Saturday, May 31, 2008

Energy - THE Political Third Rail

OK, so this one comes directly out of the twilight zone. I can't believe I missed it last week, but then again, it WAS strategically placed in the Religion section of the Sunday Washington Post. James Howard Kunstler was one of the first non-petroleum hitters to write a book and participate in a documentary intended to colorfully and accessibly communicate the challenges aborning from Peak Oil.

Wake Up, America. We're Driving Toward Disaster
Everywhere I go these days, talking about the global energy predicament on the college lecture circuit or at environmental conferences, I hear an increasingly shrill cry for "solutions." This is just another symptom of the delusional thinking that now grips the nation, especially among the educated and well-intentioned.

I say this because I detect in this strident plea the desperate wish to keep our "Happy Motoring" utopia running by means other than oil and its byproducts. But the truth is that no combination of solar, wind and nuclear power, ethanol, biodiesel, tar sands and used French-fry oil will allow us to power Wal-Mart, Disney World and the interstate highway system -- or even a fraction of these things -- in the future. We have to make other arrangements.

The public, and especially the mainstream media, misunderstands the "peak oil" story. It's not about running out of oil. It's about the instabilities that will shake the complex systems of daily life as soon as the global demand for oil exceeds the global supply. These systems can be listed concisely:

The way we produce food

The way we conduct commerce and trade

The way we travel

The way we occupy the land

The way we acquire and spend capital

And there are others: governance, health care, education and more.
So those are the facts and they comprise a lot of the grist we mill hereabouts.

In any discussion of political "third rail" issues, it's meet and right to talk about the climate setting that takes place in the mainstream media, given the media's role in defining normative discourse. I mean, there's gotta be a reason they call it "mainstream" right? Kunstler goes there, and I guess thereby provided the WaPo with all the reason it needed to bury this column in its religion section;
Years ago, U.S. negotiators at a U.N. environmental conference told their interlocutors that the American lifestyle is "not up for negotiation." This stance is, unfortunately, related to two pernicious beliefs that have become common in the United States in recent decades. The first is the idea that when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true. (Oprah Winfrey advanced this notion last year with her promotion of a pop book called "The Secret," which said, in effect, that if you wish hard enough for something, it will come to you.) One of the basic differences between a child and an adult is the ability to know the difference between wishing for things and actually making them happen through earnest effort.

The companion belief to "wishing upon a star" is the idea that one can get something for nothing. This derives from America's new favorite religion: not evangelical Christianity but the worship of unearned riches. (The holy shrine to this tragic belief is Las Vegas.) When you combine these two beliefs, the result is the notion that when you wish upon a star, you'll get something for nothing. This is what underlies our current fantasy, as well as our inability to respond intelligently to the energy crisis.

These beliefs also explain why the presidential campaign is devoid of meaningful discussion about our energy predicament and its implications. The idea that we can become "energy independent" and maintain our current lifestyle is absurd. So is the gas-tax holiday. (Which politician wants to tell voters on Labor Day that the holiday is over?) The pie-in-the-sky plan to turn grain into fuel came to grief, too, when we saw its disruptive effect on global grain prices and the food shortages around the world, even in the United States. In recent weeks, the rice and cooking-oil shelves in my upstate New York supermarket have been stripped clean.
So here's our catch-22 in all its bizarre magnificence. Because it's been ignored, and all mainstream policy and praxis, including corporate for-profit policy and praxis has been driven in the absence of knowledge about Peak Oil, everyone is essentially unprepared for the massive changes at hand.

Because no one is prepared to deal, nobody of consequence in the public sphere is empowered to responsibly broach the central issue facing the American polity, i.e., the end of the era of cheap energy and all that that entails for the end of the American "way of life". Sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar, but you're gonna catch unheard of political hell if you're a presidential candidate and you try to light that bad boy up in a public space.