Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Post-Peak Politics

Post-Peak Politics
by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (July 23 2008)

Druid perspectives on nature, culture, and the future of industrial society

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

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.

John Michael Greer has been active in the alternative spirituality
movement for more than 25 years, and is the author of a dozen books,
including The Druidry Handbook (Weiser, 2006). He lives in Ashland, Oregon.


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