A theory proving that the earth is spinning around the sun, not vice versa – better known as the heliocentric theory of Copernicus – is understood as a breakthrough for the modern scientific world view.
From the 15th century and the days of Copernicus, rapidly developing natural science started slowly to replace God’s authority over ontology and pragmatic truth that was exercised by kings and priests on His command. The scientific revolution led to secularism and all heretic ideas: enlightenment, modernism, mass society, capitalism and the ethos of bourgeois revolutions: freedom, fraternity and equality – and finally to post-modernity, economic crises and even to most predictable futures imaginable.
What if the essence of the thing we pompously call modernity is just about energy? Or even more provoking, if the philosophy of history should be replaced by the philosophy of energy? What if major historical dynamics – wars, power struggles and creativity – are based solely on energies and the technologies that make them possible? Let me be more precise: what if the medieval turned into modernity when black coal started to become more widely used as a fuel, and even the expeditions of Columbus – that are often seen as a start of modernity – are just a result of the beginning of fossil energy era? And the modern knowledge: science, civilization, Protestantism, enlightenment – so called western thought – has spread because of oil and coal?
Well, if the answer is yes or even perhaps, what does it then mean for western ethics, knowledge or culture? Maybe they have less substance than we suppose? Maybe it is primarily energy itself and a blind belief in its eternal power, and only secondarily the quality of the European spirit and all material forms it has taken in culture, economics and technologies? Let’s at least give it a thought.
Many philosophers during last two hundred years have argued quite well that the experience of reality is not quite equal for every one. However, most of the arguments say that either there is no objective truth at all or there is/might be, but different kinds of alienation – psychological, social or political (if they can even be separated from each other) – are keeping us away from it.
The essential question is how subjective and separated experience can form something that one could call unity? Some might say that actually they can’t – our individual thoughts are just forced to blend into imaginary unity we are supposed to share – languages, cultures, laws, nations and so on. There are some vague images of unity but they are based on imagination that is dominated and manipulated by power.
If it all comes down to power as Michel Foucault said, I guess there must be a source of it. Could it be energy? At least Foucault suddenly starts to sound like a proper philosopher.
These kinds of questions are constantly rising up while reading the essay Oil and the Regime of Capitalism: Questions to Philosophers of the Future written by Finnish philosopher Tere Vadén.
First let’s start from the peripheral subarctic forest, near the Russian border in North-Karelia, Finland, where Lasse Nordlund moved in the beginning of the 1990´s to test his ideas of self-sufficient life.
For more than 10 years Nordlund was living alone in a small hut growing vegetables, fishing and getting his food from the forests around. He built most of the everyday tools he needed and made even most of his clothes himself – he started farming flax for fiber, making thread, thread to cloth and sewed the cloth to clothes with a needle whittled from bone.
During those years Nordlund spent approximately 50 € per year, mainly for bicycle tires and the dentist – after trying to pull off a tooth by himself. A few times he went to the village to buy milk, eggs and flour for pancakes, that he said helped him to go over the hardest times: “there is something very therapeutic about them!” But after learning to produce good and reliable harvests those bad days became more rare. Life became much easier than one would think. It took approximately 4 hours per day to keep his basic needs satisfied. However, there was enough time for socializing and all kinds of other activities as well. Once in a while Nordlund hitchhiked across the country to give lectures about his practice.
Ideological similarities of Nordlund’s one man self-sufficiency can be seen in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, anarcho-primitivist thoughts as well as Protestant Kantian ethics. “I wanted to take responsibility for my actions and stay away from things I can not take responsibility for”, he told. “Not back to nature, rather back to the cave!”
With his own example Nordlund wanted to prove his hypothesis that materially and spiritually bearable, self-sufficient, and sustainable life was possible for modern man, even in a subarctic climate. And indeed that’s what he did with very few compromises.
In 2008 Nordlund published a pamphlet Foundations of our life – Reflections about Human labour, Money and Energy from a Self-sufficiency Standpoint, where he summarize his experiences and presents some more theoretical thoughts about the foundations of life.
What is the relationship between […] used energy and the energy that is collected using it? Why is a remarkable part of the energy of imported (i.e. primary) energy expended in agriculture and forestry – areas that were supposed to provide us with energy?
Nordlund’s main argument says that so called efficient modern production is, as a matter of fact, decadent consumption and waste of resources. For example, most of food production that is supposed to give us energy consumes way more energy than it gives back as nutrition. This imbalance – or more precisely – fundamental unsustainability of this production is currently leading to an ecological (and social) dead end that can be avoided only by living in a way where the production produces at least the same amount of energy it consumes, without injecting foreign and non-renewable energy in to the process. To keep it simple: material sustainability is based on the balance between consumption and production of energy and the positive energy efficiency of the technology that is used on production.
The implicit origin of production – and all energy calculations – is the body that each of us is bound to since birth. This body “is in a technical sense a very efficient machine, special thanks to its versatility. We do not need roads to move and we can climb a tree without special equipment. A human can perform physical work equivalent to that used by an incandescent lamp. We can manage about 60 watts. At that level we can work throughout the day and stay in good health. For short periods we can bring ourselves to work at a rate as high as 500 watts. After a heavy day of work, we will have performed about 1 kWh. To keep performing at this level, we have to eat food containing about 4 kWh of energy.”
Back in the good old days, when all work was manual work and done by human labour with the help of a few animals, energy profit of production – invested energy compared to produced energy – was generally low, and energy investments of labour came back directly as a form of food, clothes, heat, buildings and culture with very little surplus. In other words the profit was barely positive, but positive enough to keep people busy producing more generations. If the energy profit was negative, the person, family, community or society was not sustainable. This meant either a need to compensate the energy loss – usually by expanding the living or income area peacefully or violently – or slip into material shortage, misery, famine and death. This is more or less the history of pre-modern human kind in a nutshell. This logic changed radically starting from medieval times.
Coal burning was limited the first time by anti-pollution legislation in London already in the 13th century, declared by King Edward I. Most medieval and Renaissance individuals and industries simply needed heat for brewing and dyeing, glass-making and salt-boiling, for burning lime for plaster, cement and quicklime, for heating homes and domestic ovens or they needed timber for building houses, mills, and factories, carts and ships. This lead to the first proper energy crisis, following rapidly expanded deforestation that was a problem almost everywhere in Europe by the 17th century. Next century coal was the world’s most dominant energy source. The first oil tower was built in Pennsylvania in 1859 and the rest is history.
As the brief history of fossil fuel shows, throughout the so-called development of technology, more and more time and energy was invested to create more efficient ways to satisfy basic needs and everything else. More people started to work outside basic production and more often the energy that was invested in building new technology and maintaining labour was much greater than any of those innovations were able to give back. To give some perspective for technological development I would like to quote Nordlund’s book once again. Nordlund has calculated that real energy “efficiency”, “is only achievable by relatively simple technical equipment, such as an old-fashioned spinning-wheel or a (wooden) shovel. The less iron they contain, the better”.
How could all this happen if the energy consumption was negative? Obviously the forests were not cut for the wooden shovels. The energy consumption of more advanced technology was only possible either with some foreign source of energy or constant expansion of exploited area – fossil fuel or colonialism, one could say, both of them were used and often side by side. However, since industrialization the gap between invested energy and produced energy started to grow dramatically. If the difference in the beginning of 19th century was 2/1, in the end of the 20th invested energy was 15 times larger, even though the gain of energy of production has only tripled. The waste is enormous.
A tractor pulling a seven-bladed plough may look efficient, but it collects food energy a lot less efficiently than a person working by hand in a garden – when we take into account the energy and working time inputs more broadly than just for the individual farmer[…]
[E]ach tractor farmer in Finland supports 50 people, but it is done with an energy input that corresponds to 1,500 people working the fields manually. In comparison, a single Stone Age person could sustain one to two people in addition to himself[…]
If energy collection was less efficient by modern technology it also removed lots of human labour from primary production. Those workers, however, needed to be sustained too.
In 1940 half of Finland’s population worked in primary production. By the year 1988, their number had gone down to eight per cent.
Another angle to energy discussion is provided by philosopher Tere Vadén, who widens Nordlund’s analysis into a context of social theories and philosophy. Vadén claims that growth is not a natural attribute of economics at all. Economical growth is a rather new phenomenon that started in Europe around 1820 – around same time when the coal-powered steam engine was invented.
The beginning of economical growth could be seen as a beginning of capitalism as well – not the theory or abstract socio-economical relation itself, but the real capitalism that has concrete material forms: black coal and steam engine, electric engine and combustion engine, oil and natural gas that are active in concrete reality.
Vadén says that when we are talking or theorizing about capitalism we are actually always talking about this concrete capitalism, fossil capitalism – not an abstract or ideal capitalism – and all analysis of capitalism should be read again with this consciousness.
For example, when Marx and Engels in The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) characterize capitalism as a system where “all that is solid melts into air and all that is holy is profaned” the question then is about this concrete capitalism based on economic growth that has been fed with cheap fossil fuel energy. […] These metamorphoses are not the platonic phenomena of abstract capitalism but are instead directly attached to the movements of black raw materials.[…]
Both Marxists and anti-Marxists have had much to say about how a new labour force is created by turning people into paid labour. Yet surprisingly little has been said precisely about the increase of non-human labour, and its morphological effects. Oil is not, of course, “produced”, even though the term is generally in use. Oil is not “man-made”. It is discovered, extracted and then used.
To be able to function, modern capitalism needs cheap oil. Because oil is non-renewable, it will run out when one is using it. Vadén states that for contemporary capitalism the question – when oil will run out completely, is not as important as: when cheap oil gets too expensive to be cheap anymore.
The global production of oil has been decreasing since 2005. The price has tripled in the last 10 years. Oil mines in USA peaked already in the 1970´s and since then the USA has been importing oil from foreign countries to balance the continuously growing gap between oil production and consumption.
The discovery of new oil reserves have decreased for decades and a large number of oil producing nations have already passed their oil producing peak. A good example is the UK, which thanks to the oil discovered in the North Sea in the 1970s became an important oil exporter in the 1980s, passed its peak in 1999, and after that slid into an oil importing country at the beginning of the 21st century.
If oil is getting too expensive for capitalistic economies to grow, can it be replaced then? Vadén says no – or at least there is nothing yet that could work.
21st century global consumption of oil has been about 85 million barrels per day. This would mean 2500 nuclear plants more or 5200 new coal-fired power plants. Burning that much coal creates enormous amounts of carbon-dioxide that would dramatically hasten climate change. The trend of building nuclear power has been decreasing in the last 20 years. It seems to be too expensive to be profitable – and would there even be enough steel, concrete, uranium, time, money and so on?
Here is a view into the cruel beauty of oil: a cubic mile is, after all, not an impossibly large mass, but the energy it creates is virtually stellar. Only the sun exceeds oil in energy amounts, and oil is, of course, “preserved sun”.
Other alternative sources of energy – wind mills or solar panels – are not able to do it either, since now planning, construction and maintenance of alternative energy requires considerable amounts of cheap fossil fuels, and their energy profit is much lower than fossil fuels.
It looks like only a technological miracle can save continuous economical growth. But the history of miracles doesn’t give much hope. Most of the energy innovations we see as alternatives have been invented long ago. The first versions of solar panels are from the end of the 1800s, the modern versions from the 1940s and nuclear power from roughly the same decade. After that nothing really has happened. This doesn’t promise any fast breakthroughs. And even if someone would come out with one, is there enough cheap energy to change the infrastructure: all factories, transportation systems and machines to adapt the new energy form? The oil dependent system took 150 years to be built up and it was done by energy-efficient coal. Is it possible to do it again? The conclusion is self-evident.
If economic growth is based on more work (in terms of either amount or productivity) and if […] all known energy sources are considerably weaker than the oil fields that have already been used up or are now in production, then the future possibilities for an economy that continuously has to grow (in other words this existing capitalism) seem weak.
Questions to Philosophers of the Future
My point in introducing views about energy and publishing it in this review is obviously not to propose that the social reality should be organized based on strict energy calculations. This is not a new historical materialism that one should turn into an ideology.
I’m rather tempted or even amused by the idea that we – as a human nation, Europeans or what-ever-americans – will never get further than the Moon – or if we want to get there we have to swim. All the complex calculations about The Truth shall wither by the death of the highly energy-intense digital industry! All those copper cables under the oceans and soil will turn green when cross continental networks will get silent! Lived experience can soon descend from the heaven of the bungee tower down to earth, to learn to run and jump on its own!
To be more philosophical and less romantic, it seems that the miserable western thought of science, technology, modernism, all of its ideologies and even the subjectivity (that was supposed to be objective) – all those ideas that have been lubricated with the fully-indoctrinated naturalistic idea of the endless opportunities of never ending oil – are going to lose their ontological foundation and die. This might be an interesting question for the majority of anarchistic thought as well – as the whole ism has its roots deep in modernism, enlightenment and individualism and/or criticism of all of them.
If many generally applicable observations of the science of political economy are concerned not with abstract capitalism (or socialism) but rather the uniquely oil-injected capitalism, then could the same categorical error be evident also in some critiques of modernism, technology or the Western lifestyle? What if the hegemony of the West was not, after all, defined by modern natural science and technology, enlightenment and individualism but by a one-time offering of coal, gas and oil? As is well known, natural science and technology, enlightenment and individualism cannot be exported — and have not once been exported — without also exporting and using coal, gas and oil. The Catholic faith needed only coal and wind. […]
If many socio-philosophical ideas have unknowingly been based on the assumption that a unique and in some sense arbitrary phenomenon […] is universal, and have incorporated this blind spot into almost all our thinking concerning modern economy, politics and technology, then our glass is both half empty and half full. Half empty in that not many philosophers, economists, critics of modernism or social thinkers have said a rational word about the future where the economy shrinks year after year. We have arrived in an uncharted region, where the unknown is fully equivocal. Half full: talk about the end of history and other cultural saturation should be forgotten. Even a large part of philosophy can be started again from the beginning.
Back to the forest?
At the moment Lasse Nordlund is building a new house for his family out of big pine logs that he is carving with his own hands, still on the same land where he moved in 1992. His way of living – as well as yearly expenses – has continued more or less as it developed during his strict self-sufficient period, though now the house economy is shared with his partner Maria, who is having a part time job as a teacher in a village school, and their child.
Nordlund sees that the shrinking resources combined with the imperative of economical growth will definitely take more totalitarian forms on the social level. Against this he makes a provoking demand: every one should have a right to be poor. For him this means one’s right to step out of society and follow an Indian law where people have the right to use nature but never to own it.
The alternative could happen through a “scattering and dispersion”. The ideal would be a network of autonomous and self sufficient economical units, small enough to not form big energy or labour resources, so the possibility of violent repression would be minimal.
Even though Nordlund seems to have a general idea of organizing social life, his thought is not so one-sided.
Disagreement protects nature. People who are heading in opposite directions can not have such a massive impact than people who co-operate and build a Great Wall of China, pyramids or dam the rivers.
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The simple immediate sensation of “nuisances” and dangers that become more oppressive as the months go by, and that initially and principally assault the great majority of people (the poor, in other words), already constitutes a major factor in revolt, a vital demand of the exploited that is just as materialistic as was the struggle of the workers in the 19th century for the possibility of eating. Already the remedies for the totality of the sickness that production creates are too expensive for it at this stage of commodity richness. The relations between production and the productive forces have finally reached a point of radical incompatibility, because the existing social system has bound its fate to the pursuit of a literally unbearable deterioration of all the conditions of life.
– Guy Debord (Theses on the Situationist International and its Time)
The novelty of the coming politics is that it will no longer be a struggle for the conquest or control of the State, but a struggle between the State and the non-state (humanity), an insurmountable disjunction between whatever singularity and the State organization.
– Giorgio Agamben (The Coming Community)
In line with the last article, one can not help but notice the immense wave of environmental struggles which mark our contemporary era: Halkidiki is by now known internationally since the daring arson attack on the mining vehicles, Val de Susa has much the same recognition as one bright spot amidst the sad decadence of Italy. Similarly we have the ZAD in France and their struggle against the airport, Indonesian peasants struggling against another neoliberal mining project, and even in staid Finland there is a developing struggle against the Talvivaara mine.
All these contemporary struggles point to a new form of struggle emerging, even a new historical period into which we are entering, in which the anti-austerity struggles of the present are the last act of the workers’ movement, and the environmental struggles the birth pangs of a new era. All of the old assumptions of the workers’ movement, with their historically unprecedented claims, are in their turn being dissolved by the same history whose end they claimed to be. So that in all these movements we do not have a fight over the management of the means of production, but a fight against the implementation of the means of production. And it is not a fight over different interpretations of the economy (Marx’s life work remaining only a ‘critique of political economy’, after all) but rather the reality of the economy and its logic is being contested. This also is revealing that there is nothing ‘natural’ about the capitalist economy, it is really a spiritual belief system imposed by the state. So that in place of the famous, supposedly eternal logic of the economy we have only the armed force of the state, enforcing certain actions for the masses, and permitting robbery by a tiny elite, which has been what has passed for a logical system from the very beginning.
Clearly, capitalism is not so much a system that has mastered nature yet is unable to master human society, as in the classical Marxist theory. It is instead the lack of control over society, with its frequent crises and disasters, that runs parallel to its disastrous relation with nature. What if there was, in fact, never any “good side” to capitalism, that its so-called advances are merely progress towards further disasters following more disasters? And even further back, if they are the result of the unique Judeo-Christian religious heritage of separation from nature, with the concomitant result that nature is viewed as a separated “other” to dominate and despoil? Truly, history knows of no other civilization that has become so universal as capitalism, nor one that has so devastated the planet. As a result the period we are entering sees the contest against the economy in defence of the environment and the local community play an increasing role, replacing that of political or previously religious issues. Concordantly neither Liberalism, nor Marxism, realized in 1917, can assume a role of explaining this new era that is outside of their field of vision, so to speak. The bourgeoisie and proletariat, now largely liquefied by the corporate and union bureaucracy, are united in their mutual incomprehension of a third force taking shape outside their tortured mutual relation, and thus neoliberal America and Marxist China are appropriately in charge of the global disaster-economy, despite all their differences.
To close: if the past few centuries have seen a civilization of natural resource exploitation take shape, now that the resources end, does this not evidently point to a new mode of society being forced to emerge, and similarly, does not this prove that there was something finite and limited in the ideas that inspired the frenzy of natural exploitation in the first place? Is not everything to be reconsidered?
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Quotations and read more:
Lasse Nordlund: Foundations of our life, 2008, http://rihmasto.fi/sites/default/files/FoundationsOfOurLife_3_2010.pdf
Tere Vadén: Oil and the Regime of Capitalism: Questions to Philosophers of the Future, 2010, http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=658
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