Let’s go back to the root: to quietude – to life; to the constant. That which is always there, always lurking in the shadows of any given situation, all the while fostering in us the belief that the situation is about “something else”. At the root is need.
We all need things, materials – but also not "just" materials – which facilitate our lives. Quite obvious enough. What’s far less obvious, at least in practice, is “what”, exactly, it is that we need. Connected to this (or perhaps it is indeed the very same thing) is the question of what “need” itself means.
The ‘food-water-shelter complex of needs’: what I also refer to in Geohell as ‘life-support materials’. Shouldn’t this be the extent of the explanation, concerning what humans “legitimately” need, vs. what they “merely” want? In fact, all that is accomplished by alluding to this complex of needs is identification of the vaguest possible guideline for what kinds of things humans seek out and acquire with their daily labor. Moreover, the current setting makes this especially vague, because of course the cultural form of globalization doesn’t typically deliver its payments for labor in the form of food-water-shelter: to an extent not even approached by any earlier industrialized form of culture (let alone all preindustrial forms), globalization is comprehensively monetized.
It goes deeper than this. Individual humans need money; but money, as we all implicitly agree to basically ignore pretty much all the time, is ultimately worthless. To see what I mean, you might try eating a ten-dollar bill; it will not leave you with the same feeling that you’re left with after you eat ten dollars’ worth of food. What money actually represents, insofar as we all pretend it has value, is energy. In the contemporary world, this means petroleum. Individual humans need money, but humanity-as-a-whole needs petroleum.
It cannot be overstated, the extent to which this goes underappreciated, all day every day: “We learned to take what was in fact an extraordinary situation for granted. It became normal” (Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality, loc. 285). We live in a total global cultural environment that, logistically, has only ever existed and can only ever exist within a context of cheap and (seemingly) boundless petroleum, yet we all at some point fooled ourselves into thinking we can eventually (and easily!) substitute petroleum with a myriad of other sources and smoothly transition into a “renewable” economy. But oil, being a unique material, has unique properties that certainly no other single material can replace, and unfortunately, that not even any other combination of materials can replace, either.
Maybe it’s not even too much to say that our global civilization is made of oil, for oil “…is all around you. …Your food comes wrapped in it. You brush your hair and teeth with it. …There’s probably some in your shampoo, …It is used in both the asphalt you drive on and the tires that meet the road. …[it’s] critical for our food supply” (Michael C. Ruppert, Crossing the Rubicon: The Decline of the American Empire At the End of the Age of Oil, pp. 23-4). Dale Allen Pfeiffer, a petroleum geologist who wrote the illuminating 2006 book Eating Fossil Fuels, writes that, because of the situation we’ve mindlessly drifted into that has led us to turn farming into just another subsystem of globalized industrialization, “Without hydrocarbons, much of the world’s farmlands would quickly become unproductive.” The answer to this problem, he bluntly states, “…is to relocalize agriculture” (loc. 95).
Beyond agriculture, although always intertwined with it, the concept of relocalization in general provides the basis for any realistic solution to globalization. While “relocalization” may sound like a humble, almost quaint suggestion, recognize that in no uncertain terms relocalization amounts to outright conflict with globalization. The everyday way-of-life for a truly localized community looks nothing like daily living in a locale embedded within our essentially singularized global system of production and distribution. Most significantly of all, we are living “too large”, so to speak; in the parlance of mainstream environmentalism, humanity’s “ecological footprint” has expanded and continues to expand beyond all reasonable bounds. Through no fault of our own, our perceptions of space and time have grown entirely dependent upon the innumerable objects provided by a globally-produced culture, and we’ve come to expect to, routinely, be able to travel too far and get things too quickly. “Too” far, “too” quickly, that is, by comparison with states-of-affairs which would define truly localized cultures. “Perhaps we would know this,” wrote William Catton in his classic 1980 text Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, “if we ceased to call ourselves Homo sapiens and began to call ourselves Homo colossus” (p. 155).
This same globalized version of humanity that Catton called Homo colossus, the geologist Colin Campbell refers to as “petroleum man”. At this point it’s still just a fantasy, but I’d suggest we all start imagining what post-petroleum man (Ruppert 39) would, or could, look like. Again, a globalized culture and a localized one are inherently in conflict with one another. Consider this: “Within two eventful centuries of the time when James Watt started us substituting fossil fuel energy for muscle power, per capita energy use in the United States reached a level equivalent to eighty or so ghost slaves for each citizen” (Catton 43; emphasis my own). Contrast (1) the quantity of labor per minute accomplished by a hydrocarbon-fueled social structure, with (2) the quantity of labor achieved in the same time by a social structure fueled by nothing but human and animal muscle power, and a constellation of various renewables: the two cultural forms may as well exist in different universes. To return to a theme already common in this (sigh) blog’s thus far short life-span, this is not a quantitative question but a wholly qualitative one. In other words, it’s not a question of calculating some determinable amount of renewable energy supplies that we can then transfer into the existing system as a “substitute” for oil. It’s a question of entirely rethinking how our material culture manifests itself on planet Earth.
I’ve long believed that there’s one primary thing underlying all the resistance to substantive change/confusion as to how to accomplish it: the ideology that has always walked hand-in-hand with industrialization, which we can call “Progress”. Essentially, this is the notion that humanity naturally “improves” as a matter-of-course, simply with the passage of time. Embedded within the ideology of “Progress” itself is the economistic notion of ‘growth’, which pervades our entire culture and indeed our individual psyches. Startlingly, in a book that is now seven years old, Richard Heinberg, in the first sentence, asserts, “Economic growth as we have known it is over and done with.” Now, before you protest with statistics and facts, he continues: “This is not to say the US or the world as a whole will never see another quarter or year of growth relative to the previous quarter or year. However, …the general trend-line of the economy…will be level or downward rather than upward from now on” (Heinberg, loc. 184).
All of these issues are inextricably interconnected. To be frank, if I could implore you to hold fast to one constant shaping all of our lives at all times, it would be this inextricable interconnection of all facets of human life in 2017. Referring to the financial crisis of 2007-08, Heinberg points out, “The most frequently discussed reasons for this sudden, gripping crisis had to do with housing bubbles, [etc.]…However the oil price spike had also played a critical (if largely overlooked) role in initiating the economic meltdown” (loc. 460; emphasis my own).
As we’ve all come to expect never-ending growth and along with it, the constant continuation of “Progress”, we miss the connections between, for instance, the disruptions of growth and an oil industry that’s hitting its peak. Of course, these problems are, too, tied to the potential for climate catastrophe, which itself is also separated from the rest of the global context and treated as an isolated issue; and these three things among others, finally, are all monitored at all times and manipulated to whatever extent possible by the deep political systems discussed yesterday in “Black Market Drugs and Our Hypercomplex World”.
Let’s return to the root, to life: "Unlike most economists, most physical scientists recognize that growth within any functioning, bounded system has to stop sometime” (Heinberg, loc. 365). Economists have helped us evolve into a way-of-life where “infinite growth” is seen as not only possible, but mandatory. Meanwhile, what could be a simpler bit of commonsense than the notion that “infinite growth is not possible on a finite planet”? No economist that has sway within the present system incorporates ecological realities into his or her perspective. As ecological thinkers – and this is what we must become, make no mistake – we must imagine and construct an economy guided entirely by ecological principles.
Which major political movement is putting these things into action today, or even talking about them? All major political movements are oriented towards the existing system, and that system has shown it’s wholly unequipped to deal with the rapidly approaching reality of all its longest-term consequences. When “change” occurs, it will emerge from individuals who have internalized the global situation and imagined and formulated a holistic alternative, a new way-of-life.
If this sounds frightening, I’ll admit that it is, and trust me, in no way am I “there yet” either. What this situation desperately calls for, at the moment, is honest dialogue between all individuals who are treating our current existence with the urgency it deserves. True solidarity, which is what we really need more than anything else right now, can arise from that root.