Ben Stein is worried about oil prices. We know this because he uses words in his column this week like "frightening", "extreme hardship", "overwhelming trouble", "peak oil" (twice), "true crisis", and "emergency". Plus:
If we keep acting as if the landscape were more important than human life, we will make ourselves the serfs of the oil producers and eventually reduce our country to poverty and anarchy.
Yes, in Ben Stein’s fevered brain, oil = human life, the biggest opponents of
oil human life are environmentalists, and "the great Mad Max movies" are a prescient and truthful warning of what will happen if those environmentalists get their way. (Maybe Stein should ask the director of those films, George Miller, what he thinks their message is, and what he thinks of environmentalism. Here’s a clue: Miller also spent four years directing Happy Feet, an anti-global-warming 2006 film about penguins.)
Stein’s solutions to this "true crisis" do not, of course, involve mothballing his "mighty Cadillac STS-V", since that would involve no more "hurtling along I-10 toward Rancho Mirage at 130 m.p.h.". I’m no expert on cars, but I’d love it if someone could tell me – and Stein – what kind of fuel economy the STS-V gets at 130mph; my guess it would make the average Hummer driver feel positively virtuous.
Instead, Stein has a novel solution to the problem of the US using too much oil: drill more! Has he forgotten his father’s famous dictum that if something can’t go on forever, it won’t?
Stein idiosyncratically defines "peak oil" as "that point at which we have pumped out more than half the oil on the planet". (More commonly it’s defined as the point at which oil production stops increasing and starts declining.) But let’s stick with Stein’s definition: if he’s right that we’re close to peak oil, then drilling more will only serve to accelerate the rate at which we draw down what reserves the world has left. But that seems to be exactly what Stein wants: environmentally catastrophic "development" of Canada’s tar sands, "incentives" for big oil companies, drilling for more oil on the continental shelf.
Stein doesn’t, of course, explain how any of these things will avert the "true crisis" he talks of – probably because they wouldn’t. The man who regularly advises his readers to live within their means is simultaneously advising the United States as a whole to do the opposite, on the energy front: not whittle down demand to something sustainable, but rather plunder what’s left of the world’s fossil fuel resources. (Maybe Stein’s anti-Darwinism has something to do with his seeming inability to grasp that fossil fuels are not replaceable.)
He also doesn’t understand that oil is fungible. "If Venezuela stopped sending us oil," he writes, "there would be extreme hardship" – as though we wouldn’t simply import our oil from somewhere else instead. Yes, Venezuela is closer to the US than most other oil exporters – but that’s not a huge consideration, affecting little more than marginal shipping costs. Then again, at least he didn’t resuscitate his silly theory that it matters what currency oil is denominated in.
In Stein’s beloved Mad Max 2, there are two main kinds of people in the world: gas hogs, on the one hand, who seek to slake their insatiable demand by going after obvious sources of fresh oil; and frugal oil conservers, on the other, who try to live within their means. Stein should watch it again, to see which turns out to be the smarter strategy.