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Thursday, June 20, 2024

No easy way out

By THOMAS P. M. BARNETT A 1970s TV commercial featured a harried housewife who, when confronted with a sink full of dishes, cried out, "Calgon, take me away!" And in ancient Greece playwrights tied off convoluted scripts with a similarly satisfying plot twist known as the Deus ex machina, or literally, "god from a machine." Want a tidy ending? The "god" lowered from the rafters announced one.


A 1970s TV commercial featured a harried housewife who, when confronted with a sink full of dishes, cried out, “Calgon, take me away!” And in ancient Greece playwrights tied off convoluted scripts with a similarly satisfying plot twist known as the Deus ex machina, or literally, “god from a machine.” Want a tidy ending? The “god” lowered from the rafters announced one.

Many would-be grand strategists now struggle mightily to provide America with a quick exit from this long war against the global jihadist movement. The Cold War taught us that dedicated foes take decades to defeat, and yet Americans just naturally want to come home.

Given our love of technology, it’s no surprise that science, our modern god-machine, is viewed as our most likely salvation and/or curse: the right new gizmo renders this entire fight unnecessary or some looming disaster makes it entirely pointless.

This desperate search constitutes “grand strategy” at its most escapist, but it befits modern America: we prefer rapid-fire problem solving to the long hard slog of nation building.

A good example is the theory of “peak oil.” This controversial prediction stems from a provable observation: for any known oil field, production naturally peaks and subsequently declines as it nears depletion. Technology maximizes capture, but since any reserve is — in geological terms — nonrenewable, the total yield is both finite and calculable.

Some oil analysts employ this observation to extrapolate a global oil peak, declaring we’ve already passed the point of no return. The problem with this theory is that it discounts unconventional sources of oil, such as tar sands and oil shale, as well as non-oil sources for transportation energy (e.g, ethanol, biodiesel, coal liquefaction, hydrogen, fuel cells).

Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a highly respected industry authority, estimates that if unconventional sources are added into the mix our planet’s currently known oil reserves are actually three times larger than that predicted by “peak oil,” suggesting that alleged doomsday is decades off — Asia’s skyrocketing requirements notwithstanding.

The logic here is market-derived: persistently higher prices drive new exploration and boost R&D in both energy extraction and the technology of transportation. That means we’ll go deeper and farther to access new reserves while extracting better yields from both existing and future fields while upgrading our automotive fleet.

We didn’t leave the Stone Age because we ran out of stones, and we won’t leave the Oil Age because we’ve run out of oil. Instead, humanity moves progressively “down” the carbon chain (wood to coal to oil to gas to nukes and hydrogen) for the sheer reason that each step we take brings us higher efficiency and less pollution — a total win-win.

That market logic unfolds far too slowly for “peak oil” advocates, who daily decry our global economy’s “looming collapse.” Their prescription brings us to the second great Deus ex machina of our times: a Manhattan Project-like crash program to “get us off our oil addiction!”

This call dovetails nicely with the “let’s-beggar-those-nasty-Muslims” camp which claims we fund both sides of this war. Impatient with the Middle East’s glacial embrace of globalization, this wedge strategy seeks to force local regimes into rapid political change by severing their current, quite minimal financial connectivity with the global economy — the “big bang” yields to the “slow strangle.”

Toss in global climate change, today’s Deus ex machina without peer, and soon you’re convinced there’s no reason for us to remain in the Middle East whatsoever. Compared to rising sea levels, terrorism just doesn’t rank.

Don’t get me wrong. Humanity is destined to move beyond oil and seriously address global warming. I’m just not willing to kneel before any god-machine for an excuse slip from this long war.

If all we want is the Persian Gulf’s oil, Osama bin Laden poses little threat. His goal is civilizational apartheid, not economic isolation.

And if the region lacked oil, the real problem would remain: traditional cultures poorly adapting themselves to globalization’s creeping embrace, primarily because its gender-neutral networks empower women disproportionally to men.

That’s not our fault nor Israel’s, but rather an inherent weakness of Arab culture, exacerbated by their Islamic faith, which — by the way — imposes no such apparent limitations on emerging Muslim economies in Asia.

All god-machines aside, it’s tempting to abandon the fight against radical extremism in the Middle East.

But a problem shelved is not solved.

(Thomas P.M. Barnett is a distinguished strategist at the Oak Ridge Center for Advanced Studies and the senior managing director of Enterra Solutions LLC. Contact him at tom(at)

18 thoughts on “No easy way out”

  1. You mean, basically you disagree with Dick Cheney?

    You might learn a few thing about oil, geopolitics, the Cold War and the reasons for the “war against the global jihadist movement”.

    Quoting Dick Cheney from

    “by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional fifty million barrels a day. So where is the oil going to come from?”

    Don’t believe it?

    Just Google the quote above.

    Full quote below :

    By some estimates there will be an average of two per cent annual growth in global oil demand over the years ahead along with conservatively a three per cent natural decline in production from existing reserves. That means by 2010 we will need on the order of an additional fifty million barrels a day. So where is the oil going to come from? Governments and the national oil companies are obviously controlling about ninety per cent of the assets. Oil remains fundamentally a government business. While many regions of the world offer great oil opportunities, the Middle East with two thirds of the world’s oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize ultimately lies. Even though companies are anxious for greater access there, progress continues to be slow. It is true that technology, privatisation and the opening up of a number of countries have created many new opportunities in areas around the world for various oil companies, but looking back to the early 1990’s, expectation

    s were that significant amounts of the world’s new resources would come from such areas as the former Soviet Union and from China. Of course that didn’t turn out quite as expected. Instead it turned out to be deep water successes that yielded the bonanza of the 1990’s.

  2. Jim Holm of believes that we will never see the oil peak, because demand will cause industry to harvest more expensive oil sources, like heavy crude in eastern Venezuela, oil sands in Alberta, shale in the US, etc. But obtaining oil this way costs more money and more energy and creates more CO2. There is talk about making syngas (CO + H2) from combining water with heated coal, or gasoline from coal, etc. These technologies work, but can rougly double the emitted CO2 per gallon of fuel used. Nuclear reactors can supply process heat to avoid this. High temperature gas reactors can even separate H2 from H2O, and the H2 with recycled CO2 can be converted to methanol or dozens or other industrial hydrocarbons. Please visit for an introduction to pebble bed reactors, a form of high temperature gas reactor.

  3. Mr. Barnett’s book, “The Pentagon’s New Map,” was an interesting, although shortsighted in areas, look at the future of American global imperialism. The article above is simply an exercise in ignorance. Anyone who calls hydrogen an energy source hasn’t done his homework and lacks the most basic knowledge of science. And anyone who believes shale oil or tar sands are reliable subsitute sources for petroleum does not understand the principle of energy returned on energy invested. Altogether, an astonishingly stupid essay from an author who should have known better.

  4. I’m sorry, but I too have to say this is a very poorly argued essay.

    Peak oil is proven more and more true every day the US oil production sinks further and further. Ditto for many other areas of the world. The fact that the world economy might possibly be “saved” by oil shale, biodiesel etc. says NOTHING about Hubbert’s Peak Oil theory because the all the latter said was that conventional oil rates of production would peak, then fall. He said nothing about other energy substitutes. The fact that some Peak Oil advocates are talking about a world wide energy squeeze clouds the essential point that Peak Oil theory pertains just to conventional oil rates of production. It says nothing of all the other energy sources mentioned. CERA is confusing this point even more, and they should know better.

    Most of the named energy substitutes simply cannot replace oil. Shale’s been kicked around for decades and there is no evidence that it is ready to produce the tens of millions of bbl/day that we are going to need in the next few years as conventional oil fades. Ditto for oil sands. MAYBE, in 10 years, Albertan sands might get to 5-10 Mbbl/day, IF they can find the water for processing, the manpower, the earthmoving equip., tires for the equip., etc. Hydrogen is an energy carrier, not a source too. Somebody of your caliber and credentials should know all this already.

    Small point: Moving from wood to coal as you say, was NOT moving to less carbon intensive fuels. Coal is much more carbon intensive than wood. That’s why the latter is so more compact – carbon is more enegy dense than the hydrogen-carbon mix of wood.

    As for the Middle East, the West had more or less found a peace with it after the struggles of centuries ago….. until what is now British Petroleum discovered oil in Iran/Iraq in the very early 1900s. Then the West proceeded to redraw all the maps of Arab lands. Heck, it was the UK that carved Kuwait out of Iraq. I’ve seen it argued with some credibility, that WWI was partly due to stuggles with getting railroads and other access to this newly found oil in the Mid East and all the alliances, etc had at their Genesis, a desire for access to Iran/Iraq oil. As the West has continued with Coups (Iran 1953) and war after war, relations have failed. The Arabs haven’t helped with their crazy governments hoarding all the oil wealth, but this story is FAR different from the one you describe.

    No, Peak Oil as it pertains to conventional oil, is documented fact in the US and recently many other world oil fields. Non-conventional hydrocarbon stores are not part of the actual theory, but even then it remains to be seen whether they can provide the hydrocarbon energy in cheap quantities that our modern lifestyle expects and demands. Peak Oil advocates looking for economic collapse are moving far beyond what Hubbert was theorizing on. Somebody of your stature should be able to do a better job not confusing the two.

    We got Saddam after he wanted to sell his oil in Euros, with production being handled by French oil companies. Now it’s safely being sold in USD again, with the major contracts back in US-American hands. I’m sure that all had something to do with this “war” too.

    Please do some research before you publish any more essays on “peak oil” and “war-on-terror” subjects.

  5. Mr. Barnett is either unaware of or neglected the technical aspects of our energy future.

    Most “unconventional” energy sources have been and will continue to be unconventional because they require more energy to produce than they yield.

    Tar sands do have a positive energy balance, but will be limited by future reductions in natural gas supplies.

    Shale oil (neither shale nor oil) failed in the 80’s because the energy inputs exceeded energy production. Water supply and environmental damage impose other constraints. Barring some miracle technology, they will be as impractical at $100/bbl oil as they were at $10/bbl.

    There is not enough arable land in the United States to meet 1% of our current transportation energy needs with biofuel. Without the $0.51 per gallon subsidy, the ethanol “boom” would collapse.

    Mr. Barnett should consider the long-term energy and economic viability of systems that have to feed themselves, i.e., those that must use their products as input energy. Autocannabilism is not a viable energy strategy.

    By 2050, both petroleum and natural gas supplies could be less than 50% of current levels. We do not now and will not in the future have the luxury of subsidizing unproductive technologies.

  6. Did you not get a science class when you were in the 8th grade?

    Did CERA pay you for:”Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a highly respected industry authority,…”?

  7. You people who regularly read “Capitol Hill Blue” and have left comments above are nuts. I hate to break it to you but it had to be said.

  8. I agree with the first comments. If Mr Barnett is such a distinguished strategist how could he have chosen to write about two subjects he clearly knows very little about: Energy and Middle Eastern history?

    If he did know anything about energy he would know that conventional oil is the pinnacle energy source. All the other non nuclear “options” are imposters and suffer from 3 fatal flaws:

    1. They cannot scale in volume

    2. They cannot scale in time; and

    3. They all have low or even negative energy balances.

    Nuclear has all of the radiotoxicity problems we are so concerned about, but in addition requires a lot of fossil fuel to make nuclear fuel. Add to that the rapid depletion of uranium and unwritten problems with the highly toxic and unuseable uranium hexaflouride (the 95% that is not enriched) and nuclear does not look so appealing.

    An earlier corrsepondent covered Mr Barnetts shortcomings in ME history so I will not repeat them.

    I am an Australian. I am deeply ashamed of my countries involvement in Iraq. I work and lobby for our withdrawel.

    My perception of the US is that during these dark Bush years that the country has lost the plot. My perception of the US for my whole life was that this is a great decent country, underpineed by a strong constitution that guaranteed individual rights and enshrined checks and balances that ensured the government behaved decently.

    Bush has driven a truck through the US constitution. Anything and everything is justified for the crassly named “War on Terror”, including the illegal invasion of other countries, torture apparently sanctioned at the highest levels of government, imprisonment without trial, “rendition” and other crimes.

    Energy lies behind all this and if Barnett was so distinguished he would know that and comment accordingly.

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