Oil and the Silk Road
The global supply of oil is depleting at unprecedented levels despite the efforts of many developed nations to deal effectively with the problem. National dependencies on oil have created ripple effects in the global economy that are manifested primarily by restructured world oil markets and the political aspirations of producer and consumer nations with regard to oil exploration, refinement, transportation, and pricing (“Annual Energy Review,” 2012).
Just as the historic Silk Roads were the hubs of economic exchange across Eurasia, so too is oil in the Central Asian oil pipelines is core to economic trade (Waugh, 2009). For centuries, silk was a major currency that fueled long-distance trade (Waugh, 2009). Today, oil has eclipsed silk in long-distance international trade (Waugh, 2009). From 400 BC to 1600 CE, the goods traded on the Silk Roads could not be had through any other methods than trade with the diaspora of merchants who traveled the trade routes (Waugh, 2009). The same dynamics are at play in the world today as the systems that enable oil to be transported and traded over long-distances are exacting and do not offer alternative modes of delivery. The countries of Asia and the states of the Persian Gulf region have a long and productive history of trade relations. Today, Asia supplies most of the consumer products for the Gulf countries; the Gulf countries trade crude oil, liquid natural gas, and refined oil products (Waugh, 2009). The new Silk Road links the two regions through a network of hydrocarbons traders and investors that includes unprecedented emerging Islamic finance (Waugh, 2009).
Across the globe, people have come to rely on oil to supply high energy mobile fuels and bulk quantities of stationary fuels (“Annual Energy Review,” 2012). No alternative fuel on the horizon comes close to matching the high energy content per gallon, low cost per unit of energy, ease of storage and handling, or transport mobility characteristics of gasoline and diesel fuels (“Annual Energy Review,” 2012). Oil is a major raw material component in the manufacture of thousands of products consumed in domestic and international markets (“Annual Energy Review,” 2012). Moreover, oil and natural gas are the building blocks for a wide array of products that enable mass production of foodstuffs for people across the globe (“Annual Energy Review,” 2012). Importantly, the availability of oil — and, in concert, the price of oil, impacts the global food supply (“Annual Energy Review,” 2012).
For decades, Saudi Arabia has been able to control the supply — and the price of oil — functioning as a high level governor over demand for oil. As the enormous Arabian oil supply buffer shrinks, the unpredictability and vulnerability of the oil market supply and demand equation increases (“Annual Energy Review,” 2012). Global population is a key driver of demand for oil. Global consumption of oil is currently at about 85 million barrels of oil each day, or 40,000 gallons per second (“Annual Energy Review,” 2012). If the current rate of global oil consumption were to be maintained, 55 Mbl of accessible oil would need to be added to the world’s supply every day (“Annual Energy Review,” 2012). Oil consumption now exceeds new oil discoveries by 4 to 1 (“Annual Energy Review,” 2012).
The technologies associated with alternative energy sources must be strengthened so that efficacious substitutes for oil can be established. No single best substitute for oil exists in absolute terms. Solving this complex problem must involve engineering, scientific research, economics, and international cooperation (“Annual Energy Review,” 2012). A fundamental issue is that of Jevon’s Paradox wherein efficiency gains foster population growth, which increases the consumption — the increased consumption cannibalizes any efficiencies that were achieved (“Annual Energy Review,” 2012). This scientific framework makes population growth concerns once more a salient global matter. The population pressure of the developed world is already quite high. It has been estimated that 30 to 40% of the biosphere is already exploited by the human species leaving the rest for all other species (“Annual Energy Review,” 2012). An expanded ecological approach to addressing the global fossil fuel problem is necessary in order to make changes in absolute terms and in a manner that results in enduring improvements.
Waugh, D.C. (2009). The Silk Road in history. Penn Museum Expedition, 52(3), 9-22.
____. (2012, September). Annual Energy Review 2011. United States Energy Information Administration. DOE/EIA-0384(2008). Retrieved http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/pdf/aer.pdf
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