The House Of Cards
By Dan Benbow
25 October, 2005
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, buried under the transitory media focus on the one-third of local National Guard protecting oil in Iraq and the related suffering of America’s urban poor on home soil were urgent articles about the damage Katrina had done to oil refineries located in the Gulf of Mexico. Gas prices that had already gone up 20% over the previous year were expected to go higher, possibly much higher.
Gas prices quickly rose to more than $3/gallon, about half what Western Europeans pay. Opportunistic lawmakers proposed suspension of the gas tax as paroxysms of panic surfaced in long gas lines reminiscent of the late ‘70’s, when the CIA's 25-year experiment in replacing a popularly-elected leader with an oil supply-friendly dictator backfired in Iran. The panic died, the media turned the public eye back to the flavor of the moment, and the corporate predators once again slipped back into the shadows waving their bags of gold to the gods of deregulation.
Absent in the 24-hour news cycle was a serious public dialogue about the larger implications of Katrina, from America’s abandonment of its most vulnerable citizens to the folly of thinking man can develop anytime, anywhere by “taming the land” to the utter insanity of constructing an economy and a lifestyle around a finite resource.
Ending dependence on foreign oil has gotten lip service from American leaders since 1973, when OPEC retaliated against the United States for its support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War, but little has been done because America’s drivers are a special interest without peer.
The second major American oil crisis came in 1979, when the price of oil doubled in six months during the Iranian revolution. Jimmy Carter was saddled with the fallout, and made the colossal political mistake of telling Americans the truth: that they were in a bad time that ought to be a reminder of the need for short-term sacrifice in service to long-term sustainability. Voters responded by pulling the lever for Ronald Reagan’s sacrifice-free “optimism.” 1980 was a particularly good year for Big Oil. Reagan won with the expectation that he would open public lands for drilling and gut government funding for the competition, alternative fuel research, and Reagan’s future compañero Saddam Hussein picked up a key to the city of Detroit.
Reagan didn’t pester Americans with sober talk about conservation, but he did take action on alternative fuel with substantial cuts in their funding. A worldwide recession in ’81 and ’82 lowered the price of crude oil by 75%, which spurred an American economic recovery and a premature death of the 70’s conservation spirit. The low price of oil in (most of) the twentysome years since opened the showroom gates to minivans and SUVs, perhaps the deadliest penis substitute ever. U.S. oil consumption since Reagan’s inauguration has grown 25%, to three gallons/day per capita, twice that of our nearest competitor, Western Europe.
2004 saw the biggest annual increase in world oil consumption ever (3.4%), a fact that ought to give pause to globalizationistas who pontificate about the oozing potentialities of America’s extraction-based economic model. Much is said about the rise of China and India in the oil sweepstakes, but China’s per capita consumption is currently just 1/15th that of the U.S., 5% of the world that guzzles 25% of the oil. U.S. domestic oil production peaked in 1970, guiding the United States military presence ever deeper into the Middle East as imports (currently between 53 – 65%) fill an increasingly larger portion of demand. The National Energy Policy 2001 report predicts that domestic oil production will decrease 18% by 2020, while consumption will grow 31%.
Saudi Arabia, an ally of sixty years standing with the largest reserves in the world, promises to open the spigot to meet Western demand and keep prices stable, but refuses to release credible metrics of its supplies, feeding uncertainty about the size of the world oil supply. Some experts claim that we may’ve already reached “peak oil,” the point where half the world’s oil has been drilled and what’s left is harder (and more expensive) to find and extract. When investors get a suspicion that peak oil has been reached, prices are bound to go up. An increase in oil prices could conceivably cause or contribute to an international recession by raising prices on oil and all oil-related products, thereby raising prices and reducing spending on everything else. As is the case with all instances of oil addiction backlash, one person’s independence becomes another’s purgatory, as severe consequences of the first world lifestyle ricochet indiscriminately worldwide.
Economic hardship is only one of several potentially catastrophic ramifications of oil addiction. In between Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, MIT climatologist Kerry Emanuel released a study in Nature magazine theorizing that global warming was significantly exacerbating hurricanes by warming up the ocean. Data showed that hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico have doubled in intensity and duration over the past three decades. Emanuel’s study was echoed by Georgia Institute of Technology's recent study and the 2001 finding of the Journal of Climate that greenhouse gases could triple the number of category five hurricanes.
Skeptics of a connection between warming and hurricanes claim that overdevelopment of coastlines has skewed impressions of recent storms, and that the data on past storms is too scarce to draw long-term conclusions about present storms. The overdevelopment argument has merit, and is applicable to California as well, where mega population centers bestride an earthquake fault line. But the reflexive argument that extreme natural phenomena are merely cyclical has taken a thorough drubbing in the one-time debate over the existence and causes of global warming. The rapid changes all around us and the the overwhelming scientific consensus are now so obvious that even George W. Bush, the inspiration for the Fossil Fuel Hall of Fame, recently said “We know the surface of the Earth is warmer and an increase in greenhouse gases caused by human activity is contributing to the problem.”
In fact, recent events such as record thinning of Arctic ice this September, and a related projection that the Arctic will be ice-free during the summer by the end of this century for the first time in a million years, hint that today's seemingly gloomy theories may be too optimistic Here a study by the Australia Medical Association predicting that warming could cause the spread of deadly viruses (smallpox, polio, influenza, Hepatitis A), there a prediction by the United Nations University that global warming “will create up to 50 million environmental refugees by the end of the decade…”
The severe weather disruptions over the past decade have come from a gain of just one degree Fahrenheit over the last century. The next century will bring an increase of one degree minimum, and probably more, as oil consumption in the United States and developing countries continues to grow. Reputable climate science predicts more of what we’ve already seen and worse – drought, desertification, crop damage, vanishing habitats, species extinction, rising sea levels, mass flooding, an increase in the number and intensity of hurricanes, cyclones, wildfires and heat waves of the kind that left over 35,000 dead in Western Europe in August 2003, the hottest European summer in 500 years.
As global warming gently wafts into the public consciousness like the smoke trilling through the bottom of the doorway, the threat of Al Qaeda takes center stage in the collective American mind. Al Qaeda sprang from the Mujahedin (once called "the moral equivalents of the Founding Fathers" by Ronald Reagan), the Muslim nationalists who repelled the Russian Army with generous CIA investment in the ‘80s.
Once the Russians retreated, the U.S. and British abandoned Afghanistan and left a vacuum of chaos and civil war that the Taliban eventually capitalized on. As ever, the vast majority of Americans are unaware of the latest greatest Frankenstein narrative, making it easier to pitch black and white boilerplate of the with us or against us variety.
9/11 was extraordinarily barbaric and completely unjustifiable, but no historical event of such magnitude happens in a vacuum. According to a study conducted in the time prior to 9/11 by Maritz Marketing (for Ford), and later later cited in the November 2001 Harper's Index, fuel economy ranked 20th of 35 criteria Americans used when buying an automobile. Callous indifference to passing pollution, ozone depletion, unsustainability and violent ecosystem disruptions on to present and future generations was and is enabled by a a continually growing U.S. military presence massed in the oiligarchies of Central Asia. The invasion of Iraq was just one part of a larger plan to commandeer the resources in the Persian Gulf – where at least 60% of the world’s oil is located – to control the world, China and Russia in particular, and delay America’s day of reckoning.
The colonization of the Middle East gained currency on the neo ("new") American right in 1973, when OPEC countries nationalized oil, which caused huge spikes in the cost of a barrel and spiraling inflation in the U.S.
Due to the disaster in Vietnam, direct military action was not a popular option for some time after, so Ronald Reagan worked through back channels, making nice with dictators in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other oil kingdoms, and creating the Joint Task Force-Middle East to protect oil tankers in the Gulf. In the early nineties, Bush Sr. used Gulf War I as a platform to establish bases in Saudi Arabia and adjoining areas, stoking Al Qaeda’s primary grievance.
Following U.S. military operations in Kuwait, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney drew up The Defense Planning Guidance, a brief calling for US world dominance via means of a mobile, technologically-advanced military rapidly deployable on up to two fronts at once, unilaterally and preemptively if necessary. Controlling the world’s oil supply to exert leverage in the international economy was among the central goals outlined.
When Cheney’s baby was leaked to the New York Times in 1992, George Bush Sr.’s re-election campaign stuck their tail between their legs and Cheney denied ownership of the document’s clearly stated intent, but as the right never tires of saying, 9/11 changed everything. Today Cheney’s vision is reality, as the United States military spends in excess of a billion dollars a day, about as much as the rest of the world combined, to maintain over 700 bases around the world - with many more to follow, if the neocon mandarins have their way.
The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have provided the US with a foothold to cement a network presence now in Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Far from the eyes of the press and the public, the administration is in talks to muscle in on old Soviet territory (with bases in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan and Georgia), Eastern Europe (Romania, Poland, Bulgaria), and Asia to the West (Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia), while pulling out of useless pacifist redoubts like Germany and France. With American oil imports certain to increase substantially, the occupation trend is likely to continue, further inflaming the battle with Al Qaeda and other Muslim groups opposed to occupation.
The hawk of today not surprisingly finds his base of support in have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too areas of the country that bray about small government and self-sufficiency while getting more from the federal government than they pay in while being the most helpless oil addicts in the world. These transit-last areas of the country most sincerely truck in a desire for vengeance while conveniently being unlikely to suffer suicide bombings, due to lack of population concentrations. The distance from the realities of war is well-reflected by Rush Limbaugh's GITMO t-shirts and Sony's trademark of the phrase "Shock and Awe" for a videogame the second day of Iraq II.
America’s utter failure to change the hearts and minds of foreign “savages” is reflected by polls in the Middle East consistently showing overwhelming distrust of the motives of the United States, Bush in particular, whose approval ratings in the region run about even with cholera and colon cancer.
No matter how ugly the situation in Iraq becomes, between 35 and 40% of Americans are lockstepped into the neocon plant of bringing democracy to the Midde East with a coalition of troops from a host of undemocratic countries. Unflinching jingoism doesn’t change the inescapable fact that no amount of military spending can purchase complete control over the rules of engagement. Absent negotiations on troop withdrawals and ultimately, Middle Eastern autonomy, the West is bound to take some pretty big lumps. It’s no coincidence that the victims of Al Qaeda’s last three big strikes came from countries that supported the invasion of Iraq; exploding populations of poor and desperate young men across Central Asia with no freedom and little hope are sure to provide an endless supply of future suicide bombers. The longer and more forcefully the West meddles, the higher the stakes and the larger the likelihood of a chemical or nuclear terrorist attack that eclipses 9/11 in devastation, disruption, fear, anxiety, and damage to democratic institutions.
There are plenty of things we can do at home to reverse – or at least slow down - this selfish and destructive slide. First there’s common sense: shutting lights, fans and powerstrips off, turning the heat/air conditioning down or off by dressing for the weather, keeping our homes well-insulated, using clotheslines when possible, washing dishes manually, and/or buying fuel-efficient appliances.
Those who can’t live without a car can consider scooters (up to 90 MPG), motorcycles, or fuel-efficient cars, and should be smart enough to save lives and gas by driving the speed limit and keeping tuned up. Those who don’t have lengthy commutes can walk or ride their bikes to work, while those a little further from their place of employ can use some combination of carpooling and public transportation.
Which brings us to the government. As explained in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, America’s auto companies padded their profit margins in the first half of the twentieth century by doing what they could to rid the States of public transportation. Once rail lines were ripped out quick-buck developers ushered the second half of the twentieth century in with a soulless postmodern nightmare of suburbs, strip malls and chain stores built around the automobile. As oil becomes more expensive, this development model will prove definitively to be what one could call “dumb growth.”
To counteract this gross miscalculation, future development could focus on restoring countrysides and revitalizing cities with locally grown food and bike lanes blended with more green space to restore balance with nature, along with high-density mixed used buildings with firm conservation codes constructed along well-funded public transportation corridors. Railroads as a transport option could come back into broader use and the government could shift tax incentives from the dirty energy sources of yesterday to the clean energies of tomorrow, which would encourage mass production of (and lowered costs for) renewable forms of energy. Since American business never does a damn thing unless the price is right, incentives could be given to auto companies to produce electric and hybrid autos.
I’m dreaming. Obviously sometimes there is no reasoning with a junkie. Skewering “politicians” from a faux-populist pose is ancient American sport, but given a choice between short-term sacrifice for long-term gain and a quick fix, a majority of Americans can be guaranteed to choose the latter, making it hard for elected followers at any level of government to the do the right thing. Public servants with vision will be needed to do what is necessary: all of the above plus lowering the speed limit, raising gas mileage standards slowly and surely, and disincentivizing driving with increases in registration fees, parking fees and other tickets.
Also pushing history forward like a long overdue colonic is the lawsuit. eight attorney generals filed a lawsuit against five energy companies responsible for 10% of America's carbon dioxide emissions Given time, lawsuits forcing the hand of polluters on climate change could bear fruit, though a solid majority of today’s federal judges are Republican appointees who genuflect before Big Business.
The best idea, given the overwhelming reality of America’s sense of resource entitlement, has long since been the norm in Western Europe: steep gas taxes. Since drivers are already lowering the quality of life of and passing a tax on to everyone by shrinking a dwindling energy supply and raising prices on all oil-based goods and services, this makes perfect sense. In Western Europe, one sees very few big, dumb, tacky tanks of the Expedition, Escalade, Suburban model, and people don’t exactly miss the 134 tons of carbon dioxide a Suburban spews into the air over its bloated lifetime.
Another effective disincentive is a congestion charge. In 2003, to unclog horrid downtown traffic jams, London mayor London mayor Ken Livingstone levied a congestion charge of $8/day on any autos that came into downtown London. On the first day of the new policy, 60,000 fewer autos made their way in to downtown London; in the time since, congestion has decreased substantially, by up to 20%. Though Tony Blair and like-minded lily-livered career politicians bailed on Livingstone’s brave policy for fear of political retribution, Livingstone was rewarded for his vision with a cozy re-election margin.
Months earlier, Livingstone, the rare politician of conviction, had referred to George W. Bush as the "greatest threat to life on this planet that we've most probably ever seen." The comment was a crystalline reflection of worldwide opinion, but it got little play in the media chain that spoonfeeds information to the better portion of American voters. No matter what happens on the world stage, many Americans remain oblivious to – and in some cases resentful of - the whys and wherefores of this universal global distrust, a fact still in evidence in a recent ABC poll showing that 66% of Americans don't feel they will be effected by global warming.
Let’s hope it doesn’t take a series of unambiguously cataclysmic events, natural or otherwise, to wake the little piggies up to the obvious: they don’t hate us for our freedoms; they hate us for our greed.
© Dan Benbow, 2005