After displaying in its lobby what was heralded as “the most expensive Christmas Tree in history” the Emirates Palace Hotel has apparently decided that, even in the land of excess that is Abu Dhabi, this was just too much and issued a statement regretting what it called it's "attempts to overload" the tradition.
Personally I do not think it the best reflection on the tiny emirate that, like many of its neighbors, squatted for centuries upon a wasteland of sand until the advent of the modern age brought them riches beyond their wildest dreams courtesy the black soup just below their tents. Abu Dhabi, and even more so Dubai, are symptoms of what happens to many a people who are so poor for so long and then in a mere blink of an eye become fabulously wealthy…so much so that they seem unable to handle how to display their new money with tact and grace. Like Ralph “there’s plenty more where that came from” Kramden who discovered a suitcase of cash, they’ve gone all-out to flaunt their sudden wealth by building the world’s tallest (by far) skyscraper, the world’s largest manmade islands, the most expensive this, the biggest that, etc.
To be fair, when I look at this Christmas tree I know there’s no disrespect intended for the emirates are an oasis of forbearance within an ever more intolerant Muslim desert. They have to be for it is foreign money that makes them hum in the form of investment capital, property development, new business hubs and, of course in the case of Abu Dhabi, oil. Lots and lots of petrodollars in fact. I forgive them for completely missing the spirit of the season whose celebrated figure, Jesus Christ, was born in the utmost of humility, to obscure parentage, in a tiny outpost of a vast empire far removed from its decadent capital of Rome. True Christianity, the thinking adult’s C.S. Lewis brand, is a far cry from the Bill Maher caricature and thus many of its complexities and subtleties are lost on the non-Christian (as much as I am sure I inadvertently step on the sensibilities of my Jewish and Muslim friends without realizing from time to time).
Indeed, as the hotel managers quickly realized, this tree may be viewed as an indictment of a culture awash in new money and prone to an ethos of excess. But it is even more so a stark and deeply disturbing reminder of just how dependent on foreign oil we have become to be pouring so much national treasure into kingdoms that they have the disposable income to erect such a tacky gilded-age monument to the new age of hydrocarbon man as an evergreen tree draped with $11 million worth of baubles and bling. This tree should enlighten us more about ourselves than the UAE don’t you think?
It tells us that since 1970 our dependence on foreign oil has doubled from 30% to north of 60% of our daily consumption, driving the greatest wealth transfer in human history in the process. It tells us that while South Africa created the largest synthetic fuels program in the world, we've barely even scratched the surface of what our abundant natural resources in coal, natural gas and biomass can provide for us in-house by way of energy independence. What that tree positively shouts to us is that we are a nation whose priorities are so backward that, as Thomas Friedman points out, we continue the suicidal cycle of borrowing money from China, siphoning it through our gas tanks and puking it out to foreign nations (some quite hostile to us) because we refuse to take the steps necessary to make this diabolical trade obsolete. For the price of the $700 billion stimulus we could have been on our way to engineering a synthetic fuels Manhattan Project that could have had within the decade enough plants (depending on whose figures roughly $7 billion per 100,000 daily coal/natural gas to liquids production facilities) to completely eradicate our reliance on not just OPEC’s five million bbls/day but most other foreign suppliers’ product as well. The windfall in dollars staying in our economy, in jobs created by a bourgeoning synfuels industry, in improved national security, in the cost in blood and treasure of foreign wars we no longer need wage in the most tinderbox of regions—areas would revert back to their pre-oil strategic lack of import—cannot be fathomed. The technology already exists! It has since the 1920s. But an independent synfuels economy rather than one beholden to foreign energy pushers is just a pipe dream…or more accurately a trunk-line dream.
As you contemplate your own decidedly less pricey Tannenbaum this year, please consider this little statistic: there are currently 700 cars per 1,000 Americans. 500 per 1,000 Europeans. Today there are only 30 cars for every 1,000 Chinese (the most populous nation on the globe). But that last figure is expected to increase eight fold to 240 per 1,000 by 2035. With such ominous implied demand for an indispensable product that we import more than any other country looming before us, we need to ask once and for all where best to steer our national treasure going forward. We can either think ahead towards real and achievable energy independence, or we can be prepared to decorate many more of the Arab world’s gratuitous monuments to their American oil junkies in the years to come.