“This age is both comic and tragic. Tragic, because it is perishing; comic, because it continues.”
ENERGY, GUILT, CATASTROPHE
Energy is a category within the science of nature, or physics. It refers to "the capacity to effectuate change" (E. Hecht, 2013). Like all such abstractions, the word began with a concrete sense that became abstracted over time. “Energy” is a composite from Ancient Greek, whose first syllable means “in,” while the second means “work.” In terms of “ordinary language” (Austin, 1961), energy is whatever invisible force pervades a process of work, without which it could not be done; it is also that unperformed work hidden inside an object, person, or state of affairs, which is then liberated by some kind of activity. En-ergy is the work inside something, or the powerful something inside of a work process. Abstraction has widened the scope of the term to the point where it can mean almost anything, and this is most obvious in New Age discourse, where “energy” is a ubiquitous word whose metaphoricity is always indeterminate: nobody knows what it refers to, so it can do jobs that can’t be done by other terms that are more clearly understood (Greer, 200).
The categories of scarcity and abundance have been connected to the concept of energy from the Beginning: in Genesis, Adam and Eve are forced out of the abundant Garden of Eden and into a world of scarcity and labor. This myth, as many anthropologists have argued (e.g., Brody, 2002; Thompson, 1981), is a description of the advent of agriculture and the end of foraging as the central regime of human subsistence. Hunting and gathering, goes the claim, afforded people far more leisure and limited their appetites to what they could carry; whereas farming both bound people to their local fields and allowed the accumulation of agricultural surpluses which could be traded for other goods and services. These goods required storage, which required fortification and guard labor; soon enough, the more people a community could produce, the more crops it could grow and the more wealth it could amass and protect from competitors. With enough wealth, a community could launch an imperial project of raiding its neighbors, annexing their territory, and assimilating or slaughtering their populations. All that food production and all that soldiering require large populations, so the reproductive capacity of women tends to get commandeered by the state, embodied in the fathers and husbands who depend on it (Lerner, 1986).
This shift away from hunter-gatherer culture has long been understood as a disaster in gender relations; Friedrich Engels (1884) famously called it “the world historical defeat of the female sex.” As Stone (1976, p.199) notes, Genesis 3:17 suggests that the advent of hard labor was caused by the mistaken practice of listening to women: “And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life…” In the Garden of Eden, energy scarcity and social inequality were non-issues; they arise together, as a consequence of eating a forbidden fruit so potent that a single bite changes the world forever. The abundance in Eden was absolute, not quantitative; no measurements were made; nature was a seamless relational matrix, not a planetary stockroom loaded with catalogued “resources” awaiting exploitation (Heidegger, 1954). If the ancient and medieval worlds were afflicted by energy scarcity and a dependence on the muscle power of humans and other domesticated animals, the advent of fossil fuels brought an abundance that seemed absolute but was in fact quantitative, measurable, and all-too finite. As the literature of Peak Oil has articulated (Heinberg, 2003), the emergence of fossil fuels was so profoundly impressive and transformative that, like the bitten apple in Eden, it suddenly changed the whole world, producing a culture of boundless optimism (Peale, 1952), manic ambition (Whybrow, 2006), and “the civil religion of progress” (Greer, 2013). Modernity is this falsely infinite abundance, together with the ideological lubricant by which criteria of race, class, and gender entitle a colonial class of resource extractors, disenfranchising several billion persons at home and abroad who can directly access neither the means of production nor the sources of that fossil energy which drives production, distribution, and exchange. Only after a century of life under that worldview—that modernity of cheap energy, endless capital accumulation, and ideologically grounded inequality—did it become noticeable that its ultimate driver was neither “technology” nor “innovation,” but energy, in the form of fossil fuels. Technology and innovation are endlessly touted in American public discourse because they are products of human virtue, whose importance flatters our narcissism. Fossil energy, by contrast, is a natural endowment of the planet (mostly from two episodes of vast algal blooming, 90 million and 150 million years ago) which we merely extract and consume, remaining powerless to replace those depleted fuels, and powerless to sequester the pollution we produce in burning them. We did not make oil; we can’t replace it; we can’t clean up after it; we can’t stop using it. Along one vector, fossil energy provides us with unprecedented godlike power; along these other vectors, it delivers us over to overwhelming feelings of helplessness, rather like an addiction to heroin or methamphetamine.
While the discipline of English uses “early modern” as a term for the European civilization of the sixteenth century, what we regard as contemporary is a form of the modern in which energy is cheap and abundant (Heinberg, 2003); infinite material wealth is pursued for its own sake (Weber, 1905); and life is increasingly subject to what Max Weber called “rationalization,” a process of measurement and calculation that tends to homogenize, systematize, and disenchant whatever it subsumes. For historians like Bauman (1989) and Rubenstein (1975), the Nazi Holocaust represents the heart of modernity, since it combines mechanized technology (which requires cheap and abundant energy) with pseudoscientific racist ideology and bureaucratic organization, both of which can be seen as forms of Weberian rationalization. If the taint of Original Sin once marked humanity as fallen exiles from an Earthly Paradise, this reading of the Holocaust as modernity’s essence marks contemporary people as fallen exiles from the eighteenth century Enlightenment and its utopian social hopes. The essence of our times is also the nadir of human behavior.
The same symbolic system that conceived Original Sin—derived by Iranaeus and later by Augustine from the Letters of Paul—later developed the idea that it was this sin from which humanity required the redemption offered by Christ. But Christ was killed by human beings, a sacrifice understood to have exemplified his ethics, where the victim gives good in exchange for the evils of his assailants (e.g., Matthew 5:44). So goes Luke 23:34: “Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Traditional Christian anti-Judaism holds “the Jews” responsible for the death of Jesus (Farmer, 1999), whereas the political realities on the ground seem to implicate the Roman administration (Crossan, 1996). Matthew 25:40 seems to universalize, or render collective, the guilt for the Crucifixion: “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” The Holocaust raises similar questions about concentric circles of guilt and responsibility, implicating first those individuals –some of whom were executed at Nuremberg, whereas others were welcomed to America by the Central Intelligence Agency for their anti-Soviet abilities (Simpson, 1989) – whose active participation was concrete (Arendt, 1963); then, the German people who supported the Nazi regime (Goldhagen, 1996); and finally, all of “modern” mankind, since we are all subject to the same forces that produced the Nazis and their atrocities (Rubenstein, 1975). Indeed, Stanley Milgram’s famous “peer shock administration” experiments of 1963 (codified in his 1974 book Obedience to Authority) helped to establish the universality of the capacity for behaviors like torture, as Hannah Arednt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963) had done for mass-murder, slavery and genocide.
This issue of collective guilt (Branscomb, 2004) has been kindled anew by the advent of catastrophic climate change. Concrete responsibility seems concentrated among policymakers and corporate officers whose decisions directly result in particular instances of resource extraction and pollution (Jensen, 2011), but a collective guilt afflicts everyone who has ever benefitted from the consumption of those resources. This is easily (and often) quantified by statistics showing per capita energy use, with the United States among the most energy-profligate of existing nations. Climate negotiations are routinely deadlocked by this logic of quantified responsibility, since the major interests represented at the table are nation-states (whose representatives generally want carbon restrictions to be proportional, either to fuels already burned by “developed” states, or to fuels set to be burned by “developing” ones) and fossil fuel corporations (whose representatives generally want the talks to fail). There seems to be a parallel between the burning of fuels for electricity, and the entailment of responsibility for climate change: most of the liberated energy is lost as heat at the burn site, but the rest is exported by transmission lines to millions of end users—as the most concrete responsibility lies with the fuel corporations themselves, who then export a more attenuated form of that responsibility to millions of beneficiaries of the oil, gas, and coal they have expropriated. To press this strange analogy further, note that the heat generated at the power plant is not employed for any purpose (except at “cogeneration” plants, which use their heat for desalination or for municipal hot water), but lost locally as waste; similarly, the responsibility generated at ExxonMobil headquarters is not experienced as guilt (which might be converted into remedial action), but transmuted into its opposite—entitlement, as the remorseless zeal for more wealth—via the defense mechanism known as reaction formation (Czander, 2008).
Psychoanalysis emerged in the heyday of commercial fossil-fuels, when animal muscle power was replaced by coal-fired steam engines, followed by the liquid fuel internal combustion engine, and the eventual electrification of urban and rural landscapes. In the posthumously published 1895 “Project for a Scientific Psychology,” Freud’s model of the mind was informed by his studies with Helmholz and Brucke (Sulloway, 1979), whose Berlin Physicalist Society held that “no other forces than the common physical-chemical ones are active within the organism” (du Bois-Reymond, 1842, cited in Sulloway, p. 14). For Freud, the psychic representative of this “physical chemical force” was drive, and the “Project for a Scientific Psychology” is an effort to explain emotional life in terms of an economy of drives within the organism. Though this physicalism of the early Freud is easy to exaggerate (Mills, 2012), he does seem to have emphasized the individual mind as an embodied but somewhat isolated unit—at least compared to his successors in the object relations school. It may be fair to say that Freudian drive theory remained hegemonic in the United States for most of the twentieth century, waning only in the aftermath of President Carter’s national conversation about the new energy scarcity. It is as if modernity’s American citizen were a Freudian subject, an isolated mind with its own tank of libido, seated in the driver’s seat of an isolated Studebaker with its own gas tank, seeking its fortune. The new talk of “renewable energy,” chiefly solar and wind power, imagined energy no longer as a stably stored resource lying ready in the ground, but as a relationship arising within a cosmic system; the wind and the sunshine flow through the universe, and those who would make use of them must join in those larger processes of circulation, interposing their energy-gathering equipment into the existing system of wild, active forces. Correspondingly, the subject of relational psychoanalysis (Greenberg and Mitchell, 1983) is part of, and even constituted by, a web of relationships that constitute an environing field—like the photosphere of the Sun or the atmosphere of the Earth, tapped into by PV cells and wind turbines, respectively.