Strategic Energy Policy Challenges for the 21st Century
(The San Francisco Protest)
By Liam Scheff
[Written in 2002, before the inevitable was inevitable…or not. Have a look at the document “Strategic Energy Policy Challenges for the 21st Century,” published in March 2001 by James Baker’s think tank at Rice University. I believe that March did arrive before September that year, if I’m remembering correctly…]
“…For many decades now, the United States has been without an energy policy…
…The world is currently precariously close to utilizing all of its available global oil production capacity, raising the chances of an oil-supply crisis with more substantial consequences than seen in three decades…
…These limits mean that America can no longer assume that oil-producing states will provide more oil…
…The American people need to know about this situation and be told as well that there are no easy or quick solutions to today’s energy problems… ”
– “Strategic Energy Policy Challenges for the 21st Century” Report of an Independent Task Force Sponsored by the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy of Rice University and the Council on Foreign Relations, March 2001.
Friday, October 25, 2002. The day before the protest.
I’m carpooling with a friend to the anti-war protest in San Francisco. I’ve taken the train from Long Beach to Aviation Blvd, then the bus to Venice, where we meet. We get on the road by 4:20. We’re running a little late. The freeway is an agitated, crippled vein. Metal boxes combust petrol and go nowhere fast. We creep and edge and inch out of LA. The 405 dips into the valley wagging its gray tongue at us. We’re surrounded by more cars than you’d think exist, all burning petrol and oil, combusting and igniting. LA won’t let us out of its grip. It knows where we’re going. The gasoline burns, explodes, dissipates and leaves nothing but hot frustration.
I imagine a rail line streaming down the highway. LA had trains once, before it was pimped out to General Motors and Standard Oil.
The commuter rail that could have been. A sleek bullet carrying us out of the city, sharing the ride, sharing the cost, with no loss of time, and no sickening gridlock.
It’s an hour and a half before we escape the spider’s web and are off to San Francisco.
“…[The] government will need to increase its vigilance and be prepared to deal with sudden supply disruptions. The consequences of inaction could be grave…
…The situation is, by analogy, like traveling in a car with broken shock absorbers at very high speeds…” – Strategic Energy Policy Challenges for the 21st Century
We approach San Francisco nearing midnight. The city is a gaudy jewel box, every corner is gleaming neon or unexpected curve. An Escher lithograph in vivid, oily hues. The ergonomic city.
The 12,000 homeless are looking for food and warmth on the street. Zooming cars, trolleys and buses dominate the landscape, overshadowed only by the dramatic paved hillsides.
It seems that it’s the goal of humanity to cover everything, every inch of land, in macadam and cement.
We get to a friend’s apartment on a hill. The view pans out beneath us, lit with electric fire. The air drums ceaselessly with the turbulence of rubber in traction on pavement as a million cars spin the night away; combusting, burning, effervescing oil, earning hangovers and spending capital. The 12,000 homeless seek shelter and warmth in the cold, damp night.
We get to sleep by three.
Saturday, October 26. The Protest.
I’m up at seven and we leave at 9:15. My friend Robert needs a black marker to write on his shirt. “Nu-Q-ler”
“If you can’t say it, you can’t run a country,” he says. “Nu -Klee -er, Nuclear. Like Nucleus.” We think it’s hysterical, but it goes over a lot of heads.
We’re on Market Street, the merchant street. Cars are turned away today from 11 till 2, a sacrifice to the economy, to the buying and selling of stuff, so that we can protest. People are arriving in numbers, their signs speaking their minds, telling their stories.
“Filipinos for Global Justice, Not War”, “US terrorizes the Filipino People”, “No Blood for Oil”, “Not in Our Name” ,“No War on Iraq”, “Palestinians for Peace”, “Bush Lies”, “SFSU Students Against War”, “Gray Panthers San Francisco Against War”, “George Bush has the Brain of a Twinkie”. There are hundreds of signs. There must be thousands of people, tens of thousands. I can’t see space on the street, just coats and hats and faces.
The crowd pushes toward the north end of Market. There is a stage pressing up against the Embarcadero, the curving racetrack of a street that rounds the lip of the city where it meets the bay. The speeches start. I can’t hear or see much. I’m deep in the crowd, so I slip south a block to Mission and come up the Embarcadero in the throng of people behind the stage. I edge and dodge and slip through, and pull myself onto a wide cement block, that’s topped with a four-foot wide cement ball. On top of the ball kneels a girl with a video camera. I find out she’s from UCLA. Next to me is a USC journalism major with an expensive camera.
Dr. Helen Caldicott is onstage. She’s talking about the depleted uranium bombs that the U.S. used in the Gulf War; slow release nuclear bombs that have killed a generation of infants in Iraq. She’s talking about a war that will breed an army of embittered, crippled souls whose raison d’etre will be to revenge their suffering on the Western World.
She’s talking about a war that will be the opening salvo of a spiraling global conflict that will leave no one standing.
Cars whirl by on the Embarcadero, drowning her speech from my ears.
“…There are no easy, overnight, and politically attractive solutions to the country’s or the world’s infrastructure and supply problems…
…There is no place at home or abroad where enough oil or gas can be developed fast enough to moderate prices in the next six to twelve months…
…There is no cost-free way to allow unrestricted energy use and simultaneously safeguard the environment…
…There are no overnight solutions to the energy supply and infrastructure bottlenecks facing the nation and the world…
…U.S. energy independence is not attainable…” – Strategic Energy Policy Challenges for the 21st Century
The next speaker takes the stage. He’s from International Answer, an anti-war coalition of workers, unions, student and professional groups. He’s a union organizer. A laborer. He’s impassioned.
“Our government’s telling us we’ve gotta go to war with Iraq. You willing to go?“ he fires at the crowd, “HELL NO! You willing to go? HELL NO! You willing to go? HELL NO!” The crowd is with him. His anger is real, his disgust palpable, and they feel the same.
“Once again in our history this country has gone behind our backs and taken us on a ride we don’t want to go on…. YOU WILLING TO GO? HELL NO!”
He departs amid cheers and the next speaker takes the stage.
Cars zoom on the Embarcadero . They overpower the amplifiers pointed in my direction. The howls of spent petroleum. Oil from Alaska, from Saudi Arabia. Now from South America and Russia. From the Caspian Sea. And from our sworn enemy, through our middlemen, France and China, because we won’t buy it from Iraq directly. But we’ll take it from them.
“..As it is, national solutions alone cannot work. Politicians still speak of U.S. energy independence, while the United States is importing more than half of its oil supplies
…Indeed, the US imports almost a million barrels of Iraqi oil a day…” – Strategic Energy Policy Challenges for the 21st Century
It’s 12.45. The crowd is thick and stretches farther than I can see. Drums are playing polyrhythms, and the rave kids are dancing in groups on the street.
Veterans, Senior Citizens and church groups march.
A sign with a photo of two tousle-haired children reads “We are collateral damage”
The march is on. The mass of protesters heads south towards the Civic Center. Drums are played at intervals. I am pulled in by the rhythm into a circle of four, five, six drummers, carnival whistles, hand claps, rhythmic whoops and cries, human sounds like animal sounds. I dance and sway and move with the group. Some much needed counterpoint to the dreary issue of war. But I can’t forget myself completely. I have to keep an eye on my backpack on the ground.
Some of the city’s 12,000 homeless stare in wonder, one man smiles so broadly at the sight that I think he might cry. I smile back.
“Was Wellstone Murdered?”, demands a sign. Paul Wellstone, Democratic Senator from Minnesota, died the week before in a plane crash in the freezing rain. He hadn‘t planned to run for office again, but he felt it was his duty, as he was one of precious few senators speaking against war, against corporate greed, against the destruction of lives for economic gain. Wellstone, his wife and daughter, three campaign aids and both pilots died in the crash.
Kennedy, King, Malcolm. Wellstone. It makes sense to some people to look at it that way. So great is the mistrust of our government, so well-earned is the cynicism, that it seems like a possibility to some.
The sounds of drums and chants and human voices have left the noise of the Embarcadero behind. But the cars still zoom, burning Saudi, Russian and Iraqi oil.
“…Over the past year, Iraq has effectively become a swing producer, turning its taps on and off when it has felt such action was in its strategic interest to do so…
…Bitter perceptions in the Arab world that the United States has not been evenhanded in brokering peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have … given political leverage to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to lobby for support among the Arab world’s populations…
…The United States should conduct an immediate policy review toward Iraq including military, energy, economic and political/diplomatic assessments…
…In some measure, concessions will have to be made that will impinge on certain local environment goals, states rights, Middle East policy, economic sanctions policy, Russia policy, and hemispheric and international trade policy…” – Strategic Energy Policy Challenges for the 21st Century
1:50 pm. We’re approaching the Civic Center, and the dense crowd begins to spill onto side streets. I go north from Market onto a parallel road. As I turn the corner, I find a line of police in riot gear where they’ve been hiding. They stand, and stare, and I walk quietly, carefully by. A female cop swings the tip of her baton into the palm of her hand with intent.
I wind back down to Market and meet the crowd massing on the civic center lawn. Congresswoman Barbara Lee is speaking. But I can‘t quite hear her.
The cars have once again taken over Market street, the merchants’ street.
“Market Street.” The name used to have a special denotation. But it seems redundant to me now. What street isn’t a market in America. What obsolete corner of American life is safe from selling itself, commodotizing its unique value for mass consumption. We‘re so used to it, we think that it‘s really the way the world should work.
America is a machine that takes the world‘s resources and turns it into plastic stuff, trinkets, mountains of landfilled garbage. The cars assert their dominance, the merchants sell what we no longer have: petroleum and its by-products; marked-up results of sweatshop labor; food grown in petrochemical pesticides; meat from tortured, drugged, cancer-ridden, pesticide-fed animals that were slaughtered alive with chain saws on assembly lines by migrant workers whose eyes see America as the place where you get paid to kill.
The gas stations, the automobile, the plastics and petrochemicals; it’s why we’re going to war; it’s what we’re running out of, what we no longer have. We’re addicted. We’ll kill for more, even though we know it won’t last.
“So, we come to the report’s central dilemma: the American people continue to demand plentiful and cheap energy without sacrifice or inconvenience. But emerging technologies are not yet commercially viable to fill shortages and will not be for some time. Nor is surplus energy capacity available at this time to meet such demands.
Indeed, the situation is worse than the oil shocks of the past because in the present energy situation, the tight oil market condition is coupled with shortages of natural gas in the United States, heating fuels for the winter, and electricity supplies in certain localities.” – Strategic Energy Policy Challenges for the 21st Century
I head for the train and get out of the city for the night.
Sunday, October 27.
I return the next day to catch the train to Oakland, where I’ll meet my friend. Market Street stinks of fumes and decay. The homeless dig in the garbage. 4,000 of them are war veterans. They were soldiers, and they have this to show for it. Vacant stares, shirtless, lost, grimy, self-loathing. They killed for their country, now they are a nuisance to the good, honest merchants, peddling war on Market Street, on every street.
The SUV, the pick-up, the daily commute. Less than 10 miles per gallon. Turn the ignition, and place your trust in the oil and weapons investors who run the government. Put your faith in the multi-billion dollar corporations who trade oxygen for dollars, who think that clean, safe water is a commodity you should be forced to buy. Trust them. Put your life in their hands. And get ready for the sacrifice. Don’t be distracted by the facts. Don’t be swayed by cries for peace or pity.
It’s a way of life we’re defending. Or so we‘re told.
“… Energy infrastructure can be rebuilt and expanded rapidly only if the government actively facilitates private-sector decision-making and investment…
…It is equally important that the public understand the environmental and public-health consequences of unfettered energy consumption. The government should take a leadership role in fostering such understanding…” – Strategic Energy Policy Challenges for the 21st Century
On the way out of San Francisco, we notice the rail lines bordering the highway for miles out of Oakland. It‘s BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.
“Wouldn’t that be great,” we ask aloud, thinking of the long drive, thinking of LA. Thinking of the world-famous, high-speed European rail lines. Thinking of Japan’s bullet trains. The French TGV. The way the world travels, sharing the ride.
Is America just too big for trains? Is Los Angeles just too big to share a ride in? It seems that as long as there’s oil in the world that can be taken with bullets or dollars, the answer will be “yes.“
The night speeds away and we drift through the mountain passes into the glowing latticed grid, the brooding knot of oily streets we call home.