Energy, food, and the upside (or not) of dystopia
This piece from The Telegraph’s Jeremy Warner is supposed to be about the upside of the fact that we’ve transitioned definitively to a new era of elevated food and energy prices, but the upshot that Warner arrives at sounds less like a silver lining than a recipe for a Promethean desperate-dystopian transformation of human civilization into something akin to Soylent Green:
[T]here are more positive ways of looking at…the apparently catastrophe of a current spike in food and oil prices…which don’t entirely fit with the present mood of declinism that has come to instruct all aspects of debate around the global economy … It seems that every time Western economies show some sign of climbing out of the mire, along comes another oil price shock to push them back in. Meanwhile, the most severe US drought in 25 years has sent grain prices soaring, adding to the already debilitating effects on world food supply of a poor monsoon season in Asia and a bad harvest in Russia and Ukraine. In our own neck of the woods, high levels of rainfall have wrecked the annual harvest from potatoes to wheat, apples and Brussels sprouts. Looking at the phenomenon globally, this is the third such food price shock in five years. Previous such episodes have spawned mass riots, and the last one is often cited as a major factor in the Arab spring.
… So where is the positive in all this gloom? Nobody is pretending that high oil and food prices are anything other than extremely painful. But by rationing demand, encouraging efficiency, incentivising new investment and driving the search for alternatives, high prices also provide an absolutely vital market discipline … Malthusian catastrophe is neither inevitable nor actually particularly likely given these pricing disciplines. At prices like these, previously untapped hydrocarbon reserves suddenly become economically viable, as do great tracks of under-exploited agricultural land. The era of cheap and plentiful may already be a thing of the past, but is that really such a bad thing?
— Jeremy Warner, “Best to get used to high food and energy prices — they’re here to stay,” The Telegraph, August 29, 2012 (emphasis added)
Regarding those “previously untapped hydrocarbon reserves” that have “suddenly become economically viable,” it’s important to remember that the reality on (and also under) the ground when it comes to “developing” untapped hydrocarbon reserves is profoundly problematic, as seen in, to name just one example, the growing problems stemming from the rise of fracking. And on the food side, there is of course no lack of problems with the universal adoption of industrial farming practices, including troubling effects on the food itself, the land, animals, and people: physically, psychologically, spiritually. The assumption behind Warner’s views appears to be the same one driving most mainstream thought and rhetoric on these issues: that our industrial-technological way of life simply has to be maintained. For an updated view of what the reality of a future unfolding in this fashion might well look like, switch from Soylent Green and see the human and planetary wasteland depicted by Paolo Bacigalupi in Pump Six and Other Stories, which, in the words of Publishers Weekly, “explores a post–fossil fuel future where genetically modified crops both feed and power the world, and greedy megacorporations hold the fates of millions in their hands.”
Meanwhile, note that despite all of the recent triumphalist rhetoric about the supposed end of peak oil as a viable theory, the estimable Andrew Evans-Pritchard pointed out just a few days ago in The Telegraph that “Peak cheap oil is an incontrovertible fact.” And that, of course, is what the practical reality of our present energy-and-economy predicament has always boiled down to.
To assume that things have to continue operating according to currently reigning principles and trajectories is both the height of unconsciousness and a surefire method for stumbling directly into a true disaster via our very efforts to avoid one. How much more challenging and rewarding it would be to approach the present circumstance conversely by using it as an opportunity for learning to see through the old agenda and its assumptions, even if only on an individual and personal level. To quote Jesus, the Buddha, The Matrix, and Rage Against the Machine: wake up!