John Humphrys:

We’re planning a war, but don’t mention the oil...

No Jews were killed in the twin towers on September 11. That proves it was a Zionist plot. Except, of course, that many died. Hundreds of them. Which proves that the conspiracy theory is rubbish. Most conspiracy theories are.

You and I, world-weary sophisticates that we are, may laugh at this sort of stuff but not everybody does. According to the latest survey of Muslim opinion in Britain, there is still a significant minority who refuse to accept that Muslim terrorists had anything to do with September 11. To them there is indeed a big conspiracy. So try another conspiracy theory for size.

This one’s about Iraq. You can forget all the talk of an attack on Iraq being a part of the so-called war on terror. You can ignore all the hype about Saddam developing weapons of mass destruction. All of that is a cover. There is one reason alone why America and Britain want to go to war with Iraq. Oil.

George W Bush is just a dupe, run by a small group of ruthless oilmen who’ve controlled every step in his career since he was old enough to tie his own shoelaces. When he was a young man they even gave him a company to play with and let him make some money of his own. Eventually they installed him in the White House. Now it’s payback time. They want to get their grubby paws on Iraqi oil and the only way to do that is to get rid of Saddam first.

No doubt you’ve heard all that before too. You may even buy into part of it. You may be uneasy about the motives driving some of Bush’s men. But you can’t accept that Bush, let alone Tony Blair, would even contemplate going to war for such entirely base motives — sacrificing the lives of wholly innocent men, women and children for a few billion barrels of black gold. Neither can I. We all like to think that our leaders take the ultimate sanction for only the most noble, selfless reasons.

Yet they don’t. They go to war to protect our national interests. If that happens coincidentally to serve the common good, fine and dandy. But the first responsibility of every government is national security.

Security is about more than protecting us against our enemies. Societies are vulnerable in other ways and economic dependence is one of them. Our entire economic system and the lifestyle it supports depend on oil. Dealing with that dependence is as much a part of a government’s responsibility as protecting us from terrorists.

More than 85% of the world’s energy needs are supplied by hydrocarbons. Oil accounts for the biggest chunk by far. And it’s running out. Yes, I know this is a statement of the blindingly obvious. Oil is a finite resource and, by definition, it started to run out the day the first Texan oil well spouted. Waiting for new oil lakes to form under the earth’s crust will take more time than we have. The question is not whether it will last for ever, but for how long. So let’s try to be a little more precise. The amount of oil discovered every decade is less than that found in the previous one. The amount discovered in 2000 was less than half of what the world consumed in that year alone. And according to geologists such as Dr Colin Campbell of the Centre for Oil Depletion Analysis, production is about to peak.

New discoveries tend to be made in increasingly inaccessible places. You would not go looking for oil under 6,000ft of ocean unless you had to. Anyway, salvation does not lie there. Campbell reckons there is only enough oil beneath the oceans to supply the world for less than four years.

Even so, he says production should not fall for about 20 years. So if we carry on consuming at the current rate, we’ll be fine until then.

That’s a mighty big if. China alone has 20 times our population and is industrialising at a scary rate. Aircraft are the thirstiest beasts ever created and more of us want to go to more places with cheap tickets more often than ever before. The US Department of Energy reckons that total world consumption will increase by 54% by 2020. It’s a simple sum. By the time your sweet little daughter is fighting off drunken louts in her first year at university there will be half as much demand again for the same amount of supply. And after that it begins to get really bad. Campbell has a colourful way of putting it: “Hydrocarbon man, now virtually the sole surviving human sub-species, will certainly be extinct by the end of this century.”

Still don’t believe the forecasts? Still recalling how they’ve got it wrong in the past? Well, the American who won Olympic gold medals for pessimism, M King Hubbert, was laughed at back in 1949 when he said the era of fossil fuel would not last long. We laughed at him again in 1956 when he predicted that America’s own oil production would start declining around 1970.

Guess what? He got it right. He was bang on target. And we all know what happens when a commodity starts getting scarce. Prices rise. Steep rises in oil prices have a nasty habit of triggering recessions. Hence our vulnerability — and our dependence on the Middle East in particular. Two-thirds of the proven oil reserves are in that region and Iraq is sitting on the second biggest reserves in the world. The conspiracy theory begins to look a shade less absurd in this context.

Of course we could simply end the sanctions against Iraq and buy the stuff. How much more agreeable to spend those billions on oil than on bombs.

But this is where politics comes into it again. Sure, some of the money might end up feeding children who could do with a square meal or rebuilding and equipping some crumbling hospitals. But not all of it. Saddam would increase his power as the billions flowed in. That’s the last thing the Americans want. They want Saddam dead and buried, replaced by a suitably co-operative regime.

Not that they can be sure it will end up like that. If the war goes badly — and sometimes wars do — oil supplies could be less secure. The great fear is creating such instability in the region that we end up with a fundamentalist regime in Saudi Arabia. The new enemy would control even more oil than Iraq.

For us it is a worrying dilemma. For the people of Iraq it may be a matter of life or death. And yet it is not something that is discussed openly by democratic governments. Hence the conspiracy theories. Conspiracies must, by definition, be unspoken.

If the explicit connection were made between oil and war, the international reaction would be devastating. Imagine the reaction in Muslim countries to proof that the West was pursuing its economic self-interest by shedding the blood of innocent people. The Americans could kiss goodbye to any thoughts of an international coalition.

Tony Blair has problems selling a war to a sceptical Britain. He would not be helped by newspapers displaying a photograph of a barrel of oil and the bloody corpse of a baby on the facing page.

So this part of the war scenario cannot be discussed. However much presidents and prime ministers may be advised that they must sometimes act ruthlessly to protect our energy and, therefore, our national interest, they have to tiptoe around the subject.

It is difficult enough to talk openly about what may need to be done in wars when our very survival is at stake. How much more difficult when what we may be protecting is economic prosperity.

There are really only two ways out of this. One is to wean ourselves off our dependence on oil — but you can forget that. There’s as much chance of the Americans using less oil as there is of their breathing less oxygen — at least until there is a realistic alternative. And that’s still a long way off. The other is for politicians to speak the unspeakable and risk the political consequences.

Don’t hold your breath. It is much easier to dismiss those who raise such difficult questions as conspiracy nutters.