Preamble: The Twenty-First Century

There are only a few more years left of the present century, and we face the next one with a mixture of anticipation and foreboding. Will a new age of universal enlightenment and material prosperity dawn? or will the pendulum swing back towards a dark age? Or will it swing in some new direction? and if so, which? These are questions that occupy the thinking mind because there are so many conflicting sign posts.

The brilliant financier, philosopher and philanthropist, George Soros, divides the world into Open and Closed Societies. Certainly, the Open Society has been gaining strength as the present century unfolded. People who live in America, Britain, and France, amongst others, have enjoyed Open Societies for longer than this century, but they have had to fight. The threats of Fascism and its successor Communism have been seen off. Even socialism with its ideal of a state-run utopia has been eclipsed. Open Societies are being cemented in Latin America, the East and more tentatively elsewhere. But Closed Societies remain: none more powerful and important that those of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Kuwait that are driven by a curious mix of oil revenue and religion. There are relic Communist regimes in Cuba, China, Burma and North Viet Nam, and who knows what may arise from the ashes of the former Soviet empire. Nationalist and tribal pressures close several African societies and are a threat everywhere, even in Ireland.

Most people have come to accept that the Open Society is a good way to go. Its freedoms of expression have released Man's creative talents in science and technology that have given rise to a remarkable epoch of material prosperity for many people. Those that don't have it, aspire to it. It has also stimulated a cultural flowering in many areas. But the very nature of an Open Society means that people generally lack a clear direction or a spiritual aim: they just successfully muddle along within a positive environment, which they accept as a normal way of life. They have flourished without being driven even though they lack an overriding objective with which to motivate their lives. In a way this is the other side of the coin and could undermine the foundations of Open Societies: much gets better but much gets worse. Urban degradation and the global increase in crime and violence are obvious concerns.

Rampant Consumerism

The Open Society's successful economic formula, which is built around the now unchallenged capitalist ethic, has led to the opening of global trade and financial markets. Everything is changing hands and doing it so quickly that there is barely time to plant the tree before it is time to pick the apples. It has spawned what could be called the age of consumerism that reaches the threshold of mindless consumerism. It affects everyone. The Borneo native wants to trade in his paddle for an outboard engine, and many have done so. As its name implies, it consumes resources, and also creates waste on an enormous scale. People like new things, as children like new toys even if they don't play with them for long. It is becoming quite evident that this consumeristic spasm cannot go on indefinitely. Already, it is being asked if the world has enough resources to sustain it or enough room for the garbage tips. They also begin to ask if it was such a good idea in the first place. They ask how vulnerable they are and what changes can come about.

When we look at the resources that are being denuded, our attention is perhaps caught by the rain forests with the mental image of those fine trees being felled along with the nests of the parrots which live in them and the homes of the indigenous people below them. The more scientifically minded may think of the loss of bio-diversity that is eroding the gene bank on which we depend. But when we come down to the most elementary concern, it is for energy. Energy is the lifeblood of the consumer boom. And almost all of what is presently used comes from finite resources of fossil fuels, formed long ago in the geological past and then only under very exceptional conditions. Coal, oil, natural gas and uranium for nuclear energy all have that in common. Of these, the most at risk is oil. Without it the tractor could not plough the fields nor would there be transport to take either the food or us to market. Manufacturing and trade, as we know it, would grind to a stop without oil. Yet every time we fill up the tank with gasoline, there is that much less left for the future. It is being depleted and is not being replaced. We need to concentrate on the availability of oil as a matter of urgency.

The Age of Oil

The Twentieth Century has been the age of oil: nothing else has had such an influence on forging the life we know. It is hard to think of anything that is not directly or indirectly linked to an abundant flow of cheap oil-based energy. The first wells were drilled for oil in the 1850s. The fuel they provided was used mainly for lighting. The paraffin lamp revolutionized the world adding a useable evening to the working day: no longer did people have to go to bed when the sun went down. Then on July 3 1886, Karl Benz in Germany powered the first automobile with the internal combustion engine. The meaning of the term horse-power changed, and the automobile developed an unquenchable thirst for oil. The great oil industry was born, and production began its heady climb that continued unabated for the first seventy years of the century, swamping the world with cheap oil from the new fields being opened up around the world, but especially in the now Closed Societies of the Middle East. Those halcyon days however ended and have been followed by a transition. Discovery tailed off; the ownership of oil passed from the international companies to the producing governments; two oil price shocks and a glut demonstrated how politicized the supply had become. Demand also levelled off as efficiency improved with such developments as the jet engine. But the burgeoning world population, however underprivileged many of them may be, means that there is no end in sight for the demand for cheap oil. A quarter of the world's population live in China. Imagine how much oil they would need to exchange the bicycle for a moped. Can the world's thirst be met? Not for long is the short answer.

The Sustainable Dimension

The two poles of Open and Closed Societies are not the only ones. The pendulum need not swing between them, but could take off in a different direction. Not only can it, but it of needs must, because the exponential growth of consumerism is clearly unsustainable in a world of finite resources. The arguments for moving into a more sustainable dimension are compelling because it is so inevitable. By definition, Man will sustain himself for his allotted span. He has no other option. So, the issue is not so much about the intrinsic merits of sustainability but about the practical steps, means and above all timetable by which we reach this goal. Today, no one in the developed countries cares as they shuffle down the shopping malls. They are only vaguely aware that there is or might be a cloud on the horizon. Their lives are closer to home to turn up the heating, or the air conditioning, to get to work, to insure their growing possessions against theft and wait for the next pay check. In the rest of the world, they are trying somehow to survive in an increasingly artificial economy that tries to mimic the apparent progress of the developed. It is a depressing kind of apathy and self-denial, however much consumerism titillates the palate. Yet it is not a hopeless situation. There remains, despite the ravages, a huge dynamism that can be mobilized, as demagogues who exploit for their purposes demonstrate. People are susceptible to causes that rise above the daily round of their lives. They long to know where they are aimed. Once motivated they often achieve great things. We need somehow to capture this latent enthusiasm which is in fact an enthusiasm for survival. We are going to try to use the power of Internet to open the door.


Internet is a feature of the Open Society that thrives on the exchange of information. It links the world and is an ideal way by which to convey information and ideas on this important subject. There are two critical issues to address:

They deserve everyone's attention. We need to open the debate, stimulate ideas, gather information, and find out what specialists think. If we understood the problem we would be well on the way to a solution.

The issue of resource depletion is a wide one, but a good starting point is to assess the oil supply situation, given the critical role of cheap oil-based energy to the world's economy. We have accordingly searched the literature for information and have identified specialists who can give objective assessments, free of the pressure of vested interests in industry or government. For a start, we have asked Dr. C.J.Campbell, who has published widely on this very subject, to provide a preliminary synthesis.

We then invite the reader to consider some of the solutions. We seek practical transitional solutions that can be put in place before the oil supply shortfall bites in earnest. As much as anything, we need to alter mental attitudes such that everyone in society can understand how he can contribute and benefit. Above all, everyone needs to know what preparations he can himself make of direct interest to himself. To be fore-warned is to be fore-armed. As Mr. Swenson and his colleagues explain, there is much that can be done already that makes sense even before the pending and inevitable rise in oil prices. They have wide application and can be adapted to different environments. So there is something in it for you, whether you live in California, north Norway or an Indian village. Those who begin to understand the way forward will see increasing opportunities and will undoubtedly have a great advantage over those who continue to live in the past, oblivious of the changes that will affect their lives so radically.

It is a beginning. We invite you to participate in the debate to exchange ideas and experiences, ask questions and search for answers. Two-way communication is the power of Internet. Please contribute.

Colin J. Campbell

updated 2000 March 1