Monday, 9 May 2011

An Inhumanist Vision

In recent years, as this blog’s history will testify, I have undergone somewhat of an enlightenment. Discovering the threat of climate change to be irrefutable and learning of the certain realities that peak oil will bring to humanity, has severely altered not only the way I think, but also how I live my life. Peak oil, however, always seemed to me to be more stirring.

Perhaps I found it to be more tangible, the burning of finite resources to power real, touchable objects that surround me everyday of my life. Climate change on the other hand, whilst I can read the studies and draw the same conclusions as 3000 scientists, seems to require greater strength of the imagination. Because of the differences in the emotive effect the two issues have had on me, I’ve often wondered why climate change has received more attention, and yet peak oil is barely spoken about. Why climate change, that is arguably a more abstract concept to get across to the average man on the street, over peak oil, which directly threatens the lifestyles of the Western world?

I’ve finally gotten round to reading The Dark Mountain Project’s published debut, an anthology of poems, conversations, essays, stories and images, that aim to expose the myths of civilisation and attempt to create more honest counter narratives. The first essay in this collection is by John Michael Greer, entitled “The falling years: An Inhumanist vision”, which I believe may shed some light on the puzzling issue of the preferential treatment of some catastrophes over others in the media:

“Compare the recent and continuing furore over anthropogenic climate change to the more muted response to the rapid depletion of the world’s remaining petroleum reserves, and one such distortion stands out clearly. Both these problems are unquestionably real; both were predicted decades ago, both could quite readily force modern industrial civilisation to its knees, and both are already having measurable impacts around the world.

“Yet the response to the two differs in instructive ways. Anthropogenic climate change has become a cause celebre, splashed across the mainstream media, researched by thousands of scientists funded by lavish government grants, and earnestly discussed by heads of state at summit meetings. Nothing is actually being done to stop it, to be sure, and most likely nothing will be done; not even the climate campaigners who urge such drastic action in the loudest voices and most extreme terms have shown much willingness to accept the drastic changes in their own lives that would cut carbon dioxide emissions soon enough to matter. Still, the narrative of climate change has found plenty of eager listeners around the world.

“None of this has happened with peak oil. The evidence backing the claim that the world has already passed the peak of petroleum production and faces a future of declining energy and economic contraction is every bit as solid as the evidence for anthropogenic climate change; the arguments opposing it are just as meretricious; its potential for economic and human costs is as great, solutions are as difficult to reach, and it can feed apocalyptic fantasies almost as extreme as those that have gathered around climate change. Still, no summit meetings are being called by heads of state to discuss the end of the age of oil; there has been no barrage of mainstream media attention concerning it and precious few government grants. Climate change is mediagenic; peak oil is not.

“A core difference between the two crises explains why. Climate change, as a cultural narrative, is a story about human power. We have become so almighty through technological progress, the climate change narrative argues, that we threaten the Earth itself. The only limits that can prevent catastrophe are those we place on ourselves, since nothing else can stop us; and even our own efforts might not be enough to stand in our way. It’s nearly a parody of the old atheist gibe: to prove our own omnipotence, we’ve made a crisis so big that not even we can lift it out of our way.

“Peak oil as a cultural narrative, on the other hand, is not a celebration of human power but a warning about human limits. At the core of the peak oil story is the recognition that the power we claimed was never really ours. We never conquered nature; we merely stole some of the Earth’s carbon and burnt our way through it in three short centuries. All the feverish dreams and accomplishments of that era were simply the results of wasting a vast amount of cheap fuel. Now that the easy pickings are running out, and we have to think about getting by without half a billion years of stored and concentrated solar energy to burn, our fantasies of power are proving unexpectedly fragile, and the future ahead of us involves more humility and less grandiosity than we want to think about.”

He wraps this idea up nicely with the following:

“While anthropogenic global warming is a real and serious problem, its consequences are subject to natural limits that current thinking, fixated on images of human triumphalism, is poorly equipped to grasp. Meanwhile, another real and serious problem – the depletion of the nonrenewable energy resources that prop up today’s industrial economy and keep seven billion people alive – gets next to no attention, because it conflicts with those same triumphalist obsessions. It’s no exaggeration to say that the modern world might solve the global warming crisis and then collapse anyway, because it only dealt with those of its problems that proved congenial to its self-image.”

There is certainly something in this. When explaining peak oil to people, one generally encounters a knee jerk dismissal of any looming disruption to our way of life. The comeback is always, “We will find a way to sustain our lifestyles, we always do, we are ingenious, look at what we’ve already created in the world, examples of how humanity innovates to overcome limits are everywhere”.

It’s the same self belief in humanity that Greer talks about, the collective shoring up of mankind’s staggering ego. What does it mean though, to admit that perhaps there are limits that we cannot overcome through ingenuity? Are there psychological issues at work here? The basis of one’s whole way of life, the premise of a belief system that allows one to operate in this modern world, shattered in their entirety.

The admission that there are limits to our species just as there are limits to every other species on the planet, would leave an individual in disarray. This is what peak oil confronts us with. Its limits challenge everything we believed was true about humanity. What individual would willingly accept to go through the process of admission, confusion, humility, and eventually the restructuring of a belief system? It would be much easier to continue along with old beliefs, ones that the majority of the world believe to be true, which no doubt gives a sense of comfort and ease that a rejection of anthropocentrism cannot give.

I find this refusal to engage in any other narrative to be extremely dangerous. To accept only the mainstream memes leaves one open to what could potentially be a significant fall. Entertaining counter narratives, after an initial internal meltdown, can only help make an individual stronger and more resilient to future catastrophes. If those catastrophes don’t materialise, what has the individual really lost? A little time maybe, not much else.

The Dark Mountain Project is shortly due to publish its second book. Should you wish to purchase the first book and help fund the second, visit their website at

John Michael Greer’s blog can be found at