For the majority of people in the rich countries and a tiny but powerful minority in the poor countries, the party that they have been indulging in during the last 200 years of industrial progress is coming to an end soon. For those on the margins of this industrial dream world, the party will never arrive. It was a dream they were sold to by their ruling elites — of a variety of ideological hues ranging from the far-left to the far right — or it was a dream they borrowed from the glittering gyrations of the mass media for at least the six decades.
This industrial orgy of the past 200 years depended essentially on coal, gas and oil. They are running out fast and there is no other energy source that will replace them to the extent required to sustain current industrial production system. Most importantly, the release of carbon into earth’s atmosphere beyond a certain point will make human life so precarious that sustaining that dream world cannot occur without compromising our ability to sustain life on earth itself. Either way, the industrial dream world as we knew it is coming to an end. The political choice of our time, then, is about making the transition away from this destructive process.
The nature of energy defines the production system in human societies. The hunter gatherers relied essentially on human and natural power. The scale of resource use correspondingly was highly localised. The sedentary agrarian production relied on human muscle power, animal power and, in the later days, the water and wind power. It was this agrarian harnessing of primarily animal power and wind power [to set sail in the ocean] that expanded the lives beyond the local interactions a bit. While coal, gas and oil had been in use for a long time, it was only in the last 200 years that they became the core energy elements of the social system. The massive diffusion of coal, oil and gas enabled the planetary expansion of industrial processes.
For the last 200 years, the elites of the world sailed around the world and set up colonies to transfer massive amount of resources into the heartland. They brought in slaves from Africa to cut down the forests and plough the plantation in the Caribbean. Sugar, tea, palm and spices found their way into the European tastes. The colonies provided iron and copper for its ever expanding industrial empire. They shipped cottons to produce yarns and clothes in the Manchester mills. They shipped those clothes back to the colonies to be sold to the indentured subjects. For much of the nineteenth century this engine of planetary colonial transfers was facilitated by coal. The statistics are astounding. In 1800, the global annual consumption of coal was 15 million tons. In 100 years it had reached 700 million. The twentieth century saw not only the manifold increase in use of coal, but it also added gas and oil in the energy arsenal of industrial process. In 1859 colonel Edwin Drake organised successful drilling of oil field in northwest Pennsylvania. Oil, gas and coal currently accounts for above 80 percent of total energy consumption in the industrial, transportation and agricultural processes in the world today.
Sit down for a few minutes and make a list of things you use and things you do every day. You wake up and go to the bathroom. The water that you draw comes to your system through the metal pipe produced using oil. The tooth paste comes in a tube used with petroleum. The water is lifted into your roof-top tank through an electric pump, the making of which consumed fossil fuel — for electricity generation, for processing metal ores, their transportation. Over 90 percent of transportation energy is supplied by oil. What do you eat? Most likely, the grain you eat is produced using nitrogen derived from petroleum. In the U.S., 20 percent of total fossil fuel is consumed by agricultural production and distribution system. In Nepal it might be a bit lower, but the way our agriculture system is now, it is becoming increasingly addicted to this petroleum-based nitrogen for its production.
And you travel to your office. Unless you take one of those safa tempos, you are basically riding the fossil power. Even the safa tempos have to be made with metals and other materials, the processing of which requires infusion of fossil energy. You go to your office to run your computer, the production of which requires another diffusion of fossil fuel in Chinese factories and on the sea liners that ship those factory-produced stuffs around the world. Just think of anything you do, you will most likely realise that you are doing that with oil.
While the oil, gas and coal will eventually run out, they have left in their wake vastly degraded landscapes all around. Every ecological system on earth is in serious decline. We are now witnessing perhaps the most dangerous planetary crises in global warming. Marx realised, perhaps, reluctantly, the limits of this industrial frenzy. He saw the metabolic rift between the natural system and industrial production. He was particularly struck by the observation of the German agronomist Justus von Liebig who saw the transfer of materials such as food grains and forest products as the transfer of soil itself. The agricultural decline in Europe was the direct result of the transfer of nutrients from the soil into the city in the forms of grain. Gandhi was the most vocal during the twentieth century about this destructive nature of industrial system. If these small European elites require the planet to live their dream, he asked, how many planets would be required if all on earth needed the same level of consumption? It’s a different matter that the elites of the Soviet empires and the Nehruvian elites of the post-independence India paid scant attention to their wise counsels.
This metabolic rift has reached a planetary proportion. The elites of all hues — the progressives, the dictators, the capitalists, the Stalinists, and the socialists — who ran the show for much of the industrial era showed total disdain to the limits of the earth and the natural system. The colonies were plundered. Those who lived near the natural resources saw their lives ravaged. The non-human nature faced catastrophic decline in biodiversity. The chickens are coming home to roost, however. The elites should have realised by now that they live in this planet, too. The transition from the destructive model is an absolute must. There is no other way. The only question is: will we think early enough to make this transition or will we continue to indulge in this destructive dream world? These choices are the only politically meaningful choices of our time.