What is “Grown at Home”?

About two hours ago, while on the subway, I saw an ad for an oil heater called Intelligent Warmth that praised its product in several different ways. One of them, “more and more of our energy is grown at home” (rough quote), was conspicuous if only for its nationalist assumption of what “home” means.

The energy in question is not grown in New York. It’s probably biofuel grown in the American corn belt, heavily subsidized by the government because its energy return on energy investment ratio is lower than 1. For some reason, New Yorkers are supposed to believe that sending their tax money to Iowans who are already grossly overrepresented in politics is great, but sending a fraction of that money to impoverished Brazilians is evil.

The most frustrating argument for reducing dependence on Saudi oil is “energy independence is a national security issue.” Together with “food self-sufficiency is a national security issue,” it’s about the most irrationally nationalistic argument in politics that you don’t need to be a religious nut to believe.

The havoc that globalization has wreaked on some countries can obscure the fact that overall, autarky is a lot more conducive to war than free trade. Democracies generally don’t fight one another. Countries that freely trade with one another, regardless of their political system, fight one another even less. Warmongering leaders seek autarky for a reason.

I know that being self-sufficient is good for the USA as a country. But what’s good for the national dick size isn’t necessarily good for the people or for the world. Subsidies to inefficient industries are bad for everyone but the select few privileged people who get them. The consequences to the world at large are even more disastrous; the threat of an oil embargo is one of the reasons the US can’t quite bomb every non-nuclear third-world country.

Besides, the idea that faraway Americans are more important than faraway non-Americans makes about as much sense as the average scene in Alice in Wonderland. Americans bitch about foreign aid, which amounts to 0.11% of the USA’s GDP. The bitching tends to be strongest in states that routinely receive much more than that from the federal government, courtesy of the high-income state taxpayer. But nationalism dictates that New Jersey has a moral obligation to subsidize Montana while the country as a whole is considered charitable when it sends the third world peanuts.

10 Responses to What is “Grown at Home”?

  1. The most frustrating argument for reducing dependence on Saudi oil is “energy independence is a national security issue.” Together with “food self-sufficiency is a national security issue,” it’s about the most irrationally nationalistic argument in politics that you don’t need to be a religious nut to believe.

    Reducing our dependence on Middle Eastern oil is a national security issue. We wouldn’t be in Iraq today if it weren’t for our dependence on Middle Eastern petroleum. We’re not there to steal Iraq’s oil, per se, we’re there on a misguided quest to ensure “security in the region”–meaning stable, pliable governments that will sell the US oil on favorable terms for years to come and not collude with India or China at our expense.

    If the US could magically become dependent on Canada and France for our energy, that would be almost as beneficial for the US as being fully self-sufficient. However, that’s not likely to happen as long as we depend so heavily on fossil fuels. Most of the world’s oil is under dictators or failed states.

    None of this is an argument for bio-diesel farm subsidies, of course. The need for energy self-suffiiciency (or interdependence with liberal democracies) is an argument for massive federal funding of research and development. We need to focus on energy efficiency and alternative energy sources, and soon.

  2. (WordPress ate my last comment, so I’ll try again.)

    The most frustrating argument for reducing dependence on Saudi oil is “energy independence is a national security issue.” Together with “food self-sufficiency is a national security issue,” it’s about the most irrationally nationalistic argument in politics that you don’t need to be a religious nut to believe.

    This actually is a very good argument for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. Sure, it would be almost as advantageous for the US to get most of its energy from Canada and France, but that’s not going to happen as long as we’re dependent on petroleum. The fact is that much of the world’s easily accessible oil is underneath dictatorships and failed states.

    None of this is an argument for government-subsidized bio-diesel, of course. It’s an argument for massive public investment in research and development into alternative energy sources and energy conservation.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    First, my spam filter is overzealous lately. One of my own comments got eaten even though I was logged in as the blog’s admin. I’m going to check again that there’s no whitelist, and then complain to WordPress about it after I confirm that.

    Second, actually, most of the world’s oil is not in dictatorships and failed states. Canada’s oil reserves are now second in the world, but as technology to extract energy from tar sands improves, it’s eventually going to leapfrog the rest of the world. Colorado sits on huge oil shale reserves, though the environmental impact of extracting them is even worse than this of tar sand extraction.

    Third, energy conservation and alternative energy are always good things, just not for nationalistic reasons. Developing renewable energy is good not because it makes the US more able to wage war on random third-world countries without suffering a supply shock, but because it’ll help stem the tide of the consequences of climate change, pun intended.

    Fourth, I’m not sure about Iraq and oil independence. For the neocons, it’s more about global domination than about resources. If the US had no interest in attacking Middle Eastern countries, it’d invade Latin American ones instead. It’s been doing that for 150 years almost continuously.

  4. No worries about the spam filter. It happens to all blogs, especially if someone from the same IP address tries to post two comments in a row. Thanks for taking up the problem with WP.

    As far as oil resources go, what I said earlier is that the world’s most easily extractable oil reserves are under dictatorships and failed states. (Some are deep underwater in the Gulf of Mexico, or up in ANWR, etc.)

    Maybe our extraction technologies will improve dramatically, which would be great. Scott Lemieux’s sister is one of the people working very hard to make the Alberta tar sands blossom like Saudi oil fields.

    The US wouldn’t be so keen to wage war on random third world countries if it felt that its energy resources were secure. The reason the US is gunning for regimes in the Middle East is not a love of democracy, it’s an insecurity about whether they will remain the high bidder for scarce petroleum supplies when China and India are competing on the world market.

    Like I said, if energy technology were to leapfrog forward to the point that Canada could compete with Saudi Arabia in supplying the US with oil, most of the arguments for “energy self-sufficency” would be quieted.

    It is a national security issue to ensure that your most basic commodities can either be produced at home, or imported from a close ally. So, it’s a bit of a straw man to criticize people who advocate energy “self-sufficiency” as being nationalist crackpots.

    Making sure that there’s a stable supply of energy is an important national security issue. One of the reasons the US starts wars that hurt national security in the long run is in order to secure petroleum resources. So, if we could replace those resources from stable democracies, some of the impetus for imperialism would be quieted.

  5. gordo says:

    Lindsay–

    Quite frankly, I don’t think that argument holds up. If the PNAC crowd had been interested in ensuring energy self-sufficiency, they would have been pushing for greater research into conservation and alternative energy, not a war in Iraq. Like Alon, I think that the talk about energy independence is mostly a rationalization for the Bush crowd.

    If you look at the energy policies of countries like Sweden and Germany, you can see that they’re mostly interested in cheap energy. So it doesn’t make sense for them to spend billions on propping up “friendly” regimes in the Middle East, because unfriendly regimes are just as keen to sell their oil.

    Countries with powerful oil interests (like the US), though, tend to base their policies on ensuring that a few select companies are given a maximal share of global oil profits. If a country like Iraq or Iran nationalizes their oil, we boycott the oil and try to get the rest of the world to sanction these countries, sometimes on the most threadbare of justifications. Alternatively, we try to topple nationalist regimes with coups and invasions. This has the effect of driving the price of oil up and making the supply of oil less secure, but cheap oil and a secure oil supply are secondary concerns. Profits for Exxon and Chevron are primary.

    And I think Alon’s right when he says that if we were energy independent, we’d just be invading countries in Latin America, Africa, and East Asia. And ultimately, the goal would be the same: ensuring a friendly business climate for a few favored corporations.

  6. Bushbaptist says:

    Fascinating debate! Both you Alon and Linsay are right and wrong. I stated publically back in 2000 that Bush would attack Iraq before his first term is over.
    I was ridiculed over that by people who should have known better.
    Since I came home after three tours of duty in ‘Nam, I have watched the to-ing and fro-ing by various US Pressies. The US Millitary had drawn up a plan to attack Iraq in 1996 but Clinton would not wear it. It was shelved until the GOP got full power.
    There are two reasons why the US went into Iraq: 1/ to get control of the middle eastern oilfields. 2/ to prop up the value of the UD $. For 100 years oil has been traded in US$ and the value of the currency is pegged to the value of oil. The US got control of the southern Caucasus region by co-ertion and by bribery. They bought out Pakistan, attacked Afganistan, hold the purse strings of Uzbekistan and Tajikstan and now have heavily protected bases in Turkey and in Iraq. Once they have Iran they will have control of middle eastern oilfields – simple. After this election Bush will try every trick in the book to wind up an attack in Iran.
    As far as energy is concerned, solar is perhaps the best way to go. Hydrogen is an option but to date it is difficult to store in quantity. Think for just a moment; if there was a solar electric panel on every roof in New York city there would be damned near enought electricity to power most of the city housholds. The peoblem is convincing people to invest in such a project.

  7. SLC says:

    All alternatives should be explored. This includes nuclear power (an anathama to the liberals), hydrogen, natural gas extracted from coal, solar power, controlled fusion, biofuels, conservation,etc. The big problem with the current dependence on extractable oil from the Middle East and elsewhere is that it gives inordinate influence to whackjobs such as Chavez and Amadinejad. In the long run, it will probably be cheaper then the cost of military actions in Iran and Venezuela. Relative to the the use of coal, it should be pointed out that both the US and China have large coal deposits which, if they could be utilized in an environmentally sound way would help prevent tension between them over Middle East oil.

  8. RE bushbaptist:

    Petro dollars and ensuring the global currency remains the greenback. I unfortunately agree.

  9. Alon Levy says:

    The US wouldn’t be so keen to wage war on random third world countries if it felt that its energy resources were secure. The reason the US is gunning for regimes in the Middle East is not a love of democracy, it’s an insecurity about whether they will remain the high bidder for scarce petroleum supplies when China and India are competing on the world market.

    It is actually love of democracy, in a way. To most neocons, “democracy” and “pro-Americanism” are synonymous, so that the Shah and Pinochet are considered more democratic than Mossadegh and Allende.

    If American foreign policy were primarily about natural resources, you’d see the US attack countries primarily based on whether they’d supply the US with needed resources. But then the US would attack the Middle East far more and Latin America a lot less. For example, a strictly oil-based foreign policy would dictate that the US invade Saudi Arabia, a defenseless government that sits on the world’s largest easily-extractable oil field.

    Instead, the pattern of which countries the US attacks conforms to a typical power-based policy. The US has always considered Latin America to be its own sphere of influence; hence it has freely attacked its countries’ territory so often. Saddam Hussein was an anti-American leader who annoyed the neo-cons; hence, when Bush targeted him for personal reasons, they went along. Southeast Asia and Central Asia encircle China; hence, the US is seeking alliances in these regions to isolate the rising power.

    All this suggests that energy independence won’t make the US less likely to attack other countries. Remember that when the US overthrew Mossadegh for oil profits, the US didn’t even need Iranian oil (it had been a net oil importer for all of 5 years).

  10. gordo says:

    To most neocons, “democracy” and “pro-Americanism” are synonymous, so that the Shah and Pinochet are considered more democratic than Mossadegh and Allende.

    …and right on cue, Novakula writes a column bemoaning the fact that the upcoming Nicaraguan election might produce an orderly transition of power. Funny, he didn’t seem at all upset when the US tried to engineer a coup in Venezuela, or when the US was paying the remnants of Somoza’s army to attack the democratically elected Sandinista government back in the 1980s.
    But I think that you’re looking at things from the wrong perspective when you say that the US would attack Saudi Arabia if it wasn’t interested in the neocon version of Democracy. If you understand our Middle Eastern policy to be mostly a product of oil executives’ desires, then you see why it makes sense to NOT attack Saudi Arabia.
    Saudi Arabia allows a few influential US oil companies to take a large profit from their oil fields. So we support that government. Iran does not, so the policy is regime change. Failing that, our government attempts to keep Iranian oil out of as many markets as possible, which allows for more profits for Exxon and Chevron by eliminating a competitor in those markets.
    You see the same pattern in Latin America. A few influential groups determine the policy. When United Fruit was powerful in Washington, the CIA would engineer coups on their behalf. When a quirk in our electoral system made a small bunch of neo-fascist Cubans into a powerful interest group, the sanctions on Cuba was tightened.
    It all has very little to do with either democracy (real or neocon-style) or national intererest. It has everything to do with pleasing an influential domestic constituency.

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