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Dec 18 2006

Food and the politics of power

In the previous post, I suggested that as the competition for resources becomes more acute, it is likely that military force will be increasingly used in a brutally transparent manner in order to maintain the current inequalities in consumption rates. This was not simply a guess on my part. It is based on historical precedent.

In 1948, George Kennan of the US State Department wrote what has since become a famous memo outlining in frank and stark terms what he saw as the main issue facing the United States in its newfound post-world war II role as the dominant economic and military force. He was officially writing about Asia but his analysis extends beyond that.

Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.
. . .
In the face of this situation we would be better off to dispense now with a number of the concepts which have underlined our thinking with regard to the Far East. We should dispense with the aspiration to “be liked” or to be regarded as the repository of a high-minded international altruism. We should stop putting ourselves in the position of being our brothers’ keeper and refrain from offering moral and ideological advice. We should cease to talk about vague and — for the Far East — unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

Kennan’s warnings have been borne out in the case of Iraq. The official “altruistic” reasons for invading that country (that it had weapons of mass destruction that needed to be eliminated, to spread democracy) have been exposed as shams but justifying the invasion in those terms has caught the US in a bind from which it cannot escape. In the wake of the collapse of both the invasion and its rationale, a guessing game has arisen as to the true reasons for the invasion. While many reasons have been postulated, I think applying Kennan’s analysis provides the best lens through which one should view the problem.

Iraq was invaded in order to solidify US control of energy sources for the long-term future in order to maintain the current disparity in consumption rates. It should be emphasized that it is control of oil that is crucial, not its ownership or profits. Those who point to reasons like profits for the big oil companies or for Halliburton are taking a shallow view. It is not necessary to actually own the oil, since oil is a fungible commodity once it is on the world market. But by having its hand on the spigot, the US can control the economies of other countries, especially the emerging giants like China and the established economic powers like Europe and Japan which are also in the market for increasingly scarce resources. Remember that because of the food-energy equation, whoever controls the flow of oil also controls pretty much how well the world eats, which is the ultimate power. This is why I think that the US will never voluntarily withdraw from Iraq. Instead, it seeks to have a permanent presence there, in the form of military bases supporting a client state that is friendly to the US and dependent on it.

In his February 2004 Harper’s essay The oil we eat, Richard Manning says:

The common assumption these days is that we muster our weapons to secure oil, not food. There’s a little joke in this. Ever since we ran out of arable land, food is oil. Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten. In 1940 the average farm in the United States produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil energy it used. By 1974 (the last year in which anyone looked closely at this issue), that ratio was 1:1. And this understates the problem, because at the same time that there is more oil in our food there is less oil in our oil. A couple of generations ago we spent a lot less energy drilling, pumping, and distributing than we do now. In the 1940s we got about 100 barrels of oil back for every barrel of oil we spent getting it. Today each barrel invested in the process returns only ten, a calculation that no doubt fails to include the fuel burned by the Hummers and Blackhawks we use to maintain access to the oil in Iraq.

The increasing energy costs of producing food means that oil will loom even larger in politics. In Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed, he analyzes the causes of the collapse of past societies. He is not concerned about political collapses, like that of the Roman or Byzantine or British and other colonial empires. Instead he is talking about the inability of societies to sustain their levels of population, resulting in those societies having drastic reductions in numbers, if not outright extinction. In each case, the primary driver was the inability to produce food in sufficient amounts.

I think that food is still the primary factor, though in the first world it has become buried under other forms of goods such as cars, iPods, and the like. And since food and energy are so closely related, the question of how we resolve the problem of energy production and use and distribution will become the major global problem, on a par with how we deal with climate changes and global warming.

POST SCRIPT: The obesity epidemic

In a short three-minute video clip, cardiologist Dean Cornish gives a quick overview of the obesity epidemic in the US and its damaging medical consequences, and also shows how globalization is increasing the levels of those same problems in the third-world. He argues that this is completely preventable.

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