Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Peak Oil and Political Theory, Part V

And, to conclude...

V. Stuck With Virtue

What is to be done? Partisans of the Left and Right alike recognize that we face a critical moment, and their calls follow the characteristics of their political worldviews. Partisans of the Right – particularly libertarian techno-optimists – counsel continued “laisssez-faire” confidence that the market, in the form of price signals and the hopes, born of greed, of someone inventing the next great energy source, will inspire innovation and ultimately an adequate energy replacement. Partisans of the Left, in some senses no less techno-optimists, call for some Government intervention (often in the form of taxation upon oil companies) and believe that a combination of conservation and innovation will permit the continuation of our present economy and its resultant liberal autonomy. Both paradigms are fundamentally firmly within the modern worldview, believing that the goal of human life is ever expanding forms of personal liberty and the overcoming of limitations associated with traditional ways of life.

While realization of such hopes cannot be completely discounted, a severe caution is in order: business as usual cannot be assumed. We function under the belief that the success of humanity over the past 150 years in their mastery of nature and the provision of such material plenty to permit the widespread belief that we had surmounted basic forms of necessity and drudgery is a condition will continue to apply indefinitely. This assumption may not only be foolish, it may be cataclysmic. As creatures formed by cultures that we do not recognize to be cultures, we are conditioned to believe our own condition is “natural,” that it will continue to exist indefinitely. Constitutional democracy, market economies and globalization are the end of history. We do not pause to consider that this form of life has been the consequence of a momentary and foolishly wasted inheritance of our organic forbears. We place our hope in the market: just as Malthus was proven wrong, the market will again defeat the pessimist. However, again, a caution is needed: it should be recognized that the stunning modern success of “the market” has only existed in the age of coal and oil. “The market” may be as much an artifact of fossil fuels as the growth economy and liberalism itself. We up the ante of modernity’s wager, believing that a fix will save us just in time. Very little must change, and we continue to invest our hopes in the future of progress. In the future, we may wonder how our ancestors could have been so blinkered.

Liberalism dismissed the central role of virtue in the cultivation of young persons out of a belief that such formation represented authoritarian constraint and a form of oppressive paternalism. Yet, it is highly likely that we will discover that such inculcation in virtue is a necessity when one cannot presume the viability of the conquest of nature. Virtue is the cultivated human capacity to operate midway between the necessities of nature and the aspirations of human freedom. In a post-oil age, the reality of nature – its limits and its governing position – will reassert itself, and concomitantly, the need to cultivate human virtue. Virtues such as moderation, frugality, loyalty, self-sacrifice, modesty, a concern for common good, the grace of manners that comes with living in close proximity to many others – these, and many other virtues will again become a necessity for life. “Virtue ethics” will cease to be philosophical object of study, or a philosophical option equally available for those who consider it a preference, but an inescapable necessity. We are, in the words of Peter Lawler, “stuck with virtue.” While liberalism thrived for a period of time by suspending the ancient insistence upon the centrality of virtue – indeed, arguably thrived because of this suspension – the arrival of Peak Oil may prove that this suspension could only be temporary at best. However, the great challenge of modern times will be recovery of ancient understandings of virtue, a recovery made difficult if not impossible due to the massive rupture represented by modernity. Our loss of this particular patrimony may portend a much harsher transition into a post-oil future, and only the active inculcation of ancient virtue will soften the heavy blow we face. Given modern suspicions of virtue – suspicions laced into modernity’s DNA – it is unlikely that we will be adequately prepared, not only physically and economically, but morally.

Many thinkers have noted that liberalism’s success depended for a long time on the continued persistence of a pre-liberal inheritance of ancient and religious moral traditions that were instantiated in the forms of family life, civic community, religious and civil institutions, as well as a longstanding set of practices that were themselves not undergirded by, and indeed were eventually undermined by liberalism. Tocqueville noted that Americans had a tendency to explain all of their actions in terms of self-interest alone, even when their actions were motivated by nobler forms of altruism and self-sacrifice. As such, he wrote, “they do more honor to their philosophy than to themselves.” Over time, however, deed and speech came to coincide, and the very wellsprings of pre-liberal virtue came under increasing pressure and dissolution. According to this theory, liberalism’s success rested on a pre-liberal inheritance that it neither created nor restored, but rather upon which it was parasitic and which it finally exhausted, portending liberalism’s own self-destruction.

Perhaps in a related form, liberalism has relied as fully upon a pre-liberal material inheritance that it also neither created nor replenished. In this sense, oil is the material equivalent of ancient “moral and religious motives.” Like such older philosophies, it is an inheritance that was formed in a distant past and through the slow accretion of the ages. Fossil fuels are literally our material patrimony: they are the slow transformation of untold generations of plant and animal life that slowly absorbed the sun’s energy and, through eventual accumulation, offered to future generations a packet of indescribable energy. Fossil fuels are irreplaceable reservoirs of our past, and in a period of 150 years we have burned through half – and by far, the most easily extracted half – of this multi-million year legacy. In both its philosophical and economic forms, liberalism has been like a jet propulsion engine which burns hot and bright for a short period before exhausting the seemingly vast reservoirs propelling it. For a time it was able to leave the bounds of earth – briefly “rov[ing] about until the bounds of creation itself no longer limit the divine magnificence of its quest - but appears poised to come down to earth with the exhaustion of its pre-liberal philosophic and material inheritances. Whether it will be a controlled descent or a crash-and-burn rests, ironically, upon our capacity to decide that we do not possess complete and thoroughgoing control of our own destiny.


Notes from the North said...

Thank you for a sensible rundown and meditative schematic regarding peak oil's implications.

Dena said...

Thank you for these very interesting peak oil posts. You and I have a similar reaction to peak oil theory. I often frequest the discussion board at "Life After the Oil
Crash" and seldom see this viewpoint. I assume that this comes from our shared Christian/Conservative worldview. Thank you so much!