Friday, November 12, 2010

It's the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine

I still impatiently roll my eyes at Joe Bageant's overgeneralized prose and romantic fancies, but I do agree with him and his Italian acquaintance here:

“What do you believe allowed such abuse and calamity?” I ask.

An intense young woman leans across the table, all black hair and red lips, making an old man moan and sigh inwardly.

“Fossil fuels, of course,” she says. “An unnatural supply of energy. But once that is gone, we're going to have to go back to a whole different way of doing everything. Everything.”

“Spot on,” I agree. At that moment she could have gotten me to agree that the earth is flat.

But the truth is that each gallon of fossil fuel contains the energy of 40 man-hours. And that has played hell with the ecology of human work, thanks mostly to the money economy. For instance, a simple loaf of bread, starting with the fossil fuels used to grow the wheat, transport, mill, bake, create the packaging materials and packaging, advertise and distribute it, uses the energy of two men working for two weeks. Yet this waste and vast inefficiency is invisible to us because we see it only in terms of money, jobs and commerce. Cheap oil allowed industrial humans to increasingly live on environmental credit for over a century. Now the bill is due and no amount of money can pay it. The calorie, pure heat expenditure as energy, is the only currency in which Mother Nature trades. Period.

...If there can be a solution at this late stage, and most thinking people seriously doubt there can be a “solution” in the way we have always thought of solutions, it begins with powering down everything we consider to be the economy and our survival. That and population reduction, which nobody wants to discuss in actionable terms.

Almost all other issues pale in significance when you stop to think about it -- what are we going to do when we exhaust our cheap energy supplies? It's not as if we can just make an even trade of solar, wind, and hydroelectric power for oil, coal and gas, especially if there's somewhere around nine or ten billion people on Earth within the next century.

The difference is, unlike so many others, I don't gleefully anticipate the end of our fossil-fueled civilization, as if we're going to "return" to an authentic way of life that was stolen from us, and we're all going to sit around in leisure, having stimulating, philosophical conversations with ideal friends and lovers. One of the things I came away with after reading Bill Bryson's latest book was a strong sense of just how uncomfortable and dreary a lot of human existence was before the last century or so. It's something we all know, of course, but it was brought home to me really vividly in this case. I daresay a large percentage of people who pine for a pre-industrial way of life are allowing their familiarity to breed contempt -- it's easy to romanticize a simple life in "harmony with nature" when you know full well you can always go back to hot showers, soft beds and comfortable clothes whenever you feel like it.

I would never minimize the miseries of industrialism or its environmental consequences, but at the same time, I can't help the urge to walk widdershins around what often strikes me as the smug moralizing and vindictive delight accompanying proclamations of environmental reckoning, the epicaricacy in the visions of humanity finally paying a steep price for its hubris. True, we may have catastrophically overreached, but some part of me takes an insolent pride in being part of a species that was even capable of doing so. There is no moral lesson to all this. Virtue will not save us either. We might return to a sustainable way of life for thousands of years, only to be wiped out by a convergence of disease, famine and a gigantic asteroid. Given that, I'm glad I was alive during the short window in time that may turn out to be the pinnacle of human existence.