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Middle Eastern

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Oil, CO2 and Undershirts

4 February 2011

Oil, CO2 and Undershirts

By Gwynne Dyer

There is an extraordinary disconnect between what the experts write about oil prices, and what is likely to happen out in the real world. The pundits inhabit an economist’s perfect dream-world, where oil prices respond to changes in supply and demand that are driven mainly by production costs and economic conditions. In the real world, it’s a lot more complex.

The question of price is back on the table, because oil just broke through the $100-per-barrel level for the second time in history. (The first time was July, 2008, when it briefly reached $147 per barrel before falling back to a low of $33 the following December.) But the experts have concluded that this time, cheap oil is never coming back.

A typical offering was a document published by the oil industry giant BP a couple of weeks ago. “BP Energy Outlook 2030″ forecast that fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal – will still account for 80 percent of primary energy worldwide in 2030.

Moreover, total world energy consumption will grow very fast. Demand in the developed countries will not grow by much, if at all, in the next twenty years, but it will rise by almost two-thirds in the larger economies of the developing world, notably China’s and India’s.

If 80 percent of the energy mix is still fossil fuels in twenty years’ time, then the amount that the world burns will have to rise, too. Oil currently accounts for 35 percent of primary energy in the world, and if that ratio persists then the we’re going to need a lot more of the stuff. That means the price will go up and stay up.

Finding new oil will get more expensive, for the cheap, “sweet” oil in easy-to-reach places was developed first. Most of the new oil will be found under the sea, or in the Arctic, or trapped in tar sands in Canada and Venezuela, or it will be “sour” oil with a high sulphur content. The price per barrel has to be high to make it worthwhile to develop those resources – but it WILL stay high, because the demand for oil is going to rise so steeply.

Or so it says in “BP Energy Outlook 2030.” Well, you didn’t expect an oil company to publish a report saying that demand for its product is going to dwindle and prices are going to fall, did you? But BP’s analysis leaves out politics, technology and even fashion.

The politics first. One major implication of a rising demand for oil is that the importance of Middle Eastern oil will grow, for this is the one place where relatively modest investments can increase production rapidly. However, the Middle East is unpredictable politically, and getting more so by the moment. The consumers hate uncertainty, and this gives them a strong incentive to move to alternative sources of energy.

Concerns about global warming are pushing them in the same direction. The key to stopping the warming is to cut the amount of fossil fuels we are burning, and ultimately to stop using them entirely.

Government programmes to do that already exist in most countries, and even in the United States, where Congress blocks direct action, the Obama administration has used the Environmental Protection Agency to raise the fuel efficiency standard for American-built vehicles to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. (The current average is 25 mpg.) That alone will result in a 29 percent cut in American oil usage.

Now the technology. The hunt for a substitute fuel for vehicles is already underway. ExxonMobil, for example, is investing $600 million in research into producing a cost-effective alternative from biomass – specifically, from algae that require no agricultural land and use only waste or salt water.

A rival process would combine hydrogen with carbon dioxide drawn directly from the air (by “artificial trees,” a technology that is developing very fast), to create an octane-type fuel for cars. Like its algae-based rival, this fuel would be carbon-neutral, and could be delivered through existing distribution systems and used in current vehicle engines. Either solution would be a real challenger to $100-per-barrel oil.

And finally, fashion. In the 1934 movie “It Happened One Night,” Clark Gable, the leading male movie idol of the day, undressed to get into bed with Claudette Colbert (they were married, of course), and under his shirt was…a bare chest! He wasn’t wearing an undershirt! Shock, horror – and then the treacherous thought: why ARE we all wearing undershirts? In less than a year, the market for undershirts collapsed.

So here we have a world where almost all the cars are oil-fuelled or at best “hybrid,” although electric-powered alternatives are beginning to appear on the market. The electrics are still not satisfactory for long-distance driving, but mass-produced cars burning carbon-neutral oil substitutes in internal combustion engines are probably only five to ten years away.

And in ten or fifteen years’ time, after we have had a couple of really big environmental disasters or a new oil embargo by Middle Eastern oil producers, might the motorised masses ask themselves: why ARE we all driving petroleum-fuelled cars? And act on their conclusions.

The BP study is a soothing bedtime story for worried oil industry execs. In the real world, the long-term future of oil prices may be down, not up.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“Finding…steeply”; and “A rival…oil”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

NOTE: 25 mpg is 9.41 litres per 100 km (European) and 10.63 km/litre (Japan). 35.5 mpg is 6.63 litres per 100 km (European) and 15.1 km/litre (Japan).

The Importance of the Middle East

26 October 2010

The Importance of the Middle East

By Gwynne Dyer

The media in the Middle East carry a lot of Middle Eastern stories, of course, but why do most of the other media in the world do the same? Asian media strike a better balance, but Western media, and any other media that basically follow the American news agenda, focus obsessively on the region. Between a third and a half of all foreign news stories in the Western print and broadcast media are usually about the Middle East.

Like fish that never notice the medium they swim in, people tend not to remark upon this familiar aspect of their media environment. I didn’t really become aware of it myself until I flew into Canada a few years ago, got a copy of the Globe and Mail, “Canada’s National Newspaper,” and found that every single story on the two pages of foreign news it offers was about the Middle East.

Eight or nine stories, about Iran and Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, oil and refugees and Iraq. Canada has troops in Afghanistan, so maybe that one is understandable, but there was no big war on, no vast crisis, just business as usual. Yet all the stories that might have been there about Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia had been crowded out by Middle Eastern stories. I doubt that anybody at the paper even noticed how weird that was.

This is a phenomenon that cries out for an explanation, and it’s not easy to find a credible one. It’s certainly not oil, which is the lazy explanation. Oil is quite important in the global economy, and the Middle East has a large share of the market and an even bigger share of the reserves. But it’s been 37 years since the oil-rich Arab states once refused to sell their oil, and they couldn’t do that again.

Not WOULDN’T; it’s not a question of trust. COULDN’T, because it would cause far too much disruption in their own economies. The 1973 oil embargo took place at a time when most of the major Arab oil-exporting countries had populations two or three times smaller than they are now, and when their people did not live in full-fledged consumer societies.

It’s different now. The cash flow from oil exports pays not just for imported cars and plasma-screen TVs, but for the very food that the local people eat: most Arab oil-exporting states import half or more of the food they consume. They also have huge investments in the Western economies that an oil embargo would hurt. Another oil embargo isn’t going to happen, and stories about oil belong on the business pages.

Well, then, how about the fact that the United States has invaded two Middle Eastern countries in the past ten years, and still has troops in both of them? Does that explain the obsessive focus on the Middle East?
No, because the obsession was there before the invasions. In fact, the causation is probably the other way round: the exaggerated importance with which Americans already viewed the Middle East was almost certainly a contributory factor in the Bush administration’s decisions to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.

The main factor in the Afghan decision, of course, was the foolish belief that invading Afghanistan would somehow help to suppress anti-American terrorism rather than stimulate more of it. Almost nobody in Washington seemed aware that they were falling into a trap laid for them by Osama bin Laden. The invasion of Iraq had more complex and even less rational motives, but was equally driven by the mistaken belief that this was a very important place.

The greater Middle East contains about ten percent of the world’s population. The Arab world at its heart is only five percent. The whole region accounts for only three percent of the global economy, and produces almost nothing of interest to the rest of the world except oil. So why does it dominate the international news agenda?

The Europeans play a role in this, because the media in the former imperial powers take a greater interest in their former colonies than in other countries of equal importance. But the American media really set the agenda, and their fascination with the Middle East requires a different explanation.

A large part of it is driven by the deep emotional investment in Israel that many Americans have. Israel is not viewed as just another foreign country, to be weighed by its strategic and economic importance. It is seen as a special place, almost an American protectorate, and its foreign policy agenda (which is all about the Middle East) largely sets the US media agenda.

The other big factor is the lasting American obsession with Iran, which is as great as the obsession with Cuba. Both countries have successfully defied the United States, and that has been neither forgiven nor forgotten.

Combine the love for Israel and the hatred of Iran, and you have an explanation for the American media’s obsession with the entire Middle Eastern region. Most media elsewhere, especially in the West, just follow suit. It’s a huge distortion that leads to the neglect of much important news about the rest of the world, but at least the Middle East gives good value for money. The news it generates is unfailingly interesting.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (Like…was”)

The Truth about Gaffes

2 November 2006

The Truth about Gaffes

By Gwynne Dyer

A “gaffe” is a true statement that outrages the hypocrites, who then mobilise to shut the truth-teller up. The most common gaffes are about politics and religion, because those are the areas where the level of hypocrisy is highest. Which explains John Kerry’s problem last Tuesday, or why Muazzez Ilmiye Cig almost went to jail in Turkey on Wednesday.

John Kerry inadvertently spoke the truth about why some people end up in the US armed forces while others do not. Speaking to students in California, he said: “You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard…you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

Cue mass outrage. How dare Kerry suggest that people might be in the US army because they lacked the education for softer, safer, better-paying jobs, or indeed might have joined precisely to get that missing education? No, they’re all there solely because they are patriots, and anybody who says differently will be spanked soundly and sent to bed without supper.

Senator Kerry issued a grovelling apology (“I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative about those in uniform”), and cancelled any further campaigning in support of Democratic Party candidates in the mid-term elections, returning to Washington in order not to be a “distraction.” Too late, of course.

The Republicans leaped on Kerry’s remark as a golden opportunity to paint the Democrats as unpatriotic and disloyal to the armed forces (even though most senior Bush administration officials, including the president, the vice-president, and the national security adviser, successfully avoided service in Vietnam). And yet Kerry’s remark was entirely true.

Ordinary soldiers are not the “scum of the earth,” as Wellington called the British infantry who won a dozen battles against the French for him in Spain, but they are definitely not the “creme de la creme” in educational terms. Most of them are there because it was their best remaining option.

The Pentagon’s own figures show that only 10 percent of American enlisted troops have any post-secondary education, whereas 56 percent of the general population does. It has been true since Sargon of Akkad created the world’s first regular army over four thousand years ago: it’s mostly poor people who join the army, because rich people have better options. The military themselves recognise this in their recruiting ads, which stress the opportunities for further education during or after military service. It’s obvious, but you’re not allowed to say it plainly in public.

More admirable than Kerry, because her gaffe was deliberate and she refused to apologise, is Muazzez Ilmiye Cig, a 92-year-old Turkish archaeologist who said bluntly that hijab — “Islamic” head-scarves that hide women’s hair — are not Islamic at all, but a 5,000-year-old Middle Eastern tradition.

The great thing about being 92 — one of the few good things about being 92, apart from not being dead yet — is that you no longer have to care about your career or what people think. As one of the world’s leading experts on Sumer, the first civilisation, Cig published thirteen books and dozens of scholarly articles on her subject and earned great respect within that small community. But then she published a book last year about her own convictions (“My Reactions as a Citizen”) and all hell broke loose in Turkey.

All she said was that the head-scarf, now a badge of Muslim identity for devout women in Turkey and elsewhere, was actually first worn five thousand years ago by temple priestesses in Sumeria whose job was to initiate young people into sex. They were not prostitutes; only the daughters of the rich and influential got temple jobs. So gradually the wearing of head-scarves came to designate “respectable” women; that is to say rich women, not peasants and slaves. The fashion persisted down to Greek and Roman times, and was picked up by the Arabs when they conquered Syria in the generation after the Prophet.

Well, I could have told her that. I grew up a Catholic in prelapsarian Newfoundland, and the nuns who taught my sisters wore the full Sumerian gear. Until a couple of decades ago, Catholic nuns still dressed like any respectable Middle Eastern woman (of any religion) of two or three thousand years ago. Muazzez Ilmiye Cig was just stating the obvious historical truth. A serious gaffe.

She is not an innocent abroad. She has been an activist in feminist causes since the 1930s, and she recently wrote an open letter to Emine Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister’s wife, urging her not to wear a head-scarf in public. “She can wear whatever she likes at home, but as the wife of the prime minister, she cannot wear a cross or the head-scarf,” Cig told Vatan, a popular daily.

So Islamist lawyers brought charges against her for “inciting hatred and enmity among the people,” and she ended up in court facing the prospect of one and a half years in prison. But twenty-five lawyers showed up to defend her for free, and the state prosecutor himself asked the judge to drop the charges, and in half an hour she walked out of the court a free woman, cheered by the crowd that had come to support her. The hypocrites do not always win.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 6 and 12. (“Senator…course”; “Ordinary…option”;and “She…daily”)