Pepe Escobar, that ever-energetic, globetrotting correspondent for Asia Times, has long been on the Pipelinestan beat for TomDispatch, covering the skeletal geography of energy that girds the planet. Today, however, he leaves pipelines behind to consider the planet they service -- or is it we who service them? His topic: if the West is going down, and Atlantic bust is giving way to Pacific boom, what's to be made of the fate of a planet in the embrace of a single grim model of economic "development"?
Last Tuesday, my hometown paper had, I thought, a relevant article, a seemingly triumphalist reportorial shout of joy that the Americas, from Patagonia to the Arctic seas, might be the next Saudi Arabia. "New Fields May Propel Americas to Top of Oil Companies' Lists," the headline went. ("For the first time in decades, the emerging prize of global energy may be the Americas, where Western oil companies are refocusing their gaze in a rush to explore clusters of coveted oil fields.")
Huzzah! We should all feel great, it turns out, because that tilting imperial slope on which the U.S. seems to be sliding downhill has long been linked to Middle Eastern oil dependency. Now, so says the New York Times, that might be reversed.
Only one minor problem: just about every bit of that energy -- tar sands in Canada, oil shale in the American West, pre-salt oil deposits in the Atlantic Ocean (way) off Brazil's coast, oil in the Arctic seas (where Shell has just gotten its latest permit from the Obama administration), and oil fields in Colombia in a region embroiled in an ongoing civil war -- involves what Michael Klare has long called "tough oil" or "extreme energy." Those fossil fuels -- dirtier, harder to extract, or existing under the worst possible political, environmental, or weather conditions -- guarantee nightmares to come.
But take that zeitgeist Times piece as a triumphalist signal that someone up there really doesn't care. As with the proposed 1,700-mile XL Keystone tar-sands pipeline through the U.S., Washington -- and the Americas -- are planning to go for broke when it comes to greenlighting the exploitation of any potential fossil-fuel deposit, no matter how deep, distant, or dirty. As it happens, National Geographic recently ran a report, "World Without Ice," on a period 56 million years ago when, relatively suddenly, huge amounts of carbon flooded the oceans and atmosphere -- about the equivalent amount, scientists suggest, to "the total carbon now estimated to be locked up in fossil fuel deposits" on this planet. The Earth heated up drastically, turning life upside down. Not to worry though, that little spasm of global warming that scientists call the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum lasted a mere 150,000 years before Earth reestablished its equilibrium.
When you read Escobar, keep in mind just what this means: we need a new model for living on this planet fast, one that doesn't involve the short-term thrill of exploiting every last bit of fossil fuel anywhere, no matter what. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Escobar reflects on the fate of the global economy click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom
The West and the Rest in a One-Model-Fits-All World
The Decline and Fall of Just About Everyone
By Pepe Escobar
More than 10 years ago, before 9/11, Goldman Sachs was predicting that the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) would make the world economy's top ten -- but not until 2040. Skip a decade and the Chinese economy already has the number two spot all to itself, Brazil is number seven, India 10, and even Russia is creeping closer. In purchasing power parity, or PPP, things look even better. There, China is in second place, India is now fourth, Russia sixth, and Brazil seventh.
No wonder Jim O'Neill, who coined the neologism BRIC and is now chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, has been stressing that "the world is no longer dependent on the leadership of the U.S. and Europe." After all, since 2007, China's economy has grown by 45%, the American economy by less than 1% -- figures startling enough to make anyone take back their predictions. American anxiety and puzzlement reached new heights when the latest International Monetary Fund projections indicated that, at least by certain measurements, the Chinese economy would overtake the U.S. by 2016. (Until recently, Goldman Sachs was pointing towards 2050 for that first-place exchange.)
Within the next 30 years, the top five will, according to Goldman Sachs, likely be China, the U.S., India, Brazil, and Mexico. Western Europe? Bye-bye!
A System Stripped to Its Essence
Increasing numbers of experts agree that Asia is now leading the way for the world, even as it lays bare glaring gaps in the West's narrative of civilization. Yet to talk about "the decline of the West" is a dangerous proposition. A key historical reference is Oswald Spengler's 1918 essay with that title. Spengler, a man of his times, thought that humanity functioned through unique cultural systems, and that Western ideas would not be pertinent for, or transferable to, other regions of the planet. (Tell that howler to the young Egyptians in Tahrir Square.)
Spengler, of course, captured the Western-dominated zeitgeist of another century. He saw cultures as living and dying organisms, each with a unique soul. The East or Orient was "magical," while the West was "Faustian." A reactionary misanthrope, he was convinced that the West had already reached the supreme status available to a democratic civilization -- and so was destined to experience the "decline" of his title.
If you're thinking that this sounds like an avant-la-lettre Huntingtonesque "clash of civilizations," you can be excused, because that's exactly what it was.
Speaking of civilizational clashes, did anyone notice that "maybe" in a recent TIME cover story picking up on Spenglerian themes and headlined "The Decline and Fall of Europe (and Maybe the West)"? In our post-Spenglerian moment, the "West" is surely the United States, and how could that magazine get it so wrong? Maybe? After all, a Europe now in deep financial crisis will be "in decline" as long as it remains inextricably intertwined with and continues to defer to "the West" -- that is, Washington -- even as it witnesses the simultaneous economic ascent of what's sometimes derisively referred to as "the South."
Think of the present global capitalist moment not as a "clash," but a "cash of civilizations."
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