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Friday, February 18, 2005

Peak Oil and Western Civilization

I was pursuing a textbook the other day. The chapter outlines followed as such:

Prehistory to 3200 BC
· 1,000,000 to 35,000: Hominids
· 35,000 to 10,000: Paleolithic Period
· 8,000 to 6,500: Neolithic
· 3,500: Early Urban Societies

Mesopotamian Roots: 3200-465
· 3500-1100 BC: Mesopotamia
· 1100-465 BC: The Fall and Rise and Empires

Mediterranean Period from 2900 BC to AD 400
· 3500-550 BC: Mesopotamia and Egypt
1950 BC-AD 70: Ancient Israel
· 559-465 BC: Persia
· 2900-430 BC: Greece
· 753 BC-AD 1453: Rome

Medieval from AD 400-1500
500- 1000: Dark Ages
· 1000- 1350: High Middle Ages
· 1350-1500: Late Middle Ages

Early Modern from 1400 to 1789
· 1400-1550: Renaissance
· 1517-1598: Reformation
· 1600-1700: Baroque
· 1700-1789: Enlightenment

Late Modern from 1789 to 1989
· 1789-1848: Age of Revolutions
· 1848-1914: Age of Liberalism
· 1914-1945: Age of World Wars
· 1945-1989: The Cold War

The message I took away was that historians measure civilizations by the art and science that they produce. The term "Western Civilization" was, in fact, invented at the beginning of World War I in order to create the perception that Americans share a common culture with its European allies. Almost as soon as it was invented, the term began to be used in the pessimistic context of civilization decline, as in Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918). The notion of Western Civ. is also tied to the notion Christendom and ownership of Greek philosophy and its interpretation in Roman culture. For Americans in the first decades of the 20th century, Western civilization was principally the ideas of liberty and individualism, institutionalized in liberal democracy, free markets, constitutionalism, and the rule of law.

The triumph of such ideals and the lack of any powerful ideas opposed to Western civilization have caused many contemporary historian to declare the post-cold war era as the end of history. This notion was popularized by Francis Fukuyama book The End of History and the Last Man (1992). The only history paradigm that raises objections to Western Civ. today is Multiculturalism, Cultural Studies attacks of Western Civ as ethnocentric.

Academics have used the metaphor of a torch or knowledge, passed from the Greeks to the Christendom of Europe then to America. The torch of knowledge is a symbol for Reason, Rationality, the foundation of the Arts and Science of Western Civ. To extinguish the torch is to enter a dark age where religion and superstition reign supreme. Keeping this torch flame alive is a matter of passing our cultural and scientific values down from generation to generation. Whether we recognize it or not, such metaphors shape not only our arts and sciences, but our government and economy as well. With the exception of Cultural studies, or postmodern theory, the war of ideas raging beneath the surface of our social institutions is fought over the persistence of the torch or the continuation of Western Civilization.

The peak of world oil production poses (obviously) a threat to our system of government and our economy. However, the idea of "Peak Oil" also poses a deep threat to the idea of Wester Civ. Peak Oil may then threaten the intellectual underpinnings of liberal democracy, free markets, and ultimately western individualism. Western Civ may once again be viewed in the context of civilization decline, but this time the civilization is closer to home.

We can expect to idea of "Peak Oil" to be picked up by Western Civ's academic enemies. We can also expect a backlash against the forces of cultural studies as relativist and lacking moral values. Many people feel a great uneasiness when they think about Peak Oil and related topics. This uneasiness isn't simply a fear of material loss, but rumblings at the foundation of Western Civilization.

Resource wars and oil competitions have already begun to take shape. However, a parallel war of ideas takes places underneath the surface. It is this war of ideas that will ultimately shape the future of world history over the next hundred years. If the values of western individualism prevail our government and economy will be eventually replaced by some kind of post-oil capitalism and democracy. However, the uneasiness that we feel stems from the realization that this is not the only possible future. Remember, history is written by the winners.

1 comment:

NeoLotus said...

There are two books you need to put in your kit bag.

"Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered" by E.F. Schumacher

"No Contest" by Alfie Kohn.

Both of these books deal with cultural perspectives.

But as the media keeps news of Iraq and Bush's growing fascism from the American people, it also keeps out knowledge of other cultures and the wisdom they have to impart.