Sunday, January 09, 2011

The extremely leisurely pace of American democracy and the urgency of our predicament

Winston Churchill once remarked that "[t]he United States invariably does the right thing, after having exhausted every other alternative." The assumption behind that remark is that there will be time to do the right thing after all alternatives have been exhausted. This assumption is especially troubling when it comes to addressing such issues as peak oil and climate change.

It is worthwhile to look back a bit and see why Churchill came to his famous conclusion. One issue that threatened the stability of the United States from its founding was slavery. The first attempt to smooth over differences was in the U.S. Constitution. Slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of determining the number of representatives from each state. Also, the importation of slaves could be prohibited after 1808. That arrangement worked until 1820 when the balance between slave states and free states became a point of fierce contention as the union expanded. Slaveholders did not want to see the federal legislature controlled by representatives from free states. The Missouri Compromise maintained that balance for the time. There was the Compromise of 1850 and then in 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act, both attempts to calm sectional tensions. And, of course, finally the American Civil War (1861-65) ended a 70-year experiment with compromise over slavery.

I recite this history because it is emblematic of how slowly American democracy moves on critical, even existential matters. Many women had worked hard for the abolition of slavery and in the aftermath of the Civil War expected to attain the right to vote along with former slaves. But the 15th Amendment failed to mention women. And, it took another 50 years for women to receive the right to vote.

It took another 95 years from the passing of the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the right to vote to all citizens regardless of "race, color or condition of previous servitude" until African-Americans received in fact what they had been given in law by that amendment. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally made it possible for African-Americans in the South to exercise their franchise.

It is true that the American federal system was designed specifically to encourage slow, deliberate action. It is far easier to stop something in the U.S. Congress than it is to get anything approved. While the long wait for voting rights for women and African-Americans was a blot on the American historical record and exceedingly damaging and painful to those it affected, neither issue ultimately destroyed the country.

While the Civil War still holds the record for the number of American deaths in a war, that number might end up looking small even as a percentage of the population (2 percent) compared to the number of Americans who will suffer and die in one way or another because of peak oil, climate change, and myriad other environmental threats that now beset us. The problem is that these Americans don't die from immediately discernible causes such as gunshot wounds. Rather their suffering will often only be indirectly and circuitously related to environmental threats and resource depletion. Therefore, it will be difficult for those hit hardest to coalesce into an effective voting block, especially since the fossil fuel and other lobbies have worked hard to confuse them about the resource and environmental issues of our age.

I recently watched the film The American President again. I was struck that this movie released in 1995 took climate change as a given, something the audience would readily accept as an important issue that needed to be addressed promptly. Here we are 16 years later, and only now is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) taking the first baby steps toward regulating greenhouse gas emissions pursuant to a Supreme Court ruling that affirmed its power to do so. Even so a new hoard of climate change deniers in Congress propose to stop the EPA from exercising that authority. (I doubt that they will be able to do so for now.)

In addition, Americans seem to have somehow accepted that oil at $90 a barrel means nothing in particular. This is true even though a decade ago oil at $30 or $40 a barrel was thought to be potent enough to crush the economy. Perhaps we have adapted to these higher prices. But there seems to be no urgency to move the economy away from oil dependence even though the warnings of peak oil activists have been largely borne out.

When will the American democratic machinery actually begin to react to the twin crises of oil depletion and climate change? When there is a calamity directly attributable to one or the other or both, that's when. There are two problems with this approach.

First, it may not be clear that some future crisis is peak oil- and/or climate change-induced. How much of the Hurricane Katrina disaster can be attributed to climate change? No one knows. The damage done to New Orleans is certainly very much what had been foretold by climate modelers as hurricanes intensify and sea levels rise. But even the destruction of a large American city failed to catalyze any action on climate change.

Record high oil prices certainly had something to do with the economic meltdown of 2008. After all, nearly every recession since 1970 has been preceded by a spike in oil prices. But the focus so far has all been on finance. And, little has been done to address the world's oil dependency since 2008.

Second, the damage inflicted on the country and the world by waiting for a discernible crisis clearly linked to peak oil and/or climate change will far exceed the costs of prevention. Imagine what the 2008 financial crisis might have looked like if the country had already largely electrified its transportation system using renewable energy sources. The crisis would certainly still have been bad, but not nearly so ominous and devastating as tight oil supplies made it. And those tight supplies continue to hamper recovery, threatening a second downturn.

Finally, it's worth noting that national emergencies tend to elicit temporary emergency measures that are rarely revoked, some of which may fly in the face of democratic processes. The attacks of September 11, 2001 have spawned a whole raft of such measures, many obviously illegal and unconstitutional, but which the public sustains because it does not understand the true nature of our predicament.

How many more ill-conceived and heavy-handed measures can we expect when the death toll is not 3,000, but 300,000 or 3,000,000--all because we and other nations failed to address adequately peak oil- and climate change-related problems before they became too big to ignore.

Those who block progress on these critical issues in Congress believe--just as those who held slaves and those who opposed women's suffrage--that what they are doing will not bring down the whole system around them. And, they tacitly believe that if they are in the wrong, there will be plenty of time to address peak oil and climate change through compromise in the future.

But, while slaves and women may be made to wait by the hand of oppression, nature recognizes no such limit. Our social divisions may be held at bay for long periods while we work out our differences. When it comes to energy depletion and climate change, it is nature that will prevail in enforcing its will on us without regard to legislative or lobbyist timetables.


Crocodile Chuck said...

Another smashing post, Kurt.

Q: what do you think of the late Thomas Gold's notion of abiotic oil?


You can't do justice to such a complex question here; perhaps it would justify a later blog post?


Dunc said...

Re: abiotic oil: The important question is not really "where does oil come from?" but "how quickly is it produced or made accessible?"

If somebody wants to believe that there is a nearly limitless supply at great depths, that's all very well, and completely irrelevant. I don't see anybody making money by buying up depleted fields and waiting for them to refill, therefore even if this (highly dubious) idea should turn out to be true, it still doesn't address the fact that we're using oil faster than it can be replenished.

Really, the whole argument is symptomatic of a fundamental failure to understand that the problem is one of flow rates rather then ultimate recoverable reserves.