What if we treated every barrel of petroleum as irreplaceable?

What if we began to treat every barrel of petroleum as irreplaceable? The work it can do represents a lost opportunity if it has been squandered. This squandering ranges from the obvious, like any of the rituals the Cult of Gasoline’s worshipers perform daily, from lawn-mowing to NASCAR, but it also includes the vast squandering that passes for military “preparedness” – let alone all that is spent in actual conflict. These are all magical behaviors that attempt to appease the gods and offer control over one’s destiny when all they do is lessen the chances of achieving their purported aims. The fantasy that is suburbia and the fantasy of security brought about via military means are deeply entwined, parts of a cultural framework that has long ago left reality behind. It’s no mystery as to why these realizations are so foreign to consumers, but it boggles the mind that the owning classes and the brighter political class haven’t picked up on it yet. We are asked to despise the nihilism of the desperate poor who give themselves over to self-destruction and violence, yet what enormous nihilism must underlay the knowing refusal to acknowledge any of the real threats to our existence posed by continuing to act as if there is nothing at all wrong with business-as-usual?

The potential held in the energy we burn today with such little concern will never be recovered. The damage the “discovery” and “recovery” of that barrel of oil, from well-head through refinery to distribution, even before it is actually “consumed,” is immense. The lasting and irreversible effects on the climate for spans of time many orders of magnitude beyond any we are accustomed to considering continue to gather. The “wealth” accumulation schemes it fuels continue to despoil the world and its people even as they fail to provide any lasting advantage to any of those working so hard to attain them. These activities take us farther and farther from a recoverable position and closer and closer to disaster on scales we cannot imagine and whose conclusion we will not survive to witness.

The colossal game of chicken world “leaders” played with nuclear annihilation over fifty years was a transition from a world in which there could be “winners and losers” to a world where there could only be losers. Still, it was different than today in two important ways. First, while it lasted it gave a great temporary advantage to those who played the game. Prestige and power came to those who allied themselves with strategies of ultimate destruction. No crime was too great that couldn’t be rehabilitated by its perpetrator’s usefulness in the “cold war.” Second, the destruction it promised was so unprecedented as to be unimaginable. As with children first facing the possibility of their own deaths, the perpetrators could hardly imagine that they wouldn’t somehow be able to go on afterwards. Power meant a place “in the shelters.” And people couldn’t imagine that the fate of those temporarily “rescued” this way would probably be to envy those who died more quickly.

Facing one single path to holocaust fit the bipolar habits of mind of that era. “Better Dead than Red!” seemed a reasonable bargain. Even after nearly a century of evidence that what had been the local, or regional destruction wrought in the name of human folly, was passing a tipping point; it was still incredibly difficult for people, raised on the immensity of the world and our puniness in its face, to accept our responsibility for its potential destruction. The last twenty years have been an education in the errors of such a view. We’ve daily felt the growing conviction that we had passed a threshold and we were rapidly heading towards a point of no return. – Please don’t give me that “Oh! How could we have known?” Here is an article in Popular Mechanics from 1953! As with every willful transgression of reasonable bounds there were people able to do the simple “back-of-the-envelope” calculations required to tell a sure thing from hokum intended to obfuscate! As with smoking’s harms, or the dangers of overfishing, there were voices calling out the alarm with arguments that have since been proven right. There just wasn’t the will to listen.

Now we are in a time when the continued foot-dragging, the lagging behind to make one last “killing” before the shit-hits-the-fan now resembles some mindless frenzy like a shark eating its own entrails while caught in a feeding frenzy, eating them, having them flow out the wound, and then eating them again until blood-loss finally overcomes them.

This is the ultimate proof of the gross and sheer incompetence of any and all self-proclaimed leadership today. Anyone unable or unwilling to process that we have reached the point where there will not be any winners at all if we keep this up, anyone maintaining the illusion of business-as-usual even if their rationale is “to avoid panic and unnecessary harm” has disqualified themselves as a potentially sentient being. The next stage of disillusion requires us to come to terms with the consequences of this. Power has trapped its holders in what appears to be an insoluble bind. They appear both blind and unable to do anything to overcome their disabilities to do anything that might actually help themselves, even if they remain unconvinced that all our fates are tied together.

Anyone who can look at the studies that have been coming out over the last few years and continue to believe that, A. the studies are substantially flawed and, B. that even if they are right, the best “defense” is to continue to play the wealth and power game “like there’s no tomorrow” because that will “win” them a place in some “shelter’ or “lifeboat” is just demented. These aren’t the victims of propaganda, these are the ones who pay for propaganda and can “afford” the “best” expert advice money can buy. If those things meant anything anymore one would expect some change in their behavior as the looming consequences begin to play out. Instead we have more of the same with the only evolution of attitudes amongst the powerful being a further retrenchment and increased authoritarian backlash.

Comedy evolves as the comic and their audience both evolve in their understanding of what is funny. This has to do with the edge of what is coming into awareness that remains just beyond what is acceptable within the existing paradigm of opinion. A gap is noticed and commented upon, the reaction is laughter – what else can we do? But the key element is that this point continues to evolve. The comic is an outsider, poking fun at inconsistencies that she is not responsible for beyond pointing them out and furthering a dialogue. Today comedy has ossified. The attack that was possibly transcendent ten years ago has now devolved into a schtick. The rebellious comics who walked the line are now institutions propped up by the same forces they cut their teeth attacking. This accommodation has grown comfortable for all parties involved as the form goes on with an increasing dislocation from any content. At this point the entire possibility of irony as a useful tool is brought into question to join the panoply of moribund attitudes like: the “hip,” the “cool,” the “devout,” and the “serious.” The days when we could expect some sort of “leakage,” when a Lenny Bruce might appear on Ed Sullivan, or even a Bill Moyers on PBS, have passed us by. We cannot rely on “owned” media to inform or challenge us, just as we can no longer rely on any useful conception of self-interest to inform the behavior of their powerful owners.

Disillusion has received a bad reputation. Undeservedly if we consider what it really means. To have illusions is to be blind to actual conditions. It may be cute, but it is infantile to expect naiveté to be a good way to proceed. Disillusionment is the process of maturing into a healthy engagement with actual conditions. We instinctively respect those who can at least fake this attitude, that’s how we maintain our receptivity to leadership and authority of any kind. We see their holders as individuals who must have progressed to a higher stage of maturity, whose prescriptions will be better for us than our own judgment. “They see the big picture!” “They toil unceasingly for the common good!” “They are serious, or smart, or brave – or all of these – whereas, I am silly and dumb and cowardly, unqualified to engage in matters of such intense portent!”

These attitudes have served the short-term interests of those who hold power, but they no longer even do that. These attitudes are destructive, as destructive as the blind thrashings of those continuing to defend the status quo.

If you’d like to assume that I’m arguing for some “overthrow,” to replace one set of power-blind elites with another, you are mistaken. If only it had ever been that easy.

One undramatic, yet possibly transformative, strategy might be to begin to look at each barrel of oil as if it were irreplaceable. This isn’t to jump into some fantasy of “renewable” energy – How can we replace the consumption of millions of years of accumulated solar energy per year within the yearly budget of available energy arriving today? This is just the type of easy, back-of-the-envelope analysis that is forever eschewed when there is a vested short-term interest to be served by ignoring it. It’s not asking that we force changes faster than they can be realized – remember, realization has at least as much to do with making something imaginable as it does with the logistics of carrying it out. It’s not asking for any kind of ‘super-project.” Going half-cocked to “eleven” is never a good idea. It is asking for us to allow a few seemingly unimaginable thoughts to enter our consciousness: We need to take responsibility for our own welfare. We cannot count on our “betters” to know better. We can begin to see the traps of futility that surround and engulf us, and find at first tentative and then hopefully more resolute changes to how we might behave. We can provide discreet quanta of social pressure on those around us to press them to acknowledge the irresponsibility and immensely destructive results assured by business-as-usual. We can begin to unravel the confusion between wishing for the unattainable and having genuine hope for what can be possible.

This is posted here on this site dedicated to questions of design. I’ve been formed in large part as a designer. Designers are perhaps more likely to have some entry into what I’m attempting to illuminate, though certainly no monopoly on understanding. In the end, I’m a creature first and a designer somewhere further down the line. Questions that threaten our existence as creatures have precedence over any specialty. Designers are accustomed to challenging the assumptions of others at least, if not their own.

This is an ongoing search, a stumbling about looking for points of possible traction and connection. In the end these are questions of community, of communities of life ultimately and of our place as human creatures within that greater community. The hubris to believe we are somehow above or beyond the need to concern ourselves with these questions; that we will somehow escape into cyberspace, to Mars, or up our own asses; none of these toxic notions will free us from our bounded natures within the community of life we inhabit.

Easy abundant energy helped get us here. It took a willful and immature species, a clever creature, and gave us the ability to destroy our world in dozens of possible ways. Perhaps we can use what’s left of that energy to redress some of those effects? Perhaps we an modify our expectations from the insanity of the confrontation we are perpetrating with the limits of our physical existence and learn how to settle for our share? Either way we face immense and already assured decline and much destruction of much of what is dear. The only choice we’ve ever had is how we face our predicament, whether in infantile frustration and destructive despair, or with a sober and disillusioned capacity to strive for what we can hope to accomplish shed of our illusions and in the face of tragic times.


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