Johann Hari: The fantasies of these petrol protesters and the realities of our dwindling oil supplies

My lifetime is going to consist of a bad-tempered and bloody squabble over the remaining oil
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The Independent Online

For a generation now, we have been working on the unspoken assumption that the economic tsunami of 1973 and its oil price spike was a one-off historical blip, a weird, never-to-be- repeated event tied to the internal squabbles of the Middle East. After a moment of shock, we quickly resumed the cheap fossil fuel-burning party with a manic jig, as if the Arab neighbour hadn't turned the music down at all.

At the time, a few brave politicians - most notably President Jimmy Carter - tried to warn the denizens of the West that any apparent return to normality would only be a soothing delusion. We are, he announced from the Oval Office, approaching a semi-permanent energy crisis: oil supplies will become more and more disrupted and disputed, and will eventually dribble down to nothing. Preparing alternative clean sources of fuel was "the moral equivalent of war" and "a national emergency". (Compare that to the global warming-denying blather of the Bush-Halliburton White House and pass the gasoline for me to drink.)

If North Sea oil had not been discovered, we would have been forced to confront this message in the 1980s or face intermittent (and crippling) oil disruption. But Britain's windfall bought the developed world another 20 years of shiny petrol forecourts and denial (not to mention millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions). Only now are the long-delayed storm clouds becoming clear on the horizon again, each representing another oil shock in waiting.

As of 2004, we have used up half of the planet's oil. That was the easy-to-find, easy-to-sell black gold. It's gone. It's spent. My lifetime is inevitably going to consist of a bad-tempered and bloody squabble over the remaining pools, which are located in some of the most politically volatile neighbourhoods around. For example, an Arabian revolution against "our friends" in the depraved House of Saud is looking increasingly likely in the next few decades. The Middle East itself sits on a political faultline, and nobody knows what the inevitable earthquake will look like - democratic, Islamist or a bit of both? Either is a recipe for a string of 1973s as these new governments try to reclaim their oil from foreign corporate control, Venezuela-style. And the battles happening on top of the world's oilfields are coinciding with rising global temperatures, an increase in extreme weather events, and - unless our denial is very deep - a growing awareness that this is due to our chronic petrol addiction.

So what will the political reaction to the stuttering end of the fossil-fuel era - whose symptoms we can already trace in the wake of the current disruption caused by Katrina - look like? You can see one response if you nip out to your local petrol refinery today: uncomprehending rage. The fuel protesters block out the planet, refuse to see the wider context, and focus on the tax imposed by government on petrol. Their solution to oil disruptions is simple: Brown should slash the tax rates as the oil price rises, so that the price at the pump stays stable.

But this is a call for the Government to make us all complicit in denying reality for another generation. They want Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to create a political lullaby that tells us the oil will always be there and no shock need ever worry our pretty little heads. But sooner or later, even these protesters will have to realise that no government can create a bubble where the petrol flows forever like it's 1999.

If Tony Blair and Gordon Brown want seriously to confront both the oil shortage and global warming, they should dig out Jimmy Carter's proposals in the midst of the last oil shocks. They are already belatedly following his plans to develop alternative energy sources, pushing ahead with wind farms and offering some cash for research into harvesting energy from the oceans. But it's hardly enough: last year Britain's carbon emissions actually rose for the first time since Labour came to power, putting us at risk of missing even the very moderate targets set out in Kyoto. If Blair really meant those impassioned speeches about climate change, he can come out fighting now, pledge more cash and echo Carter's warning that this is as urgent as any war for survival.

Another Carteresque proposal could be introduced very quickly. He imposed strict regulations to force car manufacturers to improve the miles per gallon achieved by every car. For a few years it worked, and far less petrol was squandered on inefficient machines - but then the SUV sharked into the US consumer market. They burn four times as much fuel to travel the same distance, but the Reagan administration let them escape Carter's regulations by classifying them as "trucks". So while factories, industries and homes moved in the right direction and cut harmful emissions, drivers have shot off in the opposite direction. Britain has followed the same dismal pattern, with Chelsea tractors making up one in seven of all automobiles sold in London.

Now that we are going to confront depleted and volatile oil supplies (along with the terrible effects of oil use on the climate) from here on in, is it really wise to pour so much of our remaining petrol supplies down the drain by tolerating SUVs? There have been warnings over the past week that, if the current fuel protests spiral like the 2000 ones, the Government will have to introduce rationing of oil. Fine: exclude the SUVs. Don't let people who choose pointlessly to burn four times as much petrol as other drivers (and more than 20 times more than those of us who stick to public transport) fill up at all during a shortage.

And - once these protests are over - the New Economics Foundation think-tank has a great suggestion to make anti-SUV gains permanent. You don't have to ban them outright - you simply have to slap the drivers with the hard reality of their choices. How? Require every SUV to carry a large health warning on its side like the warning on a pack of cigarettes. Every SUV door should contain the full-size sign: "This car is an environmental disaster" or "Global warming kills" or "The world' s petrol is running out and I'm burning it four times faster than you". See how many yummy mummies want to drive them then. This is only one of a broad menu of policies we'll need - but it might offer a psychological oil shock, alerting us to the need for change.

Whatever the petrol pro-testers screech over the next week, we cannot continue dousing our societies in gasoline as the supply becomes ever more erratic, unreliable and toxic for the planet. If we don't change, the shocks will keep on coming.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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