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.


  1. "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"

    I wonder if you might like to explain that statement abit? It seems awfully cocky.

    Going back to the earth won't be fun, but it will be better here in the boonies than in a post-industrial wasteland, or worse yet, suburbia.

    I attended a seminar where the speaker anticipated that in the next couple of decades we should learn how to access the zero point field of subatomic particles and at that point "energy will be the least of our worrries."

    No comment on who's doing this groundbreaking research though.

  2. It is a cocky statement. To use an individual example, it's sort of like being defiantly proud to have tried and failed, even as those around you are tut-tutting over your brashness. I admire the Promethean gall of it.

    Like I said, I don't pretend that life from the late 1700s on was steady improvement and progress, of course not. But at the same time, so many people act like we deserve to suffer a terrible fall because we violated some preordained rule. Whether they call the rulegiver Mother Nature or God, the smug presumptuousness is the same, the taking of comfort in what they think to be some sort of predictable, just order of things. But as I keep saying in response, humans aren't "meant" to do or be anything, whether we live as hunter-gatherers or travel through space. At least the latter choice made life thrilling for a while.

  3. I'm a Malthusian. All major problems would be much easier to solve with smaller populations. Instead, we have to breed like bacteria in a Petri dish. You know what happens to them? They reproduce until they die off when their excrement becomes too concentrated to tolerate or adapt to. It appears the same fate awaits us eventually, despite our giant brains.
    BTW, I've lived "off the grid" in Africa with no water or electricity. It's not so bad; kinda boring sometimes. But all the kids there want to move to the cities where living conditions are actually worse for the poor, because they are desperate to escape the boredom of their villages. But when Houston had no power after hurricane Ike, people were acting desperate after three days. We heard on the radio everyone was standing in line for ice. I don't know what they had in their coolers that was so important to keep cool, but the most annoying thing for me and Randy was when our neighbor got a generator. See, we were spending pleasant evenings in the backyard cooking on my campstove and having drinks by a fire. That generator decreased our quality of life more than the power outage.

  4. Hey, don't look at me, man, I ain't fathered no offspring.

    I agree, and like he said, no one will even talk about the need for population reduction, because the conversation will veer from discussion of environmental limits to accusations of Nazi eugenics in about 1.6 seconds.

    I like Edward Abbey's "crackpot dream" of balance from Down the River:

    "Ah, yes, you say, but what about Mozart? Punk rock? Astrophysics? Flush toilets? Potato chips? Silicon chips? Oral surgery? The Super Bowl and World Series? Our coming journey to the stars? Vital projects, I agree, and I support them all. (On a voluntary basis only.) But why not a compromise? Why not—both? Why can't we have a moderate number of small cities, bright islands of electricity and kultur and industry surrounded by shoals of farmland, cow range, and timberland, set in the great unbounded midst of a great unbounded sea of primitive forest, unbroken mountains, virgin desert? The human reason can conceive of such a free and spacious world; why can't we allow it to become—again—our home?"

  5. Like it too, I do.
    It's sort of happening organically, what with all the migration to the cities I was talking about.

  6. Brian M1:38 PM

    Re: The Abbey dream.

    I'm not sure, though. Could one argue that the "genius" depends on a large sea of dross to generate said bright islands? I don't know that...history suggests his dream may be possible (Ancient Athens was a small city at best)

  7. Come on, Brian! Stop harshing our mellow!

    Yeah, like he said: crackpot.