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Balance Is For Buddhists

By Guy R McPherson

29 September, 2009

Go to Guy R McPherson's blog to read the article with links

Balance is a central tenet of Buddhism, foundational to the four noble truths and the eight-fold way. Balance is a superb notion and I strongly support, for individuals at least, balance, moderation, and many other principles of Buddhism. Indeed, had Buddhism found roots in this country a couple hundred years ago, we probably would have avoided, or at least delayed, the series of catastrophes we now face. But with fewer than one percent of the American population dedicated to Buddhism, it's a little late for balance and moderation to work their magic at the scale of this country, much less planet Earth (as if even one percent of Americans give a damn about planet Earth).

I'd like to subvert in advance the notion that we can give peace a chance. Industrial humans possess "freedoms" only because our governments employ a massive, non-stop war machine to keep us "free." And don't give me that "love it or leave it" crap. I stopped loving this country a long time ago, so I tried to make it better. A quick look around reveals how well that worked for all of us. At this point, the only escape from American Empire involves feeding on beetle juice in the caves of Tara Bora, and I'm having too much fun seeing the industrial economy give way to nature's patience to jump off the imperial ship at this late juncture. Put simply, peace (i.e., the absence of war) doesn't stand a chance. As Ran Prieur points out in the superb documentary film What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire (I'm paraphrasing): From the perspective of any particular location, the dominant paradigm of oppression and hierarchy always wins. If a peaceful people occupy an area, and a violent tribe comes along to conquer them, there are three possible outcomes: (1) the peaceful people leave, thus committing the area to the dominant paradigm of oppression and hierarchy, (2) the peaceful people fight back, thus committing the area to the dominant paradigm of oppression and hierarchy, or (3) the peaceful people choose to become slaves to the violent tribe, thus committing the area to the dominant paradigm of oppression and hierarchy. Give peace a chance? Not on this planet. And that's just our relationship with other humans, about whom we actually claim to care.

Back to the point, then: It's too late for half measures. Perhaps it always was. Half measures will not save the industrial economy, as Barack Obama is discovering with each gargantuan new bailout. The bailouts, perceived as necessary to keep the industrial economy lurching along, barely manage to keep the trucks running and the water flowing out the taps, and only by passing to future generations the bill that will never be paid. Half measures certainly won't save the living planet, despite the pleas, petitions, and calls to arms issued by mainstream conservationists for the last several decades. These conservationists are making a decent living in the industrial economy, fiddling while the planet burns. But they are patently ineffective at saving anything except their way of life. And they're the good guys.

If the middle way is no way at all, what's left? I propose getting rid of the omnicidal monster called western civilization, and sooner rather than later (thanks to Derrick Jensen for coining the perfect word). We've already had enough globalization, enough just-in-time delivery of meaningless baubles, enough sight-seeing and food-tasting and basking in the "good life" at the expense of every life form on the globe. We really do not need every American high-school student making the obligatory trip to Rome and Florence to see another culture [sic].

Instead of extracting an easy life from fossil fuels and human slaves, while taking our life-support system down into the bowels of hell with us, let's try living as our predecessors did on this land. Never mind abandoning our beloved cars: In North and South America, we'll need to give up the wheel.

I'm willing to give up every single piece of industrial civilization to see it all come down. An electromagnetic pulse (an "e-bomb") would be a fine start. Yesterday would be the perfect time, but tomorrow will suffice. Indeed, I'll gladly die if that's one result of civilization's fall. Personally, I suspect both will happen within the next few years. But I look upon this exciting, once-in-a-lifetime event as a chance to substantively experience the world around me, perhaps for the first time. It's also a personal challenge and a superb opportunity for personal growth, all without purchasing a round-trip ticket to Rome.

By way of a thought experiment, what elements of industrial culture would you choose to save? I'm not suggesting you have a choice, mind you. Rather, I think the ongoing collapse of industrial culture will remove most of the choices for all of us, hopefully before 2012 as the price of oil approaches $225 per barrel. And, as infamous war criminal Henry Kissinger fondly pointed out, "the absence of alternatives clears the mind marvelously." But let's beat Henry to the post-industrial party, shall we? Let's imagine what we can get along without, even before it's gone.

I'll get us started by assuming we want to save electricity (i.e., continue killing every part of the living planet so we can comfortably read our Harlequin Romance novels). The following back-of-the-envelope calculation illustrates part of the costs needed to build solar panels to run the U.S. electrical grid:

The total energy requirement to produce a PV panel is about 1,000 kWh per square meter, and there's about 1,700 kWh in each barrel of oil (alternative source here). My math skills aren't what they used to be, so please point out all errors in the following calculations.

In the U.S. alone, we use about 4 trillion kWh for electricity annually. I'll generously assume 30% efficiency of solar panels. The solar constant is 1.4 kW per square meter, so we need slightly more than 2 billion square meters of solar panels to satisfy current U.S. electrical demand (i.e., the 4 trillion kWh): 1.4 kW per square meter * 12 hr/day sunlight, every day * 0.3 {the efficiency conversion} * 365 days/yr = 1,840 kWh/yr, and 4 trillion Kwh divided by 1,840 kWh/yr = 2,174,385,736 square meters.

It takes about 1,000 kWh of energy to manufacture a single square meter of PV panel. So we need a tad more than 2 trillion kWh of energy to manufacture the solar panels needed to keep the grid going.

Because each barrel of oil contains about 1,700 kWh of energy, we need about 1.3 billion barrels of oil to manufacture the solar panels needed to keep us supplied with electrical power in this country. We use a little less than 20 million barrels of oil each day in this country, so we could forgo oil for about two months to stockpile the oil we "need" to keep the grid running (except, of course, that we haven't accounted for shipping, installation, storage of electricity, or maintenance of the panels or the grid). Draining the strategic petroleum reserves (SPR), which currently contain 727 million barrels of crude oil, would provide a little more than half the 1.3 billion barrels needed to make the panels.

Skipping oil for a month or two, much less draining the SPR, would destroy the industrial economy almost overnight because traders on the world's stock markets would hit the panic button. Needless to say, I'm completely in favor of the idea.

If you foolishly prefer the nuclear option for electricity, consider these points: (1) Nuclear is more expensive than fossil fuels, so I have a hard time believing Americans will willingly pursue this route; (2) We have no idea how to deal with the waste, despite decades of talking around (vs. about) this issue; (3) Nuclear power plants do not become carbon neutral for at least two decades because cement production (and use) is so carbon-intensive (and after 20 years or so, we start shutting the plants down because of safety concerns); (4) Energy too cheap to meter, if it ever comes, will reduce the living planet to a lifeless pile of rubble within a generation; (5) I seriously doubt the industrial economy has time to build many, if any, nuclear power plants; (6) The economic impact will be minimal, regardless -- the industrial economy runs on oil, which is required to maintain the electrical grid (and nuclear power plants); and (7) we're past peak for nuclear sources.

I'm sure I'm missing several salient points and I haven't addressed many, many other issues. What elements of industrial culture will we lose when the industrial economy completes its collapse? Which of these elements do you value more than life itself (the lives of others, of course, not Americans)?

Think of the benefits associated with all of us giving up every aspect of western civilization. Goldman Sachs unable to manipulate the market, as they've done since the Great Depression. More importantly, the Milky Way shimmering in the night sky. The absence of suffering (Schopenhauer's version of happiness) as we realize we are no longer witnessing the only mass extinction our species has ever seen (and the only mass extinction caused by a single species). No more bad news about our destruction of the living planet. No more good news about economic collapse. No news at all, except the kind delivered by a smiling neighbor on foot.

But that's my dream. What's yours?


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