I’m obviously always a fan of Greer’s work, but I thought this week’s post was particularly apt – he addresses the larger question of whether we must keep up industrial civilization until it falls apart (note, I do not say “if it falls apart” – implicit in the keeping up is that it brings us faster to collapse), or whether we can change.
George Monbiot, who’s carved out a niche for himself as the staff pseudoenvironmentalist of The Guardian, had a blog post of his own on much the same theme. His argument is simply that most people in today’s industrial societies are not going to accept anything short of continued economic growth, and so a strategy based on using less is simply a waste of time.
Like many people these days who worry about global warming, he dismisses the issues surrounding peak oil out of hand – the problem we face, he insists, is not that we have too little fossil fuel, but too much – and as evidence for this, he points to the recent announcement from the IEA that world production of petroleum peaked in 2006. Since industrial civilization hasn’t collapsed yet, he tells us, peak oil clearly isn’t a problem. I suppose if you ignore drastic and worsening economic troubles in the world’s industrial nations, food riots and power shortages spreading across the Third World, and all the other symptoms of the rising spiral of peak-driven crisis now under way, you might be able to make that claim. Still, there’s a deeper illogic here.
It’s an illogic that seems highly plausible to many people. That’s because the fallacy that forms the core of the argument made by Kay, Monbiot, and so many others is a common feature of today’s conventional wisdom. An alternative metaphor – one at least as familiar to the peak oil blogosphere as Roger Kay’s yeas – might help to clarify the nature of the failed logic they’re retailing.
Imagine, then, that you’re on the proverbial ocean liner at sea, and it’s just hit the proverbial iceberg. Water is rising belowdecks and the deck is beginning to tilt, but nobody has drowned yet. Aware of the danger, you strap on a life preserver and head for the lifeboats. As you leave your stateroom, though, the guy in the stateroom next to yours gives you an incredulous look. “Are you nuts?” he says. “If you leave the ship now, somebody else will just take your cabin, and get all the meals and drinks you’ve paid for!”
Your fellow passenger in the metaphor, like Kay and Monbiot in the real world, has failed to notice a crucial fact about what’s happening: when a situation is unsustainable in the near term, the benefits that might be gained by clinging to it very often come with a prodigious cost, and the costs that have to be paid to abandon it very often come with considerable benefits. It’s far more pleasant to walk down to the cruise ship’s bar, order a couple of dry martinis, and sit there listening to the Muzak, to be sure, than it is to scramble into a lifeboat and huddle there on one of the thwarts as the waves toss you around, the spray soaks you, and the wind chills you to the bone. Two hours later, however, the passenger who went to the bar is a pallid corpse being gently nibbled by fishes, and the passenger who climbed into the lifeboat and put up with the seasickness and the spray is being hauled safely aboard the first freighter that happened to be close enough to answer the distress call.
The metaphor can usefully be taken a little further, because it points up a useful way of looking at the equivalent situation in the real world. As a passenger on board the ship, your relation to the ship is a relation of dependence. You depend on the integrity of the hull to keep you from drowning, on the fuel and engines to get you to your destination, on the food supply and the galley to keep you fed, and so on. That dependence has very real advantages, but it has a potentially drastic downside: if the systems you rely on should fail, and you don’t have an alternative, your dependence on them can kill you.
I wouldn’t be so hard on Monbiot, because I take his comment about the IEA to be less “we should” than “we will,” but I think Greer’s larger argument is very important – we can change because we have to. It is possible we can’t change in anticipation as an entire world, however we know very well because of the examples of people doing it historically, large chunks of societies can make radical changes.
One of the things that always troubles me about theories that begin from the confiding “Well, you and I recognize the reality of climate change/peak oil/resource depletion/etc… but most people will never change” is the implied theory of exceptionalism. In some ways, I find this just as offensive as narratives of American exceptionalism, or Christian exceptionalism. Those of us who have made possible shifts in our lives and propose to do more know that this is possible *because we’ve done it.* To imply that we are more special, better, more moral or whatever seems wrong to me.
It seems wrong precisely because I know it isn’t true. The honest answer to any claim that I personally am more ethical than anyone else is “if only you knew.” I am an ordinarily greedy, selfish, self-centered person. The only difference in me or you from most people, besides a certain amount of education and privilege is this, as Greer implies: My greed is for greater safety for my kids. My selfish desire is to make the things that matter to me last longer and do better. My self-centered vision involves making the most out of the least and enjoying it. And if my selfishness, greed and self-centeredness can be moved to make this shift, because my life, my future, my posterity depend on it, so can others – period.
Read Greer’s whole piece – it is excellent.