Will Our Oil-Dependent World Change Course — Or Get Even Oilier?

The world as we know it is hyper-dependent on oil. It serves as the foundation of dominant transportation systems worldwide and it’s the integral ingredient in countless consumer products. Of course, it’s also doing immense damage to the health and well being of societies around the globe, and gravely endangering the stability of the global climate system.

Calls to start transitioning away from oil and towards cleaner fuels have been loud and clear — and ineffective — for years now. And it’s pretty clear why: OPEC is set to rake in over $1 trillion dollars this year, even as the high cost of oil ($111 a barrel on average) is causing economists to worry about a ‘double dip’ recession as a result. Top analysts from the International Energy Association say that if high oil prices hold, it could “derail the global economy”.

So, a sensible, forward-looking individual might ask, why do we continue to tether ourselves to this volatile substance? We have plenty of alternative technologies available at our disposal that could help make oil-dependence a thing of the past. Electric cars. High speed rail. Renewable energy sources like solar and wind. Sugar cane ethanol. The list goes on.

And yet, oil demand continues to boom worldwide, especially in China and other fast-developing nations. So what, collectively, has been our response? To produce more oil. This recent NY Times article details the expanding oil demand, and details how the United States plans to meet it — by drilling even more heavily offshore, digging deeper into shale oil onshore, and experimenting with tar sands oil, which creates even more pollution during the extraction and refinement process than the normal stuff.

These are precisely the kinds of projects that the oil companies — which have become literally the most profitable private companies in the world in recent years — want to see. But, needless to say, they’re all pretty bad news. Even if we did have enough oil to adequately sate demand for years to come, the massive emissions we would generate in doing so would continue to be a major driver of climate change — which scientists say we need to start working seriously to head off right now. Drilling for oil is also becoming increasingly dangerous, as we’ve seen with the BP Gulf spill. Expect to see further risky operations — and devastating accidents — if we continue down this path.

But continued oil reliance won’t just be a disaster for the climate and the environment — it will be a disaster for economies around the world, especially those who are the most car-dependent or otherwise vulnerable to oil shocks. As current trends indicate, demand will likely outstrip supply in coming years, and prices are unlikely to come down. And remember, right now, high oil prices impact just about everything.

So right now, nations — especially the United States, which has the power to lead on such matters — have an opportunity to begin changing course. We stand on the precipice of an exponential rise in oil prices, and have in fact stood there for years. Fast-developing nations are putting thousands of new cars on their roads every year. Oil companies are more powerful than ever, and will work to influence policy that cements the status quo. They need to be taken on. It’s time to start moving towards a cleaner, safer, and more sustainable future — one in which dependence on oil doesn’t shackle economies, damage the environment, or threaten to create chaos at every turn.

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Photo credit: skampy via Flickr/CC BY

About Brian Merchant

Brian Merchant is a founding editor of the Utopianist.. When he's not helming the Utopianist, he is TreeHugger's politics writer, contributes the Getting Samy Out of Burma column to GOOD.is, and freelances for the likes of Salon and Paste. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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