29 October 2008

Life After Peak Oil: Response

Tonight I attended a lecture entitled "Life After Peak Oil", given by James Howard Kunstler, an author and social critic who predicts that life as we know it will be radically different when we run out of oil. Going into how much oil has impacted the way we live could fill books -- and has, in all likelihood. Because society in the United States is structured on the availability of easy energy, society will have to be restructured when that energy is no longer available.

Kunstler began the lecture by discussing what "peak oil" meant. "Peak oil" is that moment when the world is producing and refining as much oil as it possibly can -- with production declining from there. Kunstler maintains that just as society was changed as oil production rose -- industrialization, urbanization, post-industrialization, suburbanization, etc -- it will change again as oil production declines and we exhaust our resources. He said that no one energy source and no collection of energy sources -- natural gas, coal, biofuel, nuclear energy, etc -- were going to allow us to maintain "normalcy". "I'll go so far as to predict that in 37 years, the airline industry will no longer exist as we know it." was one quotation.

We are facing a crisis, he says, a long emergency, one that will require hard work and determination if we are to come through it all right in the end. He stated that while most people acknowledged the need for change, what they wanted was minor changes that did not require much of an effort on their part -- changes that did not disturb the feeling of normalcy. He gave two obstacles to being able to change: wishful thinking and the religion of 'free money' -- the idea of getting something for nothing.

His predictions for what will happen are interesting. Intriguing in some ways, horrifying in others. Suburbia -- masses of people living in great fields of subdivisions, connected to their job only by the freeway system, engaged in long commutes, living in a society of sprawl with no real "centers" to create the idea of community -- will die. Kunstler believes that any new suburban developments we see in the near future will be nothing more than the twitching of a corpse.

Kunstler predicts that life will become more local as the automobile's presence in our daily lives fades. Since the vast tracts of farmland that provide our food have to be serviced by oil-using tractors to be of use, and since that food has to be transported from the farmlands to everyone else, the way we grow our food will change. He predicts that more people will become engaged in farming and that draft animals will be used again. The big box stores -- the strip malls, the Wal-Marts -- will die, and local businesses will revive, making the city centers important again. School systems built to taken in students across the county will break down, leading to smaller local schools and homeschooling in some cases. Kunstler said that in the future it's possible that most people won't be able to go beyond an eighth-grade education. He talked about "New Urbanism", a movement that intends to create urban societies built to "human" scale -- not automobile scale. He also predicts that the former middle class will respond with panic and rage at the decline of their livelihoods. In general, the more large-scale organizations will decay, while smaller-scale outfits and cities will be able to cope.

I cannot deny that as I sat there listening, I was both disturbed and perversely attracted to some of what he was saying. I do think people would be happier living in more local communities built to be good places to live in -- but such a society would have massive drawbacks, and I'll return to that in a moment. What he was saying held an almost religious signification, one impossible to ignore. The old order -- built on the empty promise of free energy, built around a lie, destroyed by factual corruption, giving way to a new order -- a restoration of what had once been, what was supposed to be. It's a secular doomsday scenario. While religious scenarios see society destroyed by the corruption of sin, followed by the restoration of proper living and morality, this scenario sees society undermined by a dependence on "free energy" and a return to "simpler" living, to 'sustainability'. And part of me is attracted to the idea of people producing what they need, being able to enjoy their lives more because they're no longer distracted by long commutes and cubicles and all of that.

This return to simpler times, though, is as a friend described it after the lecture -- "nostalgic bullshit". If we run out of oil -- something that is hard to imagine, but something that's a real possibility -- life as we know it will undergo a change, unless we do find some radical new way to maintain normalcy within certain bounds. If our societies undergo collapse, people aren't going to make out all right. They're going to starve, and many of those who remain will lead dismal lives. Exploitation is ubiquitious. The analogy I am tempted to draw (as a student of history) is that of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The Empire did not perish simply as a result of a great battle against the Germans: it decayed over a period of time internally, through economic rot. When it passed away into oblivion, the cities that depended on the Empire for their livelihood -- cities created around Roman garrisons, for instance -- vanished. The only ones that remained were those that had existed before, or were able to be independent of the empire. An empire faded, replaced by hundreds upon hundreds of petty kingdoms -- leaving a new society in place, one profoundly influenced by the old society but one still quite different in its wake. It took centuries for civilization to recover.

Could it be possible that we are living at the beginning of our own society's decay? Will all of our dreams for the future -- global unity, the exploration of space, the dreams of science fiction -- be replaced by a reality reminiscent of pre-oil industrialism? It almost seems like fantasy, and indeed Kunstler has even written a book called A World Made By Hand depicting what life will be like in a world after peak oil. According to the reviews I've read, it is not romantic in nature -- it depicts the rise of petty warlords and crime. Are we really facing another 'dark age'? I like to take social and urban geography classes, and once during a lecture on the Neomalthusians (those who predict food shortages presaging a collapse of our society) and the Technocrats (those who believe technology will continue to create ways of coping), I depicted the two sides as angry men preaching at one another. The Neomalthusian screams "GLOOM! DESTRUCTION!" and the Technocrat yells "SUPER TECHNOLOGY!"

Is Kunstler just preaching gloom as a way of promoting his romantic own vision of the future? I think it's possible that he's just preaching gloom, but if his book is as gritty as the reviews say, then I don't think he's very romantic about what life will be like -- even if some aspects of it are attractive. I don't know what to say about his predictions, but if they are true it will mean drastic change. My own political ideals (public education, universal healthcare, fair treatment of workers, etc) are rather dependent on a large-scale government -- one that would not survive a collaspe like this. My own ideas would have to be rethought if these predictions prove true. Then again, it may be possible that the decline of oil will be slow enough that we do find ways of maintaing normalcy within a given range -- for better or for worse.

Here's a 20-minute lecture by Kunstler on YouTube. It's on "The Tragedy of Suburbia".

24 October 2008

Èmilie Carles, Humanist

Recently I had the occasion to read A Life of Her Own, the memoirs of a French woman born into a nearly medieval world -- an agricultural village in the southern French Alps called Val-des-Prés. She was born as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, but her world had not changed its social structure since the days of Charlemagne. For most in her village, the village itself is all they know. The world outside is distant, far removed the affairs of the villagers' lives. Their lives are not their own -- subject to the fickleness of the weather and the actions of their governing mayor, who is "elected" again and again because there is no one to run against him. The people of Val-des-Prés distrust education and look on book-reading as something foreign as suspicious.

Èmilie Carles is different, however. From an early age she realizes a love for books that is unmatched by anyone else in her village. She reads anything she can acess, and develops a sharp mind that does not escape the attention of her teachers -- who reccommend to her father that Èmilie be allowed to continue her education and fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher. Her father, while strictly medieval himself, is reluctant until she is offered a scholarship. While Èmilie continues to learn from schoolbooks, she also learns from the affairs of life. The Great War comes to France in 1914, and she witnesses its horrors. Conversations with her soldiering brothers and anarchist cousin force her to think about the inhumanity of the war, and she begins to develop her own worldview. Her worldview develops apart from religion, for she explains that her faith in God is lost in the aftermath of the Great War. She freely describes herself as an atheist later in the book -- hard to imagine for a young woman born in a mountain village without electricity or library access!

Her worldview develops throughout the book, and becomes one I can safely describe as humanist. Èmilie values arriving at the truth for herself, by reasoning things out. So committed to this is she that she encourages her own students to do this, even allowing them to question her. She also instructs them to love life, and to deal with one another more kindly. She sees her job as a teacher as a duty to mold young minds that can be happy and live freely -- free from being told what to think, free to enjoy their lives their own way.

Teaching youngsters to read and write is one thing, it is important but not sufficient. I have always had a loftier notion of school -- the role of the school and teacher. In my view, children take stock of the world and society in the communal school: Later on, whatever their trade, whatever direction their lives take, it is too late, the mold is already set. If it is good, so much the better. If not, nothing further can be done.

In a backward region like ours, considering the life I had led, what seemed indispensable to me was opening their minds to life, shattering the barriers that shut them in, making them understand that the earth is round, finite, and varied, and that each individual, white, black, yellow, has the right -- and the duty -- to think and decide for himself. I myself had learned as much through life as through study. That is why I could not judge my pupils solely on the basis of their schoolwork, and why I also took into account they way they behaved in their daily lives. For example, I never hid the fact that every last one of them would have to face social reality, and that when all was said and done, they would have to work for a living. But at the same time, I put them on their guard against abuses. I told them that a man must defend himself against exploitation and the stultifying effect of work. I also told them:

'The most important thing for a young person is to choose a trade he likes and enjoys, otherwise he will be a slave, unhappy and consumed with rage."

To conclude this line of argument, I always spoke to them about liberty, repeating that our famous Liberty should not simply be a word inscribed on pediments along with Equality and Fraternity -- those basic Rights of Man, an abstract and illusory liberty -- but rather that it should be a reality for each one of them.

'Beware of politicians, beware of silver-tongued orators, do your utmost to judge for yourself, and above all, take advantage of the beauty life offers."

Èmilie eventually marries another free-thinking individual, and they are careful not to become hypocrites. Èmilie describes her husband Jean Carles as an idealist who doesn't tolerate any gap between what he says and what he does -- and so they are careful as parents not to become hypocrites. They allow their children to think and decide for themselves. As the book wears on, her worldview continues to develop. She is a pacifist, certainly, and by our standards a humanist. She also has socialist 'leanings' by which I mean she is an internationalist, a sharp critic of consumerism, and someone who believes in equality. The beauty of her ideas, especially her humanist ones, is that she developed them without much input from outside. She had no humanist teachers, read no books on the subject. So natural are the ideas of humanism -- love for humanity, recognition of the importance of reason and compassion -- that she came into them largely on her own. Her story was superbly written and I enjoyed every moment of it. Here are a selection of quotations from the book -- do enjoy.
I believe it is splendid to leave life with the thought that you have done the maximum possible to defend the ideas you believe just and human, and to help those who need to be helped without discrimination. For me, that is a wonderful feeling.

With a work day of five or four hours, unemployment would be eliminated and everyone could have a job. Let us learn to live simply; [...] Let us learn to make use of our leisure time, get as close to nature as possible. Let us learn to read, because reading means strengthening our minds through the minds of others, steeping our hearts with feelings that please, and struggling with an author according to whether our ideas and feelings agree with his or diverge. Learn to live by knowing how to live and let live. Never take anything in life but flowers, and from flowers, only the perfume: drop the religion that has the largest numbers of followers; I am talking about the religion of money. A Belgian writer has said: Power of goodness and gentleness, it is you who should rule the Earth. Alas, that currency is altogether too ideal to circulate on our planet..." That is not true: fortunately, there are people for whom it is real. I know couples and families where it is the only currency in circulation, and it is beautiful, it is splendid, and we must all reach toward it for so long as we shall live.

I know perfectly well I'll be called a Utopian. It's true! And I say: why not? We must have utopias so that one day they may become realities. Less than a century ago, social security, unemployment benefits, and paid vacations were utopias: today we have them and everyone takes it for granted. The same is true for everything: what for the moment seems unattainable will be tomorrow's reality. With less selfishness, less indifference, we are bound to achieve greater justice, greater equality among people. But we must fall two work immediately, expecting nothing from our elite bureaucrats."

No to violence. no to injustice. Yes to pacifism and all that is Human. Too bad if that sounds like a slogan: for me is is a slogan of love. I have believed in it, and believe in it still and always, until the last breath of my life.

12 October 2008

A Thought or Two for Consideration

I recently read these two thoughts from Seneca the Younger, a Stoic whose works I am interested in reading.

We are mad, not only individually, but nationally. We check manslaughter and isolated murders; but what of war and the much-vaunted crime of slaughtering whole peoples? There are no limits to our greed, none to our cruelty. And as long as such crimes are committed by stealth and by individuals, they are less harmful and less portentous; but cruelties are practised in accordance with acts of senate and popular assembly, and the public is bidden to do that which is forbidden to the individual. Deeds that would be punished by loss of life when committed in secret, are praised by us because uniformed generals have carried them out. Man, naturally the gentlest class of being, is not ashamed to revel in the blood of others, to wage war, and to entrust the waging of war to his sons, when even dumb beasts and wild beasts keep the peace with one another. Against this overmastering and widespread madness philosophy has become a matter of greater effort, and has taken on strength in proportion to the strength which is gained by the opposition forces.

We are all chained to fortune: the chain of one is made of gold, and wide, while that of another is short and rusty. But what difference does it make? The same prison surrounds all of us, and even those who have bound others are bound themselves; unless perchance you think that a chain on the left side is lighter. Honors bind one man, wealth another; nobility oppresses some, humility others; some are held in subjection by an external power, while others obey the tyrant within; banishments keep some in one place, the priesthood others. All life is slavery. Therefore each one must accustom himself to his own condition and complain about it as little as possible, and lay hold of whatever good is to be found near him. Nothing is so bitter that a calm mind cannot find comfort in it. Small tablets, because of the writer's skill, have often served for many purposes, and a clever arrangement has often made a very narrow piece of land habitable. Apply reason to difficulties; harsh circumstances can be softened, narrow limits can be widened, and burdensome things can be made to press less severely on those who bear them cleverly.

08 October 2008


I recently read The Loss of the S.S. Titanic, the titular disaster being one of my pet interests, and was startled to read the following passage:

Sailors are proverbially superstitious; far too many people are prone to follow their lead, or, indeed, the lead of any one who asserts a statement with an air of conviction and the opportunity of constant repetition; the sense of mystery that shrouds a prophetic utterance, particularly if it be an ominous one (for so constituted apparently is the human mind that it will receive the impress of an evil prophecy far more readily than it will that of a beneficent one, possibly through subservient fear to the thing it dreads, possibly through the degraded, morbid attraction which the sense of evil has for the innate evil in the human mind) leads many people to pay a certain respect to superstitious theories. Not that they wholly believe in them or would wish their dearest friends to know they ever gave them a second thought; but the feeling that other people do so and the half-conviction that there "may be something in it, after all" sways them into tacit obedience to the mostly absurd and childish theories.

This book was published in 1912 (the year of the disaster) by a science teacher, Lawrence Beesely. You can read it online for free at Project Gutenberg.