Sunday, July 11, 2010

Whither the weak in the post-peak oil world?

It is often said that the test of any civilization is how it treats its weakest members. Those who are compromised physically, mentally or emotionally create a sort of live-action Rorschach test. Do the weak among us evoke our compassion or our scorn? If we are among the lucky ones who have our full faculties, our reaction to the weak says more about our view of the disfigured, stricken and defeated parts of our own psyche--the parts which make us feel most vulnerable and ashamed--than it does about the weak among us.

Even if we feel compassion for those less fortunate, we are rarely called upon to find the limits of that compassion. In a post-peak oil world that will in all likelihood no longer be the case. Let me do a thought experiment involving two hypothetical post-peak oil communities. One has done little to prepare for the shocks ahead. This lack of preparation of necessity means that only the strong survive the depredations suffered during a serious decline in the energy available to society.

A second community has been careful to make many useful adaptations before the onset of energy decline. This preparation has created a solidarity in the community and the means to shield the weakest members of that community from the worst consequences of a shrinking energy budget.

In the first community, once the initial crisis passes, resources that might have been devoted to helping the weaker members of society can now devoted to the needs and aspirations of the strong. It is a troubling conundrum that the first community, the unprepared community, has through its lack of preparation and perhaps hardheartedness created a robust cohort of survivors.

But all is not what it seems. The first community has merely been hit early by declining resources through lack of foresight and preparation. That community has made decisions about the welfare of the weak in an ad hoc, haphazard manner. The results might not be due to hardheartedness at all, but plain disorganization and poor planning.

The one advantage of the second better prepared community will turn out to be a superior sense of solidarity that may make it easier to march together down the slope of energy decline with more mercy and fewer casualties. I say there is ultimately only one advantage in this case because the second community will likely face that same choices as the first community only later.

We will be tested early or late on the limits of our compassion for the weak. How much of society's dwindling resources will we be willing to devote to the needs of those with limitations: the elderly, the infirm, the emotionally disturbed, the developmentally disabled?

In the fossil fuel era we have congratulated ourselves on our enlightened treatment of the weak, not realizing that our vast and increasing energy surplus made it possible to expand their possibilities without risking the viability of society as a whole. No doubt technology helped, too. How many books would Stephen Hawking have written without the special technologies available to the handicapped, especially those linked to the computer? How many children might have been left to wither and die in institutions were it not for new methods of instruction practiced by trained specialists who have made possible the vastly increased range of activities and even a degree of independence for some of the most profoundly handicapped among us?

But that infrastructure of people and machines implies a certain energy input from society. Even though we know that the current infrastructure can make those who are weakest among us vastly more capable of participating in society, will we be able to resist the calls from those who will say that the weak are too much of a burden on society--that it is best for society to let them wither and die and to nourish the strong instead?

There is, of course, the rather difficult problem of determining what constitutes a strong person and what constitutes a weak person. In some cases it will simply be a question of social position and life chances, or in other words, luck. If we say a strong person is one who survives and a weak person is one who does not, we are now truly back to the most brutish morality possible, i.e., that might makes right.

And, there is another consideration. There is a need to keep one's community functioning through adequate levels of nutrition, health and shelter. This is a prerequisite for helping the weaker members of society. That means weighing the more diffuse compassion that one might feel for an entire community against the tangible and immediate needs of those suffering in front of one's eyes. This balancing act will tax the souls of even the most compassionate and enlightened leaders.

The post-peak oil era will indeed test us. It will test whether our compassion merely flows from the end of a pipeline or whether we can sustain it in the depths of our hearts as the fossil fuel era draws to a close.


John L. Stanley said...

Kurt, such a good subject for moral conversation.
Re: the difficult determination of who is weak and who is strong. It seems obvious that in the current regime those who are able to garner and deploy the most energy resources are by definition, strong. While those who do not have access to such energy resources, or who will not deploy them, are weak. We may find that the future favors those who are able to "make do" with less are more favored for survival, while those who cannot function without the abundance to which we are accustomed fail to thrive.
We may find that those who are weak are, in changed circumstances, strong. And vice versa. Reminds me of the Apostle Paul, saying, "When I am weak, then I am strong."
I suppose that the long bench of nature's justice will help us understand what is in fact weak or strong.

Garry Hayes said...

Sorry, but that fact that Lindsay Lohan is in jail is far more important to be worrying about right now.

Thanks for the insightful post. I'm passing it on.

Rick Dworsky said...

While these are profound considerations, regarding real suffering and our perceived sense of some shared compassion... I can't help wonder if the Oil Age really was any more compassionate than previous eras. I see nothing compassionate about causing Catastrophic Climate Change. As far as other species and their extinctions are concerned, humans have not shown much compassion. As far as the sick starving masses, larger than ever. As far as how we respect and show compassion for our own lives, the Oil Age has forced most to accept alienation, de-emancipation, conformity and powerlessness, it only offered an uncomfortably artificial chance to be alive. In a sickening toxic world.

Compassion - spiritual maturation - did not depend on oil in prior eras. But for most of us now, basic survival does. The era of increasing oil abundance did not increase our compassion, it increased our numbers and our dependencies, and it increased the horrors of cold impersonal bureaucracies and... warfare.

Where excessive populations face depleting resources... poverty, misery and self-absorbed lack of compassion (psychopathology) manifests. Where populations match the Earth's natural bounty... there is the possibility of compassion and abundance and happiness for all.

Henry Warwick said...

Rick Dworsky wrote:

Where excessive populations face depleting resources... poverty, misery and self-absorbed lack of compassion (psychopathology) manifests. Where populations match the Earth's natural bounty... there is the possibility of compassion and abundance and happiness for all.


When hungry, people don't go roving - they haven't the strength. People starve in place, and co-operate and pool resources in order to survive on reduced inputs. Try travelling in poor countries and you'll see what I mean. There are limits, but they don't normally result in meanspiritedness.

There is way more compassion in your average run of the mill favela in Rio than the boring bunkered burbs of Orange County California.

Anonymous said...

Your article hit a raw nerve, as I have a neighbour whose son lives in a wheelchair. We see him get a special bus to school each day. The resources society is expending on this one child are enourmous, not just wheelchairs, but special needs helpers, special teachers, rebuilt bathrooms, concrete ramps at home and school, a special van for the family, bus drivers and so on. Sometimes I look at it all and wonder if the effort might be better spent elsewhere.

What happened to these people 10,000 years ago, well I guess the lions got them.

Robin Datta said...

Much depends on how severe the overshoot happens to be past the carrying capacity with declining fossil fuels.

If populations rapidly draw down to their levels in pre-petroleum or pre-coal eras, all possible care and compassion can be expected to have a relatively less significant impact.

Rick Dworsky said...

Henry - Since even after quoting me, you still apparently didn't understand what I said and just put words in my mouth to attack, I hesitate to even bother to answer you... however I do so to protect my reputation with all the other readers...

I was discussing the current state of affairs as well as the crimping of exaggerated lifestyles as resources dry up for our excessive population... there will be a lot more angry people only concerned with their own survival, and perhaps their clan. I expect a big bloody mess as all these competing groups go head to head. And a brutal competition within such groups is also to be expected. And competition is the key word. It is one of the perhaps ugly concepts of the science of ecology. We can't get away from it. This holds true for any species, especially when demand exceeds resources.

Perhaps what ticked you off the most was the concept that growth can't go on forever, that only a balance between what the Earth can provide and human populations and their demands can enable the possibility of a world without poverty.

You simply took things to the extreme case and then attacked that. Old ploy.
By the time people are starving and too weak to move, of course they are also too weak to be much of a threat to anyone, and they are also too weak to be of compassionate service to anyone. The only positive I get from your words is an apparent optimism... at least that's usually fun, but I don't see how it will head off disaster.