Patchwork Design Lab

June 19, 2010

Might as Well Face it You’re Adapted to Oil

There are two phrases I’d like to deconstruct today. Both of them come from the highest levels of government. The first is America is addicted to oil, uttered first by George W Bush in 2006 and echoed by Barack Obama just recently. The second one, uttered first in 1992 by Bush Sr. and later echoed by Dick Cheney, proclaims, “the American Way of Life is not negotiable.”

First let’s look at the addiction comment. Here is a biological definition of addiction:

Addiction ( in psychiatry, a pattern of compulsive drug use characterized by a continued craving for an opiod and the need to use the opiod for effects other than pain relief. Alternately, the state of being given up to some habit, especially strong dependence on a drug. Being abnormally tolerant to and dependent on something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming (especially alcohol or narcotic drugs).

Addiction is a partial adaptation to a foreign substance. I’m somewhat familiar with addiction, though only second hand, because the propensity for substance abuse seems to run in my family. Since I can stake no claim to moral superiority in this matter, I can only conclude that I am biochemically fortunate. The type of substances to which most people tend to become addicted make me feel like hammered dog shit. But I have observed the symptoms at close-hand. And as much as the addict believes that without the craved substance he will surely die or, worse, not die, the need is usually more perceived than real, and after a seemingly endless but actually finite period of time the physical dependence will fade. But there is a point in the process where an addict is likely to say I really need this. My need is not negotiable.

Let’s consider what real need entails. Here is a biological definition of adaptation:

Adaptation (from –
ecology – The adjustment or changes in behavior, physiology, and structure of an organism to become more suited to an environment. According to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, organisms adapt to their environment to become better fitted to survive and pass their genes on to the next generation.

In adaptation, function is fitted to systemic processes, and form is fitted to function. Ecosystems arise around energy gradients which generate an ongoing flow. The structure of the system arises in adaptation to both the type and the quantity of flow. Natural systems tend to self-organize in a way that maximizes the rate of flow over time. Everything within the system is integral to this process. Everything an organism does, from its behavior in relationship with other organisms to its very metabolism fits into this regime. If the source gradient changes or is degraded, entire species can die out.

I would argue that modern civilization, the modern global economy, the social systems that humans have created over the millenia are either adapted or in the process of adapting to oil and its cousins natural gas and coal as the primary energy source. Americans are not addicted to oil; they are addicted to the American Way of Life. As is the rest of the world. The American Way of Life, though, is adapted to oil as its primary feedstock. Without a sufficient rate of production and refinement, the American Way of Life will vanish like a puff of smoke; it will collapse like a boneless elephant. Globalization is possible only because of the energy provided by oil and its products and the technologies and infrastructure that have appeared as a result.

You can’t build an “alternative energy” society on a petroleum infrastructure. Not all forms of energy are created equal. Earth receives an estimated 174 petawatts (1.74 X 10exp17) of solar energy a day. That’s a huge quantity of energy, but it’s not in a concentrated form. It is highly dispersed, unavailable (to use thermodynamic lingo) to do work, unless you happen to be a molecule of chlorophyll. Converting sunlight into a form that humans would consider useful takes work. We can use sunlight to heat water in a pipe or to cause gas to expand and drive a turbine to create electricity. We can also use photovoltaics to turn solar energy into electricity. But these technologies depend on energy in a more concentrated form to start with. In our case, the more concentrated form is oil or one of its derivatives. The highly centralized, long-distance, energy intensive lifestyles that we currently “enjoy” are entirely dependent on oil and its evolved infrastructure.

We humans have a huge task before us. We are all destined for rehab. We will have to kick our addiction to the American Way of Life and then create one that is adapted to a new, lower-energy regime. The American Way of Life is not negotiable; it is all but over. We may keep it on life support for a few more years, but, like it or not, it’s already circling the drain.

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