Tuesday, June 8, 2010

New York Times on Peak Oil..and the Problem of History

You learn pretty quickly to adjust for what any mainstream media says about peak oil and anyone who does any kind of preparation. Consider the case of my friend Kathie Breault who has appeared in various newspaper and television accounts. Kathie is grandmother, a midwife and a permaculturist, and about the least "survivalist" person you can imagine. She knits stuff for her grandkids and teaches them to garden, rides her bike everywhere and is starting up a homebirth midwifery practice, helping women with little access to good health care give birth safely. And yet in an ABC Nightline interview she did, the headline read "Recession Apocalypse: Preparing for the End of the World" (nobody who brings babies into the world is preparing for its end, doofuses!) An article subheading read "some survivalists are stockpiling food and guns" - even thought Kathie isn't a survivalist and said explicitly she doesn't own a gun nor have any intention of buying one, and she was the only person being discussed. But hey, if you can't get the target to say what you want, make sure it gets in there anyway! One learns, as I said, to adjust the stories for reality.

The New York Times article about peak oil folk that appeared yesterday is actually pretty mild in that regard - it gets several things right. They mention Transition, the talk about community, despite giving Daniel Yergin a whole paragraph (and leaving out that Yergin admitted at one point that there probably was something to peak oil) they observe that this is something taken seriously by a bipartisan committee of Congress (and the Army, Navy and Marines, by the Department of Energy, by the EIA, by the IEA...but who is counting?) - although they imply that this is new, when the Peak Oil Caucus in the House is five years old.

They chose as their centerpiece a woman who I think I actually know a little (if she's who I think she is) and someone who isn't particularly threatening, or the stereotype of the survivalist, but they still can't resist the attempt to pigeonhole the story into a story of survivalism. The prominent mention of "doomers" and "Collapsitarian" and the claim that peak oil folk come "between the environmental movement and the bunkered survivalists" (on whose perverted scale...please!) reminds us that the idea that you all might have to get along with a great deal less energy is wacko. The idea that we might even want to is even more wacko - even though the article mentions the oil pouring into the gulf.

Transition, which specifically repudiates the idea that peak oil inevitably leads to "a population die-off" gets that in quotes right after their name. Again, let's remember, these people aren't normal. Trying to get your community to build food and economic security..that's just crazy talk!

There are two reasons I think it is so convenient for the mainstream media to use the language of survivalism and wackoidism around peak oil. Part of it, of course, is that this sells papers. Recognizing that most of what peak oil and other environmental advocates do as personal preparations are exactly what everyone did even in the developed world until very, very recently, and what most of humanity does now - ie, in times of surplus and abundance, have a moderate reserve in case times get tougher - isn't nearly as much fun as associating them with bunkers (has anyone even had a bunker since the 1970s, for cripes sake?)

Moreover, as long as you can pretend no one ever needs these preparations - that this is best associated with duck and cover and the 1970s - you can pretend that we are at the end of history, long past social shifts that lead to difficult times.

Of course this is complete nonsense. Think about the lives of anyone who lived through most of the 20th century - your parents or grandparents. Ask - did most of them get through without some extremely hard times? A depression, a war, civil unrest, extended job loss, loss of benefits, hunger, refugeeism? I think about my own grandparents and those of my husband let's see...nazis, ghetto, war refugee, poor new immigrants, great depression....hmmm. It is only my parents generation and my own that have been fortunate enough to live in times where nothing really bad has ever happened. I could, of course, assume that that state will go on forever, but history suggests otherwise.

But moreover, we have the deep problem of language, and the newspapers have it no less so - what I've described in the past as the "Klingons/Cylons" problem - that is, our culture has only two ways of speaking of the future - either like Star Trek we have a techno-optimist, unlimited progress future where the only troubles left to conquer are small or outside ourselves (ie, Klingons) or we have the complete destruction of the human race. This deep linguistic difficulty gets us into all sorts of trouble, because people immediately leap to the conclusion that "if it gets that bad it doesn't matter what we do."

With this in mind, the changes coming are described as "the end of the world." This false dualism serves to falsely move people into the techno-optimist camp, even when they don't really agree with it - because who would ever choose "the end of everything?" As long as our language erases the real center, the possibilities that history has long since shown us, the idea that everything might not get better, that we might be entering a period of declines and that this might be something other than another end-of-the-world fantasy is unavailable to us.

But of course, that too is deeply ahistorical. Times get difficult all the time - they are incredibly difficult for a substantial portion of the world's population right now. And for most of those people, it still matters a great deal what they do. We are not served by a language that says "oh, if the power goes out, if we can't get our regular supply of meat, if everything doesn't go our way" we have achieved the end of the world, and thus, we must make sure that no one things it is really possible.

Because of course, it keeps happening - almost all of us have seen a decline in standard of living - real wages have declined steadily since the late 1970s and a whole host of quality of life factors have been declining rapidly since. As long as we pretend that only survivalists in their bunkers need a store of food, we can lie to ourselves and ignore the fact that 37 millon people regularly have no idea if they will have meals in the US, and that a billion people go hungry regularly in the world, the most in human history. As long as we pretend that energy is effectively infinite, we need not make real changes.

That said, it isn't a bad article - its failings are the failings of our culture, not particularly the failings of the media. The problem is that we have yet to grasp that there is no exceptionalism from being part of history and all its painful realities.

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