An Oil-Free World?

The COP26 conference in Glasgow has highlighted the mendacity of politicians and their hangers-on, let alone the big industries that fund those politicians. Endless pledges of CO2 reduction with minimal evidence of action undertaken thus far are not good signs for our future on this planet. But is it surprising a reduction in CO2 and other industrial emissions is so hard to do?

Oil and Coal are the foundation of first world ‘prosperity’- (i.e. predominantly the production of inanimate things)- from its beginnings in the British coal fired industrial revolution . With the accessibility of a cheap energy source all things became possible, but specifically the capacity to more rapidly destroy our natural environment to produce inanimate things from which money could be made. They included the rapid development of more intensive agriculture using oil based fertilisers, the development of plastics, more concrete production for building construction, tar for roads, and coal and oil fired boilers to run our factories and produce electricity. Without oil and gas our modern economy would never have happened, and might possibly cease to exist without it in the future.

As Zehner (2012) points out, renewable energy sources like wind and solar have considerable value and often do reduce overall emissions (but not eliminate them or reduce biodiversity loss) but they cannot completely replace our current first world energy needs, nor are they reliable when the wind stops or the sun doesn’t shine.

We can, as Zehner notes, reduce our energy footprint significantly with more efficient use of the electricity we produce with smart meters, more efficient machinery, collaborative and non coercive ways to reduce or eliminate population growth in all countries , combined with alternative energy sources like wind solar and hydro, but ultimately we need to reduce our consumption of ‘stuff’ in the first world.

But reducing our consumption when it is driven by massive advertising from big and small industries and strong societal needs to feel somehow better about ourselves, will be an uphill task. As with most human endeavours, we believe we constantly need more of everything; a bigger car, a bigger house, more things to put around ourselves so that we feel safe and important. As the human population explodes, that ‘more of everything for each of us’ threatens the stability of the world’s biosphere at an ever increasing pace.

As just one example of the impact of surging populations, ‘foraging’ has become the in-thing for environmentalists- (taking our food from natural and not farmed places). However it is abundantly clear that if we all foraged, our natural world would be very quickly decimated. What were once ‘natural human responses’ to the natural world around us, are no longer viable because of intense human population numbers.

As has so often been said, we have pursued infinitely expanding needs on a finite planet- something has to give- and it is rapidly fraying at the seams right now…

This first world response to living- of mechanised over-indulgence of our world’s resources -has to change. We no longer have the options our forebears had; of moving on to other pastures to exploit it- we have nowhere else to go.

The numbers of humans on the planet mirror the the ‘hockey-stick graph of CO2 in our atmosphere. However we also need to acknowledge that most of that CO2 has been produced by a relatively small percentage of the global population- the ‘developed’ Western world, and also that most of China’s CO2 production (highest per country but not by capita) is the result of Western ‘needs’ for cheap ‘stuff’.

Graph of human population growth since 1050

Reducing our consumption of ‘stuff’ might seem a terrible place to go; particularly those of us more susceptible to the propaganda of advertising -no more latest smartphone, car , shoes or electronics …but it will inevitably lead to us returning to our human/primate roots: a real connection to our living world not based on products and selling inanimate objects, but through our senses- our touch, taste, hearing and smell. And with that return; an acknowledgement that we can no longer ‘naturally’ exploit the living world around us- there are simply too many of us.

We must build a new world based on respect for the other living beings we co-habitate this planet with.

We can either willingly and cooperatively start this journey home, or Gaia will make the decision for us.



‘Green Illusions’ Ozzie Zehner, University of Nebraska Press (2021)

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