Every few years, I update and revise my History of the United States, trying to identify the most important trends or events shaping American life. For the century's opening decade, for instance, few would dispute that the September 11 attacks belonged at the top of any such list.
I believe that we are now seeing the key trend of the 2010s in the revolutionary changes transforming the world of energy. The US is entering a radically different age in terms of economics, politics and diplomacy, and we are only beginning to think through the religious impact.
For decades now, Americans have held certain views about energy to be self-evident truths. Above all, they know, oil and petrocarbons offer a treacherous foundation for national existence. Supplies are perilously finite, and the world will soon depend wholly on the remaining deep reserves of a few unstable Middle Eastern states. Any day now, we will reach (or have reached) the pivotal moment of "peak oil," of maximum possible global production, after which we can foresee only steady and quite rapid decline.
If the US is to avoid catastrophe, it must at all costs shift to renewable energy resources, while also stressing conservation.
Suddenly, none of those assumptions holds good. I am not challenging the attractive features of renewable energy, and global warming concerns still urge a move away from carbon-based fuels. But the underlying oil narrative upon which those other stories are based just changed irrevocably.
The game changer has been shale oil and gas, resources that North America possesses in vast abundance, and which have become available through new techniques of fracking and horizontal drilling. Just in the past five years, these industries have hugely boosted US production, and the most recent analysis by the International Energy Association (IEA) suggests a rosy future.
Within just five years, the US should be the world's leading oil producer, overtaking Saudi Arabia, and the country will soon be a net exporter of both oil and natural gas. By 2030s, assuming reasonable conservation efforts, the US would achieve self-sufficiency in energy. Energy independence: the Holy Grail. The concept of a peak oil moment just ceased to exist, or at least the nightmare date has now moved far beyond our lifetimes.
In economic terms alone, the changes offer huge benefits to the US, all the more so at a time when Europe and Japan really do face the prospect of horrendous energy crises. As those aging industrial nations are about to find out, you just can't abstain from fossil fuels while at the same time abandoning nuclear energy. Self-inflicted disaster looms.
In contrast, as Ambrose Evans-Prichard notes, the new energy boom should drive a US industrial recovery over the coming decade, "with all the vast implications of abundant cheap gas for its chemical, plastics, glass, and steel industries." Growing prosperity will hugely benefit the dominant political establishment. Prosperous voters with jobs tend not to kick out successful administrations or their parties, whether or not their policies really have contributed much to creating that sunny environment. Governments will also be cashing in on sizable taxes and revenue from the energy business. On the other side of the equation, we see a real threat to solar- or wind-based energy schemes, which can only hope to be viable when oil is scarce and dear, and it no longer will be. Only sentiment or political favoritism justifies funding such enterprises.
Internationally too, the Great Oil Shift sets the US apart from other industrial and emerging nations. Europe and China will depend ever more heavily on those troubled old oil regions, and the IEA projects that, by the 2030s, 90 percent of Middle Eastern oil will be directed to Asian markets.
By that point, though, the US can afford to worry ever less about the Middle East, which will then be definitively somebody else's problem. American administrations would lose much of the incentive they ever had to care about the views of the region's oil producers. If Israel ever faced the likelihood of sustained pressure from the Western powers, that danger is now much reduced -- especially given that country's own massive energy finds. We are truly moving into a different world.
God, it has been said, helps fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.
It is staggering, though, how little these coming changes have impinged on the consciousness of American religious communities. Ever since the prophet Jeremiah, preachers have felt at home with narratives of imminent national ruin, and never know quite what to do with favorable economic signs. Once you have bought into an apocalyptic scenario, it is agonizingly difficult to abandon it in the face of changing facts.
That problem has become all the more obvious as mainline churches and other institutions have acquired a green environmental consciousness. Yet their awareness of energy issues is naïve and increasingly dated. Church and environmental groups still operate on the quaint belief that fossil fuels are vanishing fast, demanding an urgent and inevitable shift to renewables. They are assuming the energy environment of the Reagan or Clinton years.
When religious media do acknowledge new extraction techniques like fracking, it is only in the context of proclaiming their absolute evil, and demanding their prohibition. Only rarely do you see the slightest recognition that such methods will be critical to the near-future economy, or that they promise jobs, general prosperity, and a revival of manufacturing. But no conceivable political regime is simply going to allow those resources to sit in the ground, and it's not going to happen. Churches and other groups can and must work to set the terms of that kind of energy development, but flat-out rejection is not an option.
It's rather like witnessing the rise of mines and mills in the nineteenth century, and imagining the churches of those days demanding that such diabolical innovations be banned utterly, rather than trying to regulate them in the interests of health and safety. Such uncompromising hostility might be appealing in its moral fervor, but it is a recipe for political and cultural irrelevance. "Stop prosperity now!" is not an attractive slogan, any more than "Jobs out!"
Today more than ever, effective concern about social justice issues demands a stiff dose of economic realism.