Monday, June 14, 2010

War on What?

I've heard the question put forth, "is the BP oil spill Obama's Katrina?" Any such comparison between different historical and political events is bound to bear limited fruit. One can always find interesting parallels, but the lessons will break down over important differences. Whatever role was played by humanity in the Hurricane Katrina disaster of 2005, the dice were rolled by Nature. The Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent gushing of oil and toxic dispersants are entirely man-made disasters. While Katrina had grave regional implications, the current disaster has global implications that cut to the heart of energy, ecology, and economics.

With that in mind, I am more inclined to ask, "is the oil spill Obama's 9/11?" Of course there are important differences. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, barring some conspiracy theory, were deliberate acts by self-proclaimed enemies of the West. The despoiling of the Gulf was a stupid accident by a network of "friendly" contractors and regulators. 9/11 involved thousands of human deaths. All but 11 of the Gulf deaths, as far as I know so far, have been non-human life forms.

But I am still struck by the potential parallels, especially as government reaction to the disaster continues to unfold. In both cases we can point to monumental arrogance and hubris as both proximate and ultimate causes. We can point to the ways in which US energy demand, and how that plays out in all facets of foreign and domestic policy, have made conditions ripe for both types of disaster.

But perhaps most important: both events represent opportunities for the president and the party in power to make sweeping policy changes that would have been much more difficult under the status quo. And these policies can have their own implications and consequences, not the least of which is the acceleration of the ongoing presidential power grab.

In the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush declared a War on Terror, and then laid out a policy of foreign intervention and domestic interference straight from the neoconservative playbook. The "War on X" rhetoric was nothing new. Since they've stopped declaring official war on foreign countries, US Presidents have been fond of declaring war on everything from Poverty to Obesity, Cancer to Drugs.

What was new about this "War on X" was how much it resembled a traditional war, with invasions and occupations and bloodshed. But since "Terror" is not a foreign country, doesn't surrender or sign treaties, and is likely to reappear wherever and whenever sufficient desparation meets a sufficient perception of injustice, this looks like a license for perpetual armed conflict. But I digress...

So I am left wondering how this latest government reaction will unfold. What will be Obama's declared enemy? Pollution? Greed? Corruption? Any of them are reasonable targets, but any of them will cut to the quick of the power structure, and our accustomed life styles, in a way no "War on X" has done before.

Will he follow in Bush's footsteps, pile hubris and arrogance on hubris and arrogance, ride a wave of popular outrage against the cries of opposition, meanwhile pumping up the bureaucratic heft of the public sector? I could see a "War on Pollution" following this track, with vast resources poured into expensive, untested, and ethically questionable geoengineering projects. Like, say, releasing vast numbers of genetically modified bacteria to eat oil. The prospects are pretty scary.

Or will he impose heavy-handed measures to curb both the demand for and the profitability of consumption? Replace all the cozy pro-business appointees with true progressives and order the overhaul of departmental focus. Admit to the public that the cheap oil joy ride is over and we need to get used to a lower standard of living. In other words make Carter look like Reagan!

Some measures like the proposed escrow account for claims against BP, will probably have a chilling effect on oil production. Not a bad thing in my book, but there will be a limit on how far this can be pushed politically until the reality of our energy situation is more widely accepted.

What is likely is the scapegoating of BP as an object lesson. Scapegoats are easier to sacrifice than sacred cows, after all. There will probably be some regulatory shaking-down that may help prevent future spills. It will give political momentum to measures from Obama's environmental playbook. This is not a grassroots playbook, but the New Democrat playbook, which favors large centralized projects and large corporate partners. More hubris and arrogance, anyone?

So I am very interested to hear what the President has to say. Maybe some good will come out of it, but not enough for the damage done.

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