Princeton, NJ At most cafes today there is a station where packets of sugar, canisters of milk and cream, and coffee stirrers are conveniently available for the personalization of each person’s hot beverage. Amid the detritus that is collected every hour, each day, week after week, year upon year, is a steady stream of coffee stirrers that are swirled once or twice around the cup and then deposited into the trash. It is a marvel to imagine how many of these stirrers are disposed every day after a single use. Or the tops of the coffee cups, also tossed away with the empty cup. Or the plastic bags we might use to carry the baked goods that accompany our hot beverage. Or the discarded bottles of ecologically produced water the purchase of which goes to help impoverished people in “developing” countries. In that one daily purchase – made daily by hundreds of thousands if not millions of people – we witness in a microcosm our disposable society.

Convenience combined with busyness amid prosperity is a perfect recipe for thoughtlessness. We don’t often think about what we are doing, because it’s increasingly rare for us to be in the midst of what it is we are doing. We have long grown accustomed to living in a virtual reality created for us by a combination of jobs that aren’t in any fundamental way connected to the reality of our daily lives, along with electronic forms of media that involve us as a “culture” in events and occurrences that are in no way related to our places, the people we know, the neighborhoods we inhabit. Most of us commute to some other place where we work at jobs that involve us in some form or another in international commerce but which divides us wholly from the household and neighborhoods where we might live; and then, when we are “home,” we spend an inordinate amount of time watching a medium that ensnares us into the belief that it matters deeply to us who wins “American Idol” or what the stock recommendation Jim Cramer is making at this or that particular nanosecond. This virtual reality – fostered by our work and our home life – has only been increased by the electronic media that we now carry with us everywhere, keeping us constantly “connected” and ever-more rarely present the actual place where we are. So, as we stir the cream into our coffee in the morning, doubtlessly we are more likely to be thinking about the meeting we are about to attend or the text message we need to return than the source and destination of the coffee stirrer that resides in our hands for several seconds then passes into the waste receptacle whose presence we barely register.

In a way, our inattentiveness and the plastic stirrer are deeply and profoundly related: they both derive from our massive employment of fossil fuels. The coffee stirrer – and all the plastic that undergirds our throw-away society – are made primarily from chemicals derived from fossil fuels. And our inattentiveness is primarily undergirded by that amazing resource that allows us much of the time to live elsewhere than where we actually are – whether by fueling the transportation system that has made global mobility as easy as chewing gum, or primarily powering the electrical grid that serves as a virtual transporter, affording a constant and often illusory, hypnotic and addictive form of displacement and disembodiment. Our lack of any relationship to the coffee stirrer is born of the same resource that made the stirrer.

But it’s quite remarkable, when one does stop to think about it: that plastic stirrer, and the millions of others that arrive in our landfills after a single swirl around the edge of the cup, will remain in that pristine and unaltered condition for hundreds and possibly even thousands of years. From time immemorial human beings have sought some way to create mementos or monuments that would stand the test of time, beyond not only our own lifetime and that of our children, but as testimony to what we are and were to future civilizations yet unknown and unknowable. From the epics of Homer or the story of Gilgamesh to the pyramids of Egypt to the Icelandic sagas to the humble gravestones found in ancient churchyards, humans have sought some form of permanence in a world that inevitably all but erases the presence of each generation from the distant future. Yet, when sometimes we imagine the sentient beings that may settle on the layers of earth that will someday cover our surface – or the visitors from some other planet who will arrive here after life as we know it has ceased – and imagine that what they will discover, we picture their unearthing of a civilization that wrapped the earth in a layer of plastic. The things we throw out most readily – without thought or hesitation – will be the very things that will prove to be the most lasting substance known to any civilization of human being. How is it that we came to dispose so readily of something so permanent, when so many generations that preceded us worked so mightily to preserve even those things that are fleeting?

The immediate answer, ironically, is oil. Oil has allowed us the illusion of complete independence from the older practices and traditions, and particularly the belief that we could abandon a whole set of ancient hard-won virtues – especially thrift and care for the future. It has afforded us the temporary belief that life is primarily an existence of ease and convenience – yes, punctuated by some unpleasantness, mostly disease and death, but, in all other essentials, a life of relatively few material cares of the sort that seem to concern all species and most humans that have preceded us. God dispelled Adam and Eve from Eden with the terrible burden that each should “earn your bread from the sweat of your own brow,” and since that time humans have sought mightily to escape that terrible fate. For most of human history we have employed slaves for that purpose, or, in societies of some modest wealth, servants willing to work for a small reward. But, beginning in the 19th-century, we learned that the burning of fossil fuels was a promising means to escape the moral evil of slavery without the corresponding necessity of wiping our brows, and even the means of liberation from what remained of forms of work that required the attention of most human beings, regardless of whatever benefits they might have gained from the bondage of other humans. It was through the burning of the highly concentrated solar energy stored in age-old decomposed plants, plankton, and organic material that likely once flourished in Eden (and in other particular and limited places around the globe) that we seemed finally to be liberated from God’s curse upon humankind for the transgression in Eden. That transgression – the effort to become like God – is increasingly a way of life in significant part because of our employment of millennial-old deposits of prehistoric remains. More than any other time in human history, we operate under the belief that human power and might and ingenuity is irresistible and sufficent to conquer the world – that we can dispose of God, because we have become gods.

But a deeper answer is required: why this solution now? Why have we become the plastic – or, really, the oil – civilization? The word “petroleum” is from ancient Greek, a substance long known for its remarkable properties. Why us, now? Why, in particular, do the denizens of the United States burn so much of the substance? We comprise roughly 5% of the world population, but burn 25% of the annual production of oil.

It may be that this culture, in particular, was particularly well-suited to becoming a disposable society. Just before the advent of the fossil-fuel era, Alexis de Tocqueville noted a particular feature of Americans – namely, their “restlessness.” Americans, he noted, seem constitutionally incapable of seeing through any long-term project: they begin to sow a field but abandon it before its harvest can be reaped; they begin to build a house, but abandon it before it can be made a home. What lay at the root of this “inquietude,” he suggested, was the belief that something better always lay just out reach. This belief, in turn, was motivated by the liberation from class, rank, and status that democracy above all represented. Left to define our own positions in the world – and driven by the ambition for advancement and the fear of failure – Americans were widely incapable of satisfaction with anything they might achieve, but driven constantly to seek something better or more promising. Americans were an engine waiting for oil to grease its wheels: offered the opportunity to completely unmoor ourselves from time and place, we burned with abandon.

Above all, Americans lived in conditions that tempted them to neglect their ties to generations. After all, many came to escape the past – which was also tantamount to escaping from too much concern for the future. Unlike those nations with aristocratic pasts – even those that are now democratic – there was only a much more tenuous and often fleeting cultural forms that fostered in successive generations a felt sense of gratitude to the past and a sense of oligation to the future. Americans are prone to think of themselves as mayflies, each new generation responsible for creating its own world anew. While even in America there were vestiges of an older understanding of the connection of past, present and future – in particular Tocqueville thought those connections could be found in family, townships, rule of law and religion, above all – he believed them to be in danger of loosening with the likely trajectory of democracy and especially the restlessness that it induced. Our employment of fossil fuels only accelerated that trajectory, promoting the belief and practice that each individual of each generation was responsible to itself alone. The virtual life led by modern Americans disassociates us not only from place, from the continuum of time as well. A one-time inheritance of ancient sunlight induces an illusory belief in our independence from time and place. So, we stir our coffee devoid of any sense that the plastic stirrer becomes our legacy to the future; we burn an inheritance that was not designated to be ours and shape it into forms that are of momentary use to us before we fill the earth with detritus of our temples to convenience. By living off the corpses of the old, we have liberated ourselves from the need to consider our relationship to generations past and future. We are free amid our bondage to oil.

When the future poets sing songs of our time, our generation, our civilization, will there be words to describe our hubris, our viciousness, and our sinfulness? What will they say about our delusional ability to live not only with no cognizance of the past and the future, but even our inability to live in our places, with our own people, in our own present? Will our legacy be the billions of coffee stirrers that will line the planet, a testimony to the wastefulness of a civilization? Is there any possibility of knowing what we are doing, and so knowing, doing otherwise? Or is our ignorance now so deeply ingrained – so fostered by an anti-culture that destroys all culture with which it comes into contact- that our last best hope is to accelerate the production of coffee stirrers until the last one is finally thrown away – and then awake, as if from a deep trance, and wonder where and when we actually are?

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  1. A wise and thoughtful post as always, Patrick. Lately my wife and I have been talking a lot about “contentment,” about the discipline necessary to be at peace and make a home and a life out of what we have available to us, rather than always thinking about the need for something more or different or new. It’s a hard lesson to learn, perhaps especially for Americans. Thanks for this additional reminder to us.

    Picking up on a small point from your post, the idea of the small plastic stirrer which is thrown away lasting for centuries in some landfill somewhere, I can’t recommend more highly Alan Weisman’s excellent thought-experiment, The World Without Us. He charts exactly what kind of “monuments” (of plastic coffee stirrers, and other things too) our disposable world is building, and what that building has done to the environments we have inherited.

  2. Really interesting point about petroleum-based civilization being a way of escaping the contradictions between the economy of hard work and the economy of slave labor… Puts a whole new spin on the reconstruction era, when both the southern aristocratic model and the northern jeffersonian modes mutually gave way to industrialization, and on what issues are opened up when our own era’s contradictions become apparent… One almost wonders if the future anthropologist wouldn’t conclude that we were slave owners of exceptional skill. And whether he wouldn’t be right, in some sense.

    Great post though.

  3. H.C. Johns,
    I can’t take credit for the conception of “energy slaves.” It’s been around a long time. One bracing description of the role fossil fuels had in displacing slave society was enunciated in 1957 by Admiral Hyman Rickover, located here:

    Money quote:
    “With high energy consumption goes a high standard of living. Thus the enormous fossil energy which we in this country control feeds machines which make each of us master of an army of mechanical slaves. Man’s muscle power is rated at 35 watts continuously, or one-twentieth horsepower. Machines therefore furnish every American industrial worker with energy equivalent to that of 244 men, while at least 2,000 men push his automobile along the road, and his family is supplied with 33 faithful household helpers. Each locomotive engineer controls energy equivalent to that of 100,000 men; each jet pilot of 700,000 men. Truly, the humblest American enjoys the services of more slaves than were once owned by the richest nobles, and lives better than most ancient kings. In retrospect, and despite wars, revolutions, and disasters, the hundred years just gone by may well seem like a Golden Age.”

    Of course, the figures here are antiquated. I don’t know what the updating would be, but surely we each command the equivalent household labor force of at least 100 people, if not more… The problem is, they are starting to die off. And none of us remember how to do the jobs that we’ve forced them to do for the past 60 years….

  4. For someone so fond of insisting that rootless cosmopolitans have no folkways and are disconnected from their physical environment, you sure spend a lot of words dwelling on how the folkways and physical environment of rootless cosmopolitanism shapes our lives.

  5. Thank you Mr. Deneen. 🙂 A truly thoughtful and thought provoking essay. 🙂

    [..] Oil has allowed us the illusion of complete independence from the older practices and traditions, and particularly the belief that we could abandon a whole set of ancient hard-won virtues – especially thrift and care for the future. […]

    Cheap oil, while it appeared to be a blessing, has become our master. We continue to imbibe hydrocarbons as if the supply was eternal. We are hydrocarbon addicts and will do almost anything for a “fix.” We send our sons and daughters to die and be maimed in faraway places to secure supplies of our needs (Afghanistan, Georgia, Syria and Turkey are all about oil and pipelines.)

    It isn’t a wonder that one of our presidents (GWB) holds hands, like a child, with the King of Saudi Arabia. Our current “leader” (Obama) bows low to greet him. God-given Liberty genuflects to an Arab moon god!

    (Think about it…What does the god of Muhammad have in common with the God of Moses and Jesus…Nothing, except that both claim to be the only god. One is a God of love and justice; the other…Well, we’ve seen the results of Sharia law and “Pure” Islam.)

    As you may have noticed; I am not a person who believes in Political Correctness at the expense of Free Speech!

  6. Forever off a westering, we came upon an ocean and looked to the sky. Then,we went to the Moon and Mars and still , we avoided the greatest frontier any civilization ever confronts…the inner frontier…the one only reached via the liberty of discipline and forbearance. Now, we are off fighting the Muslim parked most annoyingly on our beloved oil and , of course, we can analyze their deficiencies for a while in a perfect kind of war where rich boy sociopaths on both sides employ an infantry of the middling and poor classes. We can all use a holy book to prop the gun barrel upon to steady it a bit.

    As far as my own answer to Ms. Pearl, in the anti-politically correct manner: The God of Muhammad has bloodthirsty and petty mortal humans in common with the God of Moses and Jesus. A full accounting of victims on both sides would produce less than a clear victory for either side. This is what happens when one attempts to resolve religious distinctions through war…irony breaks out all over and the dead pile up faster than the saved.

    Are there stonings of rape victims in the town square of Biloxi? Perhaps not but there aint no wedding parties bombed by a drone decorated with a green crescent in Modesto either. Sure, the Terrorists used civilian transports to scuttle the World Trade Center and crunch the Pentagon while killing thousands. This was a Grade A Rope-A-Dope delivered by a sociopathic crank once funded by our own government and this government has responded in spades….staggering around in a blind rage, using it’s own Constitution as a door mat and making any discussion of ethics entirely beside the point. It is the new Raw Deal, the only thing we have to fear is not fearing….and hating….enough.

    When you stop respecting your enemy , you mistake hubris for self-respect and in the fullness of time, your chief antagonist will be yourself and the most efficient execution is always suicide….. a frequent resort of the Godless.

  7. […] note of the ordinary plastic coffee stirrer, Patrick Deneen writes about our disposable society: From the epics of Homer or the story of Gilgamesh to the pyramids of Egypt to the Icelandic sagas […]

  8. Senescent,
    Your comment has sparked much thought on my part. Let me stipulate the following: liberalism (in the guise you describe in your comment) is indeed a culture, but it is an anti-cultural culture. That is, it does indeed shape us and subsequent generations, but it does more than that – it is imperial in its scope and ambitions, aimed squarely at overcoming particular cultures in all their guises in the effort to transform the world in its image. It is particularly hostile to local forms of culture that will, inevitably, at some point exhibit forms of injustice (justice might be regarded by most cultures as a good, but a good among many goods. Such a view liberalism cannot brook. Liberalism teaches us that justice – defined, among other ways, as equality before law, individual freedom and the rejection of all arbitrary forms of authority – is the sole criterion by which to judge cultures). Liberalism is indiscriminate in its suspicion of and hostility toward localities and their cultures: to the extent that any locality (or cultural entity) necessarily defines itself by means of limits and boundaries, it seeks to erase those boundaries in the name of liberation and openness.

    This is why I tend to call liberalism an “anti-culture” – because it is the great destroyer of cultures wherever and whenever it encounters them. That said, it is supremely capable of replicating itself – of shaping people, and new generations, in its own image, and thus possesses that central aspect of culture. So, it is a sort of paradox, a shaper of humans that seeks the destruction of any competitor shaper of humans. Its greatest strength – and weakness – is that it believes itself to leave people free to shape their own destinies, even while it is shaping people to value certain sorts of destinies above others. It claims indifference toward ends, even as it does have a definitive view about human anthropology. Its purported indifference tends to convince people that it does not impose its views upon people; and that belief makes it supremely difficult for liberal citizens to see exactly the way in which it powerfully influences the beliefs of liberal humans. For this reason it is particularly powerful, and for this reason above all the ways that it does indeed shape people needs to be articulated loudly and repeatedly.

  9. Patrick,
    I think you’re quite right that classical liberalism fosters an atmosphere of encouraging people to , in effect, create their own reality. This component of our culture is a double bladed sword and as with any tool, it needs to be handled with skill and dexterity and that is where the traditions of classical conservatism are important. Again……we are a reasoning and discursive species with two lobes to our brain within a political structure that is designed , like a lobed brain with a Separation of Powers that must utilize the vehicle of a reasoned and discursive political process that demands elements of both conservative and liberal philosophy to reach its highest potential. The liberal notion of “creating one’s own reality” is like a brisk wind that can come in and blow out self-satisfied and degenerative behavior that might have begun to follow traditions but has forgotten what those traditions really mean. Cause and effect, night and day, liquid-solid, evil-good….these are the poles of human existence and they conspire to challenge us into a more complete life that becomes its own reward.

    This is one of the many reasons we are so lost in a haze of confusion at present . We have blurred the lines and definitions of conservative and liberal thinking to such an extent that there are few boundaries and so knowledge becomes, at best, a hunch, at worst, simple propaganda. Thought comes in a pre-mixed package, we add water, blast it in the microwave and voila…out comes a thought cake but it verges on a simulacrum of thought. It is aptly demonstrated by our Secretary of State throwing around the latest buzz-phrase regarding Pakistan or any other Nation State in the throes of crowding and geopolitical pressures. One would think our State Department Bureaucrats are Channeling Sartre: Existential Threat. This phrase was bandied about in the last days of the bush Administration and it continues to be carted out to demonstrate some notion of sophistication today. We cheapen philosophy and confuse meaning and slouch in our explanations to such an extent that meaning becomes indifferent…..catch-all……meaningless. This, to be more accurate is the real “Existential Threat.

    I think the lapsed Republic is uniquely capable of successful life if it were to rediscover the distinctions of classical liberalism and conservatism and use this knowledge …in a profoundly energetic discursive manner to unleash a potential that still remains obscured by an overburden of popular conceits.

  10. E.P.: […] “(Think about it…What does the god of Muhammad have in common with the God of Moses and Jesus…Nothing, except that both claim to be the only god. One is a God of love and justice; the other…Well, we’ve seen the results of Sharia law and “pure” Islam.)”

    D.W.: […] “When you stop respecting your enemy , you mistake hubris for self-respect and in the fullness of time, your chief antagonist will be yourself and the most efficient execution is always suicide….. a frequent resort of the Godless. […]

    Well now, D.W..

    I “respect” those who embrace Islam. I am not fool enough; nor am I prideful enough, to believe that I am superior in any way to any race, ethnicity or class of people. I happen to love the freedoms in this country, as outlined by our Constitution. I don’t want myself or my fellow citizens forcibly required to either (1) convert to Islam (2) die or (3) to live in a state of “dhimmitude” while paying “jizya” to a theocratic state. (I dislike paying tribute to our current “Warfare/Welfare State” !!!)

    D.W. and to All….I belong to a privately owned bb that is open to the public. To post on the political thread; one must register (it’s free) and then sign into the site. Anyone reading this is welcome to join and “flap their gums” about any topic.

    All we ask at the above site is:

    Please, Please, Please…Be civil and respect each others’ viewpoints. 🙂 TIA 🙂


    The word “liberalism” seems to be a pejorative term when used by many “conservatives” to describe the far left (and maybe even those viewpoints left of center). Wouldn’t the word “Progressivism” be a more descriptive term? I don’t believe that the “classic liberalism” of the Enlightenment sought to overturn all of society’s orders.. The Jacobins sought the destruction of the French social order; but they were radicals.

    Doesn’t labelling the views of the left as “liberalism” rather than something like “radical progressivism” give credence to their cause? (As well as diminishing the credibility of “conservatives.”) After all, the views of our Founders were considered “liberal.”

  11. Great post, exactly the sort of thinking that IMO will allow people on the environmental activist co-op supporting left like me to connect with paleo-cons like FPers in support of a more rooted life and against the corrupt “centrist,” “moderate,” “bi-partsian” “mainstream” centralist mainstream “culture” of empire and corporate promoted consumerism.

    More posts like this please FPR.

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