure; nature was not used up and life was not a process of instant squeezing, needs a radical dismantling of our thought structure, which at the present is based on sociologism i.e. reduction of thought systems to the personal or group interest of the proponents. We need to create a new paradigm in which the stale worn-out concepts of the last three hundred years of philosophizing are effectively deprived of their defining powers. In short, we need to create new tools for new thinking.
Let me elaborate. The breakdown of Enlightenment narrative has not gone unnoticed. However, in our criticism of the post-modern we heavily relied on the concepts that had acquired some degree of respectability during the ‘enlightened chaos’ leading to major upheavals in Europe and which had only one-dimensional fixed meaning. Take for example the term ‘civilization’ which still obfuscates a humane vision of the future misleading even our seasoned intellectuals to cast the global crisis in ‘us’ versus ‘them’ terms. Initially used by Victor Riqueti Mirabeau in L’Ami des homes in 1756, the word civilization was a critique of French absolutism. Gradually it took a life of its own as it developed into an ideology of domination during European expansion. In the 19th century, as European nations went out on a ‘civilizing mission’ they saw no value in other ‘inferior’ civilizations. Even seemingly objective historiographers like Arnold Toynbee whose Study of History has plagued the minds of many generations, was not spared from the evil effects of this imperial propaganda. Toynbee saw western civilization as a continuation of Roman Empire. While other civilizations were lying stagnant or got exhausted at lower ledges, according to Toynbee, western civilization had climbed up high and was still able to continue the climb despite its submission to ‘false idols’ like nationalism and the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. Shall this only civilization then move ahead to establish, rather forcibly, a ‘universal state’ that the other civilizations failed to achieve in the past? Probably yes. Toynbee’s intellectual totalitarianism is difficult to be missed: ‘The birth of a civilization is a catastrophe if it is a regression from a previously established church, while the breakdown of a civilization is not a catastrophe if it is the overture to a church’s birth’. One wonders if the apocalyptic politics of the neo-cons who are pushing the world to a final Armageddon should be taken as an incriminating evidence of the birth of a new church hitherto gone unnoticed though.
That we have brought the history to a close on our terms and that we are in the final stage of civilzational clash with the barbarian other, are notions born out of the false metaphor called ‘western civilization’. Can we ignore the fact that this time the barbarians other are not outside the city walls ready to attack, they are very much a part of the civilization; now we have a Muslim minister in the UK, a Hindu governor in the US and a very strong contender for the White House from among the blacks. And, is it justified to conceive the western civilization exclusively in terms of British, French and German thought especially when each of them has a history of asserting its specific identity and even has gone to war against the others? What are those representative texts on which this civilization has built itself? Are the Muslim states in Europe like Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Turkey part of this civilization or they fall outside of it simply because of their allegiance to Islam? What about the Jews who authored some of the foundation texts like Relativity: The Special and General Theory, The Interpretation of Dreams, The Selfish Gene etc.? Is the western civilization a Judeo-Christian venture? Difficult to believe – given the long history of anti-Semitic activism in Europe. Nor can we conceive it as a mere post-Christian void as the proponents of the ‘Evil Empire’ who vehemently opposed it also shared the same civilizational milieu and their sacred text Das Kapital was produced in the very epicentre of the idea called ‘west’. Western civilization as we know it, then, is nothing but a capitalist prank to high jack a meta-narrative.
After high jacking the grand narratives of history, the capitalists then moved on to canonize some key concepts that were to serve as basic tools of our thinking. The meaning of ‘Progress’, ‘Development’, ‘Freedom’, ‘Democracy’, in addition to the misguided civilizational yardsticks like ‘free-market economy’, ‘gender equality’, ‘per capita income’, ‘gross domestic produce’ etc became one-dimensional and fixated. This enabled the capitalist cranks to envision a world of their choice without any significant opposition. The ‘captains of industry’ as they are generally referred to, a title which hides their exploitative acumen, Carnegie and Rockefeller, whom the US government committed huge tracks of land as collateral to build railroads, were actually acting on behalf of the powerful Rothschilds in London. No doubt they meticulously built the infrastructure, but they also took effective measures to lay, inside our minds, a replica of their own thinking. Both of them created huge educational endowments that were to control the American university system and the direction of future researches. While scientific researches were to feed military-industry nexus, social sciences were employed to advance the grand American narrative. In fact, it was mainly through the coercive efforts of such endowments the capitalist vocabulary got canonised.
With the canonization of key civilizational concepts and the iron-fist grip of plutocracy on state apparatus the American model of development became the ultimate yardstick. The Cold War victory, emergence of a united Europe and the free-market reform of India and China made American narrative unstoppable. The artificial growth of economy and the rising standards of living that blinded us for almost half a century were mainly due to the burning of oil which we got at a price almost free. Employing more technology at our service and stretching production capacity to its full suited the capitalist who through acquisition of cheap oil had high jacked our civilization. Pumping out more oil guaranteed economic prosperity and ensured the growing coffers of the capitalist who controlled and commanded the oil civilization. But now when the oil wells are running dry and we are digging deeper and further deep the fear of a post-carbon age is so real that despite the scarcity of refineries no one is interested in establishing new refineries as they know that in the future there would be less oil to refine.
Where do we go from here? Probably no one knows. Mathew Simons, energy adviser to Bush once conceded that ‘the situation is desperate’. In an interview with an online magazine From the Wilderness (Aug 2003) he called it ‘world’s biggest question’ about which the politicians had no plan-B to fall back on. Universities and think-tanks should have a role in suggesting a way out from this impasse. But the capitalist iron-fist on academia has left very little room for alternative or independent thinking. Universities do not encourage thinking anymore, they serve as training grounds for the corporate world. In a buzzing globalized technopolis – the way oil has transformed the world around us, civilization gurus need people to work on computers rather than allowing them to ‘waste’ their time and energy in philosophic reflection about future. The breakdown of academia and the emergence of knowledge industry in its place have created a whole lot of ‘toy-geniuses’ who can neither afford the luxury of thinking nor are they equipped with basic linguistic tools essential for such a task. Corporate oriented education has produced one-dimensional men whose motto is maximization of wealth. At their best, the toy-geniuses can talk of runaway greenhouse, carbon emission, and lack of clean water, organic food and sanitation. First they plundered natural resources, polluted our lands, rivers and springs and now they are out to provide us with safe drinking water, pesticide-free organic food and clean air. Even dissenters of western civilization, as the Environmentalists and the peace activists are seen, make a lot out of the lack of sanitation in some third world countries where alternative living is the norm. One wonders if civilization is all about flush-toilets.
What shall we do now?
Whether we believe the advocates of peak-oil or find solace in the optimism expressed by industry leaders, it would be suicidal to keep the energy issue out of public debate. In his address to the Third OPEC International Seminar in 2006, Abdallah Jum’ah, President and CEO of Saudi Aramco, consoled the world that if his expectations about the industry are met, there can be a similar flow of oil at least for another 140 years. Jum’ah’s projections were mainly based on the premise of future technological wonders for discovering new oil fields, extracting the proven reserves to the last drop and using non-conventional heavy oil resources. Jum’ah is not unaware of the environmental fallout out of processing heavy oil and deep-down extractions. Couched in a language that stands somewhere between rhetoric and corporate dream, Jum’ah’s ambitious projections and his expectations from future technology escape tough calculations. The issue here is not which side of the debate we are on; whether we should panic or feel eased up. There are yet other urgent concerns and hard facts which I would like to incorporate in this discourse.
Of the twenty most significant oil producing countries which account for 95% of total proved reserves, twelve are home to the Islamic Ummah which together make some 67% of the total world oil reserves. As for the proved reserves of natural gas, Muslim countries have more than 50% of the global share, Iran and Qatar being the major reserves after Russia. And the fossil fuel is not all that we have been entrusted to. The Muslim nation, which accounts 57 strategically located countries on this planet and which now has a significant presence in the heartlands of other civilizations, has also been entrusted to the Last Revelation, the unadulterated message of God to humanity. The presence of such a vast amount of energy resources in the Muslim lands, especially in the Jaziratul Arab, is not without a divine plan. It is a very special bounty, an amanah, a trust in the hands of those assigned to lead humanity till End-time. The Qur’an reprimands us of the bounties of God and of the delicate balance:
God – the most gracious. It is He who has taught the Quran. He created man, endowed him with power of expression. The Sun and the Moon follow courses computed; and the herbs and the trees both bow in adoration. And the Firmament has He raised high, and He has set up the balance, in order that you may not transgress balance. So establish weight with justice and fall not short in the balance.
(Qura’an, 55: 1-9)
The balance or al-mizaan as the Qur’an calls it, is one of the most defining concepts in the Qur’anic. In the verses that follow we are reminded, oft and on, of the various bounties of God spread all across the planet, in the land and the sea, and also what awaits us in the hereafter. Amidst the most melodious refrain – ‘which and which bounties of your Lord would you deny’, we are commanded not to tamper with the balance. The world no doubt is made for us. But plundering its resources or depriving others of their rightful share would disturb man’s happy relation with nature and with his own self. Al-mizaan is more than a symbol of judicial justice. It is intended to preserve the delicate balance which governs the computed course of the Sun and the Moon and ensures the health of the phenomenal world, which according to the Qur’an is continuously on the grow – كل يوم هو في شأن. Those who are mindful of ‘the delicate balance’ that amounts to help establish a just order and take care of the environmental delicacies are assured of a double reward. A harmonious living with nature turns this world itself into a heaven. Eventually, they emerge as a people of two heavens and much more – و لمن خاف مقام ربه جنتان
As upholders of the Last Revelation and trustees of the fossil fuel we have a very unique obligation to God and mankind. Together with Islam and Oil, we hold the key to future. Should we disrupt the flow of oil the entire world would come to a stand still. We have already done a similar experiment when a few centuries ago, on the pretext of interpretative codification, we mistakenly severed our ties with the comforting message of God and thus leaving the entire world to grope in darkness. Consequently, the delicate balance or the mizaan between man and nature got tampered; bringing the world to almost a near collapse. Environmental imbalance, piling up of the toxic wastes, lack of organic food, clean air and water and worst of all, an ever widening gap between the haves and have-nots. Today, the individual is over-burdened and hard pressed under the tax-system and virtually there is no free space left. Whether we like it or not, we are forced to pay for the ill-conceived defence spending, in most cases for the victimization of the glory called Man. With the emergence of oil civilization, as oil got into wrong hands, Man’s victimization by Man touched an all time high. Never before in history man had invented so sophisticated weapons to kill fellow humans and called it ‘collateral damage’.
The oil civilization, as it developed in the West, has brought us to an unending woe. With the eventual triumph of plutocracy and the ever-rising tide of corporate capitalism, the process of doom has further accelerated. Should we pump out more oil to support this directionless civilization and perpetuate what man has made of man or, should we behave as more accountable trustees? Upholders of the Last Revelation as we claim to be, we Muslims have an obligation to future generations. Those who have yet to surface on this planet, they too have a right to inherit a healthy world. The unmindful burning of oil in the name of globalization is ethically, politically and rationally wrong. Does it make any sense for a packet of food to travel a thousand kilometres before it reaches our table or, for us to travel long hours to the place of work every day? Mineral water claimed to be bottled from the springs of Himalaya is transported to Chennai and far beyond. Tea-leaves grown in Darjeeling are first exported to Britain from where they are re-exported across the world and also to the country of their origin. The UK and Holland are not the only countries who regularly indulge in exporting, and at the same time, importing to each other poultry and meat products. The list is endless. When the supermarket shelves boast of a single product from very many places, we call it the fruits of globalization, while in effect it is the burning of extra oil, a sheer madness.
A New Civilization
Save oil alone which is far more a precious thing, a non-renewable source of energy, the prophet had commanded us even not to waste water long before ‘save water’ became a fashionable environmentalist’s slogan. Before the oil wells run dry we must come out to persuade people for a sane living. We need to forge alliance with other faith communities who share our concern. It is time to be aggressively proactive, to convince the fellow humans that mad burning of oil and at such an ever-increasing pace, is simply suicidal. There is no other alternative but to change the way we live. A new civilization is the minimum to start with.
In a world where the obsolete capitalist model for development still holds sway, where nations are still competing to erect tallest building on this planet, the call for a New Civilization may initially fall on deaf ears. Recently, Kuwait has unveiled plans to build a 1001 meter high architectural Alf-Lailah and in Jeddah Prince Waleed is planning to build Burj Al-Meel or the Mile High Tower which is expected to cost $ 10 billion. Burj Dubai, so far the tallest building on this planet which overtook Taipei 101 tower is now facing threat from another competitor who plans to build Al-Burj. As long as the capitalist notion of civilization remains valid and we judge our progress by towers and toilets, it would be difficult to chart out the course of an alternative civilization.
01 April 2008