4 Mar 2008
How Lessons from the Last Oil Shocks May Help to Inform This One
Something historic happened the other day, and it went pretty much unreported. The price of oil reached $102.59 (and has since gone on to pass $103.95). Although the passing of $100 in early January and then again over the last couple of weeks has a psychological importance and generated a good bit of media attention, it is the passing of $102 that actually means something. It means that we have reached the point that I have for months now in talks referred to as the point beyond which we are into unexplored, unknown territory. We are there, we have arrived, bewildered and blinking into a new world. We have broken through the ceiling; the Age of Cheap Oil can well and truly said to be a thing of the past, and our idea that we can grow our way out of this will now prove itself to be the nonsense it always was.
The previous record (adjusted for inflation) had been $102.53 which was set in 1980, after which oil prices fell when the OPEC embargoes ended and North Sea oil and gas (among others) came on stream. For many peak oil watchers, it has been the passing of $102.53 that has been anticipated, not the nice, round, headline-grabbing $100. It leads me though to reflect on what was different when the price was this high before, and how different our situation is now.
One of the great differences between then and now was highlighted in a slide in a powerpoint presentation recently shared with me by Peter Harper at CAT in Wales. Indeed, Peter subtitles it “the most depressing graph I have yet seen”.
In essence, it looks at the amount of money invested in Research and Development on energy as was reported to the IEA since 1974. As you would expect, during the oil crises of the 7os and shortly thereafter, energy research was a huge priority, and the money and the creative thinking poured in. Now, as we stand at the beginning of the actual downward slope, one imposed not by politics but increasingly by geological reality, how do we compare? The graph tells a shocking story, that climate change as an issue has done very little to promote energy research on anything like the scale of the 1970s, and that perhaps the thing that stimulates investment in research is not climate change but the threat of very imminent depletion and shortages. However, as the Hirsch Report argues so forcibly, leaving our future in the hands of market signals like that means that we have left it too late.
The time of the first oil shocks was an extraordinary period, indeed, probably about a quarter of the books on my bookshelf come from that fertile and fevered time in history, when wind, solar, and many other aspects of post-petroleum living were tried, tested and tinkered with, and much of the “wouldn’t it be nice” of the 1960s began to ground itself into structures, models and technologies.
It was the time that gave birth to the rediscovery of building techniques like strawbale building and cordwood, ideas such as permaculture and co-housing, and much more besides (it also gave us the Bay City Rollers and Mud so we ought not get too gushy about it). We owe the creativity of that time a great debt. An amazing book was published recently to accompany a similarly amazing exhibition called 1973:Sorry, out of gas on show at the Canadian Centre for Architecture until April 20th (if you live in Canada you are very fortunate, get along to see it and then tell us all about it).
Both explore the period in history of the first and second oil shocks and the response of architecture to them. It offers an amazing and very timely insight into a period in history when creativity and adaptability came to the fore, when Carter put solar panels on the White House (see right), and everything seemed possible, before it all went back to sleep again for 25 years as though pricked by a thorn a la Sleeping Beauty. It is fascinating to see in the exhibition copies of books I have, such as Brenda and Robert Vale’s ‘The Autonomous House’ and copies of Undercurrents magazine logged as museum pieces! The exhibition and its accompanying website offers compelling insights into those days, and I can’t recommend them highly enough. I have seen a copy of the book and have ordered my own, which I will review once I have it.
To return to my earlier question, what differed between then and now? Then there was a sense that, as far as oil was concerned, that was that. Motorways fell silent. People couldn’t go to work. It was for real and it was in people’s faces. Did people riot? Not as far as I am aware, although there may have been the odd bit of fisticuffs at petrol stations. Rather, there was an explosion of thinking, of creativity. We are starting to see this now in many diverse forms, but still nothing like the scale of that time.
If we are going to leave getting serious and formulating creative responses until we get to such a point, one has to question what that leaves us time to create? Will it allow us to sustain a global business-as-usual consumer society? I think not. Even building a more localised, lower energy powered down model will take time and effort, but is, I think, far more achievable and realistic.
The insights from that time in the 1970s also show us the sense and the practicality in putting peak oil alongside climate change as a driver for action. There were, at that time, people talking about climate change (although not many), people identifying soil erosion as a huge issue, the dangers of pesticides and so on, but it was the oil shocks that really focused the mind into research and practical responses. Personally speaking I welcome this new world of high oil prices with open arms. I look forward to the second great creative explosion, to creative thinking coming from the most unexpected sources. It is the 25 intervening years that I mourn, when that coming together and that creativity largely switched off, when Ronald Reagan took the solar panels back off the White House roof (how symbolic is that?), when we all went back to sleep and invested more money and research in developing Pop Tarts that don’t scald you when you bite into them and SatNav technology. Bring on the new Renaissance.