Thursday, April 12, 2012

Blog Recommendation: The Hipcrime Vocab

I originally was going to post a follow-up to yesterday's entry about gas prices featuring articles in the Free Press about the responses of consumers, oil and gas producers, and the auto industry to higher oil and natural gas prices, but then my friend and sometimes commenter Nebris reposted the most recent entry from The Hipcrime Vocab, and I decided "screw that idea; here's something much better." The blogger calls himself "escapefromwisconsin" and he (at least, I think it's a him) has been examining the same issues of sustainability (employment, agriculture, energy, economy, politics, and collapse) that I examine and reads the same bloggers (Kunstler, Greer, and Saniford) for just as long as I have (his first entry was posted the day after my first one here), but he produces a lot more deep, original, incisive thinking than I do.* The ironic part he only has ten followers (I'm number 10; Nebris is number 8), while I have 38. I guess I do a better job of marketing than he does. That's a shame. He really is worth reading.

In what he thinks is his most important post, What If The Peak Oil Movement Isn't About Peak Oil At All?, he discusses Saniford, Kunstler, and Greer all in one post. In particular, he uses Saniford to throw a dose of reality on Greer and Kunstler. The latter two are hoping for Peak Oil to cause a collapse that will restore a pre-fossil-fuel world and both make predictions about what such a world would look like. Saniford shows that their predictions just aren't coming true. After thoroughly demolishing Peak Oil as a basis for their desires, escapefromwisconsin then points out that Kunstler and Greer really have another basis for their hopes and fears.

Click on "read more" for the quoted passage.

What "reversalist" authors like Kunstler and Greer and others represent is a long-standing criticism of industrial culture as progress at all. These authors believe that the way things were done in the past, before the widespread use of fossil fuels were more humane, rewarding, and appropriately scaled to fundamental human needs for community, trust, and sociability. They see the vast complexity, fragility, and alienation produced by technology as a step backward, not forward. Many people share these feelings and resonate with them. They know things aren't right, and that we aren't moving in the right direction, even if they cannot exactly articulate why.

But here's the thing: their criticisms would be just as valid even if the most optimistic fantasies of the cornucopians were correct. In my opinion, their criticisms are dead on. Discontents of modern society tend to gravitate towards these authors because of their disgust with the world technological "progress" has made: dead-end jobs, ugly and alienating suburbs, dumbed-down entertainment, long commutes, sedentary lifestyles, wall-to-wall advertising,"consumer" culture, fast food, medicated children, overflowing jails, lack of empathy, the commercialization of life, car dependency, militarized police, costly education, exploding debt levels, rampant overwork, throwaway products, environmental destruction, the list is almost endless. If this is progress, you can keep it, they say. Many of these criticisms long predate even the notion of Peak Oil [2]. The tendency is to view Peak Oil as a panacea, the harbinger of a collapse where all of this will go away and we'll return to the halcyon days of yore (but only the best parts). Hence the appeal of the reversalist narrative. Peak Oil has become a magnet for criticisms of the more-is-better, bigger-is-better, productivist, technophilic, greed-driven, consumer economy and lifestyle. The widespread use of fossil fuels is seen as a root cause of many of the ills of industrial society, and to a larger extent, civilization itself, and thus the Peak Oil community is a magnet for many of its discontents. But unfortunately this discontent often causes people to engage in wishful thinking about the future. They naturally tend to assume that Peak Oil will allow the world of their fantasies to once again come into being.

And can you blame them? Who wouldn't prefer an economy of small-scale yeoman farmers respecting the land, industrious small businessmen putting in a day of honest labor, self-sufficient communities with webs of interdependence, vibrant small towns and bustling main streets, live entertainment, Sundays off, one-room schoolhouses, unsupervised children fishing in the nearest river, and being able to walk to the corner store to get your groceries? Where money is circulated in the local community rather than being sucked out by Wall Street for the already obscenely wealthy to invest in the latest bubble? Where people interact with their neighbors face-to-face instead of passively staring at a television screens watching advertisements, shows filled with smut and violence, and corporate controlled "news" all night long? Who wouldn't want an economy where everyone weren't working longer and longer hours, and yet falling further and further into debt? Where ordinary people could create value rather than being in competition with every other worker on the planet? Who cares whether America can become "energy independent," do we really want a country full of nothing but drooling, drugged-up, barely literate "consumers" with nothing else to look forward to but a lifetime of drudgery and debt repayments to buy the latest electronic gadget? Looking at the ugliness, dysfunction and alienation modern society has caused, it's easy to give in to the hope that we're going back to an earlier, simpler time as the oil runs out. But we have to ask ourselves, just because we want this, is it really likely to be so? I think many people unthinkingly embrace reveralism as the antidote to an increasingly depressing future.

My central point is simply this: counting on Peak Oil alone to bring that world back is a fallacy. The evidence just isn't there. People have every reason to hate large-scale factory farming. Similarly, you do not need Peak Oil to criticize the wastefulness, ugliness, and soullessness of suburban sprawl. But let's fall into the reversalist folly that the future is going to be chock full of opportunities for blacksmiths, cobblers, thatchers, chandlers, coopers, tanners and bakers. That we can disengage from the political process and be left alone to build a nineteenth century society to replace the twenty-first. That globalized corporations and big-box stores are just going to whither away without any sort of regulation or tariffs. That farming will once again employ thirty percent of us. That empty strip malls will automatically be replaced by local shops. That our empty factories will be reactivated. Unless you tackle certain underlying facets of the economy, including the advantages of scale and the workings of money, it is unlikely for any of this to come about.

In the near future, gas will still be flowing and from pumps, water from the tap and electricity from the sockets. It's just that less and less people will be able to afford them. Our economy will break down long before we face empty shelves and brownouts. Peak Oil activists need to pay more attention to economic disintegration, rather than trying to become self-sufficient, which is a fallacy anyway. Indeed, raising vegetables is not a path to self sufficiency for an individual or community. No matter what, you need meat, carbohydrates, durable goods, manufactured products, and the like that only a modern interdependent economy can provide. Coming up with alternative economic structures is a good idea, but it should not be assumed that Peak Oil will make such alternatives the only way. In many ways, Peak Oil is actually makes the future we want harder to bring about, not easier. As people become poorer, they can't afford to buy organic food, solar panels or home insulation. Walkable neighborhoods become gentrified and prohibitively expensive for the poor. Loans to start green businesses will be harder to come by. When money and profits are tight, the tendency is for ever-larger firms to survive and consolidation to occur as smaller firms go under, and there's no reason to believe that this won't hold for agriculture as well. Politics will become increasingly extreme, with people flocking to politicians making futile promises to bring back the "good times" - indeed we're seeing this already. Dealing with this reality will present challenges for the Peak Oil community. Engagement, not a wishful return to the past, is the only way to bring about the kind of future society we want. As the economy breaks down, there will be a hunger for change. This provides enormous opportunities as well as challenges. But the future will not be a tape run in reverse.
And this guy has only ten followers? Time to change that. If you follow me, follow him, too. You will not be disappointed.

And now for tonight's song, which is Changes by David Bowie.

*As I noted in a comment over at The Hipcrime Vocab, we even have blog names that reference science fiction novels in which collapse from overpopulation is a key theme. In his case, it's Stand on Zanzibar while mine is The Mote in God's Eye. Uncanny coincidence, isn't it?

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