I have no doubt that my last post left a sour taste in the mouth of some of my readers, and no doubt the more invested the reader in the industrial system the more sour the taste that lingered in that particular mouth. Let me make it clear that I don’t think investing is in any way evil or selfish, just that our current investment-mania is the product of a culture that has been on a collision course with extinction ever since we started accidently selecting favorable traits in wheat 10,000 years ago.
But I certainly believe that investments can be made in sustainable ways. For instance, let’s say your young friend with some nice pasture land wants to start a MIG grazing program that returns a legitimate and measurable sequestration of atmospheric carbon, plus a top shelf and very healthy meat for the astute consumer. Grazed properly, that meat represents an actual net gain of energy within the human environment by removing more carbon from the construct than it liberated, which increases the organic matter content of the pasture soils – creating a more robust and nutritious forage composition, a more resilient food production system, and holding more water (100,000 gallons per acre per percentage point of OC!) in the soil for longer periods of time, reducing if not eliminating the need to irrigate, even in drought, as well as eliminating the need to import any feed or hay. Oh, and a world class dietary step in the right direction. The implications of such an innovation should be obvious, as long, energy-intensive supply chains churning out meat of questionable worth come to a grinding halt, power stations start reducing their output, and human health improves, laying the medical problems of industrial culture to rest where they belong: on the doorstep of a system that bases itself on access to truly obscene (and truly cancerous) amounts of energy. To say that grass-based meats are the number one way to clean up our collective act might seem like a stretch at first, but when you consider, for starters, that roughly 70% of the 92 million acres of corn grown in the U.S. (2011 figures from the Chicago Board of Trade) are grown just to feed to cattle – not livestock, just cattle – the implications should begin to come into focus. In fact I believe that eating grass-fed beef instead of grain-fed would almost single-handedly eliminate the need to engage in costly and immoral overseas resource wars. (Which will happen one way or another, eventually, but I sure wish we possessed the chutzpah, as a culture, to make that choice proactively.)
That’s one example of an investment with some real satiety value. Surely there are others. Though not nearly as many as most people imagine. If man is engaged in a life’s work that truly fills his soul there will be apprentices to pick up where he leaves off, people who care what happens to him when he is too old to work, and who have greatly benefitted from his efforts. The fruits of his labor will envelope him, and if they are worthy he will thrive in their midst. He will have no need for the consolation prize of a gold watch and a pension. Those things are the trimmings of a culture based on what can only be a temporary arrangement. Oil made us, not the other way around. Eons of solar energy wrapped up in a tight little highly-stable, highly-portable package cannot be replaced by the instantaneous energy of the sun striking a PV panel, no matter how efficiently we collect it. Not even plants can harvest that much solar energy, not by several orders of magnitude. It took entire geologic eras to gather the energy represented by a barrel of oil. Homo sapiens has been around for a mere hundred thousand years, and industrial culture less than two hundred, the modern era less than seventy. We learned how to exploit that petro-energy, and we’ve used it to do some pretty cool things, like land a man on the moon, create a global internet, and build those PV panels. Panels which will serve the very temporary duty of easing spoiled rotten industrial man’s transition from the great energy mountain back down to the constant plains of human existence.
How much damage we could avoid if we would just skip it!
Instead of using up the oil as fast as we can and using the last of it to attempt a transition to whatever phantasm of free energy most occupies our collective wishful thought at that time, we could instead just try to grasp that there is no energy like it to be had – not even coal and gas are as energy dense as oil – and properly respect the working potential it embodies. Radical and concerted conservation of this most precious resource would carry our species far into the future, keeping chest freezers online, chainsaws running, and low-energy short-wave radios broadcasting signals to other humans no longer reachable by personal vehicle or global information systems. If someone in Jacksonville, FL, could tell me that a hurricane was headed toward our farm that would be a useful bit of information! And coming in over the short-wave it would cost a tiny fraction of what the internet requires to operate. We could trade in our condos and cars for urban workshops and suburban farmlets linked by light rail to local trade networks. We could cut our energy use by 80% without even seriously compromising our lifestyle, just by adopting a more realistic perspective of the energy situation and altering some very bad habits. These things would keep us in business for a long time to come.
But that’s not what humans do, is it? If it was then perhaps we could think of ourselves as truly special, above the other biological populations on Earth. A reality of radical conservation might be able to hold court with the religious ideas of human exceptionalism. But that isn’t our reality, is it? We’re more like a bunch of rednecks that just won the lottery, and can’t figure out how to spend stupid sums of money on stupid shit fast enough. “Look, Ma! I got a NASCAR team garage attached to my brand new triple wide!” The speed at which we are spending our inheritance seems only to be limited by the number of ways we can come up with to spend it. And the whole of industrial culture seems to be bent to the task of justifying that spending, or loudly proclaiming how and why our hand-wringing about energy is unjustified. Meanwhile, at least a few of us are getting on with the task of reducing our activities steadily down toward a level that the planet can actually support. One without airplanes, hedge funds, or Facebook.
There is nothing in the world wrong with redirecting our use of non-renewable energy, creatively using the oil we're mostly wasting now, toward creating a support system that can function without it – say, using a tractor and diesel fuel to build a small organic market farm that can be managed by human power in perpetuity – but to pretend that our current access to energy is normal, and can be perpetuated by whatever brand of magical thinking is in vogue at the time, to continue living off of our planetary capital instead of our planetary income, is a recipe for large-scale catastrophe. Saying these things doesn’t make one a monster; ignoring them does.
To modify Michael Pollan’s famous phrase:
Use oil, not too much, mostly to build procreative systems.
(And do it quickly, please!)