I’m cribbing this post from a friend Chris Yapp on LinkedIn. It seems to me to contain most of the reasonable things that need to be said from a progressive British centric point of view and I think deserves a wider audience before the Scottish people make their historic decision today…
The Vision Thing
“The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.” Sheikh Yamani
I have used the former Saudi Oil Minister’s words in many speeches and workshops over the years to understand the nature of innovation and futures thinking.
It has popped into my mind on numerous occasions during the Scottish referendum, as debates over the value and scale of oil reserves have been raised.
There will still be an oil industry when my grandchildren are in their dotage, I’m sure, but how large and important is hard to say.
Tomorrow, we will know the outcome of that referendum and hopefully the healing can begin regardless of the outcome. It will be hard. The energy, passion and engagement has been electrifying. What, however does it say about the state of political discourse in the UK?
Until the closing weeks of the campaign, it has been a NO side looking at risk and detail against a YES side selling big picture and aspiration. A narrative of Scotland the brave would always be more energising than Scotland the broke, even if the big picture turns out to be flawed.
For me, the worrying aspect is that much of the debate on both sides has been inward looking, myopic and disconnected from the real world.
Even last week people were complaining that they didn’t have good information to make up their minds. The case of oil, for me, illustrates what needs to happen, starting Friday regardless of the outcome.
In the last 3 months, in the face of the most severe geo-political problems in a generation, the price of Brent crude has fallen 15%.
Yet the Yes campaign want to argue that in 20 years times, Scotland will be awash with oil money. They argue that prices will go up and total value of reserves are much higher than currently given. This is where Yamani’s words echo for me.
The “Peak Oil” narratives of the 80s and 90s are largely discredited. The major oil producers are using their wealth to invest for a post oil world. Not because they are running out of oil (some are), but because innovations are maturing that will topple the oil economy. The assumption that oil will get scarce and therefore higher priced is being replaced by a current glut and decline in demand. That may be temporary, who knows, but change is happening.
The current price declines suggest to me that the link between oil and economic growth is slowly being broken, globally.
In the last two years, I have met people in the “Smart Cities” movement who see 2025-35 that they want their cities to be reducing their oil dependency. Climate change is a major driver, but also Public Health. The concerns over diesel nano-particulates and health are well established.
In transport, I have met people working on hybrid engines and fuel cells. Some have suggested that by 2030, 400-1000mpg will be feasible for a hybrid engines. Commodification of Fuel Cells at around the same time scale will make them economic for mass production.
In the shorter term, the potential for solar panels on the roofs of vehicles could see renewables taking a small part in terrestrial transport.
The fact that there are competing approaches suggest that even if one is slower than its advocates expect, that one candidate is likely to mature and come to market.
The 2030s may be the decade in which terrestrial transport moves to a post-oil economy.
So, can you name one country, other than Scotland, that sees advantage in being more oil dependent in 2030 than now? I’m struggling, be it producer or consumer, to find one.
Forecasting oil prices is notoriously difficult and appears to be becoming harder. The problem is that if prices rise, the time when terrestrial transport tips to post-oil could be brought forward.
The problem is that much of the North Sea reserves will require investment in innovation which will be expensive and need high prices to be viable.
Yet the NO campaign has joined in a narrow argument suggesting that assuming prices are going to grow and hoping for large reserves is risky. No wonder people don’t feel informed.
The debate has felt akin to a modern version of a debate about how many Angels can dance on a barrel of oil in 20 years’ time.
Democratic societies need leaders and leadership. The debate is largely technocratic and insular. Where’s the Vision?
A narrative that Scotland would use its current oil wealth to build on its renewables advantages to build new industries and jobs for the post oil world is available to either side, but none have expressed it clearly and articulately.
In the end, it feels like both sides are arguing: “trust me, we can manage decline better than the other guy!”
The debate on devo-max in England, suffers from the same managerial focus with a dearth of leadership. The centre is prepared to discuss what powers it is prepared to devolve. How gracious of the centre! It is about better administration to support “guided localism” to make the centre’s job easier.
Regardless of the result, what is needed is a coherent outward looking vision of the 21 century state, economy and society. That may be for one or 2 countries. We will soon know.
We didn’t stop wearing clogs because we ran out of wood.
Tom Peters recipe for failure is worth remembering. How to fail? System without passion or passion without system.
Let the healing begin. Building that vision, as in the case of South Africa, is a good starting point for Friday. Negotiating without a central vision and purpose lets the technocrats win.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty