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The Ethical Environment of Post-Peak Oil

13 June 2008

A couple of years ago, qb’s job on Sunday mornings was to open our adult Bible class hour with some introductory thoughts.  One month in particular, the theme for our opening thoughts was this:  are our children equipped with the ethical base to live as disciples of Jesus in the post-peak-oil era?

Admittedly, at the time the question sounded sort of “out there,” if you know what I mean.  But the recent riots and strikes in South Korea over surging oil prices suggest to me that the time has come to re-engage the question:  what is the appropriate ethical posture of a disciple of Jesus in an energy-limited society?  We haven’t had to deal with that kind of scenario in several hundred years, and now, the genie is out of the bottle; we know what it is like to have apparently limitless supplies of high-density fossil fuels, and we can never go back to our primitive, naive mental state when we were content to live on horseback and camelback.

The late research ecologist, H. T. Odum, once revived an interesting hypothesis, originally formulated by Alfred Lotka in 1922 as a possible, additional thermodynamic law:  open systems evolve and self-organize in such a way that those processes or organisms that can scavenge energy more efficiently than others have a significant (insurmountable?) competitive advantage and end up being the dominant species.  Odum and his protege, C. A. S. Hall, called the hypothesis the “maximum power principle.”  The corollary is obvious:  if you want to be competitive for the long term in an evolving society or ecosystem, you must learn to scavenge available energy more efficiently or effectively than your competitors.

The idea never really caught on as a formal, thermodynamic law, but it still lurks out there because we know it to be true in an approximate sense.  Why is it that we could not allow a foreign enemy to overrun Kuwait in 1990-91?  Aside from the question of unprovoked aggression and the altruisms that are expressed by our political figures, the invasion of Kuwait threatened our access to vital oil supplies from a relatively friendly nation.  Instinctively, we know that energy hegemony is the most important form of hegemony, the one from which all other forms (economic, cultural, political, military) derive their coherence and power.

But that begs the question:  can disciples of Jesus base their ethics on such a hegemonic drive?  It seems clear to me that the answer Scripture gives us is a resounding no.  So it brings me back to my three boys, who are learning from the world around them that “to the victor belong the spoils,” “look out for number one,” “all reality is physical,” and “win at all costs.”  That is the language of hegemony, the language of meritocracy, the language of secular leadership.  But it is not the language of the Bible, and it is clearly not the orientation of Jesus, the slain lamb of Revelation 5 and Matthew 26.

That is why what I have called on this blog, the “Myth of American Exceptionalism,” is such a sinister force.  It is not to say that America’s political arrangements are not the best the world has ever seen; I believe that they are and that the Constitution is a product of incredible genius.  It is also not to say that political freedom and economic freedom are not intimately and inextricably linked; I believe that they are.  And I do believe that feeding the world requires maximum economic freedom.

But the Myth of American Exceptionalism goes further:  it justifies and reinforces our nation’s baser, hegemonic impulses and sets those impulses forth as self-validating.  Our brand of political and economic freedom being indispensable to the world’s well being, virtually anything that secures our hegemony is by definition a contribution to the world’s well being and therefore a global good.  We seem to think that if America does not survive, the world goes in the tank.

Maybe that’s true.  But the life and teachings of Jesus do not align well with it, and we have to make some hard decisions as to how (or, first and foremost, whether) we are going to live prophetically in a world where American hegemony is now significantly at risk.  I don’t know if my boys are going to know how to do that.  

Hell, I don’t even know if I know how to do that.  

But this much is clear from current events:  we’re fixin’ to find out.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Rich Milne permalink
    15 June 2008 8:38 pm

    Dear B,
    Having seen this already from something Andrea circulated, I decided to google the title, and of course found your blog. I am sorry to see so few, if any, responses, probably more from the glut of blogs than the quality of the content. You may feel a lonely voice, but what you are saying, or posting of what others are and have said, still is important, still needs to be said, and as David Wells (an old teacher of mine) says, he nows sees many more 30 and 40 year olds expressing concerns similar to his own.
    So hang in there!
    Dallas Willard repeated anywhere is helpful, and you seem to have lots of other more thoughtful Christians in your reading, and therefore, posting. And, like prayer, every little bit helps!
    At some point I may try to say something intelligent, but I at least wanted you to know you voice does have wings, and has at least made it to Dallas this warm summer evening. Happy Father’s Day from one Dad to another. Have fun with those three kids!
    In Christ,
    Rich Milne

  2. queueball permalink*
    16 June 2008 9:29 am

    Rich, thanks for your kindness, and happy Father’s Day to you as well. I’ll look forward to hearing from you should you find time and decide to pipe up.

    Where is David Wells, anyway, or where were you when his student? I’ll have to google him.


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