Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

U.S. on 'monorail with a cliff at the end,' UA prof warns

U.S. on 'monorail with a cliff at the end,' UA prof warns

The Arizona Republic
Apr. 13, 2008 10:37 PM
Guy R. McPherson is professor of conservation biology at the University of Arizona.

McPherson was the guest last week on Live Talk Wednesday, discussing dwindling oil supplies and what awaits the American Empire. Here are excerpts from the interview, which can be found in its entirety at aztalk.azcentral.com.

Educated in the ecology and management of natural resources, McPherson increasingly has focused his scholarly efforts on social criticism with an emphasis on environmental protection, social justice and the human economy. He has written more than 100 scholarly papers and seven books, with another set for publication this year.

During his 20-year career, McPherson has been employed by several academic institutions and the Nature Conservancy. He has a bachelor's degree in forest resources from the University of Idaho, a master's degree in range science from Texas Tech University and a doctorate in range science from Texas Tech.

You can find his blog, Nature Bats Last, at: blog.ltc.arizona.edu/nature batslast/

1. In your April 6 Viewpoints essay ("End of the world as we know it"), you write about some pretty frightening things: $400 for a barrel of oil soon, our oil supply running out in 30 years, the modern world coming to a screeching halt because of a lack of energy. How much of this do you actually believe? And how much is a scare tactic to get our attention?

I believe everything I wrote. I am trying to inform people, not scare them. I do not benefit from peak oil or spreading the word about it. Indeed, it will cost me my 401(k), my 403(b), and the job I love, and writing about it has been costly to my so-called career. And then there's the consequent hate mail ...

2. All three presidential candidates - Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and Republican John McCain - are in favor of energy diversification and committed to battling global warming. So aren't we, as a nation, finally getting on the right track?

First and foremost, all three viable candidates support economic growth, which strongly depends on the use of oil. They all support increasing efficiency, but not conservation. Conservation is political suicide, as Jimmy Carter discovered. The track we're on is a monorail with a cliff at the end.

3. What needs to happen to avoid a complete meltdown of the "American Empire," as you call it? And do you believe there is still time to avoid what you refer to as "the post-industrial Stone Age"?

First, let me explain Empire: We exploit humans and resources, often with extreme violence, to provide Americans with indulgences beyond belief to most people.

Had we started the project of powering down at least 30 years ago, there might still be time. At this point, I cannot imagine any steps that could allow us to avoid a meltdown of the economy or a relatively rapid transition into the post-industrial Stone Age. We depend on abundant, inexpensive oil for delivery of food, water, shelter, and health care. The days of abundant, inexpensive oil are behind us. The American Empire will soon run its course.

I am hopeful we can save a few tens of millions of Americans. But we will need to make massive changes in our entire way of life, starting immediately. We must abandon the project of globalization and its attendant indulgences, for example, and focus on saving lives.

4. What personal measures do you take for conservation? And what personal measures do you recommend others take as a way to individually contribute to a sustainable energy future? And does it really matter or must everything be done on a grander, global scale?

I drive a compact, hybrid-electric car. I live in a small, old rental house less than two blocks from the University of Arizona, where I work. I buy only what I need, and I check labels with care. I avoid eating meat because vegetarianism saves water and energy. I use compact-fluorescent bulbs in my house. And so on, totaling dozens or perhaps hundreds of daily decisions.

Ultimately, none of these actions matter at all. My lifestyle has virtually no impact on the global system. I'd be willing to bet the U.S. military uses more oil in a weekend than I will use in my entire life, and corporate CEOs and politicians who control this country are firmly committed to maintaining the status quo, regardless of the costs to us, other cultures and species, or future generations.

5. Are you a firm believer in solar energy? They say the technology isn't quite there yet, but perhaps if the investment happens the technology will follow? Arizona seems to be missing out on a possible bright future here, if you pardon the pun.

I was a firm believer in solar, wind, and geothermal energy until a few years ago, and I still believe they will help individuals. But no combination of these "renewable" technologies will make a notable difference at the level of 300 million Americans, much less the 6.5 billion people in the world.

Consider the vaunted Canadian tar sands, for example: They currently use abundant energy and clean water to produce less than 2 million barrels of oil each day, and the goal is to reach nearly 5 million barrels per day by 2020.

We currently produce more than 70 million barrels per day at the global level, and demand is outstripping supply. By 2020, demand is projected at more than 110 million barrels per day. The wished-for 5 million barrels per day from the tar sands is a drop in the ocean, too little and too late to prevent our descent into the Stone Age.


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