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Sunday, January 30, 2005

America’s Addiction to Oil

I am reminded of the story of a South American Indian tribe that devised an ingenious monkey trap. The Indians cut off the small end of a coconut and stuffed it with sweetmeats and rice. They tethered the other end to a stake and placed it in a clearing. Soon, a monkey smelled the treats inside and came to see what it is. It could just barely get its hand into the coconut but, stuffed with booty, it could not pull the hand back out. The Indians easily walked up to the monkey and captured it. Even as the Indians approached, the monkey screamed 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. 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 become quite expensive and harder to come by. This does not mean that the world is running out of oil—although almost half of all recoverable has been taken from the earth—it means that we are running out of the cheap easily accessible oil that has fueled the economic development of the 20th Century. To be fair, America’s addiction to oil is just the most grotesque; the rest of the world suffers as well, just not so pathetically.

The choice we face (whether to let the food go or hold onto it) is whether to wean ourselves off of oil—to quickly evolve a new economy and a new basis for civilization—or to continue to secure stable supplies from the rest of the world, perhaps by force. We're dealing with a cultural problem—200 years of exponential growth culture. Were we a rational society, a virtue of which we have rarely been accused, we would husband our remaining supplies and institute a “powerdown” program comparable to the Manhattan Project. We need small-scale economies, and small-scale technologies powered by renewable energy. We need smaller communities, structured to be self-sufficient, all tied together by efficient mass transit. We need gardens and parks in our cities instead of cars.

Lately we've been hearing a lot about competition from Chinese manufacturing and Indian call centers. But a different kind of competition—the scramble for oil and other resources—poses a much bigger threat to our way of life. Except for the Middle East and the Caspian Sea Basin, the rest of the world has already peaked, and most oil producing regions are now in decline.

With the passage of time, all countries will compete with each other for the oil of these regions, vying for the survival of their civilization. And whoever controls the oil production of the Middle East and Caspian Sea regions will control the world. The governments of Russia, China, Germany, France, and other countries are keenly aware of these factors—hence the shifting alliances, the veto threats, and the back-room negotiations at the UN leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Even the Saudis have a saying, "My father rode a camel. I drive a car. My son flies a jet-airplane. His son will ride a camel."

1 comment:

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