Debt / Fuel and the Changing Climate: Pick Which Edge of the Sword

I’m roughly a third of the way through Vaclav Smil’s Why America Is Not a New Rome. It’s an excellent book that clearly articulates how flawed the notion is that the US represents an empire to match that of ancient Rome.

Besides that, Smil got me thinking. In chapter two, Smil discussed the abysmal state of the U.S. economy and;

“[T]he U.S. annual trade deficit has become larger that the annual GDP of Indonesia or Australia, indeed larger than the annual GDP of all but 14 of the world’s nearly 200 nations. And while budget deficits can be cut relatively rapidly by determined administration, in the near to medium term America has no choice but to continue its extraordinarily high dependence on energy imports, for which it cannot pay either by its disappearing manufacturing products or by its food. In 2006 almost exactly one-third (32.3%) of the trade deficit was due to petroleum imports. This reality also has strategic implications; a nation that imports two-thirds of its crude oil is obviously highly vulnerable not only to sudden price spikes but to actual physical storages of the fuel.”

It seems mind-boggling to me, that the country fuelling committed scepticism of climate change is probably the same country that would do best to support initiatives to mitigate long term trends due to further emissions from a purely economic view point (ie. increasing energy security and debt prevention). Unfortunately, the noisy committed sceptics tend to be the same people to whom the term “determined administration” sends shivers down their spine. They are also the same people in favour of strong individualism, best reflected in the supersized American dream, as Smil puts it;

“While America thus advanced abroad, at home its wealth created excessive consumption that spread far beyond the traditional high spenders. Steadily falling savings rates and readily available credit made it possible to supersize the American dream (the common use of the verb supersize was itself notable). By 2005 the average size of all newly built houses reached 220m2 (an area 12% larger than a tennis court), and the mean for custom-built houses surpassed 450m2, equivalent to nearly five average Japanese dwellings. Houses in excess of 600m2 became fairly common, and some megastructures of nouveaux riches covered 3000m2 or more.

“All these homes became crammed with consumer products ranging from miniature electronic gadgets to in-home movie theatres, from sybaritic marble bathrooms to granite-top counters in kitchens some of whose centre islands were larger than entire kitchens in small European apartments. These new palatial villas came to be situated further from city downtowns and were reached by driving ever larger SUVs, vehicles connected neither to sport nor to any rational utility. There is surely no need for more than 1 tonne of steel, aluminium, plastic, rubber and glass to convey one woman  to a shopping centre, but vehicles in common use weigh 2-3 t and in the case of the Hummer, a restyled military assault machine, nearly 4.7 t. Ownership of these improbably sized vehicles became the ostentatious symbol of the decade, whose other marks of excess were ubiquitous gambling and mass addiction to (not uncommonly drug-fuelled) performances of televised baseball or fake wrestling.”

To favour business as usual is to ignorantly assume to be living within one’s means. Limits to Growth isn’t some harebrained notion concocted by a bunch of socialist hippies; it’s the reality that exists in the growth debt that cannot foreseeably be paid off. The only harebrained complaints are the cries for small government, zero regulation and individualism: clearly the individual has a tendency for gluttony paid off on credit.

While it is a myth that the U.S. is anything like ancient Rome and maybe it can avoid collapse, the loan being taken out for the new model Hummer next year is a concerning act of self-denial.

I hope enough individuals globally (as I’m certain a similar reality exists elsewhere, including Australia, where the supersized American dream has rubbed off) wake up from this state not only for the sake of climate change mitigation, but also for the health of their local economies…


2 thoughts on “Debt / Fuel and the Changing Climate: Pick Which Edge of the Sword

  1. I suspect it is far more complex… Somewhere I heard that in the Gulf of Mexico – most of the wells were capped awaiting future use… and of those flowing 2/3 are exporting crude out of the US – then notice coal use is down here. and that vast amounts of coal seeking ways to go to China – as many as 450 ship loads per year.

    I think the foreign oil problem is really just an urge to sell more oil. Not be carbon free.


    1. I’ve heard as much myself. Admittedly, I have only a limited understanding of this side of things, but Smil’s discussions left me thinking about both the state of the US economy and the supersized American dream..


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