The peaking of coping strategies
Ugo Bardi and Alessandro Lavacchi made a significant contribution to the discussion about peak oil and other resource peaks in their article “Mind-sized Hubbert” (see http://www.energybulletin.net/node/50176 ).
The article documents how the resources devoted to whaling follow a curve parallel to and lagging behind the number of whales successfully hunted. At a certain point, there were more whaling ships than there were whales to support them, so the industry collapsed. With Ivan Illich’s book, Tools for Conviviality as my inspiration, I began to examine how the law of diminishing returns connects with Illich’s premise of a “second watershed” in technology deployment, which is the point where emergent disutilities begin.
The easy illustration from economics is the marginal utility of soap. A person who uses a bit of soap to wash hands once a day will benefit greatly from that in terms of hygiene. The second washing yields additional benefits, and likewise the third. At a certain point, however, the marginal utility of washing one’s hands reaches a zero point with no additional benefit, and if one continues to compulsively wash more than that, the skin of the hands will start to break down, creating new problems. This is the “second watershed” where marginal utility has vanished and disutilities come to the fore.
Illich’s main examples focus on disutilities in medicine, transportation, and education, to name a few. Past a certain point, he argues, additional capital allocated to these enterprises not only fails to yield additional benefits, but it actually reverses earlier gains. Thus we have diseases caused by the over-prescription of medication, automobile traffic jams preventing transportation, and schools whose excessive and incoherent demands end up making children stupider, not smarter.
While reading Bardi and Lavacchi’s article, I was struck by its parallels to Illich’s primary thesis in Tools. In the case of whaling, I leave it to the quantitative thinkers to estimate the specific threshold where the growth of the world whaling fleet doomed the animals they pursued to overhunting and near-extinction. Clearly, however, that point marked a shift from one of soon-to-be diminishing returns to one of actual disutility. In fact, Illich goes one step further and urges us to consider whether increases in available energy may eventually cause profound structural problems. In his landmark essay, Energy and Equity, Illich argues convincingly that past a certain point of per capita energy use, lives are not improved but rather degraded.
So, while climate change is one disutility emerging from fossil fuel use that is getting significant attention, it’s worth a look at Illich’s work again because even if greenhouse gases weren’t a problem for the environment, human societies, like individuals, can still be undone by their own tendency to do whatever has worked (or seemed to work) past the point where it’s simply not working.
This points to another dimension of the resource depletion issues around which there is so much debate, and what emerged for me is a realization that whaling, like petroleum extraction, is, to put it in its simplest terms, a coping strategy. When it’s dark at night and we light a lamp filled with whale oil or kerosene, we’re coping with the darkness. We don’t eliminate the darkness, but we push it back a step. Yet we see that even in the case of lighting technology, thanks largely to a surfeit of fossil fuels, in many places we may have already passed Illich’s second watershed. In our aggregate attempts to push back the darkness in the name of safety, convenience and security, we’ve lit up our cities to the point that human biochemical systems such as melatonin are disrupted, affecting the immune response of city dwellers in ways that may open the doorway to disease.
The veil really falls, however, when we begin to look at all technologies, including social technologies, as coping strategies that are potentially subject to the same pattern of resource allocation that brought down the whaling industry and which also drives us, at times seemingly inexorably, past the second watershed that Illich elucidates. Take a look, for example, at militarism, consumerism, and agriculture.
Past a certain point in the allocation of increasing energy or capital toward these projects, we pass the zero point in the scale of diminishing returns and sometime thereafter enter the zone of disutility. Thus, unchecked increases in military spending will at some point reduce security by triggering war and/or an arms race that undermines the nation's economy, dollars spent on commercial advertising will find no place left to position a message that isn’t already fouled by another message from someone else, and the ongoing felling of forests and tilling of grasslands to grow crops alters watersheds, soil ecology and climate in ways that undermine food production. This is just to name a few of the ongoing scenarios; it’s easy to spot more.
And it doesn’t stop there. The peaking of coping strategies extends not just to observable social structures but also inwardly to our most private, internal psychological processes and spheres. Often it seems that coping strategies such as denial, blame, belief, withdrawal, distraction, compartmentalization and projection follow Bardi’s curve as increasing mental capital is devoted toward these efforts, and pass Illich’s second watershed into disutility faster than any of us would like to admit, with consequences that are difficult to fathom. How long do we insist on blaming others for our conditions?
What might be fascinating for the readership of Energy Bulletin is the way in which so many of our coping strategies, on both societal and individual levels, are underwritten by fossil fuel largesse. Without that, we couldn’t have pushed many of them nearly as far as we have, or as fast. What this suggests is a confluence of the peaks in both energy resources and the coping strategies they support, individual and collective, across the board. Of course, this could be interpreted as saying what many readers here already suspect: that basically, without petroleum, we’ll be unable to cope. But, given that fossil fuels have not only supported numerous coping strategies but also their hyperextension into the zone of disutility, the removal of that support via resource depletion promises a remarkable opportunity to reassess how we cope and where our ways of coping have become unworkable.
One practical upshot going forward is to recognize that for every investment (and overinvestment) in a coping strategy, there are constituencies that will advocate for its continuation as energy and/or capital gets squeezed out of the system. Arriving at peak oil thus presents a crisis of values as much as a crisis of resources.