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Date Published: 6/23/2010
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THEORY BEYOND THE CODES



Oil and the Regime of Capitalism:

Questions to Philosophers of the Future


Tere Vadén



"What if the hegemony of the West was not, after all, defined by modern natural science and technology, enlightenment and individualism but by a one-time offering of coal, gas and oil?"

The anthropological record suggests that, typically, in pre-modern and non-industrialized communities the foundation of meaning is not separate from the world of material income: utility objects are beautiful and beauty is purposeful. Contrary to this, industrial civilization has often been described as a divider of the world of values and tools, means and objectives, which, through calculated reason, extracts everything it can without actually knowing why or for what purpose.

There is much truth in this bi-partition theory, but perhaps an even more disturbing picture of industrial civilization is obtained if it too is seen as a uniform culture that reveals the foundation of meaning through its utility objects. In places all around the globe, on land and in the sea, pipes protrude from beneath the ground, meandering towards enormous containers and networks of more pipes. Oil tankers and tank trucks haul acrid-smelling liquids further and further away to increasingly smaller containers and tanks, until the thin pipes end up in a pressure chamber where droplets split into gas are continuously combusted. What does this simultaneous foundation of meaning and for material life say about us? At the very least, it tells us that if it is the foundation we are blind to it, and the bi-partition theory is one form of blindness.


Capitalism and the bottlenecks

Let us examine two claims often presented about capitalism. According to the first claim, capitalism is an endlessly adaptive system and ideology. In an awkward way -- one that a revolutionary may almost loathe -- capitalism can adapt to any circumstances. It swallows all forms of resistance, transforming them into part of itself. Revolt becomes commercialised and made into a product, big brother's extra-large trousers become hip-hop fashion, and ethnic identity becomes commercial bric-a-brac. The second claim is that negative limits can be set for capitalism, particularly in relation to environmental problems such as pollution and climate change. Supposedly, there is a physical limit to growth-oriented capitalism after which nature can no longer withstand the use, and a psycho-social, or even biological limit, beyond which man can no longer endure life under capitalism.

Our wager is that we can begin thinking about the future in opposition to these claims. Firstly, capitalism is a very fragile system. Indeed, the contemporary complex capitalist system is not particularly flexible or strong, but is instead stiff and weak. Secondly, environmental problems have no limit beyond which they become intolerable. As long as it happens slowly enough, they can always become worse. Likewise, human psycho-social or biological environments can radically deteriorate without becoming impossible. More than once the last century demonstrated that the zero point of psycho-social conditions can be reached without provoking systemic breakdowns.

It is true that capitalism -- as an abstract notion, as an image of a system where there exists private property, and a society where one is rewarded for ownership and where capital must grow -- is, of course, extremely flexible and not dependent on any single value or social order. It can operate in many different climatic conditions, and accommodate many different religious, as well as secular, environments. No single issue determines the fate of abstract capitalism. For this reason, undermining capitalism is difficult because of its ability to escape final grounding not only in any single issue but also in any complex of individual issues.

The counter-argument is that every concrete form of capitalism, every really existing capitalism -- for example, the system that prevails in Finland, the Nordic countries or northern Europe in general, or something even so abstract as Western capitalism -- is sufficiently concrete and consequently sensitive. Marx emphasised that capitalism itself always produces crises, its own crises, moments when it changes its preconditions. Indeed, the fact that capitalism is a system that produces internal crises also demonstrates the claim that capitalism is fragile. Crisis is always crisis: and it can also lead to destruction.

This is linked with a morphological observation concerning forms and sizes which is easiest to explain with an animal allegory. Let us think, for example, of an animal in the shape of a mouse: the mouse has thin legs, an oblong body, a relatively large head with a long snout, etc. There exist other animals that are roughly the same as a mouse, such as the shrew and rat. "Mouse-shaped", however, cannot be any size, for instance the size of a dog or horse. Its constitution would not function at that scale. The head would be too heavy, the legs too thin, or something else along those lines. "Mouse-shapedness" cannot arbitrarily grow so that the proportions of all parts remain the same. For the same reason, capitalism reaches a crisis point. It cannot continuously grow so that the proportions of different parts remain the same. The parts and the proportions of the parts must change. From this follows delicacy. Every concrete capitalism is extremely frail at some point and in some way delimited by a morphological bottle-neck, namely scarcity. At different moments and in different concrete forms of capitalism the bottleneck is different.

A second claim, according to which environmental problems, pollution, climate change and so forth have no limits, is simultaneously related to the claim concerning life under a capitalist system. In his book Planet of Slums [1] Mike Davis describes the mega-cities of Africa, Latin America, India, China and Indonesia, where tens of millions of people, and in continuously increasing numbers, live in slum conditions. Davis tells about the single mother in the slum, who already lives in unbearable conditions, is the poorest of the poor, having two jobs, but with no comforts, no water or sanitation. What happens when one more child is born? The mother will bear it. What about when the old and sick grandmother has to be taken care of? The mother will bear it because she has to. There is no limit after which the slum mother can no longer bear it because the option of not bearing it does not exist. Demands can always be increased, circumstances made worse, and she will always endure. The same can be said for more widely based living conditions and the environment. As long as change occurs slowly enough, conditions will not likely appear so negative that people would not consent to accommodating themselves to their (capitalist) fate.

Following these leads, we must take a closer look at present capitalism. Do we encounter a negative limit after which we no longer tolerate it? No. The limit of capitalism must therefore be looked for from the positive side through morphological frailty. What are the preconditions -- environmental prerequisites, raw material prerequisites -- that present capitalism needs? Due to the frailty of capitalism, one must concentrate on what is particular and concrete, what this capitalism needs. What is this capitalism?

Capitalism, which is based on the principle of economic growth, necessarily needs raw materials, free trade, world trade, and globalization -- though there do perhaps exist forms of capitalism that do not need, for instance, world trade. Is there a form of capitalism that does not need economic growth? That is already more debatable. Can one date the birth of present capitalism? One of the best indicators is the start of economic growth. Roughly during the 1820s in Europe there began a long period of economic growth and increased production, which also corresponded with the growth in population: these are depicted by the famous "hockey stick" graph, where the point where the handle reaches the blade represents, at the latest, the 1950s. Economic growth is not a generally applicable or common phenomenon. Rather, the incipient economic growth had comparatively clear reasons and forms: coal and the steam engine, the electric motor and the combustion engine, oil and natural gas. The era of fossil fuels and the motors and machines that utilise them is inseparable from economic growth and the bottleneck of present capitalism.

Therefore, a philosophical claim: to a great extent, theoretical discourse concerning capitalism concerns this concrete capitalism and not abstract capitalism, even though such discourse is always aware of its own limited knowledge. For example, when Marx and Engels in Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) characterise capitalism as a system where "all that is solid melts into air and all that is holy is profaned" [2] the question then is about this concrete capitalism based on economic growth that has been fed with cheap fossil fuel energy. This capitalism changes with the economy of coal and oil, like a mouse becomes a dog and a dog becomes an elephant. These metamorphoses are not the platonic phenomena of abstract capitalism but are instead directly attached to the movements of black raw materials.


Oil dependency and the oil peak

Oil dependency means that the present capitalism needs cheap oil. Oil is a non-renewable natural resource. "Non-renewable" means that as oil is used it runs out. The question, however, concerning when oil completely runs out is not particularly interesting. What is decisive is the bottleneck question: when does the sufficiently cheap, easy oil that can be pumped in large amounts, run out? Oil may "always" be available somewhere at some price but the point where it starts to hurt, however, is the lack of abundant, cheap oil. The question becomes philosophical when we remember that the Marxist theoreticians describe themselves as materialists, who pay attention at the ground level to the concrete forms of production and their conditions. Fossil fuel or energy in general have, however, been relatively little discussed in Marxist theory.

Famous Marxist political leaders certainly realised the importance of energy -- Lenin had his motto "socialism = electricity + the power of the soviets"; Stalin began his career by organizing strikes and blockades in the Baku oil fields -- but not necessarily the limitations to productivism caused by the finite nature of fossil fuels. Cuba and Latin American countries may provide the crucial exceptions to this pattern. In Cuba, the so-called "Special Period" after the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the decades-long US embargo have, without a doubt, made energy a prominent topic for political thought. In his autobiography, speaking with Ignacio Ramonet about the environmental disaster, Fidel Castro makes the crucial observation: "Marx thought that the limit on the development of wealth lay in the social system, not in natural resources, as we know today." [3]

Let's think, for example, of work. Production can be increased in two ways; by doing more work or by doing the same tasks more efficiently, more productively. The history of contemporary capitalism is the history of both these branches: efficiency is increased by the division of labour, specialization, technology and automation. At the same time, also more work is carried out: human work and non-human work powered by energy. Both Marxists and anti-Marxists have had much to say about how a new labour force is created by turning people into paid labour. Yet surprisingly little has been said precisely about the increase of non-human labour, and its morphological effects. Oil is not, of course, "produced", even though the term is generally in use. Oil is not "man-made". It is discovered, extracted and then used. The use of oil as energy is, according to the definition in physics, "the ability to work": when burned and manipulated, oil does work. Which factors in this capitalist system depend upon the amount of easy and cheap non-human labour? Which of these dependencies are arbitrary, and which ones are necessary?

In the 1950s, M. King Hubbert, a geologist working for the Shell company, predicted that oil production in the USA would reach its peak in 1970, which subsequently proved correct, one consequence of which was the oil crisis of the 1970s. [4] The calculations regarding availability and sufficiency of oil are, for many reasons, virtually secret. First of all, the starting points are obscure because the oil producing countries and oil companies have many reasons to keep the estimates for oil production and the resources a secret or to distort them. This is already in itself an interesting fact about the "transparent market economy": the market economy itself hides the basis for its continuity as a side product of its own actions. Scientifically peer-reviewed information about oil quantities simply does not exist. In the same way as the stock market can act only under the circumstances of unfree and unbalanced information, the combustion engine of this capitalism can only keep running if the fuel gauge is unreliable.

There are many different ways, however, of assessing the situation. Hubbert's classic calculation was based on a simple observation: the production of a single oil well can be described roughly with the help of the Gauss curve. Production increases, reaches its peak and then decreases. This is represented by a bell curve, where the highest point represents the moment of peak production (peak oil or Hubbert's peak). When the output indicators of individual oil wells are added together we still get a bell curve -- a much bigger one. Of course a curve describing production is not totally symmetrical. Hubbert's first estimate from 1956 was based on the idea of how much oil reserves there were in the USA (adding together the already produced oil, the known resources and the assumption of still to be found oil wells). [5]

When the amount of total reserves as well as the rise in production are known, it is also possible to estimate the peak point and decrease in production with the help of the bell curve. Hubbert's second method used as its starting point a curve that included the amount of oil discovered. Production followed the curve of the (total) amount of discovered oil with a delay of about 10 years. Already then the number of discoveries was declining, anticipating future decreases in production. Hubbert also calculated the time of the peak using a third method based on the assessment of the success of oil exploration: how much oil has been discovered when 10 million feet has been drilled in exploration. The (total) amount of oil discovered per drilled million feet decreased exponentially. Hubbert predicted that peak production for the entire world would occur in around the 1980s and 1990s. His methods and starting points have subsequently been made more precise, but the basic assessments have remained the same. [6] The discovery of new oil reserves have decreased for decades and a large number of oil producing nations have already passed their oil producing peak. A good example is the UK, which thanks to the oil discovered in the North Sea in the 1970s became an important oil exporter in the 1980s, passed its peak in 1999, and after that slid into an oil importing country at the beginning of the 21st century.


EROEI, or does the cake grow by eating it?

Oil is a quite incredible, lyrical, metaphysical substance. [7] A natural scientist would say that oil consists of long hydro-carbon chains. Depending on the different lengths of chains and adjacent impurities, crude oil is classified as light, heavy, low-sulphur, high-sulphur, and so on. Hydro-carbon chains are interesting chemically: they are difficult to manufacture, making them requires a lot of effort and energy, and they have many beautiful properties. The formation of the hydro-carbon chains of oil required an unimaginably long period of time. Generally, it is estimated that the largest oil deposits began to form about 400 million years ago (the human species is about 200,000 years old, the first oil rig was built in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859). One of the oldest known oil properties is that it burns. And in recent times it has been discovered that it is possible to make almost anything from it: microphones, walls, medicines, bags, computer parts, plates, fertiliser, artificial joints, floor planks, and so on. In a way long hydro-carbon chains are the alchemist's dream, a substance from which you can form anything you desire -- albeit not gold. Even when trying to describe oil in a soberly natural-scientific way -- chemically, geologically, paleobiologically -- one ends up almost inevitably with ecstatic and mystic visions.

In one year approximately one cubic mile of oil is used globally. [8] Correspondingly, in the 21st century global consumption has been about 85 million barrels per day. Contained in a cubic mile of oil is an enormous amount of energy, the ability to carry out work. The same amount of energy would be obtained if 50 nuclear power plants of the type at Olkiluoto in Finland would produce electricity continuously for 50 years (or put differently, if 2500 Olkiluoto nuclear power plants would operate continuously for one year). Similarly, 104 coal-fired power plants of 500 megawatts would be needed to operate for 50 years (or 5200 such plants for one year). Nobody is prepared to calculate how much carbon-dioxide emissions that would create. In the same vein, one could consider what it would mean to build 2500 new nuclear power plants. Would there be enough steel, concrete, uranium, time, money... Here is a view into the cruel beauty of oil: a cubic mile is, after all, not an impossibly large mass, [9] but the energy it creates is virtually stellar. Only the sun exceeds oil in energy amounts, and oil is, of course, "preserved sun".

The enormity can be further illustrated by transforming these issues into human labour -- these transformations are, naturally, a mere play of ideas and contain simplifications and unsubstantiated assumptions. It is estimated that the energy consumption of the entire world in 2005 was 15 terrawatts. [10] Out of this roughly 13 terawatts was accounted for by fossil fuels. Let us presume that one human can work with an efficiency of 100 watts. If in 2005 there were 6.5 billion people on the planet their total annual work efficiency (maximally) was 0.65 terawatts. Fossil fuel, in other words, gave each person a 20-fold work increase (and other types of energy about a triple increase). Because the energy increase has not been spread evenly around the globe, one can assume that a typical Westerner has tens of "oil slaves" in his service. If all this work were carried out with human labour, 20 times more labour would be needed in the world.

The gauge of the enormous work ability of oil is also accounted for with a ratio called EROEI, "Energy Return on Energy Invested". The matter in itself is simple. EROEI measures how much energy is required when a certain amount of energy is used; in other words, how much potential additional energy is acquired by doing some actual amount of work (e.g. how much heating energy is obtained when firewood is chopped for a couple of hours). EROEI is not the same as thermal efficiency, which measures how large an amount of the used energy goes towards the intended purpose and how much goes wasted as heat, etc. At the most, EROEI could be seen as the thermal efficiency of energy acquisition work: i.e. how much work must be done, for example, to fill a barrel with oil; is the amount of work greater or smaller than the energy contained in a barrel of oil? EROEI is calculated by dividing the amount of energy gained by the energy expended. If the number is greater than 1 we get an "energy profit", but if it is smaller we get a loss. Again, an example from the animal kingdom will help to illustrate. The capercaillie in the wintry forest needs energy to keep warm, for digestion, to move about, and maybe a little bit for growth and renewal. Energy is obtained by eating spruce needles. If the frost condition is severe, the bird will need to fly far to obtain sustenance. Energy-wise, its day is likely to flip to the negative side of the EROEI calculation. Realistically, it would have been better for the bird to have remained in its snow shelter. Obviously, a state of negative EROEI cannot last long.

So now we return to the bottleneck of capitalism when studying the best oil and gas fields, which have an EROEI ratio in the tens. According to the most optimistic claims, the EROEI of some oil fields would have been even over 100; in other words, with the work of one oil barrel one would have gotten 100 new barrels of oil. [11] Maybe it is possible to believe such claims when one remembers how in old films oil is shown spurting from the ground. At its easiest, oil can indeed be found directly under the surface. These most easily discovered and productive oil fields are naturally used up first, and the EROEI of the fields in present production is well under 100, under 50, if not even under 20.

Virtually free -- or at least manifold rewarding -- energy spurting out from the ground: herein lies the material and mystical foundation of growth-oriented capitalism. It is mystical because it masks its existence so that neither capitalist nor anti-capitalist theory refers to it when explaining economic growth and changes in the economic systems over the last 150 years. The oil of the high EROEI is the pulse of the economy but, to employ a different metaphor, it also produces a blind spot in the middle of the theoretical analysis of growth.

From the same black spot slither out also horrific tentacles. Division of labour and technological development have raised productivity. Billions of people have taken up and been born into paid labour instead of life. From this obviously follows economic growth. But at the same time the best energy sources of all time have been bled dry. The stored solar energy of countless ancient years has been used up in mere moments. As mentioned earlier, the work carried out by this extra energy is ten times larger in comparison to human work. The capitalist and socialist economic systems of the last century received a unique gift; unique in the sense that there is only one gift, and unique in the sense that the gift has soon been used up. Worst of all is how dependent the post-green revolution intensive farming is on the high EROEI oil. Farming with tractors, combine harvesters, and artificial fertilisers made from natural gas are not "primary production" but, from the EROEI perspective, a way to consume energy. [12] We eat tons of fossil-fuels.

From uniqueness follows, inevitably, further questions. If many generally applicable observations of political economy science are concerned not with abstract capitalism (or socialism) [13] but rather the uniquely oil-injected capitalism, then could the same category error be evident also in some critiques of modernism, technology or the Western lifestyle? What if the hegemony of the West was not, after all, defined by modern natural science and technology, enlightenment and individualism but by a one-time offering of coal, gas and oil? As is well known, natural science and technology, enlightenment and individualism cannot be exported -- and have not once been exported -- without also exporting and using coal, gas and oil. The Catholic faith needed only coal and wind.


From the Bottleneck to Tate

In Alfonso Cuaró's film Children of Men (2006) people in the year 2027 are living in a dystopian world where no children have been born since 2009. At one point in the film, the sympathetic character Jasper (played by Michael Caine), who was apparently modelled on John Lennon, tells a joke. All the geniuses of the world have been gathered together in a conference that tries to establish the cause for the infertility: chemicals, radiation, mutation... In the corner sits an Englishman who does not participate in the discussion but gorges himself on the conference food. Eventually others ask for his opinion on why "we can't make babies anymore?" And he replies, "I haven't the faintest idea, but this stork is quite tasty isn't he?"

Calculating the EROEI of different forms of energy is not easy if indeed possible at all. What should be taken into account when calculating the EROEI of, for example, nuclear energy? Building the power plant itself surely, as well as quarrying the uranium and transport. What about the final disposal of the waste? For what period of time? And what about the power grid, transformers, accumulators...? What about the training required for experts in nuclear power? In any case, the number of energy slaves goes down rapidly with diminishing EROEI. No known energy source can even get close to the EROEI figures of the best oil fields (coal comes closest), particularly not nuclear energy, the EROEI calculation of which may be less than one. Not a single nuclear power plant has been built without a considerable consumption of fossil fuel. [14] Roughly the same applies to all so-called alternative energy sources. Their planning, construction and maintenance requires considerable amounts of high EROEI fossil fuels, and they themselves produce energy with a much lower EROEI. "Why is there continuously less energy left over?" "I don't know, but come here and have a look at what kind of solar panel we built..."

Nobody knows the steepness of the down-slope of the bell curve. Besides the Export Land Model (see footnote 6), it is steepened by the decrease of the EROEI of the producing oil wells. The new and already productive oil wells are increasingly in more difficult locations -- deeper under the sea, etc. -- and contain crude oil of an increasingly inferior quality, such as the famous "oil sands" of Canada, which are really a tar-like substance, if not asphalt-like stone. When descending along the down slope of the bell curve, an increasingly larger part of the economy must be directed at energy production; in other words, an increasingly smaller part of energy is in the service of the rest of the economy.

It is possible that there exists an unknown limit for what the EROEI of the energy economy must be so that this capitalism can function. [15] One part of the ongoing crisis is that the summit of the bell curve has already been passed. Since 2003 the oil consumption of the OECD countries has been on a slight decline. Correspondingly, the price of oil went up from the 2001 level (20-30 dollars a barrel) to the crazy price peak of 2008 (at its highest almost 150 dollars a barrel; in 2009 almost 70 dollars a barrel). These two trends together describe, with the help of the law of demand, the unrenewability of oil; even though the price of oil multiplied in a few years production (or consumption) did not go up. The peak moment of global oil production was somewhere around the summer of 2005. How far down the slope are we now? Nobody knows, but in any case it has come so far that production cannot be compared to what it was in 2005, and the time of sustained industrial economic growth and the very cheapest oil has passed. [16]

In the beginning of the 1980s the energy consumption per capita in the USA ceased to grow. The increase of energy no longer functioned as a motor for economic growth, as it had during the whole time since the 1860s, with the exception of the 1970s. From then onwards, US economic growth has been reliant on debt. The ending of the energy excess is one reason for the increase in the number of loans. And the waning of cheap oil is one reason for the increase in costs for the continuous taking of loans. The financial crisis and the oil crisis are closely linked; amidst the lost growth shines the black light of the oil well. The recession that we are currently living in is the first one of its kind since the Second World War, at least according to two gauges: for the first time the world's economic production is decreasing and for the first time the number of miles driven by car is decreasing.

Due to the present crisis, the famous invisible hand cannot optimally use up resources. When the price of oil per barrel is simultaneously too high for the consumer and too low for the producer, that too is a fault of the decreasing EROEI. Instead of the law of demand putting things in order, it pushes a wedge between consumers and producers. Consequently, new drilling projects are put on hold and productive oil wells are abandoned; the invisible hand masks the resource while at the same time there is a shortage. 'The invisible hand' may be one of those thought experiments that only work in a capitalism into which one can continuously feed more cheap energy. The invisible hand has a harder time under the conditions of a shrinking or stagnant economy.

Also, in the era of "negative growth" division of labour as a cause of prosperity becomes suspect. Division of labour is surely one of the reasons for economic growth during the last 150 years, but was it itself a result of the high EROEI ratio of fossil fuels? Lasse Nordlund [17] has shown in experiments that in the living conditions of eastern Finland an adult can feed himself by using a 400m² area of farming land, as well as additionally picking mushrooms and berries in the surrounding forest. According to Nordlund's calculation, this requires about 4 hours of work a day divided evenly throughout the whole year. Nordlund is suspicious not only towards animal husbandry but also towards metal tools, because in a self-reliant economy they are easily more trouble than they are worth. From this viewpoint, specialization, and becoming tool and technology dependent, explicitly require a continuous feed of excess energy. It is possible that an important part of the specialization and technologization of the modern world is dependent on and caused by the magnificent, uniquely high EROEI of large oil wells. If this is the case, then the claim that modern prosperity is mainly the effect of improved technology and specialization, has to be revised.


And finally to the beginning

The first conclusion in this situation is somewhat self-evident. If economic growth is based on more work [18] (in terms of either amount or productivity) and if the EROEI of all known energy sources is considerably weaker than the EROEI of the oil fields that have already been used up or are now in production, then the future possibilities for an economy that continuously has to grow (in other words this capitalism) seem weak. In fact, only a technological miracle can save continuous growth and technological novelty cannot be anticipated a priori. Empirically, we see that all methods of energy production in use are based on rather old technology and science (the first versions of solar panels are from the end of the 1800s, the modern versions form the 1940s and nuclear power from roughly the same decade). Does this promise fast breakthroughs or rather the opposite? In any case, barring ground-breaking new energy technology such as cold fusion, economic growth will in the future be local and short term. What does the continuous shrinking of the economy mean for science, technology, modernism and individualism? If it means something significant at all, we have to realise that many of the theories concerning these phenomena -- which are based on the idea that fossil fuel driven economic growth has nothing essential to do with them -- turn out to be limited and maybe even unfounded.

Emphasis on economic growth, technology and efficiency have characterised the major part of the political thinking of the last century. Therefore it is perhaps not surprising that an ideological blindness to the basis of economic growth has been widespread. A culture that is not aware of its own basic prerequisites can be called not only blind but also nihilistic. If many socio-philosophical ideas have unknowingly been based on the assumption that a unique and in some sense arbitrary phenomenon (i.e., economic growth based on high EROEI fossil fuels) is universal, and have incorporated this blind spot into almost all our thinking concerning modern economy, politics and technology, then our glass is both half empty and half full. Half empty in that not many philosophers, economists, critics of modernism or social thinkers have said a rational word about the future where the economy shrinks year after year. We have arrived in an uncharted region, where the unknown is fully equivocal. Half full: talk about the end of history and other cultural saturation should be forgotten. Even a large part of philosophy can be started again from the beginning.


Notes
-------------------

[1] Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2006).

[2] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/index.htm (accessed on 18 June 2010).

[3] Fidel Castro, with Ignacio Ramonet, My Life (London: Penguin, 2008), 355. Interestingly, Castro also speculates that the reason for the low fuel efficiency of Soviet cars was based on the fact that the Soviets got more than enough gasoline (petrol) as a by-product of their massive production of heavy fuel, such as diesel, for agriculture, industry and the military, ibid., 357.

[4] On Hubbert's calculations see David Strahan, The Last Oil Shock (London: John Murray, 2008), 36-56.

[5] In the calculations for the oil peak, the estimation of future finds is usually taken into account. For this reason, the claim sometimes presented that some new find will overthrow the oil peak theory is erroneous. An individual find would have to be the largest and most easily accessible of all time for it to considerably effect the time of the oil peak. It is this second condition, easy access, that seems impossible to fulfill.

[6] There are two central public organisations for monitoring oil production; the Energy Information Administration (EIA), which is under the US Ministry of Defence, and the International Energy Agency (IEA). The assessments of EIA and IEA on production and consumption are published with a delay of a couple of months or sometimes even years. Also, the reliability of the assessments has been questioned, most recently by an anonymous whistleblower from inside the IEA, as reported in November 2009 in the Guardian by Terry Macalister, "Key oil figures were distorted by US pressure, says whistleblower", http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/nov/09/peak-oil-international-energy-agency2009 (accessed 18 June 2010). Consultant companies and oil companies have real time information that is not published or is only available at a price. Therefore the best public assessments are compiled by various peer groups and independent researchers and journalists. Networks exist that gather information from several sources; for example, counting (on the basis of satellite photos) how many oil tankers pass through the Strait of Hormuz at a certain time period, or how much oil drilling equipment has been ordered recently, and so forth. In this way it is possible to estimate, for example, the oil production of Saudi Arabia, which otherwise is a closely guarded secret. The information is compiled and assessed on many different internet sites, including Wikipedia (e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_megaprojects). A good example of the oddities of the "scientific" information concerning oil -- whether economic or engineering science -- is the so-called Export Land Model (ELM). ELM has been developed on the Internet site "The Oil Drum" (http://www.theoildrum.com), where professionals and amateurs in different fields -- oil engineers, investors, geologists, environmental activists, prophets of doom -- discuss oil news. According to the ELM model, the right side of the bell curve, that is, the recession, will be much steeper than the left edge, that is, the growth period. This is because the producer countries' own consumption increases (as they get richer) at the same time as their production decreases. Often, in the producer countries consumption of oil goes up, when price goes up. There is thus less oil for export than what one might expect based merely on geological depletion. Even such a simple thing has had to be invented outside the "official" economic science and research because the public information and research concerning oil is rather limited and basic.

[7] Correspondingly, some of the best descriptions of the world-historic relevance of oil are literary. The metaphysical and mystical character of oil is beautifully exposed in Reza Negarestani's Cyclonopedia (Melbourne: Re-press, 2008) where one of the themes is the blind but necessary infestation that oil exerts. See also the devastatingly prophetic text Petroleum Petroleum, http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/?id=12&xid=1848&kapitel=43&cHash=925ba3ce332 (accessed 18 June 2010) written in 1903 by Gustav Meyrink, about a man-made oil-leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

[8] The cube model and its energy correspondences have been developed to illustrate oil use, but the correspondences have also with good reason been criticised. See, for example, Harry Goldstein and William Sweet, "Joules, BTUs, Quads -- Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" IEEE Spectrum, January 2007. http://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/fossil-fuels/joules-btus-quadslets-call-the-whole-thing-off (accessed 14 October 2009) and the Wikipedia entry "Cubic mile of oil", http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubic_mile_of_oil (accessed 18 June 2010).

[9] It is estimated that the glaciers of Greenland lost 36-60 cubic miles of ice between 2002 and 2006; NASA, 23 March 2007, "Gravity Measurements Help Melt Ice Mysteries", http://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/lookingatearth/grace-20070320.html, (accessed 14 October 2009).

[10] Vaclav Smil, Global Catastrophes and Trends (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 83.

[11] For EROEI figures see, for example, Charles A.S. Hall and Cutler Cleveland, "EROI: Definition, History and Future Implications". Presentation at the ASPO-US conference, 10 October 2005. http://www.esf.edu/efb/hall/talks/EROI6a.ppt (accessed 14 October 2009).

[12] Calculating the EROEI figure for mechanised modern agriculture is difficult and depends on many details. It is often stated that its EROEI figure would be approximately 0.1; in other words, by using the energy of ten barrels of oil, the amount of food corresponding to the energy of 1 barrel of oil is achieved. See, for example, Chad Hellwinckel and Daniel De La Torre Ugarte, "Peak Oil and the Necessity of Transitioning to Regenerative Agriculture", Energy Bulletin, 6 October 2009. http://www.energybulletin.net/50316 (accessed 14 October 2009).

[13] It has been suggested that the passing of the oil peak in 1987 was a contributing reason to the collapse of the Soviet Union. See, for example, Douglas B. Reynolds, "Peak Oil and the Fall of the Soviet Union", Energy Bulletin, 28 August 2006. http://www.energybulletin.net/node/19837 (accessed 14 October 2009).

[14] The only non-labour intensive way of getting rid of nuclear waste is probably to dump it in the sea, in the style of the Italian mafia. See, for example, Greenpeace, "Mafia Links to Toxic Waste Trade - Europe". http://archive.greenpeace.org/majordomo/index-press-releases/1997/msg00375.html (accessed 18 June 2010).

[15] Experts have presented estimates varying between 5 and 50. See, for example, Charles A. S. Hall, Stephen Balogh and David J. R. Murphy, "What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have?", Energies 2009, 2, 25-47; doi:10.3390/en20100025, http://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/2/1/25/pdf (accessed 18 June 2010).

[16] The widespread collapse of the economy could possibly lower the price of oil back to a level of 20 dollars a barrel. The collapse would, in itself, be the end of this capitalism.

[17] Lasse Nordlund, The Foundations of Our Life. Reflections about Human Labour, Money and Energy from Self-Sufficiency Standpoint (New Delhi: SADED, 2008).

[18] The calculated and reported economic growth can also be based on, for example, taking loans, printing new money or the rise of the value of stock shares. For these no or minimal additional labour would be needed.

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Translation from Finnish: Kristina Kölhi and Gareth Griffiths.

Tere Vadén is a philosopher living in Tampere, Finland. He teaches interactive media and philosophy at the University of Tampere and is an editor of the philosophical journal niin & näin. Most recently he has published the books Wikiworld with Juha Suoranta, (London: Pluto Press 2010) and Artistic Research with Mika Hannula and Juha Suoranta, (Gothenburg: ArtMonitor 2005).

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