Step Functions


John Wright


The recent violence in Libya accompanying violence in other Middle Eastern countries is capturing my closest attention, for I look out in time to consider broad implications globally. The apparent issue here at home is the security and ongoing availability of petroleum, an uninterrupted flow from the Middle East to the USA. The underlying causes of violence in Libya are not the point. A poor global economy has resulted in the Middle East tinder box starting to burn fiercely, and now we have to understand the implications going forward for the entire oil dependent world, especially the USA.

Various pundits are already moaning about how oil prices will cause gasoline prices in the USA to go up. But no one has any real feel how far up happens to be. What I want to make clear is that the USA will become another country of economically induced violence if the price of fuel puts the poorer segments of the population over the edge.

I like to think in terms of discontinuities. We donít always have gradual realizations of problems. Gasoline and fuel oil prices do not have to climb gradually. Declarations of war historically, like WWII, happened with little to no warning given to the common citizens prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Our federal government clearly knew war was going to happen as they were building Fort Mason defenses around San Francisco as early as 1937! Anyway, one day in December of 1941 life was peaceful Ö and then on the 7th we were about to go to war. Rationing quickly followed.

Whether we talk about the military terms like graded levels of response, defensively or offensively, the idea is that gradual changes are not dependable in either negative or positive directions. Thus I decided to title this short but pointed article, "Step Functions."

In mathematics and in applied science there are conditions of stability and continuity, in functions, chemical mixtures, etc., that give no indication of large future change given a small delta of change in some independent variable or in some physical environment, like temperature. What actually happens is that a small change in some independent variable creates a very large change for all dependent variables, mathematical or physical. These can be called step functions.

We are at a transition point relative to the security of availability and cost of petroleum that is a step function. It is irrelevant that the ultimate reason is partially a result of uncontrolled economic disasters based on greed. The only important reality of the moment is the results of that greed plus ignorance, and we have to deal with the results effectively or become part of the overall disaster that is presently appearing only in the Middle East.

I am sure our folks in the NSA, CIA and all branches of the military are very alert and with plans in place to deal with what they can grasp and accommodate. And there is the rub. Do they grasp the implications of the step function or multiple sequential or simultaneous step functions? Put succinctly, availability of oil, uninterrupted, from the Middle East is not an option. It is a massive and disastrous economic domino effect at a global level if not controlled.

Here is an example. If the price of gasoline in the USA increases from $3.10 per gallon to $5.50 quickly for any reason, a large segment of our already economically depressed population will simply be unable, economically, to survive. That, my friends, will make us just as unsettled within our country as the folks are presently in the Middle East. Our government and our businesses cannot afford to let that happen and they will not let that happen if they can control and contain the potential oil supply problem from the Middle East.

Thus we arrive at a dangerous step function. It is rapid escalation of military involvement in areas presently at peace like Saudi Arabia to guarantee an uninterrupted flow of oil to the USA. It doesnít take a genius to figure that out. Alas, when graded levels of response result in overwhelming responses in potentially critical situations there will be undetermined and potentially undeterminable fallout effects. We donít simply walk in and take over if there are global implications, for we will suddenly find ourselves at serious odds with other countries, even nominal allies.

You best hope that we do not have to escalate our already bad involvements broadly in the Middle East. That whorehouse of hot sand and dirt poor fanatics could eat our military resources like Russia did with Napoleon and Hitler. We do not have the depth, militarily or economically, to engage in regional let alone global war.

What kind of step function can you tolerate in your life if petroleum cost doesnít change gradually? Will even a twenty to thirty percent increase in fuel and food transportation and hospital heating costs put you over the edge? Are you ready? What is your contingency plan?