Saturday, September 26, 2009

What Comes After Oil

This passage, from a review of Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil, by Peter Maass, sums up the message of that book:

Oil is the curse of the modern world; it is “the devil’s excrement,” in the words of the former Venezuelan oil minister Juan Pablo PĂ©rez Alfonzo, who is considered to be the father of OPEC and should know. Our insatiable need for oil has brought us global warming, Islamic fundamentalism and environmental depredation. It has turned the United States and China, the world’s biggest consumers of petroleum, into greedy, irresponsible addicts that can’t see beyond their next fix. With a few exceptions, like Norway and the United Arab Emirates, oil doesn’t even benefit the nations from which it is extracted. On the contrary: Most oil-rich states have been doomed to a seemingly permanent condition of kleptocracy by a few, poverty for the rest, chronic backwardness and, worst of all, the loss of a national soul.

We can’t be rid of the stuff soon enough.

This point is echoed by Michael Specter, at the end of his fascinating but scary New Yorker piece about synthetic biology:

The hydrocarbons we burn for fuel are believed to be nothing more than concentrated sunlight that has been collected by leaves and trees. Organic matter rots, bacteria break it down, and it moves underground, where, after millions of years of pressure, it turns into oil and coal. At that point, we dig it up—at huge expense and with disastrous environmental consequences. Across the globe, on land and sea, we sink wells and lay pipe to ferry our energy to giant refineries. That has been the industrial model of development, and it worked for nearly two centuries. It won’t work any longer.

What's ahead, according to Specter and the scientists he talks to, is a world in which scientists, wielding DNA like Lego building blocks, wrest the reins of creation from God and evolution:

The industrial age is drawing to a close, eventually to be replaced by an era of biological engineering.... “We are going to start domesticating bacteria to process stuff inside enclosed reactors to produce energy in a far more clean and efficient manner. This is just the beginning stage of being able to program life.”

This all sounds eerily reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's dystopian
Oryx and Crake and her new novel The Year of the Flood, neither of which I have read, but both of which imagine future worlds radically distorted by genetic engineering.

As Atwood puts it in this Times profile:

“We’ve just opened the biggest toy box in the world, which is the genetic code.... We can tinker and produce great things; we can tinker and produce horrible things.”

Like Atwood, I fear that what we come up with to replace oil will be even worse.

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