Robert Bateman, who is part of the Salt Spring Island Transition Group in British Columbia in Canada, sent in an essay that we thought some people might find interesting.
Robert was born in the 1930’s, so has lived through WWII and the rise of the Age of Petroleum. I’m not sure there’s much here in the way of radically new material, but I think it’s important to see how some people from that era view the world we’ve created. He uses the term “sin” and “sinful” within the text, which suggests to me that he feels there is a significant moral dimension to this discussion.
So here’s how one Canadian sees the world now, looking at it with eyes that first opened in 1930.
Happy reading. Ben Brangwyn.
PETROLEUM POWER PROBLEMS 2013
This is a story I have watched unfold since the mid-point of the 20th century. The total transformation of planet Earth has happened due to cheap energy. Has this been a good idea? Perhaps, even if we could find a new, cheap energy source, it might be a bad idea. Do we need to change our goals?
At the beginning of the 21st century the modern world of developed countries is living in a beautiful bubble. The luxury and conveniences of this bubble are prodigious and would have been unimaginable at the beginning of the 20th century. As luck would have it, I was born outside the bubble in 1930. From a toddler in the Depression years to a youth in WWII and then in the post-war boom, I watched the bubble form around me. Of course, like millions of others I am enjoying the luxuries and conveniences of the bubble because I also am in the middle of it. Needless to say even more millions of people, especially in the developing world, do not enjoy these luxuries and conveniences because they are not in the middle of it. It is my belief that they never will be. This is because the bubble cannot grow forever. In fact it is most likely it will either shrink or burst. Most people alive today were born either in the bubble or wishing they were. They think that it is a permanent co ndition. Well, no condition is permanent.
This beautiful bubble I have watched grow in my lifetime has been due to the power of commercialized petroleum. Andrew Nikiforuk, in his book The Energy of Slaves, has used slave power as a metaphor for petroleum power. Throughout history slaves were necessary to do much of the work that permitted great empires to grow. This applied to the Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Aztecs and even the British Empire. In the 19th century coal and steam power did much of the work that humans and animals used to do. But that was nothing compared to the punch of petroleum power once it was harnessed in the early 20th century. Human slavery was almost totally supplanted. It is said that a Roman citizen’s family had an average of 6 slaves as help. At the present time the average North American family has the equivalent of 400 slaves powered mostly by petroleum or its energy equivalent.
The purpose of this essay is to show that although using slaves (of whatever kind) to do our work has enormous benefit and convenience, slavery does have its down sides and unfortunate unintended consequences.
In the early 19th century Alexis de Tocqueville, a French historian and explorer, travelled all over America. This was before the Civil War so there was still slavery in the south. He observed that the South was characterized by “grandeur, luxury, pleasure-seeking , and prone to idleness.” The anti-slavery North, on the other hand, was “self-sufficient, enterprising and tolerant.” A southern slave owner was quoted as saying, “Even if owning a slave is sinful, it certainly has its conveniences.”
The conveniences and luxuries of our petroleum-powered world are overwhelmingly obvious. But what we need to consider as part of the package are the sins. The petroleum power problems are grievous sins indeed and they have grown to seemingly unmanageable issues. Here is a brief list of them. The details could fill an entire large library. I have watched them come about in my lifetime.
- The planet has been turned into a man-influenced sphere and not in a good way.
- The atmosphere has been changed due to the addition of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Hundreds of thousands of people die every year from air pollution.
- The oceans have been degraded and changed. Most large fish have gone; many species are commercially extinct or actually extinct. Coral reefs are doomed and carbon dioxide has acidified the oceans threatening oxygen-giving plankton.
- Life on land has also been degraded. Many birds and amphibians and mammals are gone or threatened with extinction. Untold damage has been done to lower forms of animal life. Forests are a tiny fraction of what they were when I was a boy.
- Human population has exploded. It took all of history until the time of my birth (1930) for the first 2 billion people. Human population is now about 7 billion. The first billion came after half a million years. The last billion took 13 years. This has been made possible by petroleum driven conveniences and tools.
- Human occupations and ways of life have been destroyed. I have watched farms and farming communities vanish. Many, many jobs have disappeared due to labour-saving devices. Our jobs have been shipped overseas because of cheap petroleum-powered shipping costs. Many cultures have disappeared. In the 1950s and 60s I have visited peoples in Africa and Asia who are now extinct.
- If anything is sinful, I consider wiping out natural heritage and human heritage to be sinful. Petroleum power is responsible, albeit in an unintended way.
Humans throughout the world face a tragic dilemma. We have dug ourselves into a deep hole of underemployment and overproduction (this is entirely due to petroleum power). When we ask the experts how to get out of the hole they say, “Dig deeper, downsize and fire more people. Increase production.” We don’t need to increase production. We have plenty of manufactured stuff. In fact in almost every category we have too much inventory. We also have over capacity in manufacturing sitting idle due to lack of demand. And we have so-called “dead money”, sitting around waiting for something meaningful in which to invest.
Underemployment is like a growing plague on society. One in three university graduates end up in low skilled jobs. 67% of new Ontario teachers are unemployed or underemployed. On the other hand Switzerland has only 2% youth unemployment. They have systems in place to address the problem. I feel almost overwhelming sadness when I view the oppressively gargantuan quantity of retail available. How many shopping malls, how many airport retail outlets, how many online retail opportunities exist? Even in villages as well as cities in Africa and Asia I see masses of goods and hopeful salespeople and not much buying. Is shopping the purpose in life?
We don’t need more production; we need more meaningful work. But that has been taken away by machines or shipped overseas. I think that meaningful work, not shopping, is the purpose in life. E. F. Schumacher said, “Next to the family, it is work and the relationships established by work that are the true foundations of society. If these foundations are unsound, how can society be sound?” In spite of the way people complain about work I have observed that even teenagers seem happier when they are accomplishing things. Leisure often leads to mopiness. Our educational institutions pump out thousands of hopeful graduates every year but our society cannot, for the most part, offer them meaningful work in their field. Instead we offer them “McJobs” and entertainment. This reached a crescendo in the 1980s when Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death. We now have a large part of the younger generation drowning in a cacophony of narcissism with social media or video games. Escapism has turned to fantasy such as vampires and the Walking Dead or depressing dystopias full of explosions or breakdown. Is this great fodder for young minds of the future? Someone has said, “Small minds are fascinated by the extraordinary, great minds are interested in the ordinary.” Are we training a generation of small minds?
The leisure to be immersed in self-indulgent entertainment applies largely to the developed world that is unable to find meaningful work. On the other hand, half the less developed world still does meaningful work and it is often not easy. This is the female half. Throughout history, except for the affluent population, women have done much of the work and they still do. Since the 1950s when I travelled in Africa and Asia I noticed that it was the women who looked after the children, did the agriculture and even the marketing of their produce. Traditionally the men did the hunting and warfare (both now mostly illegal). In some cultures they did the weaving, but that is now provided by machines from overseas. So young men in the developing world have every reason to be frustrated and disappointed in future prospects. At the same time they can see in magazines, television and now other electronic devices, the luxury and conveniences of the developed world. When this frustration is combined with testosterone, ambition and resentment it can provide fuel for crime and rioting and when stimulated by religious extremism, a mission of Jihad. A warm gun, fellowship and a promise of Heaven can bring meaning when meaningful work is missing.
It is not exaggerating to blame the convenience of petroleum “slaves” for the disappearance of meaningful work in the 20th century. After all, what does “labour-saving” mean?
The conclusion of the list of “sins” is that perhaps having so many energy slaves is not only bad for the planet and in many ways for mankind, but it may be bad for the soul. Maybe luxury, leisure and shopping should not be the great goal of mankind. Maybe actually earning our life through work is a good idea. Or at least there should be a balance. First should come the values, then should come the technology.
Is there a way forward? There may be miracles in our future but the only way to a better world that I can see is to lessen our dependence on petroleum and other fossil fuels and so reduce our dependence on those “slaves”. It is unlikely that people will voluntarily give up on conveniences, especially if they are cheap. A few good-hearted citizens making sacrifices to lower our dependence on fossil fuels will not make a real difference. However, if fossil fuels become more expensive then market forces will reduce their use. Northern Europe has made some difference through legislation and carbon taxes.
My mother was born in 1900 into an upper middle class family in Springhill, Nova Scotia. She was born into a world with very little petroleum influence. Her family cooked on a flame, lit with a flame, travelled on foot, by horse or by sail. How long had mankind had those things as a normal part of life? Four thousand years? … since the days of the early Mesopotamians? Yet my mother, who had the world of her daily life in common with ancient times, saw a man walk on the moon and fully benefitted from our 20th century bubble of luxury and leisure. I was, as I said, born in 1930, before the bubble. During WWII we had rationing in Canada. We had enough gasoline to drive to our rented cottage twice each year. We were very short of sugar, flour, butter and meat. At our cottage the running water was me with a pail. We had no electricity for stove or light or refrigeration. Television and jet travel were not even dreams of the future. Yet I would venture we were just as happy or happier in those days than folks in our modern world. Nikiforuk addresses the topic of petroleum and happiness. More energy does not translate into better living. The USA uses twice as much energy per capita as does Europe. Americans, however, have higher obesity, suicide, murder, incarceration and child mortality than Europeans. They also have lower literacy, numeracy and life expectancy. Research shows that Americans are less happy than they were 50 years ago.
It would seem to be possible to have a good life with less petroleum and other energy slaves. In fact, the good news is that it might be inevitable. The experts in studying peak oil tell us that we have used up all of the “low hanging fruit” of cheap, high quality oil. We are now resorting to desperate extraction measures, expensive, dangerous and polluting “tar sands” mining or hydraulic fracking. In his books Why Your World is Going to Get a Whole Lot Smaller and The End of Growth, Jeff Rubin predicts the end of our petroleum orgy. He is the former chief economist of world markets for the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. His research indicates that market forces will bring about a great reduction of petroleum dependency. Legislation and good-heartedness will not drive people away from oil, but the market will. If Canadians wish to have fresh strawberries in January in the future, they can do so for perhaps $125 a box. Higher transportation costs will change the world. Manufacturing will return to local areas and so will agriculture. Canadian shops will once again see “made in Canada” on product labels. Jobs in manufacturing and farming should return to North America. China will become dependent on their own domestic market. In fact, this is already starting to happen. Communities the world over will become more cohesive and self-reliant. Perhaps my grandchildren’s lives at the end of the 21st century, when they are close to my present age, will be more like my grandparents’ lives than they will be like mine in this beautiful early 21st century bubble. Of course, the end of this century should still have many of the electronic gadgets we now find amusing or useful. It is hard to predict exactly the shape of society but a less energy-intensive world could be much more satisfying. It will certainly be better for nature.
Let us hope that in desperation to maintain growth and new energy sources that we don’t have a catastrophic bursting of the bubble. I suspect that the 2008 recession is not a temporary phase. It is the beginning of the end of growth triggered of course by Wall Street.
The sooner we stop perpetrating the silly myth of infinite growth on a finite planet, the better. There is currently optimism about huge supplies of shale oil and gas under the United States. Experts who look at the economics of this potential say that this will not change the picture of the imminent end of the age of oil. We will always have petroleum products and the uses will extend to the distant future. However, we will not have cheap oil to maintain this beautiful bubble. Those days will soon be over. Geo-scientist David Hughes , who is dedicated to studying energy sustainability says that the promotion of hydraulic fracking is basically a Ponzi scheme. The costs and complications will be prohibitively high but some early investors might make money promoting it.
We are at or near “peak oil” and what comes next is “peak water”. Experts say that we will be in a few decades. According to the World Bank, wars of the 21st century will be fought over water. The amount of potable water is finite. We can live without oil for a week. Try living without water for a week. Fracking, as well as the so-called oil sands use and pollute enormous quantities of water in order to make this “special oil”. Under the Vice-President Cheney’s administration fracking was exempted from significant E.P.E. regulation. This is known as the “Halliburton Loophole”. It is a travesty that cannot stand. We must do true cost accounting.
It is possible to have a ‘small is beautiful’ planet. E. F. Schumacher, who wrote the book of that title, suggests the holy trinity of “Health, Beauty and Permanence” as the goal for humankind. It will be helpful to have a rich and fulfilling life in a smaller bubble through engagement with nature. It does promote health and appreciation of beauty and it is not expensive. In fact, progressive places like Norway have been engaged with the “Friluftsliv” (free air life) for generations. Rob Hopkins has described possible ways forward in his Transition Handbook – from oil dependency to local resilience.
We have been burning, in a wasteful and destructive way, 50 million years’ worth of carbon in a scant one or two hundred years. The luxury and leisure, although very convenient have turned out to be not worth the problems created by our over-dependence on energy slaves. Even if we did discover a new, cheap energy source, it could cause even more damage to nature and to meaningful work. Serious energy conservation will unquestionably be better for nature and the planet. It would seem it will also be better for humanity. Perhaps a future of “less” will indeed be “more”. On any scale of history our bubble is but a flash in the pan. I have watched its luxury and its sins grow in the last 50 or 60 years. I can now see its end, which will be either gradual or catastrophic. We need new goals and if handled with wisdom and grace our future can be beautiful.