ENVIRONMENT

Michael Klare & Stone Gossard

Michael Klare & Stone Gossard

THE END OF OIL?

Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard in discussion with author Michael Klare, 2008.

Stone Gossard: I read your book ”Blood and Oil” about three months ago and I thought it was amazing – really uh – riveting-

Michael Klare: Well that’s certainly the first time anyone’s used that word but-

No, really. These are interesting topics you’re writing about– especially if you’re someone whose trying to see oil in a different way. Your book consolidates this overwhelming amount of information into something that makes some crucial points about oil consumption and its relation to the decisions the US has made in the past few years.

Well, thank you.

So I’m just going to jump right in and start asking you some questions if that’s ok. Buckminster Fuller-

What’s that?

Buckminster Fuller, from what I understand of him, was the first person who talked about an expanded view of economics in terms of viewing the world as an entire interdependent system, one which must include the quality of the environment in its economic ledger if it’s going to flourish and survive. That was a pretty remarkable idea for me: to think that economics, something that before had always been rather separate and academic, could actually be a way of improving the living environmental system as well. With this sort of reasoning, it’s possible to think of economics and the environment as being in a relationship, and this opens up the possibility that economics might become a positive force in the health of the planet. Do you think this same sort of reasoning might provide the impetus that finally makes us look in a direction other than oil?

You know my sense is that two things are going on. On one hand, there’s the engine of economics and growth that’s been the driving force of world affairs since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. And implicit in that is unlimited growth and progress, that this growth would proceed forever and that man’s ingenuity would lead to ever new and more efficient ways of producing more things and more wealth. That’s the basis of all the ideologies of the past centuries: from capitalism to socialism, they all rest on the notion of perpetual growth. But now things are taking another direction and we’re coming into collision with a different reality, the reality that there may be finite physical realities to what humanity can do on this planet that we inhabit. Its no longer clear that growth, as we understand it to mean ever higher levels of consumption, is possible to be sustained if we reach the limits of planetary carrying capacity.

Now here’s where we get the debate that is currently taking place in the world: on one hand, there are those people who say that human ingenuity will find solutions to the impasse that we face with the existing resource pool, that we’ll invent new sources of energy to allow us to continue growing. There are people who believe in these very visionary ideas such as harnessing the energy of the sun, or micro waving energy from space down to earth, or drawing on the geothermal powers of the inner planet and so on. And then there are other people who say that there is a physics to our universe that places limits on what mankind can do and that all of these visionary ideas require a investment in resources and materials that we simply don’t have. The laws of physics may not permit a lot of these ideas to come to fruition; therefore, in this view, we must learn to accommodate ourselves to natural limits of what’s possible. That means growth has to come through conservation and new ways of doing things, not through endlessly expanding consumption.

I guess this idea of taking a more holistic view of the world in terms of the economics of the environment falls more on the optimistic side – believing that human ingenuity will prevail. I think I tend to lean that way, to think that there is a route where humans can continue to grow and expand while at the same time finding ways to appreciate and cooperate with nature rather than ignore it –

Well it’s more than just ‘ignore’- it’s to invade and plunder nature.

Right.

Yeah well I believe, and maybe we agree on this, that its not a matter of some new technological solution but of a new mental solution, a new spiritual solution that will be required, that people learn to live in a very different way on the planet, and behave differently –

Yes, exactly –

– and that’s the challenge, that’s the mountain we have to climb.

As a scholar and historian, how do you see the role of spiritual intuition in your work? How do you balance out your position as both a historian and an advocate? Do you find that both of those things are part of your writing and thinking process?

Good question. I’m becoming more aware of this as I do my research. I came out of the peace movement of the sixties and seventies, so my interest has always been in how to convert violence and conflict into something peaceful and productive. That’s what led me to the issue of resources because I’ve come to believe that the competitive pursuit of resources is the main source of conflict in the world, both historically and in the present, and that it’s getting worst. So I see addressing resource issues as essential to finding ways of peaceful cohabitation on this planet. So yes, the more I learn about resources and the planet, the more I see that there is a deeper, spiritual or conscious factor that has to come into play. If we’re going to cohabitate on this planet, all nine billion of us that are expected to be here by 2050 or so, without endless bloodshed, then we have to learn new ways of social and personal interaction and behavior. There’s no getting around that.

Well I think the exciting part of studying history is being able to look deeper and find new connections and patterns that were maybe never thought of before. This is what I think you do so well in ”Blood and Oil”. In America, we tend to just blindly take our oil consumption for granted without actually realizing its prominent position in our lives. Americans tend to go along with the program. They don’t really want to be told that part of going to war was about oil. Do you think that the US and its cooperation with the new Iraqi government has the potential to actually buy us more time in terms of oil?

Not in this decade. I think it was a monumental miscalculation on the part of the administration. It’s conceivable that in the next decade it might make a difference, but that’s only a speculation. It certainly won’t help now. I don’t think that George Bush really grasps the multiple dimensions of foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. I think he was sold a bill of goods by the neoconservatives which promised that not only would the US invasion of Iraq lead to democracy but it also would bring a lot of oil.

To me it seems that the most powerful reason for us to be in Iraq, at least from the administration’s point of view, is to be sure that for the next fifty years we have a military presence surrounding an oil field that may supply a large percentage of the world’s oil.

Yes, well, I think there was a lot of assumptions made in the White House about the success of US intervention bringing all of these good things, and its clear from the record that those who were pushing this intervention silenced the professionals in the government who were warning them that there were real risks and that things might not work out the way they wanted. So only the rosy optimistic views prevailed, and they made a monumental miscalculation. They didn’t grasp the magnitude of communal antagonisms within Iraq. They didn’t take into account that toppling this authoritarian regime would lead to enormous fighting among different factions for everything, including oil. And the recent elections have only accelerated rather than reduced that process.

Right now its chaos, and oil companies are not going to invest the billions of dollars – it’s estimated that it will take ten billion dollars just to get Iraq back to where it was before the war- You mean just in terms of oil infrastructure?

Yeah. And people aren’t going to invest that when first of all their people aren’t safe, and when secondly, they don’t even know who is going to run the government or what the laws will be because no one can tell them that. So it’s a mess.

Can we talk about China?

Sure.

There’s a lot of interesting things about China in your book and China seems to be on everyone’s minds these days. Is the US ignoring China in ways that might make a crucial difference to our future in terms of the way the US interacts with the rest of the world?

There’s so many dimensions to that question that I don’t think I can do them justice. There’s this whole trade relationship and I’m not an economist so there are ways in which I can’t quite grasp the implications of some things like that they hold a very sizable chunk of our national debt as you know. So the question is whether or not China and the US have become economically interdependent to the point where we each have a vested interest in propping up the other? Or are our interests so mutually irreconcilable that conflict is inevitable? I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t that anyone knows the answer to that question at this point.

But you can look at growth in China and you can say here’s their pace of growth and here’s how much oil they’ve been using and you can think about Taiwan and see that that’s a volatile issue-

If you think that our interests are irreconcilable, then you start looking at the flash points. Taiwan is a flash point, but so is oil. And I do write about that and I do worry about that because the Chinese have their eyes on the same pools of oil that we rely on – which is mainly the Middle East and Africa and Central Asia. And they’re very aggressively pursuing access to those pools of oil. That has an economic consequence of driving up prices, which we’re all aware of, but it could also have a security consequence. Namely, that the Chinese are often forging alliances with regimes that may be unfriendly to the United States. So that enters into a security dilemma where the Chinese are becoming more and more reliant on Iran and therefore are predisposed to prop up the existing regime in Iran with weapons. And that has us deeply worried. So if you think that we’re eventually going to go to war with China, and there are many people who think that, then this is a very worrisome sign and it calls for very aggressive actions to try to put roadblocks in their way in the Middle East. On the other hand, if you think that ultimately we have no choice but to cooperate then that leads to a different option, one which I favor, and that is to cooperate with China in creating energy-saving strategies so they don’t become so dependent. But we have to do the same thing.

I agree. But if there is that sort of fear in the think tank world of Washington, is that enough of a motivating factor to begin changing an administration so entrenched in the oil business? Is this development with China the beginnings of something that is compelling enough to get a US government to address energy issues in a brand new way?

Well if one is intelligent enough, then the answer is yes. There’s good reason to proceed in this way. But I don’t think that’s what the Bush administration is doing. They’re being driven by their own secular parochial interests, their ties to the oil industry – and not just to specific companies but to big oil in general-

The mindset of big oil –

Yes, the mindset of big oil, well-said. And that prevents them form behaving in a way that I think would be in America’s best long term interest. They’re sacrificing our future for their present benefits. And I think that young people in this country are going to pay a very high price for this current trend of greed and selfishness.

On that note, is there anything you’ve discovered or read lately that’s inspired you towards some new way of looking at these issues and problems?

Well where I’m at here in Massachusetts is very close to what was once the 19th century Shaker movement. So my mind’s been wandering lately to their way of life. I studied them briefly when I was younger, but now I’m slowly coming to think that they were on to something. I think people mostly know of the Shakers today because of the beauty and elegance of their furniture and handicrafts, but that beauty derives from the fact that they believed in simplicity and in using no more resources than you absolutely needed to achieve a certain purpose. Everything they did was utilitarian and simple, but it was also elegant and beautiful. And that was driven by a philosophy that was communitarian and pacifistic, one of putting a very small footprint on nature yet having a rewarding spiritual life. And they were extremely successful, despite all the reasons for being skeptical about them.

But they were maligned for sure.

They were maligned, but they were also very popular. But my emphasis on the Shakers is in thinking in terms of how we are going to have to live in the future in the sense of having to learn with less. This to me is the all time challenge we face. We’re told every single day on television that the way to be happier is to have more. Bigger. More. Consume more. And that’s self-destructive behavior. But telling people they have to have less because if they don’t they’re going to be punished just isn’t going to work.

They have to believe that it’s cooler. Less is the way to go. It’s Zen.

Yes, and also just to have the realization that greater happiness could come from this way of thinking about life. The elegance and beauty of the Shaker’s way of life is an example of what I mean. This physical reality of choosing to live with less and not finding that a sacrifice or deprivation but actually something attractive and appealing. That’s the point I want to make.

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