• The Even More Inconvenient Truth and the SocialForge Solution

last modified August 25, 2012 by strypey

Danyl Strype comments on the eventual depletion of the mineral resources that fuel industrialized society and shares his research on some tools that could help us come up with solutions to this and other problems.

This is a story about oil, about mineral oil. I say mineral oil to make it clear I'm not talking about vegetable oil, synthetic oil, or hair oil. I'm talking about the black goop that comes out of the ground, black gold, texas T, you know the drill. When I say mineral oil, of course I'm really talking about mineral fuels collectively. Oil, coal, natural gas, bitumen and so on. Together these mineral fuels supplied 93% of the energy human economies used in 1957 and one day, these mineral fuels are going to run out.

There, I said it. It's awkward, it's uncomfortable, it's inconvenient but it's a fact. Some people flatly deny it, weaving webs of elaborate lefty-greeny conspiracy theories and statistical glamour to avoid facing the undeniable result of consuming something faster than it is produced. Most people try to politely ignore it like the homeless man pushing his shopping trolley through the streets. 'Ishmael' author Daniel Quinn describes this denial and procrastination succinctly in his tale of the sinking ship.

Even so, issues of energy supply and their environmental impact have started to pierce into mainstream dinner table discussion in the last few years. Everyone seems to have an opinion on if or when we'll reach 'the peak', the global mineral fuel peak, the point at which we've used up half the calories available from those resources. Everyone seems to have an opinion on what damage is or isn't being done to the environment in the process of getting there. Witness the irony of climate change and peak oil advocates arguing about whether there is enough oil left to produce global warming.

But like class struggle and identity politics these are actually distractions from the crucial point that everyone keeps forgetting. What we really need to get our heads around is the undeniable fact that when you use a resource faster than its being replaced, it must eventually run out. The resource that supplies the vast bulk of the energy that makes our current society possible is going to run out and no political revolution, economic reform or scientific study is going to chance that fundamental truth. Although we can look away and pretend other matters are more urgent for the time being, sooner or later we or our children (or maybe their children) are going to have to face up to it. So I'll say it again. Mineral fuels will inevitably run out.

Now although a number of mineral fuels like coal are obviously of fossil origin and will unquestionably run out, there is one last ray of hope for the oil-addicted society. It just might be that mineral oil could last forever if a fringe of mostly Eastern European scientists are right about abiotic origin of oilTheir theories revolve around oil being continuously produced by chemical/ geological processes deep in the Earth. This contradicts the mainstream theory that oil is the fossilized result of living mass being buried for millions of years but hey, the flat Earth was the mainstream theory once too. Shift happens (paradigm shift that is).

So let's imagine the abiotic theory is right. There would still going to be a limit to the rate at which oil could be produced and geological processes tend to work much slower than combustion engines. We would need a reasonably reliable way to measure the volume of oil produced globally in a year and decide what it's going to be used for. Which of the multitude of technologies currently run on oil plus the ones that run on coal and other definitely-fossil mineral fuels (assuming that oil can be substituted for them when it runs out and so on) do we need and which ones we can live without.

Even if the Earth could produce as much oil in a year as we are currently using, could it produce enough to do that and replace coal? Can it do both of those and still provide everyone on Earth with the number of calories that the average consumer in the industrialized world uses today? After all unless we can convince the people of the world that it's fair for the industrialized countries to hoard the lion's share, we will need to come to a global political consensus on how to fairly share these limited oil supplies out. All this seems even more unlikely than the abiotic oil theory itself.

The second conclusion that derives from the inevitable exhaustion of fossil fuels and the limits on the supply of oil even if it isn't a fossil fuel (which most of the evidence suggests it is) is that our current economic system is doomed. The global economy (the sum total of all the goods and services exchanged among the world's people) can't continue to grow exponentially (eg 1% a year, every year) unless such growth can take place without consuming a single extra calorie of energy. Unless global capitalism can reform itself to no longer depend on constant growth and indeed adapt itself to energy descent (to borrow a phrase from the permaculture advocates) it's days are numbered. Not, as Marx predicted, because the exploited workers will rise up and take over its management from their rulers but rather because, like a shark, if it can't keep swimming it sinks, dies, breaks down.

Of course energy descent doesn't make peaceful global democracy any more likely. Indeed tyranny and heirarchy of all kinds have existed since long before the industrial revolution, the beginning of the mass exploitation of mineral fuel. Indeed, if mineral fuel exhaustion catches us with our collective pants down, unprepared for the transition to energy descent, there will be many opportunities for warlords, fascists and other bullies to take advantage of the panic, confusion and desperation to establish their own little empires. Chances are you've all seen Mad Max, Waterworld, the Postman or one of the many other sci-fi movies that illustrate this scenario. But you need look no further than wartorn countries like Afghanistan and Iraq to see this effect resulting from a sudden, unexpected destabilization of a society and loss of many of the resources of which it depends.

So, we need to find new sources of energy and new ways of using energy that aren't in any way dependent on our fixed supply of mineral fuel. This is our technology problem. We also need to find a new basis for organising work and distributing raw materials, goods and services that doesn't depend on exponential growth. This is our economic problem. To achieve these and to ensure they continue once the effects of the energy shortage start to be felt, we need to work towards robust, decentralised political systems based on both individual and community autonomy, and strong communication and voluntary co-ordination between individuals in each community and each community in the wider society. This is our political problem.

Since we have no way of knowing how much time we've got to get these independent systems in place, it would seem sensible to start experimenting with as many possible variations of them as we can envision. It seems obvious that people and organisations who are already doing this need to be encouraged and actively supported. None of this is rocket science. These aren't complicated arguments and you don't need a degree let alone a doctorate to understand them. Which is why I am utterly confused as to why the people running the powerful institutions of the world, governments, corporations etc don't seem to get them. Or at least I would be if I didn't understand that their lack of acknowledgement of this issue is quite intentional. Mike Ruppert sums it up beautifully

"In fact, by understanding clearly that political, economic and business elites have been aware of Peak Oil and its deadly implications, we can see that remedial actions designed to save lives and minimize the effects of collapse can and will only be initiated by individuals working through and as part of local communities."

Although Mike's comments are focused on "Peak Oil", the sentiments, are just as accurate when applied to the deeper problem of mineral fuel exhaustion. The sprawling dinosaurs of social organisation like the nation-state and the corporation are so utterly adapted to the warm geopolitical climate produced by the burning of mineral fuels that they simply cannot imagine let alone plan effectively for a future in which these energy sources are gone.

When faced with the immense implications of mineral fuel depeletion, it's easy to give in to over-contemplation, depression and dispair. It's just as easy and just as impotent to panic and throw energy into mass propoganda and trying to wake people up, thrashing around like a drowning swimmer in the hopes that this will somehow get you to dry land. Instead, it's up to each of us to begin by doing what we can with the resources immediately available, to gather together as much as possible to share our visions and plans, and to find ways of working together as communities to make faster progress on them. Obviously a major part of this needs to be done in our own homes, back yards and neighbourhoods. But I believe success in this endeavor also depends on the sharing of ideas, skills, knowledge and experience at broader scales.

This is why I have been part of a group of Indymedia activists who have been slowly hacking away for the last few years on a project with the working title 'Alternatives IMC'. Our goal is to create a space for Indy-style open reporting and discussion about the work of communities and projects who are attempting to construct alternatives to the corporate version of globalization. But more than that we want to be able to offer these communities communication and collaboration tools that will help them share their challenges and successes with others doing similar work, to build up knowledge-bases and mutual support networks, to create a record of their project that can be built on. In this way we aim to create a 'socialforge' where people can co-operatively develop new social and economic structures, in the same way that programmers work together to develop new open source software on Sourceforge.net.

As part of this project we have been compiling a list of 'SocialForge' sites with similar motivations or collaborative approaches. Each of these sites is worth checking out. Many of them are non-profit and offer tools that may be of use in the work you are doing for positive social change.

If I have missed some essential fact, if there is some gaping hole in my logic here, please educate me! I would love nothing more than to continue with my habitual, energy-intensive lifestyle confident in the knowledge that I am not vulnerable to a shocking reality check or. I'm sure I could learn to enjoy increasing my consumption for the sake of economic growth if I didn't think that doing so condemns other people in distant lands and indeed the distant future to impoverishment and suffering. If you can show me the blind spot in my view of all this I would be eternally grateful but I won't be holding my breath.

To paraphrase an ancient Chinese curse, we live in interesting times. But more often that not it's our belief in our own powerlessness which prevents us from walking (not driving), step by practical into another world that we keep telling each other is possible.


Originally published on Aotearoa.Indymedia.org (May, 2007)


Back to Published Writing