04 July 2008

Deconstructive Spoiler Alert! (>>>) Declaration Oil Alert! - the bad news first

Note: This blog entry is more a miniature essay than a blog entry. If you want to skip the pessimism and get right to the optimism, click here.

Once more, around to me on the natural wheel comes the realization that the human conceptual system is deeply metaphorical. From early human to surviving human, evolving to aging, life makes more sense the more we think about how simple it is. On my recent drive from FL to PA, I entered a deep state of highway thought somewhere in the Carolinas. In a numb state of one-directional travel, I realized I wasn’t following the road and ignoring the trees so much as the road was leading me on to distract me from the trees. It’s a simple realization, but one reached in deep thought. In 150 years of industrial revolution, life seems to have become less simple, but really life has gotten more complicated because we've made it more complicated. Like me driving the car, we're ones driving the industrial revolution, but like the road, the industrial revolution is showing us a straight-forward path and we're not thinking much about anything but. The complications of the industrial revolution sure make modern life easier day to day, but these ways just might kill us, and I think we are refusing to admit it. We’re stuck in the same old industrial revolution, except now it controls us. But what happens when the gas indicator light comes on and illuminates our need to worry? Will we have trouble admitting it then?

In this blog entry, I’ve decided to ignore altogether the debate over global climate change. There are folks who believe global climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the modern-day Chicken Little conglomerate. Chicken Littles that they are, the other side believes the sky is… not so much falling as getting a whole lot more dangerous to live under. The angry bickering of media hand puppets over whether or not GCC is a hoax only distracts us. Instead of trying to decide what damage fossil fuels are doing to our earth, could we possibly cut right to something more immediate?

I saw a film recently called Crude Impact that does just this by examining the effect we create with our demand for fossil fuels? From the film’s website: Peak oil is the point in time when the quantity of oil extracted from the earth begins to irreversibly decline. The United States reached peak oil in the early 1970s. Predictions vary, but global peak oil is anticipated as early as the year 2007. What do oil suppliers know that they’re keeping from us? Where are we in relation to global peak oil? Could it explain the current trend in oil prices that has now begun bleeding seriously into more than prices at the pump? Supply and demand says rising prices mean increasing demand and decreasing supply. This would fit the scenario of peak oil, and the current trend in prices.

One eventual outcome of passing peak oil is eventual war for resources. If/when we pass peak oil, nations that depend on oil will start eyeing up what's left. The U.S. will bump chests with other nations over oil. Like Crude Impact suggests, I strongly believe it will be China vs. the U.S. Both sides will take the sides of other countries in scrambles for remaning oil. Sounds a lot like World War III to me. Considering modern methods for warfare, I’d rather not see that.

What I appreciate most about Crude Impact is its honesty. Yes, oil companies share the blame for capitalizing on hyper-consumption (and other things), and yes, certain nations share the blame for hogging world oil, but where the film quite clearly points the finger of blame is at us, the mega-consumers. We can’t blame more powerful forces because we’re the ones supporting them. We’re the mega-consumers. The products we consume share so many ties to oil that if a product doesn’t contain oil, it probably sees oil somewhere along the way: operation, manufacture, and/or shipping. One great outcome of the bitter debates over GCC is that people have begun discussing plastic, nylon, pesticides, paint, vinyl, and most every other thing around us at this moment. Who’s to blame for supporting these products steeped in oil? Point an accusative finger at us, the U.S. With 5% of the world population, we the people of the United States are the leading global consumer: 25% of yearly oil consumed.

I’ll admit previous generations had little reason to question the industrial revolution making life easy. I’m sure they loved it. Gone were the humble days of surviving when oil emerged to keep them comfortably numb. Now we have the four basic needs all covered in oil use: food whenever we want it, temperature-controlled shelter wherever we go, more clothing than we actually wear, and water in disposable plastic containers. Add in the luxuries and time-saving devices, and you see how our demand for oil keeps growing, and growing, and growing. Nothing outlasts a hyper-energized nation, except maybe the half-life of plastic.

More so than mass consumption, inefficiency is the kicker. Food companies expend an average of ten calories to supply consumers with one food calorie. Crude Impact puts this inefficient energy transfer in deeply simple perspective. In Nature, when creatures make a habit of expending ten calories in order to eat one calorie, they turn into dead creatures. Virtually no creature in Nature self-destructs on purpose, but humans are doing a pretty good job.

Over the course of compiling this blog entry, I surfed the film’s website and e-mailed a contact address with questions about alternative energy sources. The director, James Jandak Wood, replied the next day. He made efficiency a clear theme in his reply: I believe the message you heard from several of the speakers - that the need is to reduce energy use, not replace our current use - is the right message. Dr. Bill Rees said in the movie that all of the alternative fuels in the aggregate can't possibly replace fossil fuels. This is a controversial statement, but I think the possibility that this is true should drive us toward reduction. I think reduction of energy will also help the wealth imbalance, create greater peace and justice in the world and much more. Sounds like a big statement, but I believe it to be true.

I respect Mr. Wood’s “better safe than sorry” mode of thought, and his focus on improved efficiency, but as one interviewee notes in the film, a major problem with the way environmentalists promote conservation is as I paraphrase here: If you ask someone to make a sacrifice for the environment, they won’t. This is problematic, because consumers constitute the majority of oil consumption. Sure, we can make energy-efficient cars, but what happens when the gas indicator light comes on? We can slow down to a more gas-efficient speed and we can coast down hills, but we’re still delaying the inevitable. At what point do we choose between self-sacrifice and global self-destruction?

In other words, I disagree somewhat with Mr. Wood’s e-mail reply. I think he asks too little of the American people. We’re the ones over-consuming, so we should be the ones to make sacrifices as well, and this simply will not happen fast enough. Companies should still provide more efficient appliances, cars, etc., but Americans probably won't take these efficient tools and become more responsible with them. Call me pessimistic, but I just don’t have faith in Americans to suddenly turn hard-core environmental, because we are overlooking the every day addictions of Americans. Most addictions are only troublesome when the addictive substance is taken away. As a culture today, we are addicted to—among many other things—electricity, packaged foods, television, and automobiles. As long as these are readily available, we don’t notice our addiction. If one—or all—were taken away, we would immediately exhibit the classic symptoms of addictive withdrawal. (See the next entry for this quote's source.) Humans no longer live the brute animal life, but we certainly retain our animal-like selfishness, which just happens to go hand in hand with addiction. Using fossil fuels more efficiently will not save us from the refusals of people who do not wish to “devolve” their lives.

I am the opposing hand puppet to Mr. Wood’s optimism, but I’m not all downer. I promise. I know natural energy will get us somewhere sustainable. I believe in wind, solar, and some forms of water power, because they are in constant supply. However, these energy sources still require conduits (wind turbines, solar panels, and hydro-structures), which require fossil fuels to make. The wind, solar, and water power technology then allows further efficiency, but the foundational ingredient is still the same: fossil fuels.

Ethanol, a natural alternative of a different sort, seems smart in theory. Corn renews itself faster than trees, and much faster than fossil fuels, but as one fellow Blogspot-er recently expressed, ethanol is, in practice, a waste of time, space, money, and hope. Ethanol is the right idea, but corn’s best use is still to “get in my bellyyyy.”

For the good news, please continue with the next post (>>>).

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