By Donella Meadows
–August 9, 1990–
Iraq’s aggression in the Middle East has provided a big, oily Rohrschach spot, in which we can all read the messages already ingrained in our various psyches and self-interests.
The oil companies see a perfect opportunity not only to raise prices but to insist again that the national interest requires them to drill off our shores and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Consumer advocates see the need for restricting the windfall profits of oil companies.
In Washington, of course, the whole situation is clearly the fault of the Democrats, unless you happen to be a Democrat, in which case it is the fault of the weak leadership of George Bush.
The Peace Through Strength people see the ruthlessness of Saddam Hussein as a perfect example of why we need a continued big defense budget. The nuclear power lobby will tell us once more that nukes in our backyards can free us from dependence on untrustworthy Arabs. (They love this argument, although it’s false. Nuclear power replaces coal, not oil, and it produces electricity, not gasoline. It can make no difference to our dependence on oil, unless we start running electric cars.)
As an environmentalist, I should be using this space to weigh in with some statistics about how, if we had just raised our car fleet mileage standard from 27.5 miles per gallon to 30.5 (or whatever), we wouldn’t need Iraqi or Kuwaiti oil at all. If we get our cars up to 40 mpg and insulate our houses, we could forget about the whole Middle East — at least until the Alaska oil runs out. And if we hadn’t cut government funding of solar energy research from $718 million in 1980 to only $113 million in 1990, we’d be ten years ahead on the ultimately essential task of running our economy without any oil at all.
Lots of good points there in that last paragraph, or so I think, but somehow I don’t feel like belaboring them. We could replay the whole energy debate of the 1970s now, and restate our many viewpoints about the Middle East. But there is an opportunity in this crisis to get beyond all that. This isn’t the 1970s. There are some hopeful signs that we’ve moved since then toward more political and technical maturity.
Maybe it’s because we’re still in shock, maybe it’s because without the instinctual posturings of the Cold War nations are having to THINK again, but in these first days after the invasion of Kuwait the world is acting on high principle at least as much as on self-interest. The U.S. and the USSR are acting in concert. The U.N. Security Council is working exactly as it was designed to do. The world’s first response was not superpower saber-rattling, but a trade embargo, which was implemented with astonishing rapidity and by nearly all nations.
Arms sales to Iraq have stopped (one would wish that had happened much sooner). Iraq’s oil exports have dried up. Turkey has been assured of NATO support if there are reprisals for her shutting off Iraq’s pipeline. Other oil-producing nations are increasing production to fill the slack in supply (and make a financial killing). OK, so it isn’t all being done in pure altruism. Still it’s an impressive performance from nations that have never in my lifetime worked together so quickly and effectively.
Of course the hardest tests are still ahead. There may be hostages and even all-out war. The Arab world has to open to international cooperation and restrain its tendency toward renegade dictatorships. And all nations have to come up with energy policies that will make sense into the twenty-first century, as the world’s dwindling oil supplies concentrate more and more in the Middle East.
But if we can stop reading our old knee-jerk messages in the murk, we’ll see — we are already seeing — our way through. In our interdependent world we have to cooperate and respect each others’ needs. Nations have to keep talking to each other and listening to each other, as they have done so well this week. We can’t tolerate tyrants, we can’t pacify them by selling them arms, and we can oppose them economically as well as militarily.
We also have to listen to the earth; we know that now much more than we did in the 70s. Earth and sun can provide us with plenty of energy that is not oil. Some forms of energy do not produce wastes that the planet can’t accept. And over the last 20 years we have come up with technologies for using all types of energy more efficiently — we can do even better in the next 20 years.
High principles and global workability are not what we would expect to derive out of a dark mess on the Iraq-Kuwait border. But the point of the Rohrschach test is that the message isn’t in the blot. It’s in the reader.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990