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In Review

The Oil Depletion Protocol cover

The Oil Depletion Protocol: A Plan to Avert Oil Wars, Terrorism and Economic Collapse
by Richard Heinberg
New Society Publishers, 2006,
208 pages, $16.95
reviewed by Guy Dauncey

Several hundred million years ago, long before humans, mammals, or dinosaurs roamed the Earth, a host of plants, trees, and sea creatures rejoiced in the sunlight, breathing in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When they died, some of their carbon was locked away underground where it was slowly cooked and pressured, turning into coal, gas, and oil—the fossil fuels that our civilization has become so dependent on.

Every gallon of oil that we burn—a visit to some friends here, a trip to the theater there—represents the accumulated energy of 100 tons of plant material slowly converted into oil over tens of millions of years. In rough numbers, we will have used in two hundred years (1850–2050) the energy that Nature laid down over two hundred million years.

For the first 150 years, we used these fossil fuels without much thought. We needed them, so we took them—even if it took wars and military coups to secure them, Iraq being just the latest. Now we have entered the age of consequences, with global warming and oil depletion knocking on our door saying “Time's up!”

Either we plan and achieve a rapid transition into the Solar Age, powered by sustainable sources of energy, or those horsemen are going to break down the door and play merry hell with our carefully built civilization. If global warming increases by more than 2°C, the meltdown of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets may become inevitable, bringing as much as a 13-meter rise in sea level, and a daunting list of other disasters.

Similarly, if we don't plan how to share out the second half of the world's oil supply, when all nations will be competing for a rapidly diminishing supply, there will be conflict, starvation, chaos, and a generally unpleasant scene.

Richard Heinberg's The Oil Depletion Protocol describes a logical solution to one important dimension of the mess we're in. Almost every oil expert in the world agrees that sometime between 2007 and 2030 the world will hit peak oil, the moment when the production of oil peaks and starts to decline. All they differ on is when. During the golden “Dynasty” years of oil expansion, nobody worried. It's a whole other story when there's less each year, and more people wanting it.

The Oil Depletion Protocol was developed by the noted oil expert Colin Campbell. He proposes, quite simply, that the nations of the world agree to reduce their annual use of oil by the annual depletion rate. If the supply is diminishing by 2.6 percent a year (Campbell's current estimate), then each nation will agree to use 2.6 percent less oil each year. Over ten years, that amounts to a 25 percent reduction. Importing nations would reduce their use, and oil-producing nations their production, by this amount. Unconventional oil from the Alberta and Venezuela oil-sands is not included in the Protocol.

Heinberg's book is a valuable analysis of the Protocol that also explores a range of methods for reducing our use of oil in transport and looks at ways in which the Protocol might be linked to the need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

Here's where the debate gets interesting, however. The Protocol addresses the problem of keeping the peace as the world's oil supply diminishes. It does not address the larger (and in my view far more ominous) problem of global warming.

The climate crisis is the result of us releasing 9 gigatonnes (GT) of excess carbon a year from fossil fuels and deforestation, of which around 2.5 GT comes from our use of oil, 4.5 GT from coal and gas, and 2 GT from tropical deforestation. To prevent the world from passing the dangerous 2°C threshold, which would likely trigger the meltdown of Greenland and West Antarctica and cause a 6- to 13-meter rise in sea level, we need to reduce our overall emissions of carbon from all sources to no more than 1.5 GT a year. If we were to use the Oil Depletion Protocol to ration the world's remaining supply of oil, 100 percent of the ecologically “safe” carbon (if there is such a thing) would come from oil, with no allowance for the continuing emissions from coal, gas, and deforestation.

Carbon math, therefore, along with our collective concern for our grandchildren, tells me that it simply can't be done: we have to leave most of the oil in the ground. We need a Global Carbon Reduction Protocol, which we already have in the Kyoto Protocol and in its successor, which will be negotiated for the years beyond 2012.

The Protocol is a useful contribution, as we certainly can't solve the problem of global warming in the midst of resource wars. But the more critical task is keeping those gigatonnes of carbon out of the air in the first place.

Luckily, my analysis tells me that the global potential of sustainably-produced electricity, combined with demand reduction through efficiency measures, and the use of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electrics, using a small amount of biofuel from cellulosic ethanol for long-distance trips, can solve most of the problem. Once our use of fossil fuels falls to a level that is safe for the planet, we'll have solved both problems. Peak oil won't matter, because we'll no longer depend on oil. But that's another story.

Guy Dauncey is co-author of Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change, and president of the BC Sustainable Energy Association. His website is www.earthfuture.com.

Balancing Earth on Oil graphic. Brett Lamb / IS
Balancing Earth on Oil

THE CARBON MATH::
Burning a barrel of oil releases 77 kg of carbon. If we burn the remaining trillion barrels of conventional oil, we will put 77 gigatonnes (GT) of carbon into the atmosphere. If we decrease oil use at the Oil Depletion Protocol's depletion rate of 2.6 percent a year, in 40 years we will burn 650 billion barrels, releasing 50 GT of carbon—an average of 1.25 GT a year. This tells us that if we were to burn all of the remaining conventional oil while limiting carbon emissions to the “safe” rate of 1.5 GT a year, we would need to stop burning virtually all coal and natural gas immediately, and also find an instant end to the carbon emissions from deforestation in Indonesia and the Amazon.


Cover of Deep Economy

Deep Economy
by Bill McKibben
Times Books, 2007
272 pages, $25
reviewed by Fran Korten

For decades, economic growth has been the Holy Grail of our national and local economic policies. But in today's world, is economic growth an appropriate goal? Is it providing us health and happiness?

In Deep Economy, Bill McKibben answers with an emphatic “Not anymore.” He suggests that over the last couple of centuries, growth in economic productivity has enabled a great many people to move from lives of grueling drudgery to relative comfort. And there remain several billion people for whom increased income can bring greater happiness. But for those who have achieved a modicum of prosperity (he cites research that pegs the threshold for a country at $10,000 per capita per year), more no longer equals better. The consequences of economic growth are not only devastating our planet, they are also making us unhappy. In the U.S., our national happiness level peaked in 1950 and has been declining ever since.

In flowing, personal prose sprinkled with stunning facts and vivid examples, McKibben looks at the consequences of our single-minded pursuit of the economic efficiencies that enable growth—such as a giant hog farm center in North Carolina that produces more fecal material than California, New York, and Washington combined. He suggests that economic growth is producing a hyper-individualism that leaves people alienated from community and desperate to fill the resulting vacuum in their lives with more money and more things, which further feeds the economic growth engine.

So how do we wean ourselves from our addiction to growth? For McKibben, the key is to discover that happiness is derived from an economy rooted in community. He cites examples of food, energy, communications, housing materials, and entertainment that when produced and purchased locally, not only reduce impact on the planet, but also create the neighborly connections fundamental to human happiness. McKibben cites a study showing that a person who shops at a farmers' market will have 10 times more conversations than one who shops at a supermarket. He tells with humor and satisfaction of his own experiment with a Year of Eating Locally—attuning his diet to the natural rhythms of the seasons (lots of turnips in the winter) and getting to know the folks in his region who produce and process food.

Photo of Carrot

Can we make the transition to a no-growth or slow-growth economy more rooted in community? Spurred by the specter of global warming and the end of cheap oil, a burgeoning movement is arising around the world to do exactly that. But there's an inconvenient truth about our economic system that keeps us tethered to economic growth. It's the fact that money is created from bank loans which must be paid back with interest. Without growth, there's no money to pay the interest. It doesn't have to be this way—economic growth is not required when governments, rather than banks, issue money. But history shows that the powerful interests that reap vast riches from the current monetary system will fight tooth and nail against any change in the system. What McKibben shows us in Deep Economy is that it's a fight we need to take on. If we can get off the growth train and rebuild our communities, we may not only restore the planet, but our happiness as well.

Fran Korten is the executive director of the nonprofit Positive Futures Network and the publisher of YES! Magazine.

Excerpt from Deep Economy ::

A single farmers' market may not seem very important compared to a Wal-Mart, but farmers' markets are the fastest-growing part of our food economy. They've doubled in number and in sales and then doubled again in the last decade, suggesting new possibilities for everything from land use patterns to community identity. Similar experiments are cropping up in many other parts of the economy and in many other places around the world, driven not by government fiat but by local desire and necessity. That desire and necessity form the scaffolding on which this new, deeper economy will be built, in pieces and from below. It's a quiet revolution begun by ordinary people with the stuff of our daily lives.


Image from Juvies

Juvies
Directed by Leslie Neale.
Documentary, 2004.
Chance films, 66 min.
Filmed on locatiion at the Eastlake Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles.

I wish I'd made this film. It's humane and honest, fair, and brave. That's a lot more than we can say for our juvenile justice system.

In the mid-nineties, the film points out, Princeton professor John Dilulio scared the bejesus out of nearly everyone when he warned that the current generation of young men was a “wolf pack of superpredators.”

Dilulio later changed his mind, but by then it didn't matter—the specter of gangs of youthful superpredators roaming the city streets had already gripped the public imagination, and the perceived menace led to a popular wave of tough-on-crime legislation and harsh sentencing guidelines.

Image from Juvies

These so-called superpredators are the “juvies” that this film is about.

At Eastlake Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles, scores of violent and dangerous kids await sentencing as adults. For the film, 12 of them are selected at random to learn video production. Many of these kids have committed terrible crimes, such as assault and murder. Others seem simply to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, guilty mainly of associating with members of gangs. Almost all end up with sentences ranging from 11 years to life-plus-25 years.

In Juvies, you have a chance to become acquainted with them, minus the TV-news hype, to hear their stories, and to make up your own mind. You'll find that they're not who you thought they were. You will also find it hard not to like them, even knowing what they've done.

Image from Juvies

The kids featured in Juvies are part of a national trend—each year more than 200,000 juveniles are locked up in adult prisons. Incarceration in adult prisons offers these kids little opportunity for education or rehabilitation and puts them at high risk of being beaten or sexually assaulted. Juvies asks us to rethink a justice system in which children are tried as adults, serving sentences out of proportion with the crimes they committed. Are we really safer as a result?

The documentary finally asks us to examine the role we play. What's doing more damage to our world, these so-called superpredators or our fear of them?

“Scared people are dangerous people,” a California Crip serving a life sentence once told me. Juvies shows us why he's right.

Carol Estes is a YES! contributing editor. She teaches college classes at Washington State Reformatory.
Juvies can be borrowed for free from The Film Connection: www.thefilmconnection.org.

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