You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to myStatesman.com

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.

GREAT REASONS TO SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

  • IN-DEPTH REPORTING
  • INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING
  • NEW TOPICS & COVERAGE
  • ePAPER
X

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks

X

Welcome to myStatesman.com

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on myStatesman.com.

Commentary: How food and energy led to polarization in America


In opinion polls, election results, television viewing habits and social media chatter, we can see the increasing polarization among us. Practically all explanations for this increased polarization revolve around social and political factors. These factors are important, but they don’t tell the entire story.

Civilizations rise and fall, and it is important to have context for how they evolve over time. Part of this context relates to understanding what we can choose to avoid versus what we can’t avoid no matter what we choose.

The classic example of the rise and fall of a civilization is the Roman Empire. As the empire expanded, it brought prosperity to Romans at the expense of those in the newly conquered provinces. This expansion continued until control of new territories became too burdensome. The size of the empire was self-limiting largely because of diminishing returns on the acquisition of more natural resources.

Some scholars say there are the U.S. today parallels the Roman Empire, and I agree. There are parallels from resource constraints, and we must heed the implications.

VIEWPOINTS: The Statesman’s editorial writers and columnists tackle local and national issues.

There were three phases of progression of the U.S. economy between 1947 and 2012. The three phases are distinguished by the changing rates of U.S. power consumption; the cost of food, energy and water; and distinct changes in structural indicators.

Before the 1970s, when power consumption was increasing rapidly and energy and food were becoming cheaper, the U.S. economy distributed money more evenly across all economic sectors as it grew rapidly. After 2002, when power consumption was stagnant and energy and food became more expensive, the U.S. economy distributed money less evenly as it acquired high quantities of debt and grew much more slowly. In between the 1960s and 2002 was an intermediate transition affected by both energy constraints (e.g., Arab oil embargo and Iran Revolution) and social changes (e.g., reduction of union and other labor power).

The more energy you have and the cheaper it is, the easier it is to expand and distribute. Both higher power consumption and cheaper energy, along with food, are associated with increasingly uniform distribution of money among economic sectors. The corollary is that if the U.S. is not consuming energy at a higher rate, and if we’re not making energy and food substantially cheaper, then we might expect it to be harder to distribute proceeds.

Energy and food costs have declined tremendously since World War II, but since 2002, that hasn’t been the case. This change in trend is new, unprecedented and unappreciated. Food and energy will never compose zero percent of our spending, so they cannot decrease in cost forever. Physical resource constraints eventually get translated into economic constraints. It is irresponsible for us to assume the social changes are not influenced and governed by these constraints.

These physical constraints help explain the increase in polarization. As many citizens were excluded from global prosperity, it was easier to take an “us” (excluded Americans) versus “them” (bankers, China, the elite, etc.) mentality. During the last election, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders each had a base of “us” with many common members, but with a more dissimilar group of “them” to attack. Before the fall of Rome, warring factions of politicians emerged, no longer working together. Since 2008, Congress has passed very little legislation, much less bipartisan.

BE THE FIRST TO KNOW: When big news breaks, we send Breaking News emails. Click to sign up.

We can’t legislate changes to the energy supply and assume they can always overcome physical challenges, just like the Roman Senate couldn’t just tell the army to take over new territory like the “good ol’ days.” Consider the Renewable Fuels Standard. Policymakers, economists and Silicon Valley venture capitalists thought the production of more than 30 billion gallons per year of liquid biofuels was simply a matter of human effort and ingenuity. It wasn’t, and it isn’t. On the fossil side, while Trump’s aim to bring back coal helped get him elected, it cannot “make America great again.”

We must recognize and accept that physical constraints do govern our lives, and that we can choose to change how to distribute our wealth as a separate goal to increasing overall wealth. One way to do this is to reward business and political leaders who accept and plan for, rather than deny, such constraints.

King is a research scientist and assistant director in the Energy Institute at the University of Texas.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Opinion

Two Views: Abbott’s pick-up sticks play politics with a special session
Two Views: Abbott’s pick-up sticks play politics with a special session

With apologies to Joyce Kilmer, the American poet and hero killed in World War I, we might begin a look at the upcoming special session of the Texas Legislature by rudely rewriting a bit of Kilmer’s most famous poem: Laws are made by fools like thee But only God can make a tree. Only the governor can set agenda items for a special session &mdash...
Two Views: Special session offers opportunity for conservative reforms
Two Views: Special session offers opportunity for conservative reforms

There’s a scene in the 1984 film, “Romancing the Stone,” when Kathleen Turner’s character, whose sister has been kidnapped and held for ransom until she delivers a treasure map, says to her hero, “That map is my sister’s life.” Jack T. Colton, played by Michael Douglas, replies, “Like hell it is. Whatever&rsquo...
Letters to the editor: June 26, 2017
Letters to the editor: June 26, 2017

Re: June 20 article, “Already pinched, Texas parks not getting promised state money.” Why am I not surprised! Texas lawmakers have once again siphoned off these state park funds for other purposes, including balancing the state budget. Enough already! The state parks have millions of dollars of backlogged maintenance of parks, facilities...
Commentary: On school bonds, it’s time to go in for all of Austin
Commentary: On school bonds, it’s time to go in for all of Austin

When your school district includes 130 buildings with an average age of 46 years, major renovations will be in order. It is time for Austin to go all in for a school bond that declares our commitment to education across the whole city. The current proposed bond package serves some areas well, neglects others, and doesn’t do enough to address...
Opinion: Can we see past our own cultural blind spots?

Michigan is set to become the 26th state to join the federal government in criminalizing female genital mutilation, even as two Detroit area doctors and one of their wives await trial for inflicting the procedure on a number of young girls. FGM, which is common in some parts of Africa and the Middle East, involves using a razor to remove all or part...
More Stories