By Donella Meadows
–May 28, 1987–
Why were 37 young men killed on the USS Stark as it patrolled the Persian Gulf?
Because an Iraqi fighter plane fired an Exocet missile at their ship. Why did it do that?
We’ll probably never know.
Why was the Stark there in the first place?
It was protecting the sea lanes from interference, so oil-carrying ships could sail in peace.
Why should the United States take on that task?
To assure oil imports for itself and its allies.
So we maintain a military force in the Middle East to keep the oil lifeline open?
Right, though it isn’t exactly a lifeline. Lately the U.S. has been importing only 5% to 10% of its oil, depending on the time of year, from the Arab countries. Our military cost to defend that small fraction of our energy supply is about $50 billion a year.
But aren’t Middle East oil imports and military protection of the oil lanes inevitable if we want to be an advanced, wealthy nation?
No, only if we want to be an oil-squandering nation. If we spent just one year’s budget of the Rapid Deployment Force on proper weatherization of American houses, we wouldn’t need to import any oil from the Middle East. If we also replaced our remaining gas-guzzling cars with more efficient ones, we wouldn’t have to import oil from anyone.
But that’s conservation. Lifestyle changes. Lowered thermostats and speed-limits. I thought all that Puritanism went out with Jimmy Carter.
U.S. oil consumption has decreased by 16% since Jimmy Carter, and European oil consumption has decreased by 18%. The industrial countries have reduced the amount of energy they burn per thousand dollars of economic output by 15% since 1979. That’s not Puritanism, it’s efficiency. It’s smart and cost-effective. And we’re a long way from exhausting the opportunities for efficiency. Japan and West Germany use only about half as much energy per unit of economic output as we do.
We’ve suffered the loss of 37 sailors because we didn’t conserve oil?
That’s not all we’ve suffered, not by a long shot. Just imagine what might have happened if the improvements in energy efficiency the world has actually made in the past ten years — the smaller cars, better insulation, sensibly-planned industrial plants, energy-saving appliances — had come to pass twenty years earlier:
- The U.S. and Europe would not have been heavy oil importers in 1973, and OPEC would not have had the market leverage to increase prices so suddenly and greatly.
- There would not have been an enormous transfer of wealth to the Middle East. The Mideast arms race and its spillover into terrorism would have been vastly curtailed. The Iran/Iraq war might not have happened, and certainly would not be fought with advanced weapons (such as Exocet missiles) bought with oil profits.
- Developing countries would not have been hit with huge balance-of-payments problems from increased oil prices. They would not have borrowed so much, and international banks would not have been so swollen with petrodollars that they were eager to lend. Today’s Third-World debt and the insolvency of many banks could have been avoided.
- The Mexican economy would not have become precariously perched on high oil prices. This could have had important implications not only for the well-being of the Mexican people, but for U.S. immigration. – Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana would not have ridden a roller-coaster of oil-industry boom and bust.
- There would not have been pressure on U.S. farmers to export to balance the dollar drain from oil imports. That would have made an enormous difference to our topsoil, groundwaters, farm debt, and farm communities.
- There would have been less air pollution from burning fossil fuel, less acid rain, less greenhouse effect.
- The Middle East would not have been a strategic source of energy for the U.S. There would have been no reason to station Marines in Beirut or to send the USS Stark to the Persian Gulf.
That’s what we could have avoided last time. It could be worse next time. Next time?
We’ve been reversing our efficiency policies, from automobile mileage standards to 55-mile speed limits. We’re not pushing serious research on domestic renewable energy sources. We’re setting ourselves up for the next oil crisis. And now that the Persian Gulf is so thoroughly militarized, that crisis could be — well — unthinkable.
The best form of energy security might not be warships in the Persian Gulf. It might be American roof insulation.
(Many of the numbers and most of the logic in this column came from energy analyst Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Old Snowmass, Colorado. For more, see Hunter and Amory Lovins, Energy Unbound: a Fable for America’s Future, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1986.)
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987