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In These Times: Why Cynics Are Wrong

Posted by Trey Smith on November 16, 2008

There’s a really good article by Slavoj Zizek posted at In The Times.  He offers some insights on a topic that many of us on the left have been discussing all month — the overall significance of the Barack Obama victory.

On the one hand, no one can deny its historical significance.  Had Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. been told that a black man would be elected to the Oval Office less than 50 years after their assassinations, I believe both men would have laughed until they cried.

On the other hand, notwithstanding this historical triumph, will the Obama administration be yet another example of politics as usual? Since leading conservatives and power brokers eventually gave the nod to the man from Illinois, it indicates that they believe he won’t upset their apple cart and may strengthen it.

Anyhow, here’s how Zizek addresses these points and more:

Days before the election, Noam Chomsky told progressives that they should vote for Obama, but without illusions. I fully share Chomsky’s doubts about the real consequences of Obama’s victory: From a pragmatic-realistic perspective, it is quite possible that Obama will just do some minor face-lifting improvements, turning out to be “Bush with a human face.” He will pursue the same basic politics in a more attractive mode and thus effectively even strengthen U.S. hegemony, which has been severely damaged by the catastrophe of the Bush years.

There is nonetheless something deeply wrong with this reaction — a key dimension is missing in it. It is because of this dimension that Obama’s victory is not just another shift in the eternal parliamentary struggles for majority with all their pragmatic calculations and manipulations. It is a sign of something more. This is why a good, American friend of mine, a hardened Leftist with no illusions, cried for hours when the news came of Obama’s victory. Whatever our doubts, fears and compromises, in that moment of enthusiasm, each of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity.

What kind of sign am I talking about? In his last published book The Contest of Faculties (1798), the great German Idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant addressed a simple but difficult question: Is there true progress in history? (He meant ethical progress in freedom, not just material development.) He conceded that actual history is confused and allows for no clear proof: Think how the 20th century brought unprecedented democracy and welfare, but also the Holocaust and gulag…


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Don’t Get Complacent About Oil Price Plunge

Posted by Trey Smith on October 19, 2008

From The Daily Green, “The Green Conservative” blog by Jim DePeso

How quickly things change.

In July, the price of light, sweet crude oil surged to $147 per barrel. The investment bank Goldman Sachs had projected two months earlier that the price could hit $200 per barrel in as little as six months.

Under the pressure of high prices, what didn’t happen in a Congress ruled by Tom DeLay, the bug-spraying scourge of all things environmental, happened on the watch of ultra-green Nancy Pelosi – the moratorium on offshore oil drilling fell away.

Now, the hubbub over high prices seems forgotten. In the eternity of the last several weeks of economic turmoil, energy largely disappeared as the lead campaign issue. The price of oil has fallen by more than half. Gasoline prices have dropped below $2.50 per gallon across the nation’s heartland. OPEC’s barons of price rigging are holding an emergency meeting this week.

Can we cross oil overdependence off our enlarged list of things to worry about? Not a chance. Just as beginning investors are counseled to avoid obsessing over the short-term ups and downs of the stock market, our thinking about energy should not be pulled this way or that in response to price fluctuations.

In the long run, overdependence on oil is still a high-risk proposition, and carefully drawn measures to diversify our energy menu should remain a high priority.

Here’s why:

A prolonged slump, with low demand and relatively slow prices, could set the table for high prices when the economy recovers. In the face of price volatility, oil producers uncertain whether projects will pay may cancel them, exacerbating supply-demand imbalances when demand surges again.

Moreover, big, easy oil fields are increasingly difficult to find and costly to produce. Asian demand for energy hasn’t gone away.

The geopolitical snares of oil dependence haven’t gone away either. The Middle East is still prone to violence and weighed down by misrule. The Niger River Delta is still a cauldron of unrest and sabotage. And Vladimir Putin is still a power-hungry jerk.

The brittleness of the oil market is a sign of an impending energy transition. We’ve gone through this before. In the 19th century, wood and whale oil gave way to coal and petroleum. In the mid-20th century, natural gas and nuclear largely muscled oil out of the power generation game.

What the nation’s energy economy will look like on the other side of economic turmoil and oil overdependence cannot be predicted precisely. It’s safe to say that the transition will take some time. Fossil fuels are deeply wired into the nation’s economy and there are no obvious magic arrows in the quiver.

The best way forward through economic uncertainty and energy transition is to use energy less wastefully. As energy economist and geophysicist Peter Tertzakian wrote in his 2006 book, A Thousand Barrels a Second: “Those of us who save money through conservation or efficiency, take advantage of new approaches, and weather the storm will be helping ourselves and our families. At the same time, we will be helping our country become more secure, economically stable, environmentally sound, and competitive — a healthier, more prosperous, more opportunity-rich place to be.”

In other words, if $2.50-per-gallon gas is luring you into a showroom with shiny new gas hogs on display, think again.

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