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Deep thinking - June 12

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The Shockwave Rider

Big Gav, Peak Energy (Australia)
A while ago I included a review of a couple of John Brunner books ("Stand on Zanzibar" and "The Sheep Look Up") that aligned closely with some of the issues that the peak oil world tends to obsess about (primarily population growth and environmental degradation for those books). During my February reading break I found myself re-reading his other classic work "The Shockwave Rider" as a way of further procrastinating the reading of various (unread) heavyweight tomes I have sullenly eyeing me from the bookshelves.

This book took a lot of Alvin Toffler's ideas from "Future Shock" and extrapolated them forward a few decades, most famously predicting the arrival of both the internet and parasites that infest it such as computer virus' and worms. While the book is probably only known today in hardcore geek circles, it also covered a range of other interesting ideas, such as:

  • "ecofast" (energy efficient / sustainable) housing

  • the destruction of an american city by a natural disaster and the inhabitants being left to fend for themselves by the government in "paid avoidance zones"
  • a post oil world - public and electric transport rather than fossil fueled cars
  • "the plug in lifestyle" - a highly mobile population (at least amongst the professional classes) that frequently moves houses and jobs
  • alienation leading to widespread use of tranquillizers and other mood altering drugs
  • the value of slowing down in order to make more progress
  • the emergence of complete information transparency (for government and some corporate data)
  • the breakdown of societal cohesiveness and the division of society into tribes
  • the replacement of the "arms race" with the "brain race"
  • the value of wisdom vs the combination of knowledge and greed
  • delphi pools - using the "wisdom of crowds" by allowing the population to bet on a large range of important issues and the government then adjusting policy based on the results (well sometimes - the other tactic is to rig the market to adjust public perceptions)
  • corporations which are favoured by the government (particularly in terms of access to information) based on their contribution to "national advantage"
  • widespread paranoia caused by people knowing that others have access to more information than they do
  • government being taken over by organised crime

I'll quote a few other reviews of the book from around the net and then launch into a rather long winded survey of recent news relevant to some of the ideas Brunner explored as well as indulging in some 1980's cyberpunk and cypherpunk era nostalgia (while science fiction isn't meant to be predictive of the future, its interesting to see just how well the book did as futurism rather than an extrapolation of existing trends).

"What the hell does this have to do with energy and the environment ?" some of you (those who aren't resigned to my not infrequent diversions from the topic at hand) might be asking ? As I'm prone to rant from time to time, peak oil, global warming, resource wars and my other topics of interest are all be-devilled by the problem of data quality. Oil data is incomplete, frequently held secret and manipulated at every level, which is why I don't bother with the day to day haggling over when the peak date is. Our resource wars over oil are clouded with endless disinformation and propaganda campaigns, some that have been going on for decades.

Global warming science is also afflicted, with the best source of much of the information (various US government funded institutions) suffering from censorship and political interference, exacerbated by the fossil fuel industry's FUD campaign against the scientists. So Brunner's musings on the concept of freedom of information and related topics seem relevant to me - but if you just want energy news, the time to stop reading is now - come back again tomorrow. I will mention energy and global warming a few times along the way though.
(11 June 2007)
Just the beginning of a mammoth post from the indefatigable Big Gav. There are so many ideas and possibilities here - perhaps too rich and too intense for a blog post. With some organization and editing, this would make a fine article... or even a book.

The English science fiction writer John Brunner is one of my favorite authors. Although he started out writing stock science fiction space operas, he graduated to the classic works mentioned by Big Gav.

Science fiction is a rich source of ideas that has not yet been explored much by the peak oil and climate movements. Some other science fiction novels that might be of interest.

  • Total Eclipse by John Brunner. Grim but satisfying novel that reveals how a fatal flaw in an intelligent species led to their demise.

  • The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth. A jolly and merciless satire on advertising and consumerism. Sequel by Pohl: The Merchants' War
  • The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem (Polish). A Voltaire-like vision of the future, showing what is really behind the shiny high-tech culture we think that we see in front of us.
  • Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging by Ernest Callenbach (1975). The West Coast breaks away from the rest of the U.S. to establish a sustainable society. Callenbach was influenced by the hippie and sustainability movements. Although the Ecotopian vision was in disfavor during the roaring 90s, many of Callenbach's ideas have now become standard fare.


A New War on the Planet?

John Bellamy Foster, MR Zine (Monthly Review)
During the last year the global warming debate has reached a turning point.  Due to the media hype surrounding Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth, followed by a new assessment by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the climate skeptics have suffered a major defeat.  Suddenly the media and the public are awakening to what the scientific consensus has been saying for two decades on human-induced climate change and the dangers it poses to the future of life on earth.

Proposed solutions to global warming are popping up everywhere, from the current biofuels panacea to geoengineering solutions such as pumping sulfur particles into the stratosphere to shade the earth from the sun to claims that a market in carbon dioxide emissions is the invisible hand that will save the world.  "Let's quit the debate about whether greenhouse gases are caused by mankind or by natural causes," President Bush said in a hastily organized retreat.  "Let's just focus on technologies that deal with the issue."

It is characteristic of the magic-bullet solutions that now pervade the media that they promise to defend our current way of life while remaining virtually cost free. Despite the fact that economists have long insisted that there is no such thing as a free lunch, we are now being told on every side -- even by Gore -- that where global warming is concerned there is a free lunch after all.  We can have our cars, our industrial waste, our endlessly expanding commodity economy, and climate stability too.  Even the IPCC, in its policy proposals, tells us that climate change can be stopped on the cheap -- if only the magic of technology and markets is applied.

The goal is clearly to save the planet -- but only if capitalism can be fully preserved at the same time.

Hence, the most prominent proposals are shaped by the fact that they are designed to fit within the capitalist box.  There can be no disruption of existing class or power relations.  All proposed solutions must be compatible with the treadmill of production.

Even progressive thinkers such as George Monbiot in his new book Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning have gotten into the act.  Monbiot pointedly tells us that the rich countries can solve the global warming problem without becoming "Third World" states or shaking up "middle-class" life -- or indeed interfering with the distribution of riches at all.  Politics is carefully excluded from his analysis, which instead focuses on such things as more buses, better insulated homes, virtual work, virtual shopping and improved cement.
(8 June 2007)
Also at The Indypendent (NYC Independent Media Center)

John Bellamy Foster is one of the best of contemporary Marxist thinkers, but this article points up the inadequacy of the Marxist response to peak oil and climate change. Foster and a number of other Marxists are aware of these threats, mentioning them from time to time in their writings. However, there is no sign that they have integrated them into their analysis.

Not surprisingly, the underlying problem is diagnosed to be capitalism and the solution is socialism. Is this a real analysis, or just repeating the same old formulas? In any case, no one expects socialist revolutions within the next decade. And the clock is ticking on both peak oil and climate change.
-BA


Ancient innovations for present conventions toward extinction

Jan Lundberg, Culture Change
...If our species survives long-term, it will not be because commuters dutifully made it to work. It will be because people have questioned the concept of work and production -- and much more. What is implied in working and productivity is really specialization, and that means individuals and segments of society no longer gather food, make clothes, erect shelter, care for the sick, defend the community, etc.

It is clearly unrealistic for the majority of the population of the world, which now lives in big cities, to "go back to the land." Yet, it is crucial to understand what we have lost because we are still losing it with every new and widened road, for example.

A related and even less-discussed development is humanity's loss of wildness. Being wild is rejected out of hand as outmoded and barbaric, but such an attitude turns our back on our long, successful history as a species. It can be argued that today's world-threatening crises are embedded in the average person most strongly when all vestiges of wildness, such as self-defense and an intimate relationship with nature, have been squelched.

For people to understand the high stakes presented by global warming and other forms of environmental devastation -- such as "development" and the plastic plague -- people may need a foundation of seeing in a critical light Western Civilization's negative tendencies and dubious achievements.

Culture Change editor: This exploration of our common dilemma covers the Mind-set toward extinction, followed by a section on Growth and roads, and lastly on Expressing cultural rebellion
(10 June 2007)

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