Thursday, November 29, 2007

Another 15 Minutes

Apropos of the previous post on the State of the University:

A few months ago I traveled to New York to participate in a symposium commemorating the 20th anniversary of the publication of Allan Bloom's book The Closing of the American Mind. I arrived at the symposium with hand-written notes which I'd assembled on the train (thus making them nearly unreadable) and unkempt hair that should have been cut two weeks earlier, only to discover that the event was to be televised by C-Span. That video has now been made available on the website of the symposium's organizer, here. The panels were uniformly interesting (I'll exclude my own performance) and Mark Steyn's lunchtime lecture on Bloom on music 20 years later is a must-see.

But, for those with an interest in "seeing" the man behind the blog, I appear in Part I of the second panel, here, starting at about the 30th minute. My responsibility was to comment on the paper by Roger Kimball, which I pretended to do. See if you can spot when I realize I'm missing page 7. I never found that deserter - probably still enjoying life on the Acela.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Dr. Pat's Advice to our Best Universities

Of late Georgetown has been crowing about the crushing number of applicants for "Early Action." While I'm sure the rise in numbers has something to do with my institution's excellence, an article in today's New York Times makes clear that the dramatic rise in number of early applicants has more to do with the cessation of Early Admissions programs at Harvard, Princeton and the University of Virginia.

It's difficult to ignore the hypocrisy of our elite institutions which, on the one hand, like to be seen publically lamenting the hyper-competitiveness among roughly 20 of the nation's "top" Universities and the way that it disfigures the lives of young persons, even as they crow over and advertise their high rankings in U.S News and World Report and publicize the crushing number of student applications (applicant numbers and rankings, of course, are intimately linked, and thus the two create a mutually reinforcing, self-fulfilling cycle).

Another of today's articles only further attests to the staggering absurdity of our current college admissions game: students are now "branding" themselves - a term we used to use for differentiating cattle herds and is now used to describe slick and often superficial ways that advertisers and marketers distinguish nearly identical products. This same term is now embraced by both institutions of higher learning and their potential students in the effort to differentiate themselves - and may have just as much substance as the marketing techniques to which they refer.

The article states:

Branding is a buzzword among corporations, and colleges, too, are desperate to distinguish themselves. And so the philosophy — some might call it an affliction — has filtered down to those applying to the most selective colleges.

Yet it would be wrong to blame either the students or their counselors for what is a sickness of the zeitgeist aggravated by the mushrooming number of applicants and misguided notions that only 20 colleges are worth attending. The herd of applicants [PD: see!] is so teeming that students really do find it difficult to distinguish themselves from others who have scored in the SAT stratosphere and spent summers in Guatemala working with the poor. Hannah Lindsell, a sophomore at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School on the West Side of Manhattan, offered an eloquent articulation of the problem.

“People sometimes worry that they’re being packaged, but at the end of the day you’re just a sheet of paper,” she said. “If you’re not packaged to a degree, you’re all over the place. It’s important to be focused. Having someone like a coach helps you decide where the focus is going to be."


[One such coach said]:

“Just as it would be ridiculous to expect a company like Volvo to stop marketing itself as the premier safety car, it would be ridiculous to expect applicants applying to extremely competitive schools to not use branding to stand apart from the competition,” she said.

If our elite colleges were really concerned about the damage that their incitement to hyper-competitiveness was wreaking, and if they really wanted to dampen pernicious incentives that now encourage 17-year olds (or their parents) to spend $4,000 and up to win the meritocratic sweepstakes and turns students into little achievement machines with narrow careerist mindsets, they would have to do more than wring their hands and sing lamentations of woe. Yet, most administrators shrug their shoulders and attribute the madness to the broader culture without reflecting either on the way that their own universities have contributed to the creation of that culture or could serve as an agent of change in altering it.

So, speaking now as a social scientist - indeed, for this exercise you may call me Dr. Pat, as I hereby invoke my expertise and highly valuable advanced degrees that clearly brand me as hyper smart and worthy of your attention and deference - I offer two concrete suggestions to reverse the malicious effects fostered by the hyper-competiveness of our university system. Of course, I will be applying for a grant from the NIH and NSF to test the hypotheses that these proposals would have their desired effect. We will only use lab mice to run our tests, guided by the strictest ethical standards and respectful disposal of the innumerable itty-bitty corpses we'll be producing.

1. Reinstitute a serious core curriculum with extensive course requirements in the humanities - particularly philosophy, theology, history, political philosophy, literature and classics - along with less extensive requirements, but requirements nonetheless, in the social sciences and physical sciences; moreover, require the faculty to re-acquaint (or, more likely, acquaint) themselves with the reasons for a core curriculum (familiarity with Newman's Idea of the University would be helpful) and to demonstrate that they will teach core courses guided by that understanding. If they are not willing to sign on to this basic purpose of the university, make such unwillingness grounds for demotion or dismissal. The President and Trustees will have ultimate say over the proper governance of the University, not individual faculty who tend increasingly only to be concerned with narrow academic specialization and the incentives that reward such narrowness.

2. Since a significant number of courses will be required - and thus students will have no choice about which courses to take - make it clear to faculty and students alike that high academic standards will be expected and grade inflation will cease (this will be possible since students won't be able to shop for the easy classes and the current "market incentive" to dilute grades in order to attract students will cease). Re-introduce the full grade scale, not our constricted grade scale in which a B- is now considered by students to be a failing grade. Be willing to fail students who do not demonstrate competence in understanding or writing.

I am willing to put good money down on two counts:

1. Instituting these two reforms would dampen the huge number of applicants to the University that adopted them;


2. Not a single top 20 university will adopt these measures. Indeed, watch for news of continued diminution of core requirements. For instance, rumors (and, for many, hopes) to this effect abound at Georgetown.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Law and/or Order

A comment to a previous post reads:

"As a Catholic lawyer, I increasingly question the ability of law to produce a "just" society. The question I see is usually, "What law will limit people's [or more often, corporation's] ability to destroy the environment." To which I respond that no law will do that unless we master our own consumption and other unvirtuous behavior. Our society somehow believes that one can consume sex at a rapacious rate and then assume that material consumption will not be drawn in along with that. But, unvirtuous behavior in one area will bleed into others..."

This lawyer raises a discomfiting and challenging question: what is law for? Does it govern behavior? Does it exist to give the State the ability to punish inevitable law-breaking ? If so, might it even contribute to law-breaking by assuming the worst in people (Oliver Wendell Holmes's "bad man" theory)? Or, does law ratify a cultural code, thus in some senses simply underlining what most people take for granted? If so, wouldn't law really be superfluous and culture be everything? If the comment suggests that law can't fundamentally rein in wanton behavior, then what will be the source that will instruct us how to "master our own consumption"?

A bit over a year ago, libertarian Charles Murray published an op-ed in the New York Times in which he predicted that the then-recently passed legislation that sought to limit online gambling would produce a backlash among the electorate, leading to a sound drubbing of Republicans by an intensely spiteful group of outlaw poker players. He was particularly down on the law because it sought to criminalize behavior that many, many people regarded as perfectly acceptable. The result, he argued, would be to delegitimate people's respect for law. He wrote:

"In the long term, something more ominous is at work. If a free society is to work, the vast majority of citizens must reflexively obey the law not because they fear punishment, but because they accept that the rule of law makes society possible. That reflexive law-abidingness is reinforced when the laws are limited to core objectives that enjoy consensus support, even though people may disagree on means.

"Thus society is weakened every time a law is passed that large numbers of reasonable, responsible citizens think is stupid. Such laws invite good citizens to choose knowingly to break the law, confident that they are doing nothing morally wrong."

Murray argued that the law must reflect culture, and that if the culture does not regard a law as moral, the law will be disregarded and such disregard ultimately would contribute to the undermining of the rule of law. The most frequently cited example (one that Murray invokes) is Prohibition, which fostered criminality particularly because so many people sought to continue doing what they regarded the law as unjustly having banned.

By contrast, some legal thinkers - particularly Catholic legal thinkers, such as Robert George - argue that the law establishes a moral code that will influence the culture. Such arguments hold that, even in instances where the culture may not regard the law as desirable or appropriate, the law will over the long term change the culture in accordance with the law. Such arguments are made in particular regarding laws criminalizing certain kinds of sexual behavior that have become as widely practiced as drinking or online gambling. One can imagine that the effort to reintroduce restrictions to certain widely practiced sexual behavior would be "greeted" in the same manner as Murray regards restrictions on online gambling. Indeed, absent widespread support for such law in the first instance, it's hard to know where the very impetus of such legislation would come from; given that it would have to be imposed by elites on a recalcitrant citizenry, Murray is probably right in supposing that the imposition of such law (in this case, limiting online gambling) would result in an electoral backlash.

I find myself both sympathetic with, and repulsed by, Murray's argument - sympathetic because I share the view that culture has a place of primacy, but repulsed by his simple capitulation to immorality on the grounds that "everyone is doing it" and concerned that he is uncognizant that what is acceptable can too easily become a moving target, and ultimately hollow out what we consider to be our "core objectives" - while wondering about the validity of the claim that law can decisively change culture. I find myself recalling Rousseau's critique of D'Alembert's proposal to introduce a theater into the city of Geneva, which decried the likely effect of the corruption of Genevan morals. By contrast, he noted that the morals of Parisians were already so corrupt that the theater was a bonafide good, since it distracted people from doing worse things. His argument was that we ought to protect moral cultures where they exist from corruption while acknowledging that there was no point in trying to reverse the trajectory of immoral cultures. Overall, his argument was that once the morals of a people have been corrupted, there is very little hope of re-introducing virtue.

This is, I take it, the reason that people like Rod Dreher have become increasingly drawn to Alasdair MacIntyre's call for a new kind of monastic withdrawal; why, in part, Wendell Berry withdrew from the wider society for an agrarian life and has defended a certain kind of culture to the exclusion of speaking about what kind of politics would be necessary to realize any such culture; why so many parents strive in a way to emulate the example of the Amish in shutting out as much of the modern world as possible, for example through home schooling and resisting the introduction of "popular culture" into the home; and maybe why the Pope - perhaps not uncoincidentally named "Benedict" after the founder of the monastic order that was charged with keeping the faith alive during dark times - has called for the Church to be rebuilt by its "creative minorities." Can it be that the day for the prescriptions of a political theorist has passed, and that all that those of us in the "ameliorative" professions can do is catalogue what happened as a warning to future generations? Is such a form of withdrawal and quiescence justified, or does it represent a kind of premature surrender to cultural forces that can and ought to be contested? Should we metaphorically fight the creation of new theaters or encourage our countrymen to attend their performances with abandon in order to avoid worse vices?

In so many ways, these are iterations of questions and a broader set of conversations that I seem to be having with greater frequency with young people and professors-in-training in response to the inevitable question, "what is to be done?" And, as a dutiful professor charged with ensuring a certain kind of future, I strive to give an answer that merely echoes Lasch - that not optimism, but perhaps hope, is warranted. And yet, I can't shake my own doubts that I'm asking them to do what I'm barely able to muster, which is to purse my lips and whistle in the dark.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

I Like Mike - Kinda

Sorry about that last post. A fit of roguish pique. Ted's been requisitioned elsewhere to help write online dating profiles...

In the meantime, Mike Huckabee's at it again - like a Jeremiah in the Heartland, calling on Americans to forgo their addiction to oil and cease financing the corrupt regimes of the Middle East. He is the only presidential candidate with the foolhardiness, or the courage, to actually tell the voters the truth about what we are doing. And - coincidentally? - he is surging in the polls.

Here's what he had to say today:

"Every time we put our credit card in the gas pump, we're paying so that the Saudis get rich — filthy, obscenely rich, and that money then ends up going to funding madrassas that train the terrorists. America has allowed itself to become enslaved to Saudi oil. It's absurd. It's embarrassing."

He continued: "I would make the United States energy independent within 10 years and tell the Saudis they can keep their oil just like they can keep their sand, that we won't need either one of them."

How extraordinary - a candidate leveling with the electorate, upbraiding us for our bad behavior and even, gasp, suggesting that our addiction has something to do with terrorism (I'm surprised Rudy hasn't pounced on him by now, that big adolescent bully). Still, if Huck's really ready to fess up, he will have to tell us what we will need to do to become independent of roughly 1.5 million barrels a day that we import from the Saudis. While it's pleasant to imagine that Huckabee would further surge when he told us of the austerity measures we would need to adopt, I rather suspect that he knows his surge would instantly end if he disclosed the specifics of what would be necessary. Indeed, at this point the Saudis are the only thing standing in the way of efforts by Iran and Venezuela to price oil in non-dollar currencies, a move that would instantly teach us a few things about austerity.

At least Huck hasn't begun lying to us that we can run our cars on prune juice or fairy dust - or, worse yet, divert food into our gas tanks, as is being peddled by many candidates - but he's more likely to tell us these kinds of tall tales than to level with us about the hard truth of what will be needed to break our addiction to oil and the corrupt and vicious regimes our dollars are supporting. Still, credit to him for telling us the truth about our complicity in this war on terror, and showing us the way to really defeating the terrorism born of Middle East fanaticism fueled by the iniquity of oil riches.

Ted Here

Hi Everybody - I'm Ted, and I'll be blogging occasionally for Professor Deneen. You see, he's gotten very busy so he hired me as a "Lifestyle Manager." You probably think I'm kidding, but we're for real - so real that there was an article about us today in the Washington Post.

Basically, your upscale urban professional types have gotten so busy living the good life in the suburbs - you know, those places where they could lead the simple country life - that they don't have time to do those pesky little things like changing the channels for their pets, or putting together photo albums of the family, or buying birthday cards for their kids. So, to help out, these busy folks are hiring people like me - Ted - to do that kind of thing for them. Professor Deneen told me that blogging is taking up a lot of his time, so he asked if I could help with that, plus grading some of his papers and preparing some of his lectures. And, I'm also playing catch and reading bedtime stories to his kids - gosh, today I even measured their height on the door jamb. I guess he has other really important things to do, like watch "American Idol" and use the stairmaster, and I'm just glad that I can help out for only $100 an hour.

Of course, I've heard him muttering a few things about the whole "lifestyle manager" profession, which I don't really get since he hired me to do things like write recommendations for his students. He said it's a sign of "the end times" - whatever that means - and something about people being too rich and lazy for their own damn good. And something about some guy named Wendell Berry (or maybe a girl? Sounds kind of like a sissy), who apparently said that if people could make a steamshovel that could pick up a dime for them - as well as give their kids a bath - they would do it. I don't don't know what that's all about - I just keep out of his way when he starts mumbling like that. Besides, who the hell would let a steam shovel give their kids a bath?

Well, I have to sign off now, since I have to change the dog's channel while I give him a footbath and a manicure. Maybe I'll braid his tail hair while I'm at it. Phew! Sure beats working...

Freedom from the Self

Tomorrow night our initiative "The Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy" will sponsor a roundtable reconsidering the "Regensburg Lecture" of Pope Benedict XVI. We are especially delighted to feature Georgetown's own Father James V. Schall, who has written a wonderful book on the Pope's lecture.

Father Schall has published innumerable articles and books - he is perhaps our greatest essayist, modeling himself quite explicitly on the exemplars of Chesterton and Belloc - and has transformed not a few students through his sequence of "great books" over the years. Whether you have ever read Fr. Schall or not, I draw your attention to a recent interview, in two parts, here and here, in which he explores a variety of themes ranging from education, the current Pope, and the future of the West and its relation to Islam.

I was particularly arrested by one passage early in the first interview, in which he is asked: "What is the hardest thing to teach, in the sense of the receptivity of the students to it?"

Schall answers: "The Truth." And then he continues:

Yves Simon has a very insightful section in A General Theory of Authority that he titled "Freedom from the Self." In an age of self, and self-expression, this notion that our very selves can be obstacles to our own freedom comes as a shock. "Freedom from our very selves?" What can this mean? The whole idea of virtue is that we will only see ourselves if we choose a proper end and means to achieve it. The old monks used to speak of "conquering ourselves." They spoke of this inner war of ourselves against ourselves as the most difficult and perhaps dangerous enterprises of all. It is a Platonic idea, to be sure. All disorder of the world originates in disorder of soul. If we do not learn this truth, nothing else will much matter; we are bound to get it wrong, because we choose to see things wrongly.

Thus, if we do not know we have a soul, if we are just a bundle of emotions and drives, we will never be sufficiently free of ourselves to see what is not ourselves. No freedom is more precious than that of seeing clearly, delightedly what is not ourselves. We are, as it were, self-insufficient. And that, in a way, is the best thing about us. We look to others to know what we really are. We are not merely coupling and political animals, as Aristotle said, but, as he also said, beings who wonder about what it is all about. The beginnings of this wonderment are precious moments in our lives. It often happens through first loves, or through being struck by something we never saw before or even heard of. It can even happen in a university class.

Fr. Schall is certainly right to understand that this is The Truth that needs above all to be taught, and which might be the hardest thing to impart in our contemporary culture. We have come to understand our "selves" to be what we truly are, and the effort to satiate the appetites of our selves as the only legitimate pursuit against which no obstacle - neither self-mastery, nor familial or cultural norms, or even law - can stand against. At the deepest level, all the various aspects of the contemporary culture that we decry - on the Right, the loss of family values, on the Left, the environmental crisis - come back to our inability to understand and accept this truth to which Fr. Schall points us: the truth that human freedom consists in a form of self-mastery, aided by the customs and laws of our families and communities. The ways that we currently degrade both the culture and the natural world is directly attributable to our inability to govern ourselves, to see our "selves" as a source of our problems rather than some kind of external phenomenon or cause. To use a wonderful example from Jason Peters, we are prone constantly to complain how bad traffic is without considering for a moment that we were part of what constituted the gridlock.

I think of Father Schall's words particularly in these days when all around us the Powers increasingly acknowledge the undeniable evidence that we are running out of many of the essential resources of our modern age. The response from every "leader" of every party - and similarly, from every man and woman on the street - is identical: we need and we will find another way to run our society without oil, water, topsoil - you name it. Over mulled wine a few nights ago one of our neighbors - nice, nice people - expressed some gladness at the rising price of oil, since now we will have the incentive to invent a new energy source ("They already have it, you know - it's just the oil companies that aren't letting it out," she said in conspiratorial tones.) If you read many of the "comments" in my various posts about the depletions we are facing, invariably we read that we shouldn't worry, that we'll invent something new and we won't have to really change a thing.

I'm probably just way too subtle for my own good, or I'm doing a lousy job of trying to get across the most basic concern that motivates the very reason for this "blawg," but my argument is not that we are doomed because we are running out of stuff. My constant attention to the problems we face is not intended as a wake up call for innovation and invention: it's rather to insinuate the possibility that we are destroying ourselves by degree because we refuse to govern our appetites or even see these appetites as problematic. I'm highly dubious that we will "invent" our way out of the need to govern ourselves, and am dead certain that nature and the order of the world will not indefinitely brook our misbehavior. We should be mindful that our near-automatic response to the fact of depletions that surround us - that we MUST find other means to continue running our current way of life - is directly the result of our unwillingness to understand that "the disorder of the world originates in disorder of soul". The problem is not intrinsically the various depletions we face (but, boy, are they problems): the problem lies in the more fundamental motivation of our thoughtless response that avoids considering whether our behavior has anything to do with the problems we face, and might in fact further exacerbate those problems, as well as create greater ones, the longer we refuse to face this possibility.

Above all, Fr. Schall instructs us, we must learn that we are "self-insufficient." In this remarkable and delightful phrase, Fr. Schall refutes one of the most pernicious and false beliefs of our time - that we are or ever can be "self-sufficient." Our frailty and insufficiency is at the heart of the most fundamental truth we must learn - a truth that much of modern life is arranged to obscure and permit us a kind of self-deception. Such understanding calls to mind the great reminder of Vaclav Havel, that "we are not God." Only with that understanding can we begin to govern ourselves - understanding our "selves" as not the whole of what we are - and begin to value something other than the feeding of the insatiable selves that are the most fundamental obstacles to a true form of freedom.

A Great Man

Tomorrow evening, our initiative "The Tocqueville Forum on the Roots of American Democracy" is sponsoring a roundtable discussion of Pope Benedict XVI's 2006 lecture at Regensburg University. The Pope's lecture was, infamously, received with denunciation and opprobrium by the Islamic world as well as by many in the West (colleagues at Georgetown were, and continue to be, outraged by the Pope's remarks). It was evident from the reaction that most people hadn't read the Pope's lecture, which is a reflection on the close relationship between reason - particularly derived from the Greek philosophical tradition - and faith as drawn from the Biblical and Christian tradition. The Pope also spoke out in criticism of the rise of value relativism within the Universities of the West (and, in fact, lay at the heart of many of the criticisms of my colleagues) and called for a renewal of the Christian faith in Europe.

We have assembled a great line up of speakers for tomorrow night, including Marc Guerra of Ave Maria University, Daniel J. Mahoney of Assumption College, Jean Elshtain - who holds the Leavey Chair at Georgetown as well as teaching at some university in the midwest - and, in place of special pride, Georgetown's own Father James V. Schall, S.J., author of countless articles and books including a recent book on the Pope's Regensburg lecture.

In addition to giving due measure to the Pope's lecture, we have thought that the occasion was also one at which we could at least partly honor some of the great contributions of Father Schall

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Eating Oil

When most people complain of the high cost of oil, they tend to feel the pain most directly in the cost of filling the gas tank. When we think of how best to mitigate the problem of increasingly limited oil supplies - a truth that has even now been acknowledged on the front page of the Wall Street Journal - we fantasize about the great new gizmos and magic energy sources that will power our engines of the future as we continue to roll out the suburbs by paving over the nation's farmland.

It never fails to come as a surprise for most people to learn how much oil we eat, and that the greatest problem of our post-peak future will not be how we continue to afford our commutes, but how we will be able to feed ourselves. Part of the challenge, of course, comes back to the problem of transportation, and already our initial experience of peak oil is felt through the rising prices of basic foodstuff as the cost of transporting food across the world becomes more expensive. This slight inconvenience to our pocketbooks (putting a crimp in our "holiday shopping") is experienced in a far harsher and even deadly manner by the poor of the world, and already it is being noticed by the mainstream press - in this case, Time Magazine - that high energy costs are being experienced not as expensive commutes by many people of the world, but rather in the form of hunger and starvation.

We in the affluent West should not be sanguine that this is a passing tragedy requiring our sympathy and self-satisfied certainty that it will be solved by a technological fix: indeed, it's our rush to turn food into fuel by means of so-called "biofuels" (so that we can continue to run our suburban "lifestyles") that is contributing to starvation halfway across the globe. More fundamentally, we do better to understand the misery of impoverished humans suffering because of rising oil prices to be a likely harbinger of the future. The problem, at base, goes far beyond the relatively narrow issue of transportation, and to the heart of the modern agricultural system and the question of the carrying capacity of the planet. As was explored recently in an NPR series entitled "Consumed," Jared Diamond notes that humans are now in the midst of a severe case of "overshoot" in which we are exceeding by 30% the capacity of the planet to replenish basic necessities like food and water. In response to the question of whether we have exceeded the capacity of the globe to sustain current population levels, he responded, "of course we are in overshoot and everybody knows that we are in overshoot -- and we are overshooting the things that people talk most about. First thing we're running out of is oil, and everybody knows it. Second thing we're running out of is water. Something like 70 percent of the fresh water in the world is already utilized. Topsoil -- we're exploiting it and it's running off into the ocean. We've already exhausted something like maybe half of the topsoil that was originally in the Great Plains. And then fish and forests..."

Yes, you may be thinking, this starts to sound like Malthus, and indeed there is a neo-Malthusian quality to these concerns. Techno-optimists like to trot out Malthus as a prime example - or prime laughingstock - to point out the absurdity and foolishness of the nattering nabobs of negativism. It's necessary to consider the possibility, however, that Malthus's predictions of starvation resulting from excessive population growth may merely have been delayed by the onset of the industrial revolution (a revolution he could hardly have envisioned, having died shortly before its inception), initially powered by coal and now powered by oil. We must face the rather grim possibility that, as a consequence of the delay - having exceeded by several orders of magnitude the upper limits of actual carrying capacity of the planet, and now no longer having available the massive and growing fossil fuel energy inputs that made this overshoot seem plausible for a time - the repercussions of are likely to be far more severe than Malthus ever could have imagined.

There is a remarkable, and indeed terrifying, correlation between the employment of fossil fuels and a dramatic rise of population growth over the past century and a half (what a flash in the pan!). Here are some rather striking charts that document this close correlation, highlighting in particular the dramatic rise of population that occurred at precisely the time of the exploitation of fossil fuels.

First, a chart that shows the growth of world population from the beginning of the modern era to the present:

Notice that the world population does not pass the one billion mark until the early part of the 19th century; Malthus dies in 1834, just around the time when the use of coal for powering machinery is beginning, albeit in incipient form.

Second, the same chart with the addition of a line that traces the rise of oil use beginning in the middle-half of the nineteenth century:

What should strike us about this chart is the sharpness of the upward trajectory of fossil fuel use: typically when Hubbert's peak is illustrated, the time line is much more limited (usually beginning with the use of oil in the 1850s), and one sees a gentle and flowing upward climb and an equally gentle downward slide, a bit like a nice hill perfect for sledding. Viewed from the perspective of several millennia, however, our oil use really looks like a slashing vertical line going straight up, and will - given the same temporal perspective - have a similarly violent decline. It will form a very tight inverted "V", demonstrating how brief our little fossil fuel party will have lasted in the context of human history. How quickly we will have used up these enormous reservoirs of stored sunlight which took millions of years to form and will have been depleted in only several century's time.

Lastly, a chart that details the extraordinary rise in population growth and the rise to the peak of oil production from 1900 to the present:

(Credit: The Oil Drum)

The "Green Revolution" of the twentieth century is a wickedly deceptive misnomer: it should rather be called the "Black Revolution" in recognition of the petroleum inputs that made possible the extraordinary rise of agricultural production throughout the twentieth century. Not only transportation, but the use of petroleum products in the form of fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, industrial farming and mechanized food processing all amount approximately to the equivalent of 10 calories of fossil fuel input for the creation of every one calorie of food. This self-evidently unsustainable imbalance does not even account for the fossil fuel needed for the transportation of the food, and thus intimates that the severity of the problem we will face is not whether we can drive ourselves to the supermarket or even whether the trucks will continue making deliveries (though, increasingly, fewer will), but whether there will be any food there once we've managed to get our weekly rations of gasoline.

The really scary implication of peak oil is whether there is a corresponding phenomenon of "peak population," and if so, whether the downward slope of the oil mountain will also portend a downward slope of the world's population. If so, that downward journey will be the ugliest and most horrific stage of human history, one that is simply not imaginable to us looking out from the top of the mountain and seeing only endless sunny vistas.

As we prepare for our annual Thanksgiving feast, one whose excess would boggle the minds of our rugged forbears whose fortitude, courage, forbearance and industry we honor and commemorate, we should rightfully be thankful for the extraordinary bounty we now enjoy. However, we should also be mindful of how temporary and precarious this bounty is, and give thought to ways we can begin to feed ourselves that reflect a truer form of thankfulness in cognizance of the limits of planet and our obligations to future generations whose prospects look increasingly dim in proportion to the extent that we continue to gorge ourselves.

Friday, November 16, 2007


A bellwether is a castrated ram with a bell tied around its neck which leads a flock of sheep. The word has come to mean a leading indicator or a harbinger of a trend. A bellwether tells us the shape of things to come.

However, given today's business news, we do well to recall the original image of the castrated ram. FedEx announced today that it expects a weaker annual result as a consequence of higher fuel costs (8% rise, or $85 million since September) and weakness in delivery orders. This signals at once that high energy costs are having a negative impact on a bellwether company of the bellwether transportation industry - the industry that gets nearly all the stuff we buy to us - while at the same time suggesting that "consumers" are not consuming as much as the economy wants and needs them to. The decline in consumption, it can be assumed, is likely also the result of higher energy costs. When a full tank of gas in the SUV costs upward of $75, there are fewer dollars to spend on increasingly expensive Chinese produced toys (increasingly expensive, in no small part, because of the decline of the purchasing power of the dollar). Then there's the all around dismal economic picture that's fostering profound anxiety.

I didn't need to read of FedEx's predicament to know the holiday season was looking bad for plastic peddlers: already a week before today's announcement I had encountered firm evidence that the retailers were in dire straits. Spinning through the FM dial earlier this week, I encountered three - count 'em, three - local DC area radio stations that had devoted their format entirely to Christmas music from early November until Christmas Day. Already Christmas displays were beginning to compete for eyeballs with Halloween decorations in the storefronts on M Street, but the change in radio format immediately struck me as an audibly desperate measure by the corporate owners of these stations to assist their advertisers by putting their audiences in the buying mood months ahead of Christmas and even weeks ahead of Thanksgiving. Like Pavlovian dogs, hearing Kenny G versions of Christmas favorites encourages us to reach for the worn down plastic in our wallets and buy plastic gifts poisoned, oops, made in China. If the season of shopping is to be salvaged and corporate America is to be able to report "growth" (i.e., the shilling of more foreign produced plastic) to its shareholders, then Americans must be encouraged by any sensory means available to dig deeper into debt. Given the choice between listening to once-lovely Christmas music being played 24/7 closer to Halloween than Thanksgiving or the lunatics on AM radio, I settled in for a drive with the lunatics. At least I can froth at them rather than be tempted mindlessly to sing along and let myself slip into that mood to shop...

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Stranger in a Strange Land

William Quinn is a very fine young man who began his studies at Georgetown last year after having served several years in the Army. He was in a freshman class I taught on political thought (I'm the unnamed "philosophy professor" in the article) and is an active student fellow in the Tocqueville Forum which I direct. Among his assignments was interrogator at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, a duty he relates that he performed without committing violence toward detainees, in accordance with regulations and his own deeper principles. He has written a number of pieces in the Georgetown student newspaper "The Hoya," and as a result was invited to write a lengthier essay for the Washington Post, which appeared in today's edition. In the essay he describes the strangeness of being a veteran and a student at one of the nation's leading universities where the war is often unmentioned and where he has even been given the advice to stop talking about the war and "be shallow sometimes."

Will's presence at Georgetown is a constant reminder of the chasm that exists between our upwardly mobile elites and soldiers serving our nation who help ensure that upward mobility remains viable. This is a wholly new phenonemon: an earlier generation of college students went on extensively to serve in the military, and thus understood its culture and the underlying motivations of such service. The change in our college culture reflects a deeper change in the culture at large: as we have become ever more consumers, and ever less citizens, the reasons for military service have ceased to be a serious consideration. What were once seen as among the primary forms of human excellence, or virtues - duty, patriotism, self-sacrifice - are now seen as ways of living that might be borne by unfortunate sops. Our meritocratic age has no space for such animating virtues: our motivations are now success (defined materially and financially) and self-fulfillment. It's difficulty to find sufficient cause to join the military with those sets of motivations. And, I am not for an instant blaming the students: they "take their cues" - they are educated to value certain things over other things - by their elders and the broader culture. Military service is now increasingly for those who don't have better options.

When I taught at Princeton, I would almost daily buy my coffee at the cafe in the Student Center which was adorned with old photographs drawn from Princeton archives. One reproduction never failed to arrest my attention: it was a photo of an old telegram from Princeton's President to Franklin Roosevelt sent mere days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, pledging that Princeton's young men stood ready to serve the nation in its time of trial. I would compare the Princeton of then to the Princeton of those days following 9/11 where - other than a few solemn ceremonies and a garden that was planted in honor of the alumni who fell on that day - nothing changed.

During my time at Princeton I wrote a few editorials of my own (never altogether advisable for assistant professors, but what can I say?), a few of which sought to address this discrepancy. One was a criticism of the current Princeton President Shirley Tilghman for omitting military service as worthy of mention in various speeches she was giving in support of Princeton's modified motto, "In the Nation's Service and in the Service of All Nations." The other was a reflection on the neglect of the display of a book honoring Princeton students who had been killed in action.

What I wrote about Princeton is no less true of Georgetown and all of our elite institutions. But, on this Veteran's Day 2007, we do well to acknowledge and honor the presence among us of such fine and admirable young people as William Quinn, whose editorial I strongly commend to your attention.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Fit to Print

Only several months ago - on March 5, 2007 - the New York Times carried a story in which it summarily dismissed the seriousness of peak oil. Writing about the new technologies that promised new life to old U.S. oil wells, the author first quoted a dismissal of the idea that the world was facing energy shortages by oil industry shill Daniel Yergin, and then wrote that "there is still a minority view, held largely by a small band of retired petroleum geologists and some members of Congress, that oil production has peaked, but the theory has been fading."

What a difference six months makes. On the front page of today's Times, a somewhat different story was being told. This story speaks of the impending "third energy shock of this generation," albeit one that is coming not mainly from political events, but from rising demand and constrained supplies. The article - continuing the Times insistence that it's not really a supply problem - blames rising demand for the difficulties that modern civilization faces. But, growing demand would not be a problem if supply were able to keep pace. One person quoted - an oil industry corporate board member - notes that one can't easily disassociate supply considerations from growing demand: “The concern today is over how will the energy sector meet the anticipated growth in demand over the longer term,” said Linda Z. Cook, a board member of Royal Dutch Shell, the big oil company. “Energy demand is increasing at a rate we’ve not seen before. On the supply side, we’re seeing it is struggling to keep up. That’s the energy challenge.” Economics 101 teaches us that if demand is high, supply will increase to meet that demand. The fact that it is now universally acknowledged that supply will not be able to keep pace suggests that the theory of Economics 101 is ceding to the reality of peaking oil production.

Directly above the fold of this very story, the Times carried an article about Bernanke's Congressional testimony, which - in contrast to many such instances - was quite frank in a bleak assessment about the U.S. economy. The primary reason he attributed for the cooling economy was the continued fallout from the sub-prime mortgage collapse, but Bernanke also noted the difficulty that rising oil prices also posed: “further sharp increases in crude oil prices have put renewed upward pressure on inflation and may impose further restraint on economic activity.” This "upward pressure" on inflation will make it particularly difficult for the Fed to cut interest rates any further, threatening a (deeper) recession if they do not cut, or (further) inflation if they do.

The stock market was apparently listening, as we've seen a significant pullback in the past several days on the order of around 500 points. That's about 4% for the Dow and a six and a half percent drop for the Nasdaq. Some of our leading investment advisers are loaded for bear, even predicting a drop in the stock market of as much as 50-60% once a vicious cycle begins to build on itself. Indeed, there are signals that further cutting by the Fed will not prevent the economy from falling into a recession now that "consumers" have begun to cut back on their spending. Even if the financial industry can be shored up - and the high finance boys are lamenting the likelihood of smaller bonuses, if any, this holiday season - Joe Six-pack will be cutting back on the Christmas shopping. There's simply less disposable income when you're paying more for oil and everything that comes from oil, particularly food. And - in an ominous sign of what our peak oil future will entail - it will be harder for us to "move around the country" now that airlines are looking to cancel hundreds of flights due to the rising cost of fuel. We've been so busy anticipating our future of "globalization" that we've been missing the true markers of the wave of the future.

Conservatives like to complain that the "mainstream media" has a liberal bias. I think this is right, but in a more profound sense than is often meant. The mainstream media has a profound interest in maintaining the current order of things, that is, the liberal order in which much can be tolerated given a backdrop of broad economic prosperity and growth. In this sense, the mainstream media are really no different from our political elites on the Left and the Right alike: they are educated at the same schools (like mine, where "globalization" is the buzzword) and expect the same future. Even if they recognized the gravity of our historical moment, the last thing they would want to do is upset the apple cart, not to mention the orchard owners and the apple-pickers.

Further, the nature of journalism means that reporters move from one story to the next without wanting nor needing to bother to see the connection between them. "Stories" are just that: discrete and passing instances without necessary connection to what has preceded and without necessary implication for what will follow. The very word "story," as it's used by journalists, never fails to annoy me. A story is simply something that attracts - or distracts - our attention today, with no promise or even likelihood that it will do so tomorrow. Is ubiquitous use recalls Neil Postman's observation of the significance of the telecaster's transition line, "and now this...," - meaning whatever "story" would follow bore no relation to what had preceded and would be given no context. "Story" in this sense is wholly unrelated to "history," a dissociation by modern journalism of a relationship that is more than merely etymological.

While our best newspapers offer us clues to the interconnections between much of what we are now witnessing, they wholly fail to put together the innumerable strands in an identifiable narrative that could be of actual use and import to citizens. They are especially silent regarding the moral dimension and connection between the depletion of our moral culture and the depletion of our physical world, and its even deeper connection to the modern philosophies that argued humanity could alter and conquer nature at will. One must look elsewhere - and be willing to read widely in sources across the political spectrum and in all sorts of tucked away places - that have a longer and at times deeper view.

For a better explanation of the connection between our encounter with peak oil and our political moment, I commend this "story" by Michael T. Klare whose discussion of "tough oil" I've previously linked. Not a story for a mainstream newspaper, given its more comprehensive vision, but serious news that is fit to print.

Klare insightfully points to the significance of the change of language by the Energy Department from "oil" to "liquids," suggesting that this is implicit recognition of the reality of peak oil by the Federal government. More fundamentally, Klare alerts us to the likelihood that we face a future of permanently constrained energy, of a weakened economy and depleted Treasury, and that for our elites, our last, best option for securing the only energy sources that remain - namely, foreign sources - will require us increasingly to rely upon our military advantage. Klare points out that there is a broad "Washington consensus" that a primary activity of the government will remain the use of American military power to protect and secure the flow of petroleum to our shores. This is a bipartisan stance, notwithstanding the jawboning of various Democratic candidates. Indeed, Klare points out, in spite of broad condemnations by Democrats of the war in Iraq, the Democratic front-runners (i.e., those who might actually have to govern) have all admitted that we will be remaining in Iraq for a long time to come. The reason is not - and never was - to ensure democracy in Iraq (any more than it was to pursue WMD) but because of the third largest oil reserves remaining in the world - a world in which the other reserves are increasingly in the hands of nations that don't like us.

Our leaders have the clarity of knowing that we don't have a choice if we want to continue to run the country as we've been doing - and that this is really what the American people want in the absence of a serious discussion of any alternative. Klare writes:

An awareness of this new "Washington consensus" on the need to protect overseas oil supplies with American troops helps explain many recent developments in Washington. Most significant, it illuminates the strategic stance adopted by President Bush in justifying his determination to retain a potent US force in Iraq -- and why the Democrats have found it so difficult to contest that stance....

Given this perspective, it is very hard for mainstream Democrats to challenge Bush when he says that an "enduring" US military presence is needed in Iraq or to change the Administration's current policy, barring a major military setback or some other unforeseen event. By the same token, it will be hard for the Democrats to avert a US attack on Iran if this can be portrayed as a necessary move to prevent Tehran from threatening the long-term safety of Persian Gulf oil supplies.

Nor can we anticipate a dramatic change in US policy in the Gulf region from the next administration, whether Democratic or Republican. If anything, we should expect an increase in the use of military force to protect the overseas flow of oil, as the threat level rises along with the need for new investment to avert even further reductions in global supplies.

Only an honest telling of where we are now will prevent this likely future from becoming to pass. Given the unwillingness of any of our political leaders to speak to the gravity of our situation and the need for us to change our behavior if we want to retain our republican liberties, one can't be sanguine about the likelihood of our avoiding ongoing future conflict and resource wars and the continued transformation of the nation into an effective Executive-branch empire, regardless of the party affiliation of future Presidents.

The only real alternative option? One too awful for Americans in general to contemplate:

"The safest and most morally defensible course is to repudiate any "consensus" calling for the use of force to protect overseas petroleum supplies and to strive to conserve what remains of the world's oil by using less of it."

Thursday, November 8, 2007


The safest and most morally defensible course is to repudiate any "consensus" calling for the use of force to protect overseas petroleum supplies and to strive to conserve what remains of the world's oil by using less of it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Against the Environment

Everywhere it seems people are embracing the idea of protecting the environment. CNBC carries a regular feature called "The Color of Money." A big special section of today's New York Times, entitled "The Business of Green" is devoted to environmental issues. Home Depot is attempting to show its friendliness to the environment by featuring compact fluorescent lightbulbs in its displays. Nearly every ad by a major oil corporation now highlights its commitment to the environment.

Unconsciously we adopt and embrace the word "environment" without reflection on its meaning. This is unfortunate, as the very unconscious way in which we use the word obscures how deeply embedded is our antipathy toward nature.

An "environment" is something that surrounds us: it environs us, provides us space we occupy and in which we move. I discovered during my recent trip to Italy that the preferred Italian term is "ambiente" - a word that similarly expresses an externalization of the object that surrounds us. On the one hand it turns the "environment" into a separate entity; on the other hand, it makes humans distinct from the world they occupy. It forces us to take sides: are you for humans (even environmentally friendly) - the position of our contemporary conservatives - or are you for the environment (inclining toward hostility toward humans) - the position of our contemporary liberals? Only by creating two separate entities - humans and environment - can you then be asked to choose sides.

This conception of an environment fundamentally replicates the anti-natural bias of liberalism - its fundamental commitment to exerting control over nature, of using it to the ends of human comfort and to contribute to what Locke called the great human goal of "indolency of the body"; or, on the other hand, it reflects the anti-human bias of contemporary Rousseauians or romantics who see humans as a contagion in the separate and otherwise pristine sphere of the environment. In either case, continual reference - even embrace - of the idea that we are seeking to protect the "environment" merely continues to reflect a host of contemporary assumptions about the fundamental separateness of humans from the natural world.

It's worth reflecting on why we have so readily embraced the term "environment" but utterly eschew the word "nature." Nature, of course, is the "normative" term of Aristotelianism: it is a standard and represents a limitation. Humans are creatures of and in nature. We are subject to its laws and to its strictures. Nature is not separate from us; we are natural creatures (special ones - political animals - but animals nonetheless). To employ the word "nature" would mean a fundamental reconceptualization of the relationship of humans to the world with which we live. Rather than either extending human mastery over our "environment" or attempting to stamp out the contagion of humanity, to re-claim the language of nature would require us to change our fundamental conception of a proper way of living well. Living as conscious natural creatures in nature requires the careful negotiation between use and respect, alteration and recognition of limits to manipulation, and thus calls for the virtues of prudence and self-governance. Neither of these virtues are particularly valued in the "environmental" movement, whether that advanced by corporate America in the effort to continue our growth economy of itinerant vandals or the violent anti-humanism of radical environmentalists. Until we reacquaint ourselves with the language, and more importantly, the reality of nature, we will continue in our current condition of human-environmental dualism.

Uh Oh

Those pesky Chinese. So uppity. Now they're selling our dollars. Something about wanting a "strong currency." What's so bad about the dollar? Don't they have any loyalty?

Well, it seems they may not be that happy about "Printing Press" Ben Bernanke cutting rates and undercutting the massive Chinese investment in U.S. bonds. Of course, Mr. Bernanke was in a bit of a pickle: don't cut and financial firms panic and Wall Street plummets; cut rates, and watch the dollar fall off a cliff.

We should notice the implications of China's move to diversify out of dollars. They don't mind if we can't afford their cheaply produced products anymore; China is now reaching the point at which domestic wealth can absorb the purchasing that Americans will no longer be able to afford with their weaker dollar. The weak dollar policy of Bernanke and China assures that Wall Street stays happy for a few more months, but is impoverishing millions of average Americans. Let's face it though: they're screwed either way. Pick your poison: housing foreclosure or stagflation and loss of purchasing power. The latter option is politically preferable, since we'll experience it like a frog experiences the slowly rising temperature in a pot of water until suddenly it's reached a boil.

The most basic and visible sign of our increasing poverty is the rising cost of oil, the price of which is increasing almost proportionally to the loss of value of the American dollar. Since oil is priced in dollars, "the market" is demanding more of them to make up the difference of their lost value and a commodity of real value. Oil closed above $97 dollars a barrel today, and in after-hours trading is hovering around $98 a barrel. A few months ago a commenter asked when I thought oil would hit $100 a barrel, and I replied probably some time next year. It's looking like, for once, I was not pessimistic enough.

Another indicator of the declining purchasing power of the dollar is the price of gold, which - in case you haven't noticed - is galloping upward. Gold closed today up nearly $12.50 an ounce to nearly $836 an ounce. While the stock market also rose today, its worth in dollars has actually fallen in recent weeks. Unless you've traded in your dollars for Euros or Yuan, commodity stocks or futures, or precious metals, you are now poorer today than you were yesterday and significantly poorer than you were several months ago. You won't necessarily feel it by looking at your bank or stock fund balances; you'll notice it when you go to the pump to fill 'er up or to the supermarket to buy a 2,000 mile Caesar salad (in Kunstler's inimitable words). Everything made out of oil is getting more expensive, which is just another way of saying that everything is getting more expensive. There is less of it, and our status as a debtor nation is going to make it hard for us to purchase what's left.

This scenario wouldn't be so bad if we as a nation were still producing things of value. However, the consequence of the official policy of the nation being the outsourcing of jobs to low-cost markets for the past few decades (all premised on the permanent purchasing power of the dollar) has been the decline of production of "stuff" here in America. My kids sometimes pester me with requests to buy them something, so I took them to Wal-Mart one day and told them that I would buy them whatever they wanted, on one condition - it had to be made in America. We walked out of the store that day empty-handed, two tired and discouraged kids in tow. We had a good talk in the car on the way home.

In some previous posts on our possible future, I predicted what the peaking of oil production would mean to the modern world and to America in particular. Since I won't assume many people read the back list, I'll rehearse some of what I wrote there here. Let's see how my predictions of early 2007 are looking:

Declining oil production does not solely imply more costly commutes; indeed, when considering the profound effects of higher energy costs (i.e., less net energy in the world), higher commuting costs seem to be of comparatively negligible importance. The effects of peak oil throughout the economic system (including in the most obvious form of higher transportation costs) have far-reaching and world-altering consequences.

First, declining amounts of energy raises serious questions about the viability of “globalization.” This phrase, taking the descriptive form of a process, implies an apparently inevitable and irreversible set of actions that no human activity can resist or prevent....

Globalization, simply put, describes a world in which ever-greater interpenetration of culture and peoples has occurred as a result, at base, of economic expansion and interconnections. These economic interconnections themselves have been the consequence of the spread of free market economic system worldwide, a system that has depended essentially upon thoroughgoing mobility and ease of transportation. The current form of global capital rests on a worldwide labor market in which low-cost markets produce goods for more wealthy high-cost labor markets, which in turn trade for developments in technology and what Robert Reich has called the “products” of “symbolic analysts.” We inhabit a world almost unthinkable, if nevertheless attributable at least in theory, to Adam Smith, in which extremely low cost markets, producing goods largely made of plastic and chemical derivatives (i.e., petroleum), supply high-labor markets with products produced more cheaply than if those same products were produced in the same town as the consumer. The low cost of the raw materials (forms of petroleum) and the overall low cost of bulk transport (shipping and air-freight, propelled by petroleum), result in the cheap production of a nearly unimaginable array of products, all of which rest significantly on a platform of cheap and ample fossil fuels. Peak oil implies higher costs. However, higher prices are themselves a signal of a more fundamental phenomenon, namely less overall energy and less overall material. To the extent that the material form of globalization rests upon this base, the arrival of peak oil means that this basis of globalization will begin to unwind.

“Symbolic analysts” and hence advanced modern economies will be also adversely affected. In the simplest form, declining energy (as was evidenced in 1971) will result in less overall economic activity. A contraction of the economy will occur, and with it, the basis of many of the jobs that now result from an economy based upon growth. Much of the financial services industry will unravel; indeed, banking itself will come under extreme stress as fiat currencies loose value worldwide, and inflation makes existing and future loans increasingly worthless and dries up sources of investment. Material and technological development itself will stall as there is less overall investment, and the basic platform of modern high-tech communication and computing – electricity – will become increasingly expensive. High electrical costs may be forestalled with the increased reliance upon nuclear energy, but that very increased reliance will quickly manifest itself in the form of higher prices due to limited worldwide supplies of uranium.

Movement of products and people will become more difficult and less frequent. There is significant question about the future viability of commercial aviation. Once exclusively the privilege of a wealthy elite, it is likely that commercial aviation will again become the province of the very well-off and a rare experience for a middle-class that has come to take it for granted – but only after significant contraction in the number of existing carriers and, accordingly, flight routes. Many parts of the country and the world that were once isolated will find themselves again less accessible, and less easily departed from. Inasmuch as globalization has particularly rested on the long-term expansion of aviation, with the imminent arrival of peak oil, its future is deeply in question.

Domestically, the national economic system depends extensively upon trucking. This industry will become increasingly strained with the arrival of peak oil, most immediately in the form of higher energy costs which will be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices for goods and services. The interstate highway system will come under stress, inasmuch as the primary ingredient of pavement – petroleum – will make repairs on roads more costly and therefore rare. Higher prices will mean less ability to afford even what have come to be regarded as the necessities of civilization. These include not only “necessities” such as labor-saving devices, pharmaceutical products (many of which are themselves based on petroleum products), household items and the like, but perhaps most importantly of all, food. Indeed, the implications of peak oil upon food costs, and food production itself, border on the apocalyptic.

The imminence of peak oil directly and adversely impacts our ability to grow and transport sufficient quantities of food. The amount of fossil fuels used to grow basic agricultural commodities, and hence, to provide feedstock and ultimately fill our supermarkets, in the form of fertilizers, fuel for farm equipment, refrigeration and food transportation, is enormous. It is estimated by some that it takes approximately the fossil fuel equivalent of ten calories to put one calorie of food on our tables – significantly higher if one considers a meat diet. Another way of considering this equation: the equivalent of approximately 300 gallons of petroleum or its derivatives are necessary to produce our annual diet. Still another way to consider this fact: our daily diet would require the equivalent of 111 hours, or three weeks, of human labor. With the arrival of peak oil, our capacity to continue to produce adequate food supplies for a planet of 6 billion people will increasingly come into question. Already it has been noted that the demand for corn for the processing of ethanol has led to a steep increase in food costs, particularly given the extent to which corn lies at the root of much of the modern industrial world’s diet. Some of the gloomiest prognosticators of the peak oil phenomenon foretell the horrors of a global “die off.”

The declining amounts of worldwide oil will result in a worldwide decline of the standard of living, manifest not only in most leading economic indicators, but in necessary changes to our daily habits, the ways in which we organize our lives together, and even our diets. One direct effect of peak oil will be the opposite of globalization – i.e., re-localization. The form of living arrangements that have been devised throughout the twentieth-century will come under profound stress and may have to be abandoned. Suburban life depends extensively upon a base of cheap petroleum: long commutes, long supply lines to “big-box” stores and supermarkets that exist at significant remove from residential areas, an extensive network of roads and interstates, and the replacement of farmland for housing tracts, many of which have converted productive land for sprawling yards. The increasing size of homes in these suburban enclaves require massive amounts of heating and cooling, all of which will become increasingly expensive, and make this housing less financially sustainable. With peak oil, the housing market will itself be subject to collapse – the most fundamental basis of investment and wealth of average citizens of modern industrial economies. Economic contraction will make it increasingly difficult for people to maintain payments of exorbitant and often gimmicky mortgages, leading to a wave of foreclosures and added stress to the banking and financial industry. The loss of many citizens’ form of net worth would prove devastating, both economically and politically. A downward spiral of economic contraction and bankruptcy, of decreasing supplies and rising prices, of economic dislocation and disillusionment, could easily result in a potential economic and political catastrophe.

The strains on the food system – again, manifested in the form of higher prices – will make the need for more local production essential. Increasing numbers of individuals will need to return to the life of farming, now on a more regional and local basis. Delivery of food from afar will decline – again, will become the province of the very wealthy – and the need for local production will necessarily rise to replace declining food stores. A more local and agricultural-based economy will again arise, one that will have to be formed in close proximity to increasingly more densely-populated town centers. The necessity of more local forms of farming – and the decline of petroleum-based fertilizers and irrigation – will reveal, once again, that certain parts of the country and world are largely uninhabitable, or at least that certain climates cannot maintain large centers of population. One can expect something of a “rewind” of population settlements that occurred throughout the twentieth century, now away from the arid southwest and west and the tropical south, and back toward the Northeast and mid-west, both of which can provide arable land and ample supplies of non-irrigated water. Living arrangements will essentially draw closer toward the center, and will necessarily be organized in the image of earlier forms of human settlement, with water, food, climate, and accessibility by water or rail forming the core reasons for the viability of future living arrangements.

Much of life will return to a local basis. An issue close to home to readers of this essay, as it were, will be significant implications and challenges for higher education. Elite institutions have increasingly embraced a role as global or cosmopolitan institutions. As globalization itself declines, these institutions will necessarily return to a more local identification, including their student bodies and even faculty. Cosmopolitanism as a governing philosophy will again be the fancies of slightly kooky philosophers. However, before this happens, the era of ever-growing endowments will end, and with it, the growth of the modern University. Those institutions that survive will nevertheless shrink, and the educational objective will return to providing an education for the benefit of localities and regions rather than for a globalized economy. The land-grant institutions, in particular, will return to their original mission and will bear a special responsibility in re-educating a populace in the arts of farming and cultivation.

There is no shortage of potential implications of the full brunt of Peak Oil. As far-fetched as these “prophecies” might seem, they are the logical extrapolation of the reality of declining worldwide energy, and with it, declining wealth and the end of expansion and growth. Short of a miraculous invention that can replace the one-time source of profound energy and hence economic boom provided by fossil fuels, our future is more likely to resemble what I have described rather than a fanciful portrait that continues to assume unbroken growth and material progress. And, if this portrait is even somewhat correct, then the scenario is good, because the alternative is much worse.

Species have always exhibited the most brutal and vicious behavior in situations of declining resources. As the world begins to face the fact of inevitable limits, there will be – indeed, there already is – a scramble for the remaining scraps at the table. The wealthiest nations will plunder the poorest in order to maintain their way of life and their immense investments. Nations blessed with remaining energy stores (e.g., Russia, Iran, Venezuela) will begin to use them as weapons against their neighbors (indeed, already have). As we come closer to the “top of the mountain,” the great fear is that the world’s great powers engage in a last gambit, a militarized fight to the finish over the remaining resources in order to positions themselves best for a post-oil glut future. As President Bush I declared in 1992, “the American Way of Life is non-negotiable.” Andrew Bacevich has observed that we are already in the midst of fighting World War III if not World War IV, and that this war is now being fought over the remains of the world’s oil resources. As those remains decrease, one can expect the fighting to become fiercer and even cataclysmic. The war in Iraq – already the first of the battles of the peak oil era – may only be a prelude of what lies ahead. As in all times of warfare – and it can be expected that this will be a situation of near-perpetual hot or cold warfare – power necessarily accrues to executive and military authority. Already the nation has seen a significant shift in power away from Congress to the Presidency, and ever-greater encroachments of executive power on civil liberties in the name of security. It is possible that constitutional democracy will cease to exist as we have known it, and that people – in the face of a decrease of all they have become accustomed to – will not only support the further rise of the imperial Presidency, but demand it. Whether, over the long term, constitutional democracy will survive the end of the oil age is an open question. The worst-case scenario is one of perpetual warfare, massive numbers of deaths, the potential for nuclear war and the end of modern civilization.

Th-th-th-th-that's all folks... We'll revisit in another six months or so and see how we're doing. If we're still here.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Pulling the Lever

This morning's Inside Higher Education features an essay by two political scientists discussing the relative merits of political "engagement" efforts as contrasted to the more mundane course offerings in American government. The faculty - rightly, it seems to me - note that longstanding political engagement will not occur without a fundamental knowledge about, and commitment to, the basic principles of constitutional democracy. The authors point to two reports by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute that reveal the woeful levels of civic knowledge among today's college students. In an age of information, there is too little actual knowledge of how things work.

I agree in large measure with these authors, but as is often the case with too many of my colleagues in political science, they tend to see the prize - the proof positive - of civic engagement to be voters in the voting booth. Our culture as a whole tends to measure political engagement in and through voting participation - in no small part, I suspect, because it is actually something that you can measure. But I also think it reflects our emaciated conception of citizenship, which, in liberal political theory, tends to be reduced to registering of, and collection of, individual preferences as a guide for representatives to do the work of governing on our behalves. Citizenship is preference collection.

With such a view of citizenship, there can be little wonder that so few citizens actually bother to vote. If voting is the collection of preferences, I have very little motivation to bother to go out into sometimes nasty weather or wait in a line to add my miniscule preference to the large collection. Rational choice theory tells us that it makes no sense for individuals to vote, since we know our single vote has almost 0% chance to swing an election. We also know that opinion polls probably do a better job of registering our preferences, so we have little motivation to go to the polls. A course in American government - even a very well crafted course - is likely to do little to change this basic fact.

If we really care about promoting citizenship, we need to widen and deepen our understanding of what citizenship is. For this, I must put in a plug for political theory, the field which I teach (and, incidentally, a field that has now been removed as a course of study at The Pennsylvania State University, a move I fear is the wave of the future as our love of "science" only marches on). Political theory is the field, in the first instance, that showed behavioral science in the 1960s and 70s the absurdity of its commitment to "value-neutral" science, an untenable position the authors of this article admit it has abandoned in its forthright admission that it seeks to support constitutional democracy and to foster citizenship. But more importantly, political theory - all too rarely, but still often enough - is the field of study that aims at expanding our emaciated contemporary understanding of citizenship. As I have been harping for the past few posts, citizenship involves a dedication to common weal, to the good of the whole. At times, and often, citizenship demands sacrifices of us, the willingness to forego what we might regard as our preference for the sake of the good of the community or the nation. Good citizenship is exemplified in the sacrifice of soldiers for those they defend and protect; it is also exemplified in those who speak out against corruption, who are willing to stand up to the powerful. Good citizenship is exemplified in our willingness to deliberate even with those with whom we might initially disagree (and why, in my view, efforts to promote "political engagement" or "activism" are simply a group version of the liberal presumption that politics is about registering preferences. Engagement and activism rarely result in deliberation with those with whom one disagrees. Engagement or activism minimizes the importance of speech in favor of the visible or the chant). Good citizenship is exemplified in our willingness to govern our basest appetites, and it is at its best an habituation in how to achieve such hard-won self-control. Thus, good citizenship contributes alike to good "household management" (oikos-nomos, or economics) and to the health of families. Citizenship - as Aristotle argued - is "ruling and being ruled in turn," a much harder discipline and standard than that simple phrase immediately suggests. Pulling a lever is only a punctuation mark on citizenship; it ought rightly to be seen as the conclusion of our deliberations, not the sole manifestation and measure of citizenship.

Today is Election Day in Virginia. I will walk to our local school with my children and bring them with me into the election booth, as I do every year. I will show them how to register a vote, and I will answer questions about why I am voting for one candidate over another, or why I am voting for or against a referendum. But above all, I try to convey the broader context and definition of citizenship as a lived activity that takes place in a sustained way outside the voting booth. Like an iceberg, we miss the entirety of the challenge and the glory of citizenship if we concentrate solely on the most visible but arguably less important part.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Private Faces in Private Spaces

W.H. Auden wrote that "it is better to have private faces in public spaces than public faces in private spaces."

That classic sentiment of a mid-twentieth century liberal is now almost quaint given where we have now arrived. In the age of the internet, the strict separation between a public and private world is increasingly untenable.

A case in point: a report today on NPR's "Morning Edition" noted that the wildly popular youth "networking" website, "Facebook," will be opening up its pages to advertisers who are hungrily licking their lips to get at the treasure trove of information about students on the site. Students post a wealth of information about themselves on the site - including, at times, some rather compromising information that has hurt them when they have applied for jobs! - such as favorite music, sexual orientation, political orientation, links to all their "friends" - and all this information is going to save advertisers immense amounts of research, effort and money in providing a whole range of advertising profiles.

A student once asked me what kind of social life we could possibly have had in college before the advent of Facebook (hell, he was surprised that I'm old enough to remember the days before the internet and even the personal computer - and I'm not that old...). I replied that we would hang out in dorm rooms shooting the breeze until odd hours of the morning. Perhaps our communication was less efficient - we had fewer "friends," as the word is promiscuously used in the Facebook networking world (in which making friends with someone consists of sending an electronic invitation) - but our conversations were meandering, leisurely, and ongoing. I wonder what kind of good life our students can achieve if one of their primary forms of socialization so easily, and so readily, will be turned to the ends of commerce and consumption. Do they know their online openness is being sliced and diced by the captains of industry? When words like "friendship" have been so debased, it may no longer strike one as odd that the social world one inhabits can so easily be turned to utilitarian ends.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Giving a Damn

I am reading Charles Taylor's newest book A Secular Age. In a chapter entitled "The Age of Authenticity" he describes the rise of authenticity - a kind of thoroughgoing form of individual self-realization - as being based upon a transformation of our traditional social and political arrangements. That is, the ideal of authenticity rested upon the dissolution of older forms of community that necessarily placed limits upon our individual self-conceptions. He mentions Alan Ehrenhalt's book The Lost City as one piece of evidence for the replacement of communal norms for personal preference. A thick and unequal society built on interpersonal relationships was replaced by a more egalitarian theoretical form of mutual respect. We came to respect each other's freedom - the choices of "lifestyle" - in part because we became more separate. We are freer, but more alone; we are more equal, but necessarily more self-reliant.

Taylor points out that the costs tend to be overlooked as merely "systemic" or small prices to pay for our greater liberty and our greater equality. Yet he acknowledges our widespread feeling that "community has been undermined and that people are less trustworthy today." How does one do a cost-benefit analysis on which benefit is preferable and which price is steeper - the benefit of our liberty and equality or the cost of communal norms and a thick network of relationships? No such valid analysis can occur, he suggests, because of a "a real value shift" that doesn't allow us equally to weigh the costs involved: "things that were borne for centuries are now declared to be unbearable" (480).

I would contend one of the costs that tends to be overlooked is too dangerous and unsustainable for any society to ignore. I grow increasingly convinced that our more just society is based not upon a deeper commitment to justice per se, but our increasing liberation from having to care about the fate and condition of other people. Our more just society is manifested particularly in juridical forms, but its underlying motivations are increasingly absent in our lived reality, in our social sphere. It is easy for me to claim to respect you and your way of life if I don't fundamentally care, and I know I won't be bothered, by any aspect of your life. We are a more tolerant and easy-going society not because our consciousnesses have been expanded, but because we are relieved of any burdens to see our fates as intertwined. Such tolerance is not hard-won, but an easy default. It is the toleration of the self-indulgent and the unbothered. Underlying the Seinfeldian refrain "Not that there's anything wrong with that" are the subtexts "I don't care," "it doesn't matter to me," or the reigning sentiment of the age, "Whatever." The show wasn't about nothing; it was really about tolerant ironists who didn't give a damn about anyone.

Can it be any coincidence that within a decade of the supposed renewal of political philosophy in America - the publication of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice in 1971, perhaps the most intricate theoretical justification of the welfare state ever penned - that the welfare state in America, and increasingly throughout the world, was being dismantled? The American welfare state increases in scale especially during those decades when our thicker communities are being dismantled or abandoned ("The Great Society" - in the singular). As Tocqueville predicted, it would be the ascent of individualism itself that would give rise to the felt need for a "tutelary State" to compensate for what had once been provided - albeit unevenly, informally, unequally - within the thicker webs of familial and local life. The dismantling of the welfare state is seen as a victory by the Right, but they are often uncognizant of the corresponding dismantling of communal forms that their valorization of individualism - especially the individualism of the marketplace - effectively undermines. The Left believes that the battle can be won by developing the correct philosophical articulation of Rawls's thesis (and then applying it through the Courts), all the while fundamentally oblivious to the wholesale dismantling of any real commitment to civic concern that has been a consequence of their universalizing efforts at achieving individual liberation and autonomy.

The deep connection between our theoretical liberal mutual respect and our actual condition of not giving a damn is nearly invisible, but its self-evidence is all around us. Our affluence and ease of life makes this condition seem plausible; a disruption of our ease will, I fear, reveal the superficiality of our purported respect and the absence of any real habituation in civic care.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Home of the Free

Here's a report of a high-level simulated exercise that took place last week here in D.C. The exercise was to simulate what would happen if there were a crippling attack on just one energy source in the world. The result of the simulation: evidence of U.S. "impotence" and the likelihood of a military draft.

Former Treasury Secretary Rubin played the part of the hypothetical President's National Security Advisor. His response: "With global production capacity almost maxed out, there is little possibility of replacing the lost oil flow. 'It shows how weak our hand is,' he says, as the group falters on urging the president to do more than assuage US consumers."

What strikes me about Rubin's response is the unreflective way in which Americans are referred to as "consumers." That is now our presumptive identity: people who consume. By such a self-definition, any such scenario - any such condition of want - will cause a massive identity crisis. It will be hard to assuage people who think that money entitles them to buys things. If we can't consume, what can we do? Who are we?

Such a crisis in the past had the effect of bringing Americans together, of calling upon our deepest reservoirs of civic commitment. Can such reservoirs be assumed to persist in an age when we are so easily identified as "consumers," and when the only call to sacrifice we have heard in response to the most deadly attack on American soil is to go shopping?

ADDENDUM, 11.5.07:
More on this report in today's WaPo. Note the rather sanguine reportage about "unusual" conditions that are giving rise to record high oil prices. It is "unusual" only if one believes that the laws of supply and demand can actually create new oil. Otherwise, what we take to be unusual is going to become the norm.

And here's a report in the New York Times. My favorite line here is by Mike McCurry, who (rightly, but idiotically) observes that a crisis of this scale would mean that the sitting President would realize (s)he's a one-term President. That's the biggest take-away from this exercise? When will these people get a clue?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Cross of Oil

My cockles are warmed, as Joe Knippenberg suggests. He links to this web entry by Fred Siegel, who argues that Mike Huckabee may be the best William Jennings Bryan look-alike in over a century. I'll admit that my interest in Huckabee was piqued by his Iowa Straw poll effective-victory speech, in which he decried Wall Street shenanigans and called for America to kick the oil habit. And then there's this line that he delivered at the "Values Voters Conference," held recently here in Washington: "It is high time for us to tell Saudi Arabia that in ten years we will have as much interest in their oil as their sand; they can keep both of them." Boy, is that nice stuff. "For too long," he continued, "we have financed both sides of the war on terrorism; our tax dollars pay for our military to fight it and our oil dollars—every time you fill the tank—is turned into the madrasahs that teach terrorists and the money that funds them." Can it be that there is a plausible presidential candidate (sorry, Ron Paul) who is willing finally to level with the American people?

Huckabee got a nice round of applause for the Saudi line - and rightly so. But one wonders if anyone in the room has reflected for long what it would take for the petroleum of Saudi Arabia to be worth as little as their sand. Indeed, this interview with a former Saudi oil executive suggests that Saudi oil is just going to keep getting more valuable, as there are decreasing quantities of the stuff. With oil now daily making all time new highs (it went above $96/barrel this morning, making this July post of mine - when oil was at $77 and gold just cracking $700 - look rather quaint with its alarm over high prices), and gold now bordering on $800 an ounce while the dollar continues its plummet against the world currencies, Americans are beginning to come to grips with the fact that we are becoming a poorer nation. Are we prepared for more days like this on the stock market? Are we ready for the kind of strict austerity program that would accompany kicking the Saudi oil fix? It's not even a question worth asking: with nature starting to deliver us less water, less arable land, less food and less petroleum, we're not going to wean ourselves from the substance that allows us artificially and temporarily to increase our material bounty, at least not without a lot more moral preparation and an expansion on the quick but easy applause lines.

I'd like to hear Huckabee - or anyone - begin to lay out a real program for the gradual weaning of ourselves from oil. It's difficult to believe any Republican could ever deliver, much less get elected, on such a program, since their base is comprised ever more exclusively of "creeping and creepy" libertarians, to use Peter Lawler's felicitous phrase. But, neither is there a Democrat to be found - not even a cranky Ron Paul type - who will level with the American people. We have to expect that no one will level with us, because in the end we don't really want to be told the truth.

But, consider this: last Fall, Barak Obama visited the Georgetown campus to deliver a lecture on energy policy. This was before he had officially declared, but he was giving all the signs of preparing to throw his hat in the ring. I used my faculty position to get a good seat in the largest lecture hall on the campus. Obama gave a stirring speech that began with a rousing critique of the President's failure to call for sacrifice from the American people in the wake of the attacks of 9/11, and for the feebleness of his call for Americans to go shopping. Then he proceeded to offer a set of talking points, such as that auto makers should be called upon to meet higher CAFE standards and that the Federal government should extend its subsidies of ethanol production.

Since I was quite close to the microphone, I got up and was about fifth in line to ask a question. A few nice questions were asked, and then my turn came. I said:

"Senator Obama, you began your speech today with a stirring call for sacrifice from the American public as we fight this international war on terror. I think it's a call that a new generation, like the old, is ready to hear. But then, when you tell us what is to be done, you didn't actually ask for us to sacrifice a thing; you didn't ask us to change our behavior one bit. You tell us that we can drive as much as we want in cars that burn food. You don't mention that ethanol is a net energy loser once you account for all the petroleum inputs and that it's requires a form of farming that's destroying the nation's topsoil. You say you want to distinguish yourself from President Bush in calling for sacrifice, but you are effectively saying the same thing he did. If you really want to call for sacrifice from the American public, why don't you ask us - I know I stand ready, and I'll bet there are a lot of people in this Hall who would agree."

Well, the roughly 800 people in beautiful Gaston Hall loudly applauded in response my question (no, I'm not crowing, but I was pretty sure that the students were craving to hear this). I don't know if that made an impression on Obama - and based on his subsequent campaigning I'm pretty sure it didn't - but I still hope that there is a candidate of integrity who will ask for just such sacrifice from the American republic - ask for us to drive less, to waste less, to plant victory gardens and grow our own food, to do all the things that the greatest generation who were not fighting and dying on the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima were doing in support of the soldiers and the principle of self-government. There's still time - will someone step up? William Jennings Huckabee? Anyone?