July 8, 2010

Peak Oil Dialectics (Vacation Post)

Filed under: Marx, Peak Oil — Tags: — Russ @ 3:14 am


Sometimes, I suppose in my more mystical moods, I wonder if there’s a kind of physical/biological imperative involved in man’s liberation of the stored up fossil fuel energy.
In one sense (the mystical one), we could at least figuratively say that man is the agent of inevitable entropy. The concentrated energy eventually will have to disperse one way or another. Man’s burning it is just an accelerated version of the “lawful” (using that as a term of expression) natural process.
To briefly sketch it out in Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis terms, we can state as the first thesis that tremendous energy has been concentrated, “imprisoned”, in the form of fossil fuels.
The first antithesis which is brought forth in antagonism to the first thesis is that this potential energy must someday be rendered kinetic. Entropy decrees that it must someday disperse; it “wants” to disperse.
Therefore, if we can conceptualize man’s “liberation” of the energy as something beyond politics, as a metaphysical motion, or an imperative of the force of history, we can call the fossil fuel stage of history the first synthesis, reconciling and overcoming the first thesis and antithesis.
Thus we have the second thesis: The fossil fuel age, the Industrial Revolution, capitalism, modern technology, mass society including mass democracy. These are all the florescences of the liberation of the coal and oil.
But this has brought forth the second antithesis: Fossil fuels are finite, extracting and burning them as the basis for a whole civilization trashes the life-giving earth itself, the structure becomes dependent upon exponential growth curves and thus unsustainable, the law of diminishing returns sets in on energy extraction (EROEI), on complexity as such, and the Tower of Babel totters, in mass capitalism’s predestined monopoly stage its contradictions finally become insurmountable, and everything trembles on the brink of catastrophe.
And so we reach the second synthesis: Peak Oil.
What’s the affirmative element of this third thesis? Simplification, decentralization of power, deconcentration of wealth, relocalization and the redemption of our communities, our democracy, our holistic place on earth, our spirit, our freedom, our humanity.
But what about looking at it this way:
In a more down to earth sense, man is like a rat in an experiment who, once habituated to cocaine (psychologically intensely habit-forming but not physically addictive), will consistently choose it over food, even to the point of starvation.
Mankind seems to be like that rat. Having uncovered the drug stash, the fossil fuel hoard, he’s now psychologically driven to burn all he possibly can, even at the expense of every other value and any chance at all for a less painful transition to the inevitable sustainable future.
I’ve often used the metaphor of a heroin addict who would rather keep shooting up until he ODs, in order to remain high until then, than undergo a few days of withdrawal, even though he knows after a few days of pain he’d be free. That’s the West’s position where it comes to exponential debt and the Bailout. And it seems to be the “civilized” world’s position regarding high energy consumption as well. Just think of what could be done if the remaining oil were rationally apportioned toward equitable transition goals.
But the values of humanity (as opposed to mere hominids) are clearly not the values of entropy, and only the most heroic effort, along with a lot of luck, could ever enable the former to triumph over the latter.
To return to the Hegelian dialectical conceit, this all seems to be the psychological/social aspect of the second thesis, while for political reasons and reasons of morale we try to have hope for the second antithesis mitigating the full logic of the second thesis, so that the second synthesis won’t be as bad as it could be.
Maybe that’s just wishful thinking, an ornament of the second antithesis. For example, I gave up on climate change action years ago. There I’m certain the full logic of the second thesis will play out, and carbon concentrations will be capped only by the limits of Peak Oil itself.
But in other areas? I guess my concept of action is to blunt the second thesis, and therefore to, not fundamentally change, but modify in detail, the second synthesis, toward a more salutary third thesis.
OK, I won’t write mystical stuff any more. 🙂 


  1. I’m not sure I follow the application of the Hegelian dialectic here. I think you state it correctly, but I don’t see the contradictions, or how they are overcome in a new synthesis in your examples.

    Can’t these things be understood much more simply as just exhausting finite resources? Is there any reason to regard this dialectically?

    Comment by Renato — July 8, 2010 @ 8:30 am

  2. No, I don’t think there’s any special reason. Like I said, it was just some musing on it all in a different way.

    The contradictions are in things like how the oil-fueled growth/debt civilization must produce ever greater amounts of cheap oil to propagate itself but thereby renders itself ever more vulnerable first to oil shocks and stagflation and then to collapse at the point of Peak Oil, not to mention brings those on more quickly by its very act of growing exponentially.

    I guess for it to truly be “necessary development”, that assumes that growth had to be the industrial model; that the option of e.g. rationally apportioning the oil in a non-capitalistic way was never really an option.

    But the fact is I’m unaware of anyone who ever even seriously proposed that it be rationally apportioned. (Hotelling’s speculations were basically ivory tower stuff.) Man’s method of oil consumption wouldn’t even qualify as “historical folly” by Tuchman’s measure since there was never a significant contrary voice.

    As for capitalism itself being the “necessary” mode of organization, that was how Marx first applied Hegel, so I’d only be following him there. But there too it doesn’t seem like mankind ever seriously considered an alternative.

    This is all just meant to be a philosophical exercise, or at any rate just a first draft of a thought.

    But you’re right, everything can be seen just in terms of that rat in the experiment who doesn’t know how to stop taking coke long enough to eat something.

    As for what I called the “affirmative element” of the third thesis, that’s of course more a desire or a goal than anything necessary.

    Decentralization and relocalization will certainly happen, one way or another, but there’s no necessary reason they have to happen in any benevolent way. They can definitely transpire horribly. (Cf. my previous post for a possibility.)

    To make them happen in a good way will have to be an act of will.

    Comment by Russ — July 8, 2010 @ 9:40 am

  3. Musing is where its at — gets you out of all of the little boxes …

    The chick consumes the nutrients in the egg, breaks out and moves on …

    The butterfly emerges from its chrysalis, dries its wings and flies away to look for another host to lay her eggs …

    The aggregate externalities of humanity, morph into the onotron, and seek the fulfillment of its destiny …

    Our job is to see that the onotron is prepared for the journey. It gives meaning to our existence. That is where we apply our will (our externalizations, our deceptions) dependent upon our perceptions …

    Deception is the strongest political force on the planet.

    Comment by i on the ball patriot — July 8, 2010 @ 9:55 pm

    • I don’t know if you’ve read Hegel, but can already vaguely puzzle out a way to represent the whole dialectical movement in terms of “deceptions”.

      Well, maybe somebody’s already done that, I don’t know.

      You know, Nietzsche considered deception one of the keys to life. Not the only one, though.

      Comment by Russ — July 9, 2010 @ 5:07 am

  4. I don’t quite follow the Hegel here either, but it’s always good to try thinking about things in a different way.

    Happy vacation!

    Comment by jimmy james — July 9, 2010 @ 11:05 am

    • Thanks, Jimmy.

      (Do you mean you don’t know Hegel, or that you do know him and think I fracked it up? It’s of course a very broad overview, sketched in crude materialistic terms. I know the real thing would have to be far more rarefied and sinuous. Maybe it would work better if I said “Marxian”.)

      Comment by Russ — July 9, 2010 @ 2:58 pm

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