05 November 2005


(Part 1, 2)

Some readers might wonder why I broke with my usual custom by criticizing another blog post. There are so many blog posts out there, and so many are riddled with misleading or silly arguments, that it's a disgraceful waste of time to attack them unless both the original and the response are likely to be widely read. I very much doubt that applies here. The reason is that the essay by Richard Heinberg I'm discussing actually addresses some extremely important, yet overlooked, issues:
Some techno-critics have sought to explain this recent explosion in the power and variety of our tools by tying it to developments in philosophy (Cartesian dualism) or economics (capitalism). Strangely, few of the critics have discussed at any length the role of fossil fuels in the industrial revolution. That is, they have consistently focused their attention on tools' impacts on society and nature, and on the political conditions and ideologies that enabled their adoption, rather than on the fact that most of the new tools that have appeared during the past two centuries are of a kind previously rare - ones that derived the energy for their operation not from muscle power, but from the burning of fuels.

...In assessing technology and understanding its effects on people and nature, it is at least as important to pay attention to the energy that drives tools as to the tools themselves and the surrounding political-ideological matrix.

This is getting somewhere. Likewise, E.F. Schumacher (1970's) uses this reliance on depletable fuels as the core of his argument. He uses it to illustrate the failure of the industrial system to solve, legitimately, the "problem of production." It is, and was when I first read it, the one thing that really made me sit up and take notice.

Heinberg classes tools into four groups: (1) those made and used with human effort; (2) those made with non-human energy and human energy for use; (3) those made with human effort, and using non-human energy for use; (4) those that require non-human effort for both, like electic tools. Peak oil, he reasons, will end the use of all but category (1) and (3) tools (the latter as post-oil artifacts, like hammers produced in the age of oil).
In early civilizations, agricultural workers sought to capture a surplus of solar energy on a yearly basis by plowing and reaping. It always takes energy to get energy (it takes effort to sow seeds, build a windmill, or drill an oil well). For agricultural societies, the net-energy profit was always moderate and sometimes nonexistent ...in most cases about ninety percent of the population had to work at farming in order to provide enough of a surplus so as to support the rest of the social edifice - including the warrior, priestly, and administrative classes. The extraction of coal, and especially of oil and natural gas - substances representing millions of years of accumulation of past biotic energy - has often provided a spectacular net-energy profit, sometimes on the order of 50 to 100 units obtained for every one invested. As a result, with fossil fuels and modern machinery, only two percent of the population need to farm in order to support the rest of society, enabling the flourishing of a growing middle class composed of a dizzying array of specialists.

This is a problem because when fossil fuels are no longer available (as cheaply) as they are now, then the human population heretofore sustained by industry will have to cope with tools that require neither electricity nor gas.

Heinberg is driven along by a definite hierarchy of causes: technology drives social institutions, which drive people. This is certainly a handy way of explaining economic history—it's how I would do it—but it's important to realize that it's not the only way to do it. It's important because Heinberg professes to find this chain of causality insidious. It's also supposedly ineluctable: the outcome of the Reformation, in which Europe north of the Maine River became largely Protestant, everywhere else wound up Catholic, is the result of institutions that are themselves the result of different technology-energy relationships. What about feedback? What about, for example, the organic relationship of the European congregations to their clergy? To their princes? Yet the Reformation altered the lives of everyone dramatically, well before the advent of coal. This was not a "rearrangement of deck chairs," and the relationship of human agency to events and vice versa is complex.

But it's also true that humans shape institutions. An institution that ignores its members' sexual urges, or that despises the people it proposes to lead, is doomed to failure. Moreover, some institutions work well because of individual preferences form "a tipping point," or widespread disappointment with material success, or artistic taste. Even very major changes in economic structure Heinberg dismisses as "rearranging deck chairs." This totters on the brink of tautology: only changes driven by technology matter (sic), and since this is means technology is telling humans what to do (sic), humans are "enslaved by technology."

I've encountered this line of reasoning before, and for personal usage dubbed it "the tyranny of the obvious": human will is cruelly thwarted by objective conditions. This "tyranny" is more "acute" as opportunities proliferate; add a bus service, and it imposes a schedule on commuters. Introduce checking accounts, and now people must follow the rules and guidelines on writing checks. Introduce paper money and national governments worry about inflation.

But the peak oil concern is real. While Richard Heinberg seems to believe the Hubbert Peak Oil (HPO) theory features a cliff (rather than a slope), the whole point of contention in the theory is what the industrial impact would be if output could not increased to accommodate growing demand. If the answer is, "cause a depressionary spiral" then the HPO is but one of many theories explaining the end of the fossil fuel economy. If it causes a gradual market adjustment, then the global economy will merely evolve into a new, non-fossil industrial system.

Could the outcome be a revival of the nation-state and world war three? Perhaps, but so could some other things. Too many other things.

Heinberg's scorn for human institutions is grating; it reminds one that he is a dilettante in the social sciences. The entire evolution of the industrial economy, with its stupendously complex turns and twists, its rivalries and its citizens' private pursuits, are supposedly the result of a single colossal act of stupidity: "...within the minds of society's managers and policy makers, faith in technology and markets supplanted previous religious faith in the hallucinated agricultural and herding deities that had presided over Western civilization for the previous couple of millennia."

This is disturbing because of its monumental disregard of the thoughts, efforts, planning, and problem-solving of tens of millions of people; their entire mental effort is eclipsed in merit by that used by Heinberg to compose the essay. This is a cosmic arrogance that most people outgrow in college. Moreover, it is a pretension to superior virtue to which the author is not entitled; he has no coherent alternative. Logically, an anarchist should be expected to trust the autonomous decisions of the polis or the household; if you believe society needs a philosopher-dictator with a state that can liquidate basic human impulses, you are not an anarchist.

Peak Oil will be a fundamental cultural watershed, at least as important as the industrial revolution or the development of agriculture. Yet few mainstream commentators see it that way. They discuss the likelihood of energy price spikes and try to calculate how much economic havoc will result from them.
This is dogmatic: in fact, the entire significance of HPO lies in precisely this. If the global economy can respond gradually to price spikes , then human institutions are likely to respond successfully. If not, then the outcome is war, and not some global one-child/one-bike policy. People interested in this are not silly.

But technology cannot solve the underlying dilemma we face as a result of our application of fossil fuels to every human problem or desire: we are growing our population, destroying habitat (and undermining global climatic stability), and depleting resources in ways and at rates that are incapable of being mitigated by any new tool or energy source. The only way forward that does not end with the extinction of humanity and millions of other species is a scaling back of the entire human project - in terms both of human numbers and per-capita rates of consumption.
At this point, Heinberg has completely equated "technology" with fossil-fuel based industry. He has gone far beyond past negative-predictors, who declared the impossibility of most widespread inventions. He has insisted that humans have no solution at all. Even if inventions cease entirely from here to eternity, the mere application of new state or economic institutions based on shrinking GDPs, represents a new technological endeavor.

Nor is this "mere semantics" (as if that were unimportant). Having made so many blunders about freedom by arguing in tautologies ("Tools enslave us..."), he then repudiates any organic relationship of human society to objective conditions. Only preparation for total cataclysm makes any sense, because humans are too stupid to be governed and too stupid to think for themselves.

Beware of people who argue that human history is nothing but a droll succession of stupidity. They often deceive themselves with long rants based on a single worthy fact. Everything rests on this fact (here, HPO), which they themselves don't quite understand. Faced with a hopeless, and manifestly pointless insight, they are left with the self-validation of despair. The world that neglects them does so out of folly, and will be served a bitter coin. Too bad it makes no difference.

(Part 4)

Labels: , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home