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Leaving the Stone Age
Jamais Cascio, 9 May 05

One of my favorite bright green clichés has to be: "The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones."

It's a reminder that efforts to replace non-renewable sources of energy with more sustainable technologies can be driven by innovation rather than desperation. But desperation is a powerful motivator; it's usually easier to sell policies with fear rather than hope, even if playing the fear card has nasty repercussions down the road. Desperation comes from a sense of vulnerability, not a recognition of undesirable results. And right now, the US is feeling particularly vulnerable when it comes to oil. The two most visible manifestations of the desperation agenda are the so-called "geo-greens" and the increasing visibility of the "peak oil" concept.

"Geo-greens" is Tom Friedman's term for those who advocate renewable energy technologies due to the security problems with oil. Such advocacy cuts across party lines; while geo-greens may disagree on the connection between oil consumption and climate disruption, they all agree that oil consumption hurts Western and American political interests. For the geo-greens, American petroleum use is inextricably linked to authoritarian regimes, supporters of terrorism, and the depredations of OPEC. The need to get away from that vulnerability is what drives geo-green organizations such as the Energy Future Coalition, which in early April sent a letter (PDF) to President Bush arguing for a national effort to develop and deploy alternative-fuel vehicles. The letter was signed by noted conservatives such as Robert McFarlane, C. Boyden Gray, Frank Gaffney and James Woolsey, along with moderate Democrats such as Gary Hart and John Podesta. Similar coalitions cutting across traditional ideological divides include the Apollo Alliance and the Set America Free coalition, which includes former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer and the NRDC' deputy director Deron Lovaas. In every case, while climate and the environment may be mentioned as an issue, the focus is clearly on the security implications of oil dependence.

Geo-greens are quite often strong advocates for nuclear power -- unsurprisingly, really -- and often have something of a reductionist, car-focused perspective, as if a switch to electric or hydrogen vehicles would, without any other system changes, be enough for them. Conservation, smart grids, broader energy efficiency and bigger behavioral changes do get the occasional nod, but are clearly secondary to closing the window of (oil) vulnerability. Still, traditional coffee-cup environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the NRDC are clearly willing to work with them, and the geo-greens' access to the reins of power should not be discounted.

The increasing visibility of "peak oil" also is driven by a sense of vulnerability. Rising oil prices -- bouncing around record highs now in absolute terms, albeit not yet in constant-dollar terms -- feeds the fear that supplies of oil are slowly drying up. That we will at some point reach the moment of peak oil production, with it being downhill from there, makes geophysical sense -- there's going to be an upper limit of how much stuff can be pumped, no matter the technical tricks used to eke out that last little bit. But experts disagree as to how close we really are to that point, and how unpleasant the results will be once we get there.

But a new variant of the peak oil meme is starting to pop up -- the "Non-Geological Peak" scenario. Geoff Styles articulates it thusly:

Based on the most recent estimates from the Oil and Gas Journal, OPEC holds roughly 70% of total world oil reserves of nearly 1.3 trillion barrels. These eleven countries have an average reserve life (R/P) of 81 years, compared with under 20 years for the non-OPEC producers. Non-OPEC production will peak before OPEC's [...] If OPEC continues to constrain production through a combination of internal under-investment and restrictions on the development of OPEC reserves by the international oil companies, then increases in OPEC production could easily be inadequate to offset declines in non-OPEC countries. Total global production would then reach a temporary peak and begin to decline. This peak would become permanent if OPEC were to delay its own development program long enough that the combination of project timelags and steepening non-OPEC decline rates made it impossible ever to catch up with falling non-OPEC production. Such a peak might occur a decade earlier than if access to reserves was determined by free-market economics, instead of OPEC politics.

This still has a geophysical element -- near-term peak production of the non-OPEC nations -- but the driver of the early onset of the peak oil crisis in this scenario is political. The situation that Styles describes (under-investment and restriction) is already happening; the scenario simply requires it to continue. The scramble to bring OPEC production back up wouldn't happen fast enough to counter the overall decline.

But there's an even darker version of this scenario: Petroleum Scorched Earth.

Gerald Posner's new book Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Saudi-US Connection claims that Saudi Arabia has rigged its oil fields with radioactive devices, set to blow if the nation was invaded or if the US and Europe did not respond quickly to a coup in progress.

According to the book, which will be released to the public on May 17, based on National Security Agency electronic intercepts, the Saudi Arabian government has in place a nationwide, self-destruction explosive system composed of conventional explosives and dirty bombs strategically placed at the Kingdom’s key oil ports, pipelines, pumping stations, storage tanks, offshore platforms, and backup facilities. If activated, the bombs would destroy the infrastructure of the world’s largest oil supplier, and leave the country a contaminated nuclear wasteland ensuring that the Kingdom’s oil would be unusable to anyone. The NSA file is dubbed internally Petro SE, for petroleum scorched earth.

[...]

According to the NSA intercepts, Petro SE was devised by the Saudis because of their overriding fear that if an internal revolt or external attack threatened the survival of the House of Saud, the U.S. and other Western powers might abandon them as the Shah of Iran was abandoned in 1979. Only by having in place a system that threatened to create crippling oil price increases, political instability and economic recessions did the royal family believe it could coerce Western military powers to keep them in power.

Is this true? Only the NSA and the Saudi leaders know for sure. It's certainly plausible. Moreover, regardless of its veracity the public discussion of it feeds this growing sense of desperation about oil. Not only are the Saudi princes making us dance with oil prices, the argument goes, they're actually threatening to destroy their oil infrastructure if we don't respond fast enough. The geo-greens must be jumping for joy over this story.

The question for bright greens, then, is how closely to embrace the geo-green movement. There are numerous aspects of the geo-green agenda, from nuclear power to "clean coal" to the downplaying of global warming, that run counter to the big-system, long-view, leapfrog perspective of bright green worldchangers. But it's hard to ignore the access that the geo-greens have to the levers of power, and it's arguable that the mainstreaming of the geo-green line makes the bright green philosophy appear less radical (just as the mainstreaming of religious conservatives in the US over the past two decades has introduced increasingly extreme aspects of the movement into broader political discourse). Working with the geo-greens runs the risk of having key goals compromised and discarded; working without the geo-greens runs the risks of marginalization.

It's time to leave the stone age. Will we do so because we fear what will happen if we don't? Or because we look forward to what will happen if we do?

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Comments

I've been following the geo-greens, and it seems to me they are simply describing the inevitable.

First, burn all the oil, coal, and methane:
Then, note there is a growing energy shortfall,
So suggest people buy hybrids, not SUV's, conserve, support nuclear, wind and solar, etc etc to fill the gap from the "missing" coal, oil and methane.

I think the position of the geo-green is vastly less brave and earth shaking then has been presented in the MSM - and certainly not green.

geo-inevitable might be a better moniker, or even, Late To The Conservation Party...

Carter had it right 26 years ago.


Posted by: Jon S. on 9 May 05

It appears to me that the "Geo Greens" are more interested in conserving consumerism than in conserving the evironment. Seems to be about as much green in the "geo-greens" as clear sky in BushCo's "clear sky initiative".


Posted by: Kirk W on 9 May 05

I feel the above two comments still leave the question open: should we deal with the devil? Or will the devil come to us anyway? This looks a lot like www.linuxtoday.com. Usually, linux users end up prefering to do their own thing, rather than become too intimate with microsoft.


Posted by: Lucas Gonzalez on 10 May 05

"But it's hard to ignore the access that the geo-greens have to the levers of power..."

What power?


Posted by: David Foley on 10 May 05

"Of course, the whole point of a doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret! Why didn't you tell the world?!"

Seriously, I think the geo-green "alliance" is a marriage of convenience, which by its nature is only viable while the interests of the conveniently married parties remain intertwined. The focus here, and the reason for the high-level (read "Republican") access, is that the national security agenda is at the forefront.

Global warming is a national security threat as well, but it's not the threat of choice for conservatives. At least not today. So I think the greens in the geo-green alliance are political realists, a political wing whose job it is to be involved in such coalitions, while those with longer-term visions of a green future are an ideological wing. The former gives the movement traction and the latter helps it stay the course.


Posted by: Jon S on 10 May 05

Graham,
I think you are missing the point about the "petroleum scorched earth policy". The policy would create a huge nuclear wasteland where it would be impossible or greatly increase the costs of drilling for the oil. Also blowing up bombs etc would trigger massive fires which would be nearly impossible to put out. (think kuwait)

Also, I have been arguing the geo-green perspective with friends and others for nearly two years, because it is a much easier pill for non-greens to swallow. It becomes easier to convince them that "saving the earth" has more to do with a safer, healthier, and better living than with guilt trips etc. The terrorism argument is an easy way to shock them into realizing that being kind to our earth can help bring about a more peaceful earth.
Phil


Posted by: Philip M. Jonat on 10 May 05

change theory suggests desperation not much of motivator. denial trumps vulnerability 90% of time.

bright greens need to recast the reason for change. should reframe sustainability as "conserving consumerism" if wish to motivate.


Posted by: taba on 10 May 05

Okay, politics do make strange bedfellows.
And that's okay, it's the way of the world.
But let me suggest a principle. I don't think
Bright Greens ought to get in bed with
anybody crazier than themselves.

So, I got few problems with Thomas Friedman.
Friedman basically speaks pure Davos Forum-ese,
but at least those globalist moguls can read
a briefing paper.

Frank Gaffney, by contrast, hates and fears every
society on the planet, including his own, and never saw a
weapons program he didn't like. This
guy's main motive for energy conservation
is offended pique that the Saudis have
approached the American people without
routing themselves through a neocon cabal.

Read the works of Friedman, then read the
works of Gaffney, and make up your own mind.
Here, have a look at Gaffney's:
http://www.centerforsecuritypolicy.org/index.jsp?section=static&page=gaffney-articles

Do you really want this guy dropping by
the office and giving you a high-five?


Posted by: Bruce Sterling on 10 May 05

One flaw in the PSE scenario:  The billion or so Muslims who no longer had Mecca to go to would hang the entire al-Saud family and all the Wahhabi imams from lamp-posts on meat hooks.  I expect that Islam in its entirety would be shaken by such perfidious betrayal from within, and I have trouble believing that anyone would contemplate it.

That said, even if it was politically and religiously feasible I don't think it would work.  Consider how habitable Hiroshima is today.  Heck, consider that we considered letting old people go back to Bikini atoll.  Fifty-something roughnecks have a low enough added risk of cancer to take on jobs like that, just turn over the dirt to get relatively clean stuff on top where you're working and living and factor in the hazard pay.  Things might even be safer without any local religious radicals to worry about.


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 10 May 05

The Geo-green motive seems resentful of traditional conservationist outlooks. They [geo-greens] are only willing to accept a small and militarily linked subset of what "bright-greens" would list as reasons to move ahead, because those reasons align with the current administration's corporatist agenda. Giving the nuclear industry a bone is the obvious throw in. Climate change is just a suggestion. It will take years for the Think Tanks experts behind our governing philosophies to change to a more progressive and circumspect outlook. Their monied masters will hold them accountable to yesterday's approach until the pressure for intellectual honesty becomes overwhelming. I fear that unless the Think Tank role is diminished that squabling and interference by them will hold hostage any real alliance with bright greens.


Posted by: John Laumer on 10 May 05

The Geo-green motive seems resentful of traditional conservationist outlooks. They [geo-greens] are only willing to accept a small and militarily linked subset of what "bright-greens" would list as reasons to move ahead. Giving the nuclear industry a bone is the obvious throw in. Climate change is just a suggestion. It will take years for the Think Tanks experts behind our governing philosophies to change to a more progressive and circumspect outlook. Their monied masters will hold them accountable to yesterday's approach until the pressure for intellectual honesty becomes overwhelming in the face of immenent crisis. I fear that unless the Think Tank role is diminished that squabling and interference by them will hold hostage any real alliance with bright greens.


Posted by: John Laumer on 10 May 05

Ah, Frank Gaffney. Imperialist. Neo-Con. Friend to squirrels.

http://peake.blogspot.com/2005/04/six-degrees-of-gary-bauer.html


Posted by: monkeygrinder on 10 May 05

Engineer-Poet:

Mecca is nowhere near the oil fields (most of them are in a small region in the north close to Kuwait and the gulf) - so I think the religious fundamentalist crowd and everyone else who loves Mecca probably won't complain about PSE on religious grounds.

Saudi citizens may dislike the idea of torching their national wealth though, and the rest of us probably wouldn't enjoy the fallout from the massive oil price spike that resulted...


Posted by: Big Gav on 12 May 05



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