'Advanced' Civilization: The Long Party is Over
"Our current way of life is unsustainable. We are the first species that will have to self-consciously impose limits on ourselves if we are to survive." -- Robert Jensen
In 2010 we watched, aghast, as British Petroleum' s Macondo Well in the Gulf of Mexico blew it's top and leaked umpteen millions of gallons of raw crude oil into the Gulf, poisoning and killing much of the sealife, ruining gulf coast ecosystems, and destroying a way of life for millions of south coast people.
We watched, as business and political leaders and mainstream media went into paroxysms of delusional denial to cover up the sheer unabashed criminality of the event, and tried to create a reality built of smoke and mirrors in which something approaching "normalcy" would once again reign and we could all just jump into our cars and drive off into the sunset as if nothing important or even noteworthy had happened, while those business and political "leaders" operate in the delusion that military might, invasions and occupations, and wholesale oppression and killing of millions of people in "other" parts of the world - as if there is more than "one" world - all done using a military that paradoxically is the single largest consumer of energy in the world - will somehow secure a never ending supply of the energy required to keep our "advanced civilization" operating forever.
Remind you of a hampster wheel? Faster and faster to nowhere.
Jensen's quote opening this essay is from his 2008 article The Delusion Revolution: We're on the Road to Extinction and in Denial:
Imagine that you are riding comfortably on a sleek train. You look out the window and see that not too far ahead the tracks end abruptly and that the train will derail if it continues moving ahead. You suggest that the train stop immediately and that the passengers go forward on foot. This will require a major shift in everyone's way of traveling, of course, but it appears to you to be the only realistic option; to continue barreling forward is to court catastrophic consequences. But when you propose this course of action, others who have grown comfortable riding on the train say, "Well, we like the train, and arguing that we should get off is not realistic."
In the contemporary United States, we are trapped in a similar delusion. We are told that it is "realistic" to capitulate to the absurd idea that the systems in which we live are the only systems possible or acceptable because some people like them and wish them to continue. But what if our current level of First World consumption is exhausting the ecological basis for life? Too bad -- the only "realistic" options are those that take that lifestyle as non-negotiable.
Let me offer a different view of reality: (1) We live in a system that, taken as a whole, is unsustainable, not only over the long haul but in the near term, and (2) unsustainable systems can't be sustained.
How's that for a profound theoretical insight? Unsustainable systems can't be sustained.
The delusional revolution is my term for the development of sophisticated propaganda techniques in the 20th century (especially a highly emotive, image-based advertising system) that have produced in the bulk of the population (especially in First World societies) a distinctly delusional state of being. Even those of us who try to resist it often can't help but be drawn into parts of the delusion. As a culture, we collectively end up acting as if unsustainable systems can be sustained because we want them to be. Much of the culture's storytelling -- particularly through the dominant storytelling institution, the mass media -- remains committed to maintaining this delusional state. In such a culture, it becomes hard to extract oneself from that story.
So, in summary: The agricultural revolution set us on a road to destruction. The industrial revolution ramped up our speed. The delusional revolution has prevented us from coming to terms with the reality of where we are and where we are heading. That's the bad news. The worse news is that there's still overwhelming resistance in the dominant culture to acknowledging that these kinds of discussions are necessary. This should not be surprising because, to quote Wes Jackson, we are living as "a species out of context." Jackson likes to remind audiences that the modern human -- animals like us, with our brain capacity -- have been on the planet about 200,000 years, which means these revolutions constitute only about 5 percent of human history. We are living today trapped by systems in which we did not evolve as a species over the long term and to which we are still struggling to adapt in the short term.
Realistically, we need to get on a new road if we want there to be a future. The old future, the road we imagined we could travel, is gone -- it is part of the delusion. Unless one accepts an irrational technological fundamentalism (the idea that we will always be able to find high-energy/advanced-technology fixes for problems), there are no easy solutions to these ecological and human problems. The solutions, if there are to be any, will come through a significant shift in how we live and a dramatic downscaling of the level at which we live. I say "if" because there is no guarantee that there are solutions. History does not owe us a chance to correct our mistakes just because we may want such a chance.
Aside from the environmental damage the use of fossil fuels cause to us now, what can we expect to happen when the world's supply of oil is finally depleted beyond the point where what remains can be extracted and produced for use?
"The scientific community has long agreed that our dependence on fossil fuels inflicts massive damage on the environment and our health, while warming the globe in the process", noted The Nation earlier this year in a short January 05 article Peak Oil and a Changing Climate, introducing a new 4 part video series from The Nation and On the Earth Productions produced since:
Radio host Thom Hartmann explains that the world will reach peak oil within the next year if it hasn’t already. As a nation, the United States reached peak oil in 1974, after which it became a net oil importer.
Bill McKibben, Noam Chomsky, Nicole Foss, Richard Heinberg and the other scientists, researchers and writers interviewed throughout "Peak Oil and a Changing Climate" describe the diminishing returns our world can expect as it deals with the consequences of peak oil even as it continues to pretend it doesn’t exist. These experts predict substantially increased transportation costs, decreased industrial production, unemployment, hunger and social chaos as the supplies of the fuels on which we rely dwindle and eventually disappear.
Chomsky urges us to anticipate the official response to peak oil based on how corporations, news organizations and other institutions have responded to global warming: obfuscation, spin and denial. James Howard Kunstler says that we cannot survive peak oil unless we "come up with a consensus about reality that is consistent with the way things really are."
The videos in the series are not short nor are they light viewing entertainment, but rather delve very deeply and searchingly into the many questions surrounding our so-called "advanced civilization" rapidly approaching the point of being without the produceable "net energy" it takes to sustain it.
Beginning with the first 20 minute video of the series, "Peak Oil and a Changing Climate: An Introduction", Thom Hartmann, Bill McKibben, Noam Chomsky, Nicole Foss, Richard Heinberg and a few others open the series with a definition of "Peak Oil" and a discussion of fossil fuel depletion as it relates to Global Warming.
In the 25 minute second video of the series, Richard Heinberg, senior fellow with the Post Carbon Institute, discusses how depleting oil supplies threaten the future of global economic growth. According to Heinberg, historically there has been a close correlation between increased energy consumption and economic growth:
If the economy starts to recover after the financial crisis and there is an increased demand for oil but not enough supply to keep up with that demand, we may hit a ceiling on what the economy can do.
"What politician is going to be able to standup in front of the American people and tell them the truth?" Heinberg asks. "Every politician is going to want to promise more economic growth and blame the lack of growth on the other political party…. The whole political system starts to get more and more polarized and more and more radical until it just comes apart at the seams."
Continuing through the 40 minute third video in the series, Nicole M. Foss explains how energy relates to the economy and what our impending energy crisis will look like. Foss discusses the issues associated with peak oil in financial rather than environmental terms, because she finds that peak oil has much more to do with finance than it does with climate change:
Foss talks about what she calls a "false positive feedback loop," which involves optimism leading to "caution being thrown to the wind." When this happens, Foss believes that people become angry. Succumbing to fear and anger might lead to engagement in destructive behavior, which would make it harder for society to confront peak oil and climate change.
Reacting to former vice president Dick Cheney, who once said "the American way of life is not negotiable," Foss says, "That's true because reality is not going to negotiate with you."
Rather than overwhelm you posting the first three videos here, I'll leave it at that and leave you to click the links above and watch the videos at your convenience. Because this is the point where we step away from the theoreticals and abstracts and hit you where all this is going to hurt you and yours concretely in what you may think is the worst way - in your wallet - I will however ask you to take the time - about the same length of time as your average sitcom - to watch and listen very closely to the 35 minute fourth video in the series.
I'll tell you now you'll be glad you did, as author of "The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century", blogger and social critic James Howard Kunstler methodically and irrepressibly "opens up on two circumstances he sees running neck and neck "that are going to put us out of business as an advanced industrial civilization"—the "fiasco" in banking, money and finance and the unfolding 'energy predicament.'"
He explains that the crises are really all about "capital" and that we need to look at how wealth has been accumulated and deployed for productive purposes.
Kunstler suggests that "cheap abundant energy" has facilitated ever-increasing industrialization for centuries. But now that society is in a period of self-destructive capital accumulation, he expects debt to increase as abundance in energy drops. The tremendous amount of accumulated debt, "a by-product of cheap abundant energy," will mean that in the future governments will be less able to make investments in socially-beneficial programs.
He also criticizes the US environmental movement for shying away from the problem of energy. The movement is unable to talk about walkable neighborhoods, smaller cities or investing in rail or water transit, an "intellectual failure of the culture to have a coherent conversation from people who ought to be leading" such a conversation.
Watch (and you may want to take notes): James Howard Kunstler: Peak Oil and Our Financial Decline