Published on September 18th, 2011 | by Zachary Shahan8
Peak Oil, Peak Debt, and the Concentration of Power
September 18th, 2011 by Zachary Shahan
This is a truly wonderful post from The Oil Drum by Goddard College’s Charles Eisenstein (licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 U.S. License). Giving more depth to peak oil than the good infographic on that presented yesterday, but also delving deeply into the problems of our economy and how they are linked to our energy and environmental crisis, this 3-pager is my recommended reading of the month, at least. The concentration of power (increasingly obvious to us) and how that is linked to our energy infrastructure is, in particular, a very interesting part of it all for me, and piggy-backs on John Farrel’s excellent pieces on democratizing our electricity system.
I was just listening to this great cover of a great Rolling Stones song — Bitter Sweet Symphony — while reading this and thought it was actually a good match for the piece, so let’s start off with that:
by Charles Eisenstein
When theorists approach the peak oil problem from the perspective of finding a substitute that will allow us to maintain our present energy infrastructure, their conclusion is one of despair. There may be many substitutes for oil as a concentrated form of storable energy, but none of them are nearly as good as oil itself. Those invested in the status quo would, quite understandably, like to maintain it, but it is becoming apparent even to the most highly invested that the status quo is doomed; that it can be maintained only temporarily, and at a rapidly accelerating environmental cost.
The transition before us is not merely a transition in fuel types. It is also a transition in the whole energy infrastructure, both physical and psychological; a transition away from big power plants, distribution lines, and metered consumers; away from capital-intensive drilling, refining, distribution, and consumer fueling stations. More broadly, it is a transition away from centralization, concentration, and all the social institutions that go along with it.
Both the energy system and the money system are based on accumulation and the concentration of power. Not only our energy infrastructure, but our dominant yet invisible way of thinking about energy, presupposes a centralized system of distribution based on a highly concentrated energy source. Many alternative energy technologies have made little headway, not because they are technologically unfeasible, but because they don’t fit into our present physical, financial, and psychological infrastructure.
There is a causal as well as a metaphorical parallel between the concentration of power in oil and in money. A concentrated power source that can be stored allows social and political power to concentrate in the hands of those who control it. It generates very different social dynamics from an energy source that is universally distributed and constantly renewed.
For one thing, the profit potential of the latter is intrinsically less. Once you have sold the geothermal pump or the PV array, the buyer is self-sufficient, unlike the electrical power consumer who has to pay the metered rate in perpetuity. Energy dependency and economic dependency are closely linked.
A similar pattern holds in other fields as well. In medicine, for instance, the universal, endogenous medical knowledge of several centuries ago that employed common weeds as medicine has given way to a system in which both knowledge and pharmaceutical medicines have been purified, abstracted, and concentrated in an exclusive domain.
There is little profit potential in dandelion or burdock, nor did the village herbalist or country doctor of yesteryear make much money. We might apply the same analysis to the migration of legal power from informal community-based mechanisms of dispute resolution to the centralized, codified, and therefore in a sense concentrated mechanisms of the law. So also for education, entertainment, and news.
In all these realms though, the trend toward increasing concentration is nearing its peak, or has peaked already. The peak manifests in many different ways. In some areas it reflects resource depletion; in others, demand saturation; in others, it is due to technology. For example, thanks in large part to the Internet, a tide of decentralization and disintermediation is erasing the producer/consumer divide in the areas of news and entertainment. That more and more of our time is spent watching “content” produced by amateurs suggests that we are approaching “peak Hollywood,” in parallel with peak healthcare, peak pollution, peak advertising, peak fisheries, and peak oil.
It should not be surprising, since the profit motive has been the primary driver towards these peaks, that we should be approaching a peak in the realm of money as well, a peak that we might call “peak debt.” The crisis in money is ineluctably related to the crisis in everything else, because the viability of our money system depends on growth: the conversion of nature into goods, and relationships into services. This conversion cannot proceed much farther, due to resource depletion and the inability of society and biosphere to sustain more damage.