Healing the World Through Social Action

Focus on The Oil Crisis

The International Energy Agency predicts that global oil demand will go up more than a third by 2030. (source: IEA World Energy Outlook 2006) World levels of oil production, however, are likely to go into decline before this. As the industry debates when the production peak will occur, we look at alternatives and actions open to individuals, communities, businesses and governments.


Global conventional oil production will soon go into terminal decline. The phenomenon has become known as Peak Oil.

Conventional oil production relies upon pressurised reservoirs, which lose their pressure as the oil is produced. The rate of conventional oil production therefore has a tendency to go into decline (‘peak’) in any given country at a point when at least half the oil that can be produced is still underground.

There is some disagreement as to when global oil production will peak, but it is generally agreed that non-OPEC production will peak by 2010. One particularly stark assessment of OPEC’s reserves, by international oil consultancy PFC energy, suggests they face a potential peak by 2015.

64 of the world’s 98 oil producing countries are thought to have reached their peak of oil production. Of these, 60 are already in terminal decline. UK production, for example, peaked in 1999 at 2.9 million barrels per day. By 2005 it was 1.81 million. 

Meanwhile the rate at which new sources of conventional oil are being discovered has been falling for 40 years. Currently for every barrel we discover each year, we consume three. 

Global demand, on the other hand, is rising, particularly from emerging economies such as China and India. 


Much research has gone into ‘green’ alternatives that could fill the gap left by declining oil production. It is unlikely, however, that these could operate on a sufficient scale. 

In the case of Hydrogen, for example, attempting to run Britain’s road transport system would require one of the following: 67 Sizewell B nuclear power stations; solar panels covering every inch of Norfolk and Derbyshire combined; or a wind farm bigger than the south west region of England.

The large-scale implementation of biofuels, like bioethanol — produced by fermenting sugar from crops like maize or wheat — could pose a threat to food production. The IEA found that replacing as little as 5% of European petrol and diesel consumption with biofuels would consume the output of 20% of its cropland.


Paradoxically, a reduction in oil production may be bad news for the environment. At the time of writing, the price of US light sweet crude is at a record high, just 70 cents short of $100 per barrel. If the crude price suffers further dramatic rises (and former Shell Chairman Lord Oxburgh recently said he could envisage $150 a barrel), economies will find it ever more difficult to fund new eco-friendly energy infrastructures.

Peak oil is also likely to encourage greater use of synthetic Fischer-Tropsch fuels such as those made from coal. These produce twice as much CO2 as those made from conventional crude.


‘God placed the human in the Garden of Eden, l’ovdah (to serve) u’l’shomrah (and to tend it).’(Gen. 2:15)

‘Six years you shall sow your field…But the Seventh year shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land.’(Leviticus 25:2-5)

These two sources outline Judaism’s respect for the land while recognizing its function as providing resources for human consumption. Although within this particular context those resources refer to food, a contemporary understanding can be widened to include oil. Even though we have the highest authority to work the land, the land itself is given the highest protection. Human kind must guard it, and moreover, whereas a human Shabbat lasts one day, the earth is entitled to a full year off. In the pursuit of alternative energy sources it seems clear that Judaism charges us to protect nature’s resources, and that nature itself is entitled to rest. 

‘While walking along a road, a sage saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked him: “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”“Seventy years,” replied the man. The sage then asked: “Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?” The man answered: “I found a fruitful world, because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise I am planting for my children.” (Talmud Ta’anit 23a)

This passage illustrates the Jewish attitude to sustainable development. In order for our generation to enjoy the use of energy, accessible food and all the ‘fruits’ of nature, it was necessary for the previous generation to develop agriculture and industry in a way that enabled nature to continue bearing ‘fruit’. Some may argue that, with continued deforestation and rapid consumption of fossil fuels, our generation is not following the old man’s example of planting for our children. Additionally, unless we set the example for our children, it is unlikely any of their actions will be able to reverse the damage — to continue the metaphor they may not even have the seeds. Later in the story above, after a long and refreshing seventy year sleep, the sage Honi stumbles across the very carob tree the old man planted and see’s the old man’s grandson enjoying it. Inspired by the work of the old man, Honi dedicates his life to planting carob trees all over the land. The Talmud, then, offers a practical approach to sustainable development — we must work with our resources in a way that ensures they will serve future generations — while highlighting the principle of Dugma Ishit, leading by personal example, As Jews, we should follow the positive examples of the old man and of Honi in this story and strive to be an example for our children, and others, to follow.

(David Brown, UJIA Life Education Centre)

What can you do?

Personal level

Car users: consider your car as an addiction. Devise a 12-point plan to cut your car mileage by 50% in 5 years. This will be very challenging. If losing 10% the first year, then again the second year, then again the third and so on, leaves you genuinely unable to buy food, work, get children to school, then you may need to ask if you are living in the right place or doing the right work.

Community level

The model of ‘transition towns’ is growing. All over the UK communities are planning their own ‘energy descent,’ whereby oil consumption is reduced. Towns not only limit their needs for transport, but also produce more food locally in order to cut transport costs. www.transitiontowns.org


Businesses can audit their oil dependency. As transport becomes more electrified, large companies should be considering generating large quantities of their own electricity.


Governments can follow the recent Israeli lead by announcing tax breaks on electric cars. The current tax level on petrol and diesel in Israel is 84%, while the new electric vehicles could be tax-free.

Avoid biofuels

Alternative liquid fuels require large areas of land to produce, and threaten to create hunger and poverty in other parts of the world.


Personal carbon trading schemes, or Tradeable Energy Quotas, are under consideration in several countries. DEFRA is putting increasing resources towards a decision on whether or not personal carbon trading should be implemented. For more information go to www.teqs.net 

Further reading

THE LAST OIL SHOCK — A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
by David Strahan.
Pulished by John Murray. £12.99

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