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Culture Change e-Letter #20

Petroleum culture versus Earth living
The fallacy of the technofix

by Jan Lundberg

We may contemplate the stubbornness of the polluting habits of consumers and snarl at the motives of leaders of ecological destruction.  But our exasperation is rarely vented, because of the pointlessness of having to oppose almost every member of society.  There seems to be no chance of a peaceful mass crusade, let alone a civil war, when everyone is participating as the enemy.

"No one wins / It's a war of man," sang Neil Young.  And, as the Pogo cartoon by Walt Kelly revealed, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Some of us are trying to live petroleum-free, but it's almost impossible unless we cut ourselves off from modern products and forms of communication.  Yet, the movement to "get back to the land" which popped up in the late 1960s is still alive and well.  The technical means of doing so, ironically, is improving constantly—wireless internet and all that jazz.

With each generation's increased self-removal from Earth-based living (relying on manual methods and do-it-yourself/mutual-assistance survival), transitioning to sustainability is more doubtful.  Cell phones in the countryside and newer trucks made with computer components, that can't be repaired, don't help us in the long run.  Bring back the work animals, as long as they are well treated.

Personal cost of petroleum culture
Petroleum culture has a high personal cost beyond the health aspects.  Along with the go-go-go pace of using cheap energy and going long distances so fast, the connection between loved ones diminishes.  "I-me-mine" is convenient and habit forming when everything one appears to need is available from petroleum products or products/services facilitated by petroleum.  Alienation between family members, partners or best friends is a terribly common condition traceable to one's not feeling the need for close cooperation and support.  When a person has his or her own "pile" there is little need, apparently, for love, loyalty, devotion or time with family.

There are two kinds of consumers participating in "petroleum living:" the unconscious and the deliberate. Or, the willing and the murderous—if we agree that driving species extinct and warming the climate ought to be serious crimes.  The unconscious/willing petroleum consumers burn and spill petroleum at lower levels than the deliberate and "murderous."  With a war on Iraq mostly concluded, with oil wealth in the balance, does an oil user deserve the war-criminal label when we consider thousands of civilian casualties and deformed babies on both sides?

There is much to do; no end of reforms and efficiencies to employ.  A huge stack of Worldwatch Institute policy-options would be marvelous to be acted on by governments.  But, regardless of the inaction on deliberate energy waste and pollution—which feeds the fat cats—fundamental change now approaches us all.  It will hit us at the top of the Richter scale due to our cultural shortsightedness.

Today rail-shipped goods use one eighth of the energy trucks use, but it is too late to remake the transportation system before it collapses from fiscal pressures and the lack of abundant oil—at low prices—within a few years perhaps.

Renewable energy's shortcomings
The renewable-energy technofix camp thinks of itself as beyond petroleum.  If one includes their passive supporters, it is huge. It has its beneficiaries and enforcers.  Those who question the renewable energy utopia are marginalized or dismissed as belonging to the George Bush camp of fossil fools.  The credulity of the technofixer can be typified in statements by the popular visionary, Saint Fuller:

"We are blessed with technology that would be indescribable to our forefathers.  We have the wherewithal, the know-it-all, to feed everybody, clothe everybody, give every human on earth a chance [without damaging the integrity of the planet]" — R. Buckminster Fuller

Fuller is ultimately old fashioned, and fails at transforming the techno man in us into a hero.  And, how many billions of humans is "everybody?"  Fullerism may be so technofreaky that a new age of sustainability must do without this out-of-date vision.  Fuller's famous "trim tab factor" that compares a massive freighter's mini-rudder effect to a subtle influence within a social movement is clever and hopeful, but may be just techno-religion at work.  We don't need to think in terms of huge freighters forever linking bioregions that don't need each other's invasive species.

This is not to say that email and websites don't help spread the word on peaceful resistance to the war machine (a.k.a. U.S. $ociety).  But when environmental activists say they love email and the web, some of us question whether they know what they are really up against as defenders of the Earth.

One paradox in the renewable energy dream-world as manifested thus far is that it is so petroleum dependent.  The imbedded energy in the manufactured "solar" gadgets, their petroleum-plastic content, and their transport constitute one example of petroleum's serious role in "renewable energy."   Another example is the petroleum content of cars and their infrastructure—even if the cars run on biodiesel or solar-charged batteries: asphalt pavement (tarmac) is mostly the dregs of oil refining.  Tires were formerly from rubber plantations, but since the early 1970s are mostly petroleum.  Most of the car's pollution comes not out of the tailpipe, but from the manufacturing and mining process "upstream."

The Worldwatch Institute has a careful function to fulfill, walking a fine line between accusing and cajoling polluters who are bringing the curtain down on life.  But, as we support the contribution of organizations that measure the decline in our life support system, we must guard against mere "symptomology"—studying the problem.  In collaboration with the UN Environment Programme, Worldwatch's latest Vital Signs paperback says "the benefits of a growing global economy are still not reaching billions of people."  Does Worldwatch really expect that "benefit" could happen, when the staffers there know that the growing economy is harming billions of people and the web of life?

Overpopulation and petroleum
The issue is not so much what form of technology is more terrible, but how many people are engaging in the technologies.  There appears to be very little thought given to how large a population size is sustainable with a renewable-energy economy.  Petroleum is fast dwindling (see our related articles on  The funded environmental movement has no accountability while it is paid to tout the renewable-energy technofix.  Hypocritically, many of the professionals involved admit privately that there is no chance of a huge "green consumer economy" lasting beyond the upcoming loss of abundant petroleum.  Very few funded environmentalists want to rock their own boat by using their funders' stock-market earnings to tell the public unpleasant truths about economic growth, carrying capacity, and entropy.  So, the party goes on "forever," and enviros in suits live alright today on a burning, dying planet.

The world's huge overpopulation is the controlling factor. Agricultural dependency on petroleum and oil-fueled vehicular distribution of food means that soon there may not be as many consumers surviving for the anticipated green economy.  In that sense, renewable energy will take over, but only as far as serving the small population that may survive and thrive in local-based bioregional economies.

Until we resume petroleum-free living, we will have to heed Neil Young's lyric, "The same thing that makes you live can kill you in the end."

Earth living can be called a mix of current know-how or enlightenment combined with the wisdom and experience of the millions of years' successful evolution in harmony with nature.  Here are some links toward understanding the requirements of living and sensible "development":;

See our alternative energy webpages


To learn about the imminent global peak in oil extraction, see webpage

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Jan Lundberg's columns are protected by copyright; however, non-commercial use of the material is permitted as long as full attribution is given with a link to this website, and he is informed of the re-publishing:

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