Kevin Phillips has a grand, sweeping thesis: three interrelated factors are bringing America down. First there is oil. The energy that drove the unlimited aspirations of the American Century is showing its limits in the 21st. Second, there is religion. In particular fundamentalist Christianity, which has taken over the Republican Party and defines the national conversation on every major issue. Finally, there is debt. The triumph of financial services over manufacturing foreshadows America’s reduced role in the global economy.
Mr. Phillips uses previous world empires – nineteenth century England, seventeenth century Holland, and sixteenth century Spain – to demonstrate a pattern wherein the dominant ‘energy’ of empire (coal for England, wind for the Dutch, and New World gold for Spain) fueled economic behemoths with righteous moral views. Each of these empires lost their energy edge, either because it dried up or the rest of the world caught up. As that happened, these affluent societies also lost the manufacturing edge that triggered their rise. They supplanted making things with complex financial instruments that they convinced themselves were as economically valuable. Then they let their inflated morals draw them into costly wars that ultimately diminished their stature.
The most fascinating aspect of American Theocracy‘s discussion of oil is that it makes a convincing case that our oil-based future is limited without even delving into the issue of global warming and climate change. There is simply not enough oil to sustain our consumption habits beyond a generation. Sure, there are new sources to be found, but they are increasingly hard to extract and have diminished EROI (energy return on investment – the difference between the energy a source will generate minus the energy it takes to get it). Where oil isn’t physically difficult to extract, it’s often politically difficult to extract. Just look at Iraq.
The outsized influence that the religious right plays in politics, especially in the Republican Party, especially in the administration of G.W. Bush, isn’t news. But Mr. Phillips’ analysis of how that administration’s policies gave religious institutions’ a leading role in our supposedly secular government connects seemingly disparate acts into a frightening whole. I never understood how environmental stewardship could be construed as a license for human plunder until I overlayed the Biblical perspective that man has dominion over all the earth. Nor did I realize that the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East is welcome for people praying to experience Revelation first hand.
If we KNOW we are better than everyone else, and we KNOW God has blessed us with the right to plunder, going into debt to keep our system afloat is a no-brainer. Besides, when we put our national actions on credit, we can hide the true cost of the ongoing wars that will eventually spell our economic and political doom.
The statistical analyses in American Theocracy are daunting. Although Spain, Holland and England provide templates for demise, the scale at which the United States has drunk oil, promoted its exceptionalism, and gone into debt makes those previous empires minor players in the game of hubris.
Mr. Phillips does not offer any bold recommendations to steady our path. Yet I did not come away from his tome as discouraged as I might. First, because the book was published in 2005. Although many of his comments are more relevant now than ever, some are not. And second, because the empires Mr. Phillips analyzed – Spain, Holland and England – may have lost their former glory, but they are still pretty fine societies.
In the past ten years our dependence on oil has remained supreme. We have made good strides in finding more domestic sources of energy, but fracking and Arctic drilling only prove Mr. Phillips point that exploration is getting extreme. We’ve fallen behind in developing the next big energy source – renewables – because we continue to subsidize oil. Right now Germany is technically the leader in renewables, but once China decides to conquer that market, it will be all theirs because their centralized economy can actually respond much faster than our supposedly free-market one. And once we finally get on the renewables bandwagon, we’ll have farther to go than any other nation, because cheap oil has encouraged us to have the most dilute development patterns on the face of the earth. It just takes a heck of a lot more per-capita energy to survive in the U.S.A.
The religious right still has too strong a voice in setting the national debate, but they don’t always win. Look at gay marriage. Look at the Occupy movement. Look at states raising the minimum wage. Look at #blacklivesmatter. I don’t understand why the right still sets the agenda, perhaps because a black/white view of the world is so appealing and a message of fear is easy to sell. But I believe there is more counter debate in 2015 than there was in 2005.
With regards to debt, the answer is as simple as it is boring. We have to start living within our means. At a national level, at a state level, and at a personal level. And we have to recognize that making money by shuffling money is not the same as making money by making things. That idea is starting to percolate, as Gretchen Morgenson described in Smothered by a Boom in Banking (NY Times 3/1/2015).
We like to think that human progress is an ascending line. Yet history is littered with societies that recede. Europe in the Dark Ages. Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Afghanistan under the Taliban. Societies where ignorance triumphed over knowledge and fear trumped hope. True; Spain, the Netherlands, and England are less powerful today than they once were, but they’re more balanced then at their zenith. I believe the United States will be a better place when our citizens are more equal and we treat our neighbors with greater understanding and respect.
The real fear I take away from American Theocracy, is that our lifestyle is so unsustainable, our beliefs so blind, and our debt so enormous that we won’t slide into gentle comfort like our European cousins. Instead we’ll crash like a 21st century Rome. Let’s stop striving for global domination that we will never achieve and does no one any good. Let’s all pull together for a smooth landing.