First, our story to date--a tale, incidentally, that is worthy of the pen of Kurt Vonnegut. In the early 1970s, following the British withdrawal from east of Suez, the shah of Iran seized some flyspecks in the Persian Gulf called the Tunb Islands. He did so because he was feeling his oats, because there was no one to stop him and because a few of the islands, although they are small and otherwise worthless, are large enough each to accommodate an artillery piece and a handful of shells, posing a distinctly hypothetical threat (or so the monarch claimed to believe) to the vital petroleum exports originating in the great terminus at Kharg.
The only problem was that the Tunbs, about which nobody in the world had ever worried his head before, legally belonged to some Arabs. In retaliation, Muammar Qaddafi expropriated the Sarir oil field in the Libyan desert.
The Sarir expropriation proved something that had long been suspected: that if a small, weak, oil-rich country decided to take on a major petro company, a fleet would not appear off its shores and the sky would not fall.
During the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries seized its main chance, blasted the price of oil into the stratosphere (as it did again in 1979) and systematically proceeded to loot the pocketbooks of every country in the world unblessed with a surplus of domestically produced hydrocarbons.
Subsequent events--the Iranian hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, double-digit inflation, the Japanese juggernaut, the decline of the industrial Northeast, the splendid little war in the Falklands, the half-trillion dollars in (probably) unrepayable debt that dangles like a safe on a thread above the craniums of international bankers--can be traced to this supreme moment. But OPEC had seriously miscalculated.
It had counted without the old-fashioned ingenuity of the Americans (and the Scandinavians), the adaptability and discipline of the Japanese and the clear-eyed determination of France, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, which is where these three books--Bruce Nussbaum's hastily written, repetitive, important and sometimes brilliant "The World After Oil," Paul Hawken's "The Next Economy" and Edwin Hartrich's "The American Opportunity" (the last two of which should be read as footnotes to the first)--take up the warp and woof of our story.
In a handful of countries using new American inventions and led by Japan, the OPEC holdup triggered the first great technological shift since the Industrial Revolution, compressed the events of decades into a few short years and created a whole new economy based on industrial robots, optical fibers, silicon chips, computers, information and bio-engineering. Pressed into action by the greed of others, the Yankee tinkerer was back, and his tools were superior education, cultural flexibility, artificially mutated bacteria and common beach sand.
So there is good news, of a sort. The use of robots, gene splicing and computers means cheaper and higher-quality goods, healthy trade balances, bountiful harvests and enhanced designs; the migratory factories will return from abroad. And in the unlikely event that the Russians fail to steal the new technologies, the armed forces may finally achieve their elusive dream of an unbeatable weapons system. On the other hand, there is some very bad news indeed.
Nussbaum quite rightly detects a new mercantilism abroad in the world, with nations trading access to their domestic markets for technologies they cannot build on their own, a tactic the French have deployed with telling effect but one the Third World cannot deploy at all.
With rather more confidence than I have, he also predicts the de-industrialization of the less developed countries, the breakup of NATO and the Common Market, and the collapse of the Soviet Union; Germany, stripped of its all-important biological scientists in the Hitler years, racked with romanticism and equipped with the finest 19th-century industrial base on earth, will turn to the East for markets, and the East will fall apart.
These are, as they say, matters of opinion. On the other hand, it is extremely unlikely, as Hartrich's traditional Manchester liberalism compels him to believe, that the transition from the foundry to the microchip can be accomplished with relative ease and a minimum of pain. With literally millions of robot-displaced industrial workers on the verge of joining the millions of functionally illiterate, violence- and machismo-obsessed, increasingly racist poor, Britain is in danger of developing a simply enormous surplus population, and surplus populations rarely resign themselves peacefully to their lot.
Only one thing is certain: the future is likely to be at least as unpleasant as the past.