In the middle of the maze

In the middle of the maze

By Tatiana Roa Avendaño

The end of abundant oil and climate change should be moving society towards a big change, in which everything will be radically transformed, particularly the oil-intensive segments of the economy. However, not only do we not prepare to face these crises, but the problem is avoided and false exits are promoted that not only do not solve the situation but also provide responses that increase it.

"One generation plants a tree and the next one enjoys its shade." Chinese proverb

On April 1, 2007, the Ministry of Mines and Energy of Ecuador announced that the oil discovered in the Yasuní National Natural Park would, in a first option, be kept dammed underground. The idea promoted for years, by Ecological Action (1) and indigenous organizations, aimed to stop the oil advance in this natural sanctuary, refuge of the Pleistocene and habitat of uncontacted indigenous peoples. "Leaving the oil underground" would become the task of these organizations that warned about the environmental and cultural implications that oil development would have in this Amazonian territory.

The already challenging idea occurred in a world context in which the following converged: peak oil (see box) and increase in the price of oil and the climate crisis (2). The evidence of moving out of an era of "easy oil" into a new period of "difficult oil" is significant. Therefore, it is not uncommon for the oil industry to find itself making its way to places never before explored, far away, complex and pristine. In this way, the last natural refuges where much of the natural wealth that still survives is preserved and where hundreds of indigenous peoples have managed to survive are today, more than ever, threatened.

We are experiencing climate change. And in the South, which has done little to cause it, is where it suffers the most for being more vulnerable, paying a high cost. Meanwhile, in a senseless way, the industrialized countries, which have an immense ecological debt, continue to evade their responsibility and, the international negotiations remain trapped in a market logic, without taking decisions that lead to reducing the emissions of gases that cause climate change. Climate change could undermine the conditions that make life possible on the planet.

The moment in which we live demands great challenges. The oil peak will surely cause changes in the fossil-based energy matrix, but will it help to get out of the quagmire where we are or will it cause new evils? Is there time to wait for the slow pace of international negotiations? The crisis is systemic and challenges the current civilizational paradigm, it challenges us to carry out profound transformations, to move towards a new path. How to do it? What are the proposals and initiatives that arise in the current situation? What changes will have to be brought about? These are some of the issues that we are interested in developing.

Oil addicts ...

The 20th century was a time of abundant and cheap energy. But it is precisely cheap and copious oil that is the cause of many of our ills. Low prices and a glut of easy oil led to explosive global growth in population, urbanization, food production and human mobility (3).

Everything changed with hydrocarbons: the countryside (4), industry, commerce, everyday life, cities and transportation. In industrial countries, a large infrastructure was built for automobiles that required and continues to require large amounts of energy for their maintenance (5). Modern cities are another product of the oil age (6).

The transformation of agriculture was radical. Since 1950, productivity levels have grown (only cereal production has quadrupled) (7). But, if agriculture is an activity with high energy consumption, the current food system is even more so: transport, transformation, marketing, cooking, packaging, and food preparation consume four times more than agricultural activity (Brown, 2008: 35). Cheap oil sparked the growth of the international food trade. International food trade grew notably and the distance between producers and consumers narrowed (8), disrupting the nutrient cycle (9).

Cheap and abundant fossil energy has contributed to growing power over nature and humans, competition for their control sparking much of the wars of the last century. Arms development is closely related to oil: the production of weapons, ammunition and even nuclear development also require abundant use of fossil fuels (10).

Only by observing the increase in world oil production in the last century, one can assess what happened. In one hundred years, oil production multiplied 180 times (Brown, 2008: 27). From 150 million barrels of oil produced in 1900, it rose to 28 billion barrels in 2000.

Did we reach the oil peak?

Since the 18th century, fossil fuels have dominated the energy scene.

Coal, which had been the main energy source until the beginning of the 20th century, was displaced by oil, making it the most important source of energy up to now. Oil currently represents 35% of global energy consumption and more than 90% in the transport sector (11).

While a society addicted to oil was built, current evidence suggests that in the coming years there will be a dramatic drop in oil reserves (Bullón Miró, 2006, Heinberg, 2008, Klare 2008, Brown, 2008).

We are facing “peak oil”, as predicted by many of the geologists specializing in hydrocarbons, including some analysts from the US Department of Energy, who until recently maintained some optimism regarding peak oil (12.) On the one hand, the production of the large fields and of the oil-producing countries is in decline, as is the discovery of large fields. For each new barrel that is discovered, four are consumed (Bullón Miró, 2006).

Klare considers that the oil industry is experiencing a symptomatic weakening, as confirmed by two studies carried out in 2007 (13). World reserves of conventional oil are in free fall, declining each year (Brown (2008: 28). Unextracted oil is buried under the immense depths of the oceans, in places where current technology or environmental restrictions do not allow it to be exploited. (14) Are we facing the end of the oil era and has it entered the era of insufficiency? (15).

The issue is even more critical, because not only are we facing peak oil, but today multiple peaks of other minerals and natural assets are converging (16).

And although there are those who question some of the peaks that Heinberg predicts, the truth is that we are going through a time when excess consumption and scarcity interact, all combined with the environmental crisis whose global expression is the climate crisis.

The end of abundant oil and climate change should be moving society towards a big change, in which everything will be radically transformed, particularly the oil-intensive segments of the economy. However, not only do we not prepare to face these crises, but the problem is avoided and false exits are promoted that not only do not solve the situation but also provide responses that increase it.

The US Department of Energy, has stopped talking about "crude" and instead uses "liquids" to disguise the deficit in production, proposes that future demand will be met with a wide variety of liquid products - including synthetic fuels derived from natural gas, corn, coal and other substances, coming from the oil companies themselves that are immersed in being suppliers of any liquid fuel ”(17).

Among the "liquids" also enter some "unconventional", such as asphalt sands, oil shale, agrofuels and both gas and liquid coal. Most of them were relatively insignificant in the energy business, but they are starting to take on great importance in the face of the oil decline. Speaking of "liquids", the Department of Energy seeks to subtly hide the decline in world oil production, assuming that between 2005 and 2030 the production of these fuels will triple.

The outrageous search to supply oil as fuel was what caused the boom in the United States in the production of ethanol from sugarcane and other agrofuels (18) generated from corn, forage and other non-edible crops (cellulose ethanol); diesel derived from soybeans-, in addition to various other types of oil alternatives: coal-to-liquids, natural gas [gas-to-liquids] and oil shale (Klare, 2007). Boom that has been spreading in the world, like fire in the savannah.

Oil and energy companies are investing large amounts of money in researching alternatives to oil. British Petroleum - BP-, in 2005 established BP Alternative Energy and set aside 8 billion dollars for this purpose.

It wants to create, in agreement with academic institutions, an Institute of Energy Biosciences in order to develop agrofuels. Chevron seeks contracts in Canada to develop the tar fields of Northern Alberta, and Shell Oil installed a pilot plant in Rio Blanco County in western Colorado, to exploit oil from oil shale, or petroleum liquids extracted from rocks. immature found in the Verde River basin in western Colorado, eastern Utah, and southern Wyoming.

These extractive activities will have profound environmental implications, and will produce more greenhouse gases than the conventional oil industry (19). The insane search for substitutes for oil is causing profound environmental damage, destruction of virgin lands, conflicts with local communities and a deepening of the climate crisis. Not only will current problems not be solved but, on the contrary, it will aggravate them.

And Copenhagen…?

In the midst of the most alarming predictions of scientists, between December 7 and 18, 2009, the next United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change, COP-15, will be held in Copenhagen. In Denmark, a new international agreement on reducing carbon emissions will be signed, continuing the Kyoto Protocol that ends in 2012.

In just three centuries, oil-addicted societies have saturated the atmosphere with greenhouse gases at levels never reached on Earth. In the 18th century, CO2 concentrations - before industrialization and the beginning of the massive extraction of coal, gas and oil - was 280 ppm and today it is at 387 ppm, making it impossible to predict the behavior of the biosphere and, how this could affect life.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), temperatures could increase between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees between now and 2100. The consequences will be multiple: decrease in agricultural productivity, increase in climatic events -Hurricanes, cyclones, storms, etc.-, rising sea levels and submergence of some islands and coastal areas, massive migrations, extinction of some species and epidemics. Climate change is threatening the practice of agriculture in many parts of the world, is leading to the extinction of thousands or millions of other species, and the death of millions of human beings.

However, the tragedy is that carbon trading has become the central aspect of the Kyoto protocol that was adopted in 1997. Hydroelectric plants, forest plantations, agrofuels, have ended up being imposed. Now the issue of avoided deforestation is also being discussed (20), and some of its sponsors have begun to finance it through the so-called “voluntary carbon market”. These initiatives "are basically a form of philanthropy and / or makeup" as the Global Forest Coalition (21) says.

That is to say, while the planet heats up, the initiatives based on the market, even supported or sustained by networks and NGOs, all they do is fan the fire that is scorching the Earth. Such alternatives are not only ineffective in reducing carbon emissions, but they are also a threat to the peoples of the South, the most vulnerable. But then where could the cooling winds be?

In search of answers

Without a doubt, to solve climate change there is only one way out: drastically reduce carbon emissions, stopping extracting and burning fossil fuels. The transition to a post-oil society should prevail over other issues, because much of modern problems are linked to the use of fossil fuels, including issues such as economic inequality, which has been exacerbated by high rates of energy flow. . The great dependence that humanity has created on oil is a great difficulty that cannot be solved simply with the development of alternative sources of energy. The prevailing economic model has been based on the outrageous use of fossil fuels.

Reducing fossil consumption could reduce environmental degradation, decentralize economic activity, and strengthen local economies and jobs; The reconversion of agriculture would lessen the devastation caused by intensive agriculture and would give opportunity to the peasant economy and millions of new farmers, a control in the contraction of world oil trade could lead to a reduction in international political tensions. These efforts could increase environmental justice, participation, intergenerational solidarity, and ensure sustainability.

It is imperative to dismantle the way cities are currently configured, highly dependent on energy, in particular the logic of the suburbs, imposed in the US and spread throughout the world. There are responses such as cities in transition (22).

Food diets should be sustained with local seasonal products and natural conditions, leaving aside the use of airplanes to transport fresh products from the southern hemisphere to industrial countries in the winter seasons. The frenetic industry of air transport, both passengers and cargo, must come to an end. The cheap air tickets that have caused a boom in tourism and outrageous mobilization should go down in history (Brown, 2008: 44-45).

Our future is at stake. The challenge is great, it is about dismantling the industrial, economic, productive and financial system installed a few hundred years ago. The truth is that any of these cultural, economic, social, and technological changes that we are urged to make imply a paradigm break that will lead us to move on and build a post-oil, decentralized, democratic and sustainable society.

For this reason, leaving the oil, the blood of the earth, in the subsoil, as we learned from the U'was more than a decade ago, is something we will have to work on because it breaks with the prevailing logic. The commitment to study and deepen the Yasuní proposal, which has been promoted by ecologists, indigenous people and Ecuadorian intellectuals is admirable. They and they know that things are not easy, they have had to fight so that their proposal is not absorbed in the conventional logic of current market mechanisms.

Rectifying the path implies learning from the peasant peoples, who continue to give birth to the earth, with the wisdom and ancient ways, with renewable energies: human, solar, wind, animal and water, always decentralized and under their control. It challenges us to embrace the teachings of the good living of the Andean peoples and the wisdom of the world of black men and women.

In the new oil society the message of less, slower, and smaller will have to replace the current one of more, faster and bigger, as Heinberg says.

Hubbert's Peak
In 1956, Marion King Hubbert (23) predicted, during the American Petroleum Institute meeting, that total oil production in the United States would reach its peak in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Hubbert theorized that the time lag between the peak of new discoveries and production was predictable (24).
His hypothesis was built from the monitoring of an oil field, there he warned
that oil production undergoes an evolution described by a Gaussian Bell, in such a way that it assumed that if this was the behavior of a well or a reservoir, the national production of a country or the global production would have a similar behavior. This means that an oil field when reaching its maximum production begins its decline. The verification of his theory, during the 1970s, gave him great recognition. Today it is known by the name of Hubbert's peak or, oil peak.
Hubbert predicted that the US would have its oil peak in the 1970s, as indeed it did, while the world peak would be in the late 20th or early 21st century.

Tatiana Roa Avendaño

Illustration World and oil de Angie Vanessa Cardenas Roa,


(1) On September 3, 2004, at the Hotel Hiltón Colón in Quito, while a meeting was being held between oil businessmen and the Ecuadorian government, to discuss matters related to the discovery of large oil reserves in the Ishpingo-Tambococha oil field. Tiputini (later known as the ITT Field) located in the Yasuní National Natural Park, activists from the environmental organization Acción Ecológica carried out a symbolic occupation, with the purpose of warning about the impacts.

(2) CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have reached limits never reached, exceeding the barrier of 380 parts per million (ppm), and there are already those who warn that exceeding 400 ppm can lead us to the point of no return.

(3) Brown, Lester, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, Earth Policy Institute, 2008. Page: 27

(4) Modern agriculture is deeply dependent on the use of fossil fuels. Most of the tractors use gasoline or diesel. Irrigation pumps use diesel, natural gas, or electricity produced by coal. Fertilizer production is also energy intensive. Natural gas is the basis for the production of nitrogen fertilizers. Mining, manufacturing, international transportation, and for phosphates and potash we all depend on oil. (Brown, 2008: 34)

(5) The United States alone has 2.6 million miles of paved roads, mainly covered with asphalt, and 1.4 million miles of unpaved roads (Brown, 2008: 45).

(6) Today there are more than 400 large cities, and 20 mega-cities with more than 10 million inhabitants ”(Brown, 2008: 49)

(7) According to Brown (2008: 36-37), this was caused by three trends: i) the irrigated area of ​​the world grew three times, ii) the use of fertilizers increased tenfold and; iii) the rapid spread of high-yielding seed varieties.

(8) Today fresh fruits and vegetables are mobilized by air, when the traditional has been the transport by boat, of basic foods, such as wheat or other grains.

(9) With each export of food, large amounts of plant nutrients are exported: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The production of flowers from the Sabana de Bogotá, not only exports nutrients but also water, is also the case of ethanol produced from sugarcane, or bananas from Ecuador, Colombia or Central America.

(10) Klare, Michael, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, New York, Metropolitan Books - Henry Holt and Company, 2008

(11) Bullón Miró, Fernando, The world before peak oil, January 2006, In

(12) For Michael Klare (2008), an aspect to consider is the spectacular increase in the price of crude oil, which in 2007 exceeded the barrier of the 80s, later reaching, in 2008, the value of 140 dollars, a figure never imagined, and although prices have dropped, they are far from 2001 prices.

(13) A study was carried out by the International Energy Agency (IEA), affiliated with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, considers that the oil industry will be limited, in the coming years, to guarantee the growing demand from emerging economies, among many things, due to production difficulties in old fields. The other report, "Facing the Hard Truths About Energy", was prepared by the National Petroleum Council (NPC) believes that while there is oil for the needs, there is abundant obstacles to the development and distribution of these resources, including geopolitical and technical, therefore urgently require appropriate policies and practices to address them (Klare, 2008 :).

(14) Klare considers that a large part of the oil reserves are in dangerous and hostile environments for the West, referring to the reserves in Central Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and in difficult environmental borders such as the Arctic region (2008: 41).

(15) Klare, Michael T. Beyond the Age of Petroleum, 2007 In

(16) Heinberg, Richard, Peak everything, Museletter 185, September 2007

(17) Projections for world production of “liquids” would reach 117.7 million barrels of oil equivalents (MBOE) per day in 2030, which would be just enough to satisfy the anticipated demand, 117.0 mboe per day ( Klare, 2007).

(18) The Department of Energy announced guarantees totaling $ 385 million for the construction of six pilot plants to process cellulosic ethanol. In 2012, these “biorefineries” will produce more than 590 million liters per year of cellulosic ethanol.

(19) The extraction of bitumen from the Canadian tar sands requires large amounts of energy to convert it into liquid, emitting three times more greenhouse gases than conventional oil production; the resulting process leaves contaminated water sources and desert landscapes in the way. On the other hand, the only way to produce bitumen shale is to strip-mine a vast virgin area and heat the rock to 500 degrees Celsius, creating mountains of waste in the process.

(20) A new mechanism to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation in developing countries, known as REDD, is being negotiated in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

(21) Global Forest Coalition, Rights, Equity, Development, Deforestation and Government by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities. In Pg. 2


(23) Geologist specializing in geophysics who worked for Shell and later for the United States Geological Survey.

(24) Brown, Lester, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, Earth Policy Institute, 2008.


- Brown, Lester, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, Earth Policy Institute, 2008.

- Bullón Miró, Fernando, The world before peak oil, January 2006.


- Global Forest Coalition, Rights, Equity, Development, Deforestation and Government by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities. In

- Heinberg, Richard, Peak everything, Museletter 185, September 2007

- Klare, Michael T. Beyond the Age of Petroleum, 2007 In

- Klare, Michael, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, New York, Metropolitan Books - Henry Holt and Company, 2008

Websites visited

Video: TTW middle maze (May 2021).