Oil Shock: Trying to make the complex simple

www.pennlive.com, May 16, 2008
By Herb Field

People want answers. They want to be able to point to something and say that’s what caused it. That’s as true with the current pain at the pump or higher prices at the supermarket as it is with any other development that impacts our lives. Profiteering oil companies. The shrinking value of the dollar. Speculators. OPEC. Rising consumption in China and India.

Wait a second. Better be careful on that last explanation.

Aside from the fact that too many Americans live in a cocoon that insulates them from most of what’s happening in other parts of the world, it probably should not come as too great a shock that there are people in both India and China who object to a country with 5 percent of the world’s population consuming close to a quarter of its oil blaming someone else for a jump in oil prices.

A seemingly innocent comment by President Bush’s earlier this month in Missouri about India’s growing middle class and worldwide rising food prices prompted “scorn” in New Delhi, The New York Times reported May 14. Here’s what the president said: “When you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and better food, and so demand is high, and that cause prices to go up.”

One prominent Indian, Pradeep S. Mehta, secretary general of the center for international trade, economics and the environment at CUTS International in New Delhi, according to The Times, said that if Americans slimmed down to the weight of middle-class Indians, “many hungry people in sub-Saharan Africa would find food on their plates.” He went to say that the money Americans spend on liposuction to remove excess fat could be used to feed victims of famine.

These are not isolated sentiments. Many people in other countries are offended by what they see as America’s gluttony in consuming the planet’s finite resources and its insensitivity in failing to respond to such global challenges as climate change and international food shortages. Many Americans think some malevolent force is behind high oil and gas prices. Many foreigners say we are the problem. And they aren’t happy about it.

The American way of life does require the expenditure of an inordinate amount of the world’s resources. Half of the planet’s 6.6 billion people live on less than two dollars a day. Earth simply does not have the resources to permit the rest of mankind to live on the scale of calorie intake, housing and mobility enjoyed by the average American.

But that’s today. The way things are headed it should be obvious that America’s excesses are not sustainable. We are part of the problem. We need to do more with less. And there isn’t really a choice. Those looking for a simple answer need to confront the reality of a world of a still-growing population – a projected additional 2.5 billion people by 2050 – and its finite, ever-shrinking resources from oil to food and much in between.

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