The 'Mad Men' of fossil fuels
There is nothing particularly 'mad' about the role of advertising in society, Cobb writes, and it should really be looked upon as the logical conclusion of the long process of rationalizing modern economic life – a type of economic life which arose simultaneously with the widespread use of fossil fuels.
The name of the popular American television series "Mad Men" comes from the nickname given to those who worked in New York City's advertising agencies in the 1950s. The nickname came from the advertising profession itself whose members felt that one had to be a little mad to work on Madison Avenue, the center of the advertising business.Skip to next paragraph
Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, 'Prelude,' and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. He is a founding member of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas—USA, and he serves on the board of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. For more of his Resource Insights posts, click here.
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But, there is nothing particularly mad about the role of advertising in society, and it should really be looked upon as the logical conclusion of the long process of rationalizing modern economic life--a type of economic life which arose simultaneously with the widespread use of fossil fuels.
Through burning fossil fuels we are unlocking extremely dense forms of accumulated ancient sunlight. It may not seem like we have an almost completely "solar-powered" society today; but, we do if you count the ancient solar power stored in oil, natural gas and coal. These fuels come from microscopic sea life and plants which were pressurized, heated, and then transformed underground or under the seabed over tens of millions of years very long ago during what is now referred to as the Carboniferous Period. We are quickly drawing down the Earth's stored solar energy in the form of fossil fuels at a rate that is thought to be anywhere from 100,000 to 1 million times their rate of natural formation. For this reason fossil fuels are on any human time scale finite.
Returning to the mad men of advertising, we find that they are only the culmination of a process which evolved to deal with something rarely seen in human history--persistent and rapidly growing surpluses of basic resources such as food, fiber and minerals and the manufactured goods they make possible. These surpluses were in turn made possible by persistent and growing surpluses of energy, energy derived primarily from fossil fuels. After all, nothing gets done without energy, and growing energy supplies allow more and more to get done.
Historically, the process of handling these surpluses began with the rationalization of production, the organization of working men and women into large coordinated work groups in vast industrial complexes. A steel mill is a good example. This form of organization was a radical change from the decentralized craft shops which had dominated handicraft production for centuries.
The new form of production came from the necessity of matching human intelligence with new energy-hungry machines that performed repetitive tasks without the need for rest. The resulting production was prolific and allowed mass production of identical items for households and businesses--items that were increasingly affordable to an ever larger number of people. This was the rationalization of production.
Next followed the rationalization of distribution. Mass production in central locations necessitated an elaborate new system of distribution which the railroad made available. Only by the middle of the 20th century did the newly-built interstate highway system in America and other similar systems elsewhere enable truck freight to eclipse rail freight for long-distance transport. Such systems would not have been possible without cheap supplies of fossil fuels.
The rationalization of distribution also took the form of department store chains that standardized offerings from city to city. In addition, there were catalog sales, most aptly illustrated by the introduction of the Sears catalog, an innovation that allowed rural residents to purchase and have delivered to their homes many of the same kinds of merchandise which America's city dwellers could buy at department stores. The Internet has simply put the catalog online.