Hydrocarbon Nation

As a political historian, my initial objective when writing Hydrocarbon Nation was simply to investigate the role that fossil fuels have played in influencing America’s political and economic advance. My sense was that although most environmentalists view these natural resources as fundamentally evil, in fact, they had been central to the rise of the United States as a global power. I spent a few years researching and writing about this before recognizing that in many ways the more incredible story was how a loss of energy security, presaged by the peaking of domestic oil production in 1970, revealed fundamental weaknesses in our governing model and eroded foundational norms that we had long cherished. This resulted in a partial redirection of the book project. Rather than focusing solely on writing a narrative examining how our hydrocarbon largesse was used within what I call the INNATE revolutions (INdustrial + N + Agricultural + Transportation + Electrification), I determined that it was necessary to chronicle the impact that reduced energy security had on contemporary politics. After working on this account for more than a year, it occurred to me that the book would still be incomplete without some serious consideration of how the shape of the nation’s political history should be understood by political leaders hoping to adopt policies intended to maintain American preeminence in the coming decades – particularly when attempting to find solutions to the growing climate crisis. The result of this iterative process was Hydrocarbon Nation.

The transitional portion of the book, which examines the period from 1970 to 2008, is central to holding the entire narrative together. In chapter four, I introduce ideas that are largely new within the literature on political history, environmental policy, and security studies. The United States has long been blessed with enormous deposits of hydrocarbons. The nation was not simply fortunate enough to enjoy large fossil fuel supplies, but it developed a standard model of economic advancement that allowed it to leverage them better than any other nation. By the final quarter of the twentieth century, however, our reliance on fossil fuels had also resulted in the destruction of economic and political norms and institutions. I contend that relative energy insecurity and a cyclical but extreme conservative backlash resulted in the dangerous financialization of the American economic system, a rise in income and wealth inequality, increased educational inequity, alarming infrastructural decay, and deteriorating international prestige. Although these have resulted in severe challenges for the United States, there are two other outcomes that are far more troubling.

I argue that energy insecurity and an extreme conservative backlash revealed significant flaws in the U.S. Constitution that have resulted in severe political dysfunction. A truth about the modern age that has long been overlooked is that it is far easier to govern a nation when it has access to inexpensive and abundant hydrocarbons. When those resources become more expensive, however, it becomes more difficult to find compromise solutions to important problems facing a nation. Although Americans mythologize the U.S. Constitution, the reality is that when viewed through the lens of modern politics it has serious flaws. It is easy to see those defects when examining the history of race relations in this country, in particular slavery and southern apartheid. But in the past half-century, the weaknesses in our governing charter have spread into the realms of national and economic security as well. The political system was never equipped to face these contemporary trials because it had so little experience making hard choices that required real sacrifices. As I write in the book, most Americans haven’t been educated about the true failings of our democratic approach. If they were, they might be more prepared to challenge these institutional arrangements.

Finally, I make the case that an extreme conservative backlash and growing political dysfunction have resulted in the continued use of the hydrocarbons that are responsible for the worsening climate crisis. From my perspective, there are two key reasons that the United States has delayed taking aggressive action to finds solutions to this calamity. First, while it is clear that global warming will have significant worldwide consequences, Americans have an intuitive (and quite correct) sense that their nation is in a far better position than most other countries to adapt to a changed environment. Second, a false sense of energy security, combined with generational dynamics, made it a foregone conclusion that US leaders would initially fail to take the necessary steps to address climate change. The Silent and Boomer Generations, which came of age believing that energy security was a longstanding historical fact, were never predisposed to take global warming seriously. Given that in recent decades they were the dominant force in American politics, it is not surprising that the policy priority was to study the problem rather than to find real-world solutions. The result was decades of political and technological inertia. While this might fill many with a sense of doom, I think it should lead to a sense of hope. The reason is quite simple. The Silent and Boomer Generations and slowly giving way to Generation X and the Millennial Generation within the political sphere. It is my firmly held belief that these new arrivals on the political scene view our responsibility to the larger global community and the threat posed by climate change in fundamentally different ways. This is why I am confident that in the coming years and decades they will push forward a sustainability revolution that will involve a radical reduction in our use of hydrocarbons, while at the same time adopting society-spanning policy interventions that will actually increase our energy security. If pursued successfully, this plan would help guarantee national prosperity within a global order that seeks to emulate the American model for economic and political success. This is a future worth building.

Thor Hogan is an associate professor of politics and environmental sustainability at Earlham College. He is the author of Hydrocarbon Nation: How Energy Security Made Our Nation Great and Climate Security Will Save Us, and Mars Wars: The Rise and Fall of the Space Exploration Initiative.