Thursday, March 20, 2008

Iraq, Energy and Arthur C. Clarke

As the great science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke left his earthbound shell recently, we agonize over the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war. In spirit of his great world-mind, let's mull over one of our most vexing human tragedies.

While I see the war as an epic failure of the neocons' collective imagination, millions still think that we are fighting this hopeless battle to secure our energy present and future.

On that objective, the Bush administration has failed more than miserably. Some 160,000 troops over a half-decade have failed to secure two large oilfields or pacify a country the size of France. The border is as porous as a rotted fishnet, from 150,000 to 600,000 civilians have died, 4,000 of our bravest men and women have perished and more than 60,000 have been wounded.

Still, Iraqi oil is smuggled, sold on the black market and hasn't paid for much of anything in this country. The Iraqis can barely keep the lights on -- where electricity is even available. Their standard of living has plummeted and the cold civil war continues. Not even the British want to stay.

(For more on the oil thefts, see the New York Times expose (

The real, unstated strategy was to create a geopolitical wedge between Syria and its destructive sphere of influence and Iran, which is the major funder of Hamas in Palestine. Those in the White House, CIA and the undisclosed secret location where Dick Cheney spends his days, truly believed in the "slam-dunk" theory of Middle East hegemony. Control Iraq and you shut down Iranian adventurism, stifle Palestinian terrorism and keep the Straits of Hormuz open to oil traffic. Who's the major beneficiary? Mostly China and Japan, who need the petroleum to keep going. China alone will become the world's largest consumer of black gold very soon and will do anything to keep the spigot open.

Insatiable demand from China, India and the West keep pushing oil prices higher. Wall Street and hedge funds make the crude pricing party rock with their endless speculation on oil futures and arbitrage against the dollar (dump the dollar and buy oil and gold). Those are the reasons oil prices hit $110 recently. I would bet for them to come down -- maybe to the $80 a barrel level -- because the price doesn't support the demand level. There's going to be a surplus of oil if the West enters a recession and pulls China and India back down with it. That seems to be falling into place with each passing day. So much for energy security.

While energy and commodity prices spiral ever higher -- making things like driving a long-haul truck or commuting unaffordable for those of modest means -- the US Senate dithers on comprehensive energy legislation. Meanwhile, the two Democratic candidates attempt to make us believe that they're on our side by spouting off "energy independence" myths, although they have offered almost no leadership in the upper house on passing a key energy bill the House has approved (see my blog before last).

Is Energy Independence possible with the greatest army, navy and air force in history doing our bidding? If it is, it won't come through force, but I doubt the power brokers in Washington will ever figure that out.

A well-thought-out, diversified energy portfolio is possible. Yet it's more likely to come from venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, homeowners in Germany and scientists in Tennessee (certainly not from Al Gore).

To date, some $3 billion in venture capital has been invested in alternative energy projects. That's quadruple the amount from 2000. Think of what might be possible if the US Government matched those dollars on every worthy project: Biofuels from cellulosic (not corn) products, solar photovoltaics, plug-in or electric cars, fuel cells, concentrated solar heating/electricity, green building and reprocessing nuclear waste. What if the estimated $2 trillion that is expected to prop up the Iraq War effort went into these research areas or subsidies for using alt-e? What if we even paid premium prices -- like the German government -- for power generated by alternative (non-polluting) power?

Mind you, I don't think we'll ever be energy independent. It takes a lot of petroleum to fuel trains, buses and cars. Our economy would grind to a halt without oil when you take into account the role of petroleum in the chemical, fertilizer, pharmaceutical and plastics industries. Just as we can't eliminate the lion's share of our petroleum use, we won't be leaving Iraq anytime soon because even a small dent in the world's oil pumping capacity is felt around the world. What happens to China happens to Wall Street and can clobber Main Street. The U.S. will be in the Persian Gulf as long as the British were in India.

Yet there are so many stories of hope; I'm only pessimistic about the political situation. The ceaseless ingenuity of Americans and their institutions outside of Washington never fails to flabbergast me.

I take you now to the foothills of the Smokies, where some exciting developments are underway courtesy of the US taxpayer and the US Department of Energy at the Oak Ridge National Lab near Knoxville. The lab is not only working on fuel cells, cellulosic ethanol, solar cells and energy efficiency, it has a hand in one of the largest zero-energy home projects on the continent. Not too far from the lab is Walden Reserve, a retirement development that will run on the energy it creates. Some 20,000 people will enjoy a golf course, spa, hiking trails -- and their own energy-stingy/electricity producing homes. I wonder if Al Gore is going to abandon his power-gluttonous mansion for this modest enclave of progress?

(For more on this, see ORNL's magazine

From Eastern Tennessee, let's travel into the cosmos and ask the late Mr. Clarke what he thinks is possible in terms of energy developments. First, let's review his three laws:

* When a distinguished elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right -- and vice versa.

* The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

* Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Yes, we have a little magic left in our tortured culture of war and chaos. The man who gave us geosynchronous satellites, "Childhood's End" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" told us so. This is part of his lasting legacy.

The most indelible image I have of Clarke's work is one of the last scenes of Stanley Kubrick's mind-bending movie based on 2001. HAL the computer has somehow managed to mess with time itself. The last remaining astronaut ages rapidly in front of the monolith, then is reborn. Has mankind transcended war at that point through the force of technology? Or is rebirth simply necessary for us to reinvent ourselves?

All it takes is some genuine imagination, daring and magic and we have our answers!

1 comment:

ThinkResults said...

John - I think with each rebirth, to use another image from SK's 2001, we reach for the jawbone and smash our counterpart over the head with it - that is, before we create movies with spaceships and the Blue Danube waltz playing in the background. Technology is not the final answer - it's how we use it - but it does make a post-oil world possible. Is the US taking advantage of our tech/R&D resources for post-oil world (can't wait to see your book)?

Meanwhile, as Matt Damon's Bryan Woodman/Financial Analyst character said to the Sheik (in Steve Gaghan's Syriana):
"So what are THEY thinking? Great! They're thinking keep playing, keep buying yourself new toys, keep spending $50,000 a night on your hotel room, but don't invest in your infastructure... don't build a real economy. So that when you finally wake up, they will have sucked you dry, and you will have squandered the greatest natural resource in history..."

Is he only speaking about some Middle East kingdom (certainly not the UAE)?