Casaubon's Book

Der Spiegel reports that it has obtained a German military think tank’s analysis of peak oil’s implicatons - and that the implications of the report are that the German government sees a peak oil scenario as potentially serious and likely enough to require attention:

The issue is so politically explosive that it’s remarkable when an institution like the Bundeswehr, the German military, uses the term “peak oil” at all. But a military study currently circulating on the German blogosphere goes further.

The study is a product of the Future Analysis department of the Bundeswehr Transformation Center, a think tank tasked with fixing a direction for the German military. The team of authors, led by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Will, uses sometimes-dramatic language to depict the consequences of an irreversible depletion of raw materials. It warns of shifts in the global balance of power, of the formation of new relationships based on interdependency, of a decline in importance of the western industrial nations, of the “total collapse of the markets” and of serious political and economic crises.

The study, whose authenticity was confirmed to SPIEGEL ONLINE by sources in government circles, was not meant for publication. The document is said to be in draft stage and to consist solely of scientific opinion, which has not yet been edited by the Defense Ministry and other government bodies.

The lead author, Will, has declined to comment on the study. It remains doubtful that either the Bundeswehr or the German government would have consented to publish the document in its current form. But the study does show how intensively the German government has engaged with the question of peak oil.

Spiegel also notes that this parallels recently released documents in Britain that indicate concern in the British government about an energy supply crisis – and indeed, this shouldn’t be surprising as the IEA has been warning about an impending supply crisis for several years now. The Bundeswehr report places peak oil as possibly around 2010 and sees the following consequences:

Oil will determine power: The Bundeswehr Transformation Center writes that oil will become one decisive factor in determining the new landscape of international relations: “The relative importance of the oil producing nations in the international system is growing. These nations are using the advantages resulting from this to expand the scope of their domestic and foreign policies and establish themselves as a new or resurgent regional, or in some cases even global leading power.”

Increasing importance of oil exporters: For importers of oil more competition for resources will mean an increase in the number of nations competing for favour with oil producing nations. For the latter this opens up a window of opportunity which can be used to implement political, economic or ideological aims. As this window of time will only be open for a limited period, “this could result in a more aggressive assertion of national interests on the part of the oil producing nations.”

Politics in place of the market: The Bundeswehr Transformation Center expects that a supply crisis would roll back the liberalization of the energy market. “The proportion of oil traded on the global, freely accessible oil market will diminish as more oil is traded through bi-national contracts,” the study states. In the long run, the study goes on, the global oil market, will only be able to follow the laws of the free market in a restricted way. “Bilateral, conditioned supply agreements and privileged partnerships, such as those seen prior to the oil crises of the seventies, will once again come to the fore.”

Market failures: The authors paint a bleak picture of the consequences resulting from a shortage of petroleum. As the transportation of goods depends on crude oil, international trade could be subject to colossal tax hikes. “Shortages in the supply of vital goods could arise” as a result, for example in food supplies. Oil is used directly or indirectly in the production of 95% of all industrial goods. Price shocks could therefore be seen in almost any industry and throughout all stages of the industrial supply chain. “In the medium term the global economic system and every market-oriented national economy would collapse.”

Relapse into planned economy: Since virtually all economic sectors rely heavily on oil, peak oil could lead to a “partial or complete failure of markets,” says the study. “A conceivable alternative would be government rationing and the allocation of important goods or the setting of production schedules and other short-term coercive measures to replace market-based mechanisms in times of crisis.”

Global chain reaction: “A restructuring of oil supplies will not be equally possible in all regions before the onset of peak oil,” says the study. “It is likely that a large number of states will not be in a position to make the necessary investments in time,” or with “sufficient magnitude.” If there were economic crashes in some regions of the world, Germany could be affected. Germany would not escape the crises of other countries, because it’s so tightly integrated into the global economy.

Crisis of political legitimacy: The Bundeswehr study also raises fears for the survival of democracy itself. Parts of the population could comprehend the upheaval trigged by peak oil “as a general systemic crisis.” This would create “room for ideological and extremist alternatives to existing forms of government.” Fragmentation of the affected population is likely and could “in extreme cases lead to open conflict.”

None of this is a real surprise if you’ve been paying attention – these are the logical consequences of an impending oil peak for the world and for individual nations. But what is important is that these issues are finally being taken seriously at national levels. It is almost certainly too late to make any kind of a smooth transition, but it is also the case that almost any kind of functional, non-destructive preparation to protect ordinary people could have enormous effect. It is simply about time.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Raka
    September 2, 2010

    Might want to be careful to not read too much into this. Militaries as a rule make contingency plans for all manner of events, likely or unlikely. It serves as a good exercise in logistical planning, and provides at least a starting point if an actual crisis arises with some similarities. Various prominent figures who fail to understand this will freak out publicly every now and again when they learn of US military studies on how to respond to extraterrestrial contact, or conduct a full-scale conquest of Canada.

    This doesn’t mean it isn’t a real concern, obviously. But we can’t infer that the authors think the basic triggering event is likely to occur, or that all of the worst-case possibilities they allow for are likely to follow if it does.

  2. #2 Sharon Astyk
    September 2, 2010

    You are right, of course, that contingency planning is part of military requirement – indeed, the US Military has been contingency planning for peak oil for many years. But I think Der Spiegel is right that this report is somewhat unusual. As for no reason to believe the triggering event will occur, well the triggering event for peak oil, if one can call anything that, probably came when consumption exceeded the rate of discovery, which was quite a long time ago.

    Sharon

  3. #3 JJD
    September 2, 2010

    But what is important is that these issues are finally being taken seriously at national levels.

    I am pretty sure the US military, among others, have been looking at this very carefully for some time now, at least a decade. As they should.

  4. #4 Susannah
    September 2, 2010

    Interesting article.

    I’ve been wondering, for a while now, about the cost of war, in terms of oil consumed. If (and I don’t believe this will ever happen) all wars were put on hold, would we have enough oil to keep us going for a considerable time longer?

  5. #5 Katharine
    September 2, 2010

    Militaries in non-oil-producing countries have a significant interest in funding alternative energy use. It may become imperative to reducing the power of oil-producing countries.

  6. #6 Jadehawk
    September 2, 2010

    It is almost certainly too late to make any kind of a smooth transition, but it is also the case that almost any kind of functional, non-destructive preparation to protect ordinary people could have enormous effect. It is simply about time.

    that sort of depends on the definition of “smooth”, and on geography. The U.S. will not transition smoothly by any definition of the word simply because it can barely keep its infrastructure functionable already.

    The EU as a whole would have to actually learn to act as a team in crisis situations to pull it off, but at least theoretically they could. The EU targets for renewable energy is 20% of total consumption, and electricity consumption is planned to go down as well.

    Individually, most of the rich EU states have already started adapting, ages ago. Germany has 10% of all energy use from renewables, with a 2020 target for 27% and a 11% reduction in electricity use. And when i was there recently, one of their electricity companies was advertising the electric car infrastructure they’re building.In Sweden, it’s 39% and they have the lofty goal of being oil-free by 2020. Sweden is also producing most of its own food, so this would then be low-oil or oil-free food.

    This doesn’t mean that peak oil won’t be unpleasant, but it won’t be nearly as hard and painful a shock as the US can expect.

  7. #7 Glenn
    September 3, 2010

    I can see the militaries of the non-oil producing nations dusting off their old cavalry manuals and letting contracts to horse breeders. Mongolia and Montana will become military powerhouses…

    Glenn

  8. #8 Kim
    September 3, 2010

    Re contingency plans and such. Is this document about contingency plans? It’s a risk analysis, right? I think it describes what may very well happen _if nothing is done_. Germany IS doing something – transitioning away from fossil fuels as fast as is politically possible (might be a hint that the German gov’t take this rather seriously …). Not very many other nations are doing anything, though.

    As for Sweden (which is right outside my window :-) ), yes, I believe we are well off, relatively speaking. Relatively being the operative word. Yes we can (does not) produce food for our population, BUT the agricultural production is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. There are theoretical schemes for using biofuels which would apparently work, but it’s a pure paper product as of now. We have a 99-something percent electrified rail system, but all other transports and much of industry is dependent on fossil fuels. So, yes, relatively speaking …

  9. #9 Sharon Astyk
    September 3, 2010

    Jadehawk, I’m not as confident that the EU will work together as you seem to be – they certainly haven’t done very well at it through the economic crisis. Moreover, frankly, I think Europe has a tradition of violent interactions with close neighbors in times of stress that is far more horrifying than anything in America. I certainly hope that Europe will pull together, but one has to take a very, very short view of history to assume that Europe will bear its stress collectively and without violent conflict.

    Sharon

  10. #10 ABM
    September 3, 2010

    I’m currently reading the disturbing post-oil world SF novel “The Windup Girl”, so I’m not getting a kick out of this article at all. One of the obvious effects postulated in that book is “the Contraction”, where people and goods simply stop travelling, and the developed world’s standard of living shrinks dramatically as transport and manufacturing costs go through the roof. As for the military, they simply develop the use of alternative, dirtier fuel sources (coal & coal-generated electricity!) for when they absolutely need them. But most people just do without, as their world shrinks to the distance they can bicycle to.

  11. #11 Jadehawk
    September 3, 2010

    Sharon, I at no point claimed to have great confidence in European cooperation; I said that IF they learn to play together in a crisis, they’ll have a theoretical chance to pull thru, which is not something I see the U.S. as capable of.

    The violent history of Europe has been fueled by a mix of imperialism, racism, overpopulation, and religious strife. Imperialism and religious strife has been dying a slow death in Europe, which leaves racism and overpopulation, of which the U.S. now has plenty as well (while, unlike Europe, having a rising level of religious strife). And let’s not forget that virtually everyone in the U.S. is armed, plus they have the worlds most powerful military, while organizations like the Bundeswehr are not what I’d call well equipped. So really, I don’t see Europe as all that much more likely to break out in bloody infighting than the U.S.; Canada on the other hand…

  12. #12 Sharon Astyk
    September 3, 2010

    Jadehawk, I agree it isn’t less likely – I just don’t think it is dramatically more. I get the impression that a lot of European observers have forgotten their own history in their rush to assume that the US will descend into civil unrest. I think both are realistically possible. And I wouldn’t agree that religious strife has died off in Europe, unless you want to call anti-Moslem sentiment “racism” because one side of the discussion isn’t religious at all.

    Private Benway, your post was deleted because you crossed the line.

  13. #13 Jadehawk
    September 3, 2010

    the anti-muslim sentiment is xenophobia in general; “invisible” muslims who don’t look it are ignored; people who have the right skin-color to be considered muslim, whether they are or not, whether they show signs of being so or not, are being harassed. So yeah, I’d fold that more under racism than religious strife, as far as cultural dynamics go. For that matter, in Britain and France, I’d even put it under “aftereffects of imperialism” more than religious strife. it’s them “inferior colonial imports” they hate, who muddy their precious “superior” British/French culture.

    And BTW, I’m an equal opportunity observer, rather than a European one, and I simply see that the reason the U.S. has never exploded in hatred the way Europe has is that until now, it’s never been in a situation of lacking resources. There was always more: more land, more lumber, more coal, more oil, more cheap labor. And the last time the Americans had a disagreement with each other over a “resource”, they started a pretty nasty civil war, themselves. So on that account, like I said, I’d say the US and Europe are equally likely to fuck up. Which is why I didn’t address it when I was contrasting the two places on the one aspect they do differ: willingness to use the state to make those goddamn needed changes.

  14. #14 darwinsdog
    September 7, 2010

    I think Europe has a tradition of violent interactions with close neighbors in times of stress that is far more horrifying than anything in America.

    The aboriginal tribal peoples of the Americas might have a different opinion.

    Imperialism isn’t dead, not in Europe or anywhere else. It’s just taken on more of a marketing demeanor than military. McDonalds & Walmart are the new corporate imperialists. Imperialism works better when those being subjugated can be tricked into not resenting it.