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Editor's Notebook: History offers some powerful warnings about the nation's oil addiction

Peggy Boyer Long
WUIS/Illinois Issues

Among my memories of the 1970s — filed between images of motorists seething in long gas lines and Iranian militants kidnapping U.S. embassy staff — is the picture of President Jimmy Carter on national television in the winter of 1977 announcing his new energy policy.

Wearing a practical, grandfatherly cardigan, Carter managed to wrap the growing global energy crisis in old-fashioned can-do. Americans could, Carter assured them, reduce their dependence on oil if they simply used less of it.

It's worth remembering, even after experiencing that first flash of anger from the oil-rich Middle East, how ready and willing the nation was to enlist in what Carter called "the moral equivalent of war." It's worth remembering too that, for a time, we were winning it. We dialed down our thermostats and reduced our highway speeds, and the price of oil declined.

That history, the nation's earlier successes and failures, is the subtext of this edition. Our cover story writer Stephanie Zimmermann assesses the latest increases in energy prices and explores recent policy options. 

Zimmermann centers her piece on yet another summer of expected spikes in gas prices. Sources tell her that "[t]hanks to high demand, low gains in production capacity and geopolitical uncertainty, crude oil prices — upon which gasoline pump prices are largely based — are expected to remain high through the end of the year." This generally accepted prediction, she writes, has policymakers searching "for ways to blunt the impact."

Two of our other writers, Daniel Vock and James Krohe, revisit a related topic: America's efforts to protect itself from terrorism, the metastasis of fundamentalist militancy that helped drive Carter from office. 

Vock raises a concern that federal budget reductions could undercut this state's readiness. Krohe worries more about an incompetent national bureaucracy — and an apathetic citizenry.

"What," Krohe asks, "is the prudent citizen to do who has concluded that the only thing we have to fear is government itself?" 

He looks to Bruce Schneier who, in Beyond Fear, "urges ordinary citizens to do what citizens of all democracies are supposed to do: educate themselves about complex public issues, demand sensible and informed decisions about the allocation of resources from elected leaders and government bureaucrats, and hold accountable those who fail to make good on their promises."

On the prospects for this, Krohe is skeptical. "Alas, fulfilling their responsibilities as citizens is another thing the American people seem not quite ready to do."

But political analyst Kevin Phillips' vision is darker still. In his latest book, American Theocracy, Phillips posits a connection between U.S. energy policy and unrest in oil-rich nations. More to the point, he argues the Republican Party, for strategic reasons, promotes dependence on oil. (He notes the GOP successfully redefined Carter's "moral equivalent of war" into the acronym "meow.") Despite the public face they've put on it, Phillips argues, American presidents have turned the U.S. military into an overseas oil protection service, Iraq being only the most recent example. Phillips calls this petro-imperialism. That's the short version of his argument, anyway. 

Even this seems a lot to swallow. And it is. But Phillips, remember, made his career as a Nixon strategist. And his latest effort to show how the Republican Party, and America, has gotten off track offers the sweep of history and lots of insider details. 

American Theocracy, published this year, is a worthwhile read, despite its unwieldy subtitle: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century. It provides good context for the issues we raise here, and it brings into sharper focus recent news reports on connections between oil and world unrest.

Here's a sample from last month: 

• The Associated Press reported that oil prices went over $70 a barrel briefly, in part because Iran's president announced his country has succeeded in enriching uranium.

• The New York Times reported that militants in the delta region of Nigeria announced they were planning new violence against oil facilities there. In an editorial, Timeswriters assessed the problem. "Ever since Royal Dutch Shell discovered oil in the Niger Delta back in 1956, revenue from oil wells has gone to line the pockets of Nigeria's elite: military dictators and corrupt federal and local government officals. Very little has gone to help the impoverished communities in the delta, which remain among the poorest in the world."

• The New York Times also reported President George W. Bush's proposal to drill in an energy-rich tract in the Gulf of Mexico faces a congressional fight. Even at that, the paper reports, the area is estimated to contain only enough oil and gas to power vehicles and heat homes for about 15 years. 

Phillips addresses such short-term choices — and the self-interested choices. But his most compelling argument is the nation's compulsion for making self-defeating choices. 

For Phillips, history offers some powerful warnings. The United States became a world power in part through its ability to exploit energy derived from oil, as other nations were able to rise by harnessing the wind or the energy in whale oil and coal. 

Yet, as other nations have, we continue to shore up the foundations of an aging and declining energy source. Whatever remains, the world's oil resources are finite. "The downside, so far," Phillips writes, "has been that the country able to seize a unique energy opportunity has lacked the wherewithal to manage the next one." 

Instead of continuing to invest in the economics and politics of oil, we might be better served by pulling those cardigans out of storage. 


Guilty of corruption 

George Ryan joins a small group of ex-governors who were convicted for crimes connected to their service in public office, according to Mostly Good and Competent Men, a book about Illinois' governors. A federal jury convicted Ryan, a Kankakee Republican, last month on 18 counts, including mail and tax fraud (see Charlie Wheeler's column, page 37). In the modern era, former Gov. Otto Kerner, a Chicago Democrat, was convicted of profiting from decisions he made while in office, and Gov. Len Small, another Kankakee Republican, was found guilty in civil court of embezzling state dollars. Prior to Ryan, William Stratton was the only Illinois governor to face criminal charges for converting campaign funds to personal use. He was acquitted. Center Publications plans to update and reissue Mostly Good after the November election.

Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.



Illinois Issues, May 2006

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