Osama bin Laden poster
The Muslim world is torn between the desire for freedom and economic advancement and the fear of change that it will bring and the questionable values it engenders. For many in the Muslim world, radical fundamentalists like Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, are considered heroes for defying the West, especially the “great Satan” that is America. In their eyes, the West's exploitation of the region's resources – especially its oil -- only serves to entrench spiritually-corrupt, repressive regimes, while inflaming the reactionaries who resist them by means of terror.

Oil, Jihad and Destiny - Part 2

Part two of interview with cultural economist and author, Ronald Cooke

By Bill Moore

To Part One

"Most Muslims like Christians are not fanatics", Ronald Cooke, the author of Oil, Jihad and Destiny told me when I asked him how the Islamic world views the West. "They just want to get on with their lives. They love their family. Their daily worries are about the same things we worry about: what's for dinner, how are the kids doing at school, what's going on in the neighborhood..?"

From Cooke's perspective, it is the strongly-theological orientation of the education system in a number of Muslim countries that indoctrinates young people into a distrust and even hatred towards the West. He said that while this dogma strays from the basic tenets of Muslim belief, it is an unfortunate situation that we are going to have to live with.

He also thinks that blaming ourselves here in the West for what's happening in the Middle East isn't productive. Even worse, it is naïve of us to think that by changing our attitudes and approaches towards the Islamic world, that we can make the problem go away. To a radical Islamist, those of us in the West who are not fundamentalist Muslims are infidels and opponents of Allah. We must either convert or be destroyed.

"We, who are not a Muslim, are unbelievers, atheists and heathen whom Allah will punish, because unbelief is the greatest sin of all. True believers must follow the perfect and final revelations of the Prophet Mohamed.

"So we run into a set of beliefs at are quite different from those we hold in the West," he stated, adding that in the Islamist view, all problems are ultimately religious in nature and therefore have a spiritual solution, one that must conform to the interpretations of the Koran and other sacred Muslim literature. This has led to a stagnation of thought and creativity within the fundamentalist community, as well as an intolerance of other views and beliefs.

"Peaceful negotiation will not resolve cultural conflict. To a true believer, no Muslim leader will be permitted to negotiate a peaceful settlement with an infidel leader. To do so would be to commit an act of apostasy, a denial of one's faith, and in Islam that is punishable by death."

So, how does the world work its way through this conflict of beliefs, which looks increasingly likely to disrupt the flow of oil from the one region of the world where production of sweet, light crude has not yet peaked?

Cooke replied, "We have a choice, it is the choice given to combatants in all wars; you either kill your enemy or you change his mind. Since I personally prefer love over hatred, I recommend we encourage the development of personal friendship. We must socialize this conflict."

He pointed out that during the current conflict in Iraq, an American soldier developed a close, personal friendship with an Iraqi family. When the young man was killed by insurgents, the family was deeply grieved by the loss.

"The story showed something we keep missing, and that is love and mutual respect is possible even in a tough situation. The key word is communication, people to people, Christian to Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist, and anyone else who wants to join the quest for peace."

For Cooke that means we have to overcome our own ideological limitations and reach out to others, but tragically, he also thinks that what we're seeing instead is just the opposite, a cultivation of distrust and hatred towards the Muslim world. For him the psychological and emotional climate is very much like that preceding the Second World War when, out of fear, America interned tens of thousands of loyal, Japanese Americans.

"Fear does awful things to people. I see that same kind of evolving, volatile situation growing, and that's why I have a real problem leaving this to government, because I don't think government is going to fix the problem. I think government is too preoccupied with its own conflicts. I think that people who are interested in peace have to work together and do outreach."

Let Them Eat Oil?
I asked Cooke if it doesn't now make sense to finally get serious about American energy independence and to let the Middle East keep its oil?

"It's unfortunate, [but] it won't work," he replied. "We're... using 17-20 million barrels a day. The World is producing 82 million barrels a day. Green fuels, wind power and so forth is less than two percent of the energy we need to exist as an economy. The Western world has developed a very energy-intensive economy. China is in the process of developing a very energy intensive economy..." with a very heavy reliance on dirty, soft coal, with all its negative environmental and physiological impacts. (400,000 Chinese die prematurely each year because of air pollution and one in four Chinese suffers from some form of pulmonary disease.)

"We just have too great a need for oil to walk away from the oil resources that we have."

And therein lies the conundrum, because no one knows, with any level of certainty, how much oil there is left in the world. That's why Cooke – like Matthew Simmons and Colin Campbell – believes that the very first step towards maturely addressing the problem of peak oil is to determine with a greater level of certainty how much oil is ultimately available for extraction.

"It's like any business. The first thing you do is take inventory.... You look at people and you look at resources."

Cooke thinks that we have a 15-20 year window in which to use those resources and people wisely, starting here in the United States by getting the Congress to face up to the energy problem and then doing something constructive about it. Otherwise, he's afraid that we'll resume using coal without regard to its environmental consequences, retracing the filthiest decades of the industrial revolution when street lights in Pittsburgh would turn on at midday and thousands died of "Killer Fogs" in post-War London. (See EV World's interview with Coal: A Human History author Barbara Freese).

"The last energy bill was typical Congressional work; it was pork barrel and throwing dollars at the problem," he lamented. "That's not going to get us to where we need to go."

Working with Colin Campbell and others, Cooke projects that demand will surpass production from all sources, including Alberta tar sands and heavy Venezuelan crude, etc. sometime around 2020. They used data from a variety of sources including projections from the US Geological Survey, the federal Energy Information Agency and BP.

"The problem we face is that nobody knows the truth; and the worse offenders are national governments. So, consequently, we don't know how much oil we've got. We think we know and we're probably close."

Based on available statistics, Cooke observed, we are using oil much faster than we're finding it. "We've been doing that since the 80's... and we've not made a trillion barrel find since the 60's. We using up our inheritance and those are the facts."

While he acknowledges that over the next twenty years, we might discover and add another trillion barrels of oil, it is now becoming a matter of not of how much we find, but how much we can produce, because that trillion barrels will be expensive to extract and costly to get to market because of its remoteness."

Where an oil geologist like Campbell might foresee a smooth bell-shaped curve of extraction and depletion, Cooke's view as a cultural economist is more chaotic. He foresees the immediate future being one of ragged and potentially destabilizing peaks and valleys of oil shortages and surplus.

"I would not, for example, be surprised if we didn't see a shortage in 2005 and I am pretty sure we'll see one in 2008, just based on how much oil is being pumped and how many new finds there have been..." He reminded me that to it takes three to seven years to bring a good oil field on line. "This is not a spigot we can turn on when we need it."

It's his view that once we cross the top of the oil peak, the other side will not be characterized by a sharp drop off. Instead, "the top is going to be characterized by incremental changes from year to year. Probably less than five percent of total demand, it will be relatively flat and then we'll see a decline. That period is 2005 to 2020."

Cooke also pointed out to me that one of the ramifications of his political crisis scenario is that the oil gets left in the ground temporarily. This results in the peak actually being extended a few years, at best.

One of his more interesting suggestions is a re-missioning of NASA to redirect their considerable technological talent and expertise into tackling the challenges of a less energy resource intensive society, rather than sending men to Mars.

Pessimistically Hopeful
Introducing such cultural and political change takes enormous courage, which he, personally doesn't believe either party has. He told me that the Bushes are simply too entwined with the oil industry of the past and Saudi royal family to demonstrate the necessary leadership. Neither is he convinced that John Kerry understands or has the leadership ability to effectively address the problem.

"Who's left?" he asked. "That's Congress, but Congress is so busy playing politics... they're so preoccupied with their confrontation that they don't have anytime for doing something useful. So, I don't see anything there."

Also compounding the problem is the general lack of interest in the topic of peak oil here in North America. While Europeans have organized conferences on the issue over the last several years, here in the United States, we pay scant attention to it, apparently preferring to believe that if we simply ignore it, the problem will go away. Cooke has tried in vain to get organizations like the Public Broadcasting Service to look at the problem, although a series recently did air entitled "Extreme Oil", which did address some of the issues.

"People just don't' want to touch the topic until it's a catastrophe," he said. That's why he supports the idea of a high level, public conference on energy, including oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear and renewables, so that we can begin to work out solutions in advance.

The United States has to take a central leadership role, because our economy alone has sufficient available capital still to tackle the problem in a serious, effective manner.

"It's up to us. So, how do we get our elected officials interested?"

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Published: 09-Oct-2004


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