With the New Year, journalists traditionally focus (naturally) on reviewing the past year and looking forward to the year ahead. I don’t want to review the past year or make predictions — at least not today. What I’d like to share is an observation based on two documentaries that I encountered recently that, taken together, got me thinking about the big picture. And I do mean, The Big Picture.
The first was a CNN business segment about “peak oil.” I’ve heard peak oil discussions in the past and heard the arguments on both sides. This one made a strong impression on me because it featured an interview with a gentleman with more than 30 years experience in the oil exploration and drilling business. He was worldly, experienced, a bit jaded and anything but an “environmentalist.” His take on things was that in the past century, since the mass introduction of the motor car, we’ve passed the half-way mark in using up the planet’s oil and gas. The interviewer threw every argument available against the notion that we will eventually “run out.” But his answers were cogent and convincing. This guy has been in oil exploration his whole life and knows everyone in the business. The consensus among most professionals is that we’ll find more oil fields here and there, but nothing major, nothing along the lines of a new Saudi Arabia. I forget the number he trotted out, but he gave an approximate number for all the oil and gas that exists or could exist in the world, and stated that we are past half way.
With India and China emerging as major industrial and consumer nations, we’ll run through the other half more quickly than the first half, he said. Even if new technologies allow for full exploitation of the tar sands and fossil fuel sources that are not commercially viable right now, that will add only a few years to the availability of fossil fuels. Even if the TV program was wildly wrong and we have, say, two centuries of these materials in the ground, the point is that (a) only a limited amount can be supplied each day (X billion barrels — use whatever number you like) and (b) one day the tap will run dry (again, pick your own date). Long before that day arrives, demand will vastly outpace supply, and prices will soar. The inescapable conclusion is that our modern way of life will become unaffordable and will alter drastically. Not only are the non-renewable oils and gases fundamental to transportation and other energy uses — they’re the bedrock of the petrochemical industry that is key to such things as plastics and pharmaceutical products.
My conclusion from this program is that, while we may argue about the date, industrial society as it’s currently arranged is living on borrowed time. You don’t have to be a Deep Green environmentalist to think this; from a business-oriented perspective there’s a waterfall at the end of these rapids, and the edge is coming into view. Some environmentalists would have us give up our modern consumerist ways. Technocrats believe new technologies will overcome these challenges. I fall somewhere in between. Barring some tremendous leap forward, like cold fusion, I think the current paradigm is going to change dramatically about two generations from now. We need to become a conserver society not so much to preserve our current “wicked ways” in terms of home heating and air conditioning and driving in cars, but to preserve valuable resources for foreseeable and unforseen future uses. It took billions of years for those oil reserves to form from plant decomposition and pressure/heat from the earth — it’s terrible to run through it all in just a few generations in trips back and forth from the shopping mall. How our great grandshildren will despise us when they look back!
The other item was a TV documentary on CBC’s excellent The Passionate Eye series. You’ll see the connection with the first item in a minute, but the gist of this program was that it marked the one-year annivesary of the Asian tsunami that killed 250,000 last year. The show featured amazing amatuer videotape of the ocean receding into a highly unnatural low tide, then a tidal wave sweeping in and killing people. It was shocking footage with people being swept inland or out to sea. Then the second wave hit. Afterwards, there were bodies piled everywhere; vibrant men and women and old people and children turned in minutes by nature’s fury into drowned corpses.
The thing that made the deepest impression on me was the western tourists and the westernized hotel staff at one resort in Indonesia standing on the beach, looking out to sea at the strange low tide, oblivious as to what was happening. You hear them commenting, “What’s going on out there?” as they catch site of a foaming white band out near the horizon. They talk about it at some length, as the tidal wave is far out at sea. You want to yell out to them, “Get the hell out of there!” but they continue standing with their hands on their hips watching the unreal spectacle of all this white froth out in the ocean, slowly moving toward them. Their kids play in the sand, and many people continue to sunbathe, reading books on deck chairs, listening to tunes on their iPods. Of course, within a couple of minutes they’re all dead. The video records their screams and cries for help.
The filmmakers heard about an island archipelago whose inhabitants are among the most “primitive” in the world. They have limited contact with the outside world, and continue to live in their age-old indigenous ways. Interestingly, none of these people drowned from the tsunami, even though their islands lay directly in its path. The filmmakers interviewed one of the islanders, who explained (along with some mythological allegory) that their tribal wisdom tells them that the land and sea are always negotiating and renegotiating where their boundary shall be. When they saw the low tide occur at a time when it’s not supposed to, they knew that the waters receding would come back, and in a big way. They grabbed their belongings and headed for higher land and safety.
The whole thing illustrated the irony of the modern situation. Here we have modern educated, technologically astute humans, disconnected from nature, being killed by tidal waves, not recognizing the danger even though they’re seeing it with their own eyes from afar. And we have aboriginal people, connected to nature and its cycles and rhythms, surviving and thriving, because they’re connected to nature-based traditions that are thousands of years old.
Experiencing the radio and TV programs within a few days of one another had a powerful effect on me. I was left to ponder a sort of matrix of ideas in which the contemporary oil-based industrial society around me — that is disconnected from nature and sees it only as a source of materials for rampant exploitation — is living on borrowed time, and the indigenous people of the world, so forsaken and even outrighly abused, still maintain a way of life connected to the earth, the sky and the sea in cultures that have been around for thousands, even tens of thousands, of years.
These two groups of people, the moderns and the aboriginal, have endured an uncomfortable coexistence for many years. The latter have experienced wholesale genocide in many instances. Modern man, machine man, has committed many atrocities against his own kind, as well. Think of the Holocaust. Think of Hiroshima. The optimistic side of me wonders whether a new age will dawn in which these two types of humans will come together. Technological man will adopt a simpler way of life, more like that of indigenous people; aboriginals will in turn adopt some of modern man’s innovations. Perhaps one day most of the population will migrate, of necessity, to more temperate lands where indoor climate control is not required. The cold north and south and the hot tropics will be for outliers, for specialists. We’ll live in a tribal manner, eschewing cars, but will be connected via wireless internet devices to a global culture of world music, literature and art.
Is this already happening? I believe this mayu be the case. It’s still early days, but perhpas not so early as we think. Anyway, those are my thoughts are we ring the New Year in.