Higher prices and scarcity don’t happen by chance, they are the direct result of decisions made by those who control the commoditites. Greed not only costs us at the pump and in our heating bill, it is costing us our planet. Our resources are limited. Our population is exploding. Our population of 6 billion is projected to reach 11 billion in fifty years. If we keep making excuses for the greedy, they will continue to squeeze us and our planet for every penny they can get all the way up until that very last, brutal drop.
This spin-off of the old Maxwell House motto came to me after watching a story on CNN about the price of “light sweet crude”. In case you don’t know (and why should you?) “light sweet crude” refers to petroleum, not pancake syrup. When I think of sweet, I don’t think of pollution or price gouging, do you? Is the title of “sweet” supposed to make us forget the bitter realities of oil?
The nightly news generally discusses this situation passively: “production is down” or “prices are up”. This wording makes it sound as if production and prices are independent, animate beings with free will and, dammit, those pesky little buggers aren’t cooperating with us consumers. Passive discussion dutifully avoids exposing the greedy individuals behind production and prices.
If “production is down” does this happen without human choice, decision or involvement? Of course not. Production is down because a few people decided to slow or stop the rate at which they have oil extracted from our Earth. These same people have the option to maintain or even increase the flow of oil. Better than this, they could aggressively develop safer, cleaner and cheaper energy alternatives – but they don’t. Why? Obviously their motive is profit. Reduce supply, jack up the price. It’s an old and ugly human habit that has become a dangerous dogma. Spin it as they may, a few super-wealthy people are squeezing us all for just a little bit more.
OPEC, the most visible grabber in our current “oil shortage”, voted to cut production in March of 1999. This was a deliberate decision by a wealthy few, it didn’t just “happen”. Are we to feel sorrow for OPEC because oil revenues have dropped from their 1980 peak of $439 billion? In 1998 OPEC only gathered a paltry $80 billion, but things are looking up – this years projection is $162 billion, they should be able to afford new shoes. Sure, that’s a drop from the high of $439 billion, but we’re talking about billions here. One billion dollars is more money than anyone could need or spare time to count. If you counted it at a dollar at a time, around the clock it would take you thirty-two years.
I am not without my own guilt. I have to take responsibility for my part in American greed – I drive a car, I like my modestly comfortable life, I enjoy heat and air-conditioning. I like having access to resources but not at the cost of a bountiful future. We live in a nation of blessed abundance but we have set a horrendous example on the world-stage by using more resources per person than anybody else, industriously polluting the planet in the process. Now that China and other nations want to follow in our path we want to make rules so that they cannot be as selfish and wasteful as we have been. Hypocrisy is a difficult moral stance. We’re supposed to celebrate the “new markets” that will open in trade with China but has anyone considered the potential impact of a billion new American-style consumers on our planet?
My sister says it’s a good thing to have higher oil prices because it will discourage us from using it as much as we do. She’s got a point, but shouldn’t greed be limited at the top as well? Perhaps it will be the pinch in the pocketbook that motivates us to change our habits and search for alternatives.
Contrary to capitalist dogma, greed also inhibits progress. Our dependence on oil is partly due to the lack of workable energy alternatives. Alternatives have been around since the 1960’s, so why aren’t they in widespread use? If we can launch space shuttles to build space stations, why don’t we have alternatives to oil? Unwilling to abandon the last penny to be made, oil company owners and executives have chosen to buy out, ignore, lobby and otherwise stifle alternative technologies that we could be using right now. According to the Congressional Research Service, between 1973 and 1997, of every research dollar spent on energy, 77 cents went for nuclear and fossil fuel, 14 cents went to alternative energy and only 9 cents to conservation.
Some I’ve spoken with argue as if greed is a human right, an American right.
I am deeply saddened that our glorious national potential is reduced to the “right” to grab as much wealth as possible. Somehow I think we can envision something more progressive, less selfish, and more useful to our species. Of course, defenders of avarice don’t usually phrase their perspective as bluntly as a “right to greed”. Naturally they choose more subtle euphemisms: “laissez-faire capitalism”, “global marketplace”, “American Dream”, and “self-made millionaire”.
Wealth is easily and accurately defined as a form of power. Defenders of avarice may advocate the right to unrestrained use of wealth-power, but what are the moral implications of this? According to this logic, might not a disgruntled underclass argue that they too have the right to unrestrained use of their particular power? On what moral grounds can the power of wealth condemn protest, riot or rebellion? What might be the cost of refusing to limit the power of wealth? Perhaps this is why violence is so often present in the aftermath of greed. Wealth is a form of violence that throws the first punch.
If it is difficult to imagine the moral problem with greedy manipulation of a commodity, consider what would happen if the US did the same thing with food. We would be roundly condemned and rightly so. Greed is not only an inconvenience at the pump, it is becoming a threat to our survival.
Our resources are limited. Our population is exploding. Our population of 6 billion is projected to reach 11 billion in fifty years. If we keep making excuses for the greedy, they will continue to squeeze us and our planet for every penny they can get until that last drop. If our celebrated global economy doesn’t get a grip on greed, the cup we drain will be bitter indeed.
Author: Lee Carleton
News Service: IndyMedia DC