Until recently, not many people were aware of this important bit of Peak Oil wisdom, but because of the successful efforts of activists in the Post Carbon Institute and elsewhere, many people now know it; everybody should:
When a barrel of oil costs more energy (to find, extract, refine, deliver, and sell) than the energy in the barrel of oil itself, rational actors will choose to leave it in the ground.
Having heard this formulation a hundred times, and having repeated it to various readers and audiences, I want to speculate a little about oil and "rational actors."
Money is a representation of energy, not the other way around. The energy--as oil, or sunshine, or labor measured in food calories, etc--is physically real; the money's just a paper symbol charged with socially constructed power. Huge amounts of energy are chemically inherent in petroleum, but unextracted oil becomes worthless when its EROEI (energy return on energy investment) approaches zero.
It does this because every variable in the game tends to deteriorate as time goes on: at the start (c. 1853, when the first commercial well opened in Poland), the Earth is untapped, riddled with great pockets of delicious pressurized oil lying just under its skin. Rockefeller shows up, sticks a straw in the ground, and a gusher blows 100 feet into the air. This amazingly easy oil is of the highest quality, because while the heavy sulfurous gunk sinks deep down, the light sweet crude rises toward us nifty surface dwellers. The easy oil is the better oil, so latecomers have the indignity of expending huge new levels of effort and resources just to get their hands on inferior petroleum. That's the heavy stuff, the stuff you prefer to use for asphalt. The stuff Venezuela can only sell to the Chinese, because everyone else with lungs is scared to burn it.
On any timescale relevant to human affairs, the planet's natural endowment of petroleum does not grow at all. Nearly all of it was formed in two special, geologically exotic eras that occurred roughly 150 m.y.a. and 90 m.y.a. (million years ago). Liquid hydrocarbons occur in only a finite but unknown number of spots around the globe; of course, once we started searching for them, the number of undiscovered ones began shrinking toward zero. The more we searched for oil fields (which they call "exploration"), the better we got at finding them (which they call "discovery"). Discovery peaked in 1964. In other words, in no year before or since have we discovered more oil than we discovered in 1964. Except for some non-linear fluctuations, we have discovered less and less oil every year since 1964.
Once you discover oil, you have to extract it (which they call "production"). Production seems to have peaked around 2008, plus or minus about six years, depending on whose numbers you find persuasive. The date of the Peak is something we can only really know in retrospect, though by then our minds may well be focused on huntin' up our next rack o' possum ribs, not reminiscing about Saudi Aramco's bygone century of make-believe field survey data.
As with discovery, practice makes perfect: the more we extracted, the better we got at extraction. Over the past century and a half, a lot of brilliant petroleum geologists invented scads of amazing instruments, techniques, mathematical models, software, and geochemical expertise, for the purpose of sucking out an ever-greater percentage of the oil in a given deposit... then going back for more (which they call "secondary recovery"), often with a new approach, like injecting the field with a million tons of seawater daily, so the oil will float to the top... then giving it one last shot (which they call "tertiary recovery"), where they send down a rhesus monkey on a rope with a bucket and a spoon. The point is: the better we got at extraction, the more quickly we depleted the planet's limited supply.
Okay, fine. So the viability of an energy source depends not on the amount of money required to exploit it, but on the amount of energy returned per unit of energy invested. But is money totally irrelevant to the question above? The question was, whether people will deliberately leave oil in the ground.
Well, the law forbids corporations from behaving like decent members of the human community, since their sole purpose is to generate profit. They don't ultimately care whether the profit comes from the financial side (selling stock to investors) or the commercial side (actually selling a product to customers). Corporations, like the mentally compartmentalized individuals who run them, are only "rational actors" within the tragically narrow frame of reference that defines them. As Chomsky pointed out in an interview I used to play over and over when I was a teenager, "If you're the Chairman of the Board and you start behaving as if human beings are more important than profit, you find very quickly that you're not Chairman of the Board anymore."
When a barrel of oil costs more energy (to find, extract, refine, deliver, and sell) than the energy in the barrel of oil itself, rational actors will choose to leave it in the ground, lest they lose more energy than they gain. Unless, of course, someone else takes the losses for them, as happened in the 2008 bailout of the big banks, when the taxpayers covered the banks' losses (and then some). I can imagine a scenario in which a young Dubya-like one-percenter goes after oil long after the other companies have given up doing so, because for him, somehow, the public foots the bill.
Suppose a Mafioso is given an oil company for a birthday present. Suppose all his operating costs shrink to near zero because his "people" have "ways" of reducing costs. He could afford to extract oil that others had left in the ground because it cost them too much money to extract. But unlike them, this guy could buy up depleted old fields for a song, sell the thousand defunct rusty old derricks for scrap metal, and get ta drillin'. He starts injecting seawater, firing up the triple-zoom robo-snake and the other hi-tech gizmos, running the pumps, paying the employees, etc., and then sells whatever heavy sour crude he can for profit. The energy he's investing per barrel could be double the energy he's extracting per barrel of this mediocre but useful goo, and he might just keep on going anyway, because it barely cost him anything (neither money, nor the energy for which money is a symbolic place-holder).
Imagine a network of one thousand permaculture-based eco-villages, powered by a solar-and-wind operation where a million men and women work every day to keep things going smoothly. One day the energy gets diverted, somehow stolen by a gangster. Only the villages are in a physical position to make efficient use of the energy they collect, since they live on site; the thief, by contrast, can't steal it without wasting half of it in messy processes of storage and transmission. But he has no interest in efficiency, because this is stolen energy that cost him relatively little (hire some paramilitary contractors; bribe a few cops n' Congressmen). He's like the little rascal who runs home from Old Man Hayseed's well, sloshing his open bucket full of stolen water; he doesn't care that it's nearly empty when he gets home, because he didn't get caught and he did get some free water.
Anyway, back to our story. The energy thief dumps his ill-gotten gains into a tertiary recovery petroleum operation and sells the meager results for a fabulously high price because it's become so rare. When a unit of energy requires a month's labor from a million hungry villagers, plenty of people will prefer black market petroleum if they can get it.
People already have sometimes chosen to leave petroleum in the ground for reasons other than inadequate EROEI. They do it to drive up the market price; or to save some for later; or to placate people who want some field to go offline for a while; or if the military hasn't yet got the place under adequate logistical control for Halliburton's comfort; or if President Putin wants to remind a freezing former Soviet satellite that he's in charge. In my little fable, where things are more simple and extreme, it's easier to see the perspective-dependent nature of "energy accounting"; it's one thing in the two million hands of a community with long-term goals, but quite another in the two hands of a tweaky aristocrat who knows he's above the law.
Sunday, November 2, 2014
Friday, October 10, 2014
Kevin J. Coyle, JD and Lise Van Susteren, MD,
National Forum and Research Report
National Wildlife Federation Climate Education Program
With Support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Copyright © 2011 National Wildlife Federation
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Here is a Youtube film of a recent (August 2014?) panel discussion on “Existential Risk”—risks to the survival of the human species as a whole. I have transcribed the initial response of Harvard psychologist and popular intellectual Steven Pinker:
"I guess I’m skeptical of existential risk as an important topic, for two reasons. One of them is that there’s a long history, going back to the Book of Revelations—apocalyptic thinking—that always comes up in new guises. Whatever the newest technology is, people always imagine how it could be an existential risk. And the history of apocalyptic predictions is actually kind of amusing in retrospect. In the 1930’s, it was fear that if you combined the poison gas from WWI with airplanes, then you could have the threat of airplanes spreading poison gas over the surface of the Earth and extinguishing humanity—something we don’t really worry about anymore, even though it’s still technologically possible. And when I grew up, there were both scientists and political scientists who said that it was a certainty that the US and the USSR would fight a nuclear war, ending humanity. And that certainty didn’t happen. And then there was polywater, a polymerized form of water that would turn all of the world’s water into thick goo; there were the nanobots that were going to consume every bit of organic matter and smother us in grey goo. The problem with existential threats is they’re very easy to imagine. If you play them out on the stage of your imagination, they often speak more to our anxieties than to credible threats. I guess I’m more worried about sub-existential threats; that is, rather than worry about the very last of the 7.2 billion people on Earth today, I think it’d be bad enough if there’s ten thousand or a hundred thousand or a million who get killed, and we know that there are things that can do that kind of damage and we don’t have to play out farfetched scenarios to imagine that people are going to be dying from hunger and disease and war and genocide. My priority would be these sub-existential threats that are certain—they’re happening every day—and that affect the fortunes of actual people."
This is essentially the same move made repeatedly and incisively by John Michael Greer, in books like Apocalypse Not and at his blog, the Archdruid Report. While there is much to be learned from Greer, his argument about existential risk—that there can be no such thing on humanly meaningful timescales, since people have anticipated it so many times before, without result—seems to me quite fatuous. I recently addressed this in “Collapse Awareness and the Tragic Consciousness (a blogpost at Nature Bats Last):
It is well to point out (Greer, 2009) that apocalyptic claims have always proven erroneous in the past, and they may do so again. But the human past never included environmental stressors that were planet-wide, beyond which there can be no appeal. Fossil aquifers and fossil fuels cannot renew, except on a geological timescale irrelevant to human affairs. Radioactive elements (like nuclear waste, nuclear plant leakages, or the depleted uranium the U.S. shot all over Iraq,) have half-lives in the thousands and even millions of years. Four hundred ppm of CO2 makes for a hell of a greenhouse effect, complete with positive feedback loops; the most dangerous of these is the methane cascade problem. There is no remaining “New World” by which to repeat the surprise of 1492 — the frontier is closed, and the world is round.
Drop a baseball from the top of the Empire State Building, and there will be many opportunities to point out that it is going down and must hit the ground. Each presents a corresponding opportunity to reply that yes, it may be going down, but it hasn’t hit — and that you pessimists have repeatedly claimed that it’s going to hit the ground, yet it still hasn’t, so maybe it never will. So it is with claims of apocalypse.
Having addressed the central point of Pinker’s argument, let’s consider the tone and substance of the remainder. Consider the first example of the “amusing in retrospect” pseudo-existential threats that so troubled our naïve predecessors: poison sprayed from planes. During the Vietnam War, the United States denuded Vietnam of some five million acres of forest, causing around 400,000 deaths and 500,000 birth defects for decades after. Monsanto and Dow Chemical Company manufactured most of the herbicidal defoliants used by the US (the most common of which was known as Agent Orange (after the color of the barrels that stored it), totaling over seventy million litres of poisons, notably the amazingly toxic dioxin (Stellman, 2003). Today Monsanto douses agricultural fields with vast amounts of somewhat comparable poisons like Roundup, whose active ingredient glyphosate has been associated with a range of serious health effects. According to Carey Gillam of Reuters, “In 2007, as much as 185 million pounds of glyphosate was used by U.S. farmers.”
Call it agribusiness or sociopathy, this amounts to: spraying poison from planes. While Pinker is obviously correct in observing that the practice has not killed everyone on Earth, he sounds too glib to have considered that fossil-fuel dependent agriculture (of which petrochemical toxins are a crucial part) is in fact an existential threat. The soil of the US and many other countries is no longer a living ecosystem that sustains itself through the natural cycling of nutrients and water among thousands of interdependent species; it has become an inert sponge for inputs of fossil fuels—ammonium nitrate fertilizers from natural gas, pesticides and herbicides from petroleum. These are used with GMO crops whose two commercial merits are, first, their ability to resist (briefly, until the target organisms develop resistance) the expensive weed-killing herbicides Monsanto and Dow manufacture, and second, their engineered sterility, which forces farmers to pay Monsanto for new seed every planting season, or face starvation. The mass suicides of farmers in India are associated with this extractive model of agriculture. It is, in Pinker’s words, one of the “sub-existential threats that are certain—they’re happening every day—and that affect the fortunes of actual people.” But if we leave Monsanto and Cargill and Syngenta and Dow Chemical to their own devices, they will happily compromise the food chain until it fails.
Pinker’s next example is the Cold War: “when I grew up, there were both scientists and political scientists who said that it was a certainty that the US and the USSR would fight a nuclear war, ending humanity. And that certainty didn’t happen.” The fallacy here is the implication that because a nuclear holocaust did not happen, it was never an existential threat. Of course it was. Worse, scholars have come to appreciate just how close we came to annihilation at several points in the Cold War, notably the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis in which President Kennedy’s resolve—his moral courage and psychological maturity—was the only thing between a mad pack of warhawk generals and the missile launch buttons.
Pinker summarizes: “The problem with existential threats is that they’re very easy to imagine. If you play them out on the stage of your imagination, they often speak more to our anxieties than to credible threats.” There are real threats and imaginary ones, just as there are real people as well as fictional characters, real diseases as well as socially constructed syndromes, many real plants and many plastic ones. The rub lies in the ever-present task of properly sorting the real threats from the unreal ones. It may be “amusing” to look back on false positives in the history of threat-assessment, but it would be foolish to neglect current risks on those grounds, as if there were no such thing as a false negative—something which doesn’t look like a threat, but turns out to be one. Left unchecked, CFCs might well have permanently ruined the ozone layer, exposing most of the biosphere to damaging and potentially lethal ultra-violet and other forms of radiation. Neonicotinoids are a group of agricultural petrochemicals which now threaten to eradicate bees, without whom there is almost no pollination—a potential disaster for the terrestrial food chain. Plankton in the oceans are the basis of the marine food chain; their numbers are down 40% since 1950. Since no human being can live without food, these are existential threats to humanity.
On Pinker’s reasoning, to consider existential risk is to “worry about the very last of the 7.2 billion people on Earth today,” a rhetorical sleight of hand, since (of course) the issue is the 7.2 billion deaths of the whole lot of us, not the individual death of the last remaining member of the species, even though both of these are involved in extinction.
Lastly, we are invited to neglect what the speaker calls “farfetched scenarios.” Here again, there always farfetched scenarios out there, but the interest lies in determining just which scenarios are farfetched. Though concrete facts constrain the social construction of risk perception, it is still a social construct. Such constructs are rich with biases of class privilege and other identity elements. It is part of the culture of Harvard University, and of the One Percent in general, to ignore those who try and call their attention to serious threats; then mock them with scorn, derision, and contempt; and then forget all about the whistleblower once his or her warning has come true. They often announce that absolutely nobody could have predicted the problem, which is an attempt to erase from history whoever did make such a prediction, along with the necessary sacrifices exacted from people who dare to play that role. This happened with Semmelweis and his discovery that thousands of lives are saved when a hospital decides it’s a good idea for surgeons to wash their hands before operating; it happened with Marion King Hubbert’s accurate prediction of the peaking of conventional oil production in the US and in the world as a whole; it happened with Trotsky’s prescient warning that Stalin was going to murder the revolutionary generation of Bolsheviks to consolidate his power; it happened with Michael Ruppert’s warnings in the late 1990’s that the US was headed toward a petro-police state, and so on.
In the twenty seconds following 23:08, Pinker says "If you set climate change as a problem to be solved, as opposed to thinking of it as an apocalypse that we have visited upon ourselves and deserve to be punished for our sinful ways, and our only solution is to completely and radically change our lifestyle and value system. I think that's unlikely to solve the problem. I think thinking of it as a big mess that we've gotten ourselves into and what are the ways that we can get the numbers to match up with reality, I think a solution exists." There it is. Watch the clip. What Pinker disagrees with is this fundamental truth, agreed upon by all reasonable people with whom I am at all acquainted: "our only solution is to completely and radically change our lifestyle and value system."
Seated near Dr. Pinker on the panel was Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (2006) and The Sixth Extinction (2014), giving the panel the gravitas that helps express the nature of our predicament.
Evidence of abrupt and dramatic climate change is nearly everywhere you look: unprecedented high temperatures, storms, floods, droughts, migrations, wildfires, crop failures, species extinctions (as many as 200 per day), sea ice loss and sea level rise, and the triggering of perilous positive feedback loops like the methane releases from both thawing permafrost and the warming ocean floor. While there is meaningful controversy about just how quickly these will converge and just how screwed we really are at this point, everybody knows that exponential growth on a finite planet is the murder of the whole world. Everybody knows about the critical state of the ecosystem without which life is impossible.
Until I saw this conference footage, I thought even Harvard knew it.
 JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. James W. Douglass (Orbis Books, 2008).
 John Michael Greer is particularly good on this issue. See “Heading Toward ther Sidewalk” http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2014/08/heading-toward-sidewalk.html and “Dark Age America: The Senility of the Elites.” http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2014/09/dark-age-america-senility-of-elites.html
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
1. Truth-telling. American civilization is an abusive parent who provides more material goods than most, but lies about just how violently he acquired those goods. With hundreds of military bases abroad, American authority is like a Mafioso who brings home big bags of toys and candy with blood all over them, and strictly forbids any discussion of where it all came from.
In such a family, some kids will prefer to keep the stuff and repress their own guilt and terror. This is not just so they can keep the presents! They do it because if they don’t, their Dad’s illusory goodness will disappear; their necessary idealization of him will collapse, and they will be flooded with a painful ambivalence that they are not equipped to process or contain. With more citizens in prison than any other country on Earth, America is also a disciplinarian to be feared by his dependents.
The abusive parent has an addiction: oil. The analogy with alcoholism expresses the links among the addiction, the violence, the hypocrisy, and the deterioration. But the analogy breaks down when we consider that oil doesn’t just drive the bully in charge, it also powers the profligate lifestyle that is all the kids have ever known.
While some kids will need to stay with the abuser’s program, other kids will find a way to speak the truth. This doesn’t just happen because they are older kids (sometimes they aren’t), but because of temperament, or insight, or some external source of support, like a mentor whose values are different (say, Shakespeare), or friendship with a family down the street who live in a far different and better way (say, Denmark or Cuba). Speaking that truth will both risk the wrath of the abusive father, and alienate the kids who are still trying to love him. But in a regime of endless lies and unacknowledged open secrets, speaking the truth can feel so important as to drive us to risk ostracism and punishment. We have to do it.
2. Orientation. Mammals are wired to orient themselves in their environment, periodically doing threat assessment by scanning the place with open eyes and ears. Think of meerkats on their hind legs, peering at the horizon so they can know what’s coming. Climate change is not a discreet entity that we can track with our eyes, like some leopard who’s in one place at a time and can be present one moment and gone the next. It’s an entirely different sort of threat from the kind we are equipped to find and to confront. But that doesn’t change our nature, part of which is this need to look at what dangers are out there as they approach. It is still absent because the worst of its hardships (e.g., sea level rise in the tens of meters, and temperatures so high the human body can’t thermo-regulate anymore) are yet to come; yet it is also already present as Katrina and Sandy, epic wildfires, droughts, and floods, lethal heat waves, falling crop yields, mass extinctions, sea ice loss, and all the other anomalies of the past ten years. People with a strong orientation drive will continue to assess threats—even those which they are relatively powerless to stop, because what prompts me to orient myself is not only the nature of the threat (in which case I might say, “well, this great white shark is too big for me to stop, so I may as well ignore it”) but my own need to try and protect myself, whether that is possible or not.
3. Integration. The false story costs a lot. In order to continue believing in it and enjoying its advantages in relative comfort, I have to make and maintain a deep split right down the middle of my psyche (there are other solutions besides this splitting, such as sociopathy, but this essay is about bleedingheart doomers such as myself). To stay happy inside consumerism’s nationalist culture of endless growth on a finite planet, I have to repress not only the giant ethical issues raised above (see # 1), but also the tide of evidence that precisely because of these living arrangements the world is rapidly becoming inhospitable to human life (see # 2). Unless this repression is so complete that I am unaware of it, it will cost me much of my energy and some of my mental health just to maintain it. If I turn toward the truth instead, I will be forced to endure an awareness of it; in return, I will be free of the need to split and compartmentalize and pretend.
4. Erasure. When I’m confronted with the evidence of possible near-term human extinction (NTHE) from pollution, depletion, and climate change (especially when the story includes methane, not just CO2), part of me indulges in the thought that such an apocalypse would take with it much of what I hate, including illegitimate authoritarian power, militant stupidity, cruel poverty for billions of people, for-profit prisons, torture, and so on. Make it stop. Let it stop. In Scorcese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle is so disgusted with the pervasive crime and depravity of the city, that he fantasizes about a great cleansing: “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” The Biblical precedent is Noah’s flood. Like Job or Ecclesiastes, one gets heartsick of entrenched injustice—waste, fraud, and abuse—until the most soothing thought is to have something just smash it all, vaguely hoping for a better outcome in some other time (whether future or past!) or place. For example, whoever feels the obvious emotional reality that elephants are non-human persons (they have self-awareness, love their children, mourn their dead, live by matriarchy, form deep social bonds, weep when sad, play joyfully, communicate, and so on) cannot bear the unbearable knowledge that these people are now being rapidly murdered out of existence. According to some sources, the African Lion population is down 90% since 1980. That stings so bad that I find myself thinking this world is so far gone and so perverse that it should be finished off. This is a totally irrational thought which I do not endorse, but there it is.
5. Displacement. Threats make us want to act defensively in the protection of ourselves and those we love. But the state of the whole world is so vast a predicament that I can’t discharge the powerful impulse to “do something” that will fix it. I can take a 99.9% symbolic kind of action and reduce my carbon footprint. But I can’t stop the timber industry from cutting down every last tree; I can’t stop Monsanto from poisoning every inch of ground with patented horrors like Agent Orange (“Roundup”); I can’t bring flood relief to Bangladesh or Biloxi, restore the toxic Gulf of Mexico, undo Fukushima, alkalize the seven oceans, or conjure with a wand the replacement of a century of car culture with a whole new infrastructure of local production, bikes, and handicrafts. The helplessness is overwhelming. So my mere awareness (though from a social point of view, there in nothing “mere” about it) of the dire facts comes to substitute for the impossible improvements I yearn to make. I do make (or try to make, or plan to make) the infinitesimal improvements I can make, but the helplessness is barely diminished. I stop eating beef for a year, but the industry never reduces the size of the factory farms’ herds in response. I cut down on my plastic use, but Somebody keeps on refining petroleum into gasoline and using the byproducts to make cheap plastic. When I reach for the feelings of well-being that would come from an experience of personal agency and instead feel totally powerless, I turn to the only thing left on the shelf: my awareness. I can’t fix reality, but at least I can keep acknowledging it.
These thoughts come from my personal experience (I’ve written about the issue before, in “Collapse Awareness and the Tragic Consciousness”), informed by several excellent books on the psychology of climate change, including: Don't Even Think AboutIt: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change by George Marshall (2014); Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives edited by Sally Weintrobe; several books by Guy McPherson including Killing the Natives: Has the American Dream Become a Nightmare? (2009) and Walking Away from Empire (2011); and Reason in a Dark Time: Why the StruggleAgainst Climate Change Failed, and What It Means for Our Future by DaleJamieson (2014).
In conclusion, here is a very recent and potent presentation by Jennifer Hynes on the Arctic Methane problem. It may stir up in you some of the thoughts and feelings I've described here. You need not fear that every counselor out there would pathologize-and-diagnose if you came to them for help with these issues. Some would not.
Monday, January 6, 2014
“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.