Peak oil, capitalism and philosophy

I first started learning about peak oil sometime in 2005 through websites such as The Oil Drum and From the Wilderness (by Mike Ruppert who was recently featured on this blog). As a philosopher I had been somewhat tuned to the issues of energy through Georges Bataille who based his thinking on the wasteful and sovereign gift of the sun. However, Bataille believed that the problem for modern civilization was an overabundance of energy too cheap to meter (he was convinced of this by some friends working in nuclear physics) and what the peak oil crowd was saying was diametrically opposed. To my amazement and increasing bewilderment I couldn’t find any good philosophical thinking on the scarcity of energy and the nature of fossil fuels, not even (especially not!) among the thinkers that have in various ways been critical of industrial civilization, technology, capitalism and so on (the Elluls, Heideggers, Marxs, Adornos an so on). I’m still quite dumbstruck by this dilemma. On one hand, if people like Ruppert are even half correct, industrial civilization and its most characteristic features (division of labour, technological advancement, mass culture, etc.) are crucially dependent on a unique resource that is about to run out. On the other hand, it seems that critical thinkers & philosophers attacking industrial civilization and modernism have with their detailed and deep critiques been discussing the side-effects not the root cause.

Consequently, it seems to me, two hypotheses should be investigated.

First; certain criticisms of capitalism (Marx) and modernism (Heidegger) that present themselves as general and abstract, are rather – without being aware of this – criticisms of a very particular type of capitalism & modernity, one that has been fed with abundant and easy fossil fuels. It is especially devastating that Marxism, supposedly paying attention to material conditions and work, has not had much to say about the stellar amount of work performed by fossil fuels in the last 150 years. But the same goes for theories of capitalism: what if the “invisible hand” is an epiphenomenon of large-scale fossil fuel use, not a virtue of capitalism? Again, if these guesses are even half right, the self-understanding of both the proponents and adversaries of modernism has been way off the mark.

Which brings us to the second, much darker, hypothesis. One technical definition of nihilism is a way of life or a system of beliefs that is not aware of (or is purposefully ignorant of) the grounds on which it is based. In this precise sense, it is possible that modernism is nihilism, and that the blind spot is obfuscated precisely by the belief that our age is only technological (i.e., only tool-orineted, not based on any ultimate grounds). Let me invite you to consider these hypotheses by quoting from an article, Oil and the Regime of Capitalism, just published in Ctheory, in which I try to orient myself in these troubled waters:

“The anthropological record suggests that, typically, in pre-modern and non-industrialized communities the foundation of meaning is not separate from the world of material income: utility objects are beautiful and beauty is purposeful. Contrary to this, industrial civilization has often been described as a divider of the world of values and tools, means and objectives, which, through calculated reason, extracts everything it can without actually knowing why or for what purpose.

There is much truth in this bi-partition theory, but perhaps an even more disturbing picture of industrial civilization is obtained if it too is seen as a uniform culture that reveals the foundation of meaning through its utility objects. In places all around the globe, on land and in the sea, pipes protrude from beneath the ground, meandering towards enormous containers and networks of more pipes. Oil tankers and tank trucks haul acrid-smelling liquids further and further away to increasingly smaller containers and tanks, until the thin pipes end up in a pressure chamber where droplets split into gas are continuously combusted. What does this simultaneous foundation of meaning and for material life say about us? At the very least, it tells us that if it is the foundation we are blind to it, and the bi-partition theory is one form of blindness.”

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