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Death of the Petro-Confederacy

At Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on the afternoon of July 3rd, 1863 Robert E. Lee ordered 14,000 rebel troops under the command General George Pickett to commence the valiant but hopeless assault known as Pickett’s Charge. They marched over a mile through open fields with their sights on a clump of trees where federal troops waited behind a stone wall. Union cannons opened fire on the rebels with deadly shotgun-like canister shells that obliterated dozens of men at a time. Yet they continued to march forward to their deaths with blind courage. A few brave men made it to Union lines and died there or were captured. Thousands of men were slaughtered. That clump of trees is known in history books as the “high tide of the Confederacy.”

Pickett’s Charge became a metaphor for the Civil War and a symbol for the wastefulness of this terrible episode in American history. The human carnage was worse than anyone imagined it could be and all on behalf of a doomed cause. But at the time the South believed they were fighting for freedom - freedom to pursue a way of life that was not negotiable. The South chose to throw the ideals of America under the stage coach in exchange for a way of life dependent on cheap energy. Sound familiar?

The Southern States were addicted to slave labor. The institution of slavery was part of the fabric of everyday life. Everyone could see the slaves working in the fields and some, even in the South, questioned the morality of this economic paradigm. But the Southern Aristocracy was never going to relinquish their cheap slave energy without a fight.

Just as the South was addicted to slave labor, “we are addicted to oil” as President Bush proclaimed in his most recent State of the Union Address. Our petroleum-based economy is the foundation of the American way of life. Owning a big house in the suburbs and two big cars is part of the American Dream. On the surface, there is nothing immoral about this arrangement. This was true especially when we had all the oil we needed in the post WWII years. But since American oil production peaked in 1971, we have been heading down a slippery moral slope toward a collision course with our Judgment Day.

For the South, Judgment Day came with the election of Abraham Lincoln. Our Judgment Day will be Peak Oil, the all-time global oil production peak. Most experts believe Peak Oil will happen sometime in the next 20 years. It’s impossible to predict exactly when because we simply have no assurances as to how much oil is left in the world and how fast we are depleting current oil fields. Because we won’t know Peak Oil is happening until shortages are on top of us, neither the government or markets will respond until we are in crisis mode. When that happens our way of life will erode quickly. This will most likely be a turbulent time and our society will be stressed to the breaking point. Will we make sacrifices and re-configure our institutions and lifestyle in peaceful, intelligent ways to suit a new energy reality? Or will we secede from the union of world nations and fight bloody military battles to protect our way of life like the Confederacy did?

Right now it appears our political leaders have preemptively started us down the path of the Confederacy. This might turn out to be God’s blessing in disguise. The history of the Iraq war will look much different the further we get away from 9-11. As we look at the war through the prism of Peak Oil versus 9-11, we will know it was about the oil after all. In the post Peak Oil era, terrorism and energy security will be inexorably linked. Today the media talks about them as if they are separate problems. In reality, eliminating our oil addiction gives us the only tool that can end Islamic terrorism – economic leverage. Then and only then can we mold the Muslim countries that export oil and terrorism into peaceful, open democracies that share our ideals. Iraq is proof that military force cannot accomplish this lofty goal.

I believe the Iraq War will become the poster child for avoiding Armageddon in the Middle East. The President who sits in the Oval Office when Peak Oil is recognized as priority number one in Washington will face the most difficult decision since Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. Like Lincoln’s decision, the survival of the Union will be at stake. Will the President use our massive military power to compete for increasingly scarce oil, or choose to give rise to another rebirth of freedom – the freedom from an economic paradigm that in the end has no future. In both cases the difficult decision is the one that saves the Union. For Lincoln it was war. For our President it will be peace.

Our experience in Iraq will loom large in the President’s decision. Among the thoughts the President will ponder is the billions of dollars (probably several trillion) spent on the war that could have been invested in our inevitable transition to a sustainable energy future. The real tragedy of the Civil War was that slavery did not have a future either. Ironically, oil and the invention of diesel powered farm equipment would have made the economic paradigm of slavery obsolete. Yet 600,000 people died on American battlefields because the South did not have the vision to see beyond their immediate economic arrangement.

I believe Baghdad, Iraq will be the high tide of the Petro-Confederacy known today as the neo-conservative movement. The idea that the American way of life is non- negotiable will die there just as the Southern Confederacy died at Pickett’s charge.

In the end, George Bush’s gamble in Iraq will be looked upon like Robert E. Lee’s gamble at Gettysburg – a historic military miscalculation.

Above all, our adventure in Iraq is a failure of humility. America is at its best when we are the strong but reluctant warrior as we were in WWII. A Christian nation should also understand that worship of money and material things is a sin. Remember when Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple? Patriotism and love of country is all good, but we cannot expect God to help us with the project of protecting our energy intensive, consuming lifestyle with the military.

Abraham Lincoln had a profound understanding that America must be a humble nation to be great. George Bush agreed with Abe until 9-11 when the neo-conservatives took control of our foreign policy. Below is one of Lincoln's many proclamations, as president, for a national day of fasting and prayer. This kind of humility is badly needed from our leaders and us today. Mel Gibson must have known this when he said that the time was right for his blockbuster movie The Passion of the Christ.

It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, and to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in Holy Scripture, and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord. And, insomuch [sic] as we know that by His divine law nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisement in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people? We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which has preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended power, to confess our national sins and to pray for clemency and forgiveness. [March 30, 1863]

Can you imagine Karl Rove giving a speech like that on the “War on Terror” at the next Republican fund raising event?

If God was on anyone’s side it must have been Lincoln’s. Yet he refused to proclaim God’s alliance with the Union’s cause. Lincoln must have known that down the road, any proclamation like that would be harmful to mending the deep wounds of the country after the war.

For Southerners, God was on their side because the fight was not about defending slavery. Most Southerners did not own slaves. They fought because the Yankees were invading their towns and threatening their families. The decision to defend a way of life was not made by average citizens. It was delegated by the people to politicians whose economic interests were threatened by the abolitionist movement of the North. I doubt the people of the South thought the result would be Yankee soldiers invading and occupying their towns. When that happened though, people fought bravely to defend their homes and families as anyone would do.

Americans who support war in the Middle East do so for similar reasons. The terrorists came here and attacked us on 9-11 and now they threaten our families. Just as in the Civil War, average citizens have delegated the decision to go to war to politicians who are influenced by powerful economic interests. Today, it is the military industrial complex. The back-room deals and economic power brokering is invisible to us now as it was before the Civil War. So we march blindly forward in ideological lockstep with our leaders, fearing the threat of Islamic terrorists and believing the noble cause of spreading “freedom” throughout the Middle East. The “fog of war” has descended upon us like it did during the Civil War.

It took a great leader like Lincoln to lead America out of the “fog of war” and reframe the conflict in a way that honored the fallen and set the country in a direction consistent with America’s Godly promise and purpose. That happened in November of 1863 at the dedication of Gettysburg National Cemetery. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is known as our nation’s greatest gathering of words. This short speech transformed the culture and somehow set right the horrible wrongs of the Civil War. We desperately need another Gettysburg Address to set us down a path of humility that still respects the sacrifice of our fallen heroes. We need a great leader who can bring us together as a nation again to confront the monumental energy challenges that loom in our future.

Today, two giant holes remain at ground zero in New York City where the Twin Towers once stood tall. It is sacred ground where thousands of brave people died violently just as they did at Gettysburg. When someone builds a memorial to the people who perished on that defining day in American history, we will all listen to whoever the president is then speak to us about that tragedy. That will be an opportunity for another President to transform the idea of American freedom. If God is looking out for us, that speech will take place sometime after Peak Oil has humbled America. I’m hoping and praying for humble words that respect our Christian faith with a message of peace, hope and forgiveness. My advice to the speechwriter is – keep it short.

Editorial Notes: Neal touches on themes that resonate with many Americans. His previous essay, Osama's Secret Weapon, was published last month in Energy Bulletin. UPDATE Feb 9: In response to our query, Brandvik (nealbrandvik@comcast.net) writes:
As far as my bio, I'm a software consultant for GE Healthcare. My education is: - BA in Sociology from Stetson University - MPH in Healthcare Policy and Administration from Florida International University - MBA from DePaul University Why is a healthcare IT worker so interested in peak oil? If we don't get on top of this problem the healthcare system will consist of a bottle of morphine and a Bible. Above all, I'm interested in peak oil because the idea of America is at stake. If there is anything that can erase the vision of our Founding Fathers it is peak oil. As I'm sure you can tell, I'm also kind of a history buff.
-BA

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