Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, July 29, 2005

Oil Addiction: The World in Peril - 1

by Pierre Chomat (Universal Publishers, 2004)

translated from the French by Pamela Gilbert-Snyder

Part I. Man's Egosystems

Chapter 1. Oil Addicts

The ability of the first humans to make fire is at least partially responsible for their survival among other animals better equipped physically to succeed in the competition for life. But we, Homo sapiens, have not stopped at mere survival. Control of fire has allowed us to develop technologies that make us the dominant species. Fire has become our primary force.

Many theories have been offered to explain how human beings got their "fire genes", but one thing is certain: since the end of the 19th century, the industrialized world has run on fossil fuel. It has consumed, without restraint, the coal, petroleum and natural gas that the Earth had been quietly storing for millions of years, resources the Earth would need as many years to regenerate. It descended upon these resources, its fountain of power, like a plague of locusts on a corn field, selfishly and without qualms. And it does not intend to leave the smallest scrap, the slightest drop, the tiniest bubble - as if the very future of humanity depended on this great scouring-out. Our world has gone energy-mad. Who can deny it?

And yet, not so long ago - less than six thousand years for the early inhabitants of Mesopotamia, but barely two centuries for the natives of California and Australia - our species, Homo sapiens, was still living in the wild with only a few sharpened rocks for tools. Our sapiens ancestors were in all likelihood predators, who, like other predators, were content to take whatthey needed and no more.

But it did not stay that way. When Man began domesticating animals on the banks of the Euphrates, he was in reality beginning the domestication of Nature itself. His conquest of the horse still fell within the bounds of the natural realm. But when he harnessed the forces of fossil fuels just a few centuries ago with the invention of the steam engine, Man suddenly took off on a new trajectory. He had discovered an unprecedented means of advancing. Since then, the energy that he has drawn from the Earth's natural resources has been a sort of magic potion, to which, there is no doubt, he has become utterly addicted.

This story is better known under the grand title of the "Industrial Revolution", which began first in England around 1850, then spread to continental Europe, the United States, Japan, and a few other nations, all of which became its great adherents and promoters. Other countries beyond this circle of "haves" have followed the movement more reluctantly and are still debating how much materialism they can accept without losing their identities. These are the so-called "developing nations", in which such debates have, in some cases, even sparked civil wars. Still others have been left out of the race entirely and live as they always have; these countries are relegated peremptorily to the "underdeveloped nations" club.

As a result of this revolution, Homo sapiens made a giant leap forward. Our desires however have become immoderate. In order to satisfy them we plunder the Earth of its riches. The advent of energy ushered in the "Age of excess", in which our species revels. The desire for more propels us to acquire significantly more than we need. Our excess is a form of collective insanity, which is at the same time unacknowledged and encouraged. Yet our way of life, built on a foundation of exhaustible natural resources, is transitory. The blind excess and materialism to which we have succumbed now threaten our very existence.

If we stop and seriously consider our Western way of life, the mind reels. It is as if life cannot be just life, without all the material trappings. Not very often, but sometimes, when we pause to catch our breath a little, we ask ourselves existential questions such as, "Who are we really?" or, "Where are we going?" But our unshakable belief in human infallibility, or perhaps simply our limited intellectual capacity, prevents us from questioning the oil-addicted lifestyle that the West has adopted.

The term, "oil addict", is obviously not a flattering one, and many will have difficulty accepting it. It conjures up the smell of heating oil, the grime of coal, the danger of gas explosions. How far it removes us from the grand adventures of Don Quixote, tilting with such panache at the windmills that taunted him so insolently with their great sails! We need to be reminded that without fossil fuels we would not be who we are. The magic of electricity, were it derived solely from the force of wind and rivers, would certainly have brought us some new glimmers of enlightenment, but it would not have transported us into the amazing world that we know now. It might have inspired architects to erect stones in new patterns, but it would not have enabled them to build to the sky. Engineers would have been left with nothing but the wind to move their boats across the water and it is unlikely that they would ever have gotten their planes off the ground. Without fossil fuels, physicians would still be prescribing leeches for wine-congested livers. And scientists, scorned for displacing the Earth from the center of heavenly orbits, would themselves still be circling around a few radium atoms assembled with difficulty in dimly lit laboratories.

Clearly, without fossil fuels, the Western world would not be what it is today. Energy has made all the difference. The grand Industrial Revolution - a revolution is always grand to those who make it - is perhaps not as perfect as we have painted it. Our standard of living, and that of other nations, depends entirely on the amount of energy our societies consume. Without this energy we would still be mountain shepherds, calling our dogs to gather the flocks; or farmers, prodding our lethargic oxen across the fields; or blacksmiths, pumping our bellows to revive a meager charcoal fire; or millers, waiting for a good rain to swell the river and turn the millstone; or town criers, warning the local populace of an ill wind. We might also be comfortably seated next to a roaring chimney fire, listening to grandmother spin tales about the deep, dark mysteries of the nearby forest, or grandfather striving to solve the world's problems and re-enacting old battles.

But we are no longer any of these things in the West. We are oil addicts, human beings who have created an industrial empire that can exist only so long as it can continue to guzzle vast amounts of energy. It is time we face up to the truth and its consequences.

How did we become addicted? Must we remain so? Can we remain so?

These are stark questions. Their impact is staggering. To answer them, we are forced to realize that we are living under an illusion of power that is, in fact, as temporary as it is artificial. Our daily life has become disconnected from reality. Not long ago, half asleep, I was confronted by images of a bizarre world, which was nonetheless all too familiar. Two great processions stretching off into the distance were moving toward one another. One was made up of millions of motorists driving fleets of shiny cars, thundering tractors, and gas-powered lawnmowers. They held up signs proclaiming, "Oil is life!" and were demanding that it be found and brought to them "wherever it may be!" The other was an endless parade of thousands and thousands of pilgrims declaring that the Earth should be populated entirely by Man; they were heading toward a "Be Fruitful and Multiply!" rally. With a deafening roar, the two sides converged and became one gigantic throng, jammed together on an endless expanse of asphalt. Unable to advance any farther, men, women and children got out of their vehicles and began milling around in disarray. People waved banners proclaiming, "The Earth is Ours!" with as much conviction as those who affirmed, "I Vroom, Therefore I Am!"

And I realized that we might not find any way out of this.

A hundred years ago, such a dream would have been highly unlikely. Not even Jules Verne could have imagined the hallucination we are living in now. He would not have dared to imagine that, in order to live in luxury, one part of the world would be willing to sacrifice the other without a qualm.

The situation today is serious. We, in the West, can no longer afford to simply remember to fill up on gas and heating oil. It is time for us to wake up. Everyday, the children of Hilla, Mosul, Dawaniya, Baghdad, Tehran, Abadan, Khorramshahr, Baku, Groznyy, Lagos, ... face the possibility of paying with their lives to ensure the comfort of the children of the Northern hemisphere. Surely not even the need for energy can justify such callousness. It in no way justifies madness.

Bill Totten


  • And it does not intend to leave the smallest scrap, the slightest drop, the tiniest bubble - as if the very future of humanity depended on this great scouring-out.

    By Anonymous Medicine, at 11:05 PM, March 22, 2011  

Post a Comment

<< Home