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Whither peak oil at Rudd's 2020 Summit?

By Michael Lardelli - posted Thursday, 10 April 2008


It is only about five months since Australians elected Kevin Rudd's Labor party to lead the nation. I remember well the first working day after the victory. My colleagues all seemed to be in a good mood (Australia's universities had suffered a demoralising decade under the previous conservative government) and a weight of shame seemed to have been lifted from our collective shoulders. Australia would now ratify the Kyoto treaty, withdraw troops from Iraq and be rid of the very unpopular, anti-union and salary-suppressing "WorkChoices" legislation.

Australia has elected a nerd with verve to be its new leader. Devoutly Christian, Kevin Rudd is portrayed as "Tin-Tin" by one prominent cartoonist but speaks fluent Mandarin. And he set a cracking pace for his newly-elected federal Labor politicians by insisting they visit homeless shelters before showing their faces in parliament.

One early action that has captured the public's imagination is Rudd's call for a two-day summit in April of 1000 leading Australians to, "… bring together some of the best and brightest brains from across the country to tackle the long term challenges confronting Australia's future - challenges which require long-term responses from the nation beyond the usual three year electoral cycle."

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For a person (such as yours truly) concerned with the imminent decline of world oil production ("peak oil") and the inability of Australia's political leadership to openly discuss this issue, Rudd's 2020 Summit seemed like a wonderful opportunity. Peak oil impinges on any topic that could possibly be discussed at the summit. Since cheap and abundant energy (mainly from oil) is what allows our globalised economy to tick along, an imminent decline of oil threatens every aspect of Australia's existence - from provision of health care to the availability of computers and our ability to adapt to climate change.

Of course, Australia's current pattern of settlement is impossible to maintain without cheap oil - it is essential for providing barely affordable food to remote aboriginal communities and for the operation of our car-dependent outer suburbs where young families on lower incomes try to afford record-high mortgages while trying to avoid "travel poverty".

When my university's Vice-Chancellor offered to pay airfare and accommodation costs for any employees accepted as delegates to the Summit I seriously considered applying and so I looked more closely at the Summit details. I was disappointed (but not surprised) to see that, despite the Summit's declared intention, "To provide a forum for free and open public debate in which there are no predetermined right or wrong answers" the framing of the topics was such that the assumptions of economic and population growth were not to be challenged.

Some might say that a talkfest where 1,000 people will assemble for only two days must be more about appearance than substance, but the media coverage of the event will be an important avenue for future issues to penetrate the awareness of Australians. (Anyway, rather than applying to attend I decided that I might have a more certain impact on the event by publicly criticising its assumptions before it takes place.)

The 1,000 delegates to the 2020 Summit have now been announced and the prospects for honest discussion of peak oil issues seem more remote than even a pessimist like myself could have imagined. Most noticeable was an alteration to the list of the 10 topics to be discussed. The topic, "Economic infrastructure, the digital economy and the future of our cities" which would have been most relevant to peak oil has been replaced (somewhat mysteriously) with, "The Productivity Agenda (education, skills, training, science and innovation)" even though those areas were previously to have been discussed under, "Future directions for the Australian economy".

"The future of our cities" now appears to have been tacked onto the end of the topic,"Population, sustainability, climate change and water" somewhat as an afterthought. (As I write this, the revised topic title exists on only one page of the 2020 Summit site.) The brief explanation of that topic area suggests only that there might be too much transport happening in 2020 rather than too little:

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Will efficient and affordable public transport and road systems be easing travel around our cities? Or will they be choked with cars and trucks?

Dire language is permitted for describing a possible climate-changed future:

… will [our cities] be huge, hot, polluted and hostile?

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About the Author

Michael Lardelli is Senior Lecturer in Genetics at The University of Adelaide. Since 2004 he has been an activist for spreading awareness on the impact of energy decline resulting from oil depletion. He has written numerous articles on the topic published in The Adelaide Review and elsewhere, has delivered ABC Radio National Perspectives, spoken at events organised by the South Australian Department of Trade and Economic Development and edits the (subscription only) Beyond Oil SA email newsletter. He has lectured on "peak oil" to students in the Australian School of Petroleum.

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