Warning: Very long. And, I may attempt to use a truncated version of some of this, at least, in the print edition – though how the hell I’ll whittle this down to 19 inches, I have no idea. But hope springs eternal! Which, if you read it, you’ll see is the actual problem.
I got a call last week from a reader, who identified himself as conservative and was quick to say he only rarely agreed with me. But he wanted to talk about the Mideast, because he’d seen me say good things about Ron Paul and his preference for disengagement – isolationism, if you will, or at least neo-isolationism.
The caller agreed with this position completely. “I don’t understand,” he said, “why we are still in the Mideast. They hate us, we send them money, and they’re killing our people. Why don’t we just get out?”
I agreed with him, but avoided really getting into it, because we could have been there all day. For you know as well as I do why we’re enmeshed in the Mideast:
Oil. And the geopolitical clout that flows from that.
Given the strategic importance of the Mideast, of course the world’s preeminent superpower is going to be hip deep in the region. It’s not just the oil we want, though we do want it. It’s that we want to deny control of the region to competitors; we want to ensure the oil makes it to the market, rather than being funneled into sweetheart deals with countries like China.
China has gotten very friendly with Iran, and has deals in place to gain access to Iranian oil. And yet you don’t hear a lot about this when we get to talking about Iran as a “threat.” The reality is, this strategic partnership with China is every bit as unacceptable to the U.S. as is Iran’s pursuit of a nuke.
So, to withdraw from the region would be to invite others in. And we at least like to believe we ensure some sort of “control” by being there.
And yet, that “control” – which we really have very little of anyway – comes at an immense price.
I was fascinated to hear Mitt Romney, of all people, lament that price in last night’s debate. Mitt tried to come off as a peacenik, tried to pretend he understood that the people of the Mideast have a legitimate gripe with us. Of course, that’s completely counter to much of what he’s said this campaign cycle; and those of us who have been paying attention to this campaign realize that his debate rhetoric notwithstanding, Mitt has positioned himself as a neocon – and would likely sink us even deeper into the morass of the Mideast.
Will that “work,” will that make things any better? Nope. In the Mideast, what you’re seeing is what you get. So long as we are there, there will be people who resent our presence and our actions, so there will be terrorism. To maintain our presence – and respond to that terrorism – we’ll have to spend ever-more on our military. More Americans will have to die; and, as we saw in Libya (not to mention 9/11), not all of them will be soldiers.
This is the imperial price we pay. And it’s never presented to Americans this way. It’s always about “defending freedom,” as if that’s what we’re doing in the Mideast. It’s all noble; it’s all in the cause of selfless justice. Because cloaking it in this rhetoric is the only way you get Americans to agree to pay the price.
But consider that as this price continues to go up, the returns we are getting on this “investment” are beginning to ebb.
Gas prices remain high; I paid $3.69 per gallon this morning, and actually considered that a fairly good deal. This price may not be a pure reflection of supply and demand; speculation continues to play a role in the price of crude.
But in another respect, what we are seeing now is the manifestation of peak oil.
People misunderstand peak oil. It’s not that the oil is running out – though we may be on the down side of the bell curve, getting to the point where your local gas station dries up will be a long time in coming. Yet what’s happening is that we’ve already extracted most of the easy-to-get, cheap-to-get oil. So the emphasis shifts to “unconventional” sources – think the Canadian tar sands. Oil from sources like this is far more expensive to extract/refine, not to mention far more environmentally damaging. And you see this in the price.
And as long as the price of oil/gas remains as high as it is, “growth” – as we have known it – cannot return to its previous breakneck pace.
Now, there’s a case to be made that growth as we have known it will never resume at that pace anyway. I really believe that – American consumers are tapped out, the housing bubble may be reflating to a point but I like to think we’ve learned our lesson and won’t again use our homes as ATMs. But this – credit – was the only way Americans could continue to “improve” their “standard of living” for the past decade at least. What’s the basis of our individual prosperity in the future – lower wages? Higher medical costs, even for those with insurance? More credit that can never be repaid?
Now add to this permanently higher oil prices. Kunstler has a good piece this week suggesting what that might mean down the road:
For instance, the tensions of excessive scale and lack of resilience could put WalMart and everything like it out of business. It wouldn’t take much to fatally compromise the 12,000-mile supply lines and the ‘warehouse-on-wheels’ that the behemoth retailers depend on. $6 diesel fuel and a few more currency war provocations against China could put the schnitz on the operating system of national chain retail. It would be the end of the unacknowledged “entitlement” called “bargain shopping,”
He goes on to say that this might actually be a good thing:
also provide the opportunity to rebuild the very local and regional economies that these predatory outfits put to death thirty years ago – and, more importantly, open up a vast range of careers, positions, and roles for Americans to play in truly running their own commercial economies in their own home-towns, in particular young Americans otherwise demoralized by an economy that has left so many of them stranded.
I too think this would be a positive outcome – but it might be utterly overwhelmed by displacement. Higher costs; lost jobs, affecting mostly low-income people. All at a time when we’re ratcheting back the welfare state because it isn’t sustainable (and it isn’t). It’s not a recipe for societal peace.
So how do we avoid this, if in fact it’s possible to do so? The Mitt Romneys of the world would drill baby drill; and we may eventually have to do this. But don’t permit yourself any illusions; we will be courting environmental disaster on a scale we haven’t seen. Some of those disasters will happen.
That, too, will be the price we pay.
The alternate future is one where renewables play a far more prominent role. But – leaving aside for the moment the fact that the technology isn’t there to allow us to replace conventional energy with renewables – for us to truly transition to a renewable future would require government intervention on a massive scale. Government would have to declare this a national goal, directly contradicting what “the market” wants (because “the market” simply wants more of what it currently has; you want more cheap gas for your SUV, and so does everyone else, danger in the Mideast or environmental calamity be damned).
Government would need to subsidize renewables beyond what it already does; government would have to pick and choose winners, winning industries, winning companies. It’s clearly a recipe for cronyism and corruption and inefficiency. Could it work? Maybe – but politically, it would be extraordinarily contentious. Think of how people complain about the 10 percent ethanol in their gas now; imagine government requiring the nation to transition to renewables that ultimately don’t provide the same bang for the buck. The government will be telling Americans to settle for less, that’s how it will be spun. And that’s just not going to go down well at all.
So ultimately – what do we choose? Remaining mired in the Mideast, the graveyard of empires? Drilling offshore, in ANWR, pushing pipelines and refineries through or into local communities that don’t want them, more BP oil blowouts, endangered ecosystems and economic systems, as the fishermen of the Gulf could tell you about? Or a push for renewables destined to be wasteful and unpopular?
All three choices are bad choices; but understand, we’re not going to choose between them. We are going to choose all three.
Because what is the alternative? Biking to work, installing solar panels on your own roof in order to generate some of your own power? I’m all for that, I’m all for individual choices rather than institutional choices. But clearly, not everyone will choose wisely. We want what we want, and what we want is a society that runs exactly as it does right now – actually, we want the society where gas was $1.69 a gallon and the price of our homes was 20 percent higher. But we can’t have that society, we’re never going to have that society again. No Republican or Democrat can give it to you, though they’ll promise, and maybe you’ll believe.
And consider the cost that you will be required to pay in a quixotic attempt to sustain the unsustainable.
This end of growth, this constrained future is the future, I’m afraid. Here in the midst of a presidential campaign, no one can address these issues. Instead we’re told the future’s so bright we gotta wear shades. If only we do this; if only we do that. We must be strong in the mideast; we must attain energy independence.
Sounds good. Means nothing. Or rather, means added costs we may ultimately decide are too high. But unless or until individuals are prepared to make better choices, wiser choices, we’ll have no choice but to pay the bill.