Monday, August 06, 2007

Peak Oil and Peak Individualism

Patrick Deneen of Georgetown University has written an examination of Peak Oil and Political Theory in five parts: Part I, II, III, IV and V. He holds that an irreversible spike in cheap, effecient fossil fuels portends the end of liberalism:

The liberal goal of individual autonomy – the liberation from oppressive limitations in the form of locality, custom, “given” circumstance, etc., are likely to be increasingly revealed as resting profoundly upon the oil platform – as much, if not more, than the success of the modern economy. While tending not to think of autonomy in these terms, nevertheless its basis upon open opportunity, liberation from circumstance, and extensive mobility, all can be seen in this light as deriving from the unparalleled wealth and liberty provided by our one-time use of the world’s fossil fuel reserves. Various iterations of this form of autonomy, including lifestyle choice, “self-creation” or Emersonian “self-reliance,” expressionist individualism, widespread irony indicating a studied distance from society’s norms, technologically-based personal expression (e.g., in the form of internet identities), and – perhaps most alarmingly to some – feminism in the form of liberation from the drudgery of the household and localities and easy entry into the mainstream economy, are potentially all in danger of extinction as the age of oil comes to a close. A future in which communal demands and local identification becomes far more prevalent suggest a fundamental redefinition of human identity away from a “liberationist” ethic and toward one of communal solidarity (in, perhaps, the most positive-sounding form of the likely change) or (to take the negative case) loss of individual liberty and the oppressive inescapability of folkways and circumstance.

Cheap oil powers not only Middle East oligarchies but destructive modes of Western life.

Deneen also questions whether capitalist optimism can get us through coming difficulties:

We place our hope in the market: just as Malthus was proven wrong, the market will again defeat the pessimist. However, again, a caution is needed: it should be recognized that the stunning modern success of “the market” has only existed in the age of coal and oil. “The market” may be as much an artifact of fossil fuels as the growth economy and liberalism itself. We up the ante of modernity’s wager, believing that a fix will save us just in time. Very little must change, and we continue to invest our hopes in the future of progress. In the future, we may wonder how our ancestors could have been so blinkered.

Professor Deneen's interpretation of our global fossil fuel use suggests we are sacrificing the resources of future generations to the present.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In the short run people will abandon individualism. But in the longer run, we'll simply find another fuel and it'll all begin again, as it did after we ran out of wood:

I remember reading 'The Turning Point' by Fritjof Capra and his discussion of Europe approaching the Middle Ages. Their whole culture, he wrote, was based on wood -- wood tools, wood spoons and forks and bowls and plates, wood furniture, wood houses, wood for heat, wood for shaping metal, wood for fishing boats, wood for arrows and on and on. And as population grew, the forests shrank until society reached a turning point. The monarchs took over the forests and the people could no longer make their way without leave of their kings, etc. Society descended into Dark Ages.