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‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ Author Discusses Costly Crude and the Future of Oil

June 3, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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In another of the NewsHour's ongoing 'Costly Crude' series, geography professor and famed author Jared Diamond discusses the future of oil in view of current high prices.

GWEN IFILL: By now, it’s no secret the price of oil has been rising steadily most of the year, affecting jobs, travel, and the global economy. Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked to an environmental activist and political adviser, the CEO of a major oil company, and two writers who have chronicled how the oil market works.

Tonight, a different take: why high gasoline prices might be good. Ray Suarez has that conversation.

RAY SUAREZ: Tonight, we talk to Jared Diamond, professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. He’s the author of the best-selling books, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” and, “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies,” which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Professor Diamond, as far as you can tell, what are the consequences of $120-a-barrel oil?

JARED DIAMOND, Author: In my view, the consequences are hopeful consequences, namely that I hope that the price of oil will rise to a level that matches the costs of oil consumption for Americans and comparable to levels paid for oil by Europeans, which about double ours.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, it’s interesting you should say that, because economists have long observed that, when the price of a commodity spikes, people often use less or learn to do with less. And that doesn’t seem to be happening in a widespread way in the United States.

JARED DIAMOND: Actually, it is happening in a widespread way, at least here in Los Angeles where I live. Within the last year, about a year or so ago one scarcely saw any Priuses on the road. Now you see them very commonly. So Los Angelenos have been much more concerned about gas consumption.

U.S.-style oil usage unsustainable

RAY SUAREZ: Now, people who look at the history of technology and human societies fall into sort of optimists and pessimists camps. And often optimists point out that, whenever we've been hard up against it as a people, technology has often come in to save the day and increase the carrying capacity of the world.

Can we expect that this time with oil?

JARED DIAMOND: Well, if oil were like forests, were a renewable resource, it certainly is possible to increase our production of trees or fish, but the amount of oil in the ground is fixed.

As far as oil is concerned, increasing prices of oil, I think the main effect is going to be to decrease oil consumption by Americans.

Just to place it in perspective, Europeans, who enjoy a slightly higher standard of living than do Americans, Europeans nevertheless per person consume about half the amount of gasoline that we do, because gasoline costs much more in Europe.

And that illustrates that it would be perfectly possible for us Americans to reduce our gas consumption without sacrificing anything of our standard of living, in fact, while gaining a standard of living.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, why don't we look outside the United States and Europe? As other parts of the world are getting richer, are they going to be able to consume oil at the same rate as Americans?

JARED DIAMOND: Nobody -- the world is not going to be able to consume oil at the same rate as Americans. Just to place numbers on it, if the whole world consumed oil at the rate of Americans, then oil consumption for the world would increase by a factor of 11, which means that, instead of running out of relatively cheap accessible oil within 50 years, we would run out within five years.

So, no, there's no way that the whole world will consume oil as Americans do now.

RAY SUAREZ: So India and China, two huge countries that are getting rich rather quickly, will have to be different, you're saying?

JARED DIAMOND: They will certainly be different in increasing their oil consumption as they're already doing. The difference is going to be that the big guzzlers, the first world in general, but especially the U.S., will have to decrease their oil consumption.

And we will get great benefits out of that, especially benefits as regards our foreign policy expenditures and benefits as regards our health. Oil, after all, is a major contributor to global warming, but Americans pay lots of costs, both economic costs and health costs for global warming. So consuming less oil is going to be good for us economically and good for our health.

In the globalized era, oil is key

RAY SUAREZ: In your book, "Collapse," you look at the way some societies over history have consumed themselves right out of existence. But often in the examples you use, they are smaller and sometimes remote or isolated societies.

Is there something different about oil, because it is produced, and shipped, and used globally, and is a near ubiquitous commodity?

JARED DIAMOND: You're close to it there. I think the difference is not so much the difference in oil as the difference in that buzzword "globalization" today.

In the past, when societies collapsed because of overusing resources, most commonly overusing water or wood or topsoil, societies collapsed in isolation. So, for example, here, within the territory of the United States, the Anasazi society of the U.S. Southwest collapsed about 800 years ago, as did the Mississippian Mound Builder society near St. Louis about 700 years ago.

But that didn't have any effect on people in Europe or Africa. Today, because of globalization, if there are collapses, they're going to be worldwide collapses. And we've already seen that when remote, seemingly poor countries in the world, such as Somalia, and Haiti, and Iraq, and Afghanistan, get into trouble, that drags in the rest of the world.

RAY SUAREZ: Has there ever been in recent, more recent history than the Anasazi people, a commodity that the world thought it couldn't do without and then, when it is in short supply, the world is forced to go in another direction, or comes into conflict because of it?

JARED DIAMOND: Well, there certainly are commodities that the world has come into conflict over, and the prime example is what we're talking about, oil. Let's think of the cause of World War II in the Pacific.

The immediate cause of war between Japan and the United States was the oil embargo that President Roosevelt imposed on Japan at a time when Japan, not an oil-producing country, had only a year-and-a-half of oil reserves left.

Japan had the choice of acceding to Roosevelt's demands, namely withdrawing from their military adventures in China and Southeast Asia, or securing their own oil fields, which they did, starting with the raid at Pearl Harbor and then World War II, Japan's attempt to secure oil supplies for themselves.

So there already we've had the bloodiest war in recent American history fought over oil.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor Jared Diamond, thanks for joining us.

JARED DIAMOND: You are welcome.

GWEN IFILL: You can see all of our oil conversations on our Web site. Also there, a new interview with General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner about the changing auto industry.