Are we still holdin' on to life, or only to energy?
In order to stop the use of fossil fuels at short notice, especially the affluent societies have to make sharp U turns in all of their crucial social and economical setups. Their fossil energy consumption has been the keystone of their force to intertwine local economies worldwide during the past 100 years. We were all in an unorganized way eagerly digging and grabbing into the limitless mountain of resources, products, delights, and pleasures to enrich our own accommodations as thick as possible, hoping that nobody would intervene or start coordination. Indeed more of a proliferation than a thoughtful design, but it's been done.
Are we going to run away from fossil fuels in the same reckless thoughtless unorganized way as we flew to it? And can we afford it to do so?
No, if you want to be able to make that U turn - to get rid of fossil energy consumption - all together worldwide and at the same time, then you cannot make the mistake of turning a blind eye to what all the communities worldwide have in common in the first place namely of what their social and economic interaction is actually about, i.e. which state variable is at the center of their searching, striving, grabbing, and living. Could you?
I note that we are increasingly losing overview on the broad lines of this huge transition, precisely because of the climate squabbles which have arisen in the meantime ('the blame game'). On that podium it seems to be mainly about which big mouth can excite the most followers while formulating and broadcasting reproaches and hatred. But what are we really after in the first place while living on this earth? Bread? Power? Fortune? Fame? Safety? Or is each of those pearls only a mean to another end? Yes, to what?
What are we really after?
Let's take a closer look at that, in order to be able to determine what should be primarily guaranteed in that U turn i.e. on what focal point we should base every new economically emission-free design or mitigation. If you are able to touch people at that point of central interest, people may even be able to live with less goods, services, reserves, and excessive safety, or dare belief in radical economic adjustment processes.
My answer: The fundamental hankering for which all these means are instrumental is, in the first place, wanting to mean something in the eyes of other people in order to give content and meaning to themselves. Power, security, fame, and fortune are all means to run into others and being held, just in order to feel that you are real, that you exist. Such contact with each other and with everything around us responds in the first place to everyone's deepest fear of life, namely not knowing where and who you are, and so tries to fulfill our deepest need, namely to answer those two crazy unmentionable questions. As soon as the other person confirms by your input that you represent something, that you are noticed, that you are appreciated, than you receive yourself as a gift, you exist. Something is holdin' on to you. You matter.
There you are. That is what we want en masse in this life, and also saw happening for centuries and centuries: to be accepted as a reality that can keep its environment going. A mutual gratitude results from it. "I thank you!", "No, I thank you!", is what you hear. A kind of orgasm actually. There, in that intimacy, our feelings recharge. There our compass is loaded. (See the 'reciprocity' concept in E. Ostrom's work and in the approach of Jason Hickel). You exist because the life impulses you are giving to the things, beings and people around you, rebounds that approval. It solves your existential core question - where and who am I? - over and over again. You can rest. You are somewhere. You have a home.
How and why did we abandon each other?
How did we lose sight of that main ingredient of our daily longing?
The answer is simple: energy addiction. An inundation of energy applications has chased our hands and bodies out of most daily processes.
It will probably sound strange to the members of the Mitigation Working Group III of the IPCC, but above all we are going to run aground on climate change because of the form we have given to our seeking love - i.e. our holdin' on to each other - through excessive use of energy.
With cheap and abundant energy we have started to squeeze the amount of human free contact moments in each other's physical presence out of almost all economic and social processes. In all our domains of life the intimate of being handed over to each other has been completely taken out of our hands by mechanization, automation, and organization. Whereas in the past everyone's eyes, ears, hearts and hands played a leading role in every interaction - trade is not called trade for nothing - now at most you put a card in an automaton. Our personal face-to-face room for manoeuvre in relation to each other has become minimal. Both in time, relevance, and bandwidth. People spend 90% of their time in the warm glow of their brothel-like lamp light on their mobile PC and TV screens.
We have used that energy abundance mainly to abandon each other, to free ourselves from each other. Is this exaggerated? Take a good look at what we inherit from the recent fossil energy explosion of the last hundred years? A society full of lost people - in games, info-bubbles, drugs, porn, gambling and speculation, excessive travel and peeking all over the world - who have the physical handicraft done by an army of slaves here (migrant workers) and in low-wage countries, and who are the product of a social interaction that has only become so energy-consuming in order to push each other out, trump each other, and minimize each other's immediate presence and activity. Meanwhile, in most socio-economic processes, the human factor is hardly visible anymore, not even with a magnifying glass.
The destabilisation of the human compass
Where in Obama's eyes the divergence within hot issue opinions are growing wildly by the power of the new communication-structures ('the media-ecosystem'), I rather think that the degeneration of the human compass is a comprehensible side effect of the ruthless speed of innovation which has been set in motion worldwide by unbridled energy exploitation, and of the violence with which all the stable mutual social functioning is being put on a new footing ever faster by ever more intellectual and specialized problem-solving functioning of ever larger parts of our population. A bulldozer of innovative readjustments, rearrangements, reorganizations, and relocations that has been completely blind (and destructive) to the actual goal variable of our coexistence here on earth: love (i.e. emotional and existential shelter and acceptance).
During the year 1950 the world used 25 TWh of energy. Since 1950 we have been pumping 2 TWh more energy into our economic system every year. Today our annual energy consumption is approximately 160 TWh. Yes, you will say, but in the meanwhile access to goods, services, food, pleasure, information, and specialistic care has increased enormously, so what's the problem ?
The problem is what you get when you overwhelm a child or human being with stuff; when you drag everything he needs (or can wish for) to him, bombard him with entertainment and distractions, and give a conclusive answer to every problem?
Answer: A person who's not bound and determined. Someone whose fundamental faculties decline because they serve him to nothing. A person who can no longer create and pursue desire. Who no longer appreciates anything because he does not know how to do it. Who no longer tends to pull but is carried away. Whose compass needle catches barely time-independent orientation from the flimsy surrounding field of values. We have become insensitive kings and queens, mentally weakened by machines that feel, search, think and act. Why be satisfied and thankful (i.e. experience and feel reality consciously and eagerly) when you have not longed for it for a long time and have not done much for it?
Rise and fall of the scientific compass
In this way the fossil energy storm of the past 100 years has, aside from greater accessibility, also caused a lasting disruption of the human compass as a consequence of ease and pampering and the associated shutdown of neurons in unused muscles and some senses. But where and when would that compass be of any use in the current dynamic? Not often, indeed. Because more and more it is the case that decision-making boards − i.e. governments, parties, multi-nationals, advisory and judging institutions - base their decisions solely on information from formal scientific knowledge (i.e. models, data, specialists). As a result, each of us is increasingly robbed of opportunities to use his own life experience (= the self-stored feelings) during figuring out how to handle situations. Worse than that: During that deactivation of direct human physical regulative activity no means has been shunned to belittle the reliability and validity of the human compass. The aura of universal superiority ('the experts', 'the professional') around intellectuals and their supposed grip on every problem matter that presents itself, has triggered a denigrating societal attitude towards basic elements − fear and feelings in particular − of the human compass. See the wide-spread mentally looking down upon populism, and the so-called ethical reproach that populists are stirring up the fears of common people.
In the end, the social economic dynamic that I have just mentioned have plunged us in a very tricky situation. Anyone who's watching this diagram for a little more than two minutes and wonders in the meantime whether, within two years, we can achieve the total emergency stop on the use of fossil fuels that is necessary in order not to fatally push the earth's climate across the red line, knows that mankind is on the brink of extinction.
And indeed, the scientific compass has been very instrumental in causing us to cycle into this miserable situation.
- First, by constantly underestimating climate change on many aspects: namely ice-melt, bio-diversity loss, natural absorption, agricultural damage, reinforcing feedback cycles, tipping points, nitrous oxide, heat, drought, fires, contrails, and other. The brutal true face of climate change and its fatal consequences have not been figured out and revealed in time. While Hansen (his testimony before U.S. Congress, 1988) and Pearce (Turning Up The Heat, 1989) already had the thundercloud in all its horrors in their retina long before 1998, it wasn't until 2015 that the IPCC and the entire meteorological, biological, and agricultural research community saw the light.
- Second, within the social dimension, by not sufficiently identifying and examining the main drivers behind unsustainable growth and expansion of national economies and global energy demand. If you don't describe them, you can't let them get tackled.
- Third, by not taken any initiative to project another development of societies on its compass than a constant libertine escalation of global interconnectedness and trade which, as everyone knows, is triggering an unquenchable thirst for fossil energy.
Science was not only indolent and conservative in their proactive knowledge-processing activity at the service of the decision-making boards, but was itself a propulsive force in the heart of the energy gasping culture of the last 50 years.
No, it did not occur to them to put other models or proposals on the boards tables, because, oh dear, their research and educational work had become a global competitive industry that maintained a totally dependent constant high-frequency material and mental interaction (by planes, hard- and software, cables, and satellites) with the whole world. Energy-addicted indeed.
Back to live within ourselves
And here we are in an emergency situation, on an insanely dead end track that we should get rid of like hell. But how? Only one answer is available: localization, because there is no other way to make all people on earth a living under the maximum of 1.5 to 2 tons of C02eq emissions per person per year. See, for example, this recent UK assessment. Local life in mutual proximity could save the climate, and so humanity. In any other way we're gonna die.
But it is precisely the recent deterioration of our human compass that is going to make us difficult to realize such an exceptional sharp U-turn everywhere in the world on a local basis. When we have to organize local solutions that phase out the global energy-guzzling to and fro of everything we make and use, each of us needs a strong compass on his own − that is to say, the capacity to create one's own desire i.e. to give a meaning to something. Only with that capacity we can create lenient relations between one another and with everything around us, settle mutual quarrels, and together seek and shape paths along which we can survive. See 'collaborative localization' in Helena Norberg-Hodge's work.
So, let's configure our compass much sharper on what we are really aiming at when we engage in shaping social and economic interactions. It's now high time for everybody to reflect urgently on which state variable is genuinely at the center of their searching, striving, grabbing, and living. But the pandemic may have already made you ponder in that direction.
j. nijssen, 2021
This paper has been written around New Year, januar 2021. It is a highly elaborated version of the article 'Climate and love', in NL language, published since 1 December 2020 on the Dutch sustainability site Duurzaamnieuws.nl.