“I want to go to war with China,” said presidential hopeful Rick Santorum in a recent GOP debate, showing the cavernous lack of any good sense that has become his trademark. Nonetheless, Santorum was probably speaking for many Americans who fear that China may soon overtake the US as the world’s single great power.
By contrast, many of those same Americans probably think of Saudi Arabia, whose obliging princes seem always at the ready to pump extra crude onto the world market to temper oil price spikes, as the American motorist’s best friend.
But what if the tables were turned, and the kingdom became the scourge of the American infidel while the People’s Republic was set to be our biggest ally? That’s the geopolitical premise of R. Michael Conley’s new peak-oil thriller Lethal Trajectories.
Pride and prejudice
Any political thriller needs villains and Conley gives us Mustafa, an Osama bin Laden-like Saudi prince who aims to wage jihad in Riyadh from inside the highest ranks of Saudi society.
Conley — don’t confuse him with Michael Connelly who wrote The Lincoln Lawyer — gives Mustafa enough flesh and blood to elevate him above mere melodramatic bad guy. With “the square-jawed good looks of a young Omar Sharif…[Mustafa] detested the sinful way in which the oil-driven economy picked away at the proper ways of Islamic society.”
To return the kingdom to that old time religion, the pius prince recruits a secretive band of putschists, including an extremist mullah and a band of military officers, to overthrow Mustafa’s own relatives in the decadent House of Saud, kick out all Westerners and then declare global jihad using Saudi oil as the ultimate weapon of political blackmail.
The conspirators bide their time until the US is distracted by a clash between China and Japan over a disputed oil platform in the East China Sea. Then, while US warships set their course for the Pacific and the White House is stuck trying to quiet saber rattlers in Beijing and Tokyo, Mustafa takes the opportunity to strike in Riyadh.
The result, as Conley puts it, is the “perfect storm” of geopolitical crises that sends the already struggling world economy of the year 2017 into shock. Once established in the palace in Riyadh, the victorious plotters under now-King Mustafa recall all Saudi oil tankers to port. Then, they announce an immediate global embargo and begin to pressure their small, unprotected Gulf neighbors to join them, effectively shutting off most OPEC oil until the world’s nations agree to a series of harsh demands including the isolation of Israel.
As if that’s not bad enough, the storm just gets stormier. Stateside, the US president is dying of cancer while the Pacific crisis remains hot, the domestic economy begins to collapse, gas prices head towards $10 a gallon and right-wing politicians and pundits alike demand the head of the dying president and later, of his successor. Even the climate scientists can’t help from piling on, warning that the world has finally reached dangerous tipping points in the slide towards atmospheric anarchy.
Sense and sensibility
People piling on brings us to the novel’s other main villain, bloviating TV pundit Wellington Crane (clearly modeled on Rush Limbaugh) who sees radio-ratings gold in the nation’s deep distress. As he blasts the White House for going soft on both Communism and Islamic jihad, his popularity soars. But Crane’s own arrogance causes him to step out too far.
One of my favorite scenes is when the over-confident Crane debates the vice president, Clayton McCarty, on a financial TV talk show. McCarty understands energy and the environment, displaying a passion for climate science equal to Al Gore and savvy on peak oil like Rep. Roscoe Bartlett. It’s satisfying to see McCarty triumph over the obnoxious and ill-informed Crane, who clearly follows the school of Daniel Yergin that peak oil lies many years in the future.
Yes, it’s unrealistic to think that a US vice president could ever be so sensible and well informed on peak oil. But you can’t blame a guy for dreaming.
Crane brings up one theory after another of how unconventional fossil fuels could produce plenty of oil: shale fields in the Rockies, ANWR in Alaska, deepwater oil in the Gulf, etc. Then, McCarty shoots each one down, not for environmental reasons, but because of economics. This allows the vice president to give a wonderfully clear explanation of why the peak oil situation is actually worse than we might think, if you add in the issue of peak production:
What am I suggesting? Just this — unlike the geologic concept of peak oil, peak production reflects both geologic and aboveground constraints such as market conditions, cost of production, geopolitical considerations, availability of deepwater rigs and labor, technological challenges, and the like. When you drill down into ten thousand feet of water and then another twenty thousand feet of ocean bottom to find oil, the cost of drilling, extraction, and processing eventually exceeds the commercial value of the oil…Peak production is like saying ‘I might be able to find new oil at twenty bucks a gallon, but who’s going to buy it?’
Ultimately, the outcome of the story rides on one question: what will happen with China, which remains the US’s largest trading partner despite a budding cold war between the two powers.
Conley, who served as a communications technician in the navy, knows his geopolitics as well as he knows his weaponry, expertise which he demonstrates in 40 pages of notes placed unobtrusively at the end of the book. Yet, for a hard-nosed military man who also worked in insurance, Conley shows a warm heart.
Some of the book’s most engaging scenes take place in the depressed Rust Belt city of Mankato in Conley’s own home state of Minnesota, where Pastor Veronica Larson’s “Life Challenges” ministry brings succor to the financially strapped in the style of a Resilience Circle, with support for the unemployed and ride-sharing for those who still have a commute but can’t afford to gas up their cars.
I know that Conley is an old softie because in the end, those who cooperate with unlikely allies beat out those who merely compete with others for their own self-interest. And that’s a message you won’t find in every political thriller. Nor in every novel on peak oil, so many of which tend to intensely individualistic apocalypse where community quickly crumbles and survival comes out of the barrel of a gun.
Call him naive, but Conley thinks that industrial civilization may be able to save itself from oil-driven collapse if both citizens and world leaders stop thinking with our wallets and start thinking with our hearts.
Citizens may already be there. But, as the Occupy movement has helped us all to admit in the open, our leaders remain bought and paid for by big corporations. Thus, given the power of plutocrats, before we could even elect a Vice President McCarty willing to get America off of oil, first we’d have to dislodge ExxonMobil and the US Chamber of Commerce from Washington.
A big task, perhaps impossible at this stage. But unless you want to throw up your hands in despair, a good start would be to stop listening to guys like Rick Santorum, beating the drum of fearful self-interest and mongering for war, and start listening more closely to guys like Conley. What if our biggest rivals could become our best friends and our biggest challenges, the opportunities that redeem us?
Click here to read an excerpt from Lethal Trajectories.
— Erik Curren, Transition Voice