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The Global Energy Transition: A New Vision

July 31, 2023

While governments, finance, science, industry, and markets move toward the end of the fossil fuel era, our dependency on cheap and abundant energy derived from one non-renewable resource is transitioning toward another, and possibly even more ominous, dependency on a basketful of other non-renewable resources. The conversation so far has largely been about shifting to a ‘sustainable’ world or a ‘green’ economy using those non-renewable resources. If we look closely at the operational (corporate) meaning of ‘sustainability,’ we must conclude that it means doing things pretty much the same as we’ve always done. Sustainable growth? — an oxymoron. A different reality is beginning to dawn on a wider audience outside science and industry that the entire transition enterprise brings a new array of calculated risks and demands a review of how we are approaching this imperative.

How much energy will we need to overcome our dependency on oil once and for all? Can we afford it? That’s part of the debate. From what sources will the transition come? That’s another part of the debate. Are there enough of those resources to propel us into a new economy and will they sustain us in the long term? Some say yes. Some say no. We don’t know for sure.

To respond to the current energy crisis in the same way as we do to every other global challenge would be to recapitulate the mistakes of the past. We do not have a body of experience telling us how to step all the way back from our false sense of control. That sense of control is one of the key flaws in our habitual view. Nothing so far has shaken that view to its core. The conventional model of response—such as the response to covid, attacking the ‘problem,’ employing the Shock Doctrine to further cement the current economic narrative, will only repeat our mistakes and make things worse. Covid was referred to as a portal by Arundhati Roy, a re-boot, a mirror, a hoax, a metaphor of everything good, bad, or ugly about capitalism and modernity. We are in the middle of another such moment.

Another enduring metaphor from the covid experience is that we are undergoing an unmasking, a removal of the veils obscuring a clear view of the present moment. As the Great Unraveling proceeds and the pretense of stability begins to show cracks, we encounter a storm of feeling and response. Just as covid served as a Great Humbling, as Dougald Hine has put it, so our transition to a new economy extends the metaphor. Are we noticing?

The energy emergency, like covid, is a messenger of our porosity, a call to re-examine our intimate relations with the biosphere, with ecologies interrupted and increasingly thrown into chaos as well as our relations with each other. Because of its global impact and the deadly consequences of failure, the imperative of the energy transition is not unlike a fugitive organism leaping outside the boundaries of its normal habitat. Even as we contemplate a renewed dependency on extraction, if we are not brought up short from our existing drunken binge on energy, then we risk proceeding headlong into another even more damaging and futile orgy of extraction. Upon fully grasping the challenge ahead, investors and futurists may frame this effort as a break with the past, but we also risk doubling down on our addiction. Just in case we aren’t noticing the gravity of recent events, we now face a new challenge to head-off an unmanageable collapse.

There are surely those who believe we will sustain momentum on some familiar trajectory of Progress and Growth, reinforcing the existing rules and laws of commerce, that there’s no reason to re-examine the operational imperatives of the central banks, that all hierarchies and differential privileges will be retained, that all the boundaries and binaries we take for granted (or don’t even notice) will remain unchallenged, that the eternal rules of economic gravity will be sustained, upon which we can return to the serious business of the upward transfer of wealth, inequality, denial, exploitation and violence, the abuse (or worse, elimination) of traditional cultures, and the destruction of natural capital. The catechism shall remain undisturbed.

The transition to a renewable energy economy is a test, perhaps the final test. The presumption that modernity can manage it all, that the utopian ideal, the myth of ‘freedom,’ the engines of mass communication, public relations and mainstream journalism will all conform to the master story, that the veneer of corporate social responsibility will survive and remain dominant is all in the balance. Or will the mythology of the inevitable ascent of humanity be unmasked in a quickening drama of collapse? Will the airwaves and social media will be filled with competing narratives and hollow discourses, sophisticated delusional schemes by which we entertain ourselves and by which huge sums and resources flow to a minuscule number of individuals? All of it sustained by tired systems of surveillance, indoctrination, and control? The dominant narrative is trembling and the costs some are willing to pay to prop up the game may at some point bleed into savagery.

The energy transition will intensify the dialectic. We must take up the task of dismantling the trans-national structures of economic hegemony. On one hand, we have the 40-year advance of the oligarchic agenda promoted by political parties, think tanks, organized religion and mass media attempting to cleanse national security, foreign policy, the judicial process, law enforcement, medicine, higher education, and the nation state of all but true believers, making space for bad actors to use vast political and media resources to drive sophisticated messaging, triggering fear and division for its own sake. These are the ingredients of unimaginable disaster.

You can avoid reality. But you can’t avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.
—Ayn Rand

On the other hand, if we regard our response to the pandemic as a practice run for future crises, we may learn something useful. We may invent new mechanisms to make sure all nations and all peoples, regardless of economic status, are included in a global response. We may give teeth to humane economic norms and sanctions for non-compliance with new standards for equity, human rights, environmental responsibility, resource conservation and sensible consumer restraint. We might have a public conversation about the long-term trajectory for managing the use of non-renewable resources or the implementation of practices that will reduce the likelihood of deeper crises emerging in the future. Capitalism is proving inadequate to deal with these long-term issues because it’s so focused on short-term gain and perpetuating itself. We might even say that capitalism has brought us the energy crisis in the first place. How do we imagine capitalism is the solution to a problem it created?

The stock market is an apropos example illustrating the increasingly threadbare fabric of conventional economics and culture. We say the market is not the real economy, but such pronouncements don’t penetrate the bastions of the linguistic managers. The message promulgated by central banks, major investment houses and politicians of all parties will surely be that everything is (or will be) okay. Yet the financial benefits of monetary policies meant to sustain the facade of growth and prosperity do not reach 90% of the population. It’s mostly gaslighting to protect the investor class. This is a deadly game of musical chairs. The music is getting louder, the jockeying more frantic and the song is nearing its end.

Will we proceed according to the same rules that got us here? Will we depend on Business As Usual to solve the existential issues before us that were created by……..Business As Usual? Will our energy future mirror our energy past, with its structural inequities, colonial designs, coercion, environmental destruction, widespread income insecurity, war, privilege, entitlement, and prevarication? The current manifestation is characterized by the contemporary political theorist, Sheldon Wolin as inverted totalitarianism, ‘the faceless anonymity of the corporate state,’:

 Our inverted totalitarianism pays outward fealty to the facade of electoral politics, the Constitution, civil liberties, freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary, and the iconography, traditions, and language of American patriotism, but it has effectively seized all the mechanisms of power to render the citizen impotent.

Here at the threshold of the Anthropocene, as we contemplate the consequences of our ruinous presence, with the possible end of human civilization coming into view, a dynamic and practical solution is staring us in the face. Are we capable of reforming our relationships with each other as well as with the planet? Nothing short of that will suffice.

 

Gary Horvitz

Gary is a former medical professional and nomad, a Buddhist thinker, writer and activist in Durham, NC. In addition to dancing and grieving at the ever-whirling edge of creation and destruction, Gary is the author of the forthcoming Just Passing Through: Reflections on Nonduality, Impermanence and Mortality, currently serialized on Substack and is also a co-facilitator of One Year to Live. What batters you becomes your strength. Move back and forth into the change. What is it like, such intensity of pain? If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

Tags: building a resilient economy, critiques of capitalism, polycrisis, the Anthropocene