Let me start by saying what I'm not saying: I am not making the blanket case here that peak oil brought down Mubarak. I also don't want to rain on the truly joyous and historic events taking place in Egypt. It was an astonishing example of the power of the people, a type of broad-based, pure, honest movement that crossed lines of class and religion.
But I do want to raise the question of oil's role in creating the economic conditions for the uprising, and the concern that Egypt's oil woes aren't going away.
Plenty of interconnected causes are being cited for the revolution and most of them have merit. Longstanding suppression of public dissent; chronic fear of the regime and police; severe economic inequality; a fountainhead state-run media; water shortages; food shortages; a rapidly declining oil reserve. It's hard to tell where some of these end and others begin.
But I think it's fairly uncontroversial to say that the dire economic conditions most Egyptians live under was a major factor. And oil's role in creating the macroeconomic conditions in Egypt cannot be denied. Chris Martenson of the Post Carbon Institute makes a very strong case that—largely because of dwindling oil reserves—the pressures have been building in Egypt for some time now, and that, unfortunately, this political revolution isn't going to address some much deeper troubles.
Martenson shares these two revealing charts:
Egypt's oil production peaked in 1996, and has declined steadily since.
Because of falling oil production and rising consumption in Egypt, as of 2007, the country has been a net oil importer. Martenson writes:
Without persistent (and rising) food imports, Egypt cannot feed itself. It has managed to cover up the shortfall by having enough oil to export, but, like every country, their oil reserves are finite and eventually they'll face a day of reckoning...Any country that has to import both oil and food is living on borrowed time. It was only a matter of time before something gave way, and apparently that time is now.
Egypt, obviously, isn't the only country facing such a dire natural capital calculus. Martenson:
The future of Egypt will be shaped by these few biophysical facts—a relentless form of math that is hardly unique to Egypt, by the way—and it matters very little who is in power.
Martenson is right that the "biophysical facts" present Egypt with an energy problem that will continue to strain society. But it does matter who is in power. The right leaders can recognize the futility of depending on oil exports to fund the nation's growth and well-being.
So what possibly could a new government do to ensure stability and economic prosperity—sustainable economic prosperity—for all Egyptians? They might want to take a good hard look at the vast swaths of desert and another natural resource that the nation has in abundance: sunlight. Two massive solar project proposals for the Sahara Desert jump to mind. With the Desertec project, European companies are already angling to set up a network of concentrated solar plants across Northern Africa to provide electricity throughout Europe. Meanwhile, the Sahara Solar Breeder Project wants to capture the Sahara's sun and use the desert's sand to produce photovoltaic panels, and more power.
Egypt's next leaders should make their nation an integral part of these plans, and work to develop their own solar industry as well. Not only will an Egyptian solar industry provide cheap energy throughout the country, it could also create hundreds of thousands of jobs—and might even save the job of Egypt's next president one day.