Despite its brief history, one might identify changing emphasis in peak oil commentary and analysis. Though the overlap is far greater than the difference, the earliest stress, it seemed, was on the simple depletion of the oil itself and thus the impact its growing scarcity would have on our trains, planes, and automobiles. Because of its rather direct use of fossil fuel inputs, the coming challenges of industrial agriculture was also an early topic of extensive conversation.
More recently, there has been increased emphasis on the economic implications of peak oil. Today, “the end of growth” dominates our conversation, having been in part led by two very good recent books by Richard Heinberg and John Greer on the subject. The broader scope permitted by an economic perspective shows how the scarcity of oil itself will ripple further and deeper through modern life and industrial society.
An individual new to the concept of peak oil and its implications is likely to follow this sort of evolution in his or her thinking, which may be a kin to the low-hanging fruit principle. Our direct uses of fossil fuels, the sort of use that results in drips on our shoes or splashes on our hands at the pump, is the conceptual low-hanging fruit of peak oil; it does not take much imagination or intellectual work to understand how the peaking of oil might effect gasoline prices and our cheap mobility. Relatively speaking, this insight is not all that threatening if kept in isolation. In contrast, we must put together more elaborate mental structure to reach the part of the tree where economic insights are more likely to blossom. There is more risk in these higher reaches—emotional risk, that is—and fewer may be willing to follow us here, or may at least need more time (or hunger) before joining us on our rickety ladders simply in order to achieve a broader perspective on what looks like our approaching doom.
As we put the final nails in the coffin of another year of national and international sleepwalking in the face of peak oil and climate change, it is apparent that the insights of no phase of this progression of consequences have become widely visible. But I’d nevertheless like to think ahead to a next stage in our collective thinking about these issues. Or put this down as my personal holiday wish or a new year’s resolution, for we have yet to enter in earnest into a very significant realm of peak oil thinking—that of politics.
Politics, to change my metaphor, could too easily become the third-rail of peak oil analysis, as well as the more active discourse over climate change. By this I’m not referring to politics merely at the level of candidates and campaigns and our continued dismay that Gingrich believes that North Dakota could become one giant oil-field or that Obama won’t speak the truths we believe he knows and will continue to place the loaded gun of short-term growth at the head of our planet’s longer term viability. Far from representing any sort of third-rail of peak oil discourse, the discussion about politics at this level from the peak oil or serious climate change perspective often represents an ultimately meaningless distraction, the rotten fallen fruit, in fact, that squishes beneath our feet.
I am instead referring to a realm we might refer to as political philosophy. The third rail whose power source might soon need to be disrupted is a rather simple historical correlation that few wish to mention. We are entering the terrain, here—or at least I am hoping that we do—where we will need to question what has long seem beyond question. It is a terrain where the simple-minded or ill-informed onlookers may shout “treason!” which is why I think many peak oil commentators have hesitated around its edges.
But just as the growth-based prosperity that our broader culture has liked to attribute to its own good virtues can easily be seen as a product, first, of colonial expansion and then of the unleashed abundance of coal, oil, and natural gas, so also have our chief political beliefs developed under similar circumstances. Individual liberalism, and thus freedom as we have largely known it, are also the products of abundance, often an ill-begotten sort of abundance. Individual liberalism’s main dictum, that you can do whatever you want, up until the point where it does harm to another, made sense as a principle political good only in a world of relatively unlimited space, whether geographical space for migration and resource exploitation, or the less defined space that appeared available to unlimited economic expansion and all the waste and destruction that goes with it.
In a packed and imbricated world, without these expandable margins, one can of course still hold that one is free to do as they like as long as they don’t harm others. But as the world becomes increasingly impacted, there are fewer and fewer things one can do that don’t affect others, giving us a principle of good that might soon be devoid of much plausible content. An empty concept, it seems to me, is ripe for meaningless ceremonial homage increasingly abstract from any material reality. But it is far more likely that the rich and powerful nations and people will find a way to expand their “space of operation” at the expense of others whose lives will become increasingly constrained among mountains of debt, pollution, and other obstacles to weel-being.
For the truth of it is that we, in the modern, capitalist, “free,” industrialized world are not very good at saying: “No. No, you can’t have that. No, you can’t do that. No, you’ve had your share.” Very few democracies, and even fewer when feeling the pressure of increasing constraint, have mustered the informed maturity to limit themselves, in part because their underlying philosophical principles were never preoccupied with prohibitions—just the opposite in fact. Freedom and liberty as we have conceived it (and this part—“the as we have conceived it--is crucial to my meaning here) have little demonstrated ability when it comes to self-restraint, especially when it comes to the most pressing issue of consumption.
Simply by raising these issues I understand that I am opening myself up to criticisms. To question such things, some might say, is itself a recipe for totalitarianism. Let me be clear: I am no more interested in giving up my freedoms (whatever we may ultimately make of them) than anyone else. My fear is that unless we begin discussing this issue, I might have to give up more of them than is necessary, or that they will be replaced only with violence and injustice; my concern is that unless we begin the difficult and dangerous toil of reconfiguring freedom, liberty, or other forms of social good, that unless we imagine a just and fair political philosophy that fits our planet, we will find totalitarianism, or something worse that has yet to be imagined, thrust upon us. The main current alternative to the unsustainable freedom to expand, compete and exploit in the way that has become a near universal model for political well-being is a totalitarian one. Raising questions about the fundamental values our politics are based upon is not, I would argue, a recipe for totalitarianism. Failing to raise these questions, however, is.