First Edition, May 2006
“The people of the United States are in a sense becoming a nation on a tiger. They must learn to consume more and more or ... their magnificent economic machine may turn and devour them. They must be induced to step up their individual consumption higher and higher, whether or not they have any pressing need for the goods or not. Their ever-expanding economy demands it.” Vance Packard's The Waste Makers, circa 1960
What if the whole world were at stake, and you could save it? It's easy to imagine we will be saved by technology. It's easy to imagine we are doomed, because then you don't have to do anything. But to know the truth, that we are in danger, and that we can save ourselves, is at once the most frightening and the most liberating knowledge because it compels us to act.
With the price of gasoline at $3.00 a gallon, suddenly many people have become more concerned about supply of oil. The price of gas has also sparked a new interest in biofuel, biodiesel in particular. Are we running out of oil? Can biofuel save us? Is this a technological problem, or a cultural one?
The modern economy thrives on consumption. A lump of coal in the ground, or a tree standing in the forest, does not have any impact on the economy. Once the coal is dug up, or the tree is cut down, bought, sold, and consumed as a commodity, then it adds strength to our economy. Consumption generates profits and jobs. The resulting economic growth of America and the other Western industrial powers gives us a commanding global position militarily and economically. The more resources we use, the stronger our economy becomes. This is terrible dilemma of our age, and the fulcrum of the modern energy crisis. Until we can address this deep issue, we will not have an impact on the crisis. We need a systemic change in our modern industrial culture, and we each have a role to play in that change.
In the 1940s, a man by the name of M. King Hubbert worked as a geologist. He had worked for a number of oil companies, and was well-known and highly respected in his field. In the 1949 he published a theory about the upcoming peak of oil production in the United States. Hubbert predicted that oil production in the U.S. would peak around 1970. Discoveries peaked around 1960, and production continued to climb. In spite of his position in the field, Hubbert was ridiculed for his prediction. He continued to be the target of derision as oil production climbed throughout the 1960s. The peak arrived just as Hubbert predicted in the early 1970s. Hubbert continued to be the target of scorn about his prediction even after the peak, up until several years later, when finally it could no longer be denied that oil production in the U.S. had peaked.1
Applying the Hubbert methodology to the global oil system leads to the conclusion that oil production should have peaked already. Global oil discoveries peaked in the 1960s.1 There was a major slowdown of oil production in the 1970s and 1980s relating to the OPEC boycott and other problems of that time. There are some people who think that global oil production would have peaked in the 1990s were it not for these prior disruptions. There are others who think that global oil production has peaked or is about to peak in the next few years. And there are some who think that the peak is at least a couple of decades away.2
There is no disputing that the production of "sweet" crude -- the oil at the top of the reservoirs that is easy to refine -- has peaked.3 A lot of the disagreement centers around deeper, thicker oil and tar-like substances. How much is there, how much can reasonably be extracted? No one knows for sure.
If we are running out of oil, shouldn't someone have noticed? Shouldn't someone in government or industry be keeping tabs on these issues? The government agencies who monitor future energy supplies are not highly adept at doing so. No one other than Hubbert saw the approaching peak of domestic production. Even more recently, electric power companies converted considerable peak generating capacity to natural gas, but now the natural gas supply is falling short of demand in North America.4 They did not see that shortfall coming. Energy is so deeply a part of the modern economy that it is hard for people to conceive of a shortfall, even people highly educated in the field. Oil companies have never in the past predicted production peaks or prepared for them. If the peak of global oil production is approaching, there is no reason to assume that we would notice or respond in advance. We never have.
Is biofuel and answer to our energy problems? Why has biofuel, and biodiesel in particular, suddenly become the focus of attention? These questions issue are quite peculiar if you know about the role of biofuel in the early stages of the industrial revolution. The truth is that the biofuel economy was fully implement and its capacity exceeded a long, long time ago. We tend to think of progress and technology as our great saviors. Technological innovation is most often spurred by depletion of easily accessible resources. Would it make any sense to use resources that are difficult to obtain when richer, more accessible resources are available? Would a mining company dig for deep, low-grade copper ore until and unless they ran out of shallow, higher grade ore?
Biofuel, being on the surface, easily accessible, and easily processed, represents a high-grade "ore" relative to coal. In the early days of industrialism, wood and other biofuels were widely employed. By the mid 1600s, Europe was deforested, and our forebearers started using coal. The same transition happened in the U.S. The eastern part of the country was deforested to feed the boilers of industrialism. Deforestation was widespread and coal became the dominant fuel by the mid 1800s in the U.S.1 The fact that we have considerable forests today in the U.S. is the result of the fact that we are not using them for biofuel.
Over the past 1000 years, humans have permanently degraded more farmland than the sum total of that currently being farmed.2 In modern times, that degradation continues, but we have been replacing soil with oil by using increasing inputs of petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides, and diesel-fueled tractor power. It now takes about 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food in the U.S. And the U.S. imports more food than it exports in some years by dollar value. Feeding the world's populations in the coming decades of decreasing oil supply is going to be challenging even apart from biofuel.3
If we were to fuel the modern economy with biofuel, it would require that we use all of the biomass the is currently harvested globally from fields, forests, and oceans. That would leave us nothing to eat, no lumber, no paper.4 Feeding human food to cars on a large scale only becomes possible if one considers the genocidal elimination of millions of human so their land can be used to grow biofuel. As sinister as that sounds, it is essentially what happened a few hundred years ago as our predecessors fled an overcrowded Europe.5
Biofuel fits well with our myth of progress, the belief that just around the corner there is some grand technological solution to our problems if only we can find it. The reality is that the amount of oil we use is grossly beyond what biofuel can supply without huge disruptions to global ecosystems and/ or the food supply. Biofuel is popular now because it is a powerful psychological palliative. It is not a real solution to our energy problems.
Learning To Not See
We have known for a long, long time that the Earth is finite. It is no more than common sense that traditional economic growth, extracted as it is from a finite supply of natural resources, must come to an end some day. If we imagine a smooth transition to a post-growth economy, it can be done, but it is a major transition. If we continue to consume oil and other resources like there is no tomorrow, then we are more likely to suffer an abrupt transition to a much less comfortable, perhaps even disastrous future. The wise course would be to begin, as soon as possible, to make the transition to a sustainable economy.
If we recognize the Earth as a sphere of finite size, then it becomes apparent that even "solving" our energy crises is not a solution. What if the biofuel advocates were right, or if we discovered an efficient form of fusion power? We could power our cars and our consumer economy with a different fuel. Then what? Economic growth continues, the destruction of the natural world continues. This question was answered a long time ago by the Club of Rome.1 They used computer models to show that even adding enormous amounts of new energy supplies does not enormously extend the lifespan on the industrial economy because growth is ultimately brought to a halt by pollution, the depletion of farmland, the depredation of mineral or renewable resources, or any number of the many limits that exist on a finite planet. It is no more than common sense that growth cannot continue forever on a finite planet, and yet our culture teaches us, compels us, to ignore the obvious.
If one looks across the span human history, all large-scale human civilizations seem to be unable to live within ecological limits. As much as we want to think of progress as our salvation, the reality is that much of what we call progress is rather the outcome of civilzations' response to population growth and ecological stress.
If one looks at the development of social hierarchy in tribal cultures around the world, one can see that hierarchy developed as a means to motivate people to work harder in response to a deteriorating relationship with local environments. The early stages of social hierarchy occur when band and tribal groups give more social respect and sexual privilege to headmen who in turn become village cheerleaders. The headmen get up in the morning and rouse people to get up and work harder. Depending on the group in question, the village headman may also organize competitive feasts with other villages. The net result of these feasts is that everyone works harder and produces more.2 Keep in mind that while human populations grew only very slowly for millennea, the last few thousand years have seen an ever escalating process of population growth.
Social hierarchy has been the universal human response to organize greater productive and military capability in response to that population growth. In the Trobriand Islands in the South Pacific, all of the villagers were obliged to bring yams to the chief's house where they were displayed and stored, and then redistributed.3 Among some indigenous groups in the Americas, a "chief's granary" would be placed in each field where each farmer was supposed to put some corn.4 These baskets would then be collected, stored, and redistributed as needed. Among larger tribal groups, more elaborate systems of production were centered around the chiefs, who would then become kings. Male supremacy is an integral part of the creation of social hierarchy as chiefs around the world almost always have multiple wives. Social respect and sexual access are linked in all stratified societies, ours included. As civilizations grew larger, the hierarchies became taller, and in time voluntary cheerleading became mandatory production under the watchful eye of omnipotent deities. The chief-become-king was seen as a "great provider" who would watch out for his people. In time, the kings and ruling classes come to operate more as parasites on the rest of society than "great providers," but by then the structure is hard to change.
There are several points to be taken from looking at the history of social hierarchy. The first is that social hierarchy has economic roots. The second is that it is part of a global, systemic pattern of culture change -- in other words, not simply the outcome of greedy and selfish kings, presidents, or corporations. Thirdly, and most importantly, social hierarchy is the root of ecological blindness.
Children in more egalitarian cultures assume adult roles early, by their teenage years. In hierarchical societies, they are kept in subservient roles throughout their childhood and early adulthood. The systematic social hierarchy of class divided societies locks the childhood cognitive patterns of people into place, thus creating a most powerful conformity. As a result of this, most people look upon the institutions of the state with awe, as if these institutions were Godlike (hence the phrase God and Country), immutable. That is why many people are so deeply offended, emotionally threatened, when one challenges notions of patriotism or the institutions of the state. These institutions are linked in their minds to the emotional security of their childhood cognitive structures.1
Social hierarchy is the root of ecological blindness because it puts the institutions of the state beyond the realm of critical assessment for most people. These patterns of blindness are common to all state-level societies of the past. Our culture is blind to its own future because of this history.
The process of population growth has put great stress on human populations over the last few thousand years. The process by which state-level societies motivate and unify people at the same time create a blindness to the future. It is a terrible conundrum. Teaching the people to have faith in a nation, faith in technology, and rewarding them with social respect (and sex) makes them work harder. It makes our society, as with other large societies, more powerful and unified. But that faith has no way out, no means to question the very foundations of industrial production even as we desperately need to do so. That which unifies us makes us strong. That which unifies us makes us blind.
Breaking the Spell
Even if we have several decades worth of oil left, the wise course of action would be to begin preparations as soon as possible. The mechanical retooling and social reorganizing that would be necessary for a smooth transition could take considerable time to implement.
Many people feel overwhelmed when facing a problem of such historic proportions. It is easier to feel overwhelmed because then we are not compelled to consider practical solutions or our role in them. The truth is that on a material level our energy crisis is not hard to solve. We have access to more energy than any of our forebearers, we are simply not using it wisely. We can convert to a very different kind of economy, one that uses energy in a radically different way, and still take care of human needs. The problem is social, political, and cultural, not technological. Nihilism, like bind optimism, is a psychological escape, not a solution.
To overcome the ecological blindness of our culture is going to require more than increasing the efficiency of the industrial system, buying hybrid cars, or insulating single family American homes a little better. The "efficiency" of the modern economy has improved considerably in the last couple of decades. We new produce more per unit of energy than we did before. (Units of energy consumed per unit of Gross Domestic Product has gone down.) But this is nothing to celebrate, because our overall consumption has continued to skyrocket. The more we consume, the more of the environment we destroy, the wealthier and more powerful we become in the short term. Liberal notions of efficiency, of solarizing the consumer lifestyle, have no real ecological impact.
To have a real impact on our out-of-control culture, we have to at once learn how to completely ignore the messages coming from that culture about what constitutes a respectable lifestyle, and we have to address the deep, economic foundations of our ecological blindness.
The more resources we expend, the wealthier and more powerful we become, the more we hasten our decline. Our culture is out of control, and no political party or corporation is going to reign it in. That is up to us. We have to learn how to ignore the voice of the mother culture. We are acutely aware of the judgment of people around us, and how we are perceived in the context of the social norms of our society. The social norms of the consumer society will be our tomb if we do not learn how to break free of them.
The economy of cheap energy has made it possible, even profitable, to build and produce things in large, centralized facilities that are then shipped all over the world. Centralized production is not more efficient. The amount of energy embedded in each manufactured good, whether it be a loaf of bread or an automobile, goes up as the size and mechanization of the factory increases. That centralization is driven by cheap energy. It now takes tens of thousands if not millions of dollars to create a single job in heavy industry.
We must radically downscale and localize our economy if we are to survive. We can produce most of what we need at a local level, and in doing so use far less energy and resources than the centralized economy. The simplest and most immediate means to begin localizing our society is to spend money locally. Money spent in a local economy recirculates there numerous times before leaving the area. Money given to corporations simply leaves town and makes them more powerful.
A localized economy in a conscious society can provide the means of solving some of our most intractable social problems. Few people realize it, but poverty in modern industrial societies is planned. The level of poverty in America is managed as a means to restrain wages and inflation in the industrial economy. Localizing would allow us to eliminate structural poverty because the inflation pressure of the consumer society would be removed.
Localizing is about a lot more than simply redirecting consumption to a local level. The localized economy of our forebearers was nearly as environmentally destructive as our own. We can use our modern technological advantage to develop and use clean, human-scale technologies that reduce our impact. We can create a conscious society that is designed to meet human needs. We must educate ourselves about the deep roots of our cultural blindness, and build a conscious culture, from the local level upward, that understands its past, and thus can choose its future.1
Most fundamentally, the local economy must become the basis of personal empowerment that changes the relationship of the individual to the larger society. For thousands of years, we have been taught to have faith in leaders, inventions, and progress. We have to abandon such false faith, and fully reassess all we have been taught about our history. We must take our children out of the submissive roles that make then unable and unwilling to challenge higher power.
We must begin the localization of our society independently of the perceptions and judgments of the people around us. We are caught in a magic spell. The spell has us mesmerized. Either we are to believe that everything is fine and no fundamental change is necessary, or we are led to believe that it is all hopeless. Either way we are fearful of the judgment of people around us if we should abandon the consumer lifestyle entirely.
Every movement starts small, with support groups, cells. The corporate media are not going to bring us the inspirational leaders to galvanize a movement to overturn the consumer society. We have to defy the voices we hear from the mainstream, and begin in earnest the construction of a sustainable society.
2http://www.peakoil.net/, http://www.peakoil.org/, http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net/, http://www.peakoil.com/, http://www.postcarbon.org/
4http://www.endofsuburbia.com/, an excellent documentary
1Wilkinson, Richard G., Poverty and Progress, An Ecological Model of Economic Development, Methuen and Co. Ltd. London, 1973
2Meadows, Donnella, Jorgen Rogers, Dennis Meadows, The Limits to Growth, the 30 Year Update, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, VT, 2004, p.61
3Pimentel, David, Food, Energy, And Society, University Press of Colorado, 1996,
4Jeffrey S. Dukes, 2003. Burning Buried Sunshine: Human Consumption Of Ancient Solar Energy. Climatic Change 61: 31-44.
1 Meadows, Donella H, The Limits to Growth, A Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind, New York, Universe Books, 1974 and Meadows, Donnella, Jorgen Rogers, Dennis Meadows, The Limits to Growth, the 30 Year Update, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, VT, 2004
2 Harris, Marvin, Cannibals and Kings, The Origins of Cultures, Vintage Books, New York, 1978
3 Malinowski, Bronislow, Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea, Waveland Press, Prospect Heights, IL., 1984
4 Hudson, Charles, The Southeastern Indians, University of Tennessee Press, 1982
1 Zeigler, Alexis, Conscious Cultural Evolution, Understanding Our Past, Choosing Our Future, Ecodem Press, Charlottesville, 2003, also at conev.org
1 Zeigler, Alexis, Conscious Cultural Evolution, Understanding Our Past, Choosing Our Future, Ecodem Press, Charlottesville, 2003, also at conev.org