Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Monopoly on Legitimate Violence

Lester Brown, being interviewed by Wired:
WN: What did you think of President Bush's recent statements about hybrids and wind and solar energy?

Brown: Despite the talk, there's not been any major commitment of resources or any policy adjustments. If you want to read something interesting, read those couple pages (of Plan B 2.0) on the mobilization during World War II -- when Roosevelt banned the sale of private automobiles in the United States. For nearly three years. That was his response to Pearl Harbor, mobilizing an enormous arms-production effort. But Bush's response to 9/11 was, "Go shopping."
Today, has an article on Peak Oil. Salon has actually one of the few media of any kind that has paid attention to Peak Oil from the beginning, so before I dump on them I'd like to say they've generally been for more diligent in their duties than... pretty much any other outlet.

My problem with today's article is simply that it gives way too much time to guys like Matt Savinar and James Kunstler - basically, the apocalypse fetishists who think that Peak Oil will be The End of Civilization As We Know It(tm).

It's times like this I think more people should read about the Black Death. Pretty much the worst time to be alive in Europe - which, considering how badly European life sucked for most people for most of the last 2,000 years, is saying a lot. At least 1/3 of Europe died. Imagine 100 million dead Americans to start with. Then consider that in some places, it was even worse. Some villages in England were hit so hard by the plague that the handful of survivors simply left the town to be reclaimed by the forests.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Armageddon. Or rather, a funny thing didn't happen. Not a single kingdom, duchy, or pontificate was overthrown or collapsed in the chaos.

Read that Brown quote again - FDR, in response to the war, simply stopped all new automobile sales in the US. We've gotten used to the neoliberal ideas of small government, weak government, and inefficient government. Guess what? Governments can be incredibly powerful when they need to be. Think gasoline won't be rationed? Think you'll be allowed to commute alone in your car? Think you can't be arrested for refusing to take a bus to work? If Peak Oil gets to be even half as bad as Savinar and Kunstler think it will, you'll see all that and more.

But, you say, our modern economies - and the governments they support - are far more fragile and vulnerable to disruption. Surely no national government can survive the end of oil? Of course the government will survive. The government may be the only institution with any access to fuel whatsoever, but if anyone does the state will. Cop cars will keep running, police helicopters will still fly, and if necessary tanks and combat aircraft will still operate.

It's also worth pointing out that Cuba went through it's own version of Peak Oil when the USSR collapse, and Fidel is still in power, and there was no die-off. Cubans lost about 1/3 of their caloric intake for a while, but the US could lose 1/3 of their calories and the only thing that would happen is a decline in diabetes. And we should really consider for a moment how bad an "economic collapse" would be. For example, if we went back to a level of economic activity before the large, widespread use of oil inputs in every aspect of our economy we're talking about going back to those dystopian years of, say, the 1940s. (People don't realize how different 1950 was from even 1940, in terms of science, technology, and the economy, but it's pretty astonishing.) My point isn't that this would be an easy transition, but that it's not the end of the world. Civilization - and organized, powerful nation-states - will survive quite well, thank you.

In one sense, I agree with people like Savinar and Kunstler - Peak Oil, if badly handled, could very well challenge the power of national governments. But here's the thing - I never bet against the power of national governments. If it takes a crash program to build coal-to-oil plants, you'll see the House of Representatives start writing cheques faster than they can raise the debt ceiling. (Which, in case you missed it, is pretty fast.)

I should of course point out that I am in fact an optimist - I think renewables and conservation can bridge the gap before the heavy hand of the state comes in. That said, we in North America generally don't have a good idea of how powerful the state can be when it is challenged. To remember, people my age might have to ask their grandparents. It's ironic, in one sense. Because "small government" conservatives have fought tooth and nail against any kind of sustainability for the last 30 years, they're largely responsible for any far more intrusive policies the state may take to stave off disaster.

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