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Review: National Geographic “World without Oil” — Two Thumbs Down

July 21, 2010

Review: National Geographic “World without Oil” Feature

Last night I happened to catch a “Nat Geo” feature called “World without Oil.” I expected a good argument for transitioning away from oil. However, the WWO that had me yelling at the TV. See online clips:

The video portrays forty years of economic chaos with no vision for an alternative future gives short shrift to the amazing process being made towards renewable energy and energy efficiency. Watch it and judge for yourself.

The video, part of series called, “Aftermath” shows a world in which oil suddenly runs out – overnight. All hell breaks loose. In the first few days – long lines of cars and skyrocketing fuel costs at gas stations, hording of gasoline. Within a few weeks most flights are cancelled with passengers stranded at airports; coal shipments to power plants diminish blackouts plague cities; businesses close; families panic. Soon government steps in and bans non-essential travel; roads are empty; looters are stealing vegetable oil for diesel fuel. Less and less food gets to urban markets resulting in long angry jostling lines (controlled by armed guards) only to find a few miserable half rotted potatoes and carrots on the shelves.

The misery continues for a decade with people leaving cities in droves (to go where?) and government imposes martial law; the whole country is a no fly zone. A family has a medical crisis, the horded gasoline doesn’t get the car started and the parents lift up their child and start running to the hospital (cut to meds running with gurneys down dimly lit halls). Silver linings – exorbitant fuel prices have eliminated war.  According to WWO, biofuels – much of it coming from corn – saves the day. No mention of the severe environmental costs of corn-based ethanol. See previous post.

ENACTMENT: A girl rummages through a garbage dump and finds a bicycle tire 10 years after oil disappears from Earth. Source: National Geographic

Finally, the feature jumps to “40 Years.” While some cities have been abandoned, others are beginning to rebuild themselves but in very different ways – old parking lots and rooftops are now urban gardens, all food is being grown locally and Central Park in New York, one big farm, now looks Iowa. Things are running on biofuels made from giant algae ponds. There is light at the end of the funnel.

Had this feature been aired as a Fox News special, I would have simply flipped the channel. But National Geographic, hmmmm. I’m not sure of the motivations of the WWO creators or sponsors. However, the message is clear: without oil (and corn-based ethanol) civilization is doomed and so is your family. No cars, no work, no products (everything is plastic), no food. Pretty scary stuff.

Yes, we are terribly dependent on oil and need to wean ourselves – but we need to do so in an orderly way. What’s irresponsible (and arouses my suspicions) is that WWO fails to provide an alternative scenario. The only progress in WWO comes after four decades of collapse and unprecedented human suffering, despite the fact that many good solutions are springing up before our eyes. How much better the feature would have been had it gave an alternative scenario and focused on positive trends already in place, e.g. the enormous growth in the number of local growers supplying food to urban markets – not to mention huge strides being made in energy efficiency, wind power, or solar heating and power. Why no discussion of the sky rocketing number of sustainable US Green Building Council LEED-certified buildings?

National Geographic has done a lot excellent of magazine articles and TV features that have provided dramatic visual evidence of the destruction wrought by fossil fuels and other environmentally destructive practices. For example see recent global warming feature on Global Warming or a food article on the impacts of gold mining. It has also had features on renewables.

So, Nat Geo¸ let’s get back on track.

Offshore windmills in the North Sea near Esbjerg, Denmark, symbol of Europe's renewable energy commitment. About a dozen U.S. offshore projects are planned for US thus far. Photo: National Geographic.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 25, 2011 9:09 am

    Sorry, I guess I should explain my reasoning behind this: it’s simply that I don’t believe corporations will ALLOW US to pursue alternatives. If they were, we would already be there. We have both the technology, and the ability.

  2. May 25, 2011 9:07 am

    I thought the documentary was fantastic, and I like this vision of our future. I’m actually very comfortable with it. I prefer the idea of no more petrochemicals, urban farming, being self-sufficient and taking responsibility for our personal lives instead of sitting back and letting people produce for us to consume.

    Very nice indeed. I for one, would be happy to see the end of all private transportation.

  3. sunhawk permalink
    September 22, 2010 8:00 am

    out right fear mongering. oil will not suddenly vanish. i didn’t see a single mention of nuclear power. bio fuels are a pipe dream. wind/solar/geotherm/hydro is great in lots of small applications spread all over. the future is in nuclear fission/fusion and hydrogen fuel.

    • May 25, 2011 8:27 pm

      I have to disagree with you.

      Although I believe that nuke power and hydrogen fuel will play a role, I do not think it will, or even should, be the dominant power source. I also agree that biofuels should play at best a minor role and should be limited to a the second generation sources (ie. agricultural waste) for industries that have little other option – mainly farm equipment.

      I do see a mixed grid being more sensible and certainly one that will promote equality. Nuke fuel is nothing more than business as usual under another finite resource and the mentality that goes with it as well as the international trade make it just as corrupting to social health.

      Wind is definitely pushed more than it deserves, but it does have a place. Geotherm and hydro have their obvious limitation (same with wave). All of these will be powerful at the regional level however.

      With future R&D, I’d like to see solar place a greater role and not solely photovoltaic – but also passive application (old tech, but very effective) and thermal (such as the superheated salt projects in Spain etc).

      More fundamental than all of this however should be a behavioural shift. Developed countries live on principles that effectively were made for the 1960’s. It’s a much more populated and consumer orientated world nowadays and one that is arguably starting to buckle under such pressure.

      We either want a smaller population and larger per capita footprints or larger populations and smaller per capita footprints. From what I’ve seen the latter is the option and so we must re-design social paradigms that fit this new type of world.

      Nukes – especially these 4th gen reactors that are being developed – could provide ample energy… but for what? So we can have enough energy to continue sprawl to the ends of the Earth? I’d be happy to support nuke power if I didn’t see the same attitudes from the pro-nukers as I do from the oil gluttons.

      Before I’d support nuke power, I’d like to see further innovation in urban design and development – one that promotes higher density lifestyle, pedestrian and transit orientated design, better integration of the supporting ecosystem (ie. biophilic) and closer agriculture and most importantly, cyclic processing pathways that lead to an eventual loss of the need for landfill. If we can produce such effective metropolitan hubs that promote healthy and happy lifestyles and high levels of integration with the surrounding natural environment, then I don’t care how much energy is used.

      On the flipside, the per capita energy requirements would be dropped by such improvements regardless, so chewing up nuke resources as quickly as we can – like we’ve done with fossil fuels – is probably unlikely.

      You are right – oil will not vanish over night and it may not be the most effective tool to make it sound as though it will. It is already getting expensive and we would be silly to ignore the barrel price spike before the GFC. The vast majority of people don’t deal well with a slowly moving juggernaut – which oil dependance is. It is fundamental to almost all aspects of human activity. As such, removing oil from our activity is likely to take decades and trillions of dollars in R&D. To illustrate this threat to a public who will see it as a far off problem undermines action. We need to act sooner, rather than later, while it is still cheap enough to assist with our weaning ourselves off of it. To make the point that oil won’t vanish overnight probably does more damage than to try to develop effective communications as to why we must act now.

  4. treegoddess permalink
    July 21, 2010 11:33 pm

    NatGeo is wrong but it will probably take 20 to 30 yrs. without oil for us to wake up and realize we have alternatives. By then it will be too late

    • Henry S. Cole, Ph.D. permalink*
      July 22, 2010 9:12 am

      Tree Goddess, thanks for your comment. The key is to have the alternative approaches in place; to foster them, so that when things go array there are solutions that can pop up like new seedlings in a dying stand of Christmas trees. The key is to build at the local level —
      see previous posts, i.e. SRC (Jack Stack).

  5. July 21, 2010 7:44 pm

    How amazing that they should get it so wrong. From start to finish it sounds as though the presentation was nothing but inaccurate fear-mongering which is something we don’t need for it causes paralysis.
    On the blog WAG, he looked at a recent report that concluded that taxing carbon is manageable:

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