Tuesday, October 13, 2009

oil dependency -- analogy to slavery versus salt

Every once in a while, when dialogue becomes real and deep enough, true feelings and thoughts
emerge more clearly. Sometimes that happens over beer after a long meeting, but it can happen
even in serious public discussion.
The other week, at the National Defense University conference on energy and security, some
of that happened.
How I really think about this oil dependency problem:
1. The most important problem, even more than the revenue transfer now and in the future from
nonOPEC nations to OPEC nations, even more than resource exhaustion and worst-case scenarios,
is the large-scale political implications of humanity's dependence on fossil oil in the ground.
2. There are some really deep reasons for these problems. Anne has given us some colorful examples of where
your gasoline money goes, financing oppression of women which in turn tends to create nations full of rootless
unemployed young males with nothing better to do than join Al Qaida. The editor of Foreign Policy magazine had a very solid long article recently showing how oil money has more and more hurt the nations receiving it (perhaps with the single exception of Norway, which is now under pressures
of its own to lose its advantages). The underlying problem is that a larger and larger input requirement for crude oil
has involved activities to control the people and land where the oil in the ground is located; more and more money flows
into the function of control over people and land, as opposed to productive functions like refining and distribution and biofuel production,
where human empowerment and creativity are more essential factors of production. That's true, regardless of who performs the direct control function.
3. Historical analogies are really important here. In my view, our dependence on fossil oil is similar in many, many ways
to the economic dependence on slavery as it was growing circa 1800. The economic role of slavery once overshadowed everything else.
Those who tried to do good by simply ignoring it were in many ways simply ignoring reality. By ignoring the chief obstacle to
progress in their time, they were basically ignoring reality. As a Quaker, I empathize more with that example (and know much more about it) than
I do about the "salt industry" example that Anne and Gal's new book talks about (though perhaps I really ought to study that book -- Turning Oil Into Salt -- to learn more).
There was a recent movie on Wilberforce and the Quakers who were successful in getting slavery abolished in the UK long before
it was abolished in many other places -- but that only happened after many, many years of effort and a lot of public ridicule, funded
of course by the vested interests. Those interests worked very hard to mobilize their power and money against the core threat to
their control, by spreading the idea that it was not "realistic" or "practical" to abolish slavery, or that it would be a huge threat to the economy of the UK.
ONLY AFTER NATIONAL SECURITY ISSUES came center stage, did the final breakthrough occur, within UK itself. But even so,
the UK ended up doing quite well.... The US did less well; the power of the Southern states made it harder to abolish slavery, and we ended up
with a vey costly, bloody civil war. I occasionally tell my friends from old Southern families: if the South had won, you would
now be as well off today as the Dominican Republic and Haiti; there are times when "winning" is "losing." The same things goes with dependenvcy
on oil in the ground.
I really wish I could put more energy into issues OTHER than dependency on oil in the ground. There are plenty of
other life and death issues, where I personally have greater comparative advantage. One of the big problems with oil dependeny is that if we take too long (and waste too much resources) in doing what we have to do, to get to sustainability in that area, we may simply blow it on other issues. And, no,
I am not talking about issues where government control is the main issue. I am thinking more about things like technology, science and
fundamental understanding... But if we don't move faster on oil dependency, the rest may be for naught.
Regarding salt... 90% of what I know about historical salt industry... is the kind of thing you can learn wandering around the Yew Gardens in Shanghai.
They were built by a guy who may have been the greatest salt magnate ever (depending on your metric). But the vibes were not at all
like those of Halliburton apparatchiks or of a fundamentalist madressa. They were more like a cross between GE (with a long history of its own)
and the more positive-thinking early settlers of Philadelphia... salt, like tea, was used in part by China to buy some horses it needed,
but it seemed to be a progressive kind of activity, so far as I could tell... again, in limited experience.
I am NOT proposing that we talk more about slavery than about salt, since it may upset some people. But I do think the analogy feels more exact.
Best of luck to us all,

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