Friday, March 25, 2005

Global resource wars: The Rosetta Stone

A slab of black basalt which now sits in the British Museum contains a decree honoring the Egyptian king, Ptolemy V Epiphanes. The decree was written in three languages: Greek, hieroglyphics, and demotic (a simplified form of hieroglyphics). The black slab is known as the Rosetta Stone and became the key to understanding hieroglyphics because on this stone the ancient pictographs were seen for the first time side-by-side with other better understood languages.

Some 200 years later we find ourselves back in the part of the world where the Rosetta Stone was discovered, trying to figure out another conundrum. What is the nature of the connection between an ill-planned war in Iraq; the steadily increasing pressure on dissent in the United States; the ongoing estrangement between the United States and its traditional allies; the increasing strains with the country's Canadian neighbor; and the forbearance shown to China as opposed to the increasing distrust of Russia? Is there a compelling, overriding theme that connects them all? By lining them up side-by-side the theme becomes clear if you know on what basis to draw in the connections. The one common thread is a global scramble for the remaining energy resources in the world, especially oil and natural gas. Let's take a look at that thread.

By itself the invasion of Iraq seems reckless, even senseless. The avowed mission of the United States was to protect itself from weapons of mass destruction. (Even if Iraq did have them, so do many other countries and they resist using them against us for fear of obliteration.) When that turned out to be baseless, the second publicized mission was to liberate the Iraqis and give them a democracy. Something may come of this yet, but it will probably not be to our liking. The true mission is explained by the unsuccessful attempt of Paul Bremer (the former American administrator in Iraq) to privatize the national Iraqi oil company.

The Bush administration understood that as long as oil in the Middle East and elsewhere is controlled by state-owned companies, it will flow only as fast as they need it to in order to finance social and military spending. Private companies, on the other hand, would seek to exploit the remaining oil reserves as quickly as possible to enrich their shareholders. The result would be more oil flowing at lower prices. If the American military could convince other Middle Eastern oil powers to open their fields to private development (perhaps through the threat of invasion), it could achieve the same goal elsewhere without additional armed conflict.

This, I believe, was the strategy, even if the implementation has been largely disastrous and ineffective. The Iraq invasion was not designed merely to swipe the oil. This would only leave Iraq an impoverished, hostile satellite intent on stopping the flow of that oil. (We've seen some of that sentiment already.) In addition, even if the United States gained effective control of all Middle East oil, hoarding it would ultimately lead to the collapse of America's trading partners or to a war with them. That's why the notion that the U. S. would simply keep the oil for itself makes no sense. In reality, the free flow of cheap oil allows America to remain the dominant military power and the largest, most powerful economy. Hoarding would certainly jeopardize this.

Now why, if this is really the American objective, does the U. S. government need to stifle dissent at home? Don't Americans believe that they have a birthright to cheap energy? While a clear majority of Americans supported the invasion, the dissenters have a strong American ethic of anti-imperialism on their side, an ethic that tends to gain adherents as military engagements drag on. The administration said that we are in a generation-long battle with the forces of militant Islam and so, at the very least, it expected to stay on in Iraq for many years. With that in mind the administration told Americans that we would be out in six months in order to gain support knowing full well that it would have to quell dissent in order to stay on much longer.

Our disagreements with European governments about Iraq are often portrayed as differences over approach, soft versus hard. Or these disagreements are simply put down to French and German greed or corruption. In fact, the Europeans are now competing with us for ever-dwindling supplies of energy. Why didn't they sign on for the Iraq invasion then since they, too, would stand to benefit from larger supplies of cheap oil? The answer has already been given. This would insure continued American dominance. The Europeans are less and less inclined to accept that. They are also far less dependent on oil than America; Europeans use only half as much per unit of economic output. And, they have a ready supplier in Russia which not only has large reserves of oil, but also of natural gas, both of which are already being conveniently piped to its European neighbors. In short, the Europeans have relatively less grim energy prospects than the United States, they have a natural aversion to wars born of experience, and they now see the U. S. as a resource bully who must be resisted.

The frictions between the U. S. and Canada come at a time when natural gas supplies in North America are thought to be peaking. The U. S. imports half of all the natural gas that Canada produces. At some point, Canada will need to keep more for its own use even as America's appetite for methane grows. And so, Canada will also find out that the United States is a resource bully, and the Canadians may regret entering into NAFTA which obliges them to send so much of their precious energy south.

The American forbearance of China (whose rapid growth along with that of India is probably the biggest reason for tight global energy supplies) may seem puzzling to the untrained eye unless it is seen as only a temporary measure. America's current ruling ideologues need Chinese loans to finance the first leg of their global resource war. The Chinese need America's markets in order to modernize the Chinese economy and provide employment for ever-increasing numbers of people coming from the countryside. The contradiction in the Bush administration's tax-cutting, deficit-creating policy is that it leaves the country so vulnerable to blackmail and even economic collapse at the hands of the Chinese. They could simply choose to stop lending to us at any time. They don't do it because right now it would cause huge, perhaps revolutionary, social problems for them. A sudden breakdown in the recycling of dollars back to the United States would surely cause a severe worldwide recession and possibly even a depression. That would lead to dangerously high unemployment in China.

But, someday the Chinese will decide to wean themselves from the American market. That will mean that America would then have to find other lenders (unlikely, in my view) or raise taxes substantially to pay for America's global military presence. By that time, however, the country could be so weakened by the intervening years of war and debt buildup that collapse may be the only possible outcome.

Beyond this America's bases in several former Soviet republics rich in oil are no puzzle. Our threats against Venezuela's populist president, Hugo Chavez, who is signing agreements with the Chinese and openly criticizing U. S. influence in Latin America, are no surprise.

In Iran the concern over nuclear weapons is not really that they will be dropped on America. An Iranian nuclear attack on America would only result in the reduction of Iran to rubble, and the Iranians know this. What American military planners fear is that Iran will frustrate their plan to privatize Middle East oil as Iran acts as an effective counterweight to American power. The Iranians, however, will probably get nuclear weapons even if America bombs its facilities because those facilities are thought to be widely scattered and duplicated, even triplicated.

What makes this fateful global engagement so pitiful is that it has no chance of succeeding at its aim: Guaranteeing the continuance of the energy-intensive American way of life. There are no number of ships or tanks or planes, no size of troop deployments, no buildup of smart missiles or bunker-busting nuclear bombs that can solve this problem because none of these can produce one more drop of oil under the earth. The real problem is depletion and the approach of world peak oil production. In fact, all of America's military activity will only serve to deplete what oil is left even faster without providing us any of the alternatives that we desperately need: massive conservation, development of alternative energy sources, and a complete restructuring of the way we live consistent with a lower energy future.


Pikkel Weezel said...

I just changed the oil in my SUV and poured the old stuff down the storm drain that leads to the creek that leads to the reservior. Then I cranked up my SUV and let it idle while I cleaned my yellow "Support Our Troops" magnets on the tailgate. To top it all off, my home's thermostat is set on 74. Well, let me go, I need to go out back and set fire to all of those stupid recyclable plastic coke bottles in the garbage can.

Cameron said...

Time settles all arguments one way or another, and it will settle this one, too. Understanding this fact gives me a lot of ease in reaction to the statements and attitudes of people who doubt and thumb their noses at the notion of an immanent, permanent and ongoing decline in the availability of oil and natural gas.

LadySimons said...

Kurt - you are nearly there. The prime mover for the illegal invasion of Iraq was the decision by the UN to allow Saddam to sell oil in Euros and to bank the loot with Paribas in Paris.

If the whole world used Euros to buy/sell oil the US$ goes down the pan.

Now ratchet back a bit, Chavez is made Chmn of OPEC goaded by Castro who preceded him in 2000 he sets off setting up the Anti-American OPEC spine visitng Saddam, who sees the sense in selling Euros, Iran, Indonesia etc, etc.,

Abortive coup against Chavez - who now (today) is in a very strong position having seen the OPEC basket price rise from (say) $15US to $4oUS and rising.

Now the beltway gangstas are in a bind, the few allies are crumbling in support (except our dear leader T Blair) and the armed forces are mired in the sand (if that is possible).

Now look at (say) GM, GM sneezes the US catches a cold. profits gone, no strategy, Jap/ german imports stealing their market - see Ford , now look at Boeing sidestepped by Airbus and if the 787 Dreamliner (made in Japan, China, UK, Spain and assembled in a third party factory in Evertt CA) tanks - its bye bye Boeing.

Silicon Valley has learny Chinese and is disapperaing to Shanghai - Cisco is now a Chinese company .

The message.

Black Monday is coming to a Stock Market near you - very soon.

Anonymous said...

Musings on your K-college Talk.

Dear Kurt Cobb,

First I want to thank you for the time you gave to present the current issues of energy use in our world and nation. I was very excited to see the large number of college age students participating in your discussion; However, I feel we need to be giving this college age population direction in finding hopeful solutions to our environmental woes. I felt you only presented the problems and didn’t offer the promising horizons of what out there is working. I felt when the students were dismissed you left them with a hopeless feeling that it is too late and we can’t change our economics and the problem is too big for them to make a difference—that is why the interesting questions of socialism and post-capitalism—they thought the problem was out of their hands because it boils down to how our economy works-- so why should they try. This has been called eco-phobia. I would suggest that your presentation show more examples of what kinds of thinking are out there and being tested than showing them a graph at how greedy our nation is and how limited the current energy replacements strategies are.

You should have sent those k-college students out of that room energized to see how people are tackling these issues currently and let them see economic potential and opportunity instead of s future with no hope.

Looking at your title of your presentation, We all know as environmentalists the dire consequences—but do we know the small scale efforts that intelligent people are doing at a grass roots level that are making great impacts—that is something we all should know, but probably don’t.

Good luck to you. Inspire youth with hope and vision, so they see the changes that our world is facings as an opportunity for new ideas and business ventures that will lead to success in their lives.

Daniel Keto

Kalamazoo Nature Center

Taurina said...


The Rosetta Stone is one of the most famous textual artifacts of Ancient Egypt and a subject of numerous researches by scientists. Its name originates from the place where it was found - Rosetta (El-Rashid in Arabic). It was discovered by a soldier from Napoleon's Army while building a fortification in 1799.

After Napoleon's defeat, and signing the peace treaty in 1802, all artifacts found by French become British property. Among those, the Rosetta Stone was transferred to the British Museum, where it is now, and represents one of the most valuable items the museum owns.

The Rosetta Stone is a black granite slab with the following dimensions:

Height: 1.44 m
Width: 0.72 м
Thickness : 0.28m
Weight: 762 кг

The special decree that had been inscribed on it, according to contemporary scholarship, was issued by the priests in order to glorify the pharaoh Ptolemy V Epiphany Eucharist one year after his coronation, more precisely, according to present-day calendar on 27th of March 196 B.C.

The text is written in three languages: ancient Egyptian, written in hieroglyphic script, ancient Macedonian, written in demotic script, and ancient Greek, written in ancient Greek alphabet. For a long time no one could decode the ancient Macedonian script. Professors Aristotel Tentov and Tome Bosevski made a great discovery when they succeeded to decode the middle text from the Rosetta Stone, and as their scientific proves say, it turns out to be in ancient Macedonian language, written in demotic script, that royal Egyptian Macedonian family (originates from Ptolemy I, Alexander the Great's General) used together with the ancient Egyptian and ancient Greek languages.

Besides the enormous importance this discovery has in global terms, it shows a different perspective towards "history" as it was known before, and changes some thing that were taken for granted before. First, from the fact that the language of this script is very similar to contemporary Macedonian language, it shows that there is a direct link between Macedonian people today and their ancient Macedonian ancestors. Secondly, it shows that Macedonia was the cradle of European culture, an older civilization than Greek or Egyptian one, and then it turns the previously known history upside down, because according to Professors Tentov and Bosevski, present-day Macedonians do not originate from the Carpathian Mountains, but were forced to flee from Macedonia and settled there, spreading their culture and civilization among natives. Then, in the 6th century, they came back home, again fleeing from invaders. The resemblance between the language in which the middle text of Rosetta Stone was written and the contemporary Macedonian language is astonishing and raises many questions that should be answered in the future.

Congratulations on this success Professors!

Here is the web site where you can find their magnificent results. I recommend it:

sv koho said...

Kurt, Your analysis of the motivation behind the Iraq fiasco is almost certainly correct. Sadam was a former oil friend but when he decided to double cross us and threaten to try to sign contracts with
Russia and France among others after the UN oil constraints were lifted, the neocons knew they would have to act. Dick Cheney after all told us that "the American way of life is not negotiable!" You are dead nuts on in your conclusions. One additional point which the media wont ask is why the US is a target. Seems pretty obvious to me. The war on terror can only be won when the US withdraws from its doomed strategy to control world oil access and its corridors. When we decide to withdraw from their homeland which we had no right to invade in the first place, the war on terror will be over.