Every day, the war in Iraq gets more deadly and less defensible. Regardless of what the U.S. government says, the war is about oil. President Bush surely went to war in the Middle East to protect the profits of the oil companies. But there is more to it than that. Much more.
Wars throughout history have been fought to gain control of resources. In times past, that resource was frequently land, but in recent history, it has been oil. For instance, in World War II, Germany, having no oil of its own, invaded Russia partly because Germany desperately needed oil to keep its war machine going. Its ill-fated push toward Stalingrad was aimed at capturing Russia’s southern oil fields. Japan, which also had none of the oil it needed to pursue its war, bombed Pearl Harbor primarily to destroy the aircraft carriers that were enforcing the oil embargo imposed by the United States.
I cringe at the absurd profits big oil companies are making, but in a capitalist system, they have the right to make a profit, and having friends in high places has always helped corporations keep those profits coming. But no company makes a profit if no one buys its product or service. Oil is profitable only when the public buys it.
And that’s the problem. We buy it. All of us do, because we have to. Our economy has become totally dependent on cheap oil. Most of us have no idea just how dependent we are. We know that we run our cars on gasoline, but rarely recognize how many of the products we use every day are made with petroleum. The computer I’m using to write this, the rug under my feet, the lamp by my desk, the dishes I will eat my lunch on—at some point they all needed oil to be produced. And the lunch I will eat was produced on a mega-farm that required huge amounts of fertilizer (made with natural gas), huge amounts of diesel for the machinery to plant and harvest it, and huge amounts of fuel to drive the trucks that brought it to me from the fields of Kansas—or the ships that brought it from South America.
Our current way of life is dependent on a constant supply of cheap oil. There is no way we can live without it, unless and until we develop alternative energy sources that are massive enough, cheap enough, and dependable enough to sustain us. Many creative people are developing these alternative energy sources, but at this time none of them can meet all of those requirements, and cannot do so for many years to come.
The United States’ oil production peaked in the 1970s, and the yield continues to dwindle every year. Thus we are dependent on foreign oil, and while we get it from countries around the world, we must have access to Middle East supplies. This is not a matter of politics or corporate profits—it is a matter of survival of our society. We, all of us, have created a world in which we cannot live without oil and must get it largely from countries where we need a military presence to ensure access.
Hence the desperate, tragic attempt by the Bush administration to control access to the Middle East. Actually, this administration is only extending the pattern of previous administrations, which also understood this need. (For more on the subject of cheap oil and what its increasing scarcity means to us, I suggest the book The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World, by Paul Roberts.)
In an ideal world, all countries would be sharing their oil cooperatively, peacefully, and at a fair price, for as long as it lasts. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world. We live in a world with leaders who are aware only of how to get what they want with force, with or without diplomacy. And when the whole world wants Middle East oil, diplomacy fails. Being ignorant of or failing to trust any other options, the Bush administration has no choice but to use our military might to ensure that we have a supply of cheap oil, as long as it can be pumped out of the ground.
Iraq is only one instance. As time goes by and our relationships with Middle Eastern countries deteriorate still further, there will surely be invasions of other countries. These wars will be necessary to sustain the civilization we know. Therefore, as long as we participate in our economy as it is currently structured, we support the necessity of war.
I believe that all of us, even we Quakers, are culpable in this. Every time I turn the key in my car ignition, every time I turn up the thermostat on my furnace, every time I buy food in the grocery store, I support the need for war. As much as I dislike it, I don’t see any alternative.
This raises some hard questions. How can we as Quakers protest the Iraq war while we continue to drive our cars to meeting? How can we demand the end of a war that is necessary to obtain the resource we need to live? Is there some way we can learn to live in today’s society without dependence on oil? Does our Testimony of Simplicity speak to that question?
As I understand it, simplicity does not mean living without modern appliances, and I doubt that this is the time to return to the horse and buggy. But there has to be a way to live that does not require fighting brutal wars to secure the energy necessary to maintain that way of life. To prevent future wars, we must be creative. We must learn to live without oil dependency.
I see a direct connection between consumerism and our dependency on oil, not to mention many other problems, such as burying ourselves in garbage. We have not always been such a consumerist society. Consumerism developed as a conscious effort on the part of business and government, starting around the early 1900s. The nation’s ability to produce had outstripped the public’s desire to consume. Mass marketing and the promotion of buying on credit changed the public’s attitude toward frugality and saving. But the more we consume, the more energy we use and the more waste we produce.
The Quakers of the 1800s took seriously their responsibility to raise awareness to bring about the abolition of slavery. I believe that we as Quakers have an equally compelling responsibility to create an awareness in our world of just what kind of a society we have created, and to help create another way of life.
So where does that leave us Friends? How can we find a way forward in this dilemma? First, I think we need to recognize our own roles in the problem. We are not exempt from responsibility. We are part of the consumerist society, like it or not. Some of us deliberately consume less than others, to reduce our personal footprint on the world, but we have not escaped oil dependency altogether. I believe we have a responsibility to take a stand, to make an impression on society at large to change its ways. This will require a concerted group effort, in addition to individual efforts.
One avenue of approach is through the Quaker Institute for the Future (QIF), a think tank that came out of the June 2003 Pendle Hill Gathering on Economics and Friends Testimonies. According to its website, http://www.quakerinstitute.org, this research group seeks to "enhance Friends’ understanding on issues of critical importance for the future of Earth’s life communities" and to strengthen support for Quaker organizations that are working on public policy and human betterment. In addition, QIF "aims to engage in the larger dialogue on public policy for the common good." Readers are invited to go to the Institute’s website to find possibilities for meetings to participate in discerning what we might do collectively to make our society more sustainable, to witness to our Testimony on Simplicity, and to care for Earth.
I propose that individual meetings set up study groups to explore how they can be visible and effective in their own communities in efforts to change our culture. Raising consciousness is a slow process, but it can be done.
We must not underestimate the opposition such an attempt will provoke. Our economy has come to depend on constant expansion, which means more production and more consumption, forever. Recall that immediately after the events of September 11, 2001, President Bush urged us to "buy, buy, buy" to keep the economy going. That is the mentality that will rise against us from the powers that be. It could get ugly.
Like those dedicated Friends who opposed slavery when it was a socially and politically accepted part of their culture, none of us can do this alone. But collectively we can become leaders in transforming the consciousness of our communities and of our world. I believe we must.
A slightly different version of this article appeared in The Carillon, a magazine for Quakers in Arkansas.