After having written the last couple of entries here at Kyoto Motors, you may have guessed that I am not about to instigate or otherwise attempt to orchestrate a global boycott of the fossil fuel industry. Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly endorse the idea, but I know a Quixotic challenge when I see one. And so, I stay away from the fight on the grounds that it would be untenable in its scale, and ineffectual in its inability to charm and woo – boycotting Big Oil just ain’t sexy. In this culture of abundance and entitlement, people want to tackle climate change without sacrifice, so a boycott is essentially a losing proposition. Instead, I prefer to focus my attention on local projects of ecological merit in their own right. In turn, the more I get involved in these, I find myself adhering to my own personal boycott of big oil all the same.
As it turns out, the boycott may not be sexy but it certainly has its benefits. Not owning a car, for example, is nothing but pleasure, and a sheer economic boon, to boot. I do not have to live in a cabin in the woods, and while most everything in my life has been touched in some way by fossil fuels, but I do not directly pay for gasoline on a typical day, and there is frankly, a great sense of satisfaction in that.
But this personal boycott is not intended as self gratification. It is rather just a by-product of abiding by convictions that stem from taking a serious look at the challenges of climate change and peak oil. While the global industrial debacle plays itself out, I have made a conscious attempt at attaining a more-than average degree of self-sufficiency, and resilience. The less complex the systems and technology I engage with, the more readily accessible the solutions when those systems and technologies fail, which they invariably do. This principle, which is my understanding of “appropriate technology” (by no means an exhaustive one, but…), often tends to be interpreted as an anticipation of an apocalyptic down-turn. To the contrary, it is rather, simply an understanding that downturns and failures can happen, big or small, at any time. It is the realisation that self-empowerment and community as opposed to dependence on faceless corporate global systems (such as supply chains), and deliberately overly-complex technologies, represents a refreshing kind of freedom.
Mind you, that’s about as sexy as the boycott gets. Unfortunately, as easy as it is to get to the boycott, from there (as you might have guessed) it usually involves a lot of work. Indeed, the boycott leads you away from the lifestyle fantasies that you see in television commercials and magazine adverts. The boycott will take you off the conveyor belt aisle of Big Box Stores. The boycott will lift you out of the Parking Lot Freeway. The boycott will steer you away from the Tropical Airport get-away. And the Boycott it will plop you down in the middle of a crowded bus, hanging on to a strap sometimes for dear life; or onto a bicycle in the rain, at times pedalling uphill against the wind; or into a back-yard garden, hands covered in earth, with wafts of compost filling your nose. No sir, the boycott is definitely lacking in sex appeal, and so it’s a tough sell to the masses hopped up on instant this and throw-away that. People would rather believe that there must be another way. Perhaps we could keep our beautifully decorated cake, and stuff our little faces with it at the same time?
The popular justification for doing nothing on a personal level (apart from simply not wanting to sacrifice anything) is that there are solutions (there must be!) waiting in the wings in the form of alternatives to the internal combustion engine. Hydrogen fuel cells, electric plug-in hybrid cars, high-speed rail, carbon capture and storage, wind power, and solar, etc. etc. These possibilities, promises, and fantasies are varied both in their practical applications and more importantly, in their “sex” appeal. I personally have been excited about all of the above and more, to varying degrees at one time or another. Some of them like wind power are clearly proven, effective pieces of the puzzle we have to put into practice (but of course the NIMBY effect proves that not even the “best” alternatives are free of drawbacks). Nonetheless, the reasoning continues, there will come a time when the invisible hand of the market will usher in these alternatives seamlessly and painlessly. Perhaps all we need to do is elect the right government into power, perhaps it is just a matter of time…
But of course the real world chugs along quite differently, and we change our narratives as we go, for them to match reality. Does anyone remember to what extent, for example, that the hydrogen economy was touted in the first years of G.W. Bush’s presidency? Projections, predictions and promises were made: the future was bright, and the horizon was but ten years away…And, well, not much of it came to pass at all – we’re not even a tenth of the way there. I don’t know a single person who owns a fuel cell car, and it is highly curious (to say the least) that more than a decade later there is less and less talk about this technological dream. The same thing can, should, or will soon be said for a host of other technological fantasies, and it is high time that we connect the dots. Such fantasies, from cold fusion to algae-derived bio-diesel to shale-oil and gas to perpetual motion machines, are all fantasies that we use to project our narrative of progress onto, because (the assumptions dictate) we have to come up with something, because we always believed we would. But what if it just isn’t in the bag? Is it not possible that the discovery and leveraging of fossil fuels was a one-time-only historical anomaly? …An exceptional period in the history of human endeavour?
If so (which, obviously I believe to be the case), there is good reason to expect little from a change in government. In the face of eventual energy shortages, policy can only do so much, if your promise is to sustain the unsustainable arrangements based on the fossil-fuel economy (the only economy politicians seem to know). Coming to terms with the economic implications of a pending energy predicament would be a start, but (returning to the theme of sex appeal) it’s hard to find a politician this side of Andromeda that would broach the subject in public.
Politics has almost by definition, become joined at the hip of the industrial global economy. As I have pointed out before, so many facets, aspects and habits in the modern world are shaped by petroleum that we can’t really conceive of altering that reality until it somehow needs to change itself. And so, despite the dual predicament of climate change and peak oil and all the associated problems, we have inherited a political system itself a product of the petroleum age, and therefore at the service of the petroleum economy.
Having said that, it is not impossible (using history as a guide) to imagine a political figure emerging from the current stagnating waters of the status quo, who manages to conjure up the moral imperative to proceed differently as a society. The likelihood of this being a future United States presidential candidate may be slim, but these personalities may already be active on a number of more local political arenas, serving local communities (as would be appropriate).
I happen to feel that climate change represents such an urgent challenge that I feel I must adjust my behaviour in response to it, particularly because it appears that waiting for governments to take decisive action is never going to be enough to avert the crisis. Similarly, it seems probable that no measure of political or popular organisation (like a boycott) is going to be up to the task, sad as this may be.
If it sounds to you that I’m resigned to the fact that quite probably catastrophe is already mixed into the batter, and the cake is in the oven, well I am. But it is precisely because we have collectively backed ourselves into the cul-de-sac of climate change and peak oil that my own reduced dependence on petroleum, complex technology and the systems that support it, may well translate into competitive advantage in the years ahead. And so a measured, albeit partial, personal boycott strikes me as the best personal response to the present moment in history.