Friday, August 15, 2008

Investments: War vs. Energy

Yesterday I referenced a Defense Department report that said that wars in the 21st Century are going to be fought largely over oil and water.

(See: Space‐Based Solar Power As an Opportunity for Strategic Security (PDF: 75pp))

It made this claim in the context of a report that suggested that America begin a project that aims at not only freeing the United States from diminishing amounts of oil, but freeing the whole world. It will not do the United States any good to be energy independent if the rest of the world is still getting into wars where we might need to get involved. We’re better off in a community of nations that can get along peacefully with each other than in a community in conflict.

The project is a solar power satellite system capable, at least in this iteration, of producing around 1 million terawatt hours of energy per year – or about 7 times the current world consumption of energy.

I am not going to defend this specific solution, but I would like to say a few things about the argument for something like this.

Of course, the first objection that will be raised against a project such as this is that it is too expensive. However, we have to weigh the expense of such a system to the expense of whatever wars we would have to fight – and that we might be able to avoid.

Current history gives us an excellent lesson to draw from. Five and a half years ago Americans had a choice between investing in war to secure oil, or investing in the development of renewable energy that would free us (and the world) from dependence on oil. The United States decided to invest in war – and invaded the nation of Iraq.

The cost of that investment has been nearly $1 trillion in direct government expenditure, 4000 American lives, and tens of thousands of Americans wounded.

Technically, if we are going to talk about which investment would have been the most expensive, we will have to add on the costs that other countries have borne as a result of our policy decisions. This includes the loss of lives and resources in Iraq. Many Americans like to think of only American lives and American bank accounts as being important, so the costs borne by non-Americans simply do not count. However, ethicists and economists tend to argue that these costs do count. They are morally and economically relevant factors.

Furthermore, the costs we are looking at so far include only the direct monetary costs borne by the government and the costs in terms of lives and health borne by the soldiers. Technically, we need to include the costs borne by the soldiers and their families as well. A soldier serving in Iraq is losing opportunities in America. Some of them bought their own military equipment – costs of war that are not figured into the government’s actual budget. In addition, many suffered other financial losses back home as a result of their service in Iraq. They had to close up businesses, forego education, and simply put aside many of the investments that they were making in their own lives and careers.

They did this for us, by the way, and we denigrate their sacrifice when we refuse to include them in the overall cost of the war, as if they are of no significance.

Now, think about where we would be today if, in 2003, the government would have announced a commitment to investing as much in a project to make America and the world independent of oil.

It seems to me quite insane that people will look at a billions of dollars invested in a war and shrug their shoulders, saying, “Well, wars are expensive. We just have to recognize that fact.” And they care so little about the loss of thousands of lives.

However, at the same time, when asked to make a similar investment in something constructive, they scream that it is too expensive – and when seven people are killed in the pursuit of those dreams they shut the whole project down for 3 years while they study the reasons why people died and make adjustments.

By the way, during the same time in which Americans invested nearly $1.00 trillion and 4000 lives in war, it invested $0.08 trillion and 7 lives in space.

We also, strangely, devote far more time and attention to honoring 7 dead astronauts than we do honoring 4,000 dead soldiers. Imagine if the anniversaries of each attack in which 7 (or more) soldiers died in Iraq was given the same air time and attention as the anniversaries of the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Even using the word ‘disaster’ when applied to the loss of a space shuttle and its crew reveals an unfounded difference in attitude to the way we speak about the loss of a military helicopter and its crew and passengers.

Let’s look at the situation between Russia and Georgia. How much of the world’s lives and property are being destroyed in this conflict?

Let’s not kid ourselves. This conflict is largely motivated by a desire to control the flow of oil. This is another case in which the countries of the world (specifically, Russia) have made a decision to invest in war in order to secure an advantage in a world of diminishing oil supplies, instead of investing in something constructive. It is another place where American concern and American involvement is driven substantially, not by our interest in peace and justice, but in our interest in oil.

Russia has also shown its willingness to pursue conflict for the sake of oil in the Arctic Ocean. With the Arctic ice cap disappearing (due, ironically, to global warming – from the burning of oil), oil fields under the Arctic Ocean are becoming available. Russia is taking steps to claim that oil for itself.

All things considered, it appears that Russia’s energy policy involves a conscious decision to invest in war, to capture as much of this precious resource as it can for its own use, without much regard for moral limits, willing even to see innocent lives lost for the sake of getting control of more oil.

So far in the 21st Century, the American government has followed the same route. It, too, has spent the last 5.5 years investing in war as a way of securing its access to oil. Please understand, I am not talking here about the standard military budget. I am talking about the extra money that the government spends specifically because of the war in Iraq.

In this contest, there is one question that the American people ought to be asking themselves.

Let us assume that we continue to invest in war for the next 50 years to better secure our access to oil. Where will we be at the end of 50 years? At the end of this long and potentially very costly struggle, will the struggle be over and we will have the energy security we need?

The answer, of course, is, “No.” We will gain nothing from participating in this conflict.

Then ask ourselves, where will we be in 50 years if we invest, instead, in the construction of alternative energy resources that will provide not only the United States but the rest of the world with energy other than oil. Where will we be at the end of 50 years? At the end of this long and potentially very costly struggle, will the struggle be over and we will have the energy security we need?

Well, if we work hard enough the answer is potentially, “Yes.”

We have already lost 5.5 years and hundreds of billions of dollars of potential investment towards that end. We lost it at the same time we lost 4,000 American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, tens of thousands of American wounded, and huge economic costs inflicted on many of those who have survived.

The alternative that involves a program of constructive investment is too expensive, we are told.

Too expensive?

Compared to what?


Sheldon said...

Bravo Alonzo,

"Of course, the first objection that will be raised against a project such as this is that it is too expensive."

And wouldn't that be an absurd objection given the likely disastrous consequences of staying dependent on coal and oil?

You know, oil is often at the forefront of our minds, but we shouldn't forget about our reliance on coal. Sure, maybe the U.S. has plenty of it, and we won't go to war for it.

But coal is a disaster. A disaster when they mine it by mountaintop removal in West Virginia, and a disaster when they burn it to provide electricity.

In addition to being a huge contributor to green house gasses, coal seeds the clouds with mercury.

You can go to what seems like a pristine mountain lake in the Colorado rockies to fish, and that fish will have significant levels of mercury. Courtesy of coal fired power plants that provide electricity to Pheonix AZ.

And they are building more coal-fired power plants! Insanity!

I am surprised you haven't mentioned the recent alleged breakthrough in solar energy storage from MIT. This could be great news! The link goes to text and video. Some say that this is being overhyped, but I hope not.

anton said...

Great post Alonzo,

I believe that if US America was given a chance to "vote" on which way to go, and that the two sides had to tell the truth, they would make the correct decision.

So far, US Presidential hopefuls attempt to win by appealing to emotions rather than financial sense since its a lot easier to rally them around the flag in conflict against the bad guys than the simple economic sense that stands out in your post. The major reason they are reluctant to do so is that the US would have to face the fact that it is on the verge of bankruptcy and that escapes the imagination of most US citizens.

The US ecomic strategy can be likened to a Ponzi sheme and as long as the guys running the scheme are unassailable by the US people those in power can use that national pride to divert attention away from things like the Iraq war. We could present every US citizen with their share of the "bill" if we could stop the US from just "printing more money". (What about having them pay in Euros?)

I admit, there is hope -- especially among the realists out there. Unfortunately, not many of the religious right are realists.

Perhaps we can think of some way of getting them under control and we get on with solving global problems. After all, many of the fundies claim the world is going to end shortly so they shouldn't be the ones that determine what we should do. In the process, we should not overlook their influence on how the military functions.

Could those religious right types actually be "agents of the devil" and not know it? It certainly begins to look that way.

Sheldon said...

Here is some more info. relevant to some of your recent posts.

Paul and Anne Ehrlich, famous for their book The Population Bomb, have a new book The Dominant Animal, Human Evolution and the Environment

I have not read the book, but I heard a very good interview with Paul on the radio show Biotech Nation or something like that. Regardless, their web site has several links to interviews he or they have done. Well worth listening to on the subject of the sustainability of humans on this planet.

anticant said...

Time you guys woke up to how deeply, deeply unpopular you are in Europe [let alone the rest of the world] because of your navel-gazing hubris and arrogant behaviour.

For an insight into how a former lifelong admirer of USA, with many American friends, is now thinking see:

anton said...

Alonzo, Sheldon and Anticant:

Great references! Now, if we could get US Americans to act accordingly. Maybe I should "pray" for it to happen. Come to think of it, neither has much chance of happening!