The Collapse of the Old Oil Order. How the Petroleum Age Will End
by Michael T. Klare
March 7, 2011
The price of gas at the pump is now averaging $3.65 a gallon in California and has already edged up to $4 in San Francisco and Chicago. Nationwide, it’s at $3.38, a 20-cent rise in the last week (six cents last Friday alone). Meanwhile, in testimony before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke spoke optimistically of the economy and dismissed the impact of soaring oil prices, spurred by turmoil in the Middle East. “The most likely outcome,” he said, “is that the recent rise in commodity prices will lead to, at most, a temporary and relatively modest increase in U.S. consumer price inflation.”
Of course, let’s take it for granted that no one inside Washington’s Beltway has to fill his or her own car with gas. For them, pain at the pump may indeed feel “temporary and relatively modest.” Tell that, however, to the official 9% of unemployed Americans who still have to drive a car in what Bernanke and everyone else who isn’t suffering seems to agree is not a recession. (In 1940, the last year of the Great Depression, the unemployment rate was at 14.6% — and in those days they still hadn’t stopped counting people too discouraged to look for work.) In that light, consider what’s already happening at the pump as the lifestyle equivalent of murder and now imagine that, by summer (if not significantly earlier), the price of a gallon of gas nationwide may, as just before the 2008 global economic meltdown, close in on the $4 a gallon mark and perhaps still be rising.
After all, oil fears have, as the New York Times business page put it recently, “rattle[d] the oil world” — and there are already the first fearful mutterings about a coming “oil shock” or even a $5 price at the pump. With good reason. Middle East oil supplies are now far more vulnerable to every kind of disruption, including sabotage, than most people realize. As Juan Cole wrote recently, “Workers in the [Persian] Gulf unhappy with their lives, unlike Wisconsin school teachers, can fairly easily disrupt the economy if they choose.” And keep in mind that that’s only the short-range view. If you happen to be energy expert Michael Klare, TomDispatch regular, author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet, and a man perpetually ahead of the curve when it comes to a future of limited resources, you know that this is just the beginning of the end of the oil age and part of our rude entry into a world of extreme energy. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Klare explains how resource scarcity is driving protest and much else on our planet, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom Dispatch Editor
Whatever the outcome of the protests, uprisings, and rebellions now sweeping the Middle East, one thing is guaranteed: the world of oil will be permanently transformed. Consider everything that’s now happening as just the first tremor of an oilquake that will shake our world to its core.
For a century stretching back to the discovery of oil in southwestern Persia before World War I, Western powers have repeatedly intervened in the Middle East to ensure the survival of authoritarian governments devoted to producing petroleum. Without such interventions, the expansion of Western economies after World War II and the current affluence of industrialized societies would be inconceivable.