Age of Anxiety – Part 2 – Critique of Collapse

by transitionalism@gmail.com on August 4, 2014

Woman with Wreath of Flowers in Her HandsThere are different ways we can approach the challenge of peak oil as presented in the film “There’s No Tomorrow”, together with the related challenge of climate change. In this second installment, we will focus on the social response to the prospects of a crisis.

According to the video, research indicates an oil field reaches its period of peak production 40 years after discovery after which production goes into decline. Taken together, the period of peak discovery globally was in the 1960’s which means we now stand somewhere at the point of maximum production, after which supply will experience a steady decline while the demand for energy and products currently based on petroleum and coal is rapidly increasing. When examining the range of alternatives currently under development (solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear, wave generation, and so on) the conclusion is none of them will be capable of replacing – not to mention lead to increasing – the total supply of energy to meet future demand. Moreover, the means of generating alternative energy is itself dependent on fossil fuels.

Given the lack of political cooperation and competence, resistance by special interests, including a general public comfortable with the current way of life and an economic system founded on perpetual cycles of expansion, even concerted efforts to conserve and recycle cannot avert the inevitable steep descent towards global economic and social decline. Our only way out, according the narrative, is for individuals and communities to begin acclimating themselves to the idea of returning to a less energy intensive way of life and become more self-sufficient in order to reduce one’s dependence on the system.

This could be considered the only seemingly optimistic note expressed in an effort to make its position sound more reasonable by seemingly not ascribing to either position where technology and the market will save us or those who feel ‘there is no hope, we are doomed’. The message only appears ‘hopeful’ because it did not come out explicitly saying, with the collapse of the global economy we will be left facing widespread famine, disease, and violence, as over time seven billion people attempt to make their own shift to a more self-sufficient, less energy intensive life style.

If the future threatens such a possibility, why are individuals and society at large not reacting more aggressively in order to obvert this fate? The reasons are many of course. The video’s subtext is that people are like lemmings, where each of us are unthinkingly following the person in front right over the cliff on the presumption we can continue consuming resources with the same sense of abandon as we exhibit today; if not more so, taking population increase into account. From this perspective, the path we currently are on is consistent with what occurs with any other organism lacking condition-imposed constraints; exponential population growth with proportional degradation of supply and quality of resources.

It should come as no surprise that people would prioritize the immediate and the continual influx of daily challenges that comes with living life – like making a living and raising a family – over the dangers of climate change as seen in the 2013 poll reported in the articles. “Peak Oil, Not Climate Change Worries Most Britons” (http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/07/18/column-britain-climate-poll-idUSL6N0FO1TE20130718). Here, the allegory of the frog in a bowl of gradually warming water, referred to in Al Gore’s film “Inconvenient Truth”, comes to mind. His point was to describe the trouble human beings have perceiving dangers that are not imminent, given there was no mechanism by which evolution could prepare our species to deal with anything further out along the time line. One needs only to look at the lack of adequate retirement planning on the part of many adults to see this is a problem. Additionally, even if a potential future crisis is acknowledged, many people tend to feel overwhelmed and choose not to think about it. Some measure of denial acts as a healthy survival mechanism and considering all of the hazards we might face we would not be able to live without it. What is not helpful is when denial becomes an escape to avoid the prospect of a degradation of life style. Coupled with this is a skeptical public who, until recent years, tended to become more so as they were continually presented with self-admitted incomplete sets of data used to support what were perceived to be non-definitive predictions.

There are people who just don’t believe there are any threats or feel whatever problem there is to be exaggerated due to mistrust of the source; be it the media, scientific community, government or international institutions. The opposition presented by this group is ideologically, not evidentially, motivated where facts or reasoned argument highlighting weaknesses in their position are of little importance. A view mostly reflected in the United States, these individuals object to concerns raised regarding  climate change principally on the basis of the ‘liberal left’ who is bringing attention to the problem, not the problem itself. Determining if climate change is occurring is a scientific question, then if it is found the climate is being sufficiently altered by human actions it now becomes a social question. It has been the objective of this group to present climate change as an ideological issue, where they were to enjoy a sufficient degree of success that could impede a thoughtful response, unnecessarily putting society at long-term risk.

Generally associated with the opposite end of the ideological spectrum is the range of opinion represented in the video. Underlying the suggestion of the survival value of adopting a more naturalistic social order lays a critique of current society by promoting what it sees as a more wholesome way of life, reminiscent of the early 19th century Jeffersonian-American Transcendentalist ideal. This is a conservative anachronistic agenda, almost medieval in its projecting a low technology, steady-state social ideal for our future.

Regarding the matter of blame for the collapse, according to the film responsibility lies with capitalism and the culture of over consumption. However if we are to follow the narrative and its thinking to its logical conclusion, given that we had full knowledge of the consequences of our actions, if society were to collapse the same human being that was responsible for the first disaster remains. Subsequently, our descendants would continue to struggle and build up in the attempt to reclaim its former position leading it to becoming overextended, to be again followed by collapse in perpetual cycles of growth and failure until reaching a point where there would be nothing left on which to build. In the end, we are left with a message of despair leaving us to question the purpose, meaning or value of ourselves as human beings and of anything we do.

Yet, before one can resist or deny the danger, the possibilities must be acknowledge at some level, including those identified as vested economic interests. Like the tobacco industry, why should the petroleum and coal industries spend billions on disinformation campaigns and lobbying efforts to marginalize environmental protection efforts when no problem exists. There are a number of influential members of the energy sector who are convinced that they will eventually abandon fossil fuel for the alternatives establishing a powerful incentive (it all gets down to incentives) to wring as much profit out of the capital investment already made. To the extent special economic interests do act to impede needed change, they do so in accordance to what they perceive their interests to be, which means, unlike the ideologically motivated opposition, they are rational actors. But like any other human organization, drives to satisfy short-term, self-interested goals aside, people who work in the coal and petroleum industries are just as vested in what is familiar and comfortable as is anyone else. The thought of going to alternative energy sources appears to many as unnecessarily disruptive of a proven industry and fanciful. This is changing of course, but like everything else, change takes time.

In spite of political headwinds, there exists hints of the momentum amongst the public to obvert both a crisis in peak oil and radical climate change found in the 2013 poll reported in the article “Peak Oil, Not Climate Change Worries Most Britons” (http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/07/18/column-britain-climate-poll-idUSL6N0FO1TE20130718). Even if those polled that rated cost of living by over 2:1 over climate change on their list of concerns, their preference is to have their energy generated by alternative sources, and so, in a round-about way, benefiting the environment. From this we could also read if climate change came to be seen to adversely impacting living standards as well as quality of life, a radical shift putting climate change as primary concern could be expected, along with a complimentary shift in social priorities. Similar conclusions could be reached in another poll reported in the article, “Peak Oil Perceptions: How Americans View The Risks Of A Major Spike In Oil Prices” (http://climateshiftproject.org/2011/08/08/peak-oil-perceptions-how-americans-view-the-risks-of-a-major-spike-in-oil-prices/).

While a potential does exist, focus on pending disaster due to running out of fossil fuels or climate change is more indicative of a heightened expression of anxiety and fear at a time when challenges overall are multiplying and loom larger in terms of their seriousness. At its root, feelings of pending doom expresses the degree individuals trust one another. It is also an expression to the extent the society holds belief in itself.

In the third and final installment we will examine our Age of Anxiety will prove to be transformative for us as a society and as individuals. I hope you will join me then and, as always, I look forward to your comments.

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