The wisdom of Canute

One of my favorite legends from English history is that of King Canute, the eleventh-century Danish warrior-king whose reign briefly interrupted the rise of the Anglo-Saxon monarchy begun by Alfred the Great.

The tale has many versions.  This is my favorite.

Wearied by his courtiers’ flattery, Canute commanded that his throne be placed on the beach at low tide.  Then, seating himself in all his majesty, the King commanded the ocean not to rise.  He repeated his command from time to time until the waters lapped about his feet, his ankles and finally his knees.

Canute commanded that his throne be carried back indoors, and from that time forward, whenever a courtier grew excessive in his praise, Canute would remind him of the sea’s reverence for his earthly power and majesty.  

Whatever the truth of this story, it fits with history’s overall appraisal of King Canute as a shrewd ruler.   The legend itself credits him with a kind of wisdom which often eludes kings – and our times, democratic majorities – i.e., the ability to distinguish between wishes and facts.  

In our own country, both Left and Right have often acted as though mere opinion could change the laws of nature – including human nature.  Such wishful thinking almost inevitably results in bad public policy.

One glaring example of magical thinking in American politics may be found in our continued belief that extracting, transporting and burning fossils fuels solves anything.  
That we are addicted to fossil fuels is, if lamentable, not yet fatal.  But it’s an addiction we need to break because it isn’t – like an addiction to coffee – essentially harmless.

For one thing, fossil fuels don’t exist in inexhaustible supply.  While estimates vary, most experts agree that we are nearing, if not past, the point at which half of all oil reserves have been pumped out.  When you consider that we’ve used up about half of the planet’s oil in a century, and that there are far more of us now using a lot more oil per person, it seems clear that our dependence upon this commodity will soon have to end.

Very soon, indeed.  Oil companies – like all intelligent agents – tend to go first for the “low-hanging fruit”, i.e., the oil that’s easiest to pump and refine.  More and more, we’re having to find oil deep in the seas, with the resulting risks of ruptured wells; or in polar regions, with the added  costs and dangers of shipping oil over long distances; or in oil sands, with the added economic and environmental costs of its extraction.

Oil, as an important source  of fuel, is in its last few decades.  And, while it lasts, it will continue to grow rapidly more expensive as growing numbers of Asians, Latin Americans, and Africans compete for a resource which used to be reserved for the use of Europeans and North Americans.

For the time being, natural gas seems to be picking up some of the slack.  But we’re beginning to wake up to the dangers and costs associated with “fracking” – and, as these inevitably come to light – Americans will begin to question the value of a fuel  source which, like oil, seems to offer only a few decades of relief from the need to change our ways.

Moreover, these arguments completely ignore the simple reality that fossil fuels, all of them, contribute to global climate change.

With respect to climate change, our time is beginning to run out.  There are still, of course, climate-change skeptics.  But the past decade has seen a steady movement of former skeptics – especially scientists and hardheaded realists like corporate, military and national intelligence leaders – into the camp of the persuaded and alarmed.  

With the exception of the ever-flexible Mitt Romney – and other Republicans who want to be nominated by their increasingly irrational party – there has been no comparable movement of believers into the ranks of the skeptical.

Energy and the environment don’t figure to be a major issue in this campaign.  Both major-party candidates will be trying to convince us that they know how to “bring back” jobs and economic prosperity.

The problem, of course, is that no one can “bring back” an economy based on fossil fuels – or at least, not for long.  The next economy will be based on new assumptions.

John Adams said it well, five years before the Revolution.  “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

It’s time Americans began looking for someone to lead us forward – into a new economy based on sustainability and renewable energy.

King Canute would have understood that.  His fleets were powered by wind-power and the strong arms of his Viking warriors.

And he was wise enough to know when the tide was coming in.


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