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World Struggles on Slippery Slope
[Opinion] As energy prices rise, people are put under increasing pressure
Nicolas van der Leek (Nick)     Print Article 
Published 2008-06-05 06:34 (KST)   
In the United States fuel prices have breached $4. For some this has meant costs to fill up rising from $500 (in March/April) to $800 a month now. In India, it is rumored that oil firms (state-run) are suffering losses of around $100 million daily. In China, the concern is that drivers there remain unconcerned by rising world oil prices.

On Tuesday night South Africans had to pay 50 cents more per liter of fuel. To put this singular price rise into perspective: for every 50 liters of petrol in the gas tank, users consume the equivalent of an extra movie ticket or a hamburger. Except, of course, they never get to watch the movie or eat the hamburger. In actual fact, it is one movie or hamburger less one might otherwise consume with money that now goes into the fuel tank. This is a very real substitution which adds up increasingly (and in favor of) fuel for cars rather than human beings.

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On SABC TV news the fuel price hike was the top story. There is a lot of concern about the impact, with economists citing long haul trucking companies, bus companies and housing markets starting to struggle. Plenty more is in the cards -- airlines for one, supermarkets for another, and not only in South Africa; this is a planet-wide problem.

Ten minutes later into the bulletin, South African carmakers complained about stagnating production. The stats show year on year figures declining from 50,000 units a month, to 30-something thousand. However, they say, export volumes are still growing, and are now at 23,000 units a month. The last thing anyone's thinking: is it viable to continue on the way we are going? Can things improve if we continue building cars?

The We-Can't-Do-Anything-About-High-Prices Myth

Ordinary people say this a lot. Actually, we can do a lot. Price is about supply and demand. Supply in fuel and food is struggling to keep up with demand around the world. Yet no one is starting conversations about changing our demand. Changing what we do every single day. From the ordinary things, such as commuting habits, to the more extreme, such as cancelling NASCAR and Formula 1 and restructuring our living arrangements (where we live, how we live) and investing in rail.

Fantasy Rather Than Urgency

People assume -- incorrectly -- that present consumption can somehow carry on indefinitely. It's fantasy. It comes from watching too many movies and TV. It comes from a public used to getting what it wants, used to convenience, and utterly unused to being told to change, to being told to do something about an obvious problem.

The fact that obesity now is one of the world's chronic problems, while people are starving to death in other parts of the world, tells us how schizophrenic and unhealthy our thinking has become. It's not a normal world. We are experiencing a major and fundamental shift. We can adapt or have those changes forced upon us. The question is, when do we wake up to reality?


When I recently drove back to Johannesburg, the economic heart of Africa, I had a gut feel that our levels of energy consumption were about to drop. Not because we choose to, but because there simply isn't enough to match our rapacious demands. It occurred to me, driving over the dark highway, that every light on every car, as well as the galaxy of city lights making the sky glow a dull moony white above the city -- each light burns thanks to oil and coal pumped out of the ground, sucked and dredged out of the Earth and burned. And once it's gone, it's gone forever. We're burning vast amounts every day now and every day more and more machines line up to be marched into service.

2008 may well be the year that the world experiences not only food shortages (the US has experienced rice shortages in some areas) but also fuel shortages. This will be the first time this has happened since the oil crisis of 1980. We may face shortages for a few days at a time. And then a week. And then longer. If not this year, shortages will eventually happen and probably sooner than we think. Already experts are citing "surprise." The surprises have just started.
For more information on the writer, visit www.nickvanderleek.com.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Nicolas van der Leek

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