by Michael Lame, posted on August 3, 2010
In the Rose Garden last week, President Obama asserted that “if we’ve learned anything from the tragedy in the Gulf, it’s that our current energy policy is unsustainable.” Perhaps he meant energy practices rather than energy policy, since an energy policy would presumably be government policy which means the policy of his own administration. Obama’s Secretary of the Interior has slapped a six-month moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf in order to prevent more BP-style disasters, so the “current energy policy” the president criticized is clearly not his energy policy. But whatever he was referring to, what exactly is unsustainable about it?
Oil, gas, and coal will continue to be produced and consumed for decades to come. Perhaps the global reliance on fossil fuels is not sustainable for another 50 years but only for half that. In political terms, however, even 25 years is an eternity. Given how much attention the BP spill has attracted, improved industry safety practices as well as increased government regulation will likely result in diminished risk of a Deepwater Horizon-type disaster in the future. The near-term future, then, will no doubt include more deepwater oil drilling with increased safety measures.
So why would the President call something unsustainable which probably is sustainable for a long time to come? Because “unsustainable”, as a judgment on the status quo, has become the new universal watchword among change-advocates. Why must we make a change? Because the current condition, situation, policy, or system is unsustainable. It’s a more powerful word than untenable because it conveys a sense of urgency. Time is running out. We must act now!
The term “unsustainable” has also recently surfaced in Obama administration references to the Israeli blockade of Gaza. On the day after the flotilla incident, Secretary of State Clinton proclaimed that “The situation in Gaza is unsustainable and unacceptable.” Since then, the Israeli government has announced a lifting of its restrictions on the entry into Gaza of many foodstuffs and consumer products, but the ban on other imports as well as all exports remains in place, as does a set of severe travel restrictions. The blockade has not ended.
Middle East scholar and Palestine-watcher Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace recently quipped that the typical language of EU documents states that “the situation in Gaza continues to be unsustainable.” He concluded that it’s possible for an “unsustainable” program or policy to be “sustained at this unsustainable level for a long time to come.”
That even the unsustainable is sustainable should come as no surprise. Human beings, after all, have an enormous capacity to adapt, even to horrific circumstances. Tyranny, oppression, malnutrition, poverty are but a few examples of the ills we bear indefinitely as a species. Through human ingenuity and perversity, that which, morally speaking, should not continue even one more day can be made to continue ad nauseum, if not ad infinitum.
If we continue to promote that which is unsustainable, then we are clearly on the wrong road going the wrong way. According to the views of most clerics and politicians, with intellectual underpinnings provided by theologians and ideologues, there is a right road and a wrong road in life. If we choose correctly, life will be long; society will prosper; civilization will flourish. But if we choose incorrectly, woe unto us! The wrong road is characterized not only by unsustainable options but also by diminishing possibilities. “The window of opportunity for a two-state solution is rapidly closing,” we have been told for the last ten to twenty years. Some argue that the window has already slammed shut. Perhaps the closing window is a trope that should itself be finally closed and retired from future discussions of Middle East peace.
The linguistic flip side of unsustainability and the wrong road is that of inevitability and the right road. In the 1990s, Oslo promoters in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Washington repeatedly and categorically stated that “the peace process is irreversible” and “the two-state solution is inevitable.” Neither prediction turned out to be the case, as demonstrated by the failed Arafat-Barak-Clinton negotiations at Camp David, followed shortly thereafter by the outbreak of the second intifada, the subsequent disappearance of the peace camp in Israel, and the redeployment of Israeli troops in Palestinian cities.
To call a condition “unsustainable” is to contend that it will (and must) break down. To call an outcome “inevitable” is to assert that it will (and must) occur. Both notions are presented as predictions of the future, but in political discourse often they are not really predictions based on weighing the evidence; they are projections. They project an image of the future that the speaker hopes for. The projection’s power may stem from a belief in the efficacy of affirmations: if one says it often enough and loud enough, it will become true. Sometimes matters are presented as inevitable or unsustainable not because the speaker is foolish but because he hopes to fool others. Or it may simply be a matter of wishful thinking: I want peace. Everyone wants peace. Therefore we will have peace. I want the blockade to end. All good people want it to end. Therefore it will end. But the world generally doesn’t work that way, and the Middle East definitely doesn’t.
So how does it work? Conspiracy theorists assume a conscious will behind every action on the international stage. If something bad happens, it must be because someone wants it to happen. There is a certain logic to such theories, but as historians like Barbara Tuchman have shown, wars can break out from mistakes, miscalculations, and misinformation, even when no one wants war. While that is generally true, it is particularly true in the armed-to-the-teeth, hair-trigger, security-minded Middle East. One act of disrespect, one misinterpreted troop movement, one leaked document can set in motion a chain of events leading to pulverized buildings and dismembered bodies. Capriciousness and happenstance cannot be overlooked as key factors in Middle East politics and warfare. They must be considered along with the more traditional strategic, demographic, and economic factors in composing plausible scenarios of potential futures.
While neither war nor peace between Jews and Arabs is inevitable, one is more likely to win a bet that calls for another round of blood-letting than for the achievement of comprehensive peace in our time. Given the odds, what is one to do?
Americans typically assume not only that problems have solutions but that the solutions will be found and implemented quickly. The idea of a catastrophic oil spill continuing to devastate the environment day after day for three months running has been an affront to the American can-do ethos. The fact that Syrian-Lebanese-Palestinian-Israeli peace has eluded president after president for several decades is sobering if not maddening.
In the search for Middle East solutions, too often a short-term fix has morphed into a long-term fixture. Deleterious conditions which should not be sustained have been allowed to continue and to sink deep roots. Who imagined that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians would still be living in refugee camps more than sixty years after the Nakba? Who thought that the occupation of the West Bank would last for more than 40 years? Who believed that the state of Israel, established in 1948, would still lack peaceful relations with most of its neighbors?
The more we assume that the Middle East’s future has already been determined, the less likely we are to take positive action to shape that future. Engagement is not required if the conclusion is foregone, while energy drains out of options that everyone “knows” will one day be implemented. The urgent question, then, is not whether an analysis is accurate, a condition unsustainable, or an outcome inevitable, but whether governments, organizations, and individuals will take timely action to alleviate human suffering and resolve the region’s conflicts.
The words people say and how they say them offer strong indications of what, if anything, people intend to do. By paying close attention to the language employed by the region’s players, we can begin to discern whether their words evoke an energetic bias for action which can make a genuine difference or rather reflect a bystander’s judgment of a pre-determined future.
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