Johann Hari: We all live in an oil slick now

Step by step, US politicians on all sides become an oiligarchy that sees moving off petrol as irrational: turning off the spigot would turn off their election funds

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Has our crude awakening begun, at last? It's not just the pelicans of Louisiana that are flapping and flailing in an oil slick – it's all of us. We live permanently doused in petrol. Every time we move further than our feet can carry us, or eat food we didn't grow, or go shopping, we burn more barrels. Petrol pours off each of us like an invisible sweat. The 20th century was propelled into the stratosphere on a great gushing geyser of oil, and nobody wanted to ask where it was coming from, or what it would cost us in the end.

But in this decade, the true costs of oil – steadily accumulating since 1901 – have begun to finally distract our gaze from the speed-dial. They now silently dominate almost every long-term question we face.

Extracting oil from the ground has always been disastrous for the people who live nearby. The only thing that is unusual about this morphing of "Drill, Baby, Drill" into "Spill, Baby, Spill" is that, this time, the world noticed the victims. To pluck one random example, in Ecuador the petrol companies have to pump water into the Amazonian oil fields in order to extract it. This leaves behind a toxic soup of mercury, benzene and chromium 6. For decades, it was simply pumped into the local rivers – causing an epidemic of cancers and severely deformed babies. A US court calculated that the unpaid liabilities for destroying so many lives could total more than $27bn. Who has heard of it?

Big Oil is occasionally, fleetingly, honest about how it works. Sadad al-Husseini was vice-president for exploration and production at Saudi Aramco, and in an interview for the book Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil by Peter Maass, he said of the industry: "If you have an offshore platform that is beyond the boundaries of a certain country and you can dump chemicals into the sea, you do. If you have to abandon a facility that is a pollutant, you abandon it without cleaning it up. If you've hired people and you can work them in unhealthy environments where you've got sulphur dioxide, you do it. All these are ways in which you say, it's not my problem. It's not my cost."

This will only metastasise from here on in, because we have already burned up all the easy-to-access oil. The last year in which humans found more oil than we used was the year I was born: 1979. The sources that remain are in hard-to-reach places: far beneath the oceans, or the Arctic, or beneath conflict zones, where accidents are more likely and even harder to staunch.

But it is now clear that the trashing of local environments was only a taster: when it burns, oil spills so many warming gases into the atmosphere that it radically alters the climate. The Arctic just hit its lowest level of sea ice for this time of year since records began, and Nasa says 2010 could be the hottest year on record. The International Energy Agency warns that if we can extract and burn the remaining oil left, we will be on course for 6 degrees of global warming – a level that hasn't been seen for 251 million years, when it triggered one of the biggest mass extinctions in the fossil record.

The people who say we shouldn't worry about global warming because we'll find a way to adapt further down the line should look again at the Gulf of Mexico. The most powerful country on earth can't stop a single leaking pipe. How will anyone deal with rapidly rising sea levels, the drying up of agricultural land, and super-charged hurricanes?

Oil fever been driving the other great stories of this century. The demand for petrol is massively increasing, just as supply gets harder to meet – so we will fight for what remains. The invasion of Iraq, which has caused a million deaths and created a further army of jihadists, was a down payment on this dystopia. It also leads our governments to support some of the world's worst dictators in return for easy access: when we pay the Saudi dictatorship, they in turn use the cash to whip women who dare to sit behind the wheel of a car and to promote vile fundamentalist hatred of us.

As our supply becomes more squeezed, we will become even more like junkies who are prepared to suck up to any dealer or rob anyone to get our next fix. In the film Three Days of the Condor, Robert Redford says free people will never back wars for oil. His CIA boss replies: "Ask 'em when they're running out. Ask 'em when there's no heat in their homes and they're cold. Ask 'em when their engines stop. You wanna know something? They won't want us to ask 'em. They'll just want us to get it for 'em."

But it doesn't have to be this way. We can stop this SUV. It wouldn't even be that hard, compared to the challenges faced by previous generations. The technologies exist to replace oil now. For example, if we lined just 0.3 per cent of the Sahara with solar technology, it would meet all of Europe's energy needs indefinitely. There are companies raring to go. Yes, it's expensive, but we are already spending that money on making the dirtiest fuels cheaper. Oil Change International have shown that $250-400bn is currently spent every year subsidising the use of fossil fuels, while renewable energy sources get less than $12bn. Switch the money and you're almost there – and you have a massive jobs programme to rebuild our infrastructure thrown in for free.

We will have to make this switch in the end, because the oil will run out. The only question is – do we do it now, skipping all the wars and all the warming, or do we wait to do it on a trashed and unraveling globe?

As long ago as 1979, Jimmy Carter gave a devastating speech saying that the need for the West to wean itself off oil was "the moral equivalent of war". So why did nothing happen? Why have petrol stations become our churches, the one holy place we will not allow to be questioned?

A clue to the biggest cause lies in the current Gulf disaster. The oil companies gave so many "gifts" to the safety inspectors that, by this year, they were often just handed the inspection forms and told to fill them in themselves. On the national stage in the US, politicians on all sides (including Barack Obama) are sprayed with petro-money at election time. Step by step, they become an oiligarchy that sees moving beyond petrol as irrational: turning off the spigot would turn off their election funds. A more subtle but just as certain process happens here in Europe. Politics becomes a broken pipeline, in which the public interest leaks away.

And so we are all left slithering in the global oil slick. Yet the anger of the sane citizenry – those of us who don't want to engage in collective self-destruction – has been weirdly muted. Most of us know that we can't carry on like this, but it is still much more common to see protests for cheap oil than to see protests to build a world beyond it. The Climate Camp protests in London this week were a rare and inspiring exception: they need reinforcements, fast.

The oilman John Paul Getty once quipped: "The meek will inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights." If the sane majority who know we need to transcend oil remain so meek, we may not inherit much worth having at all.

For further reading

'Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil', by Peter Maass (Knopf, 2009); 'The End of Oil', by Paul Roberts (Houghton-Mifflin, 2004)

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