|That's the equivalent of more than $9 a gallon - but how long before even that seems cheap?|
For all the talk of 'green shoots' and economic recovery over the past few weeks, there remains one inconvenient fact that simply won't behave itself. Petrol, gasoline, benzine – whatever you call it, the stuff you fill up your car is becoming more and more expensive. In Britain, for the first time, it now costs over £100 to fill up the tank of a family sized car. £100!! It took me the best part of ten years to save that sum up once to buy myself a BMX bike (okay, so I was ten).
Here in Denmark it's at a record high as well. The picture above was taken this morning outside the filling station near where I live. You can see that the regular fuel costs 13.54 kroner per litre – which is £1.52 a litre – or, for Americans, $9.17 a gallon.
There's a bit of grumbling about it here in Denmark, but nothing of note. It is not, for example, making headlines. This is definitely not the case in Britain where, as ever, many people are outraged to the point of apoplexy. The Daily Telegraph's libertarian readers can be relied upon to froth at the mouth at the mention of price rises of any kind (or wind farms, gay marriage or a number of other seemingly random issues) and they have been in fine form of late bewailing the price of petrol. The gist of the 632 responses (when I last looked) was simple and can be summed up in one word: blame.
Blame the government. Blame the oil companies. Blame the petrol stations. Blame the Arabs. Blame Iran. Blame wind farms. Blame the lefties. Blame the environmentalists. Blame blame blame!
To try and interject a sober note of reason into the, er, discussion is to invite a group mauling by angry motorists wielding cyber pitchforks. None of this is new, of course, and every time the price of petrol spikes thousands of voices cry out that it's not fair on them because they have small businesses, live in remote areas, are disabled and have to rely on large vehicles etc. That's tough for them but it is hardly the fault of oil, being finite and all that. No amount of complaining or blaming can ever make the oil to which we feel entitled come back.
What is actually quite amazing is the fact that anyone should be surprised that oil prices are going up, and with them the price of petrol and every part of the system that has been built on the assumption of abundant and cheap concentrated energy. It is a brave soul who stands up and says 'Actually, you yourselves might be the ones to blame.' The fact that we've had almost 40 years to retool our economies and societies to adapt to a much lower energy future but chose to put our heads in the sand and wish it would all go away is probably the biggest collective failure of imagination modern man has ever made (and when you stick your head in the sand a certain part of your anatomy is rather exposed). We could, if we had wanted, have spent the available time since the 1970s using our vast windfall of cheap energy to build a bridge to a future in which we really didn't have to use it much for fuel, but could still use it for useful things like pharmaceuticals and plastics. Instead we chose to pack as much of humanity as possible into millions of hollow cylinders and boxes and shunt ourselves all over the damned place.
But why should this be so? Why should so little attention be devoted to what happens when the black stuff starts to peak and then decline? True believers in the Illuminati will insist that there are plenty of forms of free energy available for our use, but that the powerful oil cartels, in league with governments, have suppressed all the research. There are any number of videos surging around the Internet that suggest technological breakthroughs which would give us all the energy we would ever want. Time and again these have proved to be hoaxes, or scams to raise capital or simply vehicles for self publicity.
In any case, I don't buy into large-scale conspiracy theories so, that being the case, what could have caused us to hit the snooze button? Well, of course vested interests have done their best to ensure funding flows their way, and the oil industry in particular is run by a bunch of planet-cooking crooks who will likely end up swinging from lamp posts before the party's over. But one area where there has been a clear failing is in the realm of speculative fiction.
Call it scifi if you like, but the genre of fiction grounded in what will happen in the future has been dominated by laser gun wielding, planet hopping fly-boys for too long. Okay, so the Space Race probably had a lot to do with it, but where are the natural successors to George Orwell's 1984 or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World - or even E.M. Forster's The Machine Stops? Could it be that this nascent genre was strangled at birth?
Anyway, these thoughts have been playing in my head a fair bit recently, so I was quite interested to hear that Sony had launched an intiative in which writers were asked to imagine the future in 2025 and write a short story about it. I listened to a few of the entries, and the standards were pretty high, but it was the story by Marcus Sedgwick that exercised me the most. Entitled, Life in 2025, the story involves a man who has invented an app that allows people to escape into their ultimate fantasies as they dream each night. Predictably enough, everyone in the rich world gets utterly hooked on it and becomes distant and dysfunctional, while everyone in the poor world just carries on dying of starvation and catastrophes brought on by climate change.
So far, in our X Factor world, so realistic. But travelling on a train on which every other passenger is programming their smart phones for that night's passionate dream, the inventor realises he has created a Frankenstein and sets out on a quest around the 'real' world. Of course, enlightenment ensues and the tale has a more or less happy ending. It's very well written, gripping, and most of all believable.
But … the form his enlightenment takes is the 'realisation' that nanotechnology and genetic modification can 'save' the 'developing' world. The hero then decides to devote his life to developing 'good' technology rather than the 'bad' technology that increases fecklessness, relationship dysfunction and loss of productivity. Haven't we been here before? The belief that technology is neutral but can be put to either a good use or a bad one is something that I'm finding it harder and harder to agree with. It seems to me that technology, which can roughly be equated with power, will always fall into the hands of those who will use it for destructive purposes. Therefore it follows that the creation of a new technology isn't exactly neutral at all. Sedgwick himself seems to acknowledge this in an interview where he states that he was slightly uncomfortable with receiving the commission.
Listening to the other stories a pattern emerges. All of the imagined futures focus on 'apps' and the greater integration of web technology. In one an adult son gets to know his dead father from all the social network information on his smart phone. There it is again: smart phones, apps, social networks. The message is clear: the future is like now but more so.
It's vaguely worrying, but hardly surprising, that companies like Sony are trying to colonise our minds with their visions of the future. It's a future which gives a nod towards things like climate change and overpopulation, but insists that these 'problems' can be solved by smart guys with smart phones. There's no mention of ecological constraints, the disappearance of groundwater, loss of top soil or lack of cars (a character in one of the stories drives around in an electric car that drives itself!). Instead, it's a future where everybody is so enmeshed with high technology that the best term to describe them is 'cyborgs'.
But there is no app for peak oil. Luckily, there is John Michael Greer, who will be releasing an anthology of peak oil sci fi some point soon (not sure exactly when) written, for the most part, by commentators on his Archdruid Report blog. I, for my part, have written a couple of short stories imagining the kind of future that seems more likely than not. These will be added to my scant collection on Ether Books, just as soon as they fix the upload app (there's that word again).
In the meantime, if anyone thinks they could do a better job of writing a short story set in the future in which energy is severely curtailed just drop me an email at jasonhepp at gmail dot com and I'll consider putting an extra page on this blog as a kind of online anthology of stories (in case you're wondering if anyone would ever actually read it, this blog is getting around 1,300 unique visitors a month, and growing). If not, then just enjoy the warm spring weather and try not to drive too far.