In the days of cheap gasoline and hot rods, testosterone-driven adolescents used to play a game called “Chicken.” It involved driving at accelerating speeds toward certain death until the driver braked, swerved, or crashed. The idea seemed to be that risking a nearly certain death was preferable to admitting that these actions might be somewhat stupid and judgment seriously flawed.
Substitute the world’s political leaders for the hubristic drivers, and you’ve got much of world political and economic policy – adolescent in attitude, foolish in pride, and careless in judgment.
True, the hot rods of our national economies sputter and cough. But we tend to drive them as though the added challenge of wearing a blindfold and keeping our foot to the gas will lead to a more favorable outcome than would waking up, slowing down, and perhaps turning onto another road altogether.
There are other vehicles on the road. Many of these, updated with the best parts and cleanest fuels available, are going in other directions (or wishing they could), trying to manage sensible speed limits, and looking out both for their own passengers and for pedestrians.
If the extended metaphor is somewhat laboured, it is nonetheless fairly apt.
The world’s economies are still trying to speed up, to grow themselves out of massive debts ballooned by military hubris, irresponsible fiscal management, and criminal financial speculation. (And these debts do not even include the massive devaluation of the natural world in the forms of depleting fisheries, deforestation, desertification, lowering of water tables, and treatment of the atmosphere and oceans as if they are simply great, inexhaustible garbage dumps.)
Naturally none of us wants to take responsibility for these choices. Most of us just get up in the morning and head off to work, hoping for the best, imagining that there is some justice in the world, that in the long run we will see diligence and fidelity rewarded, and disloyal sloth punished.
But the world system doesn’t exactly work that way. Supporting all the 20th century “isms”, from fascism to communism and everything in between, has been the free energy of fossil fuels. Coal and oil have been there for the taking, and if nation-states have fought their lunatic wars to establish supreme ideologies, their economic models have always been the superficial features of a deeper global society united by the obsession with economic growth.
Free energy, that which remains after subtracting the productive energy needed to capture the calories and BTU’s existent in sawn wood, mined coal, and refined oil, is what allows social culture to exist. Without free energy, all we have is the long, slow energy capture of sunlight in plants, and the more difficult to manage nuclear energy in radioactive ores.
Two challenges stubbornly refute our fond fantasies of control: peak oil and climate change. But none of us wants his fantasies refuted. NO! NO!
Thus, rather than imagine that a non-renewable resource might ever begin to decline in availability, we pretend that all we must do is “drill, baby, drill!” If that means polluting the planet into extinction (perhaps human extinction will be later than those of the thousands of species currently becoming extinct each year), so be it, we demand.
Rather than admit the likelihood (really, the near surety) of anthropogenic global warming, we cling to the inventions of climate change deniers funded by oil companies and coal mining conglomerates. (ExxonMobil financially sponsors nine of the top 10 authors of climate change denial papers, according to environmentalleader.com, a website devoted to documenting the laudable efforts of industry to improve its energy efficiency and to grapple with the problems of peak oil and climate change.)
Rather than consider a political direction that would recognize some of the future’s long-term perils, we prefer to elect a bland, business-as-usual opportunist as prime minister. Three years ago, Stephane Dion wanted to begin action on carbon deficits in the Canadian economy; Canadians rejected him. Stephen Harper offers us a clichéd “steady hand on the wheel” (even though the rest of the world despises our national hypocrisies) and we embrace him.
“Step on the gas!” Canadians say. But it sounds like “Chicken!!!” to me.
Al Lehmann is a Terrace, BC teacher and writer.