The biggest obstacle to getting our petro-dependent society to change
its wasteful ways is collective insanity.
While most of us are preoccupied with the astronomical price of gasoline,
a far bigger energy catastrophe is brewing that will make pricey gas seem like
a walk in the park. It's "peak oil" -- the term for the period after
which global oil and natural gas demand outstrips supply and the prices for
these commodities become too volatile for modern society to function. (For a
primer on the topic, a good place to start is Hubbert's
peak oil theory.)
One writer, James Howard Kunstler, has been particularly passionate -- some
might say over-the-top -- about peak oil. In his latest book, "The
Long Emergency," Kunstler addresses our stark looming reality square
in the face and analyzes the consequences. While many of the scenarios he describes
-- the prospect of millions of Americans stranded in suburbia forced to preside
over their economic decline as their once normal auto-dependent lives become
unattainable luxuries -- are no doubt valid, his tone strikes me as overly apocalyptic.
So I was curious to hear what Kunstler would say at the Local
Energy Solutions conference in New York City last month. Aside from Kunstler,
I knew what to expect from the rest of the speakers at the conference -- ideas
and information about how we can best cope after the energy crash.
Perhaps what was so striking about the speakers and attendants at the conference
was their almost angelic goodness and optimism -- even though by all rights
they are among the most knowledgeable about the scale of the challenge facing
our petro-dependent society, and would have the most cause to make a run for
all those abandoned cabins constructed in the Yukon after the Y2K nonapocalyptic
There was Julian Darley, director of the Post-Carbon
Institute speaking as softly as a kindergarten teacher about the need to
develop currencies based on locally produced energy and decrease our reliance
on society's "flesh-based" diet.
There was Henry Gifford, an expert on "boiler, steam, and hydronic heating
systems, water pressure boosting systems, and ventilation systems," calmly
discussing how the office buildings and homes we use today are pissing away
our natural resources at a rate that left me reeling.
Yet while I can't dispute the need for massive improvements in the energy efficiency
of our buildings and the necessity to localize food production to deal with
our coming energy crisis, the biggest obstacle to change seems to be cultural
inertia. Most of us are zooming along blissfully in exactly the wrong direction:
building more freeways, more malls, more auto-dependent housing developments,
increasingly grotesque and demeaning commercial enterprises sucking the meaning
out of our lives and American society as a whole. It's the collective insanity
of our society that makes it possible for us to drive, consume and build freeways
as though we could go on forever.
It was on that topic that Kunstler delivered his lecture, on what he called
the "psychological dimension" of what's needed to get things going
on the right track, which he says is "as important as the geological dimension."
I half expected Kunstler to say that the conference was pointless, that there
was no hope for a society that needed to change its energy consumption if it
were to survive. But while he was merciless in his critique of American society,
I left the conference believing he was as optimistic as the rest.
Kunstler's rage and disdain was righteous and unsparing. He was pissed and
he was eloquent: "We've turned into this nation of overfed clowns, riding
around in clown cars, eating clown food, watching clown shows," he said.
We're "a nation of cringing, craven fuckups."
Kunstler singled out one element of the psychological dimension in American
life: "The idea that when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.
It's not a good thing for adults to wish upon a star. Right now, this is a normative
belief -- that you can wish for things, and you'll get them."
He said that the nation's leading religion has become the "worship of
unearned riches, which is based on a very stark idea, the idea that you can
get something for nothing."
If that was the religion, Kunstler said, then the city of Las Vegas is its
temple. Why this matters, he argued, is that when we talk about the problems
facing our oil-dependent society, the dominant frame of mind is one of pure
fantasy -- that years of predominance on the international stage has left America
smug in the belief that it need only wish to have its problems solved, and that
it doesn't have to face challenges that might require a massive change in all
aspects of American life.
Bringing this rather abstract statement directly to contemporary national politics,
Kunstler cited a quote he attributed to Dick Cheney about the centrality of
our shopping malls and freeway systems to society: that this way of American
life is "non-negotiable." Kunstler argued that Cheney's mindset is
that of all Americans -- that SUVs, fast food, hourlong home-to-work commutes
driven alone with the air-conditioning blasting was the best of all possible
worlds, and the natural outcome of what our forefathers had dreamed of when
they drew up the Constitution.
It was this kind of collective insanity, Kunstler said, that led CBS' 60 Minutes
to run a program telling millions of Americans that the Canadian province of
Alberta's tar sands held two trillion barrels of extractable oil that would
keep us going for perpetuity -- never mind that the infrastructure required
for extraction is decades away from being ready, and that the best available
technology requires almost as much energy to extract as it produces.
Kunstler also criticized the arrogance that industrial leaders in the tech
sector had about dealing with petro-dependency. He described a visit he made
to the Google headquarters in Northern California for a speaking engagement.
Here were the execs of a major company, whose ideas and products have received
the official stamp of "The Future." Young captains of the tech industry,
who, because "they have been megasuccessful -- they have very grandiose
ideas about what is possible." And what Kunstler saw were a bunch of kids
"dressed like skateboard rats."
Kunstler bemoaned their almost religious confidence in technology to solve
society's problems. He said that after he gave his speech outlining the dangers
facing our oil-dependent society, the young executives didn't ask any questions
but made comments and rebuttals, which Kunstler summarized essentially as, "Dude,
we've got the technology."
Kunstler's final and biggest point was that if we wanted to convince wider
society that it has to make a very different set of living arrangements to survive
in a post-oil society, we need to find a "vocabulary and syntax" that
speaks to its most dogged adherents. He said that rhetoric had been given a
bad name, and that it needed to be retrieved from the dumpster of history.
I think Kunstler was dead right -- many of the ideas and practices about how
we can make other arrangements are already in existence, but there isn't a wide
demand for them. There must be a language that competes with the standing fantasies
in our consumer society that makes people want to ditch their cars, stop their
consumptive impulses, and make our standing commercialized social narratives
as appealing as the idea of taking a bath with a corpse.
But I wonder if the winning rhetoric involves direct insults, like calling
middle Americans who live in suburbia "craven fuckups" to their face.
I wouldn't write it off instantly, given the popularity of serial insult artists
like Dr. Phil. Kunstler also emphasized that talking about peak oil and automobile
dependency just once to someone isn't going to make any converts. "You're
going to have to employ repetition ... to an uncomfortable degree."
I know what I'd do if someone kept telling me I was a craven fuckup, I was
a craven fuckup; I'd react angrily and cling to my way of life all the more
desperately. Finding the right rhetoric that makes people want to change all
on their own is a high art and one of our greatest challenges.
While Kunstler didn't once preach apocalypse, he did say that there isn't any
guaranteed outcome of an energy renaissance or salvation for American society.
"We either make it work, or we don't," he said, capturing the total
indifference the Earth has regarding our fate. Lucky for us, the attendants
at this conference were not as aloof.
Jan Frel is an AlterNet