Watch out for the apocalypse

A week ago the most widely-read liberal imperialist, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, informed us that he'd be taking a break for three months to finish a book (he's being replaced in the month of July by the first decent liberal to be given space as a columnist, Barbara Ehrenreich). Friedman wrote about world developments he'd like to see in his time away. As usual, he was extremely annoying:
  • He insisted on plugging his new book by name;
  • The new book has a lame title, The World is Flat;
  • He was, as usual, embarrassingly naive about American actions in Iraq;
  • He was, as usual, embarrassingly naive about the war on "terrorism".
On the other hand, he didn't use any of his intolerable business-writing metaphors (remember this one from a few weeks ago, about how Indians are saying, "Slow down the globalization train, and build me a better step-stool, because I want to get on.")?

And he raised an extremely important idea, which I haven't seen in the mainstream before:
a grand China-US Manhattan Project — a crash program to jointly develop clean alternative energies, bringing together China’s best scientists and its ability to force pilot projects, with America’s best brains, technology and money.
The most dangerous thing facing humanity right now is how we deal with energy. Currently the world relies overwhelmingly on oil, coal, and natural gas to produce its energy, and extensively uses oil to produce chemicals and plastics.

This is a problem for two reasons. First, industrial society would collapse without fossil fuels, so if the supply ever starts getting tight we can anticipate fierce competition — up to catastrophic war — among the major consumers over access to supply. And second, fossil fuels devastate the environment, causing air and water pollution (and a whole range of human health problems), and probably worst of all, threaten us with global warming. Global warming is a time bomb that will likely increase sea levels (inundating coastal cities and increasing devastating floods in places like Bangladesh), make extremes of weather worse, hurt agricultural production, and increase the spread of disease.

The environmental reasons alone should have us taking drastic measures to substitute clean and sustainable fuels for fossil fuels. But the other matter — a tightening supply of fossil fuels, especially oil (far and away the most important of the three fossil fuels) — should have us scared to death.

For one thing, within a matter of years we may reach the peak of global oil production, as argued in the new book The End of Oil. If so, supplies of oil will rapidly decline in coming years. Either way, large poor countries with rapidly expanding economies — above all, China — will send demand ever higher, with supply lagging increasingly far behind. As Paul Krugman has laid out, this summer's oil price increase is the first hint of things to come. Add to that the possibility of supply disruptions because of instability in the major producing nations. Because industrial economies are so thoroughly dependent on oil, any large price spike can easily drive them into recession.

A particularly rapid price increase would be even more devastating. The prices of everything we use oil for — gasoline, medicines, pesticides, fertilizers, plastics, industrial lubricants — would shoot up too. With the food, transportation, manufacturing, and healthcare industries in crisis, industrial society might start breaking down. Competition over declining resources would be fierce, possibly to the point of general war among the industrial powers. It's a terrifying prospect.

The only alternative is to begin the transition away from fossil fuels early enough that constricting supplies won't cause such violent disruptions. A concerted shift away from fossil fuels would be a mammoth undertaking, and would have to be driven by large government expenditures from all the rich countries. The richest countries, who got rich in the first place thru intensive use of fossil fuels and stayed that way by maintaining control of the Middle East and imposing low oil prices, have a duty to contribute most of the money and expertise to develop alternative energy sources and make us much more energy efficient. But they must also work closely with the poor countries to teach them the science and engineering skills and give them the clean technologies that will allow economic development without the destructive environmental impact of Western industrialization.

Yet even a massive crash program to develop alternative fuels is unlikely to fully replace the energy we can so easily extract from fossil fuels, especially if we were to evenly distribute the consumption of energy (the USA, 4 percent of the world's population, uses 25 percent of its energy; the OECD, a club for the rich countries, consumes on average 450 percent more energy than the non-OECD countries). That means a major change in our own consumption patterns is also necessary: the elimination of private vehicles in cities; the transition to sustainable agricultural methods that use little petroleum, and the necessary corollary of shifting to a meatless diet; decreased new consumption and increased recycling and reusing.

Unfortunately, the capitalist global economy has not only given us this crisis, it also stands in the way of a solution. The logic of competition bars sharing of money, technology, and expertise for clean alternatives; the culture of consumption demands ever-increasing production; the rules of capitalism prevent the social and environmental costs of energy use from being reflected in its price. Those with a material and power interest in the status quo control not only the rich countries but countries like China as well. Despite Friedman's praiseworthy idea of a Sino-American clean energy project, maybe he's simply being naive again.

Those of us with a better understanding of state behavior might put our hope elsewhere: that enough regular people could change their own habits and bring enough pressure to bear against their leaders that they would be forced to change the institutions that have brought us here.

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