Energy, the repressed
In envisioning future technologies, Cobb writes that we often ignore a crucial question: How will we power tomorrow's heavily automated world without ruining the planet?
Jeremy Rifkin announced the end of work in a book by that title in 1995. Today, we are once again being told that the end of work is nigh. The Atlantic tells us so in a piece entitled, "A World Without Work." Automation and computer technology will bring unimaginable change and prosperity--and result in the loss of millions of jobs that will not be replaced.
I heard this before when I was young. In the 1960s there was talk of a three-day workweek for similar reasons. Obviously, it didn't work out.
My purpose here is not to provide a detailed critique of such prognostications. Rather, I ask the same question I ask when I see a science-fiction film depicting widespread space travel and planetary colonization. Where are they getting all the energy to do these things?
In the Atlantic piece--a clever and rather more subtle discussion of the post-work world than I've seen elsewhere--the word "energy" appears exactly zero times. It is assumed that humans will somehow extract enough energy to run all the new machines that will serve (or run?) us. It is assumed that climate change will not be so disruptive as to make our current technical civilization crumble or at least falter significantly. It is assumed that the modeled effects of climate change on the world's major grain growing areas--lots of drought--won't change our priorities drastically toward growing more food in more places. In short, the future is just the past with a lot more energy-guzzling gadgets and apparently a lot more playtime.
Victorian culture repressed sex, not the act itself--population rose briskly in 19th century Britain--but discussion of sex, examination of it. Today, one can walk into any decent-sized bookstore and get an illustrated manual on sexual positions. Today, people get therapy to improve their sex lives, brag openly about their sexual conquests, and have frank discussions with one another about each other's sexual preferences. That repression is over--to the dismay of some and to the delight of others.
Today, a new psychological repression hides in plain sight. It is the servant of a modern ideology, a religion really, that says the material world is soulless and merely fodder for economic growth. This repression prevents most from seeing our ecological predicament and therefore from understanding it or acting in response to it. This repression is of the very physical world about us and the vast and complex interconnections which govern our lives and the life of the planet.
Our psyche is now programmed to register the physical world as a substrate for our fantasies of dominion and mastery, but rarely as a master to us. The fantasy is that humans are in one category and nature in another, a nature that is very much subservient to our wishes.
A subset of this repression is the difficulty in talking about the vulnerability of an energy system that relies for more than 80 percent of its energy on finite fossil fuels. A friend of mine related a conversation with an engineer who disputed that oil is a finite resource. My friend being clever and patient got the engineer to agree that the Earth is a sphere and that it has a calculable volume. He then got the engineer to agree that that volume is finite, and that oil, being a subset of the Earth's volume, must also be finite. The engineer had never thought about the issue that way. And, neither have most people on the planet as astonishing as that may seem. But, it's really no wonder since they've been propagandized by a constant advertising and public relations juggernaut from the fossil fuel industry saying (or more likely deceptively implying) things which cannot on their face be true.
An understanding of the finite nature of fossil fuels is a prerequisite to discussing, for example, how much of the oil that the Earth's crust does contain is actually available to society, at what cost and whether society can bear that cost. And yet, until recently the well-trained engineer mentioned above had never thought very deeply about a topic central to the functioning of modern civilization. Now, that's repression. Fortunately, the one-on-one therapy intervention performed by my friend was successful in lifting the repression and opening the way for a more informed discussion.
But how might we lift a repression that is embedded in the entire culture? Yes, culture. Another friend of mine once tried to explain to me that the consumption of oil is a culturally determined act. I am only now beginning to see what he means, and I have little to suggest to overcome the repression that I see. The history of societies with highly consequential repressions--ones related to things central to their existence and which, if not lifted, threaten their survival--these societies often destroy themselves. Nazi Germany comes to mind. Also, Jared Diamond's Collapse and Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies which catalogue societies that repressed the obvious signs of collapse until it was too late.
Today, so many of the optimistic pronouncements about our human future have to do with technological advancements. But technology runs on energy. Critics will respond that technology will help us find the energy we need for our supposedly inevitable post-work society. This is merely an assertion of faith. It assumes that energy consumption can continue to grow exponentially for many decades if not centuries. Yet, with more than 80 percent of our energy currently coming from finite fossil fuels, there is no clear path to replace them completely--especially when it comes to liquid fuels for transportation and agriculture.
But the assertion that technology will give us the energy we need also gets things backwards. The scientific revolution of the 17th century brought us a new way of looking at nature, a way that revealed many of its secrets. The ingredients that made speedy technical progress and exponential economic growth possible, however, were the discovery and use of fossil fuels, first coal, then oil, and then natural gas.
These dense, cheap sources of energy made it possible for many people to leave the increasingly mechanized and productive farm to seek employment in emerging industries powered by fossil fuels and pioneered by scientists and engineers who now had the luxury of time to work on inventions and refinements of previous inventions--rather than toiling in farm fields or mines. Energy first, technology second.
Without the enormous surplus of energy offered to us by the world's coal mines and oil and gas fields, most all of us would be back on the land toiling for a living growing food. For the moment, vast armies of engineers, scientists and technicians, often laboring in teams, continue to work on our technological future without any seeming worry about where the food to feed them or the energy to power their lives at home and at work will come from.
They should worry, and they should discuss. But if both the physical world as an agent in our lives and the energy we extract from it are repressed, then discussion becomes impossible. Limits cannot be discussed in polite company any more because the subject is too disturbing and unmannerly. In many circles it is actually forbidden.
Neo-classical economists--the kind that inhabit Wall Street and Washington and control most academic economics departments--treat the physical world as a candy store open 24/7 and always overflowing with what we want, in the quantities we need at the prices we like. If the store runs out of gumballs, then we'll just switch to candy canes without any serious interruption. Any discussion of limits is usually met with calls to quickly shut down the person bringing them up. That there can be no limits is simply an article of faith and articles of faith cannot be challenged without serious consequences.
So, how to lift this repression? One-on-one therapy can be effective. It was in the case I cited. But we need to work faster than that. Literature, movies, art and music can reach people in ways that rational discourse cannot. They can reflect new realities in visceral ways that allow people to see anew. Beyond this there is the catharsis of a tragedy, a real-life emergency that changes people's perceptions profoundly. The California drought comes to mind.
Unfortunately, it is the real-life tragedies that seem to work best to lift repressions. And, I think we're in for a lot of those tragedies. In the meantime, those who've awakened from the repression of our age can prepare themselves and their friends and families as much as is possible for the changes ahead. And, they can be ready to offer an alternate view when tragedy strikes about what to do next--beyond simply trying to return to business-as-usual.
By the way, haven't we been trying to return to business-as-usual since the crash of 2008 with great difficulty? The physical world which imposes its limits acts like dark matter on our economy, invisible (to most), but creating unmistakable effects. The record high average daily prices for oil--the world's most important energy source--prices which lasted from 2011 through most of 2014, created a huge headwind for the world economy. Economist James Hamilton noted that 10 out of the last 11 recessions have been preceded by an oil price spike. And yet, the economic weakness we see around the world today is rarely linked to previously high oil prices.
When you repress something, it almost always comes back to bite you. Climate change is already doing that. Fossil fuel depletion which is at the root of the record oil price spike of 2008 and the record high prices of 2011 through 2014 has already done it.
Where is Dr. Freud when you need him?
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