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A West German Journalist Ponders the Implications of the Oil Shock (November 15, 1973)

In the fall of 1973, the cartel of oil-exporting countries (OPEC) decided on a ten-fold increase in the price of oil. In the following op-ed piece, the well-known leftist columnist Sebastian Haffner reflects on the consequences of the increase and suggests that saving oil and reverting to coal could help restore energy independence in Europe.

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Can’t We Make Do Without Oil?

Try as we might, we cannot call the Middle East declaration by the EC countries very dignified. First of all, the Europeans speak up when they aren’t asked to and when they have no say. Second, it’s all too clear why they’re suddenly telling the Arabs what they want to hear: out of fear – out of sheer fear for their beloved oil.

Sixty or seventy years ago the European countries would have responded to the delivery bans, price dictates, and boycott threats of the Arab oil countries by sending out warships and the navy. We don’t want to go back to those times. We aren’t imperialists anymore. But gestures of humility aren’t correct either. Anyone who goes along with extortion will end up facing more of it. The old rule of life also applies to politics.

It applies especially in this case because the Arabs have obviously taken a liking to it. They have noticed that they have us in the palm of their hand and can always sell less and less oil for more and more money. They’d be fools not to continue this flourishing business until we’re bled dry, and we’d be fools if we believed that good political behavior could secure our future oil supply. We can’t secure it anymore – either with our money or our nice words. And that’s why there’s no alternative: We have to free ourselves from oil, even if the withdrawal is hard to cope with.

It is true that oil is presently the most economical source of energy. It’s versatile, efficient, clean, convenient – preferable to coal in every way. Except that we have coal, and we don’t have oil. We would have been better off sticking with coal, even if that meant getting rich a bit more slowly. It was short-sighted to close down so many mines and retrain so many miners; short-sighted to have so completely neglected the security factor for the sake of pure economic calculations. To go from white-bread oil back to dark-bread coal is tough at this point. But unless we’re prepared to allow our entire economy to be choked off by the withdrawal of oil at someone else’s whim, then we have no other alternative.

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