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Deep thought - Feb 3

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Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage


The Myth of the Efficient Car

Alec Dubro, The Progressive
Let’s get something straight about green industry: in its basic form it means we all have to buy new stuff … lots of it. As an industrial policy that will create jobs and increase spending, it’s pretty sound. As an environmental policy, it’s largely a fraud.

Nowhere is it more disingenuous than the pursuit of the fuel-efficient car. In their effort to stave off collapse of their industry, auto executives have continually cited their efforts are building the high-efficiency cars of the future. The problem is, there are no cars of the future, and the looming catastrophe of global pollution, including climate change, will never be solved by building more cars – efficient or otherwise.

We’d desperately like to believe that there is a way to preserve our car-centered civilization, while simultaneously placating the gods of atmospheric warming. Even the president-elect believes it, and Obama made fuel-efficient cars a central part of his energy policy.
(3 February 2009)




Remaking America: The Ambiguities of Obama

Immanuel Wallerstein, Commentary
... What should be clear to everyone by now is that the United States has not elected a Che Guevara as its president, despite the hysterical fears of the unreconciled rightwing of the Republican Party. Nor, however, has it elected another Ronald Reagan, despite the hopes of some of those who voted for him and the fears of his more intransigent left critics. What then has the United States elected? The answer is not obvious yet, precisely because of Obama's style as a politician.

There are two questions to parse. One is what Obama would actually like to achieve as president. The second is what he can possibly achieve, given the realities of geopolitics plus a worldwide depression. Vice-President Biden described the latter on January 25 as "worse, quite frankly, than everyone thought it was, and it's getting worse every day."

What do we know, at this point, about Obama? He is unusually smart and well-educated for a political leader, and he is a poised, prudent, and very successful politician. But where does he really stand in the large gamut between wishing merely to tinker and fundamentally to change? Probably somewhere in the middle of this range. And probably what he will really do and achieve will be more a function of the constraints of the world-system than of his own choices, however intelligent they may be.

Up to now, we have had hints of where he is presently heading in five arenas: inclusive participation, geopolitics, the environment, internal social questions, and how to handle the depression. The initial verdict is very mixed.

Obviously, where he shines best is in inclusive participation.

... The basic problem is that Obama has not renounced the inflated language of a former hegemonic power. In his address, he said to the world: "Know that America is...ready to lead once more." The world wants the United States to participate. It precisely does not want the United States to lead. I don't think that Obama really understands that yet. Pakistan could well be his undoing.

... Finally, we come to the arena in which he has least leeway, the world depression. He is obviously ready to increase vastly government involvement in the economy. But so is virtually every other political leader throughout the world. And he is obviously ready to augment what might be called social-democratic measures to reduce economic pain to the working strata. But so is virtually every other political leader throughout the world.

The question here too is how bold the measures. He has nominated a bunch of very cautious Keynesians to all his key positions. He has not included any of the U.S. economists who are the left Keynesians - Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Alan Blinder, or James Galbraith. They are all saying that cautious measures won't work, and that precious time is being lost. Maybe one year from now, Obama will reshuffle his team to include those who are calling for bolder action. But maybe too that will be a little late.

Obama is anxious to pull the Republicans in Congress along in his economic proposals. Partly this is his passion for choosing "unity of purpose over conflict and discord," in the words of his inaugural address. Partly, it is clever politics, in the sense that he doesn't want to be out on a limb as the economy further deteriorates. But the Republican leadership is shrewd enough to understand this, and will give him their votes only in return for gutting much of his program.

Obama is off to a very shaky start. The belief that he is ready to push for a fundamental remaking of America has weak evidence in its favor, despite his intelligence and his intellectual openness. The United States is getting good grammar. It needs bold remaking.
(1 February 2009)
A welcome change from the hyper-personalized commentary about President Obama. His actions are constrained by the situation in which he/we find ourselves. -BA

Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletinhomepage

Dangerous Oil

Major Daniel L. Davis, ASPO-USA
There has been much debate recently within the defense community between adherents of the so-called “era of persistent conflict,” which posits future war will look a lot like today’s low-level wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those who believe we must maintain our traditional focus on large scale conflict against conventional armies. Thus far, the debate has been seen as occurring between two equally valid points of view with no real right or wrong answer. But I think such a belief is dangerously wrong because the differences between the two couldn’t be more significant, and the consequences of getting this choice wrong could be devastating for the United States owing to one crucial factor: oil and its declining availability in the near future.

Many of the factors which could cause instability around the world are fairly well known. The United Nations has been warning for many years about the probability of significant population expansion in the areas of the globe least able to sustain such increases. Concurrent with this population flux is the danger that billions of people may not have sufficient drinking water within a decade, and both of these problems are compounded by the possibility that the world may be near the limit of its ability to produce sufficient food for everyone. Add in the highly contentious and debatable factor of global warming and the future looks anything but stable.

There is another potential trouble-factor on the horizon, however, whose occurrence could result not in a low level insurgency as envisioned in an “era of persistent conflict”, but in large scale, state-on-state war: the peaking of crude oil production and the consequent irreversible imbalance between global supply and demand. We saw last year when the price of oil skyrocketed to nearly $150 a barrel how much of an economic disruption even a relatively small and short term imbalance between supply and demand could be to the global economy. Imagine the panic - and anger - that would ensue if that reduction could not be relieved by a simple opening of Saudi spigots or a modest dialing back of demand in the OECD countries.

... A report looking at future threats and dangers published last November by the Department of Defense and signed by the Commander of Joint Forces Command General J.N. Mattis warned that, “The implications (of insufficient supplies of oil) for future conflict are ominous. If the major developed and developing states do not undertake a massive expansion of production and refining capabilities, a severe energy crunch is inevitable.” In a normal time this challenge would be enormous. But when the nation is already suffering from the worst economic recession since the Great Depression and thus far trillions of dollars have been allocated to right the financial ship, where will the significant additional money, leadership and political will be found to address this challenge?

The likely answer is: they won’t be found until the crisis is upon us. Numerous studies and governmental reports over the past several years have issued warning after warning, all to no avail. Now in early 2009 the evidence of a peak continues to grow and the time available to take mitigating action continues to shrink. If we wait until the peak of conventional oil becomes evident as a result of an insufficient supply to satisfy growing global demand (once it recovers), no amount of money, leadership, or political will at that time will prevent severe crisis. If this crisis is not handled with the greatest of care and wisdom, we could find ourselves involved in a major state-on-state war as national populations the world over demand their governments take action to safeguard their own national interests, regardless of the impact on other countries.
(2 February 2009)

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