Political Cartoonists are national treasures. The best ones are able to distill an entire think tank’s worth of commentary into a single frame or two, thus saving our country untold barrels of the dark stuff from the national emergency inkwell reserve. Thus when Michael Ramirez set his mischievous pen to the knotty problem of consumers taking out second mortgages to cover the costs of fueling those family-friendly panzers known as SUVs, he saved small army of economics PhDs at least a few weeks of laborious number-crunching. “We demand you energy companies do something about these higher energy prices!” Congress bellowed. Suggested proposals included drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), or offshore, or using clean coal or nuclear power, to which congressional responses were: “Forget it! Are you Crazy? Out of the Question. You’re Joking, right?” And finally, “Well, just don’t sit there, do something!”
But the energy companies can’t do anything, except serve as scapegoats for politicians such as Barack Obama, who courageously declared that he would “take on” the oil industry once he’s elected president (which is somewhat akin to Franklin Roosevelt resolving to “take on” the Italians while letting the Third Reich off the hook). Congressman John Boehner came closer to the mark when he declared that the United States has all the oil and all the gas that we need, but going after it is politically impossible: the “radical environmental community refuses to allow that to happen.”
This incredible situation needs to be clarified. First, it is important to dispense with irrelevant explanations such as the “exaggerated fears” of the “environmental community,” which implies that once such fears are addressed, remote land- and seascapes would eventually sprout oil derricks. The real reason for terminating energy development in America is far more serious and probably intractable. Understanding it requires exploring the insights of Romanian philosopher Mircea Eliade and American economist Mancur Olson. The contributions of each to grasping social behavior enable us to understand today’s perfect storm of political paralysis.
In The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade explains the importance of establishing a “sacred space” for religious observance. That is, believers set apart from the profane world an area that is inviolable, a haven, a special part of reality reserved to communicate with the divine principle that animates all human existence. Invading this sacred space constitutes the most egregious form of apostasy. Contemporary environmentalists have replaced the divine part with nature, which still is regarded as sacred at least in a secular sense, and this leaves the Dulles Airport sized hunk of ANWR, which would have to improve to merit the appellation “godforsaken,” off limits to oil companies. Constructing a derrick even in this miniscule and miserable hunk of real estate is to insert a “Machine in the Garden,” to use the title of Leo Marx’s notable work. Blasphemy!
None of this would matter if environmentalists did not constitute critical mass in political terms, the dangers of which are explained in Mancur Olson’s superb analyses contained in The Logic of Collective Action and The Rise and Fall of the Nations. Environmentalists constitute an interest group, or an organization for collective action, in Olson’s terms, and as such, members strive to achieve group goals through the political process. The problem occurs when groups acquire sufficient political clout to exercise a veto over actions that would benefit the entire community. Now, for the really scary part: Olson observes that “There is for practical purposes no constraint on the social cost such an organization will find it expedient to impose on the society in the course of obtaining a larger share of the social output for itself” (italics in original). Applied to America’s energy situation, this means that the “radical environmental community” that “refuses to allow (energy exploration) to happen” don’t care if whole the country goes to hell in a hand basket; only group goals matter. And that, Olson chronicles with many examples, explains the Rise and Fall of the Nations.
Americans must understand that we shall never achieve energy independence under such circumstances, and continued pilgrimages in full sycophantic mode to oriental sheikdoms will accomplish nothing. In both cases, it is a radical ideology we face, not just a condition.