It’s time to leave the palace that fossil fuels built

Climate change has ruptured the dining room wall of our palace, and is beginning to intrude further and further. We eat our breakfast, ignoring it. It’s been comfortable here, and we’ve been provided for materially. We’ve liked that as time’s gone on, it’s gotten more and more comfortable. We’ve imagined that, some day, everyone could live here in comfort and harmony. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore that the future of this palace, a society organized around fossil fuel intensive ways of life, the product of European-rooted civilization, colonialism, and extractive capitalism, is one of ruins.

And it’s not just climate change that’s degrading its structural integrity; the gaping hole in the wall reminds us of the other issues we’d prefer to ignore. It reminds us of existential ones like ecosystem destruction, biodiversity loss, and our unsustainable consumption of limited resources. It also evokes certain uncomfortable psychological dimensions of living in this palace, like our alienation from the natural world, complicity in a great injustice, and the spiritual deadness of consumerism.

Yet we’ve lived our entire lives in this palace, tied our sense of meaning and security to it’s continued existence. How could we possibly live without these walls? What would it mean to leave it behind, set out into the wide open and uncertain world beyond?

Examining the palace, the bind in we’re caught in

When I write of this palace, I’m really referring to a few things—the organization of our society around the consumption of fossil fuels, the worldview that made that possible, and the ways that fossil fuel consumption has in turn influenced our understanding of our place in the world. We’ve lived through a very peculiar period of history, one in which our power over the natural world has swelled. We’ve grown accustomed to this power, and it’s conditioned the way we see the world.

Before going further, I’ll specify that by ‘we’ I mean the those of us in the global north, and particularly those who are white and class-privileged. We’ve benefited most from fossil fuels, contributed most to their extraction and consumption, and consequently been most conditioned by them.

The accumulation of power through fossil fuels is an extension of centuries of colonialism, of inflicting violence upon others in order to extract the wealth of their land. From the colonialist worldview, which already sees the resources of the world as ours for the taking, it was easy to include fossil fuels as one more thing that was ours to take. And unjustly, the most severe impacts of climate change will fall on people other than those most responsible for it—both because they won’t be sheltered by the economic power granted by fossil fuels, and by the geographic distribution of climate change’s impacts.

To give a sense of the devastation climate change is already causing in other parts of the world, David Wallace Wells wrote the following back in August:

Since the beginning of the year, billions of locusts produced by climate disruptions to local weather patterns have descended in clouds of as many as 80 million insects on some of the world’s most food-insecure regions, chewing up the croplands of the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, India, and Pakistan, pushing perhaps 5 million people to the brink of starvation and threatening the livelihood of as much as 10 percent of the world’s population. Just months after a historic cyclone “pummeled” the country, about a third of Bangladesh was underwater from torrential rains and flooding, while temperatures across the Middle East soared above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. In Iraq, where it reached 125, the heat wave was compounded by power outages depriving Iraqis of air-conditioning that was, in these circumstances, almost literally a lifeline. Last month, as many as 38 million were evacuated to avoid hundreds of simultaneous river floods in China, where some regions received twice as much rain as normal in June and July, and where the massive Three Gorges Dam was sufficiently stressed by the excess rainfall it has produced fears, likely premature, that the epic dam itself might collapse.

This is our familiar predicament: the way of life we’re used to is entirely dependent on fossil fuels, while their use is unsustainable and tied to immense injustice. When we see with clarity how deeply our way of life is interlaced with fossil fuel consumption, how it conditions our worldview, and the injustice it causes, these can open us to a willingness to leave our familiar palace into the unknown, in search of an alternative.

Fossil fuels have made us royalty

I often reflect that the luxury of my life is comparable to that of ancient kings, and, in all likelihood, so is yours. I can eat whatever food I want, I can have it delivered and cooked for me, exactly as I please. I can have my room heated and cooled on command. I can travel almost anywhere in the world (or at least I could pre-COVID). I can call forth any of thousands of entertainers on a whim. And I can have almost any material object delivered to my door in just a day. All that I lack of royalty is the social status.

It’s important not to take this for granted as simply the way the world is, but rather as an anomaly in human history made possible through fossil fuels, the stored energy of millennia of sunlight. Before the industrial revolution, our power was provided by human labor, domesticated animals, wind, water, and wood. Through the exploitation of fossil fuels, our society has gone through a long period of generally increasing energy availability, shown below in the graph of the per capita energy consumption in the U.S. from 1790 to 2011.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Census Bureau; Credit: Lam Thuy Vo / NPR[2]

To help us get a sense of the scale of this increase, Buckminster Fuller coined the term ‘energy slaves’: the number of people it would take, through human labor, to generate the energy we use. In 2019, the average person in the U.S. had approximately 150 energy slaves working constantly, without sleeping.[3] To avoid equating fossil fuel use and slavery, we could instead think of them as energy servants, and let them work 40 hours a week. Then we’d need 650 energy servants to support our lifestyles. In other words, it would take you 650 years of manual labor to fuel the lifestyle of the average U.S. resident for a single year.

Growing up in the palace has instilled a worldview of carbon privilege

Living through a time of anomalous prosperity and growth has deeply influenced our worldview. This worldview colors our experience of climate change and conditions our response to it. Jem Bendell’s notion of the ideology of E.S.C.A.P.E. describes six beliefs or expectations we have about reality: entitlement, surety, control, autonomy, progress, and exceptionalism.[4] These may be understandable human needs, but as the expectation of their fulfillment has grown, our capacity to make sense of a world where these are not met has withered.

I’d like to highlight three in particular—entitlement, control, and progress. Over time, we’ve come to feel entitled to the power and comfort provided by fossil fuels. We experience them as the natural order of things, as what is normal, even as what the world owes us. The continual increase in fossil fuel consumption has supercharged our ideas of progress; we expect that our wealth will continue to grow, and that the world inevitably gets better over time. And as their use has granted us more and more control over the natural world, we’ve come to expect and rely on this control.

These three limit our responses to climate change. Out of conviction in progress, people ignore or deny information that conflicts with its continuity. Or, through motivated reasoning, they place all their hope in things that will allow progress to continue, like the magical power of innovation or various technological saviors. Because of our entitlement, it’s hard to imagine a voluntary collective reduction in our material wealth, even as we know the fossil fuel use that generates it as an existential threat. I wrote about our expectations for control over the natural world in my last post, and the hubris of thinking we can always engineer the world into submission.

I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t work to improve society or influence the future, but that the worldview that demands control and progress, that stakes all meaning in these, is a fragile one. And while it may have been well suited for living through a period of unprecedented growth, it is not well suited to the future we’re entering, either for us as individuals or for us collectively.

Climate change is breaking down the walls of our worldview

Despite our E.S.C.A.P.E.-based expectations, climate change promises a future of uncertainty, lack of control, and deterioration, of numerous catastrophes and disasters. It’s almost as if all the vulnerability we’ve been warding off through fossil fuels is returning, amplified. This is true even if we significantly reduce carbon emissions, although that would make a profound difference.

The idea of progress is particularly threatened by climate change. Of this, David Wallace Wells writes:

It will not take a worst-case warming to deliver ravages dramatic enough to shake the casual sense that as time marches forward, life improves ineluctably. Those ravages are likely to begin arriving quickly: new coastlines retreated from drowned cities, destabilized societies disgorging millions of refugees into neighboring ones already feeling the pinch of resource depletion; the last several hundred years, which many in the West saw as a simple line of progress and growing prosperity, rendered instead as a prelude to mass climate suffering.

David Wallace Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth [5]

Impending climate catastrophes threaten the progressive worldview; it will be hard to maintain belief in the perfectibility of society and the ultimate controllability of the world. In the apex of faith in progress, the idea of progress performs the role of religion: the existence of suffering is redeemed by a mythic future society free of injustice and material want. This perfectibility of the future plays an important role in our collective consciousness, warding off the heartbreak of taking in the extent of injustice in the world now. When we no longer have a better future, how will we make sense of this?

When progress seems out of reach, we long for a return to the extraordinary normal of the privileged, to a world that isn’t wracked by disaster and tragedy, where material prosperity and security are available, where our children will have lives comparable to our own. But climate change puts even normal out of reach. It threatens to drive us towards the world already experienced by the global majority, one of precariousness, vulnerability, and relative powerlessness. To quote Vinay Gupta, “Collapse means living in the same conditions as the people who grow your coffee.”[6] Climate change returns us to a world where our vulnerability and mortality can’t be banished to the corners of our minds. The ideology of E.S.C.A.P.E. is incompatible with future we’re entering, and we need new ways—or old ones—of making sense of our place in the world.

Leaving the palace behind, finding new ways of making meaning

As climate change proceeds, becoming more and more present in our lives, the incompatibility of our expectations with our experience will only produce more dissonance. People will seek ways of resolving the contradiction—by doubling down, trying even more desperately to maintain control, or by searching for new ways of making sense of the world. Milton Friedman said “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” It would be good if the ideas lying around were good ones, beneficial for humanity and the earth.

As a return to normal becomes less and less plausible, promises of a return to normal won’t be able to resolve the dissonance between our experience and our expectations for the world. When this dissonance changes from a persistent discomfort in the back of our mind to a clear perception of the untenability and injustice of our worldview and society, we can give up hope on them and open to something new. What would it mean to step beyond the walls of this transitory palace, and find our way in the world beyond? What alternate stories would be compelling and useful for these times?

What I would like to be invited into is wholeheartedly living into the future as it’s forecast, among others doing the same. I’d like to be invited into helping fossil-fuel based civilization die well, into making amends and doing what we can to repair the damage done. I’d like to be invited into joining the exodus from its dying body. Entering new stories allows us to leave the anxious abode of our old stories behind. Our aliveness and creativity can awaken as we enter new ground. We can leave behind the anxiety of trying to escape the future and live with openness to the world as it is.

What are these new (and old) ways of life, new ways of making meaning that will prepare us for living in the world of climate destabilization? What supports us in our personal lives, and what would enable us to respond well, collectively? These are central animating questions for this blog that I’ll continue to explore.

Along these lines, I highly recommend Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower. Stephanie LeMenager writes of it: The Parable of the Sower is “dystopian fiction which maintains some hope for change, or at least pockets of resistance, within worlds that have become unbearable [and] offers compelling strategies for shaping pockets of anti-racist, sustainable community”[7] More than anything else, it’s given me a tangible sense of how the future might be, and how the present is, from outside the blinders of the myth of inevitable progress. Published in 1993 and set in 2024, it is incredibly prescient, describing a world in which climate change, corporate power, and white supremacy have advanced only a little further than they have today, amidst partial social collapse. It’s the story of a young woman gathering an intentional community and weaving a new religion in a chaotic and brutal world. It does two vital things for these times—it reflects an image of the coming and current world that it is essential we consider, and presents a vision of a journey we could set out on.

References

[1] David Wallace Wells, What Climate Alarmism has Already Achieved, New York Magazine, 2020

[2] Jacob Goldstein, Lam Thuy Vo, Two Centuries Of Energy In America, In Four Graphs, NPR, 2013

[3] Using the assumption of 2000 KJ / 8 hours as the amount of work they do, from Energy Slaves (comic), and 305 BTUs as the energy consumption of the average US resident in 2019, from the US Energy Information Administration

[4] Jem Bendell, The Collapse of Ideology and the End of Escape, 2020

[5] David Wallace Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth, Crown Publishing Group, 2019

[6] Vinay Gupta, Time to Stop Pretending (10 min video), Dark Mountain Festival, 2010

[7] Stephanie LeMenager, To Get Ready for Climate Change, Read Octavia Butler, Electra Street, 2017

Further Reading

Stuart McMillen, Energy Slaves (Comic)

Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower, Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993

1 comment

Thank you so much for this…!
I feel myself reminded of the true state of affairs, and encouraged to challenge my latent views. I’ve known on some level that we’re living in a crumbling palace with rotten foundation, and do speak to the need to upend it, and yet in listening to this podcast I can sense that in many ways I’m not living in alignment with this sense of duty. It has not been an organizing principle, so to speak. I am grateful it is in the vicinity of my consciousness, and yet right now I want more – in a good, deep, loving and brave way. I so appreciate this call to resonate with my values. I think part of what maintains my misalignment is the fear of the “collapse”. I loved the Vinay Gupta line that collapse means living in the same conditions as the people who grow your coffee. Am I honestly willing to step into something like this? At the very least, I want to be willing, and want to engage with others around this wholeheartedly, and together we might find our way into a future that’s in right relationship with Earth, and with Spirit.
Around visioning this just transition and the role of “fiction”, I was also reminded of something adrienne maree brown wrote in her much-loved book Emergent Strategy:
“Science fiction is simply a way to practice the future together. i suspect that is what many of you are up to, practicing futures together, practicing justice together, living into new stories. It is our right and responsibility to create a new world.”
Deep bows and much love to all as we face our past, our present, and our future with soft bellies and strong backs.

Leave a Reply