Scotland – once dubbed the only country to discover oil and become poorer – may have to leave some valuable reserves under the sea bed because of the need to stop climate change that is threatening the extinction of species, eventually including humans, writes Kenny MacAskill.
In his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed”, American environmentalist Jared Diamond pondered why the last tree was cut down on Easter Island.
Deforestation led to the society’s collapse and a community once thousands strong was reduced to just over 100. In felling it, they were aware of the consequences but they did it regardless. Of course, there were other reasons from slavery to the arrival of European diseases and the Polynesian rat, but it’s still clear that self-harming actions taken by the community led to their demise.
To be fair, chopping down forests on a remote Pacific Island was an understandable course of action, given it was settled almost 1,000 years ago. Wood was required for everything from building homes to heating them and providing the boats to move about and find food.
But there must have come a time when it became obvious that continuing to do so would lead to their own extinction. Yet they did it anyway. Why?
Diamond doesn’t answer the question in his book and, in any event, no one’s alive to answer for it. But, as world leaders meet in Katowice to discuss global warming, it seems history is repeating itself, but this time it’s not one small society, but all of humanity.
The warnings are stark and the future bleak. As Polynesian islanders must have pondered the collapse of their civilisation as the forests shrank, so the world is heading for extinction, firstly for many species with whom we share this planet and then for Homo sapiens. So why are we doing it?
As on Easter Island, there was a time when ignorance and lack of understanding allowed steps to be taken that later reverberated. The Industrial Revolution provided many benefits for our societies, even if often at a cost. Remarkable progress was made and the quality of life improved for so many, even if inequality detracted from it. There was neither knowledge of global warming then nor understanding about the dangers to our planet.
But, not now. As with that Pacific island, we now know that there are consequences if we continue as we are. Fuel is again involved, but this time it’s not in the loss of wood that powered and provided for their society that’s the problem.
Now we know the consequences of burning fossil fuels and can see it before our very eyes from almost primordial fires in idyllic parts of California to catastrophic tempests and floods in once temperate lands.
We also know that it’s only going to get worse and the prognosis is terminal unless we change. Neither science nor artificial intelligence can or will save us. Only by altering how we live can we allow our society to continue living. Maybe not so much for me, given my age but for my children and most certainly for any grandchildren.
Which leads me to one of the great debates of my political life which has been North Sea Oil or as many of have argued “Scotland’s Oil”.
As the McCrone Report stated, it could have made Scotland one of the richest countries in Europe. Yet, that information was hidden from the Scottish people and lies were perpetrated. Every decade since its discovery we were told that it was about to run out.
Huge opportunities were offered to our small land and it still plays an important part. For sure parts of Scotland, such as Aberdeen and beyond have been transformed by it. But, it has still failed to provide the benefits that it should have or that our neighbours across the North Sea in Norway have reaped.
Though it was hyperbole, there was also a lot of truth in Jim Sillars’ saying that Scotland was the only country to discover oil and find itself poorer. The Norwegians have not only transformed their entire society but provided for future generations with a sovereign wealth fund that Scots can only look at and weep.
Instead our oil bounty was taken by Thatcher and used to smash the trade unions, followed then by successor administrations who plundered it for purposes including fighting illegal wars.
The image portrayed by SNP at the height of the 1970s ‘Scotland’s Oil’ campaign, with posters of deprived Scots kids with a strap line “It’s their oil”, rings hollow today when child poverty is at shameful levels.
Many of us question what might have been. Yet still it’s being discovered. More has been extracted than remains but a huge asset still rests off our shores in the Atlantic Ocean, not just the North Sea.
But, all nations at Katowice are going to have to make sacrifices. It cannot just be the current heavy polluters like China or India – who can rightly say that the West has already produced more than its fair share – or Third World nations seeking to industrialise, nor the likes of Poland who’ll have to leave many of its huge coal reserves untouched. It’s also going to have to be us.
Will much of Scotland’s Oil not just have to be left to rest in the sea? For many Scots that will seem like a manifest injustice. It was a natural bounty from which we should have benefited.
But, the world is going to have to change and that includes Scotland. Moreover, we’re going to have to do so fast. That doesn’t mean we cap the wells and start the decommissioning overnight. Our society has to adapt and it’ll take time to move from reliance on fossil fuels and the combustion engine. But move and fast we must, so not all can or should be extracted.
That’ll be an anathema for some given what we might have had and the value of what remains. But, no more than Easter Island could cut down the last tree, can we extract the last drop of oil. If we want to survive, we’re going to have to realise that it’s really Mother Nature’s oil.