In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert
Pirsig tells the story of a South American Indian
tribe that has devised an ingenious monkey trap. The
Indians cut off the small end of a coconut and stuff
it with sweetmeats and rice. They tether the other
end to a stake and place it in a clearing.
Soon, a monkey smells the treats inside and comes to
see what it is. It can just barely get its hand into
the coconut but, stuffed with booty, it cannot pull
the hand back out. The Indians easily walk up to the
monkey and capture it. Even as the Indians approach,
the monkey screams in horror, not only in fear of its
captors, but equally as much, one imagines, in
recognition of the tragedy of its own lethal but still
Pirsig uses the story to illustrate the problem of
value rigidity. The monkey cannot properly evaluate
the relative worth of a handful of food compared to
its life. It chooses wrongly, catastrophically so,
dooming itself by its own short-term fixation on a
relatively paltry pleasure.
America has its own hand in a coconut, one that may
doom it just as surely as the monkey. That coconut is
its dependence on cheap oil in a world where oil will
soon come to an end. The choice we face (whether to
let the food go or hold onto it) is whether to wean
ourselves off of oil—to quickly evolve a new economy
and a new basis for civilization—or to continue to
secure stable supplies from the rest of the world by
As with Pirsig’s monkey, the alternative consequences
of each choice could not be more dramatic. Weaning
ourselves off of cheap oil, while not easy, will help
ensure the vitality of the American economy and the
survival of its political system. Choosing the route
of force will almost certainly destroy the economy and
doom America’s short experiment in democracy.
To date, we have chosen the second alternative: to
secure oil by force. The evidence of its consequences
are all around us. They include the titanic US budget
and trade deficits funding a gargantuan,
globally-deployed military and the Patriot Act and its
starkly anti-democratic rescissions of civil
liberties. There is little time left to change this
choice before its consequences become irreversible.
The world is quickly running out of oil. In the year
2000, global production stood at 76 Million Barrels
per Day (MBD). By 2020, demand is forecast to reach
112 MBD, an increase of 47%. But additions to proven
reserves have virtually stopped and it is clear that
pumping at present rates is unsustainable. Estimates
of the date of “peak global production” vary with some
experts saying it already may have occurred as early
as the year 2000. New Scientist magazine recently
placed the year of peak production in 2004. Virtually
all experts believe it will almost certainly occur
before the end of this decade.
And the rate of depletion is accelerating. Imagine a production curve that rises slowly over 145 years—the time since oil was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859. Over this time, the entire world shifted to oil as the foundation of industrial civilization. It invested over one hundreds trillion dollars in a physical infrastructure and an economic system run entirely on oil. But oil production is now at its peak and the right hand side of the curve is a virtual drop off. Known reserves are being drawn down at 4 times the rate of new discoveries.
The reason for the drop off is that not only have all
the “big” discoveries already been made, the rate of consumption is increasing dramatically. Annual world energy use is up five times since 1945. Increases are now driven by massive developing countries—China, India, Brazil—growing and emulating first or at least second world consumption standards. Fixed supply.
Stalled discoveries. Sharply increased consumption.
This is the formula for global oil depletion within
the next few decades.
The situation is especially critical in the US. With
barely 4% of the world’s population, the US consumes
26% of the world’s energy. But the US produced only 9
MBD in 2000 while consuming 19 MBD. It made up the
difference by importing 10 MBD, or 53% of its needs.
By 2020, the US Department of Energy forecasts
domestic demand will grow to 25 MBD but production
will be down to 7 MBD. The daily shortfall of 18 MBD
or 72% of needs, will all need to be imported.
Perhaps it goes without saying but it deserves
repeating anyway: oil is the sine qua non of
“industrial” civilization—the one thing without which
such civilization cannot exist. All of the world’s
600 million automobiles depend on oil. So do
virtually all other commodities and critical
processes: airlines, chemicals, plastics, medicines, agriculture, heating, etc. Almost all of the increase in world food productivity over the past 50 years is attributable to increases in the use of oil-derived
additives: pesticides; herbicides; fungicides;
fertilizers; and machinery.
When oil is gone, civilization will be stupendously
different. The onset of rapid depletion will trigger convulsions on a global scale, including, likely, global pandemics and die-offs of significant portions of the world’s human population. The “have” countries will face the necessity kicking the “have-nots” out of the global lifeboat in order to assure their own survival. Even before such conditions are reached, inelastic supply interacting with inelastic demand will drive the price of oil and oil-derived commodities through the stratosphere, effecting by market forces alone massive shifts in the current distribution of global wealth.
If the US economy is not to grind to a halt under
these circumstances it must choose one of three
alternate strategies: dramatically lower its living
standards (something it is not willing to do);
substantially increase the energy efficiency of its
economy; or make up the shortfall by securing supplies
from other countries. President Bush’s National
Energy Policy published in March 2001 explicitly
commits the US to the third choice: Grab the Oil. It
is this choice that is now driving US military and
national security policy. And, in fact, the past 60
years of US policy in the Middle East can only be
understood as the effort to control access to the
world’s largest supply of oil.
Witness, for example, the deep US embrace of Saudi
Arabia since World War II. One quarter of all US
weapons sales between 1950 and 2000 went to Saudi
Arabia despite its horrifically repressive, literally
medieval tribal nature. The CIA’s overthrow of
Mohamed Mosadegh in Iran in 1953 after he nationalized
his country’s oil is another example. So, too, was
the US strategic embrace of Israel during the 1967 Six
Day War. The US was deeply mired in Vietnam but
needed a “cop on the beat” to challenge Arab
states—Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Yemen—that were “going
Soviet.” It has stuck with that relationship ever
More recent examples of national strategy in bondage
to the compulsion for oil include US support for
Saddam Hussein in the Iran/Iraq War; its support for
Osama bin Laden in the Afghanistan War against the
Soviet Union; and, of course, the most recent invasion
of Iraq to seize its oilfields and forward position US
forces for an invasion of neighboring Saudi Arabia
when it is inevitably destroyed by internal civil war.
And under a Grab the Oil strategy, militarization of
US society will only deepen.
The reason is that a very major portion of the world’s
oil is, by accident of geology, in the hands of states
hostile to the US. Fully 60% percent of the world’s
proven reserves of oil are in the Persian Gulf. They
lie beneath Muslim countries undergoing a religious
revolution that wants to return the industrial world
to a pre-modern order governed by a fundamentalist
Islamic theocracy. Saudi Arabia alone controls 25% of
all the world’s oil, more than that of North America,
South America, Europe and Africa combined. Kuwait,
Iran and Iraq, each control approximately 10% of the
Another 15% of the world’s oil lies in the Caspian Sea
region, also a dominantly Muslim region. It includes
a group of post-Soviet, satellite and buffer states
that lack any semblance of legal or market systems.
They are extraordinarily corrupt, really just
Gangster Thugocracies masquerading as countries.
Think Afghanistan. Both Russia and China consider
this region part of their “sphere of strategic
influence” portending significant clashes for the US
over coming decades.
As long as the US chooses the Grab the Oil
alternative, the implications for national policy are inescapable. The combination of all these facts—fixed supply, rapid depletion, lack of alternatives, severity of consequences, and hostility of current stockholding countries—drive the US to HAVE to adopt an aggressive (pre-emptive) military posture and to carry out a nakedly colonial expropriation of resources from weaker countries around the world.
This is why the US operates some 700 military bases
around the world and spends over half a trillion
dollars per year on military affairs, more than all
the rest of the world—its “allies” included—combined.
This is why the Defense Department’s latest
Quadrennial Review stated, “The US must retain the
capability to send well-armed and logistically
supported forces to critical points around the globe,
even in the face of enemy opposition.” This is why
Pentagon brass say internally that current force
levels are inadequate to the strategic challenges they
face and that they will have to re-instate the draft
after the 2004 elections.
But the provocation occasioned by grabbing the oil,
especially from nations ideologically hostile to the
US, means that military attacks on the US and the
recourse to military responses will only intensify
until the US is embroiled in unending global conflict.
This is the perverse genius of the Grab the Oil
strategy: it comes with its own built-in escalation,
its own justification for ever more
militarization—without limit. It will blithely
consume the entire US economy, the entire society,
without being sated. It is, in homage to Orwell,
Perpetual War for Perpetual Grease.
In his first released tape after 9/11, Osama bin Laden
stated that he carried out the attacks for three
reasons: 1) to drive US military forces from Saudi
Arabia, the most sacred place of Islam; 2) to avenge
the deaths of over half a million Iraqi children
killed, according to UNICEF, as a result of the
US-sponsored embargo of the 1990s; and, 3) to punish
US sponsorship of Israeli oppression against the
Palestinian people. Oil and the need to control it
are critically implicated in all three reasons.
But now comes the sobering part. In response to the
9/11 attacks, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld
stated that the US was engaged in “…a thirty to forty
year war (!) against fundamentalist Islam.” It is
the fever of War, of course, that becomes the
all-purpose justification for the rollback of civil
liberties. Lincoln used the Civil War to justify the
suspension of habeas corpus. Roosevelt used the
cover of World War II to inter hundreds of thousands
of Japanese Americans. And now Bush is using the
self-ratcheting “War on Terror” to effect even more
sweeping, perhaps permanent rescissions of civil
Under the Patriot Act, a person can be arrested
without probable cause, held indefinitely without
being charged, tried without a lawyer or a jury,
sentenced without the opportunity to appeal, and put
to death—all without notification of…anybody. This is
simply a Soviet Gulag and it has been rationalized by
the hysterical over-hyping of the War on Terror. The
fact that it is not yet widespread does not diminish
the more important fact that it has been put in place
precisely in anticipation of such procedures needing
to be being carried out on a mass scale in the future.
The broader implications of the Patriot Acts go far
beyond the abusive treatment of criminals or
terrorists. Their portent can be glimpsed in the
language used to justify them. When Attorney General
John Ashcroft testified on behalf of the Act, he
stated, “…those who oppose us are providing aid and
comfort to the enemy.” These are carefully chosen
words. “Aid and comfort to the enemy” are the words
used in the Constitution to define Treason, the most
fateful of crimes against the state. In other words,
protest against the government—the singular right
without which America would not even exist—is now
being defined as trying to overthrow the government.
And by the internal logic of a global Oil Empire, this
is entirely reasonable. The needs of the people of
any one country must be subordinated to the larger
agenda of Empire itself. This is what the Romans
learned in 27 B.C. when Augustus proclaimed himself
Emperor. It was the end of the Roman Republic and the disappearance of representative government on earth for almost 1,700 years, until the English Civil Wars in the 1600s. That is the reality we are confronting today—offering up our democracy in propitiation to an Empire for Oil. It will be a fateful, irreversible decision.
Returning to Pirsig’s metaphor, the choice of a Grab
the Oil strategy is the equivalent of the monkey
holding onto the handful of food, remaining trapped by
the coconut. It is an ironclad guarantee of
escalating global conflict, isolation of the US in the
world, unremitting attacks on the US by those whose
oil is being expropriated and whose societies are
being dominated, the militarization of the US economy,
the irreversible rescission of civil liberties, and
the eventual extinguishment of American democracy
itself. It is the conscious, self-inflicted
consignment to political and economic death.
But the coconut metaphor, remember, involves a
choice—food or freedom. What, then, is the
alternative, the letting go of the paltry handful of
food in conscious preference for the life of continued
The alternative to Grab the Oil is to dispense with
the hobbling dependency on oil itself and to quickly
wean the country off of it. Call it the path of
Energy Reconfiguration. It is to declare a modern day Manhattan Project aimed at minimizing the draw down in the world’s finite stocks of oil, extending their life, and mitigating the calamity inherent in their rapid exhaustion. It means building a physical infrastructure to the economy that is based on an alternative to oil. And it means doing this, not unilaterally or militarily as the US is doing now, but in peaceful partnership with other countries of the world, the other counties in our shared global lifeboat that are also threatened by the end of oil.
In more specific terms, energy reconfiguration means retrofitting all of the nation’s buildings, both commercial and residential, to double their energy efficiency. It means a crash program to shift the transportation system—cars, trucks—to a basis that uses perhaps half as much oil per year. This is well within reach of current technology. Energy Reconfiguration means using biotechnology to develop crops that require much less fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and machinery to harvest. It means refitting industrial and commercial processes—lighting, heating, appliances, automation, etc.—so that they, too, consume far less energy than they do today. It means increasing efficiency, reducing consumption, and building sustainable, long-term alternatives in every arena in which the economy uses oil.
Such a program would return incalculable benefits to
national security, the economy, and to the
In terms of national security, Energy Reconfiguration
greatly reduces the county’s susceptibility to oil
blackmail. It reduces the need for provocative
adventurism into foreign countries in pursuit of oil.
As such, it reduces the incentive for terrorism
against the US. And by reducing such threats, it
reduces the need for a sprawling, expensive military
abroad and a repressive police state at home. Savings
in military costs—perhaps on the order of hundreds of
billions of dollars a year—could well pay for such a
program. The saving of democracy, of course, is
The economic benefits are at least equally impressive.
By reducing energy imports, the US would reduce its hemorrhaging trade deficit and the mortgaging of the nation’s future that such borrowing implies. A national corps of workers set to retrofitting the nation’s homes and businesses for energy efficiency would address employment problems for decades in a way that could not be outsourced to Mexico or India or China. And a more efficient industrial infrastructure would make all goods made in America more competitive with those made abroad. In all of these ways, Energy Reconfiguration raises, not lowers, the average standard of living while increasing the resilience of the economy as a whole.
Energy Reconfiguration also delivers enormous—perhaps incalculable—benefits to the environment. By reducing energy intensity, it reduces the impact on the biotic carrying systems of any level of economic activity.
Global warming may be the single most potent threat to
global stability today. A recently leaked Pentagon
report predicted that rapid climate change may well
set off global competition for food and water supplies
and, in the worst scenarios, spark nuclear war. If
the US did no more than change from being the most
energy inefficient economy in the industrial world to
being of only average efficiency, it would
dramatically slow the environmental destruction that
hangs like a sword over the entire world.
Are there any precedents for such an ambitious vision?
In the 1980s China adopted a nationwide energy
efficiency program. Within a decade, overall energy
intensity fell by 50% while economic growth led the
developing world. Also in the 1980s, Denmark began a
crash program in wind-generated electricity. Today,
wind provides 10% of Denmark’s electricity while
Denmark makes 60% of all the wind turbines sold in the
world. India’s Renewable Energy Development Agency
used a similar set of programs beginning in 1987 to
reduce oil based electricity usage. Today, India is
the largest user of photovoltaic systems in the world.
Even within the US there are ample precedents for
optimism. The US economy was 42% more energy
efficient in 2000 than it was in the 1970s when the
Arab oil embargoes shocked the country into action.
Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards more
than doubled the average mileage of US automobiles
between 1975 and 1985 before being effectively
abandoned in the late 1980s. The National Research
Council has reported that efficiency programs
sponsored by the Department of Energy returned $20 for
every $1 invested, making them arguably one of the
best investments in the economy even before a change
in national energy strategy.
We should harbor no illusions, however, that adopting
such a strategy will be easy. The military and energy industries in which the Bush family is so heavily invested will vigorously resist such a policy. And the energy bill now making its way through Congress is nothing so much as a testament to the death grip the energy industry holds on the American people. It provides tens of billions of dollars of subsidies and giveaways to energy companies while actually encouraging more intensive energy use. As the poster boy of these leviathans, President Bush expressed their sentiments best: “We need an energy policy that encourages consumption.” What more need be said?
In the end, the choice of these two alternatives—Grab
the Oil or Energy Reconfiguration—is much bigger than
oil alone. It is a choice about the fundamental
ethos and, in fact, the very nature of the country.
Most immediately, it is about democracy versus empire.
In economic terms, it is about prosperity or poverty.
In engineering terms, it is a matter of efficiency
over waste. In moral terms this is the choice of
sufficiency or gluttony. From the standpoint of the environment, it is a preference for stewardship over continued predation. In the ways the US deals with other countries it is the choice of co-operation versus dominance. And in spiritual terms, it is the choice of hope, freedom and purpose over fear, dependency and despair. In this sense, this is truly the decision that will define the future of America and perhaps the world.
A final word on Pirsig’s monkey. The monkey is doomed
but not tragic. For the monkey cannot really
comprehend the fateful implications of its choice:
that its greed assures its doom. In the case of
people and a country, however, that is not the case.
It is no accident that President Bush has not asked
any sacrifices of the country for his War on Terror.
That is part of the seduction, like the candy a drug
pusher uses to lure an unsuspecting child.
But we cannot, like the monkey, claim to be unaware of
the choice we are making. Awareness of such choices
is part of the burden of mature citizenship. Nor can
we feign ignorance of the consequences. Simply put,
our present course will cost us our country. And our
doom will be compounded by incalculable tragedy and
what Lincoln once called “the last best hope for
mankind” will, indeed, perish from this earth.
Unless, that is, we find the vision, the wisdom and
the courage to let go that handful of paltry treats
and choose freedom instead.
Robert Freeman writes about economics and education.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.