Peak Oil Solutions
Fossil fuel will not last forever, and the change will be monumental. Mainstream media ignores the obvious (the inevitability of peak oil), and belabors the impossible (techno-fixes). Instead of focusing on making the consumer society more efficient we need to be looking at cooperative solutions that will actually work.
Peak Oil Solutions
I was handing out fliers about the impact of oil depletion on American foreign policy at an anti-war rally recently. A young man stopped to talk to me. I don't know if he was a student of economics, but he was certainly better dressed than I was. “Peak oil,” he chuckled, “that's Matt Simmons, an oil financiers' attempt to understand oil extraction.... He doesn't know what he is talking about.”
The odd thing about dismissing peak oil is that it's like dismissing gravity. No one, save a few wingnuts, can argue that oil is finite resource, and production will, without fail, peak and fall. How soon and how dramatic the decline rate might be, or what the responses might be are open to question. But peak oil itself is not, nor is it reasonable to imagine that the transition will be anything less than monumental.
We think of silly primitive cultures as being mired in myths, and of modern industrial society as being somehow more rational, more scientific. The reality is that our car-loving, growth-addicted society is no less mythological than any that has come before us. We are, like everyone else, convinced by our own myths. Our myths cause us to ignore the obvious and belabor the impossible. Peak oil, whatever the timing, is as obvious as gravity, and yet we are making scant preparation for its arrival. The expounding of impossible techno-solutions fits well with out myth of progress, but are they not ultimately rooted in reality.
I fear the peak oil movement may to some extent be guilty of the same fault. There is considerable discussion about biofuel, solar, nuclear, and other energy sources these days. But is peak oil really a physics problem? What if the most optimistic assessments of all the whiz-bang alternative energy sources were to come true? What if gasohol dropped back down to a dollar a gallon? The SUVs would roll, the citizens would celebrate with a mighty feast of consumption. But would the diameter of the Earth change? Would the essential problem of exponential growth on a finite planet be solved by cheap energy – or exacerbated? So why the focus on new energy sources and technology?
As much as we are belaboring the impossible – that new energy sources that could somehow sustain infinite growth on a finite planet – we are ignoring the obvious. This problem is fundamentally political, social, and cultural, not mechanical. We tend to assume that humans have no capability to choose their own lifestyle, to live in some social arrangement other than the one they inherited. The entire discussion of energy tends to ignore the painfully obvious fact such conscious choosing of our own lifestyle, or own economic and social arrangements, represents the only effective solution to the extraordinary challenges that we face.
I cringed when Bush gave his last State of the Union address. What do a bunch of hippies and the word's most powerful conservatives have in common? A love of biofuel. God help us.
I grew up on a farm in Georgia. It was a conventional farm, with all the chemical fertilizer and herbicides a modern agricultural chemist could want. That farm had been there a long, long time, passing through many generations of my family. We still farmed the same field that my great- great- grandfather cleared by hand in the early 1800s. The field beside it was, and had always been, a cow pasture. We finally took that fence down one day, and plowed right across those two fields. It was stunning to see the soil that had been protected, albeit by accident, by the steady presence of grass. The cow-pasture soil was brown, loamy. Then the plow hit that old field, and it was sand, falling hard and compact from the tillage of the plows. I have always loved to grow things. And now the orchard around my house is fed with leaves and straw discarded by my neighbors. Their waste feeds my young trees, and it is not unusual for me to get 8 to 12 feet of vertical growth on a first-year tree.
We are a culture that is terribly disconnected from the entire biosphere – the same biosphere that has always fed us. When I hear them talk about turning agricultural “waste” into fuel, my gut turns. They don't know what the hell they are talking about. Even apart from the low return on energy you get from processing huge volumes of organic matter, that “waste” is the life of the soil. And without that soil, we will not eat, much less drive. The soil is a living creature, and all that straw, dead grass, cobs – all the material that is supposedly going to feed our cellulosic ethanol plants – is the food of that soil, the nurturance of the creature that feeds us. But they don't have a clue, the big boys in their blue suits, of where their lunch came from.
We assume that the current consumption is driven by greed, and that greed is human nature. As if we are born with a gene that loves that new car smell, and carnal desire to rove through indoor malls. Greed is not human nature, consumerism is not genetic. The reality is that most humans throughout most of history have lived in societies that disdained greedy or boastful behavior. The long history of smaller, more egalitarian cultures that preceded our own very stratified culture is a history of societies that idealized thoughtful community members and ostracized the boastful braggart. So why, then, do we presume that the current orgy of greedy and consumptive behavior is “human nature” and cannot be changed or effectively challenged? Is it any coincidence that our consumptive behavior provides an enormous economic stimulus to the industrial economy? Greed is not human nature, but the drive to seek social respect in the eyes of others most certainly is. We have defined consumption as socially desirable behavior not because it is human nature, but because it fuels the engine of industrial growth, creating profits and power as the money spins with the fury of a Wal-mart tornado. Retail storefront space per capita has expanded ten fold since 1950.
Nor is it human nature to behave like yeast in a petri dish. Thomas Malthus, whose ideas of perpetual human overpopulation and collapse underlie any discussion of population limits, was a conservative “Christian” who saw the poor as sexually and morally degenerate. He was a “neo-con” of his time, blaming the poor for the own poverty. The core of his philosophy is that the poor are poor because they are intemperate, not because the rich horde the wealth. His argument was that if only the poor weren't so promiscuous, they wouldn't be poor. In the end Malthusianism becomes the veil over class conflict and genocide. And somehow that has become an unchallenged assumption.
If you look at the real record of human history, you will find that many human cultures have purposefully slowed or stabilized their population growth in order to live within ecological limits. This was true of many gathering groups and indigenous peoples from New Guinea to North America. A systematic study conducted by Sir Alexander Carr-Saunders in 1922 documented the purposeful population limiting behavior of indigenous cultures all over the world. Rampant growth of human populations is not a natural behavior of our species. It is indicative either of horrific cultural dislocation (Vietnam at the height of the war, and the contemporary Palestinian territories are both examples of nations/ territories with very high population growth), or of those modern imperial societies that seek population growth to maximize the number of workers and soldiers.
The fundamental problem of sustainability is endemic to large human societies. Every previous militarized empire left a mess in its wake, and we are well along the path to doing the same. And yet, no one has an answer for the end of growth. All of our economic assumptions, the very stability of modern political systems, rests on the presumption of continued economic growth that is predicated on cheap energy. Whatever the return from various alternative energy sources, none are going to be as cheap and plentiful as oil.
“We” are facing a contraction of economic activity. And yet another hole in the entire peak oil discussion is the definition of “we.” When "we" arrive at the age of contraction, are "we" going to hold hands and merrily decide how to change everything, or are those in control of power going to try to tighten the reigns of their power, to starve out the poor, to blame minorities for the ills that beset us? And if civilization does enter some manner of collapse, the other “we” that is going to pay the price is wild nature. The frogs and the honey bees are already dying off en masse, and the game is far from over. The world of living creatures that have come to inhabit the Earth in the last 4 billion years is in grave danger. The middle-class Americans who sit atop a global class system that is disconnected from nature are not in immediate danger. No wonder they are not so concerned. Humans will not contract our numbers without killing every bunny rabbit on the planet in the process. I don't mean to be harsh or cynical, simply to point out the scale of what is at stake. We are not going to peacefully transition to a post-oil world by accident.
I live in a house, the only strawbale house in this particular city. The newspaper ran an article the other day, about a house just outside of town, the “greenest house east of the Mississippi.” Built with what I don't know exactly, but the price tag was $800,000. I have built houses and other buildings with straw, shredded paper, leaves, wadded-up newspaper. A little chicken wire and mud, and a super-insulated house is terribly easy to build. We speak of energy-saving technologies as if they were a new discovery. They are not. It's really, really easy to build a house with thick walls that doesn't use much energy. We don't do it that way because consuming so much energy is a powerful economic stimulus. My house has solar hot water panels that heat the house and the domestic water with a tiny amount of additional gas. My house does not have a photovoltaic installation. And the electric bill runs $3-5 per person per month. The fridge lives outside, through a little doorway. The light bulbs are, naturally, efficient ones. We also grow a lot of fruit and food in the yard. The point is that we have created a myth that living with less energy and consumption is difficult and expensive. It is not, not at all. You can talk about all the sophisticated technology you want. Every night I sleep under a roof that has 2 feet of crumpled newspaper for insulation. And it works just fine. This isn't about technology, it's about how and why we as a society make smart or foolish choices.
The problem we face is monumental, an extraordinary change to industrial society. The solutions are not technological. You're calling the forest I love biofuel, and the soil the feeds us cellulosic ethanol. The solutions to our problems are not mechanically difficult. They simply involve a profound challenge to our cultural mythology. And yet the activist/ liberal/ alternative/ peak oil crowd seems to be perpetually sucked back into the mythology. The mythology says that technology saved us from our horrible past, and that it is a magic force that can guide us into the future. I travel around now, conducting a slideshow about subjects in a book I just wrote. I ask the audience, “What would happen if we found a cheap and abundant new source of energy?” The audience replies along the lines of , “People would buy more SUVs, build more expansive sprawl houses, and consume like there's no tomorrow.”
When it comes to machines, we are really smart. The part we get wrong is understanding our own cultural evolution, the relationship of our political systems to the ecological and economic systems that underlie them. We have a LOT of energy at our disposal, peak oil or not. We simply use energy very unwisely. I point out that solarizing American suburbia is a futile endeavor. It is extremely expensive to undertake such a course, and it is certainly not something the rest of the world can emulate. I point out that the problem is fundamentally a cultural problem – that the “technology” of using an order of magnitude less energy is idiotically simple. The problem is not mechanical. We fixed that part already. My solar panels work just fine and dandy thank you. The problem is a design problem. You can't afford to put solar panels on every suburban house because the house is used so non-intensively.
Since alternative energy sources invariably have a higher start-up cost, the non-intensive use of American homes favors cheap machines. Residential square footage per capita has tripled since 1950, because houses have gotten larger even as families have gotten smaller. With one lonely bachelor watching TV after work in his new house, a massive solar rack on the roof makes little sense. On the other hand, any cooperative use, intensive use, favors alternative energy. I point out in my talks that if a lot people share a resource, then alternative energy makes sense. Community laundry? Then you would have a hard time stopping people from putting solar panels on the roof because the economics -- intensity of use relative to start-up cost, start-up costs relative to long-term running costs -- are completely reversed from the bachelor with his crap washing machine in the basement with electrically heated water coming into it. The audience nods in approval as I make these points. Then somebody asks me about algae or some such. Surely that can save us. We just can't shake it. We want a techno-pill. We want it real bad.
The problem is that the solutions are stupidly simple, and exactly what people do not want to hear. If we consciously, purposefully rearrange our lifestyles, then the energy crisis evaporates. If we insist that our lifestyle -- did we every really choose this in the first place? -- is our God-given right, then all the “solutions” to energy use in industrial society are, as my redneck buddies would say back in Georgia, pissing in the wind. If you think hybrid cars, compact florescent light bulbs, and solar panels flung across American suburbia are going to save us, you're wrong. The question is not whether or not you use biofuel to drive to work. The question is whether or not you drive to work.
Shouldn't we say what is really true, whether or not they want to hear it? I have been an activist for a while -- tear gassed, arrested, chased about by excited police officers. As far as I can tell, it's a choice. You can work on the edge of what people are willing to hear, push for legislation or incremental changes. Or you can speak the pure radical truth that almost no one wants to listen to. Most activists choose to be a bit more effective even if it means swallowing some of their honest assessments. Fair enough. The problem is that the gap between mythology and reality in the western world is growing cavernously wide. Our mythology says we bring democracy and civilization to the savages all over the world. The reality is that, with a contracting energy supply, and with food and fuel now linked commodities, we are setting the stage for genocide on a scale not seen since the good old days of colonialism. You think American foreign policy is nutty now, what happens when gas hits $10 a gallon? And what happens to the global food supply, aka ethanol and biodiesel, at that point? Our mythology -- the same mythology that even the peak oilers and activists just can't seem to escape -- is that the problem is technological, if only we can find the right “alternative” energy.
The reality is that producing what we need, in a society that was more consciously and thoughtfully constructed, would not be that hard. It's the only option we really have at this point, the only thing that will really work. And it is precisely what we seem most reluctant to talk about.
Humans are herd animals. The corporate media has convinced us all of our own powerlessness in the face of enormous institutions. The whole damnable global industrial culture has become our herd. And now is the time when those of us who want the herd to move in a different direction have to step out of line and walk in that different direction. We are going to look silly, out of place. That is the nature of things. If we are lucky, they will come along with us in time.
Alexis Zeigler is an author, activist, and lifetime communitarian living in central VA. His new book, Culture Change: Civil Liberty, Peak Oil, and the End of Empire, can be seen at conev.org
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