The recent downward lurch in the price of oil, among its other effects, has provided a good look at the downward arc of a cycle of public discourse about energy that will likely become all too familiar during the months and years ahead of us. As oil prices rose to new records a few weeks back, the media bristled with pundits warning about an imminent energy crisis in language ranging from sober to apocalyptic. Now that prices are cycling down again, another round of pundits has surfaced in the media, insisting that the first lot were wrong and we really can burn as much energy as we want.
These same frenetic swings in popular media and public opinion showed up in the 1970s, of course, and this is not the first such cycle we’ve seen since energy prices began climbing out of the basement in 2003 or so. I suspect a comparison of the rate of pro- and anti-peak oil pieces in the media with upward and downward movements in the price of oil would find a solid positive correlation, though my college statistics classes are far enough in my past that I’ll let someone else apply for the grant.
Such short-term gyrations deserve attention. As I’ve suggested in several posts here, much of the impact of peak oil – and indeed of the wider crisis of industrial society, of which peak oil forms only one aspect – takes the form of increased volatility rather than linear change. This in itself is a source of serious economic and social disruption; if governments, businesses, and families have no way of knowing whether gasoline, or diesel fuel, or home heating oil will be $3 a gallon or $6 a gallon six months from now, planning for the future becomes an exercise in high-stakes gambling, especially as the same uncertainty percolates through the rest of the economy in the form of unstable energy and raw material costs.
Still, these short-term effects are only half the story. Behind them, and more than half hidden by them, is the long-term trend that has lifted energy prices from the all-time lows of the 1980s and 1990s to today’s troubling levels. If that trend continues into the future, as seems most likely, not many of the economic arrangements of the last thirty years are well equipped to survive the experience. The resulting transformations will play out on many levels, but one of the most important – and the one I want to talk about today – is the political sphere.
The politics of peak oil form one of the most explosive and least often understood dimensions of the emerging crisis of industrial civilization. Too often, when questions of politics enter the peak oil discourse, they focus on the belief that the problem of peak oil can be solved by throwing one set of scoundrels out of power so that another set of scoundrels can take their place. This seems hopelessly misguided to me.
To start with, peak oil is not a problem that can be solved. It’s a predicament – a phenomenon hardwired into our species’ most fundamental relationships with physical and ecological reality – and like any other predicament, it cannot be solved; it can only be accepted. It differs in detail, but not in kind, from the collisions with ecological limits that punctuate the historical record as far back as you care to look.
Like every other species, humanity now and then overshoots the limits of its ecological support system. It’s our misfortune to live at a time when this has happened on a much larger scale than usual, due to our species’ recent discovery and reckless exploitation of the Earth’s once-abundant fossil fuel reserves. Expecting a change of leaders, or even of systems, to make that reality go away is a little like trying to pass a bill in Congress to repeal the law of supply and demand.
Still, leaders and governmental systems make great scapegoats, and just now scapegoats are very much in fashion. Consider the rogue’s gallery of villains blamed in the media for recent surges in the price of oil: speculators, oil companies, environmentalists, Arab sheiks, Nigerian rebels, and the US government, which – succumbing to a rare fit of common sense – refused to drain the nation’s strategic oil reserve so that vacationers could have cheap gas for their holiday driving. Veer away from the mainstream media, in turn, and you’ll find that the list of culprits for soaring oil prices has expanded far beyond an archdruid’s capacity to catalogue.
Missing from nearly all these lists, however, is the simple geological reality that there’s only so much oil in the Earth’s rocks, we’ve pumped out most of the really large and easily accessible deposits, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain current production levels – much less increase them – by drawing down the smaller and less accessible deposits that remain. It’s not hard to show that this is a major factor in the current energy crisis; when a commodity’s price doubles in a year, but the production of the same commodity fails to budge outside of a narrow range, it’s a reliable bet that physical limits on the supply of the commodity are to blame.
The difficulties with this otherwise sensible observation, of course, are twofold. It offers no easy answers; if we’ve reached the physical limits of petroleum production, that’s a fact we have to learn to live with, no matter how inconvenient or uncomfortable it may be. At the same time, it offends against a common assumption of modern thought, the belief that human beings – and only human beings – play an active role in history. Older civilizations understood that nonhuman forces shared in the making of history, and there’s a fine irony in the way that our civilization, having rejected the nonhuman world as a historical agent, now finds its own history being shaped by a nonhuman reality with which it steadfastly refuses to come to terms.
Bring historical irony into the political sphere, though, and as often as not it turns explosive. The example of Germany in the aftermath of the First World War is instructive. Faced with the collision between an imperial ideology of world domination and the hard fact of military defeat, a great many Germans after 1918 searched feverishly for an explanation for that defeat that did not require them to recognize the geopolitical limits to German power in the dawning age of oil.
As the economic troubles of the postwar period mounted, so did the quest for scapegoats, until finally a fringe politician named Adolf Hitler came up with an answer that most Germans found acceptable. Germany’s second attempt at world conquest proved, even more conclusively than the first, that in an age of oil, a small country with no oil reserves and no defensible borders has no business dreaming of global empire. Still, it took the most destructive war in human history and the horrors of the Holocaust to bring that simple fact to the attention of the German people.
One factor that made the political situation in Weimar Germany so vulnerable to this sort of self-destructive evasion of crucial realities was the intellectual bankruptcy of the mainstream political parties at the time. The late 19th century saw the emergence of a political consensus across the then-industrial world that united all mainstream parties behind the principles of free trade, governmental noninterference in economic affairs, and imperial expansion into the Third World. Finding substantive differences between Liberals and Conservatives in Britain, Democrats and Republicans in America, and equivalent parties in other countries around the turn of the last century was a task best pursued with a magnifying glass. It took decades of crisis, culminating in the economic debacle of the Great Depression, to break the grip of that consensus on the political imagination of the industrial world.
We are in a similar situation in America today. If anything, contemporary political thought is far more impoverished than it was in 1908, when the radical fringes of society swarmed with alternative theories of political economy. Since the collapse of classical conservatism in the 1960s, and the implosion of the New Left in the 1970s, political debate in the American mainstream has focused on finding the best means to achieve a set of ends that few voices question at all, while a great deal of debate outside the mainstream has abandoned political theory for a secular demonology in which everything wrong with the world – including the effects of the Earth’s ecological limits, of course – is the fault of some malevolent elite or other.
The current presidential race in America is a case in point. Neither candidate has addressed what, to my mind at least, are the crucial issues of our time: for example, whether America’s interests are best served by maintaining a sprawling military-economic empire with military bases in more than a hundred nations around the world; what is to be done about the collapse of America’s economic infrastructure and the hollowing out of its once-prosperous heartland; and, of course, how America’s economy and society can best deal with the end of the age of cheap abundant energy and the transition to an age of scarcity for which we are woefully unprepared.
Instead, the candidates argue about whether American troops should be fighting in Iraq or in Afghanistan, and whether or not we ought to produce more energy by drilling for oil in the nation’s wildlife refuges. Meanwhile, the partisans of each of these career politicians strive to portray the other as Satan’s own body double, while a growing number of those who are disillusioned with the entire political process hold that both men are pawns of whatever reptilian conspiracy happens to be fashionable on the fringes these days.
Maybe it’s just me, but this sort of evasion of the obvious seems utterly counterproductive. If Weimar America is to have a less disastrous future than its 20th century counterpart, we need to move toward serious debate over the shape that future is going to have, and our economically ruinous empire, our disintegrating national economy, and our extravagant lifestyles need to be among the things up for discussion. The radical right have already begun to scent a major opportunity; Nick Griffin, head of the neofascist British National Party, has already commented that his party is precisely one major crisis away from power, and he may well be right.
More generally, the first political movement to come up with a plausible response to peak oil will likely define the political discourse around energy and society for decades to come. Griffin and his peers are eager to take on that role; their response may not look plausible to most people now, but then neither did Hitler’s, before the Great Depression lowered the bar on plausibility to the point that he could goose-step over it. Unless some other movement comes up with a meaningful politics for the post-peak world, Griffin’s ideas may yet win out by default.
That would be a tragedy, and for more than the obvious reasons. One advantage of crisis is that it becomes possible to make constructive changes that are much harder in less troubled times. While I am no fan of utopian fantasies, and the possibility always exists that well-intentioned changes could make things worse, it’s hard to argue against the idea that the dysfunctional mess that is modern American politics could stand some improvement. That might involve learning a few things from other democracies; it might also involve returning to something a little more like the constitutional system on which this country was founded, which after all worked well in a pre-fossil fuel age. One way or another, though, it’s time to take a hard look at some of our most basic assumptions, and replace scapegoat logic with a reasoned discussion about where we are headed and what other options our society might want to consider.