Show of hands, how many of you are familiar with the term 'Hydraulic Empire,' sometimes referred to as hydraulic despotism or as a 'Water Monopoly Empire?'
A hydraulic empire is a power structure which maintains absolute political power over the population through access to water. The term was coined by historian Karl Wittfogel, in his work Oriental Despotism, a comparative study of total power (1957), which was primarily a study on the difference between western and eastern power structures (need a cure for insomnia? Try a Wittfogel, just saying). Despite the title of his paper, Wittfogel wasn't just talking about oriental governments, and he coined the term 'hydraulic empire' in reference to early and ancient civilizations, such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and the Incas (to name a few) where absolute political power depended on the government's total control over irrigation and the water supply through a specialized bureaucracy.
In those ancient civilizations, water was power. Water was in fact the basis for the entire civilization, everything depended on it. Transportation, agriculture, industry, government, everything. As with any power structure, there are advantages and disadvantages to a water monopoly empire. A major advantage is stability, if the empire can reduce or eliminate outside threats then it is likely to last a long, long time - which is exactly what China was doing with that whole Great Wall concept. However, that same advantage becomes a massive weakness should an outside entity gain control over the water supply (this does not apply strictly to human threats either, a number of water empires have crumpled due to changing environments and failing water supplies).
Water empires, should they last, inevitably lead to stagnation and despotism. When the government controls very foundation of the civilization, then sooner or later those in power are going to realize that they can do whatever they like and there's not a hell of a lot the population can do about it. Innovation, especially innovation that could change the power structure, is strongly discouraged. As long as the water supply is plentiful, the population will usually remain unconcerned about the burden their government places on them, because the advantages of their civilization outweigh the disadvantages. However, should the water supply begin to decline, either because the growing population exceeds the supply or because the supply become diminished for whatever reason - the government has no choice but to increase the burden in order to maintain power and control. If the situation becomes critical, the power structure often becomes increasingly violent and insane in an attempt to hold onto power. Eventually this situation reaches a point of no return, and the civilization collapses, sometimes violently, sometimes it just disintegrates piece by piece over a period of time.
Collapse and chaos are not inevitable. Unfortunately, by the time the final crises comes, the government and the population are often so hidebound and blinkered to innovation that they are completely unable to respond effectively. In fact, by this point, change and innovation are seen as a threat to the existing power structure and are often stamped out, violently. By time the collapse is obvious to the population at large, the civilization often lacks the resources to stop it, even if they desire to do so. It's that point, the point where the available resources are no longer sufficient to overcome the crises, no matter how applied, that is the point of no return. After that, no matter what happens, the civilization is in decline and will eventually collapse. Remnants may survive, but the society itself is doomed. The final crises may come gradually as with Rome, or it may come suddenly and without warning as it did to the Incas, or it may be a combination of both as with the Soviet Union.
There's plenty of examples throughout history, go look up a few for yourself, start with the Soviet Union and work backward to Rome and Dynastic China and on back to Babylon. For fun, take a look at some of the range wars fought over water rights in the old American west.
Today, the term 'water empire' has been expanded to include any power structure maintained by exclusive control over the basic resources needed by the population to live. Because, ultimately what we're talking about here is not water, but power, or more specifically, energy. In the ancient agricultural civilizations (and many modern ones), water was energy. Today, it's oil. Other fossil fuels play a role as well, but it's oil that moves the wheels, and tills the corn, and pumps the water.
Which brings us to the United States and the fact that oil is even now hitting a record $107 dollars a barrel (I wonder if in a year I'll look back on this post and marvel at how cheap $107 seems). U.S. average retail gasoline prices have reached a new high of almost $3.20 per gallon and will likely jump another 20 to 30 cents in the next month, worsening the pain of consumers struggling to make ends meet in an economic downturn.
Oil is the working fluid of our water empire - and somebody else controls it.
The warning signs, like the rumbling of a volcano or the chest pains before a heart attack, are growing more frequent and more intense. The United State has faced crisis before, in fact it has faced this crisis before - in the 70's. And we learned nothing, we changed nothing, and when the OPEC embargo passed we went back to building bigger cars, oil fired power plants, and giant super tankers. What we didn't do was build diversity into our energy supply, if anything we've become even more dependent on a single resource that is controlled by somebody else. Somebody hostile to us and our future.
We have not yet passed the point of no return. We still command enormous resources. We do not have to suffer the fate of those lost empires. Sooner or later we are going to face a choice. And that choice is threefold. 1) We can fiddle while Rome burns - i.e. take the traditional course of action and do nothing. We can close our eyes and wring our hands and hope that those in the energy industry and government figure out a solution. Yeah, see how well that has worked in the past? 2) We can seize the assets we need. Also a popular choice for declining empires. Anybody remember why Japan attempted to conquer China and the Pacific Basin the last time around? Or the Nazis attempted to conquer Europe? Living space Hitler called it, but it was really about assets. So, we can go to war in the Middle East, South America, and maybe even Siberia and take the oil for ourselves. Hell, despite history maybe we'll even win. One problem, we need unfettered access to oil to run the war machine. It's a catch-22, and speaking of that, take a look at what happens to Japan and Germany when their oil supplies were cut early in WWII. And finally, there's option 3) We can innovate, now, while we still have the resources. We can diversify the energy basis of our society. We can stimulate our economy, create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, alter our fate - and at the same time remove a very large source of global war and conflict - by ending our dependency on oil. And it can be done, right now, today. The solutions are many and varied.
Tomorrow, in the second half of this post, I'll talk about those solutions. Sane, sustainable, practical solutions - and what a sane, sustainable, and practical national energy policy should look like.