Sunday, November 28, 2010

Literature and Limits

Aristotle wrote that the desires of humans are unlimited. This is completely consistent with the modern notion proposed by Howard Odum of the Maximum Power Principle which states that biological systems seek to maximize their power intake. In the context of evolution it makes sense that those human beings who gathered the most energy to themselves in the form of food, heat, and even tools for self-defense, hunting and later farming were most likely to survive and produce offspring.

Before the fossil fuel age nature provided limits on power intake. And, wisdom was in part an understanding of where those limits lay so as to avoid overstepping them and suffering the inevitable punishment for doing so.

In the industrial age fossil fuels have given us the illusion of no limits, and the Enlightenment provided the philosophical basis for such thinking by imagining the perfectibility of humankind in all ways intellectual and material. The application of reason was the liberating force that would make progress eternal.

Rising material wealth in the 19th and 20th centuries moved questions of material progress to the background in literature and philosophy since such progress seemed assured despite its uneven trajectory and the injustice which accompanied the distribution of its fruits. The seemingly intractable problem of scarcity had been overcome.

And so, the focus of literature moved to the themes of social justice and the psychic drama of the family and the individual. It's not that such themes weren't already in use. But a society believing that its material progress is assured will no longer find the themes of limits and scarcity helpful.

What is missing, therefore, from most modern stories is the notion of physical resource limits. Such limits imply a tragic trajectory, the possibility of failure and punishment for overuse of the physical world. In the last half century the scientific literature has been infused with increasingly ominous warnings about such limits. But popular stories accessible to the mass of humanity, at least in rich countries, still most often champion explicitly or implicitly the ideas of a limitless material future.

There are plenty of tales of technology gone wrong. One the earliest at the dawn of the fossil fuel age was Frankenstein. But this story does not embody the theme of technology failing for lack of available resources. For such a theme we must look to stories of castaways cut off from the logistical supply lines of society.

But now we must look toward a literature in which we all become castaways, severed from the wells of plenty not by a freakish storm, but by the dictates of geology and the limits it is about to place on our primary sources of energy: fossil fuels. For that we must come again to understand that nature can provide a backdrop for what William Catton Jr. calls the “tragic story of human success”--that hubris and nemesis are not merely psychosocial terms implying humiliation, but terms that carry the sting of hunger and want embedded within them.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Peak oil and climate change in 13 minutes

At the recent 2010 International Conference on Sustainability I made a brief presentation focused on using concrete illustrations that explain peak oil and climate change in ways that relate to people's everyday experiences. I have been searching for methods to bring the basics of peak oil and climate change out of the realm of the abstract, and this is my first public attempt to do just that.

What I am most interested in are your ideas for how we all might do a better job of making these important issues more vivid for audiences, especially those who are just starting to learn about them. While my presentation is not the classic "elevator speech" (unless the elevator ride is 13 minutes long and you have room for props), I do think it was a good first step.

Here is the presentation:

Monday, November 15, 2010

Why I wrote Prelude, a peak oil novel

Every culture lives by its narratives. And, these narratives come to us not just in the form of novels, plays, movies and television shows. They also come in the form of news stories, ideology, religious doctrine, theories that are social, political and scientific, and myriad other works which fall under the category of nonfiction. Over time these narratives become outmoded, and new ones emerge, or at least, the old ones are reworked in light of new circumstances.

Prelude, my peak oil novel, is part of a broader, ongoing process that is developing a counternarrative to the dominant one which is driving our global society toward the brink of social, economic and environmental collapse. At first, counternarratives are voiced by the few who perceive changed realities and try to articulate those new realities in ways that will allow a broader group of people to see them. There is an action plan implied by these counternarratives, but their effect on the actual functioning of society is small at this point. Widespread organized and concerted action for change still lies in the future.

In many ways that's where we are in the peak oil story. As concern about peak oil spreads through more and more communities and to the highest circles in industry and government, we are approaching a critical threshold. But will we as a global society choose to pass through it?

As of now the story of peak oil has yet to reach the broad public, most of whom have never even heard the term, let alone contemplated its significance. Without broad public awareness it will be difficult for politicians and policymakers at all levels to find support for initiatives aimed at addressing peak oil.

When I conceived of Prelude three years ago, it was based on the notion that ideas only become widely dispersed in the public mind when they are infused in the arts. Since then several peak oil-themed novels have found their way to the bookstore shelves. Most of these, it turns out, are based either on an apocalyptic vision of a post-peak oil world or on the device of a sudden, catastrophic loss of oil, often through means that have little to do with peak oil production as it is commonly conceived.

I decided to create a narrative set firmly in contemporary society. I wanted a story that would reframe the way people read the daily news and the way they interpret their everyday experience. My premise was that readers would more readily identify with a world familiar to them than one set in the distant future or transfigured by an imaginary crisis.

During the three years it took to write the book, there has been a small, but steady proliferation of peak oil-related art, cartoons, stand-up comedy, theater, songs (here, here, and here), and even some peak oil poetry (here and here). The infusion of peak oil themes into the arts has now begun and appears to be spreading. This development is both a reflection of growing public awareness and a tool to create more awareness. Many more literary, performance, and graphic works of art will have to be married with the peak oil theme before they produce a self-reinforcing spiral that will blanket the public with the peak oil message.

My goal in writing Prelude was to help to create that self-reinforcing spiral of awareness, to break out beyond the peak oil community, beyond even the broader sustainability community, and to reach people who know little or nothing about such issues, but have chosen to read Prelude because they find it a compelling story in its own right. This implies a very broad audience, and my goal is an ambitious one. But success could mean nothing less than a large new group of people open to participating in national, regional and local initiatives related to peak oil and other sustainability issues.

Naturally, I will be gratified if this book finds broad acceptance among those in the peak oil community. Even if it does, it will fall far short of my goal. That's why I'm hoping that those who read it and like it will recommend it especially to those who previously have had little association with peak oil or sustainability. The book was written with such people in mind.

No single work of art can express all the needs of an era. But through the efforts of activists and the continued creative work of artists, performers and writers, I believe we can achieve a much broader awareness of peak oil and other sustainability issues, an awareness that will lay the groundwork for a much more effective response to the daunting challenges that lay before us.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Two-week break -- Book launch imminent

I will not be posting this week or next as I must devote all my time to launching my peak oil novel, Prelude. Naturally, as soon as the book becomes available I'll be announcing it here and elsewhere.