Thursday, June 21, 2012

Peak Oil and Climate Change: a Midsummer Night's Meditation

A lot of discussion in the Peak Oil/Climate Change community focuses on rational responses to these game-changing influences on modern societies. Along with these proposals comes much hand-wringing about how political or corporate leadership remains largely as intransigent as ever on the most pressing and most obvious of these responses, and the fact that most of them should have been implemented 30 or more years ago, or the very least, immediately. Public transportation, walkable communities, sustainable agricultural practices, renewable and reduced energy use…these are reasonable things. However, for a lot of reasons, then as now, the reasonable things didn’t happen, or haven’t happened at a scale needed to meaningfully affect the trajectory of onrushing events.

So at present it seems that with peak oil and climate change we have a collective problem without a collective response. Of course, it is true that while we may feel disappointment at failed international resolutions and the absurd theatrics of flailing governments, positive things are happening here and there. We see small victories: a city council passes a peak oil resolution, a Transition group forms, a Peak Oil conference takes place somewhere, someone starts a community garden. However, such events are mostly functioning as signs, and as every driver should be aware, an unheeded signal does not affect the motion of a motorcar. Further, it’s not clear that making the signal larger or clearer would have much effect. 

Given all of the foregoing, it is becoming increasingly clear that on the individual level at least, there is precisely no reasonable response to peak oil and climate change. This is an improv, a dance with emerging possibilities, and it is a dance within ourselves as well as between us and our changing world. What works for one person may not work at all for another. My suggestion here is that we must not take the fact that there is no reasonable response to be a cause for despair. It is simply an invitation to get in touch with something that is deeper than reason and capable of reforming it, difficult as that may be to describe in reasonable terms.

For example, much talk is devoted to the subject of the economic side of Peak Oil. Unless the petroleum-powered economy keeps expanding with the pace of money creation, money loaned into existence with interest cannot be repaid. A kind of generalized bankruptcy follows, in which inflation or deflation exhaust the symbol of money by attacking the roots of its capacity to signify. The symbolic medium that we have worked for, fought over, connived to get, stolen, and inherited loses meaning within our human experience as the system that supported it breaks down. What follows from the loss of a symbol of this centrality is the failure of culture: erosion and breakdown on all levels, from our inner lives, feelings and thought processes to shuttered factories, empty strip malls, and decaying concrete roads. The inability to pay a debt is but the beginning of a cascade of expectations breaking down, taking with them many other social forms and significances. It is also accompanied by the loss of the material capacities with which it was linked in our collective mindset through our social institutions and physical infrastructure.

The exigencies of climate change, on the other hand, are rightfully thought to be of a different order than those of the symbol system of world finance in a losing battle with emerging realities. However, whether we're experiencing the rains that don’t come or the paycheck that evaporated, on a personal level it amounts to an encounter with an abyss. Every hockey-sticking graph we’re looking at represents an abyss, but to encounter it personally is something else again. This is the thing, the thingless thing at the heart of our experience, the place where our inner chaos is drawn to the surface by the growing chaos around us. This is where our waking thoughts merge into the dream to which we awaken in our sleep. When peak oil messengers tell us to “start our collapse now,” there’s no better place to start than here, on the inside, where words break down into sounds, and the inner reverberations of those sounds reveal realities that were formerly invisible, showing us what was really inside of those words all along.

Given that our culture took the technology of combustion so far as to alter the climate of the planet in the pursuit of our dreams, it seems the poetry of burning and the power of the infinite that lies hidden in every flame should be quite familiar to us. But typically it isn’t, even as the drama plays out and we see that the very contents our minds are catching fire. This is the real “new normal,” a phrase people started hopefully intoning to come to terms with the progressive disjuncture between representation and reality. However, the expression bears the stigma of an ominously Orwellian inner contradiction.

The words of Antonin Artaud come to me now:

"Burning is a magic act . . . we must consent to burning, burning in advance and immediately, not a thing but everything that represents things for us, in order not to expose ourselves to being burnt up whole."

Reason does not fare so well under these conditions, and this is precisely the point we are heading for. We must then find our refuge in something other than reason as the culture that found such ingenious ways of tyrannizing itself and the planet with symbols and paper goes up like a trash can ablaze. This is the gift we have prepared for ourselves.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the lovers leave the city and all they know when the reality of their love comes into conflict with the abstract mandates of Athenian law. They find themselves in a wilderness where, as it turns out, the elemental forces of nature are likewise in upheaval as the fairy king and queen are estranged from one another. In the end it is not through reason that order is restored, but through the agency of madness. My sense is that this is what’s happening to us as well, but as a culture we’re so far astray that a single crazy night in the wilderness won’t be enough to set things right again.


  1. Hey Cliff,

    Do you have any books out? I know you're a writer but I've never heard what you've written.

    I think we are right at the brink of seeing climate changes that are going to bring us to a point of looking in the mirror and reassessing how much we value our lives. Are we the person with cancer who makes EVERY effort to change our lifestyle or someone who says I smoked for 20 years, I knew this was coming, so be it.

    I told you about the methane releases from the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia. The 80 degree March and incredibly warm summer are tied to that occurrence I believe. While these temperature anomalies are not unprecedented the amount of high average temperatures in a row coupled with atmospheric GHG concentrations is.

    I was talking with my grandmother from Missouri last night. She was saying that their crops were dying because it was so dry and hot. I'd heard a few months ago that forecasters were predicting the entire summer was going to be hot throughout the Midwest. This is a bad situation and I think it could easily lead to the madness you are speaking of. There was a trace of hope though. She started talking about these foraging activities her mom had made her do as a kid. She knew of a farm where you could collect and learn about wild greens near her town. She had the background I am currently looking for, which surprised me though it shouldn't have. I imagine these traits are scattered throughout the society with me just being oblivious. I'm sure my cousins have some background in a lot of it.

    From what I've seen thus far at Rio+20 though we are not going to make progress on the policy front. Our leaders are too jaded to try to make progress; there is no leadership. I'm not sure if this is new. I don't believe it is. This is a time for transcendence however, if only for a brief period of 50 years. Creation of a new paradigm and a slow settling lasting some 100 to 200 years.

    Our leaders should understand the situation we are in already though. There is an information gap between the science and politicians that is not being met. Civil societies and NGOs are so ostracized, I imagine, that nothing "fringe" is taken seriously by the establishment. This means anything of a serious nature and at the cutting edge is ignored. It is a dangerous situation to say the least.

  2. there is precisely no reasonable response to peak oil and climate change

    This seems like a strange assertion to me. Do you mean there is no one reasonable response?

    Because it seems that there are many reasonable responses -- you yourself cited four!

    Most people who even think of such things view peak oil and climate change as problems to be solved. If you are defining "response" as "solution," then I'll agree with you.

    But, like John Michael Greer, I see these as predicaments or dilemmas, rather than problems.

    A predicament has no solution, but it does have coping strategies, and I would call those "reasonable responses."

    Perhaps the most reasonable response is to start growing your own food. As things get worse, your neighbours will notice, pick your brain, and begin growing their food. Pretty soon, you'll have what happened in Russia: 45% of all food is grown on just 7% of the land, in individual "dacha gardens." That would be a great coping strategy, no?

    1. Sorry it took me so long to respond on this. What I was trying to say in this lyrical piece is that we may have to break with many patterns commonly accepted as reasonable if we're to find our way forward. Sure, you can dig up your yard and plant food. Just be aware, it's quite possible that your behavior will look crazy to your neighbors, especially if you're out with a flashlight picking slugs off your bok choi at midnight, which is a very predictable next step down the path of gardening madness. Seems perfectly reasonable to you. Seems a little crazy if not outright nuts to them. Do it anyway.