Is Democracy Hitting the

Fossil Fuels too Hard?

Stick that in your democracy and smoke it?
Stick that in your democracy and smoke it?

Over the past few weeks the notion of democracy has been getting its fair share of attention in the media, and quite rightfully so; Greece had a referendum on whether or not it was going to accept new terms for another round of bailout funds in exchange for the prolongment of austerity measures and the continuation of its debt peonage.

That this was a welcome occurrence is thanks to the short shrift that the term "democracy" has been getting the past few years, and I'm not just talking about neoliberals claiming to bring "democracy" to Middle East countries and such. What I'm talking about is how the term "democratization" has been continually added willy-nilly to just about every new technology that comes along: there's been the democratization of cell phones, of high-speed Internet access, of automobiles, and much more. So rather than "democratization" implying the beneficence of freedom upon a people, it now generally means the accessibility and wide adoption of the latest consumer gimmick by the masses.

Democracy, however, did not start out as a device for unfettered consumption, but rather implied a government assembled by the people through freely elected representatives. So it was therefore a welcome relief to hear Greece's prime minister stating the other day after the recent referendum that "Today we celebrate the victory of democracy. We proved even in the most difficult circumstances that democracy won't be blackmailed," for that was in fact an exercise in democracy.

Nonetheless, with some commentators going so far as to claim that we are seeing an "epic battle for the future of European democracy," one could be forgiven for thinking that the Greek crisis has spurred on what might be called "democracy at the crossroads." For in a somewhat similar manner, an article entitled Europe Doesn't Have a Debt Crisis – it has a Debt Crisis goes on to examine a piece by author Wolfgang Merkel: Is Capitalism Compatible with Democracy? In it, Merkel makes the claim that "the crisis of capitalism threatens to turn into a crisis of democracy." What does that mean? From what Merkel explains, "an interventionist tax and welfare state was able to belay the tensions between capitalism and democracy," but which has since resulted in "the financialization of capitalism [which] since the 1980s [has been breaking] the precarious capitalist-democratic compromise." True enough. For as Merkel also explains, "deregulated globalized markets have seriously inhibited the ability of democratic governments to govern." This can be seen in many ways, be it Structural Adjustment Programs forced upon 3rd World countries, or free trade agreements (of which are oftentimes orchestrated behind closed doors) foisted upon the better-off nations.

That all being said, there is the notion out there that democracy itself poses a problem. As William Ophuls puts it in his short, yet very insightful book Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail,

In the end, mastering the historical process would require human beings to master themselves, something they are far from achieving. (This is why democracy, considered by some to be an asset in the struggle against the forces that challenge industrial civilization, is in fact a liability.)

As Ophuls describes it, a democracy is a particular liability in this time of collapsing industrial civilization due to a lack of mastery we have over ourselves. This "mastery" can take the guise of many forms (and is fodder for books of its own), but I think that a quick stroll down most any street and an observance of all the advertising around is enough to validate the notion that we certainly haven't mastered ourselves. Nonetheless, I do wonder if it's fair to say that democracy is the problem, and if it might then be more appropriate to instead combine Merkel's and Ophuls' statements so that together they read: "the crisis of industrial civilization threatens to turn into a crisis of democracy."

First off, that neatly rids us of the distraction of squabbling over right wing vs. left wing, free-market capitalism vs. state capitalism (aka communism), and rightfully lumps both sides of that argument under industrialism. Secondly, by insinuating that the supposed crisis of democracy is due to a crisis of industrial civilization, then we are able to ponder about what, if anything, might a crisis of industrial civilization be. And the answer to that, fortunately, is easy enough. The crisis that industrial civilization is facing is one that gets to its very core – a shortage of fossil fuels.

Since fossil fuels – and specifically oil – are currently peaking, this means that there will be less and less of the "lifeblood" that makes industrial civilization "go." As an early example of this we can take a look at Greece which, for various reasons, is lacking an adequate supply of fossil fuels to make its modern industrial civilization run at mid- to late-20th century levels. This is no small issue. With seemingly very few people aware of the underlying issues affecting Greece, and with much denial going on as well, an immense amount of confusion, dissatisfaction, frustration, and worse, will likely occur and escalate as the crisis in Greece makes its inevitable jaunt across the globe. This is where the crisis of democracy enters.

First off, democracy has been around for much longer than the copious use of fossil fuels, dating all the way back to ancient Greece. Secondly, democracy entails a citizenry with enough surplus energy so that it may have the time and opportunity to govern itself. Although ancient Athens didn't have fossil fuels, what it did have was the energy of slaves.

While slavery has been a vital component and institution of human societies throughout history, those with a penchant for optimism are quick to point out that slavery was eliminated some 200 years or so ago in developed parts of the world. But putting aside that there are actually more slaves today than at any other time in history (although there's also a larger population today than at any time in history), this generally accepted notion of enlightened progress overlooks one crucial point: the energy of slaves was replaced with the energy of fossil fuels.

Thanks to the improvements upon the steam engine by James Watt in the late 1700s, the conferred ability to pump water out of coal mines allowed for greater extraction (and use) of coal, and thus triggered the Industrial Revolution. In short, the "cheap" energy extracted from deep mines thus enabled a machine enabled to do more work than a human via manual labour. In strict monetary terms, to a large degree this made slavery uneconomic. Meanwhile, congruent to their powering of the Industrial Revolution, fossil fuel usage also led to and allowed for various social and political changes, such as demands for greater equality and, no less, democracy.

As the 19th and 20th centuries progressed, increasing fossil fuels in the form of coal, then oil, then natural gas also allowed for the reduction, if not elimination, of such things as child labour, poor working conditions, and low living standards. This rising prosperity allowed for the emergence of what is called "the middle class," and led to political campaigns for strong labour unions and ever-expanding public projects – in the form of hospitals, schools, highways, and more.

But with oil supplies now hitting their peak, the fossil fuels that have allowed for our current experience of democracy will be putting the very foundation of our modern way of life into question – and for some people it already is.

(image by Aleksandr Zykov)
(image by Aleksandr Zykov)

To a certain extent, it might be said then that Greece, the birthplace of democracy, is turning out to be a bit of a litmus test in regards to how the crisis of industrial civilization will play out and effect our modern variant of democracy. Are we to realize the fundamental factors behind crises such as that currently besetting Greece, or are we to stick to our outdated and ultimately distracting notions of right wing vs. left wing, 1% vs. 99%, etc.?

As stated by Greece's defence minister and head of Independent Greeks (the coalition member of Syriza), "I want to state clearly, I am not afraid of Grexit [but] I am afraid of one thing: national division and civil war." In other words, there are already those in office publicly recognizing possible unfortunate outcomes of industrial civilization's crisis. But are those such as Greece's defence minister aware of what the crisis is truly about? I'm not so sure about that, and it appears that although circumstances such as those described by Greece's defence minister have once again been averted (what with Greece's third loan package just agreed to the other day), one might wonder if they've just been delayed to another day when loans and subsidies and bailouts and bailins are no longer possible and so make unwanted crises inevitable.

Nonetheless, the possibility still exists that a lower energy future will see significant amounts of political power move back from the centres to the peripheries as lower energy supplies stifle the grip on power by central governments. If so, then there's a chance that we can re-establish an inclination for local governance and not only maintain some of our political structures, but the social progress we've made while on those fossil fuels.

But seeing how alternatives to democracy – such as the heavy hand of an autocratic ruler and/or state – certainly don't guarantee a merry ride through the collapse of industrial civilization, it's probably a bit of a stretch to single out democracy as a liability.

Do our chances with democracy look good at the moment? I'll leave it to you to answer that for yourself, but I'd nonetheless say that it's fair to point out that fossil fuels have allowed for a lackadaisy modern way of life that places an overwhelmingly stronger inclination on the various guises of narcissism than on genuine civic participation.

That being said, I know that I'd certainly prefer to face our civilizational collapse with at least a chance at a fair share of freedom, as opposed to what the alternatives might imply. And if living, for now, in our modern-day, fossil-fuelled democracy means having to live amongst "the culture of narcissism," then at least I can choose to not own a remote control or a season's pass.

Ce post a était traduit en Français par online publication Commencements. Il apparaît dans Commencements ici (ou en PDF form via l'été 2015 publication) ou dans From Filmers to Farmers ici (arrive bientôt). Pour d'autres traductions en Français, s'il vous plaît voir la page de traduction Française.

<  Previous   Home   Next  >

Comments (14)

Gravatar
New
RGR
Gravatar
4
May 2015
First Poster
RGR
It isn't just democracy hitting fossil fuels, it is humans. Consumers. Like you and I. We demand a product, and the industry delivers it, and it delivers it to socialists, and communists, and managed economies and faux economies and dictatorships and all other kinds of political systems.

Fossil fuels are agnostic, but do appear to be more useful to the freer economies, if only because free market development proceeds more in tune with what you, and I, and the rest of the worlds consumers demand.
Gravatar
Admin
Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
Gravatar
211
Aug 2014
Top Poster
RGR: True enough. All political systems are partaking in fossil fuel usage, and to varying degrees, we're all complicit in it. Not so sure though if free markets are more in tune with what we "demand," as opposed to being more amenable to crass consumerism.

Having said that, when it comes to being a consumer and "demanding" products, I think you should speak for yourself there. "Demand" doesn't emerge from the ether and must be created and come from somewhere. This is why the advertising industry exists: to seduce us into desiring the latest and greatest. Some people see through that nonsense, some don't. You can count me amongst the former, although it's not as if I'm 100% immune to it all. That being said, I think it's safe to say that if a significant enough portion of the developed world lived as I do, our economies would crash overnight.
Gravatar
Regular
Joe Clarkson
Gravatar
12
Jan 2015
<i>lower energy supplies stifle the grip on power by central governments</i>

I've seen this meme before but never quite understood where the evidence for it comes. It seems to me that there are plenty of examples of central government grip on power in low energy societies, the Roman Empire and Napoleonic France being just two.

Granted, if energy supplies get low enough we're all back to being hunter-gatherers, but above that level of energy there seems to be plenty of opportunity for centralized power to maintain its hold on society. I think it depends on the proportion of surplus energy (over the hunter-gatherer level) that is commandeered by the central government, not the absolute level of the surplus. In the land of the energy impoverished, the man with a sword and a well fed horse is king.
Gravatar
Admin
Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
Gravatar
211
Aug 2014
Top Poster
Joe: Yeah, you're certainly right there, and I think we can add China to your list as well. Your point kind of crossed my mind but I suppose I was the "lackadaisy" one in not elaborating better. I should have prefaced that line with "on the possibility that" or even "on the likelihood that." That being said, what was going through my head was that central governments can rather easily consolidate power as energy supplies increase, but have a hard time figuring out how to hold on to it as energy supplies decrease. I'd have to check the history books on that one though, but I'll resort to being "lackadaisy" a second time.

And although I presume grip on power from central governments will be (somewhat) lost, yeah, in one way or another it will be re-established, but I presume in smaller forms.
Gravatar
New
Eric Hiatt
Gravatar
1
Jul 2015
The problem with democracy is much more general than "industrial civilization" and industrial civilization's problem extends far beyond the fact we're running out of energy to sustain it. Growth-based industrialism has wrecked this planet, but I don't want to rattle off a bucket list here. It has also compelled a socially dissociated way of living based on the exploitation of human beings as mere machines and consumers of their own production.

People in the United States are violent, physically unhealthy, and suffer rampant mental health issues. The poor in Bangladesh (for example) who make all the trash clothing for the consumers in the US and elsewhere are paying even greater costs.

Civilization creates vastly too much entropy in the world, and the energy doesn't exist to sustain this destruction much longer (I'd put a safe upper bound at a century). Humans are treated as disposable as the products created to feed this system. And finally, we come to the real reason democracy doesn't work on large scales: complexity.

Civilization is a complex system and everything in this system is related to everything else. It takes a high level of mathematical and scientific literacy to even begin to get a handle on how everything functions as a whole, and this functioning interrelates to the environment and its own functioning via vast webs and feedbacks. In contrast, we have people voting based on whether they think Obama has a birth certificate and representatives denying climate disruption because they found a snowball.

Democracy can work best at small, local scales, and on a few crucial large-scale issues, but neither the general public nor politicians can handle complex systems. This is the fundamental problem, so you can see how hard it is.

I'll be getting Ophuls's book. Thank you for the reference.
Gravatar
Admin
Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
Gravatar
211
Aug 2014
Top Poster
Eric: I've always had the notion in my head that democracy works best at the small scale, but couldn't really define why. But your description of democracy not working on a large scale due to complexity may be the puzzle piece I was looking for. In fact, I just heard the other day that a second edition of Joseph Tainter's Collapse of Complex Civilizations is coming out soon, and I'll be keeping your notion in mind when I read it. Thanks!
Gravatar
New
Tom Jones
Gravatar
5
Jul 2015
You've come into my awareness via The Doomstead Diner. This article is insync with what RE has been saying for a long time. It's like a generational passing of the torch? But I don't understand why the necessity to spend your time writing, unless it's, like with RE and others, an attempt to 'save as many as you can'. As much as I would like to admire this bent, it seems to me that it's possibly a psychological need or an intellectual game. Being in my late 60's it is with luck that a young idealistic reformer moved into my area. His plans to sell shitake mushrooms and duck eggs dovetails nicely with your goats and booze. Here is a rural area of the SouthEast, and not long ago everyone left the farms for a job in town with benefits. For the money, sure, but also because growing stuff and staying home was stifling and plain hard. My monk's life on the 'farm' is great, but greater still if I have winters with my friends in Rio de Janeiro and that takes money/oil. If it's one or the other? Sophie's choice.

Documentaries get to the heart of these matters. Words are effective, but video packs a knockout punch. It's how we're wired. I am in awe of the fact they are made, that they are accessible and deeply grateful to those who make them. And YouTube! Just get your butt out of the chair every little while.

The 'Hard Time' National Geographic special showed what, it seems to me, small local community living would be like. Either total submission to authority or mayhem. Those inmates have to be ruthless to survive even flourish, or else have nothing that anyone else wants. And so it would be for us all.

The documentary on Diana Vreeland, editor of Vogue, is very worth the time, giving insight on the psychology of the shakers and movers of our time. Follow that up with Monk with a Camera, and see the generational shift. Does it come from within or from without. (One sees that the great spiritual Dali Lama demands TSA style protection even from those he's 'rewarding' for their service. For me that scene in the hotel corridor was a 'revelation'. )

Bill Cunningham NYC is the documentary to follow those two. Now we're getting to the core. He's living the life you, I and RE and Vreeland's grandson can only admire and wish to attain. Who would have thought a fashion photographer is leading the way.

Blood Brother, a young guy who shames us by inspiring us to do more.

Greece was all too predictable having seen The Weight of Chains and other films from the Balkans.

Laura Poitras make documentaries all of which should be required viewing for all of us. She's been held up at the airport by TSA on each of her last 50 arrivals, and just this week sued the government to know why.

The list goes on and on, and it's not only my life they change having been seen.

But first and foremost on my list are the documentaries on Crop Circles because they give me hope hope for the future. Without them, just more plunging graphs ahead. With them, it's like I'm young again and Castaneda inspired all anew. Something totally inexplicable and real, mind-boggling in their implications, and no one can prove them a fraud.

So, I just wanted to thank you for you efforts and, because of your film interests, give this feedback.
Tom
Gravatar
Admin
Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
Gravatar
211
Aug 2014
Top Poster
Tom: I'd like to give your comment a reply, but can't think straight right now as I have a massive head-cold. I'll update this comment in a day or two when my noggin's a bit better.
Gravatar
New
Tom Jones
Gravatar
5
Jul 2015
So let's take advantage of your cold-delayed response and offer another comment on another of your posts - What Do Climate Change Films Teach Us About Climate Change?

If you expressly are excluding documentaries/video I apologize in advance. But you gave these three options as to how film and television might end:

A waning, pathetic exit as it attempts to hold on for dear life amongst diminishing fossil fuel supplies, escalating costs, and the gradual collapse of industrial civilization.

A rather quick exit due to some sort of catastrophe that befalls the world and renders film, television, and much else unviable, amongst a rather fast collapse of industrial civilization.

A conscious decision made by many of us, if not most of us, to ween ourselves away from the participation – as creators, distributors and watchers – of film and television.

Number one is the slow death from a debilitating uncurable disease.
Number two is a heart attack, or some other quick sometimes silent killer.

Number three is suicide.

What about a natural death after a life of good habits based on good information? That's what I'm going for. As we all know, things will not continue. But damn, what's done is done, so why not savour the good stuff (many films, documentaries, books, youtube videos, raw vegetables and weeds) Watch 'Sick Fat and Nearly Dead' and see if you yourself aren't inspired to change. You can read about people getting better, seeing it happen is an indelible difference. It's THERE NOW. Why not cleverly get it and enjoy it?!!! Timing is everything. Of course the film industry, as all industries is doomed. But it's not dead yet :-) Your goats will probably be dead before I don't have something worth looking at.
What publisher or producer would offer up a story with the three endings you offer. It isn't satisfying, it won't sell, it needed editing. Sure depressive melancholics will identify, but they aren't much fun as an intended audience. You have to wind it up good, no loose ends, tie it up with a ribbon, bust a nut, go out in Gran Torino style. Keep on living as shown in Then Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. Reverse Engineer is a hero, he's got the right stuff. What a compliment to be on his blog. As for me, I'll keep watching the good stuff as long as I can and there's more there than my eyes will have time to see.

I like this quote found in the book A Separate Reality by Robert Marshall. Yes, there's a more famous book by that name. Yes, it's an acknowlegement that words are powerful too. Best of luck with them.
“I see,” said Yen Hui, “what was standing in my way was my own self awareness. If I can begin this fasting of the heart, self-awareness will vanish.”
“Yes,” said Confucious, “that's it. If you can do this, you will be able to go among men in their world without upsetting them. You will not enter into conflict with them. If they will listen, sing them a song. If not, keep silent.....Just be among them, because there is nothing else for you to be but one of them.”
Gravatar
New
Tom Jones
Gravatar
5
Jul 2015
p.s.
Film and television and internet video depend very much on audio.The recording industry is doing damage enough and will face the same challenges. Should we take off the headphones? Silence the speakers?
The forms will change, the eyes will travel, the music will go on and with it the dancing. Strong men and women will struggle in an uncertain future, but many will profit for the experience. It will be epic and cinematic in scope as it will be a memory saved of good times gone bye. One forgets the sadness, but not the tenderness.
Ok, enough sap lest it bleed dry:-)
Gravatar
New
Tom Jones
Gravatar
5
Jul 2015
p.s.
Film and television and internet video depend very much on audio.The recording industry is doing damage enough and will face the same challenges. Should we take off the headphones? Silence the speakers?
The forms will change, the eyes will travel, the music will go on and with it the dancing. Strong men and women will struggle in an uncertain future, but many will profit for the experience. It will be epic and cinematic in scope as it will be a memory saved of good times gone bye. One forgets the sadness, but not the tenderness.

Enough sap lest it bleed dry:-)
Gravatar
Admin
Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
Gravatar
211
Aug 2014
Top Poster
Tom: I'm just getting over this extended bed-ridden bout, so with a bit of left-over grogginess I'll bat this out:

I suspect that much like other writers out there, but not necessarily all, you can say that my reason for writing is essentially out of compassion to help & inform others.

"Documentaries get to the heart of these matters. Words are effective, but video packs a knockout punch. It's how we're wired."

Documentaries are no better able to get to the heart of matter than the printed word or even oral communication. If anything, & in short, documentaries are more superficial and fleeting as they are based on visuals, and visuals are easy. However, I don't know if ease is one of the top qualities we should be cultivating in ourselves right about now. And to say that video packs a knockout punch and is how we're wired? That sounds like an apologistic tract & a good reason to survive off of Big-Macs. No thanks.

If you find that you benefit from film, well, I can't and won't dispute that. But just the same, having quit making and watching films years ago, I now rely on the written word, & can't say I've lost anything from the transition. If anything, my imagination gets more of an exercise from reading books & I now like that I no longer have to depend on the "expert" concoctions of other visual creators. I don't claim they aren't any good at what they do, but I don't see them as being necessary, & nor do I see my life as lacking having lopped them out of it. Our culture is way too visual-based as is anyway.

NEXT COMMENT:

I'm not sure what you mean by a "natural death" of film. Where's the part that it goes away, & how? If I'm not mistaken, your "natural death" & my "waning, pathetic exit" are one & the same as they both attempt to hold on to something rather than just let it go.

A book is no less "THERE NOW" than a film, so I don't see the distinction that you're trying to make. A film is more visual, of course, & if you absolutely must have visuals & can't do without them, by all means, go for it. Me, it's the ideas that I'm after, & don't see why I need visuals to convey ideas for me, & nor have I found any overriding benefit or need for them. (And I say that as a visual-based person.) I won't argue that you may be watching informative material, but if you are, you're one of the few. And as you are one of the few, to get rid of all film and television and the massive polluting industries behind it would have, I believe, a much greater net benefit due to the overwhelming amount of crud out there.

"What publisher or producer would offer up a story with the three endings you offer. It isn't satisfying, it won't sell, it needed editing. Sure depressive melancholics will identify..."

Sure, although that's slightly cherry-picking there. Your worthwhile observation is also reason why I can dislike this blogging thing as it's not too easy to give as thorough of an argument as I'd like to make, but must spit things out in bits and pieces. I'd say that a life without film & TV and its superficialities can be more rewarding, but I'm still a bit too under the weather to get into all that rhetoric.

Thanks for the quote. That goes along with something I heard the other day, & I'll be keeping it in mind.

NEXT COMMENT x 2:

I actually haven't popped on a pair of headphones for years nor personally put on a piece of music over that time either. RE had to cajole me into doing a podcast with him, which I eventually did do, & am glad I did. That being said, I've been listening to more & more audio material, reading more & more Internet material, & have become less & less able to read books. Whereas I could read dozens if not hundreds of pages in a sitting, I can generally now only get through a handful. It's pathetic, & I find myself only able to skim and have less ability to "get to the heart of the matter." In fact, I've just decided to cut back on this blog. That'll be next post.
Gravatar
New
Tom Jones
Gravatar
5
Jul 2015
my comments were premature in that i'd not read several other of your posts where you explained. still, to tie this up :-), it's not possible for me to accept your reasons. it's similar to trying to open anyone's eyes to something they don't want to see. be it related to resources, religion, science, whatever. better then to keep my silence, right?

(here i'm murmuring almost inaudibly) so many sayings come to mind. the first being 'life is a banquet and most people are starving'. fasting i understand, and agree with it and am almost prepared to do having been influenced by SEEING the changes it has made and the facial expressions of those proposing it. again, documentaries and youtube videos. actually your lack of concentration could be from your diet. juicing/fasting might change everything. from a vegan point of view that head cold was your body getting rid of toxins via mucous. be glad you had it, it's a sign.

or maybe unconciously your mind is rebelling and needs something not in books and reclusive settings.

enough! (the grand blog exit:-) i leave you now as there is an unbridgeable gap in our worldly experience/perception. i should care if so much life you are missing! monks, nuns, professional soldiers and others seek the separation. but don't think your negations will cause the samba to die. excuse the intrusion - if i'd known sooner your bent i wouldn't have bothered. (curtain closes:-)
Gravatar
Admin
Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
Gravatar
211
Aug 2014
Top Poster
Tom: Thanks again for commenting and trying again with me, but seeing how you've read even deeper into this blog it should be even easier for you to see how daft I am with a lot of this stuff. As you say, it probably is best that you keep your silence. Nonetheless, thanks for taking the time out from your samba to teach me about my mucous!

Add Comment

* Required information
5000
Powered by Commentics
<  Previous   Home   Next  >


www.fromfilmerstofarmers.com

Creative Commons logo2014-2017 Allan Stromfeldt Christensen