No Blood for Cotton

I have been rather, uh, terse in my critique of certain political behavior in the wake of the gulf oil spilling (using the gerund because it’s ongoing). Particularly toward that species of conservative that either loved to chant “Drill, Baby, Drill,” or kept silent while others did, but pleads complexity now, with chocolate-covered sea turtles on our TVs and fishing bans in the gulf.

However, if I were those folks, I would point out in response your humble scribe’s personal vulnerability on this subject. The truth is, at least at first glance, I’m something of a hypocrite on matters of oil. So let me man up, here.

Four days a week, I drive about an hour each way to work in Tampa. I drive a 2005 Mercury Montego, which I sort of inherited from my grandmother last year. It does not get particularly good gas mileage. Better than an SUV, but not nearly as good as my little Honda Civic. But boy, is it comfortable, with a high quality stereo. I can turn my music up loud. And I rather enjoy the drives.

I almost certainly burn through more oil per capita than most of you. So set the arrows to flying. I deserve them.

Ah, here comes the but.

I don’t think I’m entitled to that drive. I’m certainly not entitled to do that drive at $2.85 per gallon. I don’t think it’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that commuter life is viable for me. I will not get angry when the cost of oil rises. I have made my choices, and I will live with them until I have to make other choices.

In fact, I would like very much for gas to get much more expensive. Four dollar gas 18 months ago killed the Hummer culture almost overnight. It pushed me and two co-workers into a carpool, which is perhaps the most effective form of mass transit. It began to change behavior patterns. And then it went away. As gas cheapened, the carpool became less urgent – it was always a little less convenient – and it sort of fell apart. I now drag my aircraft carrier into work each day alone. That makes me one of the great wasters of energy in the history of mankind, a level of waste only possible in the last 40 years or so.

It’s too easy to treat energy with a casual assumption of availability. And when I look out over the oil rhetoric landscape, I get a sense that we, as a people, think we are entitled to the life currently afforded to us by cheap gas – and it is cheap, compared to the rest of the world, and compared to its wider costs. We think of it as somehow permanent, or that it will just drift away into solar or wind-powered electricity at some ill-defined point in the distant future. Until then, well…

Commenter Josh, in response to my Seth McKeel thump, typifies this gauzy thinking, writing: “Extremes (for OR against) might make for good editorials, but they aren’t good solutions.”

But what do any of these words mean, Josh? What’s an extreme? What’s good? What are “solutions” in this typically banal abstraction.

What I think Josh means when he says “solutions” is this: “Ways in which we can wean ourselves from foreign oil and develop usable renewables, all while maintaining the ability to drive back and forth in cheap comfort to Tampa four days a week in a big car.” Somebody will invent the 21st century version of the cotton gin, and presto, we’ll all live happily ever after in nuclear powered cars – or something.

That’s magical thinking.

There is no plan we can engage that does not involve making one form of energy more cost effective and convenient than another. Systems tend to overthrow other systems not through the work of fairy god inventors, but through pain. In this case, the pain is expense. Oil is a finite resource. As demand grows and supply can’t keep up, there you go. Observers disagree about when we’ll reach peak oil. Some think we already have. I don’t have any guess, but I do think our oil economy will reach crisis before Social Security does. If we haven’t begun to transition to new energy sources by the time oil supply collapses, and price explodes beyond any tax increase we’ve ever experienced, well, that will be ugly. And let me just add this: No one thinks drilling in the gulf does ANYTHING to affect global oil supply. (Go ahead, find me someone who does.) It just makes BP money.

Oil needs to get more expensive now if we want to begin to rid ourselves of it and turn to hydrogen or the sun or wind or natural gas on a large scale. We need to make oil manageably more expensive now so that it doesn’t become catastrophically more expensive before we get alternatives in place.

Thus, my solution, Josh, is to raise federal taxes on gas a few cents a year, every year, from now on. I’ll let economists and other smarties decide the best structure. For consumers, most of that would get lost in the float of market prices. But it would signal ever increasing expense for oil-based gasoline and give other forms of energy a boost in replacing it. I would plow all the receipts of the oil tax into transit and research and development focused on solar, nuclear, natural gas, and wind sources. (Biofuels are a dangerous scam, from what I can see, designed to subsidize big agribusiness.) Our society could easily handle this tax, and it might spur the new growth industries we truly need. I would call it “taking the long view.” And Josh, like President Obama, I’d be willing to consider some form of expanded drilling – stupid, pointless, and destructive as it is – if it meant you’d back my ever-growing gas tax. Deal? I’m guessing not, because the same people who love to bleat “Drill, baby, drill,” also love to bleat “Cap and Tax.” Solutions, indeed.

Anyway, speaking of the cotton gin, the invention that launched the cotton boom of the antebellum South, check out this map of per capita oil use by state, published on a blog called the The Infrastructurist

It seems the South has always clung fiercely to morally and economically dangerous ways of life. Actually, that’s not fair. Upper New England uses just as much oil as the Deep South. And Dick Cheney’s Wyoming is the champion. All of us use massive amounts. But still, it’s pretty striking how closely this map tracks recent national voting patterns, isn’t it.

Recently, I’ve taken to spending my wasteful commute listening to the Civil War lectures of David Blight, a professor at Yale, who was a professor at Amherst College when I went to school there. I was too busy drinking beer to take one of his classes, and I kick myself for it. Anyway, you can download many great courses like this from a variety of sources. I used iTunesU for Blight, who edited a collection of Frederick Douglass’ papers and is one of the foremost Civil War historians in a very crowded field.

In one of the early lectures, Blight compares the South in, say, 1850, to one of the newly rich post World War II Arab oil states, like Saudi Arabia. Instead of oil, the South had cotton and slaves. Rather than a single-industry oil state, the South was a single industry slavery/cotton state. It was enormously profitable. And it financed that romantic way of life you read about in Gone with the Wind and gawk at through the magnolias on Natchez Trace.

The common myth maintains that slavery would have died out on its own had we not gone to war. Nope. The slavery/cotton nexus was the fundamental element of an economic system that became more productive and more profitable each year. And the southern planter class, from which everything trickled down, deeply loved its lifestyle. Slaves, collectively, were the most valuable property asset in the United States – other than land – when the war started. And unlike oil, they were renewable. (Think about the brutality of that statement for a second when you praise southern heritage.) The war was fought most directly over the expansion of slavery into the west, over the thought that it might extend to railroad construction and mining, a thought the southern powers-that-be relished.

Day laborers picking cotton near Clarksdale, Miss. (LOC)If the Civil War had not happened in 1861, it would have taken something else violent to end slavery. As a system of profitability, slavery worked too well. People do not willingly surrender their assets or their lifestyles. Not now, not then. Slavery could only be sustained or destroyed through suffering. First and foremost, 4 million human beings experienced life as something between cattle and machinery. But look also at the violence the southern ruling class inflicted on its own morality and reason in order to justify slavery and the life it provided.

Now look at what we are willing to tolerate to sustain our way of life, as provided primarily by oil. War. The gulf. The daily violence, corruption, rape, and environmental chaos that we don’t ever see where they pump that gooey shit out of the ground in Nigeria, or Sudan, or one of the Stans. All so we can pack eight kids into Sienna for a drive to Backyard Adventures on a whim. And that goes for all of us.

“Drill, baby, drill” is not the only nihilistically stupid slogan to address oil. “The left,” such as it is, has its own: “No Blood for Oil.” Bah. Change that to “No Blood for the Way We Live,” and you’ll have a point. But then you’ll have to face the consequences of your words. Our relationship with oil is all about consequences. And one way or another, it will end through suffering. Do we want to try to harness and manage that suffering ourselves, or do we want something else to impose it?

We’re not going to go to war with each other over oil in this country. Sherman’s march through Atlanta to the sea will take a different form. But the oil economy will end as surely as the slave economy did — and soon, as measured in terms of human history. I would rather inflict a bit of pain on ourselves now in the uncertain hope that we might cushion the force that’s coming, regardless of when, where, and how we drill. If you want to pretend that drilling – at ever increasing social and environmental cost – of a finite resource will ever keep up with the demand growth of 6 billion humans, go ahead. But don’t talk about “solutions” as if you care about finding one. Over to you Josh and Seth.

Creative Commons License photo credit: The Library of Congress

10 thoughts on “No Blood for Cotton

  1. Billy, I love it when you moralize. So because we use a lot of oil, and we subsidize its production, protect the shipping lanes and it therefore makes life easier for us and allows us to be productive, we should be forced to pay even more for it. BUT, not more to the people who drill the oil, but to our government(s), so they can… what… buy more no-bid contract crystal sets for our foreign embassies?

    I understand what you’re trying to say, but your conclusions are lazy and self-flagellating. Worse, your guilt needs more penitents, so you want everyone to feel the burden; the stinging whip on your pained back thirsts for more guiltful blood.

    We are making energy breakthroughs at a rapid pace, but they need time to mature and come to market. More taxes on all of us to salve the blistered stripes on your back is not a sound solution, nor is it even a wise option.

  2. Billy, I love it when you moralize. So because we use a lot of oil, and we subsidize its production, protect the shipping lanes and it therefore makes life easier for us and allows us to be productive, we should be forced to pay even more for it. BUT, not more to the people who drill the oil, but to our government(s), so they can… what… buy more no-bid contract crystal sets for our foreign embassies?

    I understand what you’re trying to say, but your conclusions are lazy and self-flagellating. Worse, your guilt needs more penitents, so you want everyone to feel the burden; the stinging whip on your pained back thirsts for more guiltful blood.

    We are making energy breakthroughs at a rapid pace, but they need time to mature and come to market. More taxes on all of us to salve the blistered stripes on your back is not a sound solution, nor is it even a wise option.

  3. When I wrote that extremes don’t make for good solutions, I was remarking on how it seemed in your last article that if you had your way, all oil wells would be shut down immediately.

    I like the idea of raising gas taxes, but the only people it’s going to be popular with are the renewable energy industries.

    The population wouldn’t like it (too much), but the real force to be reckoned with would the oil and refinery companies.

    “Hey, we’re going to grind your business into the ground with taxes, and there ain’t nothin’ you can do to stop us.” That isn’t something they’ll take lying down.

  4. When I wrote that extremes don’t make for good solutions, I was remarking on how it seemed in your last article that if you had your way, all oil wells would be shut down immediately.

    I like the idea of raising gas taxes, but the only people it’s going to be popular with are the renewable energy industries.

    The population wouldn’t like it (too much), but the real force to be reckoned with would the oil and refinery companies.

    “Hey, we’re going to grind your business into the ground with taxes, and there ain’t nothin’ you can do to stop us.” That isn’t something they’ll take lying down.

  5. Whether we like (or want) Billy’s solution, the problem won’t go away. We got our first clear glimpse of the future with the temporary oil shortages/high prices in the 70s — but as soon we got through the crisis we went back to “business as usual” instead of starting to look rationally toward the inevetable future less dependent on oil.

    The same thing happened in the 80s — and we just gritted our teeth and kicked the can down the road again instead on seriously dealing with the issue.

    And that pattern has since repeated like a broken record with the needle stuck in a groove.

    And, now that we’re running out of road to kick the can down, our choices are narrowing and the ultimate pain will be more intense than it had to be if we had the collective guts to face the facts when Jimmy Carter was in office — or at any time since then. But we lack the balls to face the future sqaure-on. It’s oh so much easier to join the ranks of those in denial.

    Personally, I’m not completely against more drilling — but only after we have firmly committed to a national transition program that leads us to an economy and culture based on something other than fossil fuel. Then, the reserves that we pump should be used only to support that transition — after we stockpile a generous supply to make sure that we can fly fighters, drive tanks and sail the Navy. We are approaching the point where our national defense/national existence can be easily held hostage to our refusal to face this problem for several generations.

    Unfortunately, we seem to be in the age of entitlement — entiled to waste resources required to assure our way of life and prosperity for the immediate gratification of continuing our comfortable (but obsolete) business model, driving “the right car” or owning “the right boat”, etc.

    Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost the notion of growing up and acting like adults. Shame.

  6. Whether we like (or want) Billy’s solution, the problem won’t go away. We got our first clear glimpse of the future with the temporary oil shortages/high prices in the 70s — but as soon we got through the crisis we went back to “business as usual” instead of starting to look rationally toward the inevetable future less dependent on oil.

    The same thing happened in the 80s — and we just gritted our teeth and kicked the can down the road again instead on seriously dealing with the issue.

    And that pattern has since repeated like a broken record with the needle stuck in a groove.

    And, now that we’re running out of road to kick the can down, our choices are narrowing and the ultimate pain will be more intense than it had to be if we had the collective guts to face the facts when Jimmy Carter was in office — or at any time since then. But we lack the balls to face the future sqaure-on. It’s oh so much easier to join the ranks of those in denial.

    Personally, I’m not completely against more drilling — but only after we have firmly committed to a national transition program that leads us to an economy and culture based on something other than fossil fuel. Then, the reserves that we pump should be used only to support that transition — after we stockpile a generous supply to make sure that we can fly fighters, drive tanks and sail the Navy. We are approaching the point where our national defense/national existence can be easily held hostage to our refusal to face this problem for several generations.

    Unfortunately, we seem to be in the age of entitlement — entiled to waste resources required to assure our way of life and prosperity for the immediate gratification of continuing our comfortable (but obsolete) business model, driving “the right car” or owning “the right boat”, etc.

    Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost the notion of growing up and acting like adults. Shame.

  7. DR: This is the only actual content in you comment: “We are making energy breakthroughs at a rapid pace, but they need time to mature and come to market.”

    This is balderdash. They will not come to market in any meaningful way until they are more cost effective than oil – or at least have the prospect to be so over a long period of time. Please explain why I’m wrong. That would be a useful comment. Like all libertarians I’ve ever met, you’re a magical thinker. There are no consequences, just “magic” of the market. Where is all the energy development capital going now? Explain to me how that’s going to change. If you can’t, you shouldn’t call anyone else lazy. By the way, go check out the local seafood store. The gulf spill has already put a big tax on seafood that will only go higher. But, of course, that doesn’t count to libertarians.

    Pointing out the consequences of an economic system I participate in is not the same as feeling guilt. It is not self-flagellation to argue that the oil economy, just like the slave and consumer debt/housing economies, will end badly. But please, again, explain why I’m wrong. Self-knowledge is not the same as guilt. If they meant the same thing, they wouldn’t be two different words.

  8. DR: This is the only actual content in you comment: “We are making energy breakthroughs at a rapid pace, but they need time to mature and come to market.”

    This is balderdash. They will not come to market in any meaningful way until they are more cost effective than oil – or at least have the prospect to be so over a long period of time. Please explain why I’m wrong. That would be a useful comment. Like all libertarians I’ve ever met, you’re a magical thinker. There are no consequences, just “magic” of the market. Where is all the energy development capital going now? Explain to me how that’s going to change. If you can’t, you shouldn’t call anyone else lazy. By the way, go check out the local seafood store. The gulf spill has already put a big tax on seafood that will only go higher. But, of course, that doesn’t count to libertarians.

    Pointing out the consequences of an economic system I participate in is not the same as feeling guilt. It is not self-flagellation to argue that the oil economy, just like the slave and consumer debt/housing economies, will end badly. But please, again, explain why I’m wrong. Self-knowledge is not the same as guilt. If they meant the same thing, they wouldn’t be two different words.

  9. Billy,

    There’s full spectrum solar cells from the early Bush II years:

    Or this from 2007, before the great Obamawakening: ‘Juiced-up’ Sugar-Fueled Battery Could Power Portable Electronics

    And how about the air car?

    Or rooftop wind turbines?

    The Bloom Box?

    The list can go on, Billy. Everything except the solar cells and sugar battery (which I believe the military is testing right now) is available, but it’s maturing. There is no “libertarian magic” you claim, but there is clearly a government magic in you’re thinking, with this “tax us because we’ve been successful ie bad” mentality.

    I don’t think you can really compare slavery and oil use, since ending one was a moral imperative and ending oil reliance is just practical. If the only way you think we can end our reliance on oil is to whip us with new taxes, then your thinking IS lazy. Consider individual innovation before you decide the force of the state is necessary. Hint: it’s rarely a good idea.

  10. Billy,

    There’s full spectrum solar cells from the early Bush II years:

    Or this from 2007, before the great Obamawakening: ‘Juiced-up’ Sugar-Fueled Battery Could Power Portable Electronics

    And how about the air car?

    Or rooftop wind turbines?

    The Bloom Box?

    The list can go on, Billy. Everything except the solar cells and sugar battery (which I believe the military is testing right now) is available, but it’s maturing. There is no “libertarian magic” you claim, but there is clearly a government magic in you’re thinking, with this “tax us because we’ve been successful ie bad” mentality.

    I don’t think you can really compare slavery and oil use, since ending one was a moral imperative and ending oil reliance is just practical. If the only way you think we can end our reliance on oil is to whip us with new taxes, then your thinking IS lazy. Consider individual innovation before you decide the force of the state is necessary. Hint: it’s rarely a good idea.

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