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?

1 comment:

Peter Y. Paik said...

Plutarch, in his "Life of Phocion" tells of what happens when someone who exemplifies and lives by the forgotten virtues happens to assume power in a decadent age:

"... he suffered in the same way as certain kinds of fruit do when they appear out of season: people gaze at them with wonder and delight, but do not eat them. In the same way when the old style of virtue which had vanished for many years was reincarnated in the person of Cato amid a general climate of depraved lives and corrupted manners, it won great fame and estimation. But it proved quite unsuitable to men's needs: its nature was grand but ponderous, and therefore out of harmony with the age in which he lived."

I hope that we are not as corrupt and as ripe for tyranny as were the Romans of Cato's day. Phocion of course ends up condemned to death by the Athenians, who shortly before had Socrates executed, while Cato ends up losing in his struggle against Caesar.

I hope that the young people will pursue a form of activism that will restore the bonds of community and rehabilitate the idea of duty, developing an identity that goes beyond consumerism. Perhaps they will tire as well of the extreme competitiveness of our society, in which people are incited to go to extremes of asocial ambition in order to secure their share of an ever-dwindling pie. But I wonder whether such a change can take place within our current political culture. Ours is a culture which has become deaf to the superego, dismissive of any higher authority, and it thus that the young find themselves adrift, mistrustful of elders who are too concerned with their own interests and desires to have much inclination to protect them, or to do the adult thing and give them patterns to rebel against. Our politicians likewise will not ask sacrifices of the population because they too have become defensive about their own pleasures. It's a short step from a society in which everyone is concerned about their own enjoyment to a society in which everyone is armed against the other, and tempted to attack others for fear that the others will deprive him or her of his or her pleasures.