Bobo thinks he’s going to tell us all about “The Quality of Fear.” He babbles that the reaction nationally to Ebola is rooted in weaknesses in our cultural fabric. I’m sure that the ginning up of pants-pissing terror by the media has nothing to do with anything… Mr. Cohen, in “China Versus America,” ‘splains how Chinese “harmony” and American “freedom” produce the dangerous clash of two exceptionalisms. Mr. Nocera, in “A World Without OPEC?”, thinks he knows how the shale revolution has weakened the power of the oil cartel. In the comments “sdavidc9″ from Cornwall had this to say: “To write an article on the future of oil without mentioning global warming is oh so Republican. We are fighting over seating arrangements on the Titanic.” Here’s Bobo:
There’s been a lot of tut-tutting about the people who are overreacting to the Ebola virus. There was the lady who showed up at the airport in a homemade hazmat suit. There were the hundreds of parents in Mississippi who pulled their kids from school because the principal had traveled to Zambia, a country in southern Africa untouched by the Ebola outbreak in the western region of the continent. There was the school district in Ohio that closed a middle school and an elementary school because an employee might have flown on the same plane (not even the same flight) as an Ebola-infected health care worker.
The critics point out that these people are behaving hysterically, all out of proportion to the scientific risks, which, of course, is true. But the critics misunderstand what’s going on here. Fear isn’t only a function of risk; it’s a function of isolation. We live in a society almost perfectly suited for contagions of hysteria and overreaction.
In the first place, we’re living in a segmented society. Over the past few decades we’ve seen a pervasive increase in the gaps between different social classes. People are much less likely to marry across social class, or to join a club and befriend people across social class.
That means there are many more people who feel completely alienated from the leadership class of this country, whether it’s the political, cultural or scientific leadership. They don’t know people in authority. They perceive a vast status gap between themselves and people in authority. They may harbor feelings of intellectual inferiority toward people in authority. It becomes easy to wave away the whole lot of them, and that distrust isolates them further. “What loneliness is more lonely than distrust,” George Eliot writes in “Middlemarch.”
So you get the rise of the anti-vaccine parents, who simply distrust the cloud of experts telling them that vaccines are safe for their children. You get the rise of the anti-science folks, who distrust the realm of far-off studies and prefer anecdotes from friends to data about populations. You get more and more people who simply do not believe what the establishment is telling them about the Ebola virus, especially since the establishment doesn’t seem particularly competent anyway.
Second, you’ve got a large group of people who are bone-deep suspicious of globalization, what it does to their jobs and their communities. Along comes Ebola, which is the perfect biological embodiment of what many fear about globalization. It is a dark insidious force from a mysterious place far away that seems to be able to spread uncontrollably and get into the intimate spheres of life back home.
Third, you’ve got the culture of instant news. It’s a weird phenomenon of the media age that, except in extreme circumstances, it is a lot scarier to follow an event on TV than it is to actually be there covering it. When you’re watching on TV, you only see the death and mayhem. But when you’re actually there, you see the broader context of everyday life going on alongside. Studies of the Boston Marathon bombing found that people who consumed a lot of news media during the first week suffered more stress than people who were actually there.
Fourth, you’ve got our culture’s tendency to distance itself from death. Philip Roth once wrote: “In every calm and reasonable person there is a hidden second person scared witless about death.” In cultures where death is more present, or at least dealt with more commonly, people are more familiar with that second person, and people can think a bit more clearly about risks of death in any given moment.
In cultures where people deal with death by simply getting it out of their minds, the prospect of sudden savage death, even if extremely unlikely, can arouse a mental fog of fear, and an unmoored and utopian desire to want to reduce the risk of early death to zero, all other considerations be damned.
Given all these conditions, you wind up with an emotional spiral that develops its own momentum.
The Ebola crisis has aroused its own flavor of fear. It’s not the heart-pounding fear you might feel if you were running away from a bear or some distinct threat. It’s a sour, existential fear. It’s a fear you feel when the whole environment seems hostile, when the things that are supposed to keep you safe, like national borders and national authorities, seem porous and ineffective, when some menace is hard to understand.
In these circumstances, skepticism about authority turns into corrosive cynicism. People seek to build walls, to pull in the circle of trust. They become afraid. Fear, of course, breeds fear. Fear is a fog that alters perception and clouds thought. Fear is, in the novelist Yann Martel’s words, “a wordless darkness.”
Ebola is a treacherous adversary. It’s found a weakness in our bodies. Worse, it exploits the weakness in the fabric of our culture.
Go change your underwear, Bobo… Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Singapore:
Let us take it as a given that the post-1945 world order with the United States as dominant nation has begun to unravel, that China is rising to inherit the earth, that the unease of our times has much to do with that difficult transition, and that violent conflict is a normal accompaniment to the passing of the baton from one great power to the next. America stood tall at the end of World War II. It also stood on a vast field of corpses.
Let us further posit the far-fetched hypothesis that humankind has learned from history. It must then be determined to avoid another conflagration. Happy talk of hyper-connectivity is not enough. The dream of the victory of enlightened self-interest in the name of the collective good on a shrinking planet was an ephemeral late 20th-century illusion. What will matter above all is the capacity of the United States and China to avoid fatal misunderstanding. In a state of mutual incomprehension, clashing interests will escalate.
How far China and America are from understanding each other became clear to me the other day as I listened to George Yeo, the former Singaporean foreign minister. He set out his view of the United States as a “missionary” power filled with the righteous conviction that it must usher the earth to liberty and democracy, and of China as an anti-missionary power convinced by its own bitter experience of foreign domination that nonintervention in the affairs of other states is a necessary form of respect. Far from cynical exploitation, Yeo argued, China’s non-judgmental approach to other powers was above all a reflection of its own history, a form of moral rectitude. The West’s perception of Chinese bullying and ruthless mercantilism was just plain wrong.
Yeo is a highly intelligent and thoughtful man with a deep knowledge of China and considerable experience of life in America. I can’t help seeing cynicism in China’s readiness to extract resources from the realms of dictators or democrats and its unreadiness to do as much as America in stopping Ebola or the killers who call themselves Islamic State. I am sure that, for President Xi Jinping of China, the sight of America getting enmeshed in another Middle Eastern skirmish has its satisfactions. But Yeo made me wonder. Can the missionary mindset begin to comprehend the non-missionary worldview, or even accept such categorization?
The core problem is two forms of exceptionalism, the American and the Chinese. The United States is an idea as well as a nation. Americans, even in a battle-scarred inward-looking moment such as the present, are hard-wired to the notion of their country as a beacon to humanity. President Obama’s foreign policy is unpopular in part because he has interpreted a popular desire to regroup as license to be satisfied with hitting singles and avoiding strike-outs. That is the attitude of an unexceptional nation, which can never be America’s self-image.
But Chinese exceptionalism is no less powerful. It holds up China as a uniquely non-expansionist power over millennia of history, bringing harmony in a Confucian expression of its benevolence — a China standing in contrast to the predatory West. The Communist Party, with its mantra of “peaceful rise,” has fashioned an effective pillar of its ideology through the integration of Middle Kingdom thought. As Joe Studwell, the author of “How Asia Works,” put it to me in an e-mail, the party with “not much socialism to cling to, has reached into Middle Kingdom exceptionalism by resurrecting Confucius, starting Confucius Institutes all over the world.” The result, as Yuan-kang Wang, an associate professor at Western Michigan University, has written in Foreign Policy, is a widespread belief in “historical China as a shining civilization in the center of All-under-Heaven, radiating a splendid and peace-loving culture.”
Exceptionalism, in all its forms, is tenacious. Tell Tibetans about China’s peace-loving culture. Tell Iraqis about America’s dedication to liberty. The contradictions, and failings, within the beliefs do not diminish them. I believe, still, in the overall beneficence of American power, the fundamental yearning of the human spirit for freedom, and the unique American identification with that desire. Xi’s clampdown on the Internet, his attempt to clean up corruption when corruption must be endemic to any one-party state, his expansionism in the South China Sea, and his difficulties with a stubborn pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong all strike me as demonstrating the internal contradictions of “harmony” and “peace” within a Chinese system that has generated prosperity but increasingly stifles the open debate more prosperous people want.
Europeans, with their experience of 20th-century devastation, would argue that all forms of exceptionalism are dangerous, the missionary and non-missionary equally so. They have settled for less in the interests of quiet. America and China will not do that in the foreseeable future, and so their relationship must be viewed with guarded pessimism. In war’s aftermath there are no exceptions to human suffering.
And now we get to Gunga Din:
Forty-one years ago this month, the Arab oil embargo began. The countries that were part of it belonged, of course, to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries — OPEC — which had banded together 13 years earlier to strengthen their ability to negotiate with international oil companies. The embargo led to widespread shortages in the United States, higher prices at the gas pump and long lines at gas stations. By the time it ended, the price of oil had risen to $12 a barrel from $3.
Perhaps more important than the price increases themselves was the new world order the embargo signaled. The embargo “set in motion geopolitical circumstances that eventually allowed [OPEC] to wrest control over global oil production and pricing from the giant international oil companies — ushering in an era of significantly higher oil prices,” as Amy Myers Jaffe and Ed Morse noted in an article in Foreign Policy magazine that was published last year at the 40th anniversary. Twice a year, OPEC’s oil ministers would meet in Vienna, where they would set oil policy — deciding to either hold back or increase oil production. There was always cheating among members, but there was usually enough discipline in the ranks to keep prices more or less where OPEC wanted them.
As it happens, the title of that Foreign Policy article was “The End of OPEC.” Jaffe and Morse are both global energy experts — she is the executive director of Energy and Sustainability at the University of California, Davis, and he is the global head of commodities research at Citigroup — who say that if America plays its cards right, OPEC’s dominance over the oil market could be over. I think that day may have already arrived.
“OPEC is not going to survive another 50 years,” Morse told me. “It probably won’t even survive another 10. It has become extremely difficult for them to forge an agreement.”
When Morse and Jaffe wrote their article last year, the price of oil was more than $100 a barrel. Today, the per-barrel price is in the low- to mid-$80s. It has dropped more than 25 percent since June. There was a time when $80 a barrel would have been more than satisfactory for OPEC members, but those days are long gone. Venezuela’s budgetary needs requires that it sell its oil at well above $100 a barrel. The Arab Spring prompted a number of important OPEC members — including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — to increase budgetary spending to keep their own populations quiescent. According to the International Monetary Fund, the United Arab Emirates needs a price of more than $80 to meet its budgetary obligations. That’s up from less than $25 a barrel in 2008.
Not long ago, Venezuela asked for an emergency OPEC meeting to discuss decreasing production. Iran has said that such a meeting is unnecessary. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it is primarily concerned with not losing market share, so it will continue to pump out oil regardless of the needs of other OPEC members. This is not exactly cartel-like behavior. The next OPEC meeting is scheduled for late November, but there is little likelihood of an agreement.
And why does OPEC suddenly find itself in such disarray? Simply put, the supply of oil is greater than the demand, and OPEC has lost its ability to control the supply. Part of the reason is a slowdown in global demand. China’s economy has slowed, and so has its voracious appetite for oil. Japan, meanwhile, is increasingly turning to natural gas and nuclear power.
But an even bigger part of the reason is that the shale revolution in North America is utterly changing the supply-demand dynamic. Since 2008, says Bernard Weinstein, an energy expert at Southern Methodist University, oil production in the United States is up 60 percent. That’s an additional three million barrels a day. Within a few years, predicts Morse, America will overtake Russia and Saudi Arabia and become the world’s largest oil producer.
What’s more, according to another article Morse wrote, this one for Foreign Affairs magazine, “the costs of finding and producing oil and gas in shale and tight rock formations are steadily going down and will drop even more in the years to come.” In other words, the American energy industry might well be able to withstand further price drops easier than OPEC members.
When I got Jaffe on the phone, I asked her if she thought OPEC was a spent force. “You can never say never,” she replied, and then laid out a few dire scenarios — mostly revolving around oil fields being bombed or attacked — that might make supply scarce again. But barring that, this is a moment we’ve long been waiting for. Thanks to the shale revolution, OPEC has become a paper tiger.