I was brooding the other day about how easily technology becomes normative. Self-interested or irrational decisions within a technological system, once implemented, become impersonal demands of that system. They become self-justifying givens that actually limit human possibilities. We cede authority to them, and allow them to make moral decisions for us. Technology regulates ethics, instead of vice versa, by means of our alleged moral obligation not to obstruct "progress."
What got me thinking about all this was the above illustration (taken from Susan Buck-Morss' The Dialectic of Seeing) of Abel Pifre's solar-powered printing press, which he built in 1880 and used to print 500 copies per hour of a periodical called Journal Soleil.
Though it's not widely known today, the 1800s were actually a boom time for solar energy, not merely in terms of inventions, but in terms of actual use. The main reason for the era's frantic research into solar power was the fear that coal would be depleted - like timber before it - leaving Europe with no source of cheap energy. One of the pioneers of solar power was Augustin-Bernard Mouchot, who argued that "peak coal" was imminent: "Eventually industry will no longer find in Europe the resources to satisfy its prodigious expansion....Coal will undoubtedly be used up."
Mouchot's various solar-powered inventions won government support, and solar-powered desalinators and stoves were accordingly built in the colonial outposts of Algeria. This indicates that alternative forms of energy - while not so productive of superstitious awe as those concealed batteries with which the explorer Henry Stanley used to shock African chieftans whose hands he shook - shouldn't necessarily be despised by the imperialist imagination. The term "revolutionary," in the technological context, far too often means a new way of making the same mistakes, or committing the same crimes.
In any case, it was the ever-more-powerful natural gas, oil, and electric companies that sank the nascent solar industry, largely through the use of subsidies that allowed them to sell power - and electric devices like water heaters - at or below cost.
Now, WorldChanging notes that ChevronTexaco has issued a reasonably honest assessment of peak oil, and is asking - in all humility, natch - for public input into possible solutions.
Needless to say, any energy shortage we face is largely the result of industry's ruthless promotion of the cornucopian myth that oil was bountiful, and could be squandered at will. This went along with an equally ruthless devaluing of solar power and other energy sources, and a concerted effort to coax consumers in California and Florida off solar power and onto natural gas or electricity (a goal that was pretty well achieved by the 1940s). After that point, natural gas became something that "normal" people used to heat their homes and swimming pools and what have you. Solar power suddenly seemed disreputable and shabby; it was something of interest only to hollow-eyed health-food faddists who fed exclusively on blackstrap molasses...people who had, through ignorance or stubbornness, chosen to creep along a thorny dead-end path instead of parading down the golden thoroughfare of Progress with everyone else.
Today, of course, there are plenty of Americans who see the ongoing death and destruction in Iraq as an acceptable trade-off for the petroleum-based "necessities" of life. There are several reasons for this, but a primary one is that companies like ChevronTexaco devoted themselves to the pretence that their shortsighted, greed-addled whims were somehow synonymous with social and economic progress.
All this being the case, talking with an oil company about peak-oil solutions is a bit like going over the blueprints for your new home with the arsonist who burned your old one down. One wouldn't welcome the solicitude of such a person, and one shouldn't welcome it from ChevronTexaco, either. The goal of such firms is the continuity of profitable operations; there's nothing they're less interested in than the democratization of energy or energy policy.
In an earlier, satirical post on our Dark Green Future, I discussed the "greening" of internment camps and torture chambers. The French government's use of solar power in Algeria - as well as the use of solar power by colonial explorers and the military in the 1800s - is a good example of how seemingly laudable advances in technology can leave unconscionable political and economic structures intact, or strengthen them. No matter how environmentally beneficial they may be, alternative sources of energy must lead to a greater decentralization of power to be really revolutionary. Otherwise, we're liable to end up with nothing more than a sustainable empire, in which ChevronTexaco plays much the same role that it does today.
Wednesday, July 20, 2005
Posted by Phila at 3:42 PM