by Steve McKinlay
1 March 2005, Wellington
We’re all following a strange melody
We’re all summoned by a tune
We’re following the piper
And we dance beneath the moon…
The fundamental promise at the dawn of the 20th century was the democratisation of modernity. The ideology of modernity prescribed rational thought as the ultimate liberator informing us to the truth about the world and ourselves. The road to progress therefore would be one built upon true knowledge, knowledge informed by science and logic, free from superstition, dogma and ignorance. And lets face it science delivered, not only did it put men on the moon but it laid the foundation for our modern all-mod-cons way of life. The last century upon the foundations of science and logic was one characterised by great technological advancement. We have become accustomed to the belief consequently, that there are technological solutions to all our problems, we like to call this human ingenuity.
However the 21st century dawns under the spectre of an ever-increasing pluralism. Science and rationalism is in decline in favour of baneful individualism. The sciences increasingly perceived as irrelevant by students and laymen are retreating into their respective labs and philosophy departments, in favour of a kind of pop-cultural post-modern relativism. In the wake of this retreat we are left with all manner of popular worldviews that by and large freely evolve within the democratized slurry of our suburban malls, determined by our SUV driven, recreational shopping lifestyles, mostly devoid of any rationality, selected for consumption by a corporatist media intent and dependant upon perpetuating a myth.
The myth itself is one of the most fundamental views to transpire within modern consumerist society. Supported by the mantras of neo-classic and supply-side economic theory and in conjunction with our newfound technological hubris emerges the unquestionable assumptions of perpetual growth and “endless substitution”. Essentially this myth embodies the faith that the “market” will always provide. New products and resources are always superseded by something cheaper, more efficient and much better than the previous. To economists natural resources are no exception to the rule. The market of course dictates, as productivity increases, prices drop, production increases, more exchange occurs and living standards rise for all involved. And on and on and on it goes, forever.
Neo-classic economic theory is the supposed perpetual motion machine of the globalised mass consumer fantasy, predicated by endless economic growth compounding at 3% or so a year, creating wealth via fractional reserve banking and fiat currency. Tomorrow’s expansion is the put-up collateral for today’s debt. According to modern economics there are no limits to this growth. Forget the sciences, unquestionable faith in technological progress will allow us to use fewer and fewer resources for greater and greater returns. The reductio ad absurdum of this bizarre form of reasoning is that technology will eventually enable us to use zero resources for infinite returns.
Both science and reason inform us otherwise. We only need consult the laws of thermodynamics in order to inform ourselves that any kind of perpetual motion machine is impossible. Energy is the capacity to do work. No energy equals no work. Thus our entire global economy much to the chagrin of voodoo economists is 100% dependant upon energy. In order to grow economically we must also grow our energy consumption too.
It may be offensive to futurists, technologists, economists and Energy Ministers but the laws of thermodynamics inform us that neither capital, labour nor technology can create energy. We cannot convert our supposed intelligence, our ability to find novel technological solutions into energy. Instead available energy must be expended in order to transform matter (e.g., oil, natural gas etc.) or to divert an existing energy flow (e.g., water, wind etc.) into more available energy. Furthermore energy resources must produce more energy than they consume. It would never be economic to expend more than one barrel of oil to extract one barrel of oil.
Which brings us to oil. As the price oil again surges out beyond US$50bbl we ought to remind ourselves that the price has increased almost 300% since 1999. Our Governments inability to see and react to this trend let alone consider the evidence that the demand for oil is surpassing the maximum available supply is deeply disturbing. The attitude is clearly indicative of a collective ostrich mentality to an eminent crisis. Such blind adherence to current economic dogma combined with a reckless sense of bravado in regard to technological solution finding is reminiscent of the captain at the helm of the Titanic. Our unsinkable so called globalised economy is in for a rude awakening.
To the vast majority of us ignorant to the lessons of history, conditioned by an extended period of prosperity and technological advancement this is not welcome news. The callous reality is that we are staring down the barrel of the next Great Depression not because we are “running out of oil” but because the truism of perpetual economic growth fuelled by a seemingly endless growth in the supply of oil is about to be reversed.
Steve McKinlay for
1 March 2005