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burningoil.jpgGet Used to It — Sky-High Oil Prices Are Here to Stay ( Wired, May 13, 2008)

The spiralling price of oil seems to be driving an equally impassioned crescendo of panic, depression and gloom. Civilisation as we know it is over, some say from the Peak Oil press. Imagine if every Chinese and Indian citizen started to demand entry into the car shined culture of the West? They loom like a tide held back by barriers now crumbling.

Our modern urban landscapes are forged around the car. Our lifestyles and careers slide on the hegemony of oil. Life, these days, is a seemingly never ending display of devotion to the centred and sainted position of cars as the lifeblood of all that we do and to which we aspire. Imagine if cars should instantly be taken away. Our imaginations conjure landscapes of bloodied zombies stalking the streets, starvation, industry transformed to the stone age. The end of work, the end of TV! Taking our cars might be just like extracting our bones. No more mobility, a life severed just like all those cyclists cars have maimed. Wheel chair bound and staring vacantly out of empty windows upon an inferno of barbarism and invading hoards.

The decline and fall will, of course, never be that quick. Market economics will keep the dreams alive in a punctured, patched and flailing way for many years to come. As the price goes up, we ration our use. New reserves will be found; new technologies will surface and fade to cushion the fall. As we enter the era of the hybrid car, solar and hydrogen fuel cells will keep the candle burning, for a while. Society will adapt and emerge, sometimes through trauma, sometimes with pain; with new heroes and the death of addictions perceived, finally, to be the tyrants they once were (as our historic guzzlers are put, finally, to bed, in the shed).

We can agree, though, that we sit here waiting for some kind of strange new dawn; we don’t know how the vista will unfold as the first glimpse of light now touches only the tops of the hills.

As we sit here dreaming about what will unfold, my own vision is one of extraordinary, cautious optimism. When I look back at this our car formed culture of today, I can see only the misery of displaced loyalty. I see a civilisation that prays to false gods. I see a civilisation infatuated with the very thing that is fast killing it; and inflicting pain. There is, I say, nothing glamorous about this era of the car; of a society drip fed on oil. The fumes from our cars, perhaps, dull the brain, and blinker the light of opportunity smogged out by this tyrannical reign.

There is a small much cherished corner of economics that most consider only to be the plaything of over romantic dreamers. A perspective that paints pictures of rural landscapes and joyous, self-contained village life. It’s the Small is Beautiful thesis of E F Schumacher. If you could imagine a giant set of scales, and put on one side all those arguments in favour of globalisation and the ascencency of wealth, Schumacher’s ideas level the balance from the other side. The oil industry is the cement of globalisation. It is the lifeblood of that particular perception of wealth. The net that holds the baggage of globalisation together is the network of oil. It’s a grimy, fumed unpleasant mass of tar. Of a road raged society bloated by inactivity, complacency and vicious cycles of toxic dependency.

The vision painted by Schumacher is of a landscape focused more inwards than outwards. Where communities operate towards integrated self-sufficiency; where the things we despoil remain in our own backyards, not shipped off to communities without the capacity to refuse, or respond. There is a different currency of sustainability on the Schumacher side. It’s a three dimensioned vision, where economy, environment and community merge. Where our obsession for growth is redefined. Now growth might be expressed equally in terms of happiness as it might be by money. Compare and contrast with what’s on the globalisation pile. There we ship the excesses of what we do to someone else, to someplace else. We extract our needs without the need to live the consequences. We devote ourselves to the worship of money.

But oil is eroding the walls. The excesses of our globalised lifestyles have drifted over to where we live now. Now we breath the fumes of our fury to consume. Our planet is warming, the limits have been reached. Gaia is screaming. The scale is falling.

ruralroad.jpgSo what does this new dawn of the Small and Beautiful look like?

We will travel less. We will be more self-contained. Globalisation requires us to take wings, Schumacher’s landscape is more regionally framed. Food production is also more localised; yes, probably at greater cost. But then again, by how much will food costs rise as the costs of transportation increase when the oil runs out? Rural – urban communities will move back towards the balanced integration they once had, a long time ago. Cultures become more regionally defined. Difference will matter, once again. Instead of us all sharing the diseased psychoses of nebulous, uncentred contemporary plastic culture, we will revert once again to the solid and locally real. Communities become the keystones of our culture.

Zealots of the global village will immediately suggest Schumacher’s vision implies our reversion to a hoard of feuding states; of never ending wars of nation building all over again. But we can never really, truly reel back time and start out from the middle ages, all over again. That’s not what Schumacher is about. Our ascendency towards being more self-contained does not imply breaking off. The internet, for starters, is already connecting us from the isolation of our individual homes. We have lived this recent history and know what to avoid. Democracy should be stronger when we cease to insist on imposing the dictates of cultures with which we are out of tune.

So what for oil? We will need it less. Regionalisation, to my eyes, recommends a return to more fights on the internet than on a plane. To more frequent and shorter trips through which to connect; which to my mind, of course, implies the rebirth of the bicycle. You knew I would get to that! And what a culture a bicycle based society would be!

Now I can just hear some readers scream. This loony has cataracts of over romanticised clouding in his eyes. A burnt out hippy; a rural fundamentalist. Perhaps. But I bet one thing. I bet my vision is better than the one we must all live now! Where cyclists are mowed down by drunken road raged car drivers seeking oblivion to their car blighted lives. Where we bloat from the excesses raped from globally distant societies too poor to protest. Where wars are fought for oil on the pretext of imposing democracy. I bet my vision is better than the spectre of zombified crumbling civilisation as the zeppelin of oil gassed society finally burns.

One Response to “Small is Beautiful”
  1. Hilton Meyer says:

    Brilliant, I havn’t read something this awesome in some time. You set the bar now so it needs to be maintained. I’m thinking more and more everyday on how to commute the 80km that I have between me and work and I’ve broken it down into small steps. I tried growing vegetables without much success, I think I tried to grow to many varieties instead of concentrating on something specific. What I’m getting at is that we need to be more specific about our needs.

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