Kyotomotors is back! Check in Wednesdays for commentary on the age of abundance, climate change
and the dawning of the post-carbon eventuality...

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

With Godspeed!

As I set out to write this I realize it will appear that I just listen to the CBC and wait until there is something worth reacting to for my blog content... It’s true that a pattern is emerging, but really it’s just a coincidence that I happened to learn of this story as I woke up to Daybreak this morning. As it turns out, I heard it all again later this on CBC’s Q with Jian Ghomeshi: Aparently the Montreal-based band Godspeed! You Black Emperror ruffled some feathers by accepting the annual Polaris Award in an unconventional manner. But the content I am reacting to is not actually stemming from the CBC, rather it can all be found on the website of Constellation Records (here: Which delivers the following at its heart: 
3 quick bullet-points that almost anybody could agree on maybe=
-holding a gala during a time of austerity and normalized decline is a weird thing to do.
-organizing a gala just so musicians can compete against each other for a novelty-sized cheque doesn’t serve the cause of righteous music at all.
-asking the toyota motor company to help cover the tab for that gala, during a summer where the melting northern ice caps are live-streaming on the internet, IS FUCKING INSANE, and comes across as tone-deaf to the current horrifying malaise.

What’s more, I am not writing in order to respond to some form of disinformation (for once!)
Rather, I have this to say:
It’s damn refreshing that these guys found a way to raise a controversy on their own terms, in such a succinct manner. It’s easy to get caught up in the prevailing myth of growth and prosperity (propaganda) and forget that we are reaping the consequences of some pretty bad ideas and choices of recent history…
Godspeed! closes by saying,

apologies for being such bores,
we love you so much / our country is fucked,”

Far be it from me to put words in Godspeed!’s mouths, but I will go out on a limb to say that their statement deserves some Kyotomotors styled elaboration in solidarity – at risk of boring you some more…

Addressing the second bullet point first, as a painter, I am familiar with similar prizes, awards and contests where multi-billion-dollar corporations dole out a paltry 20 to 50 thousand dollars or so a year to artists in my milieu, and then reap the benefits of the marketing that the whole charade represents, placing a big fat corporate seal of approval on contemporary art for all to see. It’s at least a tad disingenuous to say the least…
Would I say no to the $50 K Sobey award? Probably not.  But if the day ever came to pass, I may refer back to Godspeed!’s statement here for some inspiration on how to accept it.
But for the purposes of this blog, I will refrain from any digression on the subject.

The first and third points above, in my view, go hand in hand, and pertain in large measure to the central theme of this blog, which is to say: to the consequences of industrial society’s attempt to pursue exponential economic growth through the rapid consumption and squandering of the fossil fuels that have enabled global civilization to get to where it is now.

(Chew on that one for a while, if you will…)

The consequences are many; not the least of which is the spectre of climate change. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this most pressing issue is our collective inability to have a level-headed dialogue about it, thus guaranteeing that we remain incapable of taking real action as a society. This ties in with the “bribe” mentioned in my previous post here: we are heavily invested (physically, psychologically) in a way of doing things, and we are hokked on the so called benefits that ensue. We are full of expectations that more of the same will bring better results. We feel entitled. After all, progress is inevitable, right?

And so, gone are the notions of sacrifice that had their place in the collective consciousness of our grandparents; yet we are faced with the cognitive dissonance that reverberates over the gap between our myth of prosperity and the real austerity on the ground.

Our country, in turn, is indeed fucked, since the man at the helm has delusions of petro-state grandeur. The tarsands will be exploited at all costs, because apart from the boom/bubble in shale oil fracking south of the border, our prospects for growing the oil supply are less than dim.

While this post is admittedly something of a rant, I assure you, I am not making this shit up. The consensus on climate change is a fait accompli, and the reality of peak oil is that it is literally undeniable, since petroleum is a finite resource. I have pointed out more than once that rather than discredit the peak oil story, the tarsands and shale oil projects confirm it, pushing back the day of reckoning just a little, perhaps, while ultimately amplifying its ramifications.

If you have some doubts about this, maybe you should look up a more “reputable” source in the likes of former CIBC economist Jeff Rubin, who foretold of $100 per barrel oil over a decade ago, and was practically tarred and feathered for it. Rubin has quite a lot of the facts together, and I recommend that anyone interested in understanding the economics of peak oil check him out. His first book on the subject(“Why Your World is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller”) has now been followed by recent publication called “The End of Growth”, which gives you an idea of where he’s coming from…

Now, before I wax too enthusiastic about Rubin, I will say that I disagree strongly with some of his interpretations, particularly where he suggests that the market, and supply limits will take care of climate change. But this dangerous assertion I will have to leave for the subject of a future post.

What I will say for now is that he appears to be bang-on when he says that energy (especially tarsands) is what’s going to define our future as a country, which is to say fault-lines are already appearing over the matter, and the bribe it represents hangs over our heads like an novelty-sized cheque.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Bribe

As someone who has followed energy issues in a quasi religious manner for more than ten years now, I am always intrigued to hear how their interpretation comes out in the wash via the mainstream(ish) media, like the CBC. Just today, the CBC aired a segment on pipelines [ ], and closed with a commentary by Jean-Francois Minardi [at the 13th minute]. This, in turn, was followed by the question whether one would forego one’s smart phone and (of all things) plastic mayonnaise containers, if it meant no pipeline… I am inclined to answer yes, but I am hesitant, because the question smells of bait.
Indeed, it’s a trap; it’s a bribe.
As the guest commentator points out, if I may paraphrase, we live in the age of petroleum. Everywhere you care to look, with the exception of the remote wilderness accessed by foot, if you look for it, you’ll see petroleum at play. Anyone who has taken the time to connect the dots, has at least a good idea of just how intricately dependent we are on petroleum from everything from transport to agriculture, plastics (including textiles) to computers. What’s more, in ecological, anthropological terms the energy flow that petroleum represents has facilitated a degree of specialisation that no other civilization has ever known.
But stating indisputable facts such as these does not necessarily prove that we have put petroleum to the best possible of uses over the long run. Indeed, I would argue that we have squandered it, and in the case of the personalised automobile, we have over-invested in a fundamentally flawed living arrangement with a dubious future.
In his argument, Jean-Francois Minardi states that car-use accounts for “only” 43% of the petroleum pie, making the number seem small, as though it were a democratic vote. This rhetorical trick fails to acknowledge that this is by far the lion’s share of petroleum allocation, with at least another 30% dedicated to fuels that also go toward transportation (namely diesel and jet fuel).
So, yes, the Personal Automobile has a lot to answer to. We may well value the benefits and convenience of cars, but we must learn to weigh them against the well documented drawbacks, starting with pollution and GHG emissions, and including the dissolution of urban community and the physical dangers that cars pose to people. Furthermore, while cars may well indeed be useful, in the context of a finite resource (which petroleum is), their misuse and overuse may well be a mistake of historic import.
When you stop to consider the context in which we debate things like the tar sands, and “fracking”, as well as pipelines and the price at the pump, you might like to take in a few salient facts: We have already used over half of the known petroleum reserves in the Earth’s crust; what we’ve consumed to date has been the “low hanging fruit” and what remains represents the harder to reach stuff (i.e. the more expensive oil). What’s more, we are hooked on the notion of growing the economy year after year, always using more energy to do so. We are therefore committed to extracting more and more resources, at a greater and greater cost for a growing economy of a growing population. We may like to appreciate the benefits of petroleum, but we may well need to get our heads around the basic principles of sustainability first.

I have to admit, I do not know who Jean-Francois Minardi is, but I recognise his basic argument common to “cornucopian” economists, that states “since petroleum has delivered us what we like, we must therefore deserve more petroleum; and since we deserve it, we therefore will inevitably, rightly do what is necessary to ensure its availability.” It’s a line of reasoning that assumes that Nature is obliged to provide for us whatever our hearts desire. Minardi goes on to introduce a particularly emotionally charged example of hard working women in Africa, who now benefit from the use of plastic jugs when hauling water. Since I too benefit from various forms of plastic (as much as I do try to avoid the stuff) I would be hypocritical to decry this benefit. However, it is not a sound argument to point only to one feel-good story while ignoring countless examples of the downside of plastic as a pollutant in the biosphere – the tons of floating debris in the oceans comes to mind, as the most glaring example… At least the clay pots traditionally used by the African women in the example are biodegradable.
But the issue isn’t about any one particular example. Of course there is a narrative of progress that we can attach to petroleum. There is also the narrative of dehumanisation and destruction. Take your pick. The real issue with this natural resource is that Nature has the final say. Whether we want there to be endless supplies of petroleum or not, we will inevitably be faced with reduced access though rising prices, and eventually with global scarcity. This fact is so far off the radar of the mainstream media that you have to wade deep into the marshes of the blogosphere to get a good overview of this situation, while running the risk of being bogged down by some very twisted and dubious interpretations of the facts as well.
For my part, I mention scarcity not as a scare tactic, or part of a conspiracy theory, but because, if we could start to get our heads around it, we could seriously consider the importance of reducing that 43% to something like half or less, along with the other consumptive habits we developed in a culture of abundance and entitlement which is entering the its twilight phase.

As regular readers know, I am an avid cyclist. But I do use a car from time to time. I will not ever own one, and I may one day own as many as five bikes, so it’s no secret where my biases lie. I have made my choices, and I live by them as best I can. I happen to be well aware that the tires on my bike are derived from petroleum. The entire existence of a “cycling industry” is surely, wholly dependent on the stuff, I know. But there is no way to justify the comparison of this dependence to the dependence of car culture on the same resource when you look at the basic rates of overall consumption. Just because petroleum delivers us some valuable goods, it should not be assumed that cars, and the extravagance they represent, are beyond all criticism.