Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

Curated knowledge, trenchant insights & witty bon mots

The inauguration, the coming wars AND the end of suburbia

As I said in an earlier post, I went to see a film and discussion Thursday night called the End of Suburbia, which could have easily been called The End of Oil.

In a week where the New Yorker’s cover story was about the coming wars and Dubya burbled about freedom (Freedom 27, Liberty 15 was the Daily Show’s count — “it was a noble effort by Liberty, which as you know has been playing hurt since the Patriot Act,” cracked Jon Stewart) in his inauguration speech, it seems to me all three could be wrapped into one thread.

However, for easier reading, I’ve broken them up into three threads:

  1. The coming wars
  2. The inauguration
  3. The end of suburbia

Or, you can scroll your way through the original post below. Your choice. :)

First, the wars.

The news angle the BBC took in its story Sunday night was how the U.S. military has special forces operating in Iran looking for possible targets to attack.

Other stuff in Seymour Hersh’s article is actually far more worrisome.

For one thing, the War on Terror will increasingly be handled by Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, while the role of the CIA will be downgraded (never thought I’d see that as a potentially bad thing).

Covert operations against suspected terrorist groups have been authorized in as many as 10 Middle Eastern and South Asian countries, the article claims.

And unlike the CIA’s covert ops, no covert military commando mission needs to be reported to Congress. Actually, regional military commanders might not even be told.

The CIA’s current paramilitary unit may yet be shifted to the Pentagon’s control.

 “I don’t think they can handle the cover,” former CIA clandestine officer Philip Giraldi told Hersh. “They’ve got to have a different mind-set. They’ve got to handle new roles and get into foreign cultures and learn how other people think. If you’re going into a village and shooting people, it doesn’t matter,” Giraldi added. “But if you’re running operations that involve finesse and sensitivity, the military can’t do it. Which is why these kind of operations were always run out of the agency.”

It isn’t clear whether this new order is even legal. Hersh quotes some experts as Congress thinking it voted to have oversight over covert ops, while the administration argues these are not intelligence-gathering operations but military ones.

One of Rumsfeld’s new approaches would be to have covert military personnel on the lookout for items that could be used to build nuclear weapons system, perhaps by posing as corrup businessmen (doesn’t sound military to me, but I’m not an expert).

They may recruit local teams. This sent a chill down my spine (the “me” references below refer to Hersh):

“Do you remember the right-wing execution squads in El Salvador?” the former high-level intelligence official asked me, referring to the military-led gangs that committed atrocities in the early nineteen-eighties. “We founded them and we financed them,” he said. “The objective now is to recruit locals in any area we want. And we aren’t going to tell Congress about it.” A former military officer, who has knowledge of the Pentagon’s commando capabilities, said, “We’re going to be riding with the bad boys.”

One official described the new approach to Hersh this way: “It’s a finesse to give power to Rumsfeld—giving him the right to act swiftly, decisively, and lethally. It’s a global free-fire zone.”

Pentagon forays into covert work in the late 1970s and early 1980s were “disastrous,” the article said.

It appears that part of the problem is that in the world of Washington power politics, the CIA lost the battle over who’s to blame for humint failures in Iraq.

A former senior C.I.A. officer depicted the agency’s eclipse as predictable. “For years, the agency bent over backward to integrate and coördinate with the Pentagon,” the former officer said. “We just caved and caved and got what we deserved. It is a fact of life today that the Pentagon is a five-hundred-pound gorilla and the C.I.A. director is a chimpanzee.”

In addition … A former C.I.A. clandestine-services officer told me that, in the months after the resignation of the agency’s director George Tenet, in June, 2004, the White House began “coming down critically” on analysts in the C.I.A.’s Directorate of Intelligence (D.I.) and demanded “to see more support for the Administration’s political position.” Porter Goss, Tenet’s successor, engaged in what the recently retired C.I.A. official described as a “political purge” in the D.I. Among the targets were a few senior analysts who were known to write dissenting papers that had been forwarded to the White House. The recently retired C.I.A. official said, “The White House carefully reviewed the political analyses of the D.I. so they could sort out the apostates from the true believers.”

You don’t want people who aren’t team players analyzing your intelligence data. They might go off-message. :(

And in the new intelligence reform bill, the White House lobbied furiously for certain changes.

The bill that Congress approved sharply reduced the new director’s power, in the name of permitting the Secretary of Defense to maintain his “statutory responsibilities.” Fred Kaplan, in the online magazine Slate, described the real issues behind Hastert’s action, quoting a congressional aide who expressed amazement as White House lobbyists bashed the Senate bill and came up “with all sorts of ludicrous reasons why it was unacceptable.”

“Rummy’s plan was to get a compromise in the bill in which the Pentagon keeps its marbles and the C.I.A. loses theirs,” the former high-level intelligence official told me. “Then all the pieces of the puzzle fall in place. He gets authority for covert action that is not attributable, the ability to directly task national-intelligence assets”—including the many intelligence satellites that constantly orbit the world.

“Rumsfeld will no longer have to refer anything through the government’s intelligence wringer,” the former official went on. “The intelligence system was designed to put competing agencies in competition. What’s missing will be the dynamic tension that insures everyone’s priorities—in the C.I.A., the D.O.D., the F.B.I., and even the Department of Homeland Security—are discussed. The most insidious implication of the new system is that Rumsfeld no longer has to tell people what he’s doing so they can ask, ‘Why are you doing this?’ or ‘What are your priorities?’ Now he can keep all of the mattress mice out of it.”

The United States’ founding fathers envisioned a system of checks and balances to keep the system from getting out of whack. But if Hersh’s article is true (the White House says it isn’t, but it isn’t specific about the errors and never gave an interview to Hersh), there will be precious little second thought before the U.S. sets off on potentially destabilizing covert missions in the Middle East and Central and South Asia.

The coming wars could indeed be a prescient title.

The inauguration

Here’s how the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines freedom:

Freedom: 1. The condition of being free or unrestricted 2. Personal or civic liberty; absence of slave status 3. The power of self-determination, independence of fate 4. The state of being free to act (often foll. by to + infin.: we have the freedom to leave) 5. Frankness, outspokenness, undue familiarity 6. (foll. by from) the condition of being exempt from nor not subject to (a defect, burden, etc.) 7. (foll. by of) a a full or honorary participation in (membership, privileges, etc) b unrestricted use of (facilities, etc.) 8 a privilege possessed by a city or corporation 9 facility or ease in action 10 Boldness of conception – the four freedoms: freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from fear and want. Freedom fighter a person who takes part in violent resistance to an established political system, etc.

When Dubya kept ringing the rhetorical freedom bell on Thursday, what did he mean?

You can see the full inauguration speech here (even watch the video!), but allow me to highlight a few key parts:

So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities. And when the soul of a nation finally speaks, the institutions that arise may reflect customs and traditions very different from our own. America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.

If true, great! But it would unquestionably be a historic departure from traditional U.S. practices.

The U.S. — like other super-powers, to be fair — has been most interested in preserving and expanding its sphere of influence, both by encouraging the establishment of governments friendly to its interests and undermining those perceived to be hostile (see Iran, Guatemala, Chile, etc., etc).

Whether or not governments friendly to U.S. interests were democratically elected or humane to their own citizens was pretty much a non-consideration.

When Bush said America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling …, Stewart added: anymore. :)

But I also think the underlying message is: You are free to be subservient to the U.S.’s national interests.

Bush also said: All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.

Stewart: Offer not valid in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and all of Africa. :) 

Condoleezza Rice identified some “outposts of tyranny” in her appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this week. For the record, they are Cuba, Belarus, Burma, Zimbabwe, Iran and North Korea (here is a BBC summary of response by some of the outposts’ media outlets).

How did Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan manage to stay off the list, to name but two? The U.S. has a military base in Uzbekistan, which is a very authoritarian government. Turkmenistan is run by a crazy guy — who rules over a land with huge reserves of oil and gas.

A Globe and Mail editorial on Friday said “the skeptics have a point.” For example, it says the Greater Middle East Initiative has been regarded with derision by some of its allies in the region. However, it should be noted the elections in Afghanistan and for the Palestinian Authority appear to have been fairly conducted.

However, Pervez Musharraf became president of Pakistan through a military coup — which doesn’t stop him from being a best bud of the U.S. You don’t hear much denunciation of China’s repressiveness; there’s money to be made there.

The BBC has rounded up more world press reaction here and some reaction from various nations.

In terms of the use of force in advancing this agenda of freedom , Bush said: … It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. …

My most solemn duty is to protect this nation and its people against further attacks and emerging threats. Some have unwisely chosen to test America’s resolve, and have found it firm.

Did he mean Iraq by that? Hard to say: The biggest issue of his presidency except for 9/11 and it’s never mentioned.

But in an interview published Jan. 16 in the Washington Post, Bush felt the election outcome supported his decisions there:

“We had an accountability moment, and that’s called the 2004 elections. The American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me.”

When I look back on the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, to my mind, there was never any doubt the situation would end without an invasion.

It’s hard to see the Iran situation resolving itself easily without Iran’s total capitulation to U.S. will — the only outcome acceptable to the neocons running the show.

Here’s an excerpt from an NYT story on VP Dick Cheney:

In an interview on the MSNBC program “Imus in the Morning,” a highly unusual forum for Mr. Cheney, he appeared to use the danger of Israeli military action as one more reason that the Iranians should reach a diplomatic agreement to disarm, noting dryly that any such strike would leave “a diplomatic mess afterwards” and should be avoided.

Cheney also said: “We don’t want a war in the Middle East, if we can avoid it. In the case of the Iranian situation, I think everybody would be best suited or best treated and dealt with if we could deal with it diplomatically.”

But then the U.S. conducts things in a way that makes a diplomatically-resolved outcome highly unlikely.

Now, the question is why?

The end of suburbia

In a Nov. 15 Toronto Star column, Linda McQuaig, author of It’s The Crude, Dude, noted the U.S. has consumed 25 per cent of the world’s oil, yet its domestic reserves represented only three per cent of global supply.

And according to the people cited in The End of Suburbia, the global production of oil — pretty much a non-renewable resource — either has peaked or is about to peak.

Yet the suburban lifestyle of much of North America — big homes, a car-based lifestyle — is predicated on cheap energy.

This is where The End of Suburbia comes in. This independent doc actually drew a full house on a very cold Thursday night in T.O. — it was shown at the Workman Theatre (part of the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health complex, ironically enough) at 1001 Queen St. W.

The film was produced by Paris, Ont. resident Barry Silverthorn, directed and written by Torontonian Gregory Greene and narrated by Vision TV’s Barry Zwicker.

It walks you through the history of suburbia, how they were first meant to offer country living and evolved into soulless dormitories.

But the real edge to the film is based on the thesis that the world is running out of oil — and without it, suburbia in its present form can’t exist.

“Now we’re stuck in a cul-de-sac with a cement SUV,” said James Howard Kunstler, a New Urbanist who describes suburbs as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.

The film touches on the Great Blackout of Aug. 14, 2003 — when 57 million people in eastern North America simultaneously lost power (see 365 days ago … for my recollections).

Energy banker Matthew Simmons noted the blackout occurred at 4:13 p.m. on a hot August day when industrial, commercial and consumer demand were all at their peak, leaving the grid under maximum pressure. For him, it was crazy the situation ever got to that point.

(Go to this Natural Resources Canada for a copy of a report on the blackout)

The film makes the point we can’t grow the economy without growing the electricity supply. But our options for doing so are limited.

Here in Ontario, the McGuinty government wants to phase out coal-fired plants by 2007, but nuclear power is expensive and has its own problems, sites suitable for hydro power are becoming fewer and natural gas reserves are also in decline.

It makes you think we’re starting to sink into energy-shortage quicksand.

After that cheery bit of news, we’re introduced to M. King Hubbert, once a top geologist in the United States, who predicted in 1956 that U.S. oil production would hit a peak in the early 1970s and then irreversibly decline.

Simmons said that by 1970, Hubbert’s reputation was in shambles. But in retrospect, what year did U.S. oil production peak? 1970! Hubbert predicted world production would peak around the year 2000. In March 2003, Saudi Arabia said it couldn’t pump more oil to stabilize prices that were rising as a result of the war in Iraq.

One person in the film said if Saudia Arabia has no headroom, then world production has likely peaked (or words to that effect).

If you look at the graphs on this page on the Hubbert Peak website, consumption by far outstrips supply for the U.S., China and India. Even OPEC member Indonesia is a net importer now.

Ask yourself if that could lead to global conflict — or if it already has.

Here’s some math: The U.S., with it’s 293 million people, account for 25 per cent of oil consumption. It consumes about 19.5 million barrels per day (source: CIA World Factbook).

China, with 1.3 billion people, consumes 4.6 million bbls/d.. India, with 1 billion, consumes 2.1 million bbls/d.

If those countries’ oil consumption ever hit about two-thirds the U.S. level, then China would consume 57.3 million bbl/d and India 44.4 million. However, I don’t have the expertise to say when or if that might happen. The two-thirds number was also pulled out of the air. But clearly, as the two countries become more prosperous and develop consumerist middle classes, oil consumption will likely rise (Those calculations were mine; they didn’t come from the film).

But if we’re at, past or close to the peak of global production, as the film claims, where’s that oil going to come from?

There would be two possibilities:

1. It starts to get really expensive

2. Wars are fought to control its supply

Michael C. Ruppert, publisher of the From the Wilderness newsletter, put it this way to an audience: “Do you think Dick Cheney was kidding when he said this war would last our lifetimes?”

Technology has gotten us out of jams before. Optimists might say it will happen again. There were no optimists in this film. Technologies like hydrogen fuel cells were dumped on as a myth.

Richard Heinburg — educator and author of The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies and Powerdown : Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World — thinks the U.S. will start feeling the impact of the post-peak reality in five years.

The vision the people quoted in the film propose is quite apocalyptic: trillions in value disappearing from the stock market, food production plummeting, the end of the “3,000-mile caesar salad,” and vast areas of suburbia left as slums.

If there’s any bright spot, it’s the rise of the New Urbanism — walkable, livable communities.

Now, the problem I have is there is absolutely no one in the film to argue the counter-point — not even maliciously edited to make them look especially dumb to the true believers like most docs of this type do.

There are lots of websites on the oil supply crunch phenomenon: (a shadowy group of “private citizens”), — website of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas and run by Dr. Colin Campbell.

Here is what was said about Dr. Campbell  — who appears in the film — in a Sept. 21 Wall Street Journal article:

 The oil industry calls Dr. Campbell a crackpot. Since he began writing about a looming peak, the industry notes, he has progressively postponed his predicted date, from 1995 to 2005. This roughness of the numbers, the industry says, points to a more fundamental problem with the peak-oil theory: It underestimates the power of technology to find more oil — indeed, to broaden the concept of oil itself.

That this debate can occur points to a striking fact: Nobody really knows how much oil exists. More to the point, nobody knows how much can be gotten out of the ground. Much of the oil lies in places with volatile politics, including the Middle East, Russia and Africa. Further complicating the calculation: Beyond the pool of conventional oil that the industry can easily extract today lie vast stores of hydrocarbons that, until recently, haven’t been thought of as oil. Among them: tar-soaked sands in Canada and oil-laden shale rock in places including the western U.S.

So far, over the approximately 150 years since the first oil well was drilled, the world has burned through about 900 billion barrels. Dr. Campbell thinks the world will be able to pump out about that much more. The industry, however, contends Dr. Campbell is being far too pessimistic. Exxon Mobil Corp., for instance, estimates there are something like 14 trillion barrels of fossil fuel still in the ground, including the tar-soaked sands and other nonconventional forms. It figures the industry can extract a good chunk of that.

If Dr. Campbell and his colleagues are right, then nations should rush to promote fuel efficiency to minimize economic upheaval. If they’re wrong, but the world follows their advice anyway, then huge sums of money could be wasted jumping to alternative energy sources that, while environmentally friendly, would be more expensive than oil.

In fairness, the article also said Campbell and his theories are  getting some attention now in the mainstream.

But in terms of resource economics, there is a difference between economic reserves and the resource. Generally speaking, as the price of the commodity goes up or a technological breakthrough allows for cheaper extraction, some of the resource can be turned into an economic reserve. However, I suspect that in oil’s case, it just puts off the day of reckoning.

One strange omission in the film, considering its energy-centredness, is any serious discussion of climate change. Our wastage of energy — and there’s a direct line between it and the oversized homes and car culture of the ‘burbs — drives up our greenhouse gas emissions.

Even if we weren’t running out of oil, we should be leading more conservation-minded lives to stave off that event.

The End of Suburbia plays a role by putting forward a thought-provoking thesis — one that I can’t personally say is right or wrong. Watch it, but with your media literacy filters turned on and functioning.

However, when:

  • Rummy is being given the green light to make covert, lethal mischief anywhere in the world, and
  • When Dubya doesn’t think he has anything to apologize for with respects to Iraq, and
  • When he calls for an ownership society and not a stewardship one, and
  • When Cheney is telling Iran it might want to capitulate, lest it be smoked by Israel, and
  • When  no oil company is building new refineries and
  • When the U.S. is putting forward deployment bases throughout an “arc of instability” that includes the oil-producing areas of Central Asia

I wonder.

But if young Americans are dying in oil-rich Muslim lands to keep SUV owners’ gasoline bills down, that would be quite the cruel, sick joke on them. Wouldn’t it?

Fri, January 21 2005 » * Big Picture Stuff, Film, Main Page

2 Responses

  1. Anonymous January 22 2005 @ 1:50 am

    Sprawl…where to begin? Most people who live in the 'burbs do so because they can buy a great big house and have a yard at an affordable price (compared to a similarly sized house and property in the city).
    But here's where that all falls apart. We need to factor in the following costs:
    1. The necessity of driving to work, to the store, to school. Most suburbs don't even have sidewalks so safe walking and biking is difficult.
    2. Often suburban families need two cars, which increases family budgets.
    3. Government subsidizes sprawl by paying for the facilities that allow developers to build there.
    4. Those two hours a day stuck in traffic jams on the 401 getting to work every day. You'll never get that time back.
    5. More air pollution, loss of agricultural land.
    All around, a pretty soul-destroying way to live, in my opinion. Haven't seen the movie you're talking about. I generally don't like stuff that is just doom and gloom and doesn't offer a more hopeful solution.
    Otherwise, why would anyone do anything about it? I'm one of those people who believe technology can get us out of this jam. We put a man on the moon, surely we can tackle the energy problem with the same kind of enthusiasm and innovation.

  2. Anonymous January 22 2005 @ 5:00 pm

    Hi Sarah:
    I agree with all of your points above (d'oh!), and if you don't like doom-and-gloom films, then you almost certainly wouldn't like The End of Suburbia.
    When I finally finished this opus post, I made the point (somewhere in there) that even if we weren't past peak global oil production, we still need to move away from the suburbia model for a host of reasons.
    FWIW, the people quoted in the film poured cold water on the notion of any replacement to oil emerging soon — and that we have five years to find one.
    I'm hardly an alternative energy expert, so I can't say one way or the other.
    But the other thing is that everyone quoted in the film was either a hardcore past-peak or New Urbanism advocate, and this film was created solely to push that agenda. Films like that make me wonder if I'm being hustled.
    My gut says technology should provide a way out, but are we putting enough effort into developing it?
    Hey: You work for an environmental group. You tell me!
    Bill D.