Guest Article: On Fossil Fuels and Revolutionary Awareness

Important note: This article is presented to our readers as food for thought and as a tool for up-close assessment of some political elements ISL members work side-by-side with in their everyday local-activism. In no shape or form does it represent the official line or even individual views within the ISL as a section or the RCIT as a whole. Enjoy and please feel free to leave a comment below.

On Fossil Fuels and Revolutionary Awareness

by Ophira Gamliel, Rehovot, Israel

Fossil fuels are an essential element in the analysis of modern production and economy. They have played a vital role in the rise of capitalism and its spread all over the world. It is difficult to imagine the immense success of capitalism and its capacity to recover from its cyclical crises without the never-ending flow of cheap energy feeding an ever-increasing production of goods to meet the demand of an ever-growing market. However, the fact that fossil fuels are a finite resource evaded policy makers and proponents of capitalism. It does not really make sense to structure the global economy and political system relying on finite resources to sustain exponential growth that, so to speak, runs the business – from governments through policy makers to the capitalists themselves (for an introduction to peak oil and its implications on growth, see Bartlett, 2012; for a more detailed account of the problem, see Barttlett, 2011 [1969]).

And fossil fuels are running out. It is no coincidence that the neo-con wars in the 1990s centered around countries rich in oil. Furthermore, it is likely that the financial crisis of 2008 has a lot to do with a consistent decline in global oil production, from which no recovery, no “boom”, can ever be expected. Such a decline naturally results in the rise of prices of oil and of all the goods manufactured and distributed around the world leading to recession. It is estimated that the global oil production peaked already in 2005, playing a major role in the rising cost of living and in the 2008 “sub-prime” financial crisis (Tverberg, 2012). We are currently five years into the crisis, and the giant players in the global markets offer plan after plan to deal with fiscal cliffs, debt crises and a growing unrest around the world due to hikes in prices, low salaries, job cuts and austerity measures. While these issues are amply discussed in the media and in the high offices of policy makers, the fact that oil is going to get more and more scarce and costly as the decline deepens, remains an issue of interest to “Peak Oilers” alone, an esoteric niche of scientists and environmentalists far off from the centers of power.

The excessive use of fossil fuels poses yet another problem: the threat of excessive CO² emissions resulting in climate change. In that sense, Peak Oil may be a blessing in disguise. Though the global institutions have acknowledged that man-made global warming poses a serious threat to the global ecosystem and humanity within it, they have been unable to reach any resolution and act upon it to curb the emissions of CO² in order to avoid a global catastrophe. The decline in oil production means also a decline in consumption and in CO² emissions, though it is not clear whether further global warming can be avoided before the fossil fuels simply run out (For a position arguing that “there’s enough oil to fry us all”, see Monbiot, 2012; for a position criticizing his Monbiot, see Leggett, 2012).

In any case, human civilization driven and sustained by capitalism is no longer feasible. Capitalism simply exhausted itself as a sociopolitical system. While it is often claimed that capitalism proved to be the most effective system to sustain development and freedom, let us remember that the great achievements capitalists are so proud of are relevant only for the Global North. Most people in the world live in underdeveloped countries, suffer from poverty and oppression and pay the price for the capitalists’ readjustments following cyclical crises in capitalism. The world superpowers simply move the problem from one place to another (commonly referred to as outsourcing and foreign investment) causing more and more conflicts and wars over dwindling resources (including lands and water) in the Global South. There seems to be little hope for a change as growth is an inescapable need of the system and profit is the major force driving the system. At this point it seems reasonable to aspire for the replacement of such an irrational system with a system based on actual needs and resources with values – rational and ethical – that correspond with the material reality of resource depletion and environmental hazards.

But here we have a problem. As the system becomes unfeasible to maintain, it can turn into something utterly undesirable and dangerous like regression to brutal feudalism, or “socialism or barbarism” in Rosa Luxemburg’s terms (1916). Without intentional transition on the international and regional levels to an economy based on resource management and centered around the public’s welfare, the world will probably see the rise of neo-fascist regimes and human disasters of immense scale caused by wars over resources. The neoliberal age already saw wars that, leaving aside the different excuses for waging them, were basically wars for controlling fossil fuel resources (Foster, 2008).

If capitalism proves to be a dead-end for the modern civilization as we know it, and I believe the present crisis is exactly that, it makes sense to turn into the only existing alternative ideology, which does not hold profit and financial growth as its driving forces. Marxism may be the only political framework that can cope with this mighty challenge even though it too might require reformation at the core of its ideology and revolutionary tactics to address the challenges posed by resource depletion and climate change.

Peak Oil and Hubert’s Bell-Shaped Curve

Peak oil is not a theory. It is a relatively simple calculation of the life-span of oil wells; each oil well reaches a peak of production, from which production becomes slower and of lesser quality until the well becomes unusable. The average life-span of an oil well is forty years. Similarly, oil discoveries peak reaching their decline and limit. These are natural constants; it takes forty years to reach from peak discovery to peak production.

Peak discovery and peak production are applicable to any substance, be it renewable or non-renewable. At some point, exponential growth of consumption reaches a limit conditioned by peak production. Only unsubstantial entities like debt, numbers and derivatives can exponentially grow forever. Besides oil reaching its peak production, probably in 2005, other resources required for production reached peak production like zinc, copper, tuna fish and top soil. It should be remembered that when we discuss peak oil, we refer to resource depletion in general.

Peak oil was first observed by M. King Hubbert, a geoscientist hired by Shell, in the 1950s. He predicted back then that US oil production will reach its peak in the 1970s, and his prediction proved correct. Hubbert summed up the average peak production of all the wells in the USA after peak discovery was already reached in the 1930s. He outlined a graph of peak production in a bell-shaped curve. This is known as the Hubbert’s curve or bell-shaped curve. Thus Hubbert could safely calculate the peak production of global oil to occur during the first decade of the 21st century.

At first, Hubbert’s scientific observation was ridiculed and dismissed as “Malthusian”. It was only later on in the 1990s that his predictions regarding the peak in global oil production motivated the rise of the Peak Oil movement marked by establishing a body of researchers and activists to address the problem, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO). Even today, half a century later and with no practical solution to the problem, economists and capitalists dismiss “peak oilers” by mentioning Malthus.

Malthus predicted the drowning of London in horse excrement by calculating exponential growth in horse excrement in relation to the size of the city of London. His calculations were correct, but before his prediction proved to be true, the motor engine was invented, and the city of London was spared from being all covered with horse dung. Though today this story seems like a historical anecdote, the problem at the time was severe and many were deeply concerned about it (Morris, 2007). Though the automobile solved the problem, the problem of the limits to growth is, today, more relevant than ever.

The critics of Hubbert and of peak oilers insist that science will conjure up some magic to maintain exponential growth of consumption without oil (what about other resources doesn’t seem to bother them much). This position is genreally known as Cornucopian contrasted with peak oil proponents (Montgomery, 2010). But the Cornucopian argument, as one further examines resource depletion and renewable energy resources, seems like sheer blind faith in technological innovation and financial incentives. This approach, it seems, is based on denying growth and its implications on resource depletion as a political issue and presenting it as a technological or “green”, environmental issue. A serious approach to resource depletion must acknowledge that a sociopolitical system relying on exponential growth of capital cannot but cease to function when the resources required for production become depleted.

Technotheism or Capitalist Myths

The belief in the power of technological innovation to solve the problem of resource depletion is nothing less than a modern religion or technotheism. That it is a form of religion is best exemplified by popular movements, very vociferous and trendy in Western protest movements like Occupy Wall Street, often presented like revolutionary ideology. Such, for example, is the Zeitgeist movement, which correctly identifies the course of human history and human conditions as a story of production and technology, yet claims that innovation will eventually resolve any issue without having to sacrifice the western-world standard of living. To back up these arguments they use pseudo-scientific narrations mixed with pseudo-psychological injunctions for happiness, self-fulfillment and community-oriented behavior. Zeitgeist is but a grotesque manifestation of what Graeber (2013) calls “futurism”, which is manifested among intellectual, financial and political elites unwilling to come into terms with the material reality of resource depletion and reach the inevitable conclusion that capitalism is simply no longer sustainable.

Among the contemporary intellectual elites in academia, media, business and politics, postmodernist relativism serves as ideological framework leading to absurd attempts at manipulating reality. In some fields, like in public relations, marketing and media, it works. The social and political reality can indeed be manipulated by experts on behaviorism working for a certain aim like promoting a product or a policy. Of course effective campaigns are also very costly; to instigate a rational and honest discourse about the material reality is hindered by the power to manipulate the sociopolitical reality concentrated in the hands of a very few people, mostly neoliberals and capitalists. However, material reality cannot be manipulated. The law of thermodynamics cannot be violated or amended or “delegitimized”; energy cannot be produced out of thin air in ever increasing (and exponentially so!) quantities. That is sorcery, not science. The sorcerers of public opinion can only convince themselves and the public that everything is alright as far as the storehouse can provide for the stomachs of the masses. Empty stomachs can’t be fooled. The masses of people going out on the streets in Europe, the USA and the Middle East signal that they come to realize that something substantial is indeed very wrong.

Thus, the eulogy to socialism was premature. The aspiration for a revolution resonates in the public sphere some three decades after it was declared dead by Fukuyama in his End of History essay (1989). But like all values and truths in the postmodernist era, the notion of a revolution was hollowed of its social, human liberation, meaning. The intellectual elites are eager to coin so many insignificant technological or scientific advances as “revolutionary”. Figures such as Steve Jobs are applauded in the international media as “revolutionaries”. When it comes to the uprisings in the Middle East, the so-called Arab Spring, revolution is understood as either a liberal aspiration for democracy and westernization or as a fundamentalist Islamic revolution, sweeping aside the voices calling for social justice, bread and housing. At a time when Marx’s predictions regarding the self-destructive nature of capitalism seem to be more relevant than ever before, only a few and somewhat anachronistic bodies and individuals seem to keep in mind the only alternative to capitalism, and one that went through a series of trials and errors over the past two centuries.

It doesn’t make sense to reform capitalism. The steep slope in Hubbert’s bell-shaped curve means more than resource depletion. It means capitalism has reached its limit as a system of providence (if it ever was) for human beings and for human civilization. From now onwards it can only do harm, to put it mildly. Even among the proponents of capitalism, the current state of the global economy is coined Ponziconomics, following Roubini’s (2009) analysis of the sub-prime financial crisis as a Ponzi scheme. It makes a lot of sense to try and reform socialism in view of a thorough and uncompromising evaluation of the material reality not unlike what Marx and Engels have done in their thorough analysis of the production methods of their own time in a tome called Das Kapital. This reform already begins to take shape as more and more people realize the mega-failure of neoliberal globalization to cope with the environmental challenges as they become more complicated each year. A serious scientist studying peak oil and climate change will be obliged to admit that science cannot advance any technological solutions to challenges which are above all political and social. Some sort of environmental socialism must replace neoliberal globalization or else, some sort of barbaric neo-feudalism will take its place (for a social scientist perspective, see Wallerstein, 2011; for an environmental geographer’s perspective, see North, 2009).

Marxist Theory and Resource Depletion

When attempting to understand the discourse in contemporary economics, the “uninitiated” – even intellectuals and scientists – simply sense it as gibberish. Innovations, incentives, investments and above all the notion of human nature as inherently, even genetically, inclined to compete for death (of others, of course) under the guidance of a mysterious and divine-like entities like giant invisible hands, almighty markets and fanciful derivatives (dignified mathematicians are left unimpressed, by the way) are simply fabricated unsubstantial entities. They are meaningful only in those elite circles of finance gamblers in the global casino, which in spite of all the power they have, are left far removed from the real markets (far from being “free”) and from the real producers of wealth (far from being as simpletons as the neoliberals would like them to be).

The neoliberal cult may be able to ignore the plight of the masses. It cannot ignore resource depletion. Not for much longer. And if we wish, as proclaimed humanists and leftists, to find a way out of social and human disasters in large scales and in the foreseeable future, we must reevaluate the Marxist theory of economics and revolution in light of a material reality that was not sufficiently studied and incorporated in the analysis of capitalism cyclical crises and in the understanding of revolutionary consciousness and tactics.

Peak oil is a simple idea to grasp, unless one is a technotheist, that is. Every worker around the world knows very well that the cost of living increases, purchase power decreases and job opportunities dwindle. But they hear different explanations for this predicament, hold different opinions about it and do not necessarily feel the urge to revolutionize and materialize the Marxist vision. Even the global left contains a certain degree of abhorrence towards Marxism, especially the anti-colonial and post-modernist trends. Many renowned leftist thinkers and politicians do not even commit themselves any longer to socialist values. Peak oil awareness may utterly change this aversion and vindicate Marx’s criticism of capitalism and vision of freedom from oppression.

Peak oil awareness is revolutionary awareness. The lower and middle classes won’t be able to survive it without international and local social networks and support. The price of competition and profit-oriented behavior would be too high to pay for all too many individuals, communities and societies. It won’t be too far fetched to argue that the uprisings in the past two years in the global North and the global South (we do not get to hear of all them to the same extent) are motivated by social survival instincts, whether consciously or not.

People know in their guts, in their herd mentality, that the current system poses a threat on their very existence whether as individuals, socioeconomic groups, or ethnic populations caught up in oppressive regimes. The all too powerful capitalists too have survival instincts. The panic waves often associated with resource depletion and environmental disasters news in the public sphere are an echo of a real situation. It may very well be that fearing public panic and agitation the issue of peak oil and resource depletion is being swept off from debate in the public sphere. If Marxists expect the masses to revolt against the current capitalist crisis management by the elites and aspire for a revolutionary leadership to spring up and be there for the masses, they must incorporate peak oil awareness in their revolutionary awareness.

Marxist theory must adjust itself to the crying-out-loud facts of resource depletion without dismissing it as an issue of “green” trendy bourgeois classes. It is not. Not only is it a real problem, which the post-revolution world (hopefully a socialist one) will have to cope with, it is an issue that many worker and lower-class struggles are directed at around the Global South, like protests against hike in petrol prices in India and Jordan and struggles against huge dams in India and land grabs in Africa. To stand up with the international community of workers means to take back whatever is left from our depleted resources and use it for guaranteeing the smoothest and most peaceful transition to a sustainable civilization. The workers should be acknowledged about the situation. They should not be led to believe that wage might rise again and cost of living might drop and capitalism might recover so that more time may be spent on trial and error. They should not be led to believe that the western standard of living is feasible for the masses. They should be confronted with the fact that what is at stake is the survival of the future generation. And one revision of the analysis must be implemented: this crisis is not only due to over-production as Daum (1990) suggests. It is no less due to resource depletion. So the revolutionary attitude and proposed vision must take it into account.

On a Political Crossroad

The current financial crisis is mainly debated in Europe and in the USA. Though predicted by Marx and analyzed in Marxist theory, the debate is saturated with the belief that there is no alternative to capitalism, something went wrong like frauds or structural flaws in the system, but by and large, economists and policy makers project the notion that the system can be “fixed”. Strangely enough and against the neoliberal self-image of being innovative and postmodern, they turn to good old Keynes or remove the dust off 1930s Chicago plan. In short, they have nothing new to offer for dealing with the crisis, but still they obviously fear the Marxist vision of workers in power. In light of resource depletion, and especially peak oil, the attempts towards recovery from the current crisis seem ridiculously pathetic.

To deal with the present crisis, the European Union first took the neoliberal approach of austerity measures. That made Greece and Spain all agitated, and now there are voices invoking the Keynesian model, admitting that austerity measures failed to provide recovery. But social democracy seems incapable of overcoming this crisis, as it seeks the solution to the cyclical crises of capitalism in pumping finance into the public sector to encourage consumption. This is impossible in an age where consumption in the Global North is in an urgent need to be curbed owing to the risks posed by resource depletion and environmental hazards like Fukushima nuclear disaster (2011) and the British Petroleum huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (2010). Additionally, the average per person rate of consumption in the Global North is disproportionately excessive in comparison with the Global South. To insist that financial growth in GDP terms will enable the Global South to enjoy the benefits of capitalism is simply lying. We already know that exactly the opposite happens. Peak oilers would add that the peoples of the Global South are simply “late for the party”. They, at least, do not construct fancy castles on thin air. The welfare state, then, is unfeasible as a possible take off towards recovery.

Another solution offered recently is a revised version of the 1930s Chicago plan, where the government rather than the banks is the producer of money and regulator of debt (Evans-Pritchard, 2012). That would simply make the state the owner of the finance sector, not necessarily for the benefit of the worker class and the environment. What is worse is that it won’t solve the problem. State capitalism is not much different from corporate capitalism or any form of capitalism. And when growth is no longer materially sustainable, the attempt to reform the system so it can regain its capacity to grow doesn’t make much sense as the resources required for growth are quickly dwindling.

It is noteworthy that big corporations and policy makers present the notion of sustainability in terms of “green growth” or “smart growth” and even “corporate sustainability”. In light of the material reality of accelerated resource depletion and rising costs of energy, such terms are merely an oxymoron, as no growth can ever be sustainable in a finite material world. In fact, even the discovery of another planet to inhabit won’t make growth anymore sustainable than it currently is. Exponential growth and sustainability are inherently contradictory.

If there is any hope for peak oilers to see the radical shift from the growth paradigm to a paradigm with sustainability at its core, it lies in the theory of over-production. Indeed over-production is not only the most reasonable explanation for capitalism’s cyclical crises; it also provides an economical explanation for peak production of resources. Similarly, if Marxists have any hopes in the realization of a Marxist revolution led by the working classes world-wide, the incorporation of peak oil awareness seems necessary, on theoretical and tactical grounds alike.

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