Two crises are unfolding half a world apart, competing for space on the front pages of the world’s newspapers and otherwise apparently disconnected. The first has been the unfolding disaster of the “spill” in the Gulf of Mexico (this word, “spill,” seems highly inaccurate to me – it is a hole, a gash, a cavity in the earth that we have created and from which crude oil is spewing forth. “Spill” makes it sound like it’s an accidental tipping out of liquids we have gathered, giving the impression that somehow we are in control. It’s not a spill, it’s a “spew”). The other crisis – suddenly arriving at everyone’s doorstep yesterday – is the Greek debt situation, precipitating what was momentarily a 1,000 point fall in the Dow yesterday, before settling in for a 3% loss and similar losses overnight around the world.

Despite their apparent disconnection, each of these crises arise from a similar source – our collective inability to live within our means. All accounts of the “spew” suggest that in our insatiable search for replacement of declining amounts of crude oilavailable in places where it’s relatively easier to bring it to the surface (i.e., on land), we are now increasingly forced to probe for oil in highly inhospitable places where the odds of just such disasters are substantially increased. Our national policy of “drill, baby, drill” in deep sea environments – endorsed alike by such political “opponents” as Sarah Palin and President Obama – can only be expected to result in growing numbers of such accidents, just as a nicotine addict can be expected to burn his fingers when he probes more deeply at the bottom of an ashtray for a butt that still might have something left to inhale.

The Greek debt crisis – what many “in the know” believe to be the first of several, and even many such national crises, likely to be replayed in some form in Spain, Portugal, Ireland, even England and possibly even the U.S. – is quite simply a consequence of a nation that has grown accustomed to living beyond its means for a long time, and which now believes itself entitled to that condition on a more or less permanent basis. The ancient Greeks, particularly its great philosophers Plato and Aristotle, worried that democracy was a debased and self-destructive regime because it consisted of the “many poor” who would engage in class warfare against the “few rich” and create an unstable condition of “stasis” and civil war. Some ennobled version of democracy might be imaginable, but only if democracy was understood to mean more fundamentally a form of “self-rule” – based upon an ideal of citizenship in which citizens would “rule and be ruled in turn.” What is now taking place in the streets of Greece is the most visceral manifestation of ancient fears – if not now the theft of the “many poor” from the “few rich,” then the theft of the many living from the not-yet-born. The marches, riots, looting and civil unrest consists most fundamentally of the demand that future generations continue to support the unruliness of the current generation. The ancients may, all along, have been correct – democracy can only “flourish” when it is based upon theft. We have simply not seen it for its true nature, because that theft has been labeled “growth,” and the main source of that “growth” has been the fuel now leaking in the Gulf.

Thus these two crises are even more deeply connected than a glance at the newspaper might reveal, as the worldwide belief that we could live permanently beyond our means was literally fueled by our brief and exuberant burning of most of the world’s supply of “easy oil.” Over the half-century or so, the world has enjoyed seemingly unlimited economic “growth” whose source was most fundamentally a sea of accumulated sunlight that was never “ours,” but which we treated as the property of the living generation without regard for the effects of our massive addiction upon the substance for future generations. This accumulation of millenia – allowing us to live for a time under the impression that humans no longer were dependent upon or governed by the earth – was tapped over the course of 150 years at increasing rates that led to its greatest amount in the early 2000’s (and the stock market at its highest level), and then suddenly began its inevitable decline with $150/barrel oil and a predictable economic crash whose inevitability was discernible to anyone who knew that the age of growth was over, and that our debt could only be repaid (if at all) by a long and painful time of austerity. We are living through the aftershocks of a world pressed by limits to growth, and – addicted to that condition of permanent thoughtlessness, and having been told that the permanence pf growth was ensured by the solidity of industry and government alike – today demand increasing debt to make up for declining wealth. The worldwide deleveraging that we have sought to forestall by means of “stimuli” and financial chicanery will be all the more painful and dislocating with every day that we put off our reckoning.

The ancient Greeks were the source of a kind of wisdom about self-government that today’s Greeks – and the rest of the world – have forgotten, only after Europeans and Americans (especially) over the past several hundred years explicitly overturned their influence – particularly the legacy of that inheritance in Christendom. Bans against “usury” – now regarded as quaint and incomprehensible – were most fundamentally bans upon current generations stealing from future generations. Limits upon debt were established to prevent people from living beyond their means, to constrain their appetites to what was appropriate within the limits of the world. It is an ancient teaching that we are rediscovering not by dint of wisdom and a habituated capacity to embrace self-rule, but by dint of having no other choice.

Several nights ago, Wendell Berry spoke to a packed – overflowing – auditorium in the Arlington library. Some hope is to be found in the fact that the audience was overwhelmingly composed of young people, wanting to hear from that older man some words about what we are now to do. And he concluded a marvelous evening of reflections and thoughts with a response to a question about Oil and Limits with the reply that he was waiting – as we should all be waiting – for someone to tell us that “we’ve got to use less,” that someone must make a criticism of our “standard of living” and speak in terms of “limits and context.” The context of which he spoke explicitly was that nature was speaking – “very noisily” – to those who would listen, and that the “news from the world” was quite clear that we needed to begin speaking and living under self-imposed limits – or those limits that would be violently imposed upon us.

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  1. Everyone is convinced everything will work and depends on it, until it doesn’t. So much so that even people that know better are advantaged by running with the crowd mad with lusts that must be fulfilled into the burning building.

    There are the few select ones that can step aside successfully, but for the rest, if we want to eat and drink today we have help those who are going to leave us starving tomorrow. An unpleasant paradox I have often lamented on FPR (to whit some folks say I take all this stuff way too seriously).

  2. Interesting piece, Mr. Dineen. However, I think that you have left out one of the common features of those old democracies and republics (Greece and Rome), and that is that they were inherently expansive during the time leading up to their golden ages. Expansionism in both cases provided a “safety valve” for social unrest — in ways not much different than the American frontier did under Fredrick Jackson Turner’s thesis. Any time that increasing concentrations of wealth combined with growing populations, there was a threat of social upheaval by those who saw themselves increasingly shut out of opportunity for advancement. So long as new lands were opened up, however, allowing for access to the means of personal household production (the backbone of the old concept of “liberty”), then widescale upheaval could be avoided.

    The problem with such systems is that the expansion cannot continue on forever. When it does slow or stop, and wealth begins to accumulate into fewer hands and social mobility becomes more difficult (especially for those born into lower socio-economic strata), then social unrest is the logical outcome. In the United States, it is no small coincidence that the time of perhaps the greatest upheaval happened at the same time as the greatest skewing of wealth distribution — the 1880s until the early 1900s, the period known as the Gilded Age. Likewise, after Rome’s final frontiers were reached, the old Republic calcified into the Empire, and the social order calcified as well — to the point that, during the Dominate, your occupation in life was solely determined by that of your father.

    The reasons for this cycle can be revealed through a wonderful book I finally read recently, _The Collapse of Complex Societies_ by Joseph A. Tainter. In it, the author explores the notion of diminishing returns on investment on a social level, which is essentially what we are experiencing right now with regards to the debt crises and the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Rather than explain this myself, I’ll simply refer you to an excellent piece by John Michael Greer in which he examines how these issues connect under “diminishing returns”:

  3. Professor Denneen, I probably have as little in common with you as John Micheal Greer does. (AKA “The Arch-Druid” that Mr. Harrison referred to.) However, I can find no fault with your essay, nor would I expect Greer to object. The excesses of greed and denial are causing anger and fear to blossom worldwide. Dangerously, the arrow of causality points both directions and may form an unbreakable positive feedback loop. Ruin will result.

    I believe you are correct; limits will either be chosen or imposed. The devil is in the details. I see many posts and comments on the FPR that are similar to views of a much wider audience, such as Greer’s, that truly believe in limits, place, and liberty. Sadly, the details here (and perhaps there) are so non-inclusive that no communication takes place. For myself, I have (Ahem – I am trying to) renounced seeing a “them”, there is only “us”. We all contributed to where we are now either through action or inaction. It is time to admit that, at least as first step towards a gracious society.

  4. Limits?……”LIMITS?”

    This will not go down well with the standing polyaholics. A culture that trucks garbage across time zones aint got no need fer yer limits buster.

    No, it is far more entertaining for the consumer idiot savants to treat constraints as some kind of Moloch out there in the gloaming along the horizon. Abundance is a birthright you see, not something that comes from stewardship and to be treated with respect when one is fortunate enough to have it. No, who needs limits? Grab the plastic bag, rip her open, gobble it down and sink deeply into corn sugar haze while watching the Sports-Politics-Horror Channel. BOO!

  5. The more I think about this article (several days now), the more angry I get. Especially when I hear people complaining that their vacation must be canceled. They are blind to the deeper implications.
    Limits? Limits!
    I’m too mad to go on writing. Thank you for this article.

  6. Dr. Deneen, very interesting article, and I agree with your analysis of the Greek crisis–that it is the result of a nation “living beyond its means for a long time”. Living within one’s means is an important limit for both individuals and nations. In your attempt to link the Greek debt crisis with the recent oil spill (or ‘spew’ as you prefer) in the Gulf of Mexico, however, you make a fundamentally flawed assumption.

    That is, you assume that the source of the economic growth and prosperity of the past 150 years is oil. You seem to be arguing that once we run out of oil, the “age of growth” will be over (or is already over) and future generations will have to pay for our period of luxury in some manner or another.

    But this is incorrect. The economic growth of the past 150 years–indeed, all economic growth–is the product of human creativity and ingenuity. After all, economic growth occurred for centuries (millennia, even) before man learned to harness the energy found in crude oil. Economic growth is not fundamentally limited in any real sense by the supply of natural resources.

    Throughout history, man has managed to raise his standard of living and achieve varying levels of economic growth in the absence of any particular natural resource. The Egyptians flourished without timber, the Arabs without farmland, the Greeks and Romans without coal. What has mattered in every case is the application of human ingenuity to whatever raw material was at hand. Indeed, timber, coal, fast-flowing streams, land, and oil have no economic value in themselves. They are nothing more than an assortment of raw materials until man uses his creativity to make them useful.

    Thus, I must disagree with you that the “age of growth” is over and that we owe a “debt” to future generations for our use of crude oil. There is nothing special about crude oil; it is merely the latest raw material that man has converted into a valuable commodity. We do not fault prior generations for greedily consuming the world’s supply of timber–they owe us no debt (American forests have been steadily expanding now for a century). In fact, we now know it would have been foolish for previous generations to put artificial limits on the consumption of timber for our sake. It would only have reduced their standard of living and retarded their economic progress, which would have delayed our eventual discovery of oil as a superior fuel source.

    The same is true today. Placing artificial limits on the use of oil, coal, and other fossil fuels for the sake of future generations (or any other reason) would be ironically shortsighted, and a slap in the face of human ingenuity. Just as the people from a few hundred years ago had no idea that we could use messy black oil to warm our homes, power our hospitals, and refrigerate our food (all resulting in more lives being lived longer and fuller), so we should not presume to know what raw materials future generations will be able to convert into life-saving, economy-driving resources.

    Such limitations would also be morally wrong, insofar as they limited the ability of the developing world to use cheap fossil fuels to raise their citizens out of poverty. Millions in Africa still rely on timber, and sometimes even dried dung, for heat and cooking, with disastrous effects on respiratory health and disease rates. Fossil fuels are their best hope for a better life.

    Such artificial limitations would also be morally wrong in the developed world insofar as they reduced the level of research and development and delayed the next big breakthrough, whether that is nuclear fusion or something we cannot even imagine now.

    What we owe future generations is to push forward, to use as much oil as is economically viable, and most importantly to cultivate an environment of freedom that maximizes mankind’s creative potential. Anything less would rob our children’s children of our best ideas, forcing them to invent that which we should have already invented instead of building on our accomplishments.

  7. Mr. Nadal,

    I have two quotes for you to consider:

    1. “In his book Phases of Capitalist Development, Angus Maddison charts the growth of what are now Western economies over the past fifteen hundred years. He estimates that during the thousand years between AD 500 and 1500, gross domestic product (GDP) grew on average by only 0.1 percent a year. As such, the volume of economic activity in 1500 was between 2.5 to 3 times as great as it had been a thousand years earlier. To put this in perspective, the Western economies grew as much in percentage terms between 1950 and 1970 as they had done in the thousand years between 500 and 1500. Today the growth of world GDP regularly exceeds 3 percent per annum.”

    Small is Still Beautiful, Joseph Pearce

    2. “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.”

    –Admiral Hyman Rickover, “Energy Resources and Our Future” (1957)

    It’s foolish to think that economic growth is the inevitable result of “human ingenuity” (which apparently didn’t exist for 1,000 years of Western history, unless we count it as part of that “ingenuity” to recognize that there are goods other than economic growth, such as limits upon usury – and which may itself finally be hitting its own limits), just as it’s foolish to think that there’s nothing special about crude oil. Your subsequent paragraphs suggest otherwise, in fact – it’s the crude that will lift all of humanity out of poverty, you insist. Still, you neglect to mention that it’s the crude that also allows us here in the West to live in conditions that ancient nobles would have marveled at, all the while depleting every resource on the globe as a result. What do you think the living conditions of impoverished people will be once we’ve depleted a host of resources to live such lives? I find such laments “what about the poor people” more often to be a cover to justify living at our own obscene levels of consumption and waste, as if everyone should live at such a level someday – at which point we’ll all be happy, it is implied. But the very argument that links human happiness to economic growth suggests that we will never be happy, because our limitless wants can never be satisfied. The same argument used to justify putting third world countries on a path to permanent economic growth is the one that is used to justify our own endless pursuit of growth, and is contributing the depletion of the globe that can’t ultimately be a succor for currently impoverished nations. If we care about the poor, perhaps we’d best take the long view and start living within our means while engaging in better forms of assistance that can be sustained.

    Your argument, such as it is, insists that we can have it all. But I think nature, as well as signals from our economic order, are telling us otherwise. We can either use our vaunted ingenuity to change our behavior, or be forced to change it by dint of circumstance. We seem to be most decisively on the latter path.

  8. Suggested readings for Mr. Nadal:

    The Prize, Daniel Yergin
    A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright

  9. Every time I hear someone assert that they wish to “have it all”…in sexual politics, in consumerism…in the entire mangy pantheon of “isms”, I ponder the masturbatory meaning of “all” and consider the earnest utterer of such nonsense to be either gluttonously wanton or prone to inhabiting a richly decorated navel.

  10. Years ago on a short trip to Scotland, our hostess, a Scot with American citizenship, talked of the rather frequently heard complaint about Americans amongst her fellow Scots. “Americans don’t have a sense of sufficiency” she said. It took me several moments to understand what she’d meant because the use of the word “sufficiency” on its own, without the American qualifier “self-“, sounded so unfamiliar. This was during the eighties when my generation had moved through our “living off the land” phase and was then squarely into its next. Remember the “me generation”? Or was it yuppie time? Anyway, as I lie awake at night trying to imagine the horror unstanched in the Gulf, I wonder what new reassuring description of American exceptionalism will grow out of our very much too large footprint on this earth. I don’t think it will be so generous nor tactful as in the recent past.

  11. There is nothing special about crude oil; it is merely the latest raw material that man has converted into a valuable commodity.

    Mr. Nadal, you are very fond of human ingenuity–so why do you dismiss the ingenious findings of basically all of today’s experts who have made plain the oil dilemma, namely that nothing else available to us is nearly as cheap or as widely-usable?

    The current standard of living is both incredibly complex and incredibly fragile. I doubt it would have withstood a changeover to a different energy input without massive failures and social repercussions even if a substitute were available–and it isn’t.

    You are right to plot mankind’s dependence from timber to coal to oil, but your argument falls apart when you assume that there will–MUST–be “something else” that we will convert to valuable energy too. Right now nuclear power plants are both energetic and economic negatives, costly experiments that depend on an oil world to float them up.

    The most famous techno-utopian was Julian Simon, who boasted that mankind would always be able to design new technologies to solve all of our problems and respond to any environmental threat. Well, Julian Simon is dead now, which inherently puts a major flaw into his hypothesis!

    We do not fault prior generations for greedily consuming the world’s supply of timber–they owe us no debt (American forests have been steadily expanding now for a century).

    Speak for yourself. In one place after another where avaricious people came, slashed, burned, then left, I find myself wishing they had just left well enough alone. All we have to remember them by is their scars. Better that they had left nothing at all, and that more enlightened people could have tried more sustainable methods of land use. Many forest types–including those of the most value to wildlife–have been steadily shrinking, to be replaced with toxin-drenched tree farms, which themselves are inventions of the oil age that probably will not survive it.

    I would recommend another book: “Collapse,” by Jared Diamond. Those Easter Islanders were mighty ingenious to make all those giant stone heads….

  12. The real resource limits of Earth:

    It is certainly true that the planet is finite and, therefor, can handle only a finite number of people. However, it is silly to talk about the limits to growth without talking about limiting population growth. In any case, the problem is self-correcting because as coutries develop, birthrates plummet, and the global population peaks around 2050 (I think closer to 2040) and slowly declines from then on.

    Anyone who is concerned about the limits to growth issues should be keen to promote that which reduces population growth; female education and empowerment, feminism, urbanization, widespread access to birth control and abortion, and the like.

    The problem is self-correcting.

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