The End of Oil Mean
The End of America?
By Robert Freeman
27 April, 2004
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig tells the story
of a South American Indian tribe that has devised an ingenious monkey
trap. The Indians cut off the small end of a coconut and stuff it with
sweetmeats and rice. They tether the other end to a stake and place
it in a clearing.
Soon, a monkey smells
the treats inside and comes to see what it is. It can just barely get
its hand into the coconut but, stuffed with booty, it cannot pull the
hand back out. The Indians easily walk up to the monkey and capture
it. Even as the Indians approach, the monkey screams in horror, not
only in fear of its captors, but equally as much, one imagines, in recognition
of the tragedy of its own lethal but still unalterable greed.
Pirsig uses the
story to illustrate the problem of value rigidity. The monkey cannot
properly evaluate the relative worth of a handful of food compared to
its life. It chooses wrongly, catastrophically so, dooming itself by
its own short-term fixation on a relatively paltry pleasure.
America has its
own hand in a coconut, one that may doom it just as surely as the monkey.
That coconut is its dependence on cheap oil in a world where oil will
soon come to an end. The choice we face (whether to let the food go
or hold onto it) is whether to wean ourselves off of oilto quickly
evolve a new economy and a new basis for civilizationor to continue
to secure stable supplies from the rest of the world by force.
As with Pirsigs
monkey, the alternative consequences of each choice could not be more
dramatic. Weaning ourselves off of cheap oil, while not easy, will help
ensure the vitality of the American economy and the survival of its
political system. Choosing the route of force will almost certainly
destroy the economy and doom Americas short experiment in democracy.
To date, we have
chosen the second alternative: to secure oil by force. The evidence
of its consequences are all around us. They include the titanic US budget
and trade deficits funding a gargantuan, globally-deployed military
and the Patriot Act and its starkly anti-democratic rescissions of civil
liberties. There is little time left to change this choice before its
consequences become irreversible.
The world is quickly
running out of oil. In the year 2000, global production stood at 76
Million Barrels per Day (MBD). By 2020, demand is forecast to reach
112 MBD, an increase of 47%. But additions to proven reserves have virtually
stopped and it is clear that pumping at present rates is unsustainable.
Estimates of the date of peak global production vary with
some experts saying it already may have occurred as early as the year
2000. New Scientist magazine recently placed the year of peak production
in 2004. Virtually all experts believe it will almost certainly occur
before the end of this decade.
And the rate of
depletion is accelerating. Imagine a production curve that rises slowly
over 145 yearsthe time since oil was discovered in Pennsylvania
in 1859. Over this time, the entire world shifted to oil as the foundation
of industrial civilization. It invested over one hundreds trillion dollars
in a physical infrastructure and an economic system run entirely on
oil. But oil production is now at its peak and the right hand side of
the curve is a virtual drop off. Known reserves are being drawn down
at 4 times the rate of new discoveries.
The reason for the
drop off is that not only have all the big discoveries already
been made, the rate of consumption is increasing dramatically. Annual
world energy use is up five times since 1945. Increases are now driven
by massive developing countriesChina, India, Brazilgrowing
and emulating first or at least second world consumption standards.
Fixed supply. Stalled discoveries. Sharply increased consumption. This
is the formula for global oil depletion within the next few decades.
The situation is
especially critical in the US. With barely 4% of the worlds population,
the US consumes 26% of the worlds energy. But the US produced
only 9 MBD in 2000 while consuming 19 MBD. It made up the difference
by importing 10 MBD, or 53% of its needs. By 2020, the US Department
of Energy forecasts domestic demand will grow to 25 MBD but production
will be down to 7 MBD. The daily shortfall of 18 MBD or 72% of needs,
will all need to be imported.
Perhaps it goes
without saying but it deserves repeating anyway: oil is the sine qua
non of industrial civilizationthe one thing without
which such civilization cannot exist. All of the worlds 600 million
automobiles depend on oil. So do virtually all other commodities and
critical processes: airlines, chemicals, plastics, medicines, agriculture,
heating, etc. Almost all of the increase in world food productivity
over the past 50 years is attributable to increases in the use of oil-derived
additives: pesticides; herbicides; fungicides; fertilizers; and machinery.
When oil is gone,
civilization will be stupendously different. The onset of rapid depletion
will trigger convulsions on a global scale, including, likely, global
pandemics and die-offs of significant portions of the worlds human
population. The have countries will face the necessity kicking
the have-nots out of the global lifeboat in order to assure
their own survival. Even before such conditions are reached, inelastic
supply interacting with inelastic demand will drive the price of oil
and oil-derived commodities through the stratosphere, effecting by market
forces alone massive shifts in the current distribution of global wealth.
If the US economy
is not to grind to a halt under these circumstances it must choose one
of three alternate strategies: dramatically lower its living standards
(something it is not willing to do); substantially increase the energy
efficiency of its economy; or make up the shortfall by securing supplies
from other countries. President Bushs National Energy Policy published
in March 2001 explicitly commits the US to the third choice: Grab the
Oil. It is this choice that is now driving US military and national
security policy. And, in fact, the past 60 years of US policy in the
Middle East can only be understood as the effort to control access to
the worlds largest supply of oil.
Witness, for example,
the deep US embrace of Saudi Arabia since World War II. One quarter
of all US weapons sales between 1950 and 2000 went to Saudi Arabia despite
its horrifically repressive, literally medieval tribal nature. The CIAs
overthrow of Mohamed Mosadegh in Iran in 1953 after he nationalized
his countrys oil is another example. So, too, was the US strategic
embrace of Israel during the 1967 Six Day War. The US was deeply mired
in Vietnam but needed a cop on the beat to challenge Arab
statesEgypt, Iraq, Syria, Yementhat were going Soviet.
It has stuck with that relationship ever since.
More recent examples
of national strategy in bondage to the compulsion for oil include US
support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran/Iraq War; its support for Osama
bin Laden in the Afghanistan War against the Soviet Union; and, of course,
the most recent invasion of Iraq to seize its oilfields and forward
position US forces for an invasion of neighboring Saudi Arabia when
it is inevitably destroyed by internal civil war. And under a Grab the
Oil strategy, militarization of US society will only deepen.
The reason is that
a very major portion of the worlds oil is, by accident of geology,
in the hands of states hostile to the US. Fully 60% percent of the worlds
proven reserves of oil are in the Persian Gulf. They lie beneath Muslim
countries undergoing a religious revolution that wants to return the
industrial world to a pre-modern order governed by a fundamentalist
Islamic theocracy. Saudi Arabia alone controls 25% of all the worlds
oil, more than that of North America, South America, Europe and Africa
combined. Kuwait, Iran and Iraq, each control approximately 10% of the
Another 15% of the
worlds oil lies in the Caspian Sea region, also a dominantly Muslim
region. It includes a group of post-Soviet, satellite and buffer states
that lack any semblance of legal or market systems. They are extraordinarily
corrupt, really just Gangster Thugocracies masquerading as countries.
Think Afghanistan. Both Russia and China consider this region part of
their sphere of strategic influence portending significant
clashes for the US over coming decades.
As long as the US
chooses the Grab the Oil alternative, the implications for national
policy are inescapable. The combination of all these factsfixed
supply, rapid depletion, lack of alternatives, severity of consequences,
and hostility of current stockholding countriesdrive the US to
HAVE to adopt an aggressive (pre-emptive) military posture and to carry
out a nakedly colonial expropriation of resources from weaker countries
around the world.
This is why the
US operates some 700 military bases around the world and spends over
half a trillion dollars per year on military affairs, more than all
the rest of the worldits allies includedcombined.
This is why the Defense Departments latest Quadrennial Review
stated, The US must retain the capability to send well-armed and
logistically supported forces to critical points around the globe, even
in the face of enemy opposition. This is why Pentagon brass say
internally that current force levels are inadequate to the strategic
challenges they face and that they will have to re-instate the draft
after the 2004 elections.
But the provocation
occasioned by grabbing the oil, especially from nations ideologically
hostile to the US, means that military attacks on the US and the recourse
to military responses will only intensify until the US is embroiled
in unending global conflict. This is the perverse genius of the Grab
the Oil strategy: it comes with its own built-in escalation, its own
justification for ever more militarizationwithout limit. It will
blithely consume the entire US economy, the entire society, without
being sated. It is, in homage to Orwell, Perpetual War for Perpetual
In his first released
tape after 9/11, Osama bin Laden stated that he carried out the attacks
for three reasons: 1) to drive US military forces from Saudi Arabia,
the most sacred place of Islam; 2) to avenge the deaths of over half
a million Iraqi children killed, according to UNICEF, as a result of
the US-sponsored embargo of the 1990s; and, 3) to punish US sponsorship
of Israeli oppression against the Palestinian people. Oil and the need
to control it are critically implicated in all three reasons.
But now comes the
sobering part. In response to the 9/11 attacks, Secretary of Defense
Donald Rumsfeld stated that the US was engaged in
to forty year war (!) against fundamentalist Islam. It is the
fever of War, of course, that becomes the all-purpose justification
for the rollback of civil liberties. Lincoln used the Civil War to justify
the suspension of habeas corpus. Roosevelt used the cover of World War
II to inter hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans. And now Bush
is using the self-ratcheting War on Terror to effect even
more sweeping, perhaps permanent rescissions of civil liberties.
Under the Patriot
Act, a person can be arrested without probable cause, held indefinitely
without being charged, tried without a lawyer or a jury, sentenced without
the opportunity to appeal, and put to deathall without notification
anybody. This is simply a Soviet Gulag and it has been rationalized
by the hysterical over-hyping of the War on Terror. The fact that it
is not yet widespread does not diminish the more important fact that
it has been put in place precisely in anticipation of such procedures
needing to be being carried out on a mass scale in the future.
The broader implications
of the Patriot Acts go far beyond the abusive treatment of criminals
or terrorists. Their portent can be glimpsed in the language used to
justify them. When Attorney General John Ashcroft testified on behalf
of the Act, he stated,
those who oppose us are providing
aid and comfort to the enemy. These are carefully chosen words.
Aid and comfort to the enemy are the words used in the Constitution
to define Treason, the most fateful of crimes against the state. In
other words, protest against the governmentthe singular right
without which America would not even existis now being defined
as trying to overthrow the government.
And by the internal
logic of a global Oil Empire, this is entirely reasonable. The needs
of the people of any one country must be subordinated to the larger
agenda of Empire itself. This is what the Romans learned in 27 B.C.
when Augustus proclaimed himself Emperor. It was the end of the Roman
Republic and the disappearance of representative government on earth
for almost 1,700 years, until the English Civil Wars in the 1600s. That
is the reality we are confronting todayoffering up our democracy
in propitiation to an Empire for Oil. It will be a fateful, irreversible
Returning to Pirsigs
metaphor, the choice of a Grab the Oil strategy is the equivalent of
the monkey holding onto the handful of food, remaining trapped by the
coconut. It is an ironclad guarantee of escalating global conflict,
isolation of the US in the world, unremitting attacks on the US by those
whose oil is being expropriated and whose societies are being dominated,
the militarization of the US economy, the irreversible rescission of
civil liberties, and the eventual extinguishment of American democracy
itself. It is the conscious, self-inflicted consignment to political
and economic death.
But the coconut
metaphor, remember, involves a choicefood or freedom. What, then,
is the alternative, the letting go of the paltry handful of food in
conscious preference for the life of continued freedom?
to Grab the Oil is to dispense with the hobbling dependency on oil itself
and to quickly wean the country off of it. Call it the path of Energy
Reconfiguration. It is to declare a modern day Manhattan Project aimed
at minimizing the draw down in the worlds finite stocks of oil,
extending their life, and mitigating the calamity inherent in their
rapid exhaustion. It means building a physical infrastructure to the
economy that is based on an alternative to oil. And it means doing this,
not unilaterally or militarily as the US is doing now, but in peaceful
partnership with other countries of the world, the other counties in
our shared global lifeboat that are also threatened by the end of oil.
In more specific
terms, energy reconfiguration means retrofitting all of the nations
buildings, both commercial and residential, to double their energy efficiency.
It means a crash program to shift the transportation systemcars,
trucksto a basis that uses perhaps half as much oil per year.
This is well within reach of current technology. Energy Reconfiguration
means using biotechnology to develop crops that require much less fertilizers,
pesticides, herbicides and machinery to harvest. It means refitting
industrial and commercial processeslighting, heating, appliances,
automation, etc.so that they, too, consume far less energy than
they do today. It means increasing efficiency, reducing consumption,
and building sustainable, long-term alternatives in every arena in which
the economy uses oil.
Such a program would
return incalculable benefits to national security, the economy, and
to the environment.
In terms of national
security, Energy Reconfiguration greatly reduces the countys susceptibility
to oil blackmail. It reduces the need for provocative adventurism into
foreign countries in pursuit of oil. As such, it reduces the incentive
for terrorism against the US. And by reducing such threats, it reduces
the need for a sprawling, expensive military abroad and a repressive
police state at home. Savings in military costsperhaps on the
order of hundreds of billions of dollars a yearcould well pay
for such a program. The saving of democracy, of course, is priceless.
The economic benefits
are at least equally impressive. By reducing energy imports, the US
would reduce its hemorrhaging trade deficit and the mortgaging of the
nations future that such borrowing implies. A national corps of
workers set to retrofitting the nations homes and businesses for
energy efficiency would address employment problems for decades in a
way that could not be outsourced to Mexico or India or China. And a
more efficient industrial infrastructure would make all goods made in
America more competitive with those made abroad. In all of these ways,
Energy Reconfiguration raises, not lowers, the average standard of living
while increasing the resilience of the economy as a whole.
also delivers enormousperhaps incalculablebenefits to the
environment. By reducing energy intensity, it reduces the impact on
the biotic carrying systems of any level of economic activity. Global
warming may be the single most potent threat to global stability today.
A recently leaked Pentagon report predicted that rapid climate change
may well set off global competition for food and water supplies and,
in the worst scenarios, spark nuclear war. If the US did no more than
change from being the most energy inefficient economy in the industrial
world to being of only average efficiency, it would dramatically slow
the environmental destruction that hangs like a sword over the entire
Are there any precedents
for such an ambitious vision? In the 1980s China adopted a nationwide
energy efficiency program. Within a decade, overall energy intensity
fell by 50% while economic growth led the developing world. Also in
the 1980s, Denmark began a crash program in wind-generated electricity.
Today, wind provides 10% of Denmarks electricity while Denmark
makes 60% of all the wind turbines sold in the world. Indias Renewable
Energy Development Agency used a similar set of programs beginning in
1987 to reduce oil based electricity usage. Today, India is the largest
user of photovoltaic systems in the world.
Even within the
US there are ample precedents for optimism. The US economy was 42% more
energy efficient in 2000 than it was in the 1970s when the Arab oil
embargoes shocked the country into action. Corporate Average Fuel Economy
(CAFÉ) standards more than doubled the average mileage of US
automobiles between 1975 and 1985 before being effectively abandoned
in the late 1980s. The National Research Council has reported that efficiency
programs sponsored by the Department of Energy returned $20 for every
$1 invested, making them arguably one of the best investments in the
economy even before a change in national energy strategy.
We should harbor
no illusions, however, that adopting such a strategy will be easy. The
military and energy industries in which the Bush family is so heavily
invested will vigorously resist such a policy. And the energy bill now
making its way through Congress is nothing so much as a testament to
the death grip the energy industry holds on the American people. It
provides tens of billions of dollars of subsidies and giveaways to energy
companies while actually encouraging more intensive energy use. As the
poster boy of these leviathans, President Bush expressed their sentiments
best: We need an energy policy that encourages consumption.
What more need be said?
In the end, the
choice of these two alternativesGrab the Oil or Energy Reconfigurationis
much bigger than oil alone. It is a choice about the fundamental ethos
and, in fact, the very nature of the country. Most immediately, it is
about democracy versus empire. In economic terms, it is about prosperity
or poverty. In engineering terms, it is a matter of efficiency over
waste. In moral terms this is the choice of sufficiency or gluttony.
From the standpoint of the environment, it is a preference for stewardship
over continued predation. In the ways the US deals with other countries
it is the choice of co-operation versus dominance. And in spiritual
terms, it is the choice of hope, freedom and purpose over fear, dependency
and despair. In this sense, this is truly the decision that will define
the future of America and perhaps the world.
A final word on
Pirsigs monkey. The monkey is doomed but not tragic. For the monkey
cannot really comprehend the fateful implications of its choice: that
its greed assures its doom. In the case of people and a country, however,
that is not the case. It is no accident that President Bush has not
asked any sacrifices of the country for his War on Terror. That is part
of the seduction, like the candy a drug pusher uses to lure an unsuspecting
But we cannot, like
the monkey, claim to be unaware of the choice we are making. Awareness
of such choices is part of the burden of mature citizenship. Nor can
we feign ignorance of the consequences. Simply put, our present course
will cost us our country. And our doom will be compounded by incalculable
tragedy and what Lincoln once called the last best hope for mankind
will, indeed, perish from this earth. Unless, that is, we find the vision,
the wisdom and the courage to let go that handful of paltry treats and
choose freedom instead.
The article was
first published on www.commondreams.org
Robert Freeman writes about economics and education. He can be reached
at . email@example.com