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I am Human, I’m American, and I’m an Addict…

Nate Hagens, The Oil Drum

“Selfish behaviors are reward driven and innate, wired deeply into the survival mechanisms of the primitive brain, and when consistently reinforced, they will run away to greed, with its associated craving for money, food, or power. On the other hand, the self restraint and the empathy for others that are so important in fostering physical and mental health are learned behaviors – largely functions of the new human cortex and thus culturally dependent. These social behaviors are fragile and learned by imitations much as we learn language”.
Dr. Peter Whybrow – “American Mania”


The vast majority of Peak Oil writing and discussion centers around the upcoming date of an all liquids peak and what the subsequent decline rate will look like. There is also active debate on how we can best replace the coming shortfall in fossil energy with renewable flows. Fewer discussions are about relocalizing a global economy dependent on cheap fossil fuels, and how best to live in a world with lower energy availability. And fewer still delve into who we are, how we got here, and what we use energy for. In sum, the majority of our energy conversations, at conferences, schools, institutions, and even blogs, focus on the means, and not the ends. The ends generally remain unquestioned. There seems to be an implicit assumption that worldwide energy demand will continue to grow something akin to a natural law. But in an economic system based on self-interest and on a finite planet, the true drivers of demand need to be better understood beyond the microeconomic mantra “price will change behavior”.

This post looks at our human history on the planet, outlines how the ancient-derived reward pathways of our brain are hijacked by modern stimuli, and concludes that in very real ways, we have become addicted to the ‘consumptive behaviors’ linked to oil. “Traditional” drug abuse happens because natural selection has shaped behavior regulation mechanisms that function via chemical transmitters. Just as an addict becomes habituated to cocaine, heroine or alcohol, the ‘normal person’ possesses the neural architecture to become habituated via a positive feedback loop to the ‘chemicals’ we receive from shopping, keeping up with the joneses (conspicuous consumption), pursuing more stock options and profits, and other stimulating activities that a large energy surplus provides. In order to overcome addictions, it is usually not enough to argue about which year the drug supply is going to start to decline. Its a better path to understand the addiction, admit it before one hits rock bottom, and either begin the cold turkey process or become addicted to something else.


I’ve decided against them. My mom is quite likely to read this. As is my girlfriend. All I’ll admit to is I’m human, an American, and an addict. …

Why are Americans so much fatter than Europeans? (Click to enlarge (or don’t))

(5 February 2008)
Long, funny, serious. -BA

The Tata Nano Strikes Back–Does Jeavons’ Paradox Apply to Productivity, Too?

Jeff Vail, rhizome
Can improvements in energy efficiency “save” modern civilization as we face declines in world oil production? While the efficiency revolution may let us drive on half the gas, the productivity revolution may make it affordable to twice as many–or more…

One argument against the efficacy of improving energy efficiency is called Jeavons’ Paradox. This suggests that, when we improve our energy efficiency, we also reduce our demand for energy from that same use. That decreased demand in relation to supply makes energy cheaper, which in turn makes us use more of it. It has been suggested that this “rebound effect” only accounts for 5-20% of efficiency gains, but I have written previously about the potential for a “shadow” rebound effect that potentially accounts for nearly the entire efficiency gain.

Often, I find it difficult to apply the very theoretical Jeavons’ Paradox to pragmatic thinking about our energy future. The recent launch of the Tata Nano, however, stands as an example of Jeavons’ Paradox in action. Possibly of much greater importance, however, are two related issues: the feedback effect between increased economic productivity and increasing energy consumption, and the aspirations of an emerging global middle class.
(4 February 2008)

Without Slaves: Jeffersonian Agrarianism and the Question of Slavery

Sharon Astyk, Casaubon’s Book
Writing a book called A Nation of Farmers and arguing for Jeffersonian democracy brings you, sooner or later, bang hard up against the question of slavery.

…[Roger Kennedy in Mr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause] makes a compelling case that Jefferson’s vision of agrarianism, which included the slave plantations, enabled westward expansion, and the subjugation of the Native population – he does a fascinating analysis of the rate at which plantation owners destroyed their soils, almost three times the rate of non-slave holding southern farmers and five times the rate of Northern farmers, and argues that Jefferson’s rhetoric, and the Louisiana Purchase, were predicated on a notion of ever expanding slavery, and the depletion of the soil.

This is a compelling critique, and to Kennedy’s enormous credit, it is a nuanced critique.

…There’s one kind of slavery we haven’t included, but probably should, our energy slaves.
These slaves aren’t people, of course, although they too come with a moral freight that we might want to consider, as millions of our slaves in the poor world, besides their horrible lives, now are in increased danger of death because of our warming the planet.

Equally importantly, fossil fuels have enabled most rich world denizens to live their lives as though they have slaves – not just far away slaves making their clothing and growing their coffee, but in the house slaves to do things like wash their dishes, carry them places they want to go, and cook their food.

… The idea that democracy can be separated out from the way we earn our livings or treat our soils is false, and Jefferson was right articulating this. The idea that we can also separate out our agrarian ideology from its history of racism and slavery is also false – we cannot erase the inconvenient parts of our history, or minimize them. But what we can do is create our own sort of Swaraj, and take the complex legacy of our agrarianism, and make it into something else.

How might this come about? Well, a nation made up not of plantation owners, but of true small farmers might be able to do so. A distributist model, a la Chesterton, in which most of the land is held by very small farmers, is a potential beginning. And in fact, we have already done much of the inconvenient work of chopping up land and putting small houses on it – we call it suburbia, and most suburban lots come with a piece of land, perhaps not quite sufficient to sustain a family, but often enough to render them independent of a host of created needs, and able, because of that independence, to make their choices based not on their fears and dependencies on corporate entities, but from a dispassionate consideration of what is best for the society as a whole. Small suburban farmers cannot need slaves – their land is too small to require them. Intensive agricultural techniques mean that small lots can come close to supporting a family, or do so entire. It isn’t necessary to take seriously the distributist’s focus on biological family units here – we can create these “family” structures in other ways, and imagine cooperative ownerships that work in concert with distributism.

The question, of course, is how larger agriculture will be enacted. Reallocation of fossil fuels means that we are unlikely to require literal slaves to produce our food for a long time, during which our job is to create such a loathing for notion of holding either immediate or distant slaves that we would no more consider it than we would consider eating human flesh.
(2 February 2008)
Another recent post from Sharon: Adapting our Farms and Gardens to Climate Change.

A material world

John Busby, Sanders Research Associates
Modern life has become dependent on the extraction of basic materials; mostly minerals from mines, both underground and open pit. In general the quantities of these produced has risen and, most believe, will continue to rise feeding universal economic growth. In recent years this comfortable state of consciousness, described perhaps as “business-as-usual” has prevailed.

John Busby challenges the widely held conviction that modern technologies can outweigh the crippling cost of producing ever scarcer resources
(2 February 2008)

Monbiot on Population

Graham Strouts, Zone 5
A few people have pointed me to George Monbiot’s recent article on population in the Guardian. While it is welcome that Monbiot addresses the issue I wanted to reply because I found it really disappointing, failing to join the dots and in some ways misleading.

The main thrust of the article is that some environmentalists complain the issue of population is ignored- perhaps for political reasons- even though it is the “number one environmental problem” and Monbiot sets out to discuss whether this is in fact true. The basic issue in this debate is, can we really give out as it were about the large populations of the developing world when over-consumption in the West is in fact having a bigger environmental impact?

However, this is really a straw dog issue because as Ehrlich (whom he refers to) pointed out in The Population Bomb population and consumption are two sides of the same coin. It is in my opinion quite meaningless to speak about which is the greater issue, like we are dealing with some kind of Top of the Apocalyptic Pops.
(1 February 2008)