The UK’s Independent has positively wallowed in a week’s worth of journalistic eco-doomsaying — see Sarah’s woe over the possible fate of plankton or Dave’s dissection of James Lovelock’s apocophilia, plus a few more dismal items we never even got around to Gristmilling.
Frankly, I think The Independent has been yanking our chains, because the only thing that sells as well as sex is death and destruction. And today it supplied chaos and old night courtesy of author Jeremy Leggett, who like Lovelock has a book coming out: Half Gone: Oil, Gas, Hot Air and the Global Energy Crisis.
Leggett is an “early topper” — a person who’s “worked in the heart of the oil industry, the majority of them geologists, many of them members of an umbrella organisation called the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO). They are joined by a small but growing number of analysts and journalists. The early toppers reckon that 1 trillion barrels of oil, or less, are left.” As compared to “late toppers,” who think there are at least 2 trillion barrels of oil left. It’s not a minor point:
In a society that has allowed its economies to become geared almost inextricably to growing supplies of cheap oil, the difference between 1 and 2 trillion barrels is seismic. It is roughly the difference between a full Lake Geneva and a half-full one, were that lake full of oil and not water. If 2 trillion barrels of oil or more indeed remain, the topping point lies far away in the 2030s. The “growing” and “cheap” parts of the oil-supply equation are feasible until then, at least in principle, and we have enough time to bring in the alternatives to oil. If only 1 trillion barrels remain, however, the topping point will arrive some time soon, and certainly before this decade is out. The “growing” and “cheap” parts of the oil-supply equation become impossible, and there probably isn’t even enough time to make a sustainable transition to alternatives.
Leggett lays out his arguments for the primacy of early vs. late topping, and the economic, social, security and political implications. It’s well worth reading if you want to refresh your sense of the real-world intricacies and implications of our dependence on fossil fuels. And you thought Syriana was complicated!
He ends on a dark note, imagining poor "grans and grandads" freezing to death during a cold snap, in a future Britain cut off from a stable fuel supply, sacrificed to wake up the nation to the danger of dirty energy dependency.
Fortunately, if you know a little about Leggett, you know he’s got a more upbeat vision for the world that The Independent omits. He’s the CEO of upstart, award-winning photovoltaic firm Solar Century — a guarded optimist who mostly despairs that his government isn’t acting fast enough to stave off a more chaotic transition to clean energy. In 2004 he told a different UK paper:
Leggett thinks the era of renewable energy is inevitable and sees his job as “constantly searching for ways to accelerate the inevitable”… Leggett is critical of both government and the oil companies for dragging their feet on renewable energy. He castigates the government for falling “embarrassingly short” of its rhetoric on renewables and believes the oil companies are paying only lip service to green energy, because they are reluctant to cannibalise their revenues from oil … Nevertheless, Leggett believes passionately that the “tipping point” for clean energy is close.
Just goes to show that what gets left out in press coverage of the environment is just as important as what stays in — especially when it seems like the end of the world as we know it.