Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Not Peak Oil Again? Do Shut Up

I'm sorry, I can't help it. I hear the words "peak oil" and I have to fight an urge to grab my shotgun and head for the hills. It's, like, something weird from my childhood, we don't have time to go into it right now. My point is, after reading this article in Salon on the recent International Energy Agency's report, my head is spinning again. There's a reason why most people do not want to know that bad news is coming before it actually comes, and that is because it is depressing. I don't want to live my life believing that forces beyond my control will soon irreversibly transform and partially destroy much of what I know and love, including, who knows, family, friends, cherished cultural institutions and traditions. That feeling, I have a hunch, is a small taste of a certain kind of dread, one all too familiar to many who have lived to see their worst fears realized. If possible, though, allow me to try and put my thoughts and feelings in order. To begin with, peak oil is only part of the problem, and so, by the way, is international terrorism. The real problems are much deeper - cultural, historical, ecological, spiritual. They are rooted in the origins of the modern free market as it emerged in 19th century England and even before that in the rise of European colonialism in the 16th century (for an excellent analysis of this, read John Gray's False Dawn.) What Gray shows unequivocally is that the "free market" was a political invention conceived in particularly conducive circumstances. The idea that this invention should or could be imposed universally as a global economic imperium is thus absurd. Gray compares this neo-liberal ideology to that of international Communism and predicts that its consequences will prove to be every bit as abortive and destructive. Certainly, international terrorism, economic instability, ecological crises, and hellishly genocidal civil wars are all among the consequences being reaped already. What globalization really signifies is just the opposite of what is claimed by the economic elite. We are told that globalization marks the final triumph of western ideology, the accession of bourgeois values in their most universal, indelible form. Everyone everywhere in the future will acknowledge the supremacy of market forces, privatization, and liberal democracy as the final and most advanced spiritual form of human life. This ideology is so pervasive and powerful that it has completely blinded us to the real story of our time, and this is the massive, unprecedented, and irreversible transfer of modern technology and knowledge from the western powers, where it has presided over a period of unrivalled hegemony, to the rest of the world - to everyone else. The leaders of the western powers do not seem to understand the situation. We are an elite minority which has ruled the world with staggering brutality for over five hundred years. For all of that time, we have exploited and hoarded the world's resources with little thought as to the vast suffering left in our wake. Now, not only is that excess on display for all of the world to see through the media, but the rest of the world is now arming itself with the tools to begin to fight back. This situation does not look good for us. We are vastly outnumbered. In my own lifetime, I have continually struggled with the question of how to interpret the images of global suffering which formed the backdrop to my own prosperous existence. My response to those images has swerved back and forth between left and right, between guilt-addled apology and defiant conspicuous consumption. Yet I think only now am I really beginning to understand them, and I do not know if it is too late. I always thought of my relationship to such suffering as a choice - after all, that was how it was always put to me in those television ads in which Sally Strothers would appear alongside starving Ethiopian orphans and implore that for the price of a cup of coffee I could save a human life. I could choose whether to help or not, yet whether I did so was entirely up to me and either way, my life would go on the same. I stood to gain or lose nothing except for the abstract knowledge that I had done a good deed. What I see now is that my generation has witnessed a colossal blunder - the squandering of one last opportunity to forge a lasting peace with the global South. Poverty was in the final analysis the defining issue of our time, not because as liberal consumers we needed to do something to alleviate our guilt, but because our survival as a people depended on it. The continuation of the old order was never an option. The only question was what the cost of the settlement was going to be. Even in the 2000's, if we had responded to the 9/11 attacks by embarking on a global effort to alleviate poverty (for instance, by investing the nearly $750 billion spent so far in the war on terror on bringing clean drinking water to the world) there might have been a chance to avert the catastrophe which is now almost upon us. Instead, we declared war on the world - a war we cannot win. The two great American disasters of this young century, 9/11 and Katrina, are the beginning of a painful process of awakening to our own precariousness and vulnerability, to the spiritual urgency of our situation. I am very much afraid that it may be too late.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Please try to use paragraphs... this is quite difficult to read.