Democracy, Dictatorship, and Peak Oil

Lt. Col. John Nagl

The U. S. mid-term elections of 2010 are now history. Democracy has once again ignored the problems of climate change and peak oil. Has democracy failed — and if so, is there an alternative?

Any semblance of debate over climate change in the scientific community ended over a decade ago; and the intellectual debate over peak oil, as James Schlesinger has pointed out for several years, is also over: the “peakists” have won. But the political system is simply ignoring these issues.  Even with the Democrats in control of both houses and the Presidency, we couldn’t get a vote on a tepid, ineffectual climate change bill; and peak oil isn’t even on the political radar screen.

Now why is this? One key reason is money in politics; the U. S. is mired in inequality, the rich and the corporations can pretty much set the political agenda and determine the results.

But a second and more serious problem with our democracy is that effective action on climate change and peak oil would clearly make the economy worse. The “economy versus the environment” issue is real. There is only so much oil; there is only so much air to dump our carbon dioxide and methane wastes into. We have hit the limits to growth, and that’s the underlying cause of the financial panic of 2008. Other resource crises are waiting in the wings: there is only so much soil, so much land, so many forests, so much water.

The economy is programmed to expand continuously; it is an “economy of more.” If the economy doesn’t expand, it stalls and then crashes. We could envision a different economic system, a steady-state economy operating at a sustainable level of activity, but no political leaders are talking about that. Since political leaders are ignoring all of this, the result will probably be another economic crash like 2008.

The exact timing and the sequence of events (more bailouts, hyperinflation, depression, war) is not clear, but the end result is clear. We will have an economy in ruins, as banks fail, unemployment soars, the global economy tanks, basic law and order starts to break down, and local governments are unable to function properly.

One possible outcome of riots and disorder in the streets is easy to see: military dictatorship. The President might call for military support in such a situation, or the military might take over directly from a sufficiently unpopular President. Either way, the military winds up calling the shots, and the entire civilian branch would play at best an advisory role.

The military might have more popular legitimacy in such a situation than the civilian government.  People might welcome decisive and intelligent leadership in preference to perpetual civilian gridlock and the resulting social chaos. Moreover, they might also actually do a better job. The military is the one segment of society which we have consistently been supporting; and the military is also the one segment of our official leadership which is most acutely aware of resource shortages.

A U. S. military report concluded earlier this year that oil output may dip, resulting in massive shortages by 2015. This could (their report says) eliminate the chance for economic growth and push fragile states over the edge into collapse, and exacerbate other unresolved tensions in the world. The German military recently published its own study which looks at the decline of oil supplies, suggesting that this could result in “the collapse of economies, mass unemployment, government defaults and infrastructure breakdowns, ultimately followed by famines and total system collapse.”

So unlike our civilian leaders, the military seems to have a basic clue about the underlying resource issues we face. The military might very well be able to do a better job than any democratically elected government at restoring order, getting food to people, and getting people back to work.

Should we work for, or openly wish for, such a result? While we still have at least the appearance of democracy, we might as well use it. I like democracy, and it would be nice if we had one.  But it is pointless to work with either the Democrats or the Republicans. We need a third party with a radical and honest program towards ending the gross economic inequality and in moving quickly and rapidly to a world-wide sustainable, steady-state economy. If we don’t move in such a direction, military dictatorship might very well be the best plausible alternative.

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