crisis in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by BP, coming on the heels of Massey
Energy’s crimes in America’s coal fields
and our rape of Iraq bring us face to face with the question of whether
we have become a pirate culture, existing by taking from the weaker and giving
to the stronger, a national elite of hypocrites and moral monsters, the former
never really looking at what they do, the latter not caring. Energy is a word for power, and power’s
relationship to larger contexts of value, or even simple ethics, has always
been fraught with conflict.
States has always been challenged by the ethical implications of how we obtain
energy, and energy acquisition has always been the seamiest side of this
country. During the American
Revolution a great many of our greatest leaders were from the South,
particularly Virginia. Men like
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were also vocal
opponents of the slave system, though they could not figure out how to abolish
it. Because they did not,
ultimately it abolished the values to which they dedicated their lives.
degeneracy combined with the high profits it gave slave owners ultimately led
the South to repudiate the principles of the American Revolution. In its place Southern leaders like John
C. Calhoun and those that came after him established an aggressively
authoritarian culture that long after the Civil war still refuses to confront
its failings and evils. Human
rights and Enlightenment reason were abandoned in favor of states rights and
arbitrary power extending from a demon God all the way down to Whites whipping
and later lynching uppity Blacks. We live with its zombie presence to this day,
a culture of the living dead.
power through the domination and destruction of people. Later forms of power acquisition came
from dominating and destroying Nature- taking and giving back nothing in
return. Whether by taking oil or
taking coal, there was never any sense of reciprocity in modern forms of energy
extraction, no sense of sustainability.
Just take. While it is
uncomfortable to contemplate, I think
Evan Eisenberg’s term for our kind of civilization: “saprophagy” should be better known.
lives off the dead. Many organisms
are saprophages, and we are the better for it, or we would be over our heads in
the corpses of past generations.
But saphrophages like many fungi and microbes convert their bodies to forms
available to empower new generations of flourishing. They are in the service of life. They give back, as all life does except certain human forms,
particularly our own. The energy
that powers our culture comes from taking and not giving back.
To a degree this mentality is inherent
in getting energy from the remains of long dead organisms rather than recently
dead ones. But nothing occurs in isolation, and by its initial success in obtaining power and wealth it also bred a broader mentality of taking and giving nothing in
return. This mentality is not limited to digging up coal and drilling for oil. Only nuclear energy is somewhat more complicated – and it has
extraordinary risks of its own and has not transformed our culture the way
these other forms of energy extraction have.
through taking breeds a mentality the opposite of working with the
rhythms of Nature, the opposite of activities like sustainable farming,
logging, fishing, or ranching.
In these other activities Nature is not simply the resource or an impediment to be overcome
in getting the resources. When She
is treated that way the damage arrives fairly rapidly, and the exploiters have
to leave what could, with brains, have produced for millennia. But for oil, gas, and coal extraction, that is all She
that so many in the energy field appear to have the moral sensibilities of
pirates, that they seems to think they have a God-given right to great wealth
from taking these things, regardless of the impact on others. Other communities of people, other ways of life, and animal and plant communities are impediments to their taking, or irrelevant. Perhaps this is why energy companies like dictatorships. They ensure the irrelevance of the locals.
I think today
our obsession with oil and coal is making us as morally corrupt a society as
the ante-bellum South had become a few decades after the American Revolution.
We bomb and kill and support dictatorships across the world in the name of
securing our energy future.
Increasingly we are destroying the earth itself, whether through global
warming, destroying ecosystems, and now through poisoning our own coasts and
destroying the lives of our own people so rich parasites can keep their
I wonder what
the long term cultural and psychological effects would be of converting
increasingly to wind, solar, biological and tidal energy generation. These do not involve the simple
application of power. They require
a mindset utterly alien to the thugs that run companies like BP and Massey
Energy. And used intelligently
(and in most cases even when used unintelligently) they can last as close to
forever as anything humans are likely to do, making us at last truly native to