Energy Warnings and Economic Principles
A Reply to George Monbiot
Lindy Davies, the man who brings us "The View from Waldo County," has issued a reply to our recent article The Bottom of the Barrel by George Monbiot.
One Horseman from the Apocalyptic Cavalry
by Lindy DaviesGeorge Monbiot's article "The Bottom of the Barrel" appears at first glance as a stirring call to deal with unpleasant truths, and it will make many readers feel righteous. But a closer look reveals a tone of holier-than-thou pessimism: more gloom and doom from the misanthropic wing of the green movement.
Monbiot joins a small chorus of voices warning us that we are running out of oil. Now, it is evident that we are running out of enough easily-available petroleum to supply ever-increasing, wasteful demand -- but that's not quite the same thing. The current US administration is obviously bent on maintaining the energy status quo: rejecting the Kyoto accords, refusing to repeal the subsidy for SUVs, insisting on drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and invading both Afghanistan and Iraq for geopolitical energy considerations. So Monbiot's assumptions about the inertia of current energy behavior are plausible, to say the least. He intimates that if we cannot change we are doomed. In general, that is probably true -- although oil-induced depression and famine probably will not be the particular bogeyman that gets us.
Monbiot declares that "the supply of oil will decline, but global demand will not." But how can that be? When the supply declines, the price will rise, as Monbiot points out. But when the price rises, demand falls, unless there is nothing at all that can be substituted for that good. So, following that general line of reasoning, Monbiot surveys the various substitutes for oil that would least disrupt current first-world lifestyles, and finds them all wanting. There is, of course, one very powerful substitue for burning petroleum that is 100% eco-friendly, and can be implemented immediately: conservation -- an option even more far-fetched, according to Monbiot, than solar-powered automobiles.
Monbiot tolls the bell of doom: "Our sprawling suburbs are impossible to service without cars. High oil prices mean high food prices: much of the world's growing population will go hungry." Yet neither of these things, in themselves, spell out unavoidable doom:
1) Suburban sprawl could reverse; our cities could contract, using existing infrastructure more efficiently and creating viable opportunities for public transit. Land value tax reform would be a powerful way to achieve this -- and even without it, the forward-thinking public transit system in Curitiba, Brazil has given us a vision of what's possible.But according to Monbiot, civilization is collapsing, and unlike the riffraff who prefer new tableware, he at least has the sense to position his deck chair in full view of the iceberg. But that metaphor is wrong. The sinking of modern civilization is, perhaps, likely -- but it is by no means inevitable. Does the world contain enough coal to sustain the pace of coal-burning that went on at the turn of the nineteenth century? Coal use was increasing rapidly then, with no end in sight. Frankly, I am not worried about running out of enough oil to fill up my huge American tank every time I want to joyride. The world has far more pressing problems than that.
2) More food could be grown locally, on smaller farms, without chemical fertilizers. Green-revolution techniques have great value, but petroleum-based megafarming is not the only answer for the world's hungry people. Access to land is far more important, and it can be ensured via sensible land value tax policy and an end to insane, counterproductive subsidies to agribusiness.
Sadly, our "leaders" are hell-bent for the status quo. But I do not share Monbiot's dismal assessment of popular sensibilities. Yes, it's true that if the SUV is more luxurious than the fuel-efficient hybrid, is much more sexily advertised and lavishly appointed, and is given a huge price break by the tax system, more people will buy the SUV. But self-interest is not the same thing as stupidity. Let the United States start drafting young men and women to fight for oil profits, and watch how popular those fuel-efficient runabouts suddenly become!
Pessimistic forecasts are often based on the assumption that current trends will continue as they are -- but history gives us no basis for that! The most constant element in human history -- especially in the 20th century! -- is change. We may indeed invent new, possibly worse, problems as we go along -- but civilization won't ruined because of dwindling oil supplies. Civilization can ruin itself by refusing to recognize and implement fundamental principles of justice in economic relations. But if we do arrange society along principles of economic justice, then we need fear no shortage!
Lindy Davies is Education Director of the Henry George Institute.
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