The topic this week was surprisingly about prices and energy. I say surprisingly because the Jordan Business team has just finished a major cover story on inflation in the country, which essentially questions the government’s statements on the topic, and the measures they’ve taken (or lack thereof) to curb it. I have to admit that the meeting was an educational experience for me. While many of the elements of this particular topic are things I’m aware of, there are various specifics that I had no idea about, such as Jordan’s oil shale. One of the members is directly involved with a company that is attempting to begin producing it.
No doubt, Jordan’s energy crisis is entwined with inflation. The pressures on natural resources. The expenditure on petrol, natural gas, water, etc. The conversation floated between searching for solutions, i.e. energy alternatives, searching for economic miracles, and searching for the root causes of the problem. For that latter, the blame centered on everything from politically impotent ex-ministers (some of whom were in attendance and spoke of themselves), to the lack of innovation and the educational environment that brings that about, to the various other little things. One member for example had suggested to previous governments and Jordan’s engineer’s association, that homes in the country couldn’t be built out of cement and steel like their counter parts elsewhere, because they required too much heating in the winter and too much cooling in the summer. “But no one listened,” he said. Naturally.
Lack of forethought and planning was another thing to be blamed. How do you suddenly decide to build skyscrapers without accounting for their water consumption and sewer usage in areas barely getting by now? My boss pointed out two important things: the country’s lack of public transportation and the consequential reliance on everyone owning a car, as well as the government’s raising of the low public sector salaries and its constant taking of the subsidy roads. This obviously only mounts the pressure on the inevitable rise in prices that’s bound to come when the government can no longer afford to subsidize. Moreover, as was pointed out, Jordan had squandered the opportunity to seek out energy alternatives and decrease its dependency during a decades worth of free and cheap Iraqi oil.
Oil shale was focused on as well, and this is the part that I found quite interesting. The idea of extracting the shale has been talked about for over 30 years in Jordan. Some of those in attendance were either closely involved in the process or are currently involved in it. Oil shale in the Jordan, as some argued, was unique. Compared to other countries it has a lower percentage of impurities and Jordan is one of the few countries in the world whose oil shale is located close the surface. But it’s still expensive. Various areas have been put aside for extraction, study and possible pilot plants, including a specific block in the Kerak governate. Moreover, Jordan is relying on foreign expertise, specifically Estonia and Canada, when it comes to extraction, although much of this process will also rely on Jordan’s ability to practically re-invent the wheel when it comes to the technology utilized in the extraction of a local and unique environment.
Water was another subject discussed, especially the fact that there have been no attempts by the government to do anything serious about the issue. Jordan is one of the top 10 countries in the world when it comes to lack of water and yet there are no water recycling campaigns or significant water purification projects. The Red-Dead canal is something that is practically a pipe dream, especially when you consider that it involves the politics of Israel and Palestine, as well as the fact that the former is avoiding involvement as it would mean recognizing a significant portion of Palestinian Dead Sea land that it has annexed.
Nuclear energy was praised with some reservation concerning its dangers. Unfortunately, no one pointed out that it requires a great deal of water and fuel to operate, as well as it needing to be located close to the city in order to decrease the costs that come with transmission.
This is just a brief overview of what was discussed but the fun was in the discussion itself.
Abdel Salam Majali ended the meeting as usual, with a frank and blunt assessment. We are essentially a country of beggars, he stated. It is easier for us, as individuals, organizations and governments, to beg for things like water, fuel, or wheat, than it is to create something. This cycle would never be broken without innovation and forethought. He also admitted that if he was Prime Minister (again), his moves would be no different than what is being done now. This he attributed to the small rope of political mandate as well as the quick changes in governments that never seem to hang around long enough to do anything positive and are usually replaced with counterparts that shelve their predecessor’s plans.
The word “miracle” arose several times throughout the meeting and I found it quite interesting. We are all in search of something miraculous to save us. Discovery of oil wells, or an alternative that is just as powerful when it comes to resolving energy problems, water problems, and inflation problems, all of which are interconnected.
I wondered whether in fact we, as Arabs, have this tendency to point out the million sources of the problem but offer only one absolute solution. Nuclear is the only option. Oil shale is our savior.
This thought process is something I’ve felt in the tone of everyone who discusses these topics. The search for a silver bullet. Even I am guilty of it, with my absolute belief that this silver bullet lies in education.
When it comes to energy and inflation, I think we’re looking for the wrong type of miracle. The world we live in is dependent on oil and this drug of a fuel is unlike any other alternative. When we look at its uses, its costs, its applications, its production, its everything, there’s really nothing like it.
But a country like Jordan that is so poor in the essential natural resources, it stands out as an example that we should look towards everything and anything as part of a comprehensive solution to the problem. We should be scrambling from the desperation. Produce the oil shale, put up the solar panels, put up the windmills and the nuclear plants, create a public transportation system, limit car imports, launch a water recycling plant, invest in education and innovation, etc, etc. All of these are semi-solutions that do not solve the problem entirely, but play a role in alleviating it when they work as part of a plan; a mission. There is a need to stop thinking in absolutes.
Alas, as long as the water comes out of my faucet in the morning and the light switch works, who cares.
As for miracles…
The discussion immediately reminded me of Norman Borlaug.
During the 1940’s and up until the mid 1960’s, India had suffered from many famines (not to mention war), which lead to massive starvation and the US shipping over one fifth of its grain for the region, to India specifically. Paul R. Ehrlich famously wrote in his book The Population Bomb (1968): “I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks India will be self-sufficient in food by 1971…India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.”
A main source of the problem was wheat. Wheat grown in the region, grew tall and thin, competing for Sunlight but eventually collapsing under the weight of the grain and going to waste. Then along came Norman Borlaug, an American agricultural scientist who was busy in Mexico developing his dwarf wheat; a type of wheat that grew shorter and thicker. By 1965, India (and Pakistan at the time) decided to give it a try.
By 1968, Pakistan was self-sufficient in wheat production, as was India by 1974.
Bourlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.