A Shattered Sphere of Reality – Part 2
Part 2 of the article – Adapted from Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book “Creativity, Catastrophe and the Renewal of Civilization” , this article brilliantly dissects the reason for Rome’s fall – decline in its sources of energy, and how it has its parallels in the rising fuel prices, and violence, along with political disorder
As American leaders grasp how the shift from a high-EROI to a low- EROI world jeopardizes their country’s dominance, they’ll do exactly what Rome’s leaders did: they’ll use every means—including, when necessary, force—to organize and control the world’s territory to permit the extraction of energy. In the process, they’ll run headlong into other energy-hungry societies trying to do the same thing—in particular, India and China, two rising giants without remotely enough energy at home to satisfy their ravenous appetites. The likely result: widespread conflict over energy resources, especially since many of the world’s large remaining reserves of oil are in geopolitically unstable regions, like the Middle East and Central Asia. Some analysts dispute oil’s importance as a factor in the 1991 and 2003 wars against Iraq, but no one can dispute the fact that the Middle East is a major focus of American foreign and military policy because it has a lot of oil. America’s need for overseas energy forces it to ingratiate itself with corrupt, authoritarian, and often unstable regimes in regions rife with ancient conflicts. The people of these countries frequently despise their governments and, because the U.S. supports the governments, they despise the U.S. too.
In September 2001, we all learned how dangerous such hatred can be. So in the next decades, while the U.S. desperately tries to extract energy resources around the planet and likely gets into fights with other countries as a result, it will also have to fight another battle spawned partly by its thirst for energy—an endless battle along an infinite frontier against a largely unseen and protean enemy. Modern networks of terrorists and insurgents often aren’t scale-free. They don’t have static, highly connected hubs—like a cluster of leaders at the top of an organizational hierarchy—that can be identified, targeted, and destroyed with potentially devastating effect on the overall network.113 Instead, their connections are loose, limited in number, and constantly changing, depending on immediate tactical needs. The people in such networks are bound together mainly by radical ideologies that give them only the most general framing and injunctions for action. So Al Qaeda, in the wake of heavy pressure from the United States and its allies, has mutated from a coherent global organization into a motivating symbol or potent idea—that of Al Qaedaism and its resistance to Western oppression of Muslims. This means that the U.S. “war on terrorism” can’t be war in any conventional sense. It’s more like a worldwide guerrilla conflict, in which the enemy shifts its tactics as necessary, chooses where to strike at will, and then disappears into a vast crowd of passive supporters, all deeply resentful of the U.S., its allies, and their policies and power.
In the spring of 2003, at the beginning of my journey for this book, I sat in the Roman Forum and reflected on America’s military triumph in Iraq. At the time, the U.S. vice president, secretary of defense, and their advisers were supremely confident that America could achieve its military and political interests in both the country and region. This confidence seemed justified: after all, the American victory over conventional Iraqi forces had been swift and utterly decisive. But the guerrilla war that followed has proved bloody and intractable, and America has gradually learned a rude lesson in the limits of modern military power.
The lesson has far broader implications. It’s one bit of anomalous data that, together with many others, contradicts the explanation offered by conservative elites, especially in the United States, of how things are supposed to work in our world. The assumptions that energy will be endlessly abundant, that economic growth can continue forever, and that American military dominance is unchallengeable are essential parts of today’s armillary sphere—that smoothly functioning machine
of cycles within cycles, of intermeshed bands, that gives us an explanation of our world’s order. Yet despite the miracles of the market, energy constraints are worsening. Global warming fundamentally challenges capitalism’s growth imperative. And too many people in the world’s distant corners aren’t awed by America’s military power any more. The armillary sphere’s bands are starting to break. At some point the sphere will shatter, as will its reassuring predictability and order. When this happens, we need to b ready.
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