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.
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 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 by force. As with Pirsig's
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 America's short experiment in democracy.
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
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 years- the 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
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
countries - China, India, Brazi l -growing 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 world's population, the
US consumes 26% of the world's 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.
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"
civilization - the one thing without which such
civilization cannot exist. All of the world's
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;
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 world's 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 Bush's
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 world's 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.
CIA's overthrow of Mohamed Mosadegh in Iran in
1953 after he nationalized his country's 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 states -
Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Yemen - that 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.
under a Grab the Oil strategy, militarization
of US society will only deepen. The reason is
that a very major portion of the world's oil is,
by accident of geology, in the hands of states
hostile to the US. Fully 60% percent of the world's
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 world's oil, more
than that of North America, South America, Europe
and Africa combined. Kuwait, Iran and Iraq, each
control approximately 10% of the world's oil.
Another 15% of the world's 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.
long as the US chooses the Grab the Oil alternative,
the implications for national policy are inescapable.
The combination of all these facts - fixed supply,
rapid depletion, lack of alternatives, severity
of consequences, and hostility of current stockholding
countries - drive 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.
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 world - its "allies" included
- combined. This is why the Defense Department's
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 militarization - without limit.
will blithely consume the entire US economy, the
entire society, without being sated. It is, in
homage to Orwell, Perpetual War for Perpetual
Grease. 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 "a thirty to forty year
war against fundamentalist Islam."
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 death-all without notification
of.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.
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 government - the singular right without which
America would not even exist - is 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 today - offering up our democracy
in propitiation to an Empire for Oil.
will be a fateful, irreversible decision. Returning
to Pirsig's 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 choice - food or freedom. What, then, is the
alternative, the letting go of the paltry handful
of food in conscious preference for the life of
alternative 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 world's 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
nation's buildings, both commercial and residential,
to double their energy efficiency. It means a
crash program to shift the transportation system
- cars, trucks - to a basis that uses perhaps
half as much oil per year.
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 processes
- lighting, 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 county's 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 costs - perhaps on the order of hundreds
of billions of dollars a year - could well pay
for such a program.
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 nation's future that such borrowing implies.
A national corps of workers set to retrofitting
the nation's 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. Energy Reconfiguration also delivers enormous
- perhaps incalculable -benefits 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 world. Are there any precedents
for such an ambitious vision?
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 Denmark's electricity while
Denmark makes 60% of all the wind turbines sold
in the world. India's 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.
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 alternatives - Grab the Oil or Energy
Reconfiguration - is 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
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 Pirsig's
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 child.
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.
Freeman writes about economics and education.
He can be reached at email@example.com.
Posted: March 22, 2004