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Civilization Is Dying of an Oil Overdose

Even the imminent threat of Russian shelling isn’t enough to make the Western world get serious about reducing its dependency on oil and natural gas.

After giving a standing ovation to Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian Jewish reincarnation of Winston Churchill, the British government said it would stand shoulder to shoulder with him by… ceasing Russian fossil fuel imports by the end of the year. The Germans and other Europeans, yet more dependent on Russian oil and gas, have vowed to fight back against the rabid bear by… er, trying to wean themselves by 2030, by which time Putin’s troops could be celebrating the seventh anniversary of their capture of Paris and Berlin.

The standard lament among Americans who are rightfully enraged at the stranglehold that the fossil fuel industry has always had on U.S. energy policy is, “Why can’t we be more like the Europeans?” The grim truth, in my view, is that the Europeans look good only by comparison. Climate calamity is already upon us, deniable only by those who can look with equanimity upon old people roasting to death in the Pacific Northwest in the summer, Californians perishing in enormous wildfires, record fatalities in ever more monstrous hurricanes, and Southerners killed by (what once would have been considered) impossible winter tornadoes, and say, in effect, “Duh, where’s your proof?” (The stupidity is willed rather than inborn, with figures like the brilliant George Will too emotionally invested in their wrong position to change.)

And that’s just a sampling of recent American catastrophes. The Europeans are enduring similar disasters, yet the best they can bring themselves to do is play the shell game of trading carbon credits. Yes, it’s better than nothing, but it is like bailing water from a sinking ship with tea cups while continuing to drill holes in the hull. Even AOC’s vaunted “Green New Deal” likely doesn’t go far enough. We need drastic rationing of fossil fuels now, comparable to or exceeding World War II era restrictions to cut consumption like we did involuntarily in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with a crash program to develop multiple green energy, conservation, and carbon sequestration technologies. Human ingenuity can work miracles, but there isn’t going to be a single silver bullet for a problem this complex.

The poor need to be shielded from, rather than unfairly exposed to, the harshest effects of the economic downturn that would result for at least several years, until the green technologies come fully online, creating new jobs and stimulating economic growth. Yet no politicians will entertain the drastic measures that are needed, out of a probably correct suspicion that public opinion wouldn’t stand for it. In democracies, economic downturns get them voted out of office, while in countries like China they’d more likely end up in front of a firing squad. Even the prospect of a mild rise in gas prices was enough to dissuade Biden from banning the relatively small proportion of U.S. fossil fuels imported from Russia, until Congress forced his hand. Public opinion, friends, ultimately means me and you.

The Western world isn’t alone responsible for causing the problem and contributing to the solution, though it’s fair for countries such as India and China to argue that the West was first and worst. Why should the tens of millions of Indians and Chinese who have barely begun to lift themselves out of age-old poverty be told they must abandon their dreams of living like affluent Westerners, if the Westerners themselves won’t compromise on their lifestyle? The true answer is that nobody on Earth should live like that anymore, if we want out children and grandchildren to have a tolerable future. But human nature being what it is, the prospects look bleak.

The word radical comes from a Latin word meaning “root,” and what is required, but seems beyond our mental and spiritual grasp, is a change at the root of our way of life such as few self-styled radicals have ever imagined. The vision we need is related to the “Gaia” movement and animal-rights type of thinking, even if those particular models would never be acceptable to most people. Look: Our world of eight billion human beings is never going back to some imaginary state of nature. All those myriads of folks aren’t about to move into self-built log cabins like Henry Thoreau or Ted Kaczynski (the “Unabomber”), and it’s a pointless and destructive fantasy to insist that we all do that. Like it or not, we are stuck with industrial civilization, and even with the mounting troubles of the past decade or more, hundreds of millions of people in the so-called “developing world” are still immeasurably better off than their parents or grandparents were in 1990. There is no going back, and therefore our only real choice in the end is to build a world in better harmony with the other living things with which we share this planet—the only living things anywhere in our incomprehensibly vast universe, so far as we know. But I fear the cost in avoidable suffering until we get there.

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