Thursday, August 18, 2005

You can't have your oil and eat it too

When you have to make a choice and don't make it, that is in itself a choice. William James

Paul Begala's, Anti-War Imagery and the Iconography of Hate, at TPMCafe brought me back to the 70s, a time when American life, at least in my recollection, seemed far less self assured. With the benefit of hindsight I believe I can see why. The nation was unconvinced of the vision laid out by the dreamers of the day. While Mr. Begala may be correct in his views, I don't think the Democratic Party's fall from grace in the public mind had as much to do with Vietnam as it did with the rejection of the hard work which was part and parcel of the 70's narrative. Energy conservation efforts fizzled in the mid 80s, the nation turned away from the hard slog and is now facing the effects of that choice. Fortunately, I believe the Democratic narrative of the late 70s is far more compelling now, although it may need a new party to tell it well. While I enjoyed Begala's version, let's take a look at the Dude's version of That 70's Show.

The anti-Vietnam War, anti-corporate sentiment that carried the Democratic Party to victory in 1976 gave the nation President Jimmy Carter. As a testosterone fueled, hockey playin' teen, I thought Carter was something of a whimp. Looking back, I think I missed his wisdom and courage in the manic haze of my adolescence. Here was a guy who ran on, inter alia, the desperate need to wean the nation from it dependence on petroleum, as this excerpt from his address announcing his candidacy in 1974 attests:

We can then face together the tough long-range solutions to our economic woes. Our people are ready to make personal sacrifices when clear national economic policies are devised and understood.

We are grossly wasting our energy resources and other precious raw materials as though their supply was infinite. We must even face the prospect of changing our basic ways of living. This change will either be made on our own initiative in a planned and rational way, or forced on us with chaos and suffering by the inexorable laws of nature.

While energy independence was and is a common plank, what made Carter unique in my book is his willingness to risk losing the office telling the same story. Reading his 1980 State of the Union speech (warning: the references to Iran and Afghanistan might bring chills up your spine) you can still see the same message

The crises in Iran and Afghanistan have dramatized a very important lesson: Our excessive dependence on foreign oil is a clear and present danger to our Nation's security. The need has never been more urgent. At long last, we must have a clear, comprehensive energy policy for the United States.

As you well know, I have been working with the Congress in a concentrated and persistent way over the past 3 years to meet this need. We have made progress together. But Congress must act promptly now to complete final action on this vital energy legislation. Our Nation will then have a major conservation effort, important initiatives to develop solar power, realistic pricing based on the true value of oil, strong incentives for the production of coal and other fossil fuels in the United States, and our Nation's most massive peacetime investment in the development of synthetic fuels.

Even though Carter and the Democrats lost the White House in 1980, the spirit of conservation was awakened sufficiently to bring down US dependence on imported oil from over 45% in the mid 70s back down under 30% in the mid 1980s (oil products supplied to the US market declined from a peak of 18.8 mbd in 1978 to 15.2mbd in 1982 and an average of 15.8mbd from 1981-1987, currently 20.5mbd). However, it seems to me that the long run vision of Carter was ignored. In econo-jargon, oil dependency wasn't a cyclical issue but a structural one, the national response was cyclical.

US Oil Imports


source: US DOE, EIA click graph for bigger picture

As I watch Cindy Sheehan's protest re-awaken anti-war sentiments in the national consciousness I hope those sentiments are strong enough to face what, 25 years later, seems much more true, we either drastically reduce our dependence on imported petroleum or risk exporting our wealth away trying to fight for control of the resource. That to me is the elephant in the corner in the War Debate. In reading many of the left leaning opinion sites I often come across a sense of wonder that the left isn't going head to head with the right on the war. I believe this is because nobody is yet willing to go all the way. A coherent anti-war policy must embrace a reduction in oil import dependence.

25 years ago, in the same State of the Union speech, Carter argued:

But now the Soviet Union has taken a radical and an aggressive new step. It's using its great military power against a relatively defenseless nation. The implications of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan could pose the most serious threat to the peace since the Second World War.

The vast majority of nations on Earth have condemned this latest Soviet attempt to extend its colonial domination of others and have demanded the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops. The Moslem world is especially and justifiably outraged by this aggression against an Islamic people. No action of a world power has ever been so quickly and so overwhelmingly condemned. But verbal condemnation is not enough. The Soviet Union must pay a concrete price for their aggression.

The region which is now threatened by Soviet troops in Afghanistan is of great strategic importance: It contains more than two-thirds of the world's exportable oil. The Soviet effort to dominate Afghanistan has brought Soviet military forces to within 300 miles of the Indian Ocean and close to the Straits of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world's oil must flow. The Soviet Union is now attempting to consolidate a strategic position, therefore, that poses a grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil.

This situation demands careful thought, steady nerves, and resolute action, not only for this year but for many years to come. It demands collective efforts to meet this new threat to security in the Persian Gulf and in Southwest Asia. It demands the participation of all those who rely on oil from the Middle East and who are concerned with global peace and stability.

25 years later, we are all still fighting the same war, only the names have been changed to confuse the young. Oh, one other thing has changed, 25 years ago this nation was still a creditor to the world, now it is its largest debtor in $ terms. While the nation has, in a sense, been living large, the foundations of wealth for future generations have been eroded. The higher oil prices go, the sooner that euphemistic "future generations" becomes "people living in the here and now." Oh, silly me, the Dude's mind wanders, there is one other small difference between 1980 and now. 25 years ago it was the evil Soviets who were trying to militarily dominate oil resources, now it is the US. The Soviets, of course, were spreading Communism in 1980 while we are currently spreading "democracy" ("capitalism" being such an old, cold war buzz phrase).

In the spirit of "you can't have your cake and eat it too" you can't coherently be anti-war without rejecting the reason for the conflict any more than a drug addict who feeds his addiction by theft can stop stealing without first kicking the habit. I've come to see the wisdom of the late 70s conservationism. Not only will a shift back to such measures significantly reduce the annual trade gap (given current trends the oil import bill for 2005 may well be over US$200B) but the government deficit would be smaller by at least the cost of the War in Iraq. I'll leave it to your good imagination to speculate as to other things which might have been had the US stayed on the path of a committed oil conservationist.

Assuming current trends in oil prices, national debt and casualty figures continue, at some point the wisdom of reducing oil dependency will be too obvious to ignore. I don't know if those signposts are $100 oil and 10,000 dead soldiers, $65 oil and roughly 2000 dead soldiers or $200 oil and 50,000 dead soldiers but I sure hope the answer is closer to choice B than choice C.

4 comments:

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