Does Cheap Energy Make Us Dumb?

A title appalling enough to be the grab, before the advert break of some second-rate pop news program. Of course it doesn’t for we’ve never such astounding technology or upper high school students undertaking such advanced mathematics… but then again, the maths lesson tends to be more about how to use a Texas Instrument Calculator than understanding the maths itself.

In other words, it’s as complicated as is the foundations that keep us aloft in relative affluence.

Very recently, David Korten produced an excellent article; A Crumbling Cultural Story, in which he outlines how the neo-liberal market (in his case, specific to the US, but ultimately relevant to other similar nations) has engineered a new culture, through propaganda and advertisement, which is debilitating for genuine social health and prosperity. It is one made to fuel consumerism and thus this unsustainable growth economy – the product of cheap energy.

In a similar, perhaps more astute, article; Perennial Crops, Sustainable Agriculture: A 21st Century Green Revolution, Tom Schueneman outlines just how dependant the human race is on agricultural methods that are heavily energy dependant and detrimental to soil quality and therefore food security, not to mention the wider ecology.

Tom quotes Wes Jackson, the founder and president of the Land Institute;

“I think there’s a general law: High energy destroys information, of a cultural as well as a biological variety. There is a loss of cultural capacity. And from 1750, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the graphical curve for the use of high-energy fossil carbon is increasingly steep. A ten-year-old today has been alive for a quarter of all oil ever burned. The twenty-two-year-old has been through 54 percent of all the oil ever burned.”

The same reflection can be found in James Howard Kunstler’s; The tragedy of suburbia, in which James explains how modern urban design is ugly, inefficient and is of low social value. On the back of cheap fuels – especially in this case, the availability of vehicles – the human environment has lost its charming ‘human feel’ and practicality that was incredibly essential in pre-20th century societies.

Charles Marohn, in The American suburbs are a giant Ponzi scheme, goes on to explain that these places are simply an experience gone feral with no chance of remaining sustainable.

Housing design speaks for itself with the modern home built to impress, rather than exploit passive heat management, to be replaced in a single generation rather to stand the tests of time, to give us all an illusion of grandeur and wealth over functionality; simply to be worn like a fashion item.

What’s going on here?

The most logical approach, at least I would’ve thought, would have been to see all this wealth of understanding resulting from the hard-won lessons of yesteryear and to have improved on them with this new found wealth of energy. The result would surely have been societies wealthier, with improved work / life balance and improved health and education.

Instead it seems that we’ve scrapped the lot of this prior learning and gone with lifestyles that are as energy intensive as we can afford. Are we better for it?

Okay, we are certainly better off than those who lived before the exploitation of fossil sourced energy, but because of the energy intensity of this pathway, we are far worse off than we could have otherwise been.

Had we continued the design of earlier cities with multi-use neighbourhoods and medium density housing, there is no question that we wouldn’t be as car dependant as we are today – freeing up that time spent in commute, the costs of car ownership and of course and improving urban air quality.

Had we continued to apply simple rules in building design and simply improved upon them, you can make a safe bet that you energy costs would be much lower – meaning less concern about the coming cold snap or heatwave and a reduction in power stations and thus air and water pollution. On top of that, as building wouldn’t play such a large role and there would be less need to ‘feed the economy’ though such means, house prices wouldn’t be so volatile.

If we had improved on the sturdy infrastructure of yesteryear rather than throw it aside for something as impractical as we now have, we would’ve been better off.

Would we have population levels as high as today? Maybe, maybe not. Whatever occurred, we wouldn’t have been so dispersed as to be left unaware of the immensity of our numbers.

“Think of the job losses!” I hear yelled back at me.

Sustainable agriculture is far more labour intensive than we know it today. Food, of course, would cost more – thus leading to the natural need to grow it closer to where it is consumed. Being better off in this other world where we improved on what we already knew, would mean lower requirements to work for money in general – meaning that the many hands available could make light work of local agriculture.

“If people have more free time, they just spend more!” is another jeer that comes my way.

Not necessarily. We only think that way because of the “growth economy culture”. Spending feeds the beast and so we do it. Before the modern economic models, if people had free time, they spent it with their friends and family, they cared for their young and their old. They played sports and helped a neighbour. They had a true community!

On top of this, we would have the luxuries of the modern world as well. Entertainment would be prevalent. Cars too would still be here as would other forms of travel – travel would be less congested and so we would be freer to explore at our leisure.

Where energy was spent, it would be spent wisely – not simply on a 5km run for milk or idle in congested traffic or for climate control of a paper-thin house.

Cheap energy doesn’t make us dumb, but it has allowed us to overlook the bleeding obvious in favour of a needlessly energetic, overworked lifestyle that simply doesn’t make us happy. Cheap energy has allowed us to forget that we had many of the answers already – long before we struck black gold.


2 thoughts on “Does Cheap Energy Make Us Dumb?

  1. “If people have more free time, they just spend more!”

    I don’t understand this idea of leisure time as shopping time. I s’pose I grew up in the era when shopping was either a chore or a seasonal necessity or a rare indulgence for special events – not a weekend activity. Activities were sports and visiting friends and the like.

    It’s true I might spend money in leisure hours – but it’s an afternoon at the coffee shop or the pub rather than ‘shopping therapy’.

    As for houses. I’m strongly of the opinion that it is a sin to build an Australian house without a verandah. Those ditsy little concrete ‘Tuscan’ porches are a joke.


    1. I don’t get it either, but where I talk to people about growth and consumerism and then of improving the standard of living – including the work / life balance – I get this thrown at me. History shows that when we have free time, we pursue interests and community activities. As a mate (Marc) said to me last night, “if consumerism was so natural, why is the advertisement industry so big?” It exists only to perpetuate this mindless spending.

      The care industry – mainly the old and young – should not be run for profit, which undermines the service it’s suppose to provide. The above would assist in reaching this goal. Hopefully enough changes could be made so that this could be applied to the wider health care services.

      I understand what you mean about the Aussie house – although my current rental property only has the Tuscan porch…


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