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.
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.