“We don’t need Mideast oil.” — Donald Trump, after his Jan. 8 assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Quassim Suleimani
When I first started driving as a teenager, a gallon of gas cost 29 cents — $2.73 in today’s money.
That was in 1953, the year the United States and Britain saw fit to overthrow a democratically elected Iranian prime minister who, weary of Britain’s profiteering from Iranian oil fields, nationalized them. (This was the CIA’s first regime-change rodeo.)
The Shah of Iran was installed and Western access to Iran’s oil restored. This indecorous arrangement helped keep my gas tank cheaply filled for 20 years.
Such awkward Mideast oil hookups became necessary in 1949, when the United States ran short of domestically produced oil. That year we imported more petroleum products than we exported. And that’s remained so for 70 years.
It’s long been glaringly obvious that smarter solutions are needed. But taxpayer funds better spent developing other energy resources were invested in digging us in deeper, subsidizing the oil industry and fighting oil-induced wars.
The fossil-fueled Industrial Revolution was two centuries old when I began to drive. Yet some scientists calculating the history of our species’ carbon uploading say it was not until a watershed moment in 1938, the year before I was born, that burning fossil fuels accelerated fast enough to do the damage we see unfolding today.
If so, it means I am a charter member of the first cohort of human beings to have lived our entire lives wrecking the Earth’s climate. No sentence I have ever written grieves me more profoundly.
We’ve done inconceivable damage to the planet in a very short time, one human lifespan: mine.
Since I started driving, the world’s oceans have absorbed 93 percent of the heat from our excessive greenhouse gas production. Last year’s ocean temperatures, which influence terrestrial weather, were the hottest ever recorded. The last time oceans were acidifying this fast was 66 million years ago.
Whatever were we thinking? Not much. After all, we’re the cohort that didn’t stop killing whales until 1972 because we needed their sperm oil to lubricate our automobile transmissions. Whales! That’s a strategic source of oil.
The first Mideast oil price panic didn’t arrive until I’d been driving 20 years. In 1973 the Arab oil producers, OPEC, launched an oil embargo that forced me to pay 55 cents a gallon.
Oil had become a weapon of economic and ideological war. It could induce countries friendly to Israel, say, to become less so. The embargo opened our eyes to how firmly the United States had hogtied itself to an unreliable energy supply. But we remained steadfastly blind to the fact that unreliable suppliers are not the biggest danger of running an economy on petroleum.
We stayed the course. The oil itself was relatively cheap — but only if you subtract the horrific toll in human lives and military spending required to preserve our access to it. While the Brits and Norwegians were pumping oil out of the North Sea at a cost of $7 a barrel, the Arabs could pump theirs out of sand for 7 cents a barrel.
In 1979, retribution for 1953 came calling. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew our authoritarian friend, Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Khomeini again nationalized Iran’s oil fields. He instituted fundamentalist religious rule that turned Iran into today’s repressive, rabidly anti-American Islamic Republic. Its rulers pine for a nuclear arsenal and traffic in terrorism — Suleimani chief among them, says Trump.
In 1988, NASA space scientist James Hansen confirmed to Congress that man-made global warming had begun.
Did we seize this tardy moment to play aggressive defense? To accept what science was telling us? We did not. We opted instead to embrace a perverse “lost opportunity cost” strategy. It guaranteed that coping with the wreckage of climate change will cost us far more than if we’d acted sooner. Why?
Largely because of the shortsighted “carbon-combustion-complex,” the wide web of climate change deniers economically invested in oil production, launched a reprehensible but successful disinformation campaign. Usually keen to avoid government regulation and taxation, they ensured that even higher taxes and more stringent regulation will be required of them.
Our preposterous failure to confront climate change is insightfully summarized in a spot-on, snappy 79-page account, “The Collapse of Western Civilization,” by Harvard history of science professor Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway of the California Institute of Technology. Their book features a narrator who speaks to us from … um … well, China, actually, in the year 2393.
Gasoline never cost 29 cents a gallon in the 1950s any more than it costs only $3 or $4 today. We cannot begin to tally the true cost we’ve paid for petroleum, nor what we have yet to pay for the destruction that flows in its wake. The price of petroleum has become incalculable.
Meanwhile, a news flash: We still import Mideast oil. But the United States now produces more petroleum products than any nation on Earth. So, for the first time since 1949, last fall we exported more petroleum products than we imported. Our massive increase in domestic petroleum output comes — true to myopic form — from ecologically ruinous hydraulic fracturing.
So, no, we’re not really weaning ourselves off petroleum. But isn’t it nice to imagine that fewer people may have to die in order for us to keep burning it?
Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.