Pepe Escobar, that ever-energetic, globetrotting correspondent for Asia Times, has long been on the Pipelinestan beat, covering the skeletal geography of energy that girds the planet. Today, however, he leaves pipelines behind to consider the planet they service -- or is it we who service them? In his newest piece, “The West and the Rest in a One-Model-Fits-All World,” he focuses on this question: if the West is going down, and Atlantic bust is giving way to Pacific boom, what’s to be made of the fate of a planet in the embrace of a single grim model of economic “development”?
Last Tuesday, my hometown paper had, I thought, a relevant article, a seemingly triumphalist reportorial shout of joy that the Americas, from Patagonia to the Arctic seas, might be the next Saudi Arabia. “New Fields May Propel Americas to Top of Oil Companies’ Lists,” the headline went. (“For the first time in decades, the emerging prize of global energy may be the Americas, where Western oil companies are refocusing their gaze in a rush to explore clusters of coveted oil fields.”)
Huzzah! We should all feel great, it turns out, because that tilting imperial slope on which the U.S. seems to be sliding downhill has long been linked to Middle Eastern oil dependency. Now, so says the New York Times, that might be reversed.
Only one minor problem: just about every bit of that energy -- tar sands in Canada, oil shale in the American West, pre-salt oil deposits in the Atlantic Ocean (way) off Brazil’s coast, oil in the Arctic seas (where Shell has just gotten its latest permit from the Obama administration), and oil fields in Colombia in a region embroiled in an ongoing civil war -- involves what Michael Klare has long called “tough oil” or “extreme energy.” Those fossil fuels -- dirtier, harder to extract, or existing under the worst possible political, environmental, or weather conditions -- guarantee nightmares to come.
But take that zeitgeist Times piece as a triumphalist signal that someone up there really doesn't care. As with the proposed 1,700-mile XL Keystone tar-sands pipeline through the U.S., Washington -- and the Americas -- are planning to go for broke when it comes to greenlighting the exploitation of any potential fossil-fuel deposit, no matter how deep, distant, or dirty. As it happens, National Geographic recently ran a report, “World Without Ice,” on a period 56 million years ago when, relatively suddenly, huge amounts of carbon flooded the oceans and atmosphere -- about the equivalent amount, scientists suggest, to “the total carbon now estimated to be locked up in fossil fuel deposits” on this planet. The Earth heated up drastically, turning life upside down. Not to worry though, that little spasm of global warming that scientists call the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum lasted a mere 150,000 years before Earth reestablished its equilibrium.
When you read Escobar’s latest, keep in mind just what this means: we need a new model for living on this planet fast, one that doesn’t involve the short-term thrill of exploiting every last bit of fossil fuel anywhere, no matter what.