Strange Bedfellows: Making Friends in a Post-Peak World

Jenna Orkin

One of the hallmarks of addiction is that you use escalating amounts of the substance you're addicted to.

Our economy, which is based on interest, guarantees addiction. Not only is growth inevitable; it's essential.  The substance which feeds that growth - energy - must by definition become addictive.

No wonder that when interest was introduced in the sixteenth century, it was forbidden by the three major Western religions.  They knew that when you tried to get something for nothing - when you lent a hundred pounds and got back 105 without even sharing in the risk of the enterprise for which you'd loaned the money - something was wrong. They must have said to themselves, "Where will this end?"   For, preoccupied though they might have been with loftier matters, they knew that on the earthly plane, things do end.

Because our economy depends on growth and therefore on the oil on which that growth in turn depends, we have become oil addicts.  So what should we do now that it's heading down its post-peak production slope?

One option is, we can change drugs. We can build nuclear power plants, thereby switching our addiction from oil to uranium supplemented by ethanol, coal and renewables because suddenly, now that Mother Nature is striking back with a vengeance in the form of earthquakes and hurricanes, we care about the environment. That way we don't have to wean ourselves from addiction at all.

Or we could go into Rehab. That would take a real effort and severely cramp our style.  It wouldn't be fun but we might be willing to do it as long as no one else was having any fun either.

Trouble is, everyone else is an actual or aspiring addict too. What if we go into Rehab but we're surrounded by crazed addicts?  They'll get all the good stuff which will fuel them with a manic energy to grab even more.

That is the prisoner's dilemma that we're faced with.
The original prisoner's dilemma is this:

Two suspects get arrested. The police don't have enough evidence to convict either of them and need testimony. If one prisoner testifies against the other and the other remains silent, the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both stay silent, the police can sentence both prisoners to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each will receive a two-year sentence.

Each prisoner must choose whether to betray the other or to remain silent. However, neither prisoner knows what choice the other prisoner will make. For the best total outcome, a sentence of six months for both prisoners, each prisoner has to rely on the honor or shrewdness of the other prisoner.

That's the dilemma we face if we go into Rehab with respect to our energy addiction. If everyone goes into Rehab, fine. But if one country reneges on the deal, they get all the good stuff or in this case, resources.

Can we trust other countries to stick to the deal?

Only if it's in their own best interest.

Will they perceive it to be in their own best interest?

Only if they feel they need us.

Do countries need each other?

Not if they're at the top of the heap.

So that is what everyone has decided to do:  To scramble to the top of the heap because they think they have a chance of making it.

Thus there's a lot of saber-rattling going on.  Recently Iran conducted Holy Prophet naval exercises complete with flying boats to show their neighbors their "peaceful intentions."

By way of response, the United States conducted naval exercises in the Bahamas in order to show our peaceful intentions towards Venezuela, which has sought closer ties to Iran as well as to our erstwhile pinko enemies, Russia and Cuba. And India sent a ship to the Maldives to patrol the Exclusive Economic Zone, a phrase which refers to fishing and seabed mining.

Certainly no one's putting brakes on their economy.  Those U.S. wannabes, China and India, are obsessed with feeding their economies, like the doting parents of monster children who refuse to see that when those children grow up, they'll eat their parents too.  Since neither country is endowed with the necessary natural resources, they're doing what anyone does who needs something:  They're making friends.

China is jumping into the Free Trade Agreement fray with New Zealand, expects to sign a Free Trade Agreement with Austalia in two years and has pledged $374 million in loans to Pacific allies to boost economic cooperation. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said, "the loans would target various industries including mining, agriculture, forestry, fisheries and aviation."

"China has funding and technical expertise," [Jiabao] said. "The island countries are rich in natural resources. Herein lie huge potential for bilateral cooperation."

Translation: "We'll provide the money to help you help us ravage your country."

Jiabao maintained that the agreement came with no political strings attached. But it included only those South Pacific countries whose governments have diplomatic relations with China -- the Cook Islands, Fiji, Micronesia, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu and excluded six countries that have relations with Taiwan -- Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu.

The One China Policy was also a feature of China's recent expressions of harmonious intent towards Malaysia and the Sudan whose army is getting 'cooperation' from Chinese forces.

This 'cooperation' may be the underlying reason why the United States has recently become preoccupied with the human rights abuses for which the Sudan is notorious. Our concern is ironic because, according to a Human Rights Watch Report of 2003, many of those abuses are the work of foreign oil companies.

China persists in pursuing growth despite the fact that it is already experiencing some of growth's Picture of Dorian Gray effects. Acid rain from coal falls on 30% of the land area.  And whereas 67% of China's farming is in the north, 80% of its water is in the south.   Drought plagues the Northwest province of Ningxia where, unable to survive as a farmer, 23- year-old Wang Zhanguo has ironically been forced to work instead as a coal miner, a building site manager and a long-distance truck driver.  This is what's known as a vicious circle.

Having wreaked havoc with nature, China has suffered its worst dust storms in at least five years. By way of a response sure to delight the gods of irony who rule the universe, it is using artificial rain. 

At the other end of the weather spectrum, China's latest solution to the energy crisis has been to create an artificial sun.  By extracting deuterium from the sea and combining it with tritium by means of nuclear fusion, the pseudo-sun can produce energy from just one liter of seawater that is equivalent to 300 liters of gasoline.  What a relief to know that nature will no longer be necessary, since there will be so little of it left.   The only thing standing in the way of this brave new invention is a device that can withstand 100 million degrees Celsius.

China's acknowledgment of a still pesky dependence on nature is implicit in a logging ban enacted to protect its own forests.  But the lesson learned at home has not caused China to pause in its rampage to feed the world's appetite for cheap furniture.  It is now slashing through the forests of Burma  Russia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Gabon and Borneo. As a result, soil erosion, landslides and floods are becoming more common.

To combat the affects of deforesting, the Chinese government has taken the heroic step of imposing a 5% tax on chopsticks.

The measure is having disappointing results although it does serve as another weapon in China's arsenal against Japan which gets 97% of its chopsticks from China.  But it's unlikely that deforesting will end anytime soon. Recently the Carlyle Group which is not known for its interest in industries that are on the wane, invested $30 million in the Shanghai Anxin Flooring Company.

In India growth thrives, however fleetingly, as Deutsche Bank, Barclay's and J.P. Morgan expand operations and India signs a comprehensive economic pact with the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as similar agreements with ASEAN and Singapore, Taiwan and China, Russia, South Africa and Brazil and cultural agreements with Iceland.

Both China and India are soliciting other friends with the more farsighted goals of securing energy in the future, ports and alternative routes to ensure delivery and strategic partners in the event of war.  China is making agreements on gas from Turkmenistan, a power plant with Kazakhstan, electricity from Russia, alternative energy via a bus service to Pakistan and energy agreements with Nigeria and Kenya.  The Sinochem Company is bidding on licensing agreements in Libya and resources in Ghana and China is providing military advisors to Equatorial Guinea.

China is also not picky about going where angels like the U.S. Department of Energy fear to tread and readily deals with regimes to which the DOE has given "pariah status" such as the Sudan and Myanmar.  With Saudi Arabia it has an energy agreement, an agreement on strategic reserves and a defense agreement.   It is also making overtures to Vietnam for cooperation between the two countries' armies and has been discussing defense with Singapore  and ports with Cambodia.  Additional port agreements in the the Mekong River will allow China to become more independent of the Malacca Straits.   And rail links are being established to the Republic of Korea  and Tibet in spite of the risk posed by the latter of spreading plague.

This may seem odd since China has suffered more than one headache from its association with a dread disease.  As the putative source of SARS and the infamous bird flu which, despite best efforts on the part of researchers, could not be found not to have spread from a single migrating bird, China is the international version of the kid with kooties. To show the sincerity of their stand against kooties, China recently hosted an APEC meeting (Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation) against emerging infectious diseases.

Meanwhile India, has been cultivating friends across the spectrum like the new kid in school who wants to be head of the class but also doesn't want to get beat up by bullies.

To lock in the energy supplies on which its optimistic trade agreements depend, it has MoUs or related agreements with Afghanistan, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, the Sudan, Qatar, Finland, West Africa, the European Union and the United Kingdom, and defense agreements with Mozambique, France, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Mauritius, the Andaman Islands, Tajikistan, the Maldives.  Playing it safe, India also has defense agreements with Iran as well as the United States.
  Beggars can't be choosers and in the mad scramble for energy, India is allowing pragmatism to trump political scruples.  Along the same lines, it has also hedged its bets in the East China Seas by forming defense agreements with China as well as Japan.

In high school French class we once read a fable about an oak tree and a reed.  A storm came in which the reed bent with the wind and survived.  The oak tree stood firm and was felled.

The twist in the story was the oak tree's dying words:  "I am still an oak."

While India and China are making friends to help them bend with the oncoming storm over finite resources, the United States has stated its position:  The American way of life is non-negotiable.  (We are still an oak.)  We are still making airplanes.  We suck up to no country and when we go down, our last words will be, The American way of life is non-negotiable.