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How Should Progressives Respond To The End Of The Oil Age?

By Erik Lindberg

30 August, 2010
Transition Milwaukee

The August issue of “The Progressive” featured a series of essays on “the Big Spill” in the Gulf of Mexico, with the intention, I believe, of bringing our oil addiction into the foreground of political dialogue. In his article, “Energy Extremism,” Michael Klare thus asks a vital question about the end of the oil age. It is a question that has been painfully absent from any sustained dialogue: “How, then, should progressives respond to the current [energy] crisis?”

While I could not support the asking of this question with more enthusiasm and urgency, I was disappointed with his answer, as well as the others presented the August issue of “The Progressive.” For the rote and wholly unchallenging answer, which can be heard or seen in nearly all liberal leaning outlets, whether the “Huffington Report,” NPR, MSNBC, or “The Progressive,” is that we must petition the government to support and invest in alternative energy: “the only way,” Klare asserts, “we can overcome our dependence on increasingly hazardous fuels is to develop and install alternative energy systems” such as wind, solar, and geothermal. The job of a good progressive, then, is to lobby and petition for wide-scale government action and leadership. Or as Robert Redford suggests in his contribution: “these are the solutions that will break America’s addiction to oil, create jobs, revitalize cities, and put more money in consumers’ [!] pockets.”

This is far too easy and can easily be seen as a piece of the liberal game of distancing “ourselves” from corporate malfeasance and government shortsightedness: if only others were as aware and forward thinking as we, the necessary and redemptive political will would find form. But I am particularly disturbed by Klare’s use of the phrase, “the only way,” words which Redford also employs. Not only does this ignore worlds of possibilities, worse yet it once again detains the most likely of these possibilities at the door to the debate. The question that this phrase begs and then buries is, of course, this: can alternative, “green,” non-fossil fuel sources of energy actually replace oil, coal and natural gas? Is it even possible that we can overcome our addiction to oil and maintain anything remotely resembling our current economy and, consumer-based, standard of living? Can clean energy actually supply that much power? When, in the same issue of “The Progressive,” Bill McKibben (who I believe knows better, and with whom I am very disappointed after reading this installation) says, “what is lacking is not the method; what’s lacking is the political will,” he clearly implies that fossil fuels can be replaced with something else were there only sufficient political will.

Thus McKibben joins the chorus of alternative energy optimists as they make yet another thoughtless plea to the government to “get us off of oil.” Amidst these catchy and reassuring, though mind-numbing, refrains, public discourse (even “progressive” discourse) is once more steered away from pondering any initial and basic calculations about our current levels of consumption and the energy and fuel that makes it possible This should be our starting point as we map our course and consider Klare’s question, “how should progressives respond to the current crisis.” For the difficult and frightening truth that readers of Energy Bulletin understand, but which has failed to make its way into a broader conversation, is that it is highly unlikely that the cheap, easily accessed, highly portable, relatively safe and stable and, most importantly, highly dense and concentrated fossil fuels upon which we have built our entire world, can ever be reproduced by any other source.

This serves as a valuable reminder that like most modern people, self-described progressives are also accustomed to technological fixes for nearly every problem and challenge, and the very possibility that some breakthrough technology or solution isn’t just around the corner is scarcely fathomable; that alternative energy might not be able to replace fossil fuels is so alien and so far removed from popular consciousness that this possibility need not even be discussed or rise to the level at which it is worthy of being dismissed in “The Progressive”: apparently it “goes without saying”-- the presumed untapped riches of renewable energy is, after all, “the only way”

So how should a progressive respond to the end of the oil age? He or she must become truly educated about energy and ask the tough questions; and then, I believe, he or she must begin the inevitable energy-descent or power-down that will characterize the 21st century. Perhaps those of us who read and write for Energy Bulletin are mistaken. Perhaps this energy descent is not inevitable. But it certainly is not too much to ask that the question I am proposing actually be addressed. Let us consider asking this question, over and over again, whenever we can and to whomever will listen, until it is finally taken up in the pages of “The Progressive” and other similar outlets to be one of our most pressing challenges.

Raising the issue of peak oil and resource depletion will probably fall to grassroots and non-political groups. Very few political parties are willing risk tackling these taboo subjects. They fear that just talking about it will drive voters away, as happened with Jimmy Carter. In the meantime, renewables is probably a better approach than oil wars.

Several of the articles from the August issue of the Progressive are online:
Energy Extremism by Michael T. Klare
Don't Waste the Outrage by Bill McKibben
Our Only Chance by Robert Redford