September 12, 2004

Overconsumption and Terrorism

Here's how I think we have come to inspire so much hatred in the rest of the world. Sometime soon I'll share a few things that I'm trying to do about it.

The United States' produce over 20% of the world economy [1] with less than 5% of the world's population. [2] That suggests astounding leverage. Unfortunately we consume 30% of the word's oil. [3] The USA is a machine that consumes 30% of the oil to produce 20% of the GDP. The 10% difference is friction or profit depending on how you look at it.

Usually those numbers are thrown around by zealous environmentalists warning of impending ecological catastrophe. I, however, will take those numbers down a different path of impending doom. :-) In order to consume 30% of the world's oil, we must control 30% of the world's oil. If you want to understand the hatred of the US, look no further than the way we control and consume that 30% of the oil.

Like all effective forms of control we use a carrot and a stick. The carrot is the money we are willing to pay for oil. The stick is how we use our military to "protect" the world's oil supplies.

The major oil producers in the world can't afford to anger their biggest customer. They're stuck pretending to enjoy the dance with us even as we step on their toes or kick them in the shins. We don't really have to be a good dancer because they can't afford to say no to us. That kind of imbalance breeds deep resentment.

Our "protection" of the world's oil supplies is mafia protection.

You say, there's a 'dangerous element' threatening your pipelines and oil wells. Of course we'll protect you. How could we not? Welcome to the family. We can count on your undying loyalty, yes?

That claim goes completely against our national self-image. Aren't we the beacon of Freedom, a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people, a more perfect union?

When I get this cynical in conversations with my friend Jeff, he reminds me that we are the most giving nation on Earth. Actually, no. In absolute dollars, Japan is the most giving nation on Earth and we are second. [4] And we're way down on the list relative to GDP [5] or population. [6] Our generosity pales in contrast to our military spending. Ours is 37% of global military spending. China is a distant second with 8%. [7] That's a very big stick. What's more, we've shown a historical willingness to use it.

Peter Hartcher says the Congressional Research Service notes 200 US military interventions abroad since our independence. Unfortunately he failed to name the source of that figure so I went digging. The most likely candidate: CRS Report RL30172 -- Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2001 (160K pdf)

I count 299 instances of varying scale. Did Peter filter the list according to his own notion of military intervention, or draw from a different source? Regardless, the United States is only 228 years old and by our own reckoning we have conducted 299 military interventions abroad. As I've said before, the rhythm of our war machine is disturbing for its incredible consistency. It's like we're a geo-political vampire craving a bloody fix every few years regardless of who is in the White House. (How's that for cynical?)

Let me be clear. I love this country. God bless America. I wouldn't live anywhere else. I am completely blessed to have been born here. (No sarcasm nor cynicism in that sentiment whatsoever -- just in case my tone of voice in unclear in this written form.) Nevertheless, in our behavior abroad we fall very short of our own high standards. We talk a good game about freedom, but the walk we walk is enormously intimidating. Our global posture is why the country I love is the target of such widespread hatred.

We are at the center of a gross imbalance in the world. Oil is the foundation of the global economy. It's not that terrorism is directly about controlling oil. Rather, the imbalance in oil consumption reflects a broader imbalance of power and wealth in the world. It is the power imbalance which feeds the terrorism. Oil happens to be a useful way to measure the imbalance. Specifically, 5% of the world's population controls 30% of the oil.

Nature abhors imbalance. When things are out of balance, they fall. In human nature this rule often presents itself in bloody revolution. Those with little power become desperate enough to risk and even sacrifice their lives to oppose the imbalance. Throughout history the mighty have grown and grown only to fall at the hands of desperately oppressed people determined to reclaim their own power.

Here's what I mean by gross imbalance. Measuring wealth and power by oil consumption, if power were divided equally in the world, each person would get a bit less than a half-gallon per day. [8] But power is not divided equally and the US controls 30% of the oil. Pretending each US citizen gets an equal share of that 30%, I get just less than three gallons/day. [9] In order to redress the imbalance I would have to give up two-and-a-half gallons of oil per day or 86% of my current share of global resources. That is gross imbalance and that is the heart of the problem. However idealistic I may be, I cannot imagine how I could reduce my consumption by 86%. And so I contribute to the demand for oil. That contributes to the power imbalance.

Sarah added another dimension to the mix. The US is so powerful that there's no immediate need for us to listen to what the rest of the world might think. We mess around in the matters of other countries throughout the world either financially or militarily to protect our interests in their part of the world. We don't give much consideration to what's in the best interest of the other countries. If we were less powerful we wouldn't be able to behave so selfishly in the global theater. The imbalance of power enables our government to run roughshod over the needs of the rest of the world. It is an important dimension to the way the imbalance of power fuels international resentment.

The problem is our very way of life. It's not about our freedom. It is about our gluttony. The protection of our global interests supports our gluttonous lifestyle. It's fast-food, SUVs, shopping malls, televisions, movies, air conditioning, air planes, and clothing. It's our music, our computers, our American-dream single-family-homes, our two-car garages, our eight-lane highways, our parking lots, and our CostCos and WalMarts. It's the paper cup and plastic spoon we throw away each time we order a drink at Starbucks or McDonnald's. It's the extra helping of fries, and the quarter-gallon of carmel-colored corn syrup we drink to chase down a mediocre four-dollar hamburger.

In so many areas of our holy way-of-life we abuse our wealth and power in thoughtless waste and excess. Our military defends the world's oil supplies so we don't have to think about the stuff we throw away or the energy that went into its creation. As we sit in the line at the drive-thru, radio and air-conditioning blasting, we give no thought to the money and power we're burning idly away. As we throw the cup out the window, we give no thought to the energy that went into its creation, nor to the diesel fuel that delivered it from the factory to our favorite food joint. Unfortunately our thoughtlessness "trickles down" into international hatred.

[1] US GDP is $10.45 trillion, of the total $48.51 trillion globally. http://www.nationmaster.com/graph-T/eco_gdp

[2] US population is 290 million of 6.1 billion globally. http://www.nationmaster.com/graph-T/peo_pop

[3] The US consumes 19.7 million barrels of oil per day of 64.81 million barrels per day globally. http://www.nationmaster.com/graph-T/ene_oil_con

[4] The US gives $6.9 billion of $48.62 billion globally. http://www.nationmaster.com/graph-T/eco_eco_aid_don

[5] http://www.nationmaster.com/graph-T/eco_eco_aid_don_gdp

[6] http://www.nationmaster.com/graph-T/eco_eco_aid_don_cap

[7] US spends $276.7 billion and China $55.91 billion of $738.04 billion spent globally on military. http://www.nationmaster.com/graph-T/mil_exp_dol_fig

[8] (64.81 million barrels per day * 42 gallons/barrel) / 6.1 billion people = .446 gallons/day/person

[9] (19.7 million barrels per day * 42 gallons/barrel) / 290 million people = 2.85 gallons/day/person

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