It took Theodore Roosevelt a few months to find his sea legs following his unexpected ascent to the presidency.
He found them five months later, when in February 1902, his administration took on America's swaggering financial barons by filing an antitrust suit against the Northern Securities Co.
The monopolists who dominated the nation's economy did not take kindly to such impudence. As Edmund Morris described it colorfully in Theodore Rex: "Now they stood shoulder to shoulder against him, legionnaires of the established economic order, bristling with wealth, courteously hostile behind their breastplates of boiled cotton."
From that point forward, TR became known to history as a trustbuster, intolerant of monopolies, and of the abuses, economic distortions, and loss of freedom that follow in their wake.
Jump ahead a century. We are gripped by a monopoly of a different sort. It imposes growing risks to the economy, makes us vulnerable to hostile, undemocratic regimes, and threatens lasting damage to the natural capital that makes modern civilization possible. It begs for a TR-style intervention.
The monopoly is the grip that fossil fuels hold over the energy that we use to grow our food, move our goods, warm our homes, and power our cities.
If we proceed with business as usual and allow the fossil fuel monopoly to continue its unfettered sway, we face "alarming consequences for climate change and energy security," the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in its World Energy Outlook 2009.
"The rate of growth of fossil-energy consumption projected in the (business-as-usual) scenario takes us inexorably towards a long-term concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere in excess of 1,000 (parts per million) of CO2-equivalent." The result: "massive climatic change and irreparable damage to the planet," IEA warns.
The IEA is made up of career civil servants and diplomats trained in economics, law, and public administration. Such people are not in the habit of using white-hot language unless they have a damned good reason for doing so.
Which is why conservatives ought to think about fossil fuel dependence as a harmful monopoly that must be dealt with swiftly and forcefully. Climate blogger Joseph Romm pointed out recently that conservatives repelled by big government and its regulatory reach ought to consider what could be in store if we remain in thrall to the fossil fuel monopoly. If the climate spins out of control as a result of thick-headed resistance to changing the energy status quo, we'll be regulated by big government, within an inch of our lives. No other institution could armor the coasts, re-allocate water supplies, and deal with all of the other emergency adaptations that likely would be necessary.
If conservatives can't bring themselves to accept climate change science because Al Gore made a movie about it, then perhaps oil's monopoly over transportation and its pernicious threat to national security ought to interest them. The new book, Turning Oil into Salt: Energy Independence Through Fuel Choice, makes it clear that drill-baby-drill doesn't solve that problem.
As authors Gal Luft and Anne Korin, co-directors of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security, put it bluntly: "Playing in the same playing field with the likes of Hugo Chavez, Saudi King Abdullah, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Vladimir Putin is playing a game we can never win. They have most of the world's oil; we have - drill everywhere - barely 3 percent of conventional oil reserves."
David Sandalow, formerly with the Brookings Institution and now the Department of Energy's head of policy and international affairs, wrote in his 2008 book, Freedom from Oil, that we must wrap our heads around the idea that we ought to have energy choices like we have choices in food, drink, and countless other essential products. "For most Americans, in most situations today, there are no substitutes for oil available. We grew up with this. So did our parents and grandparents. We consider it normal. But it is deeply abnormal."
Breaking monopolies breaks the abuses and harms with which they burden our lives. It is a blow for freedom. Theodore Roosevelt understood that a century ago. Conservatives resisting a change in the energy status quo ought to think about that today.
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