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Commentary :: Environment
Exponential Growth: A Dogma to be Overcome
08 Apr 2008
Energy will become more expensive and unaffordable for a large part of humanity. If the american way of life is non-negotiable, the Iraq war will be the prelude and not the end of resource wars. The name of the sickness is exponential growth.

Is Crude Oil an Essential for Life?

By Wolfgang Blendinger and Klaus Bitzer

[This article published in: Zeit-Fragen Nr. 11, 3/10/2008 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, Wolfgang Blendinger is a professor of oil geology at the Technical University of Clausthal and Klaus Bitzer is a professor of geology at the University of Bayreuth.]

“How long will the oil last?” This question is often posed to oil geologists. The answer to this question is simple and startling: for ever!

But don’t we have a problem given the high price of oil, the slogan “Exodus from oil!” and the discussion about alternatives?

This question must be formulated differently because a very different problematic underlies this query: How long will the cheap oil last and for how many people? This cheap oil raised our standard of living dramatically in the last decades. The answers to these questions from the “official” side are also very simple: “40 years ago people thought oil would last 40 years and today we still have reserves for 40 years.” [1]

Is this right?

The answer is no longer so simple. First of all, “oil reserves” must be defined. This is complicated because very different types of crude oil are distinguished according to density, viscosity and modes of occurrence. Oil does not appear freely on the earth’s surface but must be sought underground and then produced at great cost. Oil is easily exploited in many places of the earth and only with great effort in other places, for example in oceanic areas. In addition, so-called tar sand can first be processed into crude oil through costly processes, the so-called oil shale that doesn’t contain oil but merely a preliminary stage, so-called kerosene.


When all these occurrences are included in the reserve calculation, the claim of “40 years” is undoubtedly correct and is even pessimistic. However a reserve calculation is only sensible when the shares of the different types of oil are distinguished. We need cheap oil to drive cars and fly on our vacations, heat our homes and inexpensively run different industrial processes.

Oil must be first found before it can be produced. The peak in discovering new cheap, easily producible oil was 40 years ago! Since then, new discoveries have rapidly diminished. The demand for cheap oil has not risen but has even declined slightly. Geologists describe maximum production as “peak oil” according to the worldwide production curve that resembles a (rather deformed) bell shape. The descending arc of the curve is technically over; the descending arc can be concretely defined. The optimal exploitation of an oil field with a specific number of drillings can be outlined. Oil production in every field decreases more or less continuously. The longer the production lasts, the higher the share of water (or gas) that streams in the probes. This is a simple phenomenon of mass balance. What is taken from the subsoil must be replaced by something else (above all water existing in abundance in rock spores). Because how much “cheap,” easily producible oil was found in the past is known, the moment of maximum production can also be determined – with a margin of error of a few years. Whether this will be in 2005, 2011 or 2015 is unimportant. Production falls more or less continuously after maximum production. That is inescapable physics.

Thus the question is: How long will cheap oil last? It doesn’t look good. Still there are alternatives: the so-called “unconventional oil,” from the oceans, the tar sand and oil-shale. However all these alternatives are not in the same category as cheap oil. They are hard to produce. The reserves are relatively small and lie in hardly accessible oceanic areas or can only be syntheticized in trifling quantities – as a percentage of total worldwide production, for example the oil from tar-sand or from oil shale whose production is absurd. More energy must be expended in production than can be reaped in the produced oil.


The statement “There is enough oil for the next 40 years” is nonsense – regarding cheap oil. This conjecture is based on the unproven optimistic assumption that future technical progress will make production of unconventional reserves as simple as cheap oil. This assumption is an illusion. “Oil” will never “run out.” Still the question remains: How many people will have cheap energy? The answer is clear with an increasing world population and decreasing cheap oil production.

With an increase of the world population from 6.8 billion today to more than 9 billion in 2050, the energy need will not be covered by “cheap” oil any more. Energy will become more expensive and unaffordable for a large part of humanity. Access to energy will define the relations between producer- and consumer countries more strongly than in the past. If the “American way of life” is really non-negotiable as the Bush administration declares, the Iraq war is more the prelude than the end of resource wars.


The disappearance of cheap oil is ultimately based on the competition between food production and bio-energy leading to higher food prices and already forcing cuts in UN food programs. [2] If this continues as in the past, not a straw will be left for other living creatures and for stilling our energy hunger. The cruel consequences of this disastrous course cannot be clearer than in another example: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” [3] The production of bio-energy is a step to the cannibalization of our environment.

Food, energy and mobility are not the only central issues impacted by the loss of cheap energy. The distribution of energy within societies contains a potential conflict that can hardly be estimated but occasionally glimmers through the surface of seemingly functioning societies as recently in Italy and a few years ago in Great Britain. The strain on western democracies will first be manifest when gas coupons are introduced and heating oil is permanently rationed.

These reflections are not prophesies of doom or gloomy predictions. In a statement in February 2004 on the future energy supply, Jersen van der Veer, chairperson of Shell, said we face the decision today to make inevitable changes in our energy consumption either through a planned development (“blueprint”) or a ruthless scramble. In 2015, the supply of easily produced crude oil and natural gas will no longer keep up with the demand. The result of the changeover process will be the same: soon the world will have to manage with much less fossil energy than today.


How economic habits and life customs should be changed and optimized in the near future so the end of cheap oil will not be a far-reaching breach in humanity’s history can hardly be foreseen. The hope for innovation, technical progress and human adaptability will not solve the fundamental problem of limited resources as long as the cause of suffering is not tackled. The name of the sickness is “exponential growth.” The drying up of cheap oil offers a chance for recognizing the deadly course of this sickness. There will be no “healing” as long as other living beings lose their right to exist in favor of a growing world production and as long as every earthling sees his life goal in accumulating more and more largely useless things.

Are there no alternatives? It is hard to imagine a world with electric cars when the electricity supply reaches its limit in many places. If one looks back to the time before the exploitation of fossil energy, the energy future may not look so depressing. For millennia, people lived without crude oil and did not perish for want of gas, diesel and kerosene. Whether this is possible today in times of a world population ten to 15-times the biological carrying-capacity of the earth can certainly be doubted. Crude oil – as we largely waste it today – is not essential to life. The exciting question regarding the future energy supply is: Will the growth dogma be overcome?


1 Informationsstelle Heizöl: Wie weit reicht unser Öl?
(Anmerkung der Autoren: […] «unser Öl» […]: die Schweiz, ebenso wie viele EU-Länder, verfügt über vernachlässigbare Ölvorkommen. Es wird eben davon ausgegangen, dass etwa das OPEC- oder das russische Öl «unser Öl» ist […])
2 Spiegel Online: Gestiegene Lebensmittelpreise: Der Kampf um die Nahrung, 25.2.2008,1518,537634,00.html
3 Die Bibel (Lutherbibel 1912), Kapitel 1, Die Schöpfung
4 Stellungnahme von Jeroen van der Veer (Shell) zur künftigen Energieversorgung:
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