Oil And Environment: A Contradiction
By Peter Goodchild
27 December, 2009
Among the factors in systemic collapse that should be placed far down on the list are many that might be described as environmental: pollution, global warming, and so on. The fact is that the issue of peak oil and that of the environment are mutually exclusive problems. As oil and other fossil fuels disappear, the environmental problems will also go away, even if very slowly.
By trying to raise the alarm about both issues at once, we are placing ourselves in a self-contradictory position, and our credibility is rapidly undermined. We cannot, on the one hand, wish that oil would go away so that the air will have a crystalline purity, and on the other hand complain because we have spent hours poring over the charts of global oil production and found that the cost of driving to the cottage is becoming prohibitive.
As oil is depleted, there will be fewer automobiles and factories, so the air and water will be less polluted. As the air becomes cleaner, the man-made aspects of global warming will be reduced. As fossil fuels disappear, in fact, all that goes with it will disappear or be reduced. Above all, there will be no chance for 7 billion people to be living on the Earth. As the human population goes down, so a great many other problems of this planet will recede, from the disappearance of fresh water to the extinction of species.
That is not to say that the reversal of the destruction will be a sudden process. On the contrary, even if our use of fossil fuels ended tomorrow, it would take decades for the planet to cleanse itself.
Environmental issues certainly grab the attention of the news media far more than the issue of oil depletion. The reasons for this can only be guessed at, but two possibilities come to mind. The first is that the environment appeals to the puritan in all of us. Discussion of the environment usually involves the words “clean” and “green.” Cleanliness is next to godliness, and the color green in the modern world seems to evoke images of purity and virginity, the vegetable rather than the animal.
The “green” is actually a double prevarication, though, because that is not what the color evoked in earlier centuries, when Greensleeves and her kin were symbols of the erotic and sensual. The green of the natural world is something we now witness only from behind the glass of a windshield or that of a porch in a summer cottage. Our hands are unstained. To such a degree have we have distanced ourselves from the currents in Nature, that now we cannot tell the difference between the texture of a leaf and that of a credit card.
My second guess is that environmental issues are less frightening, less disturbing. At least in the popular imagination, the greatest danger of environmental damage is that we might have to deal with dirty skies, which in turn could lead to sore eyes and sore lungs. Images of Los Angeles come to mind, if not of China.
The greatest danger of fossil-fuel depletion, on the other hand, is that human life itself will come to an end. This is not a topic to stir the patriotism of the sheltered souls of Middle America. It is a nightmare. The simplest arithmetic shows that 7 billion humans cannot be fed with the products of pre-industrial agriculture. We can try to hide from that reality by planting a few rows of tomatoes and lettuce up at the cottage on a summer weekend, but deep in our hearts we know that human life requires far more than tomatoes and lettuce.
Even more frightening is the thought that those doomed human beings will not float up into the sky and enter some other dimension. Their deaths will not be anesthetized. Death by famine is slow and painful. It is not just hunger, and it is not just fasting. After a few weeks without food, the entire body starts to fall apart. Not a very nice topic for a high-school essay. It is far better that we allow our teenagers to continue their air-conditioned lives, to dwell in what Ibsen called a doll’s house.
“Socially aware” citizens often display a curious madness with respect to these two contradictory issues. A group of cottagers will get together and protest about the establishing of an asphalt plant in the middle of cottage country, which they regard as “their” kingdom. The feelings of the locals and the natives, of course, are not regarded as worthy of discussion. Yet the protest has more of the atmosphere of a football rally than of a rebellion against the unlimited growth advocated by hyper-capitalism.
The protest is mendacious in many ways. In the first place, the issue is largely a NIMBY one (“not in my backyard”). Secondly, the fact that the plant may reduce the property values of the cottages is tacked on at the end as if it were not a major item in the middle-class mind. Above all, these same puritans will spend, each weekend, many hours driving to and from the cottage, as well as several more hours burning up gasoline over the length and breadth of that cottage country in pursuit of truly organic lettuce.
A central fact about the protest is lost to them: that the roads over which they so delight to speed are made of asphalt. The asphalt is made from oil, and the oil is disappearing. But to them the protest is everything, even if it is a tangle of contradictions. They believe they are concerned citizens, and that they have a right to be proud of possessing a social conscience.
But who is ultimately to blame for this madness and dull-wittedness? The politicians who make silly speeches about “sustainable growth” and toss out a few million dollars for windmills and solar panels? Or the academics who should have enough common sense to see all these issues from a broader perspective?
Perhaps the real moral of Catton’s Overshoot is that a truly wise person would lean against a lamppost on a busy corner and just watch the world go by. But I am not a fatalist: on the contrary, I suspect that a highly intelligent lemming would plan to be at the back of the crowd as the cliff approaches.
Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is odonatus [at] live.com.