The Energy ‘Crisis’: Futurology without a future? By William Bowles

17 September 2003

According to an interview conducted by Mike Ruppert and available on the Guerrilla News Network,[1] and which first appeared on Ruppert’s From the Wilderness website, we have already passed the point of no return when it comes to new sources of oil and gas and we’re headed for a disaster, if not next year then at some point in the near future, of which the recent North American blackout was a mere prelude. In the preamble to the interview, GNN tells us:

“Today, he [Ruppert] is focusing on the big picture – the real reasons behind the so-called War on Terror. As everyone from economist Jeffrey Sachs to ex-British MP Michael Meacher agrees – it all comes down to oil.”

Yet as I hope to show, this interview does anything but show the connection between the ‘war on terror’ and oil. Indeed, I argue that its deeply pessimistic message has absolutely nothing to do with an analysis of the ‘war on terror’ and more to do with a fatalistic view of the future where folks are being asked to tighten their belts in order to pay for the failure of capitalism.

Ruppert interviewed Matthew Simmons, the CEO of the world’s largest energy investment bank, Simmons & Company International. Simmons clients include Halliburton; Baker & Botts, LLP; Dynegy; Kerr-McGee and the World Bank. Simmons’ argument rests on the assumption that oil and gas extraction has peaked and that from now on, it’s all downhill unless ‘we’ drastically cut consumption (but one assumes he is only referring to the US).

Although Simmons rightly blames deregulation of the power industry for the massive blackout that hit 50+ million people this past August in North America his prognosis for the future is, to say the least, bleak and ultimately fatalistic in the assumptions it makes. Simmons not only blames deregulation that cut the amount of surplus energy capacity available, he also takes a questionable sideswipe at the environmental movement for allegedly stopping the exploitation of all the available energy sources needed to maintain continued growth. Simmons goes on to say:

“Reducing consumption has to happen, but many of the favorite conservation concepts make little overall difference. The big conservation changes end up being steps, like a ban on using electricity to either heat water or melt metals and instead, always using the “burner tip of natural gas”. The latter is vastly more efficient, the energy savings are enormous and we need lower ceilings and smaller rooms. We need mass transit, and to eliminate traffic congestion. Finally, we need a way to keep people from using air-conditioning when the weather gets really muggy and hot at same time. The strain this puts on our grid is too overwhelming.

“We also must begin to use our current discretionary power during the nighttime. All of these steps are hard to implement but they make a difference.”

In addition, Simmons blames the weather:

“To show [how] much weather determines power use, in the week of August 3rd, the US set an all-time national record for electricity use of 90,000 Gigawatts. The Mid-Atlantic States’ use of power had jumped 29.5% over last year and 20% over just the previous four weeks. Why? The temperature had been as hot as we experienced on Black Thursday. If you want to compare it to vehicles and roadways, air conditioning is the interstate highway system and the Internet is the equivalent of SUVs. Everything that happened on August 14 started in the 17th hour. (5 PM at various local times). That’s when everything is running at once: industrial, residential, and commercial. This is when demand peaks regardless of the weather. And we know that in hour 17 on that day the US experienced all-time peak energy use. That’s when the system tripped out.”

So according to Simmons, it’s deregulation, the environmental movement and the weather that is to blame?

There’s something very seductive about Simmons’ argument with all its talk about reducing consumption, a ban on the use of air-conditioning, effectively advocating the rationing of energy use. On the surface then, it would appear that Simmons is attacking the free-for-all tactics of unbridled capitalism but is this really so? After all, nobody can argue with a rational use of energy, the move to mass transit, more energy efficient vehicles and so on. But without a basic reevaluation of the entire system of unrestrained global capitalist production, I fail to see what’s so revolutionary about Simmons’ analysis. Simmons’ analysis would appear to be that of a man firmly wedded to capitalism but who in the final analysis knows its days are numbered but can’t quite bring himself to say so.

And as if to address my critique Simmons says:

“I don’t think there is [a solution to the energy shortage]. The solution is to pray. Pray for mild weather and a mild winter. Pray for no hurricanes and to stop the erosion of natural gas supplies. Under the best of circumstances, if all prayers are answered there will be no crisis for maybe two years. After that it’s a certainty.”

Pray? So with all of Simmons’ talk of reducing consumption, rationing et al, his final ‘solution’ is for us to pray! I wonder if this is the advice he sells to Halliburton and Baker & Botts? If so, I’ll do it for a discount price and throw in some free prayer wheels.

Finally, Simmons appears to question the basic rationale that motivates the capitalist economy, the idea of perpetual growth:

“What that means, in the starkest possible terms, is that we are no longer going to be able to grow.”

So what is Simmons telling us? It’s difficult to tell from this interview, but I’m surprised at From the Wilderness (where this interview first appeared) for offering no critical analysis to compliment this interview. This is a deeply pessimistic article that offers us no solution whatsoever except a future of permanent decline. Simmons offers no viable alternatives to capitalist production except to say that growth is finished! But without growth there is no capitalism. So what is Simmons saying for Christ’s sake?

What is missing from this interview is any kind of analysis of global capitalist production, indeed, it’s assumed that in the future, capitalism is still the only mode of production available, although there is no indication of what kind of capitalism is it that’s based on zero growth?

And Ruppert’s line of questioning leaves a lot to be desired as it’s decidedly uncritical and appears to accept without question, Simmons’ analysis. Indeed, nowhere in the interview does Ruppert question Simmons’ basic assumptions about the future of US capitalism and rationing as apparently the only solution and a temporary one at that. Indeed, in direct contradiction to the preamble which asserts that the article reveals the connection between the ‘war on terror’ and oil, one searches the interview in vain for any kind of connection between the two.

If one assumes that Simmons basic premise is correct, namely that very soon the world will run out of energy especially when countries like China ramp up to the kinds energy consumption that currently prevail in the developed world, then of course the future does indeed look extremely bleak. But is this the only future we have? Simmons makes sure it is by pouring scorn on alternative sources of energy, arguing that they’ll never compensate for the shortfall in hydrocarbons. Indeed, every way out is a dead-end according to Simmons, except zero-growth. Yet one searches in vain for any viable economic model predicated on the idea of zero-growth.

Ultimately then, this is a deeply regressive defence of US capitalism that aside from rationing paints a future of a slide into chaos; futurology without a future. Indeed, anyone in the power elite who reads this article would interpret it as a viable basis for the ‘new imperialist project’. In other words, in order to maintain the current status quo, grabbing the world’s energy sources now, is the way to go if this is what the future offers. Is this the ‘sub-text’? If it is indeed the ‘hidden message’ that Simmons wants to project, then one wonders what kind of debate is going on in the boardroom of Halliburton after they’ve read this piece (which they most surely have).

I trust that the left is not going to be taken in by this kind of argument, seductive though it is with its apparent support of a zero-growth policy, a policy without any kind of foundation in the real world or a comparable political framework within which to articulate a non-capitalist future aside from prayer of course.

Note

  1. http://www.guerrillanews.com/sci-tech/doc2927.html
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