I had an interesting discussion over the weekend with a liberal reader of this "blog" who wanted to know why I was so worked up over Peak Oil and had nary a word to say about global warming. It was a good question, and one I've been reflecting on quite a bit over the course of today (my initial response, by the way, was to point out that in all likelihood we'll experience some severe civilizational dislocation in coming months and years as a result of peak oil, whereas global warming will be largely experienced in the way a frog experiences being slowly warmed to a boil, so, I tend to worry more about the more immediate apocalypse. While a wholly provisional answer, it's probably true).
But, really, it is a good question, and I think I have arrived at something of an answer: when I learned about "peak oil" - that is, the imminent depletion of roughly half the world's oil reserves, and by far the easiest accessible and cheapest stuff - it finally made sense to me why a political philosophy that I had long held to be fundamentally false - modern liberalism - nevertheless had prospered for roughly the past 100 years and had gone into hyper-drive over the past half-century. Modern liberalism - the philosophy premised upon a belief in individual autonomy, one that rejected the centrality of culture and tradition, that eschewed the goal or aim of cultivation toward the good established by dint of (human) nature itself, that regarded all groups and communities as arbitrarily formed and therefore alterable at will, that emphasized the primacy of economic growth as a precondition of the good society and upon that base developed a theory of progress (material as well as moral), and one that valorized the human will itself as the source of sufficient justification for the human mastery of nature, including human nature (e.g., bio-technological improvement of the species) - is against nature, and therefore ought not to have "worked." The argument that I and others have made is that liberalism is premised upon a false understanding of human nature. If so, however, it ought not to have done as well as it has, essentially colonizing most of the planet and transforming it in its own image. When something is against nature, it tends to lose: nature sets the standard and establishes the limits by which creaturely endeavors stand or fall. We humans might believe ourselves capable of breathing underwater, and we will be able to do that for a very short while, but eventually nature will win and anyone trying to inhale H20 will be dead. Or, we might think that we can throw ourselves off a cliff and fly - and one could try that and indeed fly, but only downward, and only for a very short while. Nature differentiates between political theories for real human beings and political theories that are nothing more than fantasy. And, I have held, liberalism is one of the greatest delusive fantasies ever contrived by humans.
Except, that is, for the tricky fact of the human capacity to control nature. We've figured out ways to breath underwater and fly off cliffs without dying, after all. The modern project - as set out by such thinkers as Machiavelli, Bacon, and Hobbes, was the effort to subject nature to human control and dominion. It scored some early and important victories, overcoming some nasty diseases and making it possible for us to live longer and sometimes better lives. But still, other than some random bohemians who actually believed that they could largely escape from the kinds of cultural arrangements that seemed necessary to cultivate new generations of people, most people didn't live their lives in accord with the basic assumptions and the ultimate aims of the liberal project. Most people were bourgeois traditionalists, that hated class by Marx and his progeny.
While the nineteenth century was the era in which the philosophy of progressive liberalism took shape (Comte, Mill, Marx, Emerson), it took the twentieth century to really make liberalism seem to be a truly viable universal political philosophy. Suddenly autonomy seemed available to everyone: the ability to live authentically was democratized; culture became a fashion statement, not a way of life which shaped and formed a person's character; and the ability to get up and go was not only universally extended, it became a prerequisite for a well-lived life. The age of the bourgeois bohemian was born, and that of their offspring, the meritocratic "organization kids." Unless students in my classes come from cities like New York, Boston or San Francisco, it's unlikely that any of them will return to their home towns. That would be a betrayal of their education, nay, their upward mobility. We raise our children not to contribute to the communities in which they are raised - to carry on the work that was bequethed to parents by their parents and their parents before them - but to light out for the territory. The idea of tradition as a necessary contribution to the formation of human character seemed like one of those old fashioned contraptions that modern progress was able to do away with. Cultivation went out in the same way as the butter churn, the washboard, or the scythe.
How is it that we could live the past 100 years, really and most intensely the past 50 years, in contradiction to what centuries of humanity held to be true about human nature? Once I began reading about the peak of world oil production, scheduled to begin about now (if it hasn't already) after only about 150 years of use and 50 years in which we have transformed human civilization in its image, it suddenly made sense to me: liberalism was able so radically to defy nature for a time because it had an incredible external energy source - oil - and we humans had deluded ourselves into thinking that what must have been true for the course of our own lifetimes must always be true. We had reordered the way we live our lives in ways made possible by a one-time use of an energy form that took hundreds of millions of years to form, and which was basically exhausted by about two generations of humans living in the north-western hemisphere who lived lavishly, who spent and wasted without hesitation, and who expended this inheritance without thought of tomorrow or the costs to be borne by future generations. It was truly a glorious time to be alive (if you were one of these light-skinned people). Glorious, that is, if you really didn't give a damn about the next generations.
Because what these approximately two generations had done was to break a vital link of transmission and knowledge - one that the liberal fantasy theory had believed could be broken, but that real human beings knew could not - that is, until they convinced themselves that they had enabled themselves to progress beyond such stultifying and limiting sets of precepts and hard work. Who needed neighborhoods when we could live in McMansions? Why worry about relatives assisting in the raising of children when we had Sesame Street and Barney? Why grow and make the kids food produced locally when we could buy them convenient sized Lunchables (TM) and Capri-Sun (TM) juice packs? Why let them run around through the neighborhood with other kids when we could drive them in SUVs to their "playdates" or any number of adult-organized events that could eventually go on their resumes or they could be safely at home practicing simulated violence on their Game Cubes (TM), especially considering the evening news fostered our fears that there was a killer and a pedophile behind every suburban berm?
Oil has been the silent but world-altering source of our collective delusion that we could live in this way and get away with it. It has allowed us to contrive a civilization based upon a theoretical fantasy, and to make it functional for about a century, during which time we took the exceptional for the ordinary, the unnatural for the given, the hubristic for the norm. We have reshaped the world to accord with a self-delusive fantasy, with the only stipulation being that there continue to be unlimited quantities of this external power source that would let growth and its attendant power over nature go on forever. Most of us assume there's no problem with this basic presupposition - except that we are about to discover that you can only defy gravity for so long, as the example of Icarus ought to have served as a reminder.
And as I was thinking about this today, I happened to pick up a collection of essays by Wendell Berry called "The Gift of Good Land," and read an essay written in 1979 entitled "Energy in Agriculture." And there, in several paragraphs, Berry had figured out nearly thirty years ago what is only now starting to work its way through my thick head and will begin, sadly, to rise to the level of consciousness of our countrymen in coming months and years. He wrote:
In recent years, "something was gaining speed in our country that I think will seem more and more strange as time goes by. This was a curious set of assumptions, both personal and public, about 'progress....' For years this set of assumptions was rarely spoken and more rarely questioned, and yet it has been one of the most powerful social forces at work in this country in modern times.
"But these assumptions could not accomplish much on their own. What gave them power, and made them finally able to dominate and reshape our society, was the growth of technology for the production and use of fossil fuel energy. This energy could be made available to empower such unprecedented social change because it was 'cheap.' But we were able to consider it 'cheap' only by a kind of moral simplicity: the assumption that we had a 'right' to as much of it as we could use. This was a 'right' made solely by might. Because fossil fuels, however abundant they once were [!], were nevertheless limited in quanity and not renewable, they obviously did not 'belong' to one generation more than another. We ignored the claims of posterity simply because we could, the living being stronger than the unborn, and so worked the 'miracle' of industrial progress by the theft of energy from (among others) our children.
"That is the real foundation of our progress and our affluence. The reason we are a rich nation is not that we have earned so much wealth - you cannot, by any honest means, earn or deserve so much. The reason is simply that we have learned, and become willing, to market and use up in our time the birthright and livelihood of posterity....
"And so energy is not just fuel. It is a powerful social and cultural influence. The kind and quantity of energy we use determine the kind and quality of life we live. Our conversion to fossil fuel energy subjected society to a sort of technological determinism, shifting population and values according to a the new patterns and values of industrialization..." (pp. 127-128).
So we have enjoyed this collective delusion, this liberal theoretical fantasy-made-real for the past fifty years, and are perhaps only now realizing that we are going to have one hell of a hangover headache in the morning. When our children have fantasies we praise them and marvel at their imaginative creativity. When adults have fantasies, they sometimes have the tendency to become political philosophies, and for most of human history have been relegated to the quaint and fascinating genre of utopian literature. However, with the twentieth century, and in the wake of the modern belief and commendation of the conquest of nature, these political fantasies gave rise to the ideologies of fascism and communism and relegated millions of people to premature death for the sake of creating a world that accorded with our fanciful political delusions. Modern liberalism believed that it was free of such self-delusion, but only because it was powered by a limited and diminishing energy source that made the delusion work for a time. Liberalism, ironically, provided the theoretical justification to pursue "power after power that ceaseth only in death"; having provided the impetus to the pursuit of the irresponsible use of the earth's inheritance, it will now ravage future generations. It would have been yet another quaint political fantasy that oddballs might have studied, except that it provided the philosophical justification for employing the energy that made it work for a time. This delayed our realization that it was yet another political fantasy, a delay that is likely to prove catastrophic.
Modern conservatism was born out of a reaction against dangerous political fantasies. It first stood up - in the person of Edmund Burke - against the mad ideology of the French Revolution. It stood up against fascism and against communism. But now most of its (American) voices defend our current delusion as solid and real, as something defensible on conservative grounds. Conservatives rightly decry the decline of culture, the assault on the family and the unlimited infanticide of our abortion regime, but find nothing else wrong with the basic arrangement and largely do not question whether our political and economic arrangements have contributed to what we denounce. Books will be written about how this could have happened. But, perhaps we are not long from the day when conservatives will realize the fantasy they have themselves been purveying, and will demand that we prepare ourselves now for a post-petroleum reinstatement of human culture, cultivation, and tradition.
P.S.: Given a backlog of writing projects and piles of books I wish to read, I plan to post here about once a week during the summer, and not at all during the month of August, when I will be blissfully out of range of any internet connection.