The Price of Certainty

This is an election year. It’s a war year, the fifth, soon to be the sixth. It’s a recession year. If recent trends continue, it will be a year of heat, drought and storms.

All of this year’s presidential candidates – the ones that have dropped from the race and the ones still in – promise change.

Our world is changing around us at a rapid rate. Most changes are for the worse. Even if change is for the better, it’s difficult. People don’t like change and they really don’t like rapid change.

What people don’t like about change is uncertainty. Is my job safe? Will we lose everything if someone in my family faces a medical emergency? When will this war end? When will our troops come home? What happens if my town is hit by a major storm? Will I still be able to afford insurance?

Since the major accomplishment of the Bush/Cheney administration has been to deliver this bouquet of uncertainty to each and every American, all the people who want to replace George Bush promise change. In this case, change means a return to peace and prosperity.

Don’t believe them. All the candidates mean well and are sure they are the right person to lead the nation in uncertain times, no doubt. There will be no magic on Inauguration Day next year. The messes Mr. Bush made – the war, the ruin of America’s reputation, the wrecked economy – and the messes he didn’t create but merely exacerbated – global warming, the health care crisis – will not leave us for many years, not in our lifetimes.

Here’s one piece of it. The federal Energy Information Agency reported Monday that for a year – from 1 October 2006 through 30 September 2007 (the latest date for which figures are available), the global demand for oil exceeded supply. (You can see the numbers by clicking here. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the Excel spreadsheet entitled “World Oil Balance” in the lower left corner.) In the third quarter of 2007, average demand was one million barrels per day higher than supply.

Since the Oil Age began, we’ve never had a year in which demand has exceeded supply. Our global petroleum system is big enough that there’s sufficient oil “in the pipeline” to keep society running even as we run a consumption deficit, but if the situation continues, the laws of both economics and physics require that hard times are ahead.

Hard times ahead bring to mind hard times past. The most obvious comparison is the early decades of the 20th century, when the planet was ravaged by war, epidemic, famine, revolution and depression.

The citizens of the hard-hit nations of Europe, sickened by the abrupt changes in their lives, opted for certainty, even though the certainty offered was the foolish certainty of tyrants like Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin. They got their security – some of them did – at a terrible cost and for a very short time.

America, spared the revolutions and famine and less injured by the Great War, found its leader in Franklin Roosevelt. He promised boldness and change – and delivered both – but he did not promise certainty.

In the years of uncertainty since the terrorist attacks of 2001, we have as a nation sought the foolish certainty of a perceived strong leader – “the decider” as he styles himself – and we’ve paid for our foolishness.

If there is sensibility left in the American people, and I think there is, we will this year turn away from the glib promises of those who would trade our freedom for security and deliver neither.

As ashamed as I have been of my nation’s leaders, things could have been worse. Things may become worse yet, if we as citizens fail to take the appropriate action available to us.

The years ahead will lack certainty. They do not have to lack democracy.

© Mark Floegel, 2008

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