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The Syriana Syndrome

By Jim Kunstler

(This ran as an op-ed piece in the Albany Times-Union)
     

       Anyone who sees Syriana, the new George Clooney movie about political hugger-mugger in a Middle East oil kingdom, will not come away with an enhanced understanding of the global oil predicament. They'll see a dark, brooding, and impressively restrained story with one brief car chase, few explosions, and barely a bullet flying. They'll sense several layers of intense paranoia that seem to suggest almost no one in authority here in America can be trusted about anything. They'll see a foreign culture depicted as (to crib a phrase from Winston Churchill) a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a hairball.
      In the movie's most terrifying scene, they'll see George Clooney's character, Bob, a washed-up CIA agent, receive an extremely severe manicure, so to speak, from an al Qaeda type sadist.
      But they won't get any clear ideas about the implications of our sick dependency on Middle Eastern oil for life in United States. In fact, one of the unfortunate results of this otherwise not-stupid movie, is that it will cater to exactly the kind of paranoid fantasies that will be least helpful for Americans facing a bewildering future and needing desperately to take measured collective action to preserve living standards. Sure, there is plenty of greed and bad faith out there in the big leagues of geopolitics and corporate life. But the global energy predicament is foremost a geological problem.
       Despite the claims of those who believe that the Earth has a creamy nougat center of oil, the supply of this critical resource is actually finite, and we are at very dicey moment in our brief history with it. There is good reason to believe that the world is now passing over the tippy-top of its all-time maximum peak oil production and starting down the gruesome slope of irreversible depletion. Meanwhile, discovery of new oil has been practically nil in the 21st century, and you can't produce oil that hasn't been discovered. The shorthand for this conundrum is Peak Oil, a subject lately growing in the public's awareness.
       The great problem, therefore, is not that we are immediately running out of oil, because at peak there will still be a lot left. The problem is that the first half was the lightest, sweetest crude in the easiest-to-reach places, including Texas. It was cheap to get and refine. The remaining half is mostly harder-to-refine heavy, sour crude, or tar sands, or oil shales (which aren't even composed of oil, by the way, but of an uncooked organic precursor called kerogen), and these things can now only be gotten in forbidding arctic terrains, Amazonian jungles, deep under the sea, or in unfriendly countries. The remaining oil is distributed inequitably around the world. More than two-thirds belongs to the nations of the Middle East. It does not come cheap, either in monetary terms or in geopolitical costs.
       Syriana is about some of those geopolitical costs. The movie was loosely based on Robert Baer's gripping 2004 account, Sleeping With the Devil, of his career as a CIA agent operating in Saudi Arabia, and much of the book is devoted to the stupendous corruption, greed, and incompetence of the al Saud royal family - as well as the behind-the-scenes string-pulling by the Anglo-American interests scheming relentlessly to do what's necessary to keep the oil flowing.
       Flowing into American gas tanks, that is. And that is the more precise context of the problem we face over Peak Oil: we have poured our postwar national wealth into an easy motoring suburban sprawl living arrangement that cannot possibly operate without continued reliable supplies of cheap oil. Perhaps even worse, our economy has insidiously shifted from manufacturing to sprawl-building (otherwise known as the housing bubble). Having made such massive misinvestments in the infrastructure for a way of life with no future, we are trapped in a deadly psychology of previous investment which prevents us from even thinking we can do things differently.
      This was all neatly encapsulated by the remark widely attributed to Vice-president Dick Cheney that "the American way of life is non-negotiable." Whatever you think of the remark, it is probably an accurate representation of how most Americans feel - that we are entitled to 3500 square foot houses, all the cheap gasoline we can burn, and supernaturally easy credit because we hold the torch of freedom as an example to the world.
      Thus, we are dismayed when other people in the world scoff at our torch-bearing while they blow up our soldiers, because they know - as the characters in Syriana know deep down somewhere - that it's all basically about our desperate addiction to their oil. It would be unfortunate if our dismay turned into unbridled wrath, because that kind of political rage is just as likely to turn inward.
      There is a whole set of intelligent responses to America's oil predicament that we ought to be talking about now. These range from restoring the nation's passenger rail system, to supporting local agriculture in earnest, to rebuilding local networks of retail trade and economic interdependency for the time ahead when the Big Boxes die of oil starvation, to setting legal limits on new suburban sprawl. These are the kind of things that will help us through the Long Emergency of the post-cheap-oil world we are entering. The temptations of paranoia will only make things worse.

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James Howard Kunstler is the author of The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century (Atlantic Monthly Press). He was movie critic for the Albany Knickerbocker News in 1973 - 1974.

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