Newsflash: Of Horses and Carts, and the Ordering Thereof in Our Post-Peak Oil Epoch

As James Howard Kunstler reports — and The New York Times and other major news marketers do not — General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner yesterday gingerly admitted that: “The demand for energy around the world is growing faster than supply.”

Peak Oil, in other words, is now beginning to be publicly — albeit only in semi-insider fora such as the Detroit Motor Show — acknowledged as an existing reality by the highest planners in the auto-industrial complex.

Undoubtedly, this is part of a larger plan to begin incorporating the belated admission into corporate marketing and PR campaigns.

Given the genuinely radical and dangerous implications of Peak Oil for said industrial complex and the overall corporate capitalist system, you can bet your bottom dollar that extremely great care and generous funding are going to be devoted to this emerging spin game. Mishandling it (or waiting much longer to launch it) could lead to — horror of all horrors! — public comprehension of the elementary facts and the attending suicidal stupidity of trying to perpetuate the inherently wasteful and dangerous practice of using private cars as the main mode of daily personal transport. The bosses simply must get their story down and out before Joe and Jane Sixpack start to realize that the price of gas is not rising because of OPEC or even Exxon-Mobil, but because of the long-denied limits of Mother Earth.

Henceforth, all corporate (and, hence, also all corporate-political/Republican-Democratic/”bipartisan”) efforts will be devoted to stymieing, short-circuiting, and continually massaging such public awareness.

This is why I find the following additional recent comment by another high GM officer (I told you this is a planned managerial transition here) to be even more newsworthy than Mr. Wagoner’s (perfect name, no?) commencement of overclass admission of Peak Oil:

Senior GM executive and engineer Denny Mooney said: “We need a range of alternatives and ethanol is a step that will get us to the electric car.

“Once we get to the electric car, we can then make truly big gains with the environment by improving how the electricity is generated,’ Mr Mooney, who returned to Detroit last year, said.

Now, this tells you precisely what you need to know: “Once we get to the electric car” — then and only then — we can turn to talking about our basic energy situation

In other words, the very urgently needed democratic discussion of the Earth’s finite energy supply will be permitted only after the reign of the automobile is reconfigured so as to make it a non-debatable, already-on-the-ground premise for such discussion. Spending on cars a gigantic share of whatever (certainly smaller and probably progressively declining) energy supplies we can muster from here on out, you see, will simply be dictated to us by our glorious “free market” “entrepreneurs.” Rest assured: Open choices on this ordering of priorities as between profits and the possibility of continuing to build decent, sustainable human societies can be neither permitted nor even hinted at. And, if the overclass gets its way, they will not.

None of this, of course, means that investors’ dictated arrangement will be practicable or sustainable. On the contrary, hindsight now suggests very strongly that the construction of automobiles-über-alles in America has always been a the prelude to a disaster. From the vantage point of thermodyamics (a.k.a. the laws of physics), the hope for its permanent existence now reveals itself, despite the huge importance of this delusion to the powers-that-be, to have been a blatant pipe-dream. As such, the longer we permit its thoroughly addicted primary beneficiaries to continue to impose it upon us, the smaller will grow our chances of snatching victory from the jaws of onrushing socio-ecological catastrophe.

And this insane insistence on cars-first is not just a conspiracy. It is built into corporate capitalism itself. The horseless carriage is the only horse our investing class can permit us to choose, barring their massively unlikely voluntary renunciation of the powers and privileges to which they are accustomed. In order to sustain the economic arrangements from which they draw their cash flows, the immense, but exquisitely profitable waste comes with the reign of cars is quite literally necessary. No other mode of transport could hope to replace its money-making magic, and the removal of the reign would cause intractable national and global Great Depressions. Hence, to the Richistanis who run the nation and the world, genuine economy, decency, and human survival can never be more that the cart behind their horseless carriage. That horseless contraption, itself a cart behind the rule of Money, is beyond stubborn. Whether we ever start publicly seeing this or not, it is galloping us all straight over the abyss.

Michael Dawson is author of The Consumer Trap: Big Business Marketing in American Life (2004). He is the publisher of the blog The Consumer Trap, which aims to expose capitalism, marketing and market totalitarianism. Read other articles by Michael, or visit Michael's website.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Ponter Boddit said on January 18th, 2008 at 1:20pm #

    “No other mode of transport could hope to replace its money-making magic…”

    But what says that GM et al have to continue making money in cars? (Actually, GM and Ford seemed to have made a lot of their profits of late from their finance arm … but that’s another story.) Just look at all the evolution that IBM, for instance, has been through. Companies, including GM, can evolve. If you consider the enormous reconfiguration of our living arrangements necessary to live sustainably — as just one possibility, check out Richard Register’s “Eco Cities” book — there is a lot of work to be done, and therefore a lot of profit to be made, albeit in activities that are different from auto production. Perhaps, as has happened in past historical transitions, the focus will shift from GM to someone who is better suited to the new prime activity, in this case large-scale infrastructure projects (Halliburton and Bechtel come to mind); but such struggles among the corporate elite are always on the table. So yes, the money-making magic might move away from auto transportation but to mass transit, urban infill, renewable energy — and a lot of other things. I’m not super pleased to think of Halliburton and Bechtel getting even richer, but strictly within the context of the author’s statement, I can certainly see the money spigot still flowing, if down a new stream.

    There’s a larger question of how we might move away from the dominance of any particular elite gaining the lion’s share of the money-making machine, or even if we might be able to evolve an alternative to the centrality of our debilitating money system as such. Returning to our original question, America’s elite will likely cope with these changes better than the rest of us. History also suggests that it’s possible they will be overtaken by an elite from some other part of the globe … or, if you tend toward the Illuminatist explanation of everything, the elite — the true elite — will just skulk off to the the new Center Of the World and continue their business of conquest.

    I don’t know how this will play out, but the larger question of how we might be rid of this plague of overlords is really more important to me than the fate of the auto industry.

  2. paul said on January 18th, 2008 at 1:37pm #

    Just surprised to learn that ” ethanol is the step that will get us to the electric car” I thought the electric car was here in the first place. Ethanal is a scam , period. The sadness of this civilization is energy problems are not solved by economically and ecologically rational means, but according to the interests of some industries. I don’t know about the US, but here in Europe anything one may wish to learn about finding and purchasing an electric car won’t be found in the media. In fact, it’s a total blackout. Remains the Internet, thankfully. “Limits of the technology” ? What a joke. I know of a guy in Belgium whose engine patent was bought at high price by a big automaker to keep it from the market place. But thanx to the climate hysteria, one can buy diesel cars with low CO2 emissions, get a tax cut therewith, and keep happily breathing heavy toxic particles. Transition to new solutions will come when the same fat-ass guys that sit on the same boards on both sides of the Atlantic will decide so. Long live the Empire.

  3. Michael Kenny said on January 19th, 2008 at 10:08am #

    Don’t forget that much of the rest of the developed world has been slowly reducing dependence on oil since the first oil crisis in 1973. That means that there is not that much slack left to take up and even that will probably be more than absorbed by the newly developing countries, China being the obvious example. That also means that the landing will be much harder in the US than elsewhere in the developed world.

    On the other hand, the fact that, say, Europe and Japan have been able to reduce oil suggests that the link between oil consumption and capitalism is not as close as Mr Dawson thinks. In fact, energy saving has generated a whole range of new economic activities, to say nothing of the expensive, hi-tech, equipment required by modern public transport, for example. Also, in Europe, which has a lot of agricultural land lying fallow to avoid food surpluses, biofuels will be a economic boon and there will also almost certainly be a “rebirth” of nuclear power. Equally, all of these things will require much closer state control of the economy, which will probably kill off the neo-liberal ideology of the 1980s.

  4. David Wright said on January 19th, 2008 at 11:25am #

    Biofuels will not be a boon to anyone. First off it would appear that there is as much energy going into production as there is coming out. More importantly, with the earth expanding its population by 78 million each year the idea of using food for auto fuel is immoral

    Capitalism as we know it is driven by energy, fossil fuels for the most part. As fossil fuels deplete and population continues to expand exponentially capitalism, I suspect, will still be here but in a much more localized form.

    This idea of using electric cars never seems to take into account that the electricity still has to be generated and transported to the cars. Most people seem to think all they have to do is plug the damn things into the socket and away they will go. The number of additional generating plants needed to facilitate all these “new autos” (270 million in US) is profound. The generation plants will still be consuming more energy (coal, nat. gas, uranium) all of which is still finite. The autos will have to go.

    The ability of the military, industrial, political structure to attempt to manipulate this situation is also profound. However, no matter what gains may have been made in the more progressive nations of Europe, I doubt seriously that attempts in the US will be adequate, nor quick enough to offset the many problems that are showing their ugly head. Horse & carts? Where will we get all the hay?

  5. Michael Dawson said on January 19th, 2008 at 12:34pm #

    Thanks for the comment, Michael (and nice name).

    My contention isn’t that oil is the deepest problem. It is that automobiles are. It is imaginable that the corporate planners could replace the petroleum car fleet with an electric one, as Mr. Mooney hopes and prays.

    What the system can’t tolerate is rational, cost-minimizing transportation in the United States. If that ever materialized, capitalism would be done.

    Because they encourage/require urban sprawl, and because it is inherently wasteful for every adult to own such a materials-intensive machine, cars are simply incompatible with true economy in transportation. It is simply crazy to allow them to remain dominant as we enter the coming age of mounting energy problems. We can’t afford to squander resources like this any more, oil or no oil.

  6. Mulga Mumblebrain said on January 19th, 2008 at 4:56pm #

    This reminds me of a sage observation, made on the radio, many years ago, by a thrusting young Thatcherite, imported from that ‘Free Market’ Nirvana by a local Rightwing propaganda tank.’ Public transport’ he bombastically intoned ‘ is Stalinism’. There followed a harangue to the effect that the epitome of Western Civilization and human freedom was the individual in his or her car, motoring down a freeway (now a tollway in another Market metamorphosis). At the time it was already apparent that mass automobile transport was ecologically tremendously damaging and global warming through accumulation of greenhouse gases was well known, but furiously denied by the Right. In the years since the situation has only worsened, the evidence of climate change has long since become irrefutable, and the nearness of Peak Oil has entered the public conscience. One thing that has not changed, however, is the mindset of the Right.
    As far as the Right is concerned, there is no problem, indeed problems do not exist. According to the quasi-mystical belief system they slavishly follow, known by some as Market Fundamentalism, the Holy Market will fix everything. You only think endless growth, cancerous and destructive, will cause Humanity problems. That’s an old Leftist delusion. Just get the ‘price signals’ correct, and the Invisible Hand will fix it all. Running out of oil (where have the abiotics gone-there’s a real market niche in the Denialist Industry for you) is just a Market Opportunity. We can simply move to ethanol, and, just between you and me, that helps solve the over-population problem in a manner that old Market Fundamentalist Malthus would have well recognised.
    Market Fundamentalism motivates the Climate Change Denial Industry too. The notion that pursuing endless economic growth could lead to the extinction of mankind is simply Leftist propaganda. The Rightwing media here, particularly Murdoch’s so-called ‘national’ newspaper The Fundament, still fulminate against the very idea of climate change. Some of their more creative contributors have dropped straight denialism, as it is becoming an increasingly embarrassingly cretinous position, but have followed that inventive chap Bjorn Lomborg into arguing that, yeah, climate change is real (having furiously, ignorantly and mendaciously denied it for years) but we have other priorities like global poverty to address. That these creatures have never previously expressed any interest in global poverty, save advocating leaving it to the Market, is neither here nor there.
    All in all, the Right continues to place economic growth, and the accumulation of the fruits therefrom into as few hands as possible, as the highest purpose of human existence. I doubt they are as stupid and ignorant as they make out with their inane Denialist postures. Clearly they know cataclysmic changes are upon us, so what explains their refusal to act to avert danger? I assume it is partly their fanatical devotion to a totalising ideology, and their Pavlovian reaction to environmentalists and their inherently anti-capitalist, anti-business message. After all, throughout much of the world, where the Right is less inhibited in its actions, in the Philippines or Colombia say, being an environmentalist, like a trade unionist or social agitator, is often a death sentence. I also think the Right sees a Malthusian Market Opportunity in environmental collapse to solve the population problem. The local media is currently being swamped with articles and letters, decrying over-population of the poor as the root of all our ecological problems. The counter assertion that it is the consumption of the rich countries that is more to blame, is often met by furious, indeed quite scary, denunciation. I feel the public is being softened up for mass death amongst the poor of the Third World, in an ‘us versus them’ scenario.
    Basically, if you will forgive the seeming hyperbole, I feel the Rightists who rule our planet basically hate everything, including themselves. However their greatest antipathies are for those who get in the way of their greed, their central motivating force. The Left, which they thought defeated, has risen Phoenix-like in the guise of environmentalism. Poor people, Kissinger’s (borrowing Nazi usage) ‘useless eaters’, threaten their prerogatives. The Chinese imagine they will assume the white-man’s rightful mantle of global hegemon. All in all the Right seems to have adopted a ‘Samson Option’. If they cannot rule the world as ever, it would be better if the whole thing collapse around their, and our, heads.

  7. Michael McKinlay said on January 19th, 2008 at 6:25pm #

    The only way to break the hold of oil is to stop debt based fractional banking. Here’s why :

    What is debt based money ? It is Federal Reserve Notes and currency. The current method of ‘creating’ money is by the banks counting your loans as assets, then lending more out based on those assets. So, simply put , if the United States and all the people paid off all our debts we would run out of money because the banks wouldn’t have any loans to turn into assets to make more loans. There would be no money in circulation.

    A ‘Greenback’ money system simply means that the government creates the money simply by printing it , Not turning loans into assets.

    What’s wrong with debt based money ? Very simply we will always need more and more debt to have enough money because there are more people, more loans to pay, more inflation, and now more trade deficits every year. We can never get out of debt without crashing the money supply and bringing the economy to a halt !

    The answer , Fire the privately owned and operated Federal Reserve and use Government created money , not money based on debt…. ‘Greenbacks’

    For more search “Money as Debt ” on youtube …

    And there you have it … the system needs more and more debt to service the economy and electric cars are cheaper to build (-50%), use cheaper fuel (-70%), and are cheaper to maintain (-90%) so debt is purged and the money suppply sinks.Plus government gets to tax every step of the oil cycle, recovery, transportation, refining, service stations and the gas itself. Electric vehicles use only electricity , it can only be taxed once and using solar panels … never !

  8. Don Hawkins said on January 20th, 2008 at 5:28am #

    Mulga it sure looks like what you just wrote is the way many are looking at the problems we now face. Unfortunately reality will show itself and perception I am sure will be used to the last sound bit. As we know climate change to solve the population problem is not how it will work. Yes millions are now in trouble and only to get worst in coming years the big one of course is in just a few years about 8 with BAU we all pass that point where unless we can find away of reflecting sun light back into space or taking CO 2 out of the atmosphere humans will not be on this Planet. I am in contact with scientists some by phone some by e-mail the good guy’s. One man the President of the United States from what I understand called last summer to see how the Greenland ice sheet was doing when I talked with him he used the term policy makers. My point some are getting tired of trying to get the word out maybe the word is frustrated like James Hansen at NASA as I am sure you know that insanity the perception game that was played with the people at NASA. I am not ready to give up just yet in 11 months maybe it can start but I am not sure if those draconian measures that are now needed can happen. It’s sad to see this play out knowing that to do what is needed is the answer to many problems. Courage yes courage

  9. Max Shields said on January 20th, 2008 at 12:59pm #

    Michael fossil fuel based auto is certainly part of the problem – Kunstler has been touting this for years (for those who prefer the visual I recommend the powerful film The End of Suburba).

    Yes the auto pushes the limits of the environment in four detrimental ways 1) it utilizes a non-renewable resource 2) it pollutes the environemnt and is thus a major contributor to health illnesses, as well as global warming 3) it enables sprawl and individual isolation thus the decay of communities and 4) it kills and maims over 100,000 people a year a tradgey and at untold costs. It is unsustainable on all accounts including infrastructure costs to keep it going.

    But, it is not the sole problem regarding sustainability and the demise of the capitalistic economy. Kunstler is a supporter of the New Urbanization sometimes referred to as Smart Growth. This is a poor paradigm solution. Real solutions are to be found through a Local Ownership and Import Substitution grass-roots model. This is a fundamental shift to urban centers which is where all human wealth has (and will continue) to be created. In fact, the notion of a national economy is not only a fabrication of the power elite but is detrimental to the very foundation of economics which is to be found in healthy urban economies that function on processes which turn imports to local manufactured goods and services. New Urbanization is a poor substitute for a really course correction because it is based on “know it all” professional city planners/architects who got cities into the fix their in today (think yuppy pastoral settings). Also, unless urban centers create grass-roots local economies, TINA will continue to rule. The Alternative is LOIS (what I previously called Local Ownership Import Substitution). Michael Shuman coined the term, but the Import Replacement was formulated through the incredible work of Jane Jacobs. When you apply a local based self-sufficient economy the paradigm takes a fundamental shift and cities become effiicient user of energy, communities begin to re-connect and the sprawl (with the proper tax ation – Land Value Tax) recedes. Housing becomes affordable and a kind of magic begins to take hold. A return to a sustainable living begins where it took off in the early ’50s.

    A profound synthesis between classical and green economics re-charts the perilous course we’ve been on. But again, it is more fundamental than simply the unsustainability of autos, which are a symptom of a profoundly disastrous trend of human-kind – but not the cause.