The peak oil culture wars

Do conservatives oppose conservation because they don't like taking the bus? Or because they're terrified that those dirty hippies were right all along?

By Andrew Leonard
May 12, 2008 8:17PM (UTC)
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Sky-high oil prices are not primarily the fault of evil hedge fund speculators, writes Paul Krugman in his Monday New York Times column. If they were, then at some point oil stockpiles would have to rise in order to support prices that are not justified by demand. But that's not happening.

Fair enough. But then Krugman goes on to say that normally, it is critics from the left, outraged at capitalist manipulation, who inveigh against speculation. But this time around, he says, it's the right that's yelping the most. Krugman explains that this is because conservatives don't like taking the bus.


... The odds are that we're looking at a future in which energy conservation becomes increasingly important, in which many people may even -- gasp -- take public transit to work.

I don't find that vision particularly abhorrent, but a lot of people, especially on the right, do. And so they want to believe that if only Goldman Sachs would stop having such a negative attitude, we'd quickly return to the good old days of abundant oil.

Some conservatives may indeed look down their noses at rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi on buses and subway trains. But the antipathy expressed by the right toward the peak oil camp (which is where Krugman is positioning himself, even if he doesn't utter the magic words), goes much, much deeper than a mere distaste for energy conservation.

Partisan conservatives pooh-pooh peak oil (and human-caused climate change) because they think that to concede that these challenges are real and must be confronted is to acknowledge that greed is not always good, and that free market capitalism must be restrained, or at least tinkered with substantially. Peak oil and climate change are fronts in the culture wars, and to some conservatives, watching the price of oil rise as the Arctic ice melts, it might feel like being in Germany at the close of World War II, with the Russians advancing on one front while U.S.-led forces come from the other. The propositions that cheap oil is running out and the world is getting hotter -- as a result of our own activities -- threaten a whole way of life. The very idea that dirty Gaia-worshipping hippies might be right is absolute anathema.

Given that many on the left also see peak oil and climate change as cultural battlefields, as weapons with which to assault enemies whose values they politically and aesthetically oppose (see James Kunstler), it's no wonder that some conservatives are fighting back like caged rats, or that they want to blame speculators for oil prices, or biased scientists for climate change.


Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. Sensible people could agree that well-regulated markets incorporating the appropriate prices for environmental pollution and energy consumption will provide powerful incentives to allow humanity to avoid devastating energy shocks and the complete despoliation of the planet. We don't have to consign ourselves to totalitarian dichotomies in which vegan organic gardeners stand on one side, threatening to employ the power of the state to deny everyone else their right to eat bloody porterhouse steaks; while across the trenches stand ranks of right-to-keep-and-bear-arms, give-me-my-SUV-and-suburban-gated-community-or-give-me-death Ayn-Rand disciples, draped in the furs of newly extinct mammal species, for whom a lifetime in hell would be infinitely preferable to a government-mandated solar power water heater.

But you know how it is -- first you agree to a cap-and-trade carbon-dioxide emissions limiting system, and before you can say "Kyoto Protocol" the New World Order Government is telling you which cartoons your kids are allowed to watch. Or, god forbid, that you have to take the bus.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Energy Environment Global Warming Globalization How The World Works Paul Krugman Peak Oil