Do We Have The Energy?

Oil Refinery 01
Image by Wyatt Wellman via Flickr

“I fought fire with oil.” – Dalton Trumbo

As oil approaches $ 100 a barrel and we begin to flirt with pump prices typically reserved for high consumption tax Europe,  I wonder if we understand where this is all heading.  I have read enough to know that as the price of oil increases, so do the number of human rights violations in certain countries whose primary export is oil.  In times when the price of oil did not wildly exceed the cost of refining and transporting the black gold, countries such as Russia, Venezuela, Iran, and other petroleum rich nations were much better behaved world citizens and more likely to seek common ground and foreign investment than seek to destabilize it.

Noted author and NY Times foreign policy writer, Tom Friedman refers to these governments as “petro-authoritarians” whose swelling coffers from petroleum sales has afforded them a world stage to spread their own brand of ideological, theological and political mischief.  Consider Hugo Chavez or the increasingly brash Vladmir Putin.  Our largely inflexible foreign policy and feckless dependence on oil seems to have emboldened these governments to condemn and vilify America.  Every time I fill my car with gasoline, I wonder if I am purchasing an RPG for an insurgent, helping pollute another country’s opinion of us or undermining an ally.


For the first time in recent memory, we seem to be financing both sides of our current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan — physical, geo political and ideological wars with America trapped in their vortex.  During the cold war, if a region became destabilized, countries like the US and the USSR would opportunistically seek to penetrate the destabilized nation, supporting factions whose ideologies best aligned with our political and economic interests.  Our classified involvement in the shifting landscapes of Africa, The Middle East and Central America all helped contour the puzzles pieces we now seek today to sort. With the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of globalization, nations in crisis suddenly went from being viewed as “bulwarks against communism” to “bad neighborhoods.”  It was no longer in our national interest to intervene.

These countries in crisis became the burden of their closest industrialized neighbor, which in turn, suddenly had to cope with massive immigration of economic and political refugees.  The world was witnessing age old ethnic and political fault lines giving rise to crimes against humanity and civil war in places like Kosovo, Rwanda, Somalia, the Sudan and Darfur.  The US was unable to live up to the implicit role it assumed with the fall of the USSR – – the world’s policeman.  Yet, amidst this march of folly, there was hope arising out of the belief that the “flattening” of the world, facilitated by technology and shifting global demographics, could create a less polarized world community.

In his book, The World is Flat, A Brief History of the 21st Century, Friedman talks optimistically of how technology, education and the velocity of capital are transforming emerging economies and equalizing the fields of international competition. A flat world means millions of knowledge workers entering the global workforce without ever leaving their country.   It also creates the potential for more harmonized cooperation among countries.  A benefit of economic homogenization is the taming of extremist governments and the pressure to reform or risk being passed over by those seeking to make investments in a more global economy.

Years before his book, Friedman asserted in his tongue and cheek “Golden Arches” theory of foreign policy that McDonalds has never invested in two countries who have fought one another.  Corporately, McDonalds, located in Oakbrook, Illinois, scrupulously evaluates the socioeconomic and political climates of potential areas of investment to ensure a stable foundation for its business.  Countries with unstable  political and economic practices feel increasing pressure to moderate or be left behind in the competition for foreign investment.  Friedman did caution that globalization could also inadvertently homogenize the national identities of nations and in some cases, foment political unrest in those left behind by the economic boom.  Disenfranchised nations can easily become fertile ground for extreme ideologists who would argue convincingly that globalization is nothing more than a Trojan Horse cloaking multi-national colonialism.

Friedman’s infectious optimism attempts to allay fears arguing that the winds of an economic renaissance would not fan fundamentalism but extinguish it through improving the world’s standard of living and furthering democratic equality.  His blueprint seemed to be playing out according to plan until the war in Iraq and the spiking price of oil shifted the trade winds. It seems the USA, representing 4% of the world’s population but driving 25% of its goods, services and greenhouse gases, was exposed for its deep dependence on foreign oil and its lack of a cogent energy policy.  The prospect of tough public policy decisions have most politicians diving under the table.  Most voters are unfamiliar with the tangled web of interests that result in massive subsidies granted the US agricultural industry, the surreal politics of petroleum and the double standard of protectionism and trade.

The good news is innovation and green practices are taking hold and our political and environmental IQs are rising with the earth’s temperature.  However, people’s fear is increasing as well.  We have candidates who focus primarily on the events of 9/11 and not enough, as Freidman contends, with a post 9/11 world – – the “world of 9/12”.  We have a finite amount of time to deliberate over the overwhelming facts that face us.  We are caught in the snare of Middle Eastern petro-politics and engaged in a war of religious and political ideologies.  It is hard to wrestle with these demons while so addicted to fossil fuels.

The NY Times recently offered an editorial observation that $ 100 a barrel oil affords us a window to encourage innovative development in alternative energies that would have been impractical or unprofitable when oil was trading at $ 35 a barrel.  Can we change our policies and politicians and in doing so, chart an alternative course for our future?  Are we ready for inconvenience?  Do we understand what kinds of sacrifices are involved and do we have the resolve to endure them? You don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to understand how $ 100 a barrel oil is mortgaging our future.

As we watch the Iowa Caucuses and consider each presidential candidate’s policies, let’s be sure someone answers our questions about energy.  Will our next President light a way to a new future or protect the status quo and in doing so, inadvertently fulfill a highly cynical view that our insatiable demand will be our undoing.  Karl Marx remarked that  “when we hang the last capitalist, the damn fool will probably sells us the rope”.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.  It’s time for a fossil fuel intervention ? Do we have the energy?