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What the synthetics revolution means

The quote you see at the top of the article could have been picked from any of the thousands of comments left on message boards and in comments sections every day, urging us to "wean ourselves off our oil addiction". It's a potent substance that creates quite a passion, and some strange alliances. You'll find people who'd normally cross the road to avoid each other suddenly breaking out into agreement. Tree-huggers who hate our technological consumer culture find themselves allying with red-blooded free market capitalists who want economic independence from the Middle East.

There are several fascinating consequences of a world in which oil is created in tanks, rather than shipped around the world, which are quite dramatic.

Ending the world's problems

Firstly, one of the key reasons of conflict is resource contention, and conflicts over oil in particular. The consequences of these conflicts include famine and migrations. A lot of human misery can be attributed to the desire for oil. But renewable oil is local, and so there's no need to ship it around the world. And since it's no longer "finite", there's no reason to squabble over it.

So we're looking at major consequences for foreign policy and defence policy. The palette of nations we feel comfortable with changes; and the nature of what we feel we have to defend changes, too. Anyone who has made the call for "energy independence" will be thrilled, since two-thirds of the energy we use comes from oil and gas. Shale gas, too, is a local resource for many countries, and is already changing geopolitical dynamics.

Secondly, it has major consequences for business – and not just in nations who today bank on excavated hydrocarbons. The 10 largest companies in the world are all oil companies – and all are privately owned.

Thirdly, it will bring about a fairly profound change in the political debate. Synthetic hydrocarbons are not some magic bullet that suddenly catapults society into a future of boundless prosperity, although they don't half help. Everything has costs and consequences, and the sheer value of oil doesn't change. In the short term, oil companies will be faced with large cleanup costs from conventional extraction.

But the greatest challenge cheap hydrocarbons poses is for people whose outlook is founded on what I call "End Times logic". The most successful political movement in recent years is environmentalism, which expanded from specific concerns about pollution and conservation into an all-encompassing worldview, complete with very preachy appeals to changing parts of our lifestyles.

These ranged from "Don't flush the loo too often", to "Don't fly for a weekend break", to "Eat less red meat". Very few politicians have felt courageous enough to contradict this. And the movement has achieved its ascendancy through urgent, apocalyptic appeals, rather than using calmer methods of rational persuasion which involve costs and benefits to be totted up. These new energy sources pose a profound problem: they saves the planet, and we carry on with minimum disruption.

I expect that one effect will be that environmentalism will become much more about everyday concerns such as pollution, and conservations again, back to where it started. But it grew into a vacuum, after the end of the Cold War, when great political ideas seemed to lose credibility. As a way of driving the political agenda, it will become currency without value. Buzzwords such as "sustainability", founded on a resource-constrained view, will no longer be credible. People will simply laugh at them.

So, then. Oil as a low-carbon renewable energy source, one your children can grow. And planet saved.

What's not to like? ®

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