THE NEED FOR SPEED
First published by the Almeida (2016)
My father rode a camel. I drive a car. My son flies a jet airplane. His son will ride a camel.
Our desire for oil is driven by our desire for progress at an ever increasing speed. This idea is so deeply embedded in our modern mind-set that it seems like a truth of human existence rather than a particular way of understanding the world. It colours the way we view our purpose in life.
Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that pre-modern agrarian societies were focused on simple reproduction. The purpose of life was to sustain the life of the wider community. People had a cyclic understanding of the world. Every year, crops were grown and harvested. Older generations were replaced by younger generations tasked with the responsibility of maintaining the old traditions and rituals. Communities and ways of life were perpetuated century after century. There was no need for speed. The aim was to stand still rather than progress.
In contrast, modern capitalist societies aim for growth. They have entered into a ‘race with time’, in that they are always striving for economic advancement in the context of an increasingly competitive global market. The pre-modern circular life of simple reproduction has been transformed into the straight upwards slope of seemingly endless progression. Capitalism is about the pursuit and accumulation of profit. Speed gives you the edge. The faster commodities can be produced, delivered, bought and sold, the greater your potential profits. There is a thirst for acceleration.
Zigmunt Bauman argues that the modern age is fuelled by this need for acceleration. Modernity begins with the move from technologies powered by ‘wetwear’ (human or horse power) to technologies fuelled by non-animal means. Wetwear technologies are limited. Ultimately, there is only so much faster someone can plough a field or pluck a chicken. Replacing one pair of arms or legs with another pair of arms and legs doesn’t make a huge amount of difference. Progress, if there is any, is incremental.
Technologies fuelled by non-animal means are different. They offer the possibility of ever increasing acceleration. Machines can be engineered to move faster and faster. The steam engine gives way to the car, the car to the aeroplane. The time and effort it takes to do things is reduced. The back-breaking work once required to simply subsist, to maintain a home and feed a family, is banished by modern household appliances and food production methods. The distances we can travel both physically and virtually increase. The months it would have taken a letter to reach Australia two hundred years ago are replaced by the instantaneity of email and Skype.
The industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism were powered by the incredible increase in speed that non-animal technologies offered. But these technologies, in turn, need to be powered by some kind of fuel. The more powerful the fuel, the greater the acceleration. The early industrial revolution was fuelled by the coal-fired power of steam. The power of James Watt’s 1781 rotary steam engine was equivalent to that of 35 horses. By 1905, steam engines could produce 12,000 horsepower. But even this was nothing compared to incredible power of oil.
Oil entered on the scene around 1850, not as a replacement for coal, but as an alternative source of light. Our love affair with oil was cemented in the 1870s with the invention of the internal combustion engine. Steam may have sparked a global manufacturing revolution, but oil had the power to take us to the stars and back. The 1967 Saturn V space rocket produced a spectacular 190 million horsepower.
Oil fuelled the promise of such remarkable liberation from limitations that we quickly became addicted. Countries blessed with oil, like America, grew rich on back of ‘black gold’. Countries, like Britain, that lacked easily accessible oil reserves, were forced to enter into uneasy relationships with oil rich countries in order to fuel their ambitions.
Britain forged its first oil-fuelled relationship with Iran in the early 1900s. Iran’s oil, Winston Churchill declared, was ‘a prize from fairyland’. This oddly jejune turn of phrase reveals the parental role Britain attempted to forge with what it saw as a ‘childlike’ country blessed with a valuable asset that it was too ‘immature’ to manage. As Edward Said notes, every empire likes to believe ‘its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate’.
A British company, Burmah Oil (later Anglo-Persian Oil, then BP) offered to ‘help’ the cash-strapped Iranian Shah maximise the country’s oil resources in return for 84% of the profits. At the same time, the British government assisted by supporting and then undermining a democratic constitutional revolution, gaining undisputed control of Southern Iran in the process. War was looming. Britain needed the oil to power its ships.
Such parenthood is a selfish act. The parent promotes their own self-interests on the flimsy basis of the good of the child. Promises of education and civilisation, of freedom and democracy, hide a darker purpose. Churchill’s observation that ‘mastery was the prize of the venture’ is somewhat nearer to the truth.
Children, however, grow up and rebel. The oil-rich countries exploited by the West during the first half of the twentieth century joined forces to form the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1960. The OPEC countries demanded a greater share of the revenues that foreign countries were reaping from drilling their oil. They took back control.
In the 1970s, the Arab OPEC nations embargoed exports to the West in protest at America’s support for Israel during the Arab-Israeli War. Libya went one step further, seizing and nationalising all BP’s interests in the country. These oil disputes dramatically raised the cost of energy, transport and synthetic materials, and further exacerbated the increasing instability of the financial markets at a point when both Britain and America were already in the grip of a severe economic crisis. Libya, in contrast, thrived economically, becoming one of Africa’s richest countries.
So what do you do when your children don’t grow up as you want them to? The invasion of Iraq in 2003 raises difficult questions about the West’s co-dependent relationship with oil. It’s hard to rebuild a relationship so fundamentally broken. It is even more difficult to rebuild it on your own terms. An adult makes their own choices. They may use the ‘gift’ of freedom and democracy to choose a very different way of life from the one, their ‘parent’ would have chosen for them. The recent entry of ISIS into the oil industry further complicates the situation. If, as the oil runs out, it came to a point where we had to feed the black flag to secure the black gold, would we prepared to legitimise a regime whose values stand so directly opposed to our own?
In the end, should we just admit defeat? A trip to China confirms that the West has lost its monopoly on acceleration. Shanghai’s Maglev (magnetic levitation train) travels at 270mph – so fast that speeding cars look as if they are standing still.
Just as horsepower was superseded by steam, and steam by oil, oil will be superseded by new fuels. Nuclear fusion, the holy grail of energy production, would produce over 660,000 times as much energy as oil. People are already prospecting for the fuel of the future. As the lands within our reach become depleted of resources, we reach out to increasingly distant regions to supply our needs. The Chinese Space Program is currently pursuing the possibility of mining Helium-3 for nuclear fusion on the moon. The speeds such a fuel would allow would be incredible - as unimaginable to us as the speed of a modern car to an eighteenth century farmer. The question is: will mining on the moon be as detrimental to our planet as our insatiable consumption of oil? Man is perhaps nature’s ultimate parasite.
Our understanding of the world is defined by this modern idea of desire and pursuit, of demand and supply. The pre-capitalist mind-set asks us to think very differently about ourselves and the purpose of our lives. It asks us to stand still. To settle for a life wound out in sustainable circles. It asks us to take no more than can be replaced. To make sacrifices. To give up our comforts, our technological advances and our freedom. If we want to achieve sustainability we need to slow down. To think in terms of renewal rather than growth. We need to accept that, once again, the world may have to become a colder, darker, smaller place.