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Culture Change

On Borrowed Time

by Jan Lundberg

First the bad news, then the hopeful outlook:  We appear to be on borrowed time as a species as well as for retaining modern society.  Whether it is first going to be Petroleum Civilization's collapse or a major nuclear event that hits us, there is no more option of just letting the world take care of itself.  Those who take the philosophical position that we cannot speak of "destroying the Earth" or "saving the Earth" have resigned themselves to an apocalyptic scenario.  After all, the Earth will be here always, even if a lifeless planet.  

The other side of the coin is that positive trends can take hold and triumph.  Massive effort has already gone into this, and will have to expand and spread quickly.  Most people are unaware of what the many focused struggles have entailed, nor do many know who it is who make the sacrifices that may get us to safety.  If we're successful ultimately, we can say perhaps that this present interval is also borrowed time for business-as-usual, prior to the flowering of sustainable society.   

Set apart from nature as we are in the "advanced, developed" world, we allow a small bunch of greedy, frightened maniacs to pillage the Earth and feed us cancer in the name of profits, progress and security.  The result of this rapidly deteriorating state of affairs is that things are so bad that I almost can't be bothered to explain why we are all on borrowed time.  But, as obvious it is to many of us that we're all on borrowed time, it is crucial to explore what's involved and make some moves for our personal and mutual survival.

Those who don't see we are on borrowed time are in denial about the extent of the misery and destruction already done and not abating.  To reluctantly acknowledge the damage to date is to say, "O.K., some are on borrowed time, but not me."  That is to imagine we are not all in the same boat.  

We are one people in one living world, but several thousand years ago a trend started to dominate that was about the self-interest maximizing by individuals.  The illusion of separateness grew between people and between humans and nature.  The beginning of history coincided with changes in production, when a rising population could easily be manipulated by others, in close and concentrated proximity.  Voila, civilization and the generation of surpluses via division of labor and city rulers.  Soon every aspect of living, more and more of it codified - called law - dictated what was once the realm of freedom, common sense and tradition.

Hell is on the way for us all.  Iraq is an example of it already being here.  Iraq and Afghanistan are not just "over there";  they are wounds on our body that are still bleeding, contaminated with depleted uranium.  The U.S. has led the way to global ecocide and, considering its impact, is on the whole no improvement over past empires of aggression.

The "War against Terror" is unwinnable.  It is like declaring a war on baldness by tearing out one's hair.  Using violence as a major tool of dominance and commercial exploitation - killing thousands of innocents who pose no threat to the empire - turns surviving victims into certain future threats (especially in the Middle East).  When that threat finally gets its revenge carried out, the insulated world of U.S. American cheeseburger people will stare agape at the spectacle of violence and disruption.  That event may be a mere prelude to the historic collapse of civilization that the upcoming sudden absence of petroleum will cause.

Yet, before the disastrous culmination of the Final War that the Bushies in Washington launched on their own behalf (to escape Enron scandals, to win the oil-control game and to just profit), we may see the economy unravel.  This may be triggered by an historic final energy shortage brought about by the imminent expanding gap between oil extraction and demand for oil.  

Peak Oil is beginning to be commonly spoken of.  Natural gas for present use may be characterized as a cliff in terms of a supply drop off ahead.  The recent blackout in the northeastern U.S. may herald the ceiling of growth for the unsustainable infrastructure - hallelujah.

The economy can collapse from a number of "fundamentals" such as to much debt, too little full employment, or sucking too many resources dry from the ecosystem.  After all, the "eco" in economy is none other than that same "eco" in the ecosystem!  There is no separation of economy and ecosystem, although one can maintain that illusion briefly.  The story of humanity goes back four million years of walking upright, and the recent ten thousand years of exploitation and growth called civilization are a drop in the very large bucket of humanity's time.

Now our bucket is being boiled, but some maintain this is nothing new.  It is passed off as like another earthquake or volcano that devastated the world of old.  A common statement by apologists of today's civilization is "The American Indians were no better;  they killed and were awful too..."   This is not a scholarly or substantiated position.  Anyway, there is almost no going back to primitive ways, such is the ruination of the planet at the hands of the Bushs, the Clintons, the Europeans and everyone who is or was participating in the orgy of consumption at the expense of Mother Earth.

The wild card is nukes.  A recent Culture Change Letter dealt with the likelihood of a devastating nuclear accident or attack that will get everyone's attention as never before.  Until a possible total disaster, which is entirely possible with a partial exchange of nuclear weapons, we are on borrowed time.  So what do we do?  Go shopping? Or shall we organize and grow up as an oppressed population?  

We are in a sense henceforth forever on borrowed time, due to the long-term characteristics of nuclear byproducts.  The U.S. has existed in a blink of the eye compared to the lasting effects of nukes - e.g., 240,000 years for half the radioactivity of plutonium to decay.  The criminality of all nuclear proliferators cannot be dealt with strongly enough, as future survivors of this mess will see as self-evident.  

Some say humanity is just growing up.  I reject this because we have used fire for almost two million years, and it's only in the last several thousand years that institutionalized selfishness has ascended to today's mass insanity and frenzied consumption.

Overall, we are on double borrowed time because - aside from nukes - Petroleum Civilization's end is on the horizon.  Part of the reason for this is the inferiority of non-petroleum fuels and technologies, compared to oil and natural gas for energy and materials.  The so-called substitutes don't deliver petroleum's punch, such as feeding over a billion workers and slaves who will mostly die off.

The standard litany from groups such as Worldwatch Institute says we are losing the ice caps and glaciers to  global warming from industrial emissions; most coral reefs are dying; depleted and polluted aquifers cannot be relied upon much further; species loss of perhaps 100 a day continues; distorted weather from climate change is on the rise, and topsoil erosion has not slowed down from a frenzied pace.

The Club of Rome's Limits to Growth study three decades ago warned us that population growth was on a course to exceed the available soil to feed the world.  Petroleum and technology stretched the limits, so people are fed, but meanwhile population continues to go up.  The U.S. is the most energy-intensive and wasteful nation, with rising population, and topsoil is being lost 17 times faster than its formation.  The U.S. has lost half of its topsoil since 1960.  Ninety per cent of U.S. cropland is losing topsoil beyond the replacement rate.  Even organic farms lose topsoil when the profit motive maximizes a few crops instead of creating ecological systems providing food and habitation on a permanent basis (Permaculture).

Information is helpful, but working models must show people a way out of the pen they are in.  We don't know how much sense can be made to the public regarding the fact that we are all on borrowed time.  But waiting for Petroleum Civilization's collapse and hoping for no nuclear disaster ought to be time spent in creating the basis of future social relations and real communities.  Admittedly, the tasks at hand are overwhelming, and the craziness of modern Babylon (i.e., U.S.-led dominant society) will test our concepts of goodwill, decency and wisdom.  Take good care of yourself, your loved ones and the Earth.


- Ten thousand people died from the heat in France in the first three weeks of August.  See our home page and links.
- See the Fall of Petroleum Civilization.
- Read Goodbye to the War Party and the nuclear threat
- Feedback is wanted for our letters page.

Back to Home Page

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:


Articles of interest:
Anti-globalization protest grows, with tangible results.  WTO protests page

Tax fossil-fuel energy easily
by Peter Salonius

UK leader calls War on Terror "bogus"

Argentina bleeds toward healing by Raul Riutor

The oil industry has plans for you: blow-back by Jan Lundberg

It's not a war for oil? by Adam Khan

How to create a pedestrian mall by Michelle Wallar

The Cuban bike revolution

How GM destroyed the U.S. rail system excerpts from the film "Taken for a Ride".

"Iraqi oil not enough for US: Last days of America?"

Depaving the world by Richard Register

Roadkill: Driving animals to their graves by Mark Matthew Braunstein

The Hydrogen fuel cell technofix: Spencer Abraham's hydrogen dream.

Ancient Forest Protection in Northern California . Forest defenders climb trees to save them.

Daniel Quinn's thoughts on this website.

A case study in unsustainable development is the ongoing crisis in Palestine and Israel.

Renewable and alternative energy information.

Conserving energy at home (Calif. Title 24)



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Culture Change (Trademarked) is published by Sustainable Energy Institute (formerly Fossil Fuels Policy Action), a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) California non-stock corporation. Contributions are tax-deductible.