Note: I wrote this paper in university for a communication class while getting my degree in, you guessed it, communication. It was a take-home exam. It was kind of fun to do because I also had completed my diploma in journalism by the time I took this course.
Perhaps when Henry Ford mastered the assembly line technique he did not think of the consequences of a society that would be dependent on oil-run transportation. He introduced the Model T Ford in 1908 and by 1927, 15 million grease-burners labeled with his name were being driven by what was becoming a consumer society (Post Carbon Institute, 2005).
But transportation is not the only thing mankind found for the use of oil. Plastic, electricity and polyester fit into the ball game as well (Porter, 2003). So there came a problem when in 1956 a scientist named M. King Hubbert calculated a shortage of oil to be achieved in the years after 1970 (Gatehouse, 2006). Some writers on the subject seem to believe he was right, saying figures have certainly been sliding downhill ever since (Associated Press). But who in his time could face this grim reality? A world without oil could mean a world without production, therefore a world without consumption, and a world without deep pockets for certain individuals who stood to gain from the oil fields that were perpetually being discovered and mined. Perhaps that is why the subject has been in hibernation until only a few years ago.
In 2003, George Monbiot wrote a commentary for the Guardian Unlimited entitled “Bottom of the barrel,” where he exposed the rudiments of the situation, summed up in the following sentence: “We seem…to be in trouble. Either we lay hands on every available source of fossil fuel, in which case we fry the planet and civilisation collapses, or we run out, and civilisation collapses” (Monbiot, 2003). In the same year, Adam Porter wrote on the subject, explaining the inescapable nature of the coming crisis, much like Monbiot. In 2004, Sonoma State University student researchers Philip Rynning, Julie Mayeda and Anna Miranda at Project Censored picked up the story and wrote “Media and Government Ignore Dwindling Oil Supplies.” It was ranked at number 18 among the most underreported stories of the year. Later, the shortage of oil and government’s passive response to the warnings began to be covered and contested in more and more media. The issue has come to be known as Peak Oil, and, although many theorists provide their own predictions of when the big hit will be, it seems evident we are standing in the right time frame for it to happen any day. In fact, some claim the day of maximum production has already passed us and we are now in the phase of decline (Associated Press, 2005).
Domestically, coverage in mainstream media has not given the issue the attention it deserves. The CBC, in its online print sources, shows that it aired a documentary on oil in 2004 but only a portion of it was devoted to the shortage crisis. It’s summary, titled By The Numbers can still be found on the CBC Web site (CBC, 2005). In 2005, CBC’s In Depth released Supply and demand: World oil markets under pressure. The story, however, has an optimistic ring to it while it showcases Alberta as being among the focal points of future oil-searching endeavours by consumer-hungry nations like the U.S. and China. In fact, it presents a table by the U.S. Geological Survey that puts Alberta one step ahead of Iraq in terms of its oil reserves (CBC, 2005).
The Georgia Straight has published an interesting array of angles on the story. In August of 2005, the paper published a commentary by Gwynne Dyer who unloaded a basket of numbers to prove that rising oil prices are no crying matter and that, as we reach peak production, life will go on. She also induced comfort to worriers by mentioning the shortage’s ability to save the world from pollution-causing climate change. In October of the same year, the paper published a political story about the efforts of the Greater Vancouver Regional District to combat its reliance on oil. In January, 2006, reporter Charlie Smith wrote a review of books that had been written on the subject. The conclusion of his findings was reflected in the headline, which read, “Leaders ignore oil depletion.” The following month, the paper published yet another angle mentioning the reliance of food sources on oil due to transportation needs (Ali, 2006).
Maclean’s has also given recent attention to the issue, publishing a lengthy and exhaustive piece in their February 13, 2006 issue. The Edmonton Journal, owned by CanWest, released a story just over a week later on the Peak Oil theory. However, this paper has taken a spin that may not be as familiar to us in other news sources: Peak Oil is a wonderful thing for us because we’ll make lots of money off of it. Instead of implying it, as in the CBC story, or even telling us to relax, like Dyer in the Georgia Straight, reporter Gordon Jaremko quotes the Alberta Department of Energy in saying that oil shortage “‘puts [Alberta] in the driver’s seat for the next 200 years’” because of its abundance of oilsands.
Internationally, CBS’s online business section carries a long article published in May, 2005, telling us all about the expert’s predictions of our oil supply. Some, in this case, say we are worrying for nothing, while others are sure we are facing a watershed in history, when not even technology will save us out of this one (Associated Press, 2005). The Christian Science Monitor also published a story in 2005, investigating the “when” question while predicting the effects of a world economic collapse due to the peak of oil production and its subsequent dramatic increase in price. The drift: unemployment, starvation and war. Finally, and perhaps the most optimistic article worth believing in its entirety, is found in the New York Times and discusses the steps Sweden has taken to become an oil-free country by 2020. However, Sweden’s consumption of oil can not compare to the U.S. (who takes the world lead) and, while it is nice to think that Sweden could be a model for U.S. “detox,” it should be kept in mind that the European country has access to alternate energy sources right in its backyard, something America has to scavenge for in other territories (Cowell, 2006).
So why wait till it’s too late to report?
Well, to start, when Hubbert first made his prophetic discovery, his bosses told him to tone down the excitement over it. It was just not a foreseeable event at a time when oil fields were so abundant (Associated Press, 2005).
Following this, as Gatehouse points out in his Maclean’s article, When the Oil Runs Out, the information can be too overwhelming for people to take. He describes the experience of one man who attended a lecture on the health effects of nuclear weapons and left early; “The information was so detailed and terrifying he left the hall filled with a sense of hopelessness, rather than a desire to effect change” (2006). In the past, hearing of a disaster due to oil shortage would likely have had the same effect of us today hearing about a meteor that will hit earth in the year 2030 and destroy every living thing with it. So what? The scientists will take care of it, right? Well, not so effectively in the case of oil, which leads to the next point.
Producing alternative energy sources may give the illusion that there’s hope, but we cannot forget three negative impacts of doing it. Firstly, it costs massive amounts of mullah. Secondly, it takes years to get going. Thirdly, the sources we know of will pollute the earth so bad we’ll be wiped out in a few decades anyway (Associated Press, 2005, Dillin, 2005, Monbiot, 2003, Porter, 2003). Perhaps there has been a lack of coverage because the blame and responsibility would have to rest on someone. Project Censored claims it is governments that need to do something about it, but so far they haven’t (here, of course, we can make the exception of Sweden). Preparing for an oil shortage would require a revamping of our economy, our cities, our systems of transportation, and not to mention, our daily lives! And who is prepared to do that? According to The Christian Science Monitor, definitely not the U.S. (2005)! And we cannot forget what happens when consumers lose confidence in the economic system – they stop buying and start saving, which means companies lose out, and eventually the whole thing goes into recession. So the less scared they are, the longer governments can hold up the notion that we’re doing okay, and thus maintain their power. For now, it seems consumers need to keep consuming the oil to keep the world running. But a plan for the future? No one has yet come forward with anything definite. Some, like the managerial staff at the Edmonton Journal, would like us to forget about a backup plan and assume we’re only heading into a bright future.
Ali, C. (2006). Oil fuels city’s food supply. The Georgia Straight. Retrieved February 28, 2006 from http://www.straight.com/content.cfm?id=15766
Associated Press. (2005). Experts: Petroleum May Be Nearing a Peak. CBS News: Business. Retrieved February 28, 2006 from http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/05/28/ap/business/mainD8ACD31O0.shtml?CMP=ILC-SearchStories
CBC. (2005). Supply and demand: World oil markets under pressure. CBC News Online: In Depth. Retrieved February 28, 2006 from http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/oil/supply_demand.html
CBC. (2005). By the Numbers. In Oil: The World Over a Barrel. CBC Documentaries. Retrieved February 28, 2006 from http://www.cbc.ca/documentaries/oil/numbers.html
COWELL, A. (2006). Sweden and U.S. Agree About the Oil Dependency Problem, but for Different Reasons. The New York Times: On the Web. Retrieved February 28, 2006 from http://www.peakoil.net/
Dillin, J. (2005). How Soon Will Oil Supplies Peak? The Christian Science Monitor. In CBS News. Retrieved February 28, 2006 from http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/11/09/national/main1028896.shtml?CMP=ILC-SearchStories
Dyer, G. (2005). Sky-high oil price no disaster. The Georgia Straight. Retrieved February 28, 2006 from http://www.straight.com/content.cfm?id=12305
Gatehouse, J. (2006). When the Oil Runs Out. Maclean’s, 119(7), 22-25. Retrieved February 28, 2006 from Academic Search Elite.
Jaremko, G. (2006). Oilsands put Alberta in the driver’s seat. The Edmonton Journal. Retrieved February 28, 2006 from http://www.canada.com/edmontonjournal/news/story.html?id=25ee5071-9e6c-423c-9104-0f4f787a9cde
Monbiot, G. (2003). Bottom of the barrel. The Guardian Unlimited. Retrieved February 28, 2006 from http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,,1097671,00.html
Porter, A. (2003). Running on Empty. New Internationalist. Retrieved February 28, 2006 from http://www.newint.org/
Post Carbon Institute. (2005). Peak Oil Timeline. Retrieved February 28, 2006 from http://www.postcarbon.org/informed/timeline
Smith, C. (2005). Municipalities pursue own energy projects. The Georgia Straight. Retrieved February 28, 2006 from http://www.straight.com/content.cfm?id=13209
Smith, C. (2006). Leaders ignore oil depletion. The Georgia Straight. Retrieved February 28, 2006 from http://www.straight.com/content.cfm?id=15203