Oil, Philosophy and Us, by Pascal Chabot


Repressed from philosophy and culture, oil is our great unthought… except when, in times of strike or shortage, it runs out. In this forum, the philosopher Pascal Chabotauthor of The Age of Transitions (PUF, 2015), invites us to see in the development of alternative energies the way to reconnect with the cycle of nature and to get out of the economy of predation specific to stone oil. Masterful!

Western philosophy was constituted by masking energy, which remains its great repression. She treated her as her incomprehensible other. There is a decisive act here, an intellectual gesture whose consequences are felt today more than ever and whose traces must be followed in order to understand our civilization of power: what it has done with the earth, by exhausting a part of its resources, and what it does with psyches, by captivating them or by exhausting them sometimes also in the burnout. This gesture of separation of energy and language is constitutive of the West – and not of the East, it must be understood –, because it acknowledges that energy and language are of two different orders, and correspond to two points of view on reality which are incompatible, or at least which cannot coexist simultaneously. This does not mean that relations cannot exist between energy and language; they are numerous and culminate in the present form of the digital world where power and information are intertwined. But this contemporary knot does not prevent a real gap from existing between these two orders, these two dimensions of experience which are energy and language. Energetic dynamism and linguistic analytics constitute two extreme poles whose problematic relations have made the West.

Fundamental predation

But energy is the basis of all life. Living presupposes a continual diversion of energy that the living captures for its own benefit. This is what is repressed: fundamental predation, which can also be called the Cost of life. This biological datum, even without moral interpretation, reminds man that he is, of all creatures, the most voracious, and that the price of his desires is the negation of other lives. Existence is first “consumption”in the words of George Bataille.

In these times of meditation on our addictions, this truth is difficult to integrate. It must, however, serve as a basis for any reflection, under penalty of fantasizing an angelic human, a kind of pure spirit capable of living in energetic harmony. Such may be the desirable utopia, but it is in no way the original situation, where rather a daily repeated predation is discovered. Maintaining your body at 36.9° and allowing your brain to be alert and creative requires huge calorie consumption. Our society hides it as much as it can; our gaze turns away from the animal energies thanks to which many bodies subsist. Huge slaughterhouses, sheds full of chickens that won’t see the light, or ponds of farmed fish are hidden and masked.

The miracles of oil

Among the energies that attract particular attention are hydrocarbons. A long retrospective look is necessary to understand its origin. It appears that our civilization depends for most of its activities on Jurassic plants that withered 150 million years ago. It was then on earth lush jungles, giant ferns, ginkgos that sheltered the first birds. Elsewhere, dinosaurs, sauropods, brachiosaurs, as well as generations of saltwater crocodiles, all of which took advantage of the sun and the abundant oxygen, before decomposing for a long time. Part of their remains ends up in sediments, sometimes at the bottom of the sea, mixed with plankton and alluvium, stuck by sands, trapped within hot metamorphic rocks. They formed the kerogen, insoluble organic matter caught in mineral pockets. Chemists explain that, for millions of years, this kerogen, kept in deep basins at high temperature and pressure, saw its hydrocarbon content increase, while oxygen and water were expelled from it. Oil in stone! petra oleum ! Oil ! Oil, we will say much later.

What is surprising, if not the link between this organic waste from the Jurassic and the shape of our world? Some are there possibility the other. Because to cross regions, as is usual today, at the wheel of a car that weighs almost a ton and a half, that two men would struggle to push twenty meters, would be impossible without this dark material which offers, to which knows how to convert it, the power to desire what no human, before, dared to hope for. Oil is the condition of possibility for many of our desires. If our civilization is so inventive in its fantasies and demanding as to the deadlines for their realization, it is because it has this potion for which the epithet “magic” remains weak. His wishes, such as tearing a forty-ton plane out of the ground to take eight hundred people to the other hemisphere, are only thinkable because there is a fuel that can be converted into a power as colossal as it is finely adjustable. Without him, aerial dreams would have remained sketches in notebooks. Leonardo DeVinci.

The most paradoxical thing is that this so important energy, lever of our modes of existence, nevertheless passes almost unnoticed. Its miracle is ordinarily banal, except in times of revealing strikes in the refineries. As soon as there is no more gasoline at the pump, we begin to meditate on our dependence with regard to this molecule so powerful. A rare few may have said to themselves, while waiting for hours to buy their ration of refined petroleum, that a single glass of this opaque liquid contained as much energy as a manual laborer expends for four long years. It is calculated because the energies are convertible and, theoretically, can therefore be compared. It thus appears that this worker who, in all seasons and eight hours a day, makes his muscles work and works with ardor – as long as there is gasoline in his van to go to the site –, ultimately deploys a power that can be stored in a single vial. Aladdin’s lamp was no more wonderful, except that it was worshiped as such. We, on the other hand, no longer notice the thaumaturgy of this fuel charged with our ordinary miracles. The staggering has normalized.

The ransoms of power

The essence of energy is to be a power of transformation. It is the physical property of a system capable of producing work, that is to say of transforming itself. The more energy there is, the more the transformations increase: the Anthropocene, which is the name of the modifications that part of humanity has imposed on the planet, is the result of the transformations obtained by the intense use of oil. , gas, electricity, everything that makes it possible to change the scale of human action.

However, the ransoms of this power are immense, both geopolitical and climatic. The oil that flows through the veins of the system is expensive: we know that it is currently used to finance Russia’s war against Ukraine, and that it constitutes, along with gas, a formidable weapon of blackmail. We know it forces the West to be shockingly complacent about the disrespect of human rights in many countries whose contracts are currently considered life-saving. This is not its only impact. The wealth of a subsoil does not always make the prosperity of the people who, on the surface, occupy the earth. Except for an oligarchy which benefits from its income, we most often witness the opposite situation, where oil turns out to be a poison. Economists speak of the “curse of natural resources” and show that the growth of producing countries is often lower than that of States less favored by the nature of the subsoils. The oil god draws everything to him, while education, health care and ordinary industries are neglected; struggles arise to capture petrodollars, corruption sets in. Economically, prices become volatile. Local currencies, under too much pressure, unbalance the economy by making exports difficult. We talked about “Dutch curse”Where dutch diseasereferring to the negative consequences of the discovery of gas fields in the Netherlands in the 1960s.

From stock energies to flow energies

All these reasons plead for a frank energy transition, which would allow us to get rid of unbearable geopolitical dependencies such as to gradually reduce pollution by hydrocarbons. Philosophically, this transition must be understood as a passage from useful progress to subtle progress, two conceptions of progress that I have been trying to think about for twenty years. The useful exploits a capital, which it seeks to increase, but which is also running out. It reflects our relationship with stock energies, such as oil, coal and natural gas. Constituted during the formation of the solar system, like uranium, or during the geological ages, these reserves are necessarily limited. Humanity covets them and exploits them until exhaustion, without worrying about the distant future. When we live according to the linear perspective of useful progress, without thinking of generations or repetitions, long times hardly exist. Snatching everything from the earth, without thinking about tomorrow, without trying to make the future viable like the present, is characteristic of a utilitarian mentality that can only conceive of energy as a stock, because it is with it that we get richer the most.

But the sun, the wind and the force of the tides are not a limited capital. On a human scale, they are infinite. Never has a sail blown the wind. Flux energies such as solar radiation, the cycles of water and carbon in the biosphere, the internal heat fluxes of the planet or the breaths of air, are inexhaustible. These powers participate in the cyclic aspect of nature which, in its prodigious generosity, is always renewed. The Sun, the star that presides over all planetary destinies, provides the Earth with heat more than 5600 times the world’s primary energy consumption.

Climate change, geopolitical pressure and the prospect of the depletion of fossil stocks are the three major arguments for the energy transition. At the philosophical level, a fourth aspect is added. With renewable energies, humanity is reconnecting to the cycles. She rediscovers a contact with these processes of constant regeneration which are the life of this nature, of which she is a part. Leaving the mentality of predation and the fear of lack that accompanies it, it is instead in the ingenuity of technological devices for capturing processes that it does not affect fundamentally, because they renew themselves. Which also means that it is essential to leave the opposition so typical of the XXe century between ecology and technology. It’s another spirit, another mentality. Consuming solar energy is, on a psychic level, very different from burning oil. Utilitarianism, once again, does not care. But on a subtle level, finding ways for humanity to be in tune with the cycles of Gaia, without however regressing, is of the utmost importance. That the development of advanced technologies, such as solar power plants or wind turbines, which belong to the techno-capitalist logic carried away by a multilinear movement, can reconnect with natural cycles, and therefore get out of the mentality of predation and the fear of exhaustion, is a major event for humanity. Admittedly, flux energies also pose the crucial question of storage, because their intermittency is their main drawback. But from a philosophical point of view, they obey a different logic than the consumption of finite reserves. They better serve what must always remain central: human energies.

Published in 2015 by Presses Universitaires de France, The Age of Transitionsby Pascal Chabot, is still available here.

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Oil, Philosophy and Us, by Pascal Chabot

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