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Culture Change

"Paper or plastic?"
Why the
kill-for-oil culture will collapse and die

by Jan Lundberg  

A supermarket shopper pushes his cart out the door to get to his car in the huge parking lot.  I'm appalled at the number of plastic bags in the cart, yet I say nothing.  After all, we are not yet in the Global Warming Revolution.

Just then, a woman I know happens upon me and I notice she has forgotten to bring her reusable shopping bag.  Car-free at least, now she has engaged in further petroleum waste by getting more bags derived from natural gas: methane is easily altered to obtain polypropylene.  Plastic does not biodegrade; it becomes fine particles that attract toxins to their surface, and gets into organisms such as ourselves.  But, because paper bags are from trees and take energy to make them, they are not a sensible alternative. 

We need an alternative to the supermarket, to petroleum, and to modern culture. "Shoulda been done long ago," sang Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in 1970 when they helped mobilize hundreds of thousands of people against the expanded Indochina War.

Almost all shoppers have again foregone a spring planting of vegetables in their yards, typical for cities and suburbs in the U.S.  The excuse is that we are "busy."  What the heck, there's all this food for sale (transported on average 1,400 miles) and is here anyway — who cares who grew it and how?

Earth Day was born, as was the song by the "Crosbies," 34 years ago.  One of the easiest of environmental/green steps an individual and a nation must take — recycling — still awaits serious action.  For recycling and other key steps for sustainability to get going, dire need will have to be felt in the context of a new, local-based form of economics.  (Incidentally, recycling of plastics is almost totally inefficient.)

Avoiding starvation = going backward?

Two nation-examples that need more attention from the global U.S. media are Cuba and Argentina.  Each economy lost much in the way of material consumption that supposedly marks civilized progress and prosperity.  

The people of Cuba and Argentina are doing alright by utilizing low-energy practices and systems.  

Cuba suddenly found itself without petroleum from the Soviet Union, and had to scramble 14 years ago to implement bicycle/bus based transportation.  If that wasn't enough of a challenge, agriculture had to be revamped to end reliance on the suddenly nonexistent petrochemicals and petroleum fuels.  

Today there is almost one bicycle for every two persons in Havana, Cuba, and many of the bicycles are work-bikes that have large containers for hauling goods.  Bus ridership is at about 30% of Cuba's population, compared to 2% (?) in the U.S.

Havana nowadays has 30,000 organic gardens/farms that supply one-third of the food needs of the city's two million residents.

When the U.S. runs dry of petroleum, how many people can be fed then?

The global supply of oil and natural gas will not level off gradually as it is depleted; it will suddenly become very scarce and expensive everywhere.  The market will react instantly to the tight supplies that people will recognize as only shrinking, as global peak oil extraction passes during this decade.  

Argentina operates now as a grouping of many local-based economies, after the collapse of centralized and foreign corporate management of the nation's finances and trade.  The huge amount of recycling, alternative currencies, worker take-overs of factories, etc. have allowed Argentinians to survive, albeit in a weakened state.  After all, the 38 million people are too many for the ecosystem and they can't all go back to the land.  Petroleum is a big problem:  First, consumption has not yet been reduced, as is necessary for a sustainable economy: oil and gas  have gone up at least 15% since the late 1990s, according to Culture Change's Raul Riutor in Buenos Aires.

Nevertheless, the U.S. would be so lucky to attain the self-sufficiency of Argentina — certainly of Cuba.

How likely do you think a national discussion in the U.S. on these issues is when the "public television" New Hour starts off with nuclear industry and Chevron-Texaco advertisements (as on April 20, 2004)?

Meaning of gluttony and denial

With a huge population of petroleum-consumers, the U.S. is headed for devastating famine and utter breakdown of society.  This will be seen as retribution, by Iraqis, Palestinians, Iranians and many other peoples who regard the U.S. as the evil energy glutton.

Up to 15,000 thousand Iraqis have been slaughtered or starved since March 2003, so that U.S. consumers can enjoy no reduction in energy consumption — for now.  Of course, there was more going on than oil in the tragic drama that is Iraq.  But whatever isn't related to oil would probably be, along with Iraq in general, of minimal world interest if oil was not there.  Is there an Iraqi who does not now wonder if the country's huge oil reserves are not a curse?

Meanwhile, back in the U.S.A., mainstream culture offers mainly a banquet of crass commercialism, if one can afford it.  Where can one go for a good time or to be amongst one's own townspeople except at shopping centers, restaurants and the like?  Pay for food.  Pay for a movie.  Pay for a book.  Pay.  Pay.  Pay.  No pay, not okay, and no lay.

The American Consumer lives as if s/he doesn't know what's going on all around him/her.  Pollution, early death, isolation, alienation, acquiescence to brutality — "Let's look the other way and be nice happy people!"  The surrounding, built environment and the grease of the economy that lubricates it is like the building of a high-rise with rot that stinks only to those that possess rare faculties.  The number of people who do and who say something out loud about our rising plight are probably as rare as color-blind folk.

The fall is ripe

As I write this it is the fifth anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre.  Thirteen people were shot to death there in Littleton, Colorado — but during the same afternoon even more teenagers were killed elsewhere, on average, by cars.  Every afternoon this happens in the U.S.A.  It is noteworthy that neither the U.S. Dept. of Transportation nor international agencies refer any longer to car-crash fatalities as "accidents."

In an Associated Press story on Columbine, dated 4/20/04, a Littleton resident was quoted as saying "We just can't believe something like this could have happened in such a beautiful community."  Believe it!  When we run our electric appliances, drive our cars, send our tax dollars to kill people in order to secure an umbilical cord to the sources of oil, that's not a beautiful community.  It's a nightmare with a facade of niceness.  A sham.  To see what a wonderful community any town in America is, see how  homelessness or lack of health coverage is dealt with: "Tough luck" for the most part.

This is not to say there is no good to be found.  But if the trend is totally ominous, let's get to work and not "go to work:" our homes and neighborhoods have to become connected and operate in a spirit of solidarity, frugality and sharing — now.

The population of the United States is acting oblivious to the deteriorating reality of society and the natural world.  Are people so blind and unaware, that the mass media can always lead them to thinking that their nation is just trying its best to muddle through?  Or are more and more people getting a sense of the extreme, pervasive dishonesty and avoidance regarding almost every issue of importance?

Crises multiply and grow, and still the petroleum bags are just dispensed as though they were falling autumn leaves doing no harm. We are now in the fall before the big autumn storm.  Not many will make it through the coming "winter" of our own making.


 April 20, 2004

Read about Argentina from our Latin America correspondent Raul Riutor
Read about Cuba's bicycle revolution
Protest the U.S. occupation of Iraq and read background on war for oil, see the link to the new depleted uranium report. 

Global Warming Crisis Council and the Pledge for Climate Protection

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)



Culture Change/Sustainable Energy Institute mailing address: P.O. Box 3387 , Santa Cruz , California 95063 USA
  Telephone 1-215-243-3144 (and fax)

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.