Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Oil Kings Falling?

Supporters and detractors of Libya’s self-appointed king Moammar Gaddafi were shaking their heads at tonight’s speech, and at many of the same lines. Gaddafi said Libya was heading into a civil war, a war he predicted would be brutal and deadly, likely even to himself. At one point, he declared that people who violated the country’s constitution would be gunned down mercilessly. As Gaddafi himself has never made much of a pretense of following the constitution, this remark was widely interpreted as Gaddafi calling for his own summary execution. The speech only went downhill from there. He declared that the younger half of the nation’s citizens were all under the influence of foreign drugs. By the time Gaddafi, speaking on video, got around to declaring that Libya would continue to be the “pinnacle of the world,” it was over. Everyone could tell that the leader of Libya’s collapsing government was a madman. His strongest supporters were privately urging him to resign, while publicly declaring that they work for the people of Libya, not for Gaddafi. By now, for all we know, Gaddafi is already on his way across the Mediterranean to a retirement in some other country.

The popular uprising that has apparently brought down the government of Libya comes just weeks after similar events in Libya’s more prosperous Mediterranean neighbors, Tunisia and Egypt, and amid rumblings of similar events in countries as far-flung as Syria and Yemen, not to mention Wisconsin.

It is easy to see why these changes are happening. The corrupt governments that secretly divert a fraction of a nation’s wealth to private interests benefit hardly anyone. The question that is more difficult to answer is, why is it happening now? Surely part of the answer, and perhaps the whole answer, is that the money that has been propping up these corrupt regimes all these years isn’t there anymore somehow.

In other words, we’re not just seeing the decline of the Oil Kings, but of Oil itself. It’s no secret that the cost of extracting oil has been going up year after year as the easier oil fields are exhausted, or that the world’s largest oil companies aren’t sitting on the piles of cash they were enjoying just a few years ago. Perhaps the oil profits are no longer high enough to prop up national governments that are otherwise ineffective. Looking at oil’s place in the world more broadly, with oil production leveling off, it can hardly expect to maintain the prominent position it has held in the world for the last quarter century, running the White House for eight years, dominating the national politics of a tenth of the world, and figuring prominently in the most expensive war of that period.

If the oil industry is no longer rich enough to prop up the oil kings, it is fair to guess that a great many other things will also change. “America’s love affair with the automobile” was paid for with oil money, and that too seems to be falling by the wayside. The centralized control of the electric grid that served to squeeze out small-scale and intermittent sources of electric power may also be coming to an end. There will surely be other changes of equal or greater significant that aren’t so obvious yet.