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.
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.