By Francis de Winter, August 2003
In World War II, the allies under General MacArthur island-hopped their way across the Pacific Ocean towards Japan. Some primitive tribes on remote islands, whose main previous contact with the white man had involved missionaries, suddenly found themselves with a landing strip in their midst, and with an unending stream of planes going through. This led to a stream of gifts and trinkets and novelties: packages of cigarettes and chewing gum, cigarette lighters, cans of spam, bottles of soft drinks and liquor, nail clippers and pocket knives, hand tools, magazines, baseball caps, calendars, pinup photos, T-shirts, etc. Around mid August 1945, with the end of the war with Japan, the planes stopped coming. Many natives did not know why, and some who were told did not believe it.
An Italian movie of the 1950s: "Il Mondo Cane" (loosely translated as: "This Lousy World"), showed a glimpse of the pathetic result: of the "Cargo-Cult" that developed. Some of the primitive tribes thought that the planes and the trinkets might come back if shown enough hospitality. They built fake landing strips and plane decoys (much like the duck decoys of duck hunters), and set up continuing shifts of people on-site, so as to be able to welcome (or capture) any planes that flew in. They were quite certain that the cargo planes would start coming in again, and that the future would again be one of plenty. This "Cargo-Cult" became their religion (at least for some years) but the stream of planes never came back.
At present all tribes in the world are about to experience a serious decline in an incredible stream of cargo that humanity did nothing to deserve, the enormous (but temporary) stream of crude oil and of natural gas provided by nature. Some people seem certain that somehow this cargo will continue coming in and may even increase in volume, that somehow: "Technology Will Solve All Oil and Gas Supply Problems." The modern world seems to have its own "Cargo-Cult" religion.
Many of those who think that technology will save us know little about the technology that will allegedly save us. M. A. Adelman, Daniel Yergin and Michael C. Lynch can probably be regarded as the High Priests of the Petroleum and Natural Gas Cargo-Cult Religion. They have little or no understanding of oil or gas geology, but they are convinced that the free market and modern technology can bring forth all the oil and gas we will ever need, and they get their opinions published everywhere they can. They have the audacity to challenge professionals like Dr. Colin J. Campbell, a petroleum geologist with extensive field experience respected worldwide for his understanding of the oil and gas resources and of the oil and gas production potential. It is almost as if a third grader were to confront Einstein, with the comment: "Dr. Einstein, you are all wrong about E equals M C squared. It should be M C cubed." The Petroleum and Natural Gas Cargo-Cultists are similar: picturesque and irrelevant.
I have been involved in solar energy and energy efficiency since the mid 1960s, with three engineering degrees from MIT but no blind faith in technology. I have been interested in oil and gas depletion for many years, since I felt that only the effects of oil and gas depletion (and a widespread public awareness of that depletion) would enable solar energy and energy efficiency to get widespread support. I first met Dr. Campbell in France in 1994. Afterwards I worked with my colleague Ron Swenson (the webmaster) to set up this website on oil and gas depletion, with contributions of Dr. Campbell and of many other prominent petroleum geologists. Our renewable energy work can be seen at www.ecotopia.com; at www.kiteship.com; and at www.solarquest.com.
The solution to resource depletion, and to the resulting production peak and production decline problems in oil and gas first predicted by Dr. M. King Hubbert, cannot be to hope for much more; it must be to make do with much less. This may be painful to many, as is often the case in a transition of society, but the transition is inescapable. We have many years to make the full transition to a sustainable energy world, but we must be serious about the transition process. If humanity is able to handle the post-Hubbert-Peak problems in petroleum and natural gas in a rational way, the transition to a sustainable world can become a cause and a process uniting all of humanity. It need not lead to the Olduvai Gorge scenario feared by Dr. Richard Duncan, or to the dismal messages shown at www.dieoff.org. In the process we must show respect for the oil and gas resources we have left, for the people and the nations involved in the oil and gas industry, for the environment that sustains us, and for the other life on this planet. No good can come out of contrived and deceptive oil wars, like the recent US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Problems of the 21st century cannot be solved with the strategies of the dark ages.
The future is by no means hopeless, but it will just involve less petroleum and natural gas, more efficient use of energy, and use of other energy sources. In October each year you can visit many solar energy installations and homes in the USA on the National Solar Homes Tour of the American Solar Energy Society (ASES). Details can be found at www.ases.org. If you live in the USA, you can probably find a National Solar Tour close by, and you can begin to see how we can make do with less oil and gas. Many of the passive solar homes are beautiful yet very affordable, use almost no energy for heating and cooling, yet are much more comfortable than the typical energy-intensive homes of today. In the future much travel is likely to be replaced by computer and internet technology, food will become more seasonal, cars will become smaller, and there will be many other changes one cannot yet predict. Life is bound to be quite different, but it will involve an Olduvai Gorge scenario only if we lose control.