Hope in the Time of the Petrolocene

The first step to moving beyond fossil fuels is recognizing that they remove human agency through their addictive properties and chaotic global effects.

It’s difficult to believe that microscopic lifeforms that died millions of years ago have become the most powerful force on the planet. But this is precisely what happened with oil. Much of the world’s poorly-distributed wealth has been created by these seductive, versatile, and energy-dense substances: fossil fuels. In a strange twist of fate, humanity may soon join the dead matter it feeds upon if the addiction to these intoxicating energies is not adequately addressed. If we needed more proof, just look at how worldwide travel powered by these long-dead organisms allowed a virus like Covid-19 to proliferate across the globe and transform society in a matter of weeks.

photo of emissions
We live in an era built, driven, fed, and clothed by fossil fuels. If we continue on this path, the United States could face societal collapse due to the climate crisis and its corresponding ecological damages within decades. Photo from Pxfuel.

Our current era is defined by the extraction, combustion, and transformation of fossil fuels. If we continue on this path, the United States could face societal collapse due to the climate crisis and its corresponding ecological damages within decades. This could mean no reliable water from the tap, widespread agricultural failure, proliferation of disease, and infrastructure breakdowns. In many parts of the world, including this country, the climate crisis is already lethal; climate refugees across the planet are struggling to maintain their lands in the wake of rising seas and harrowing storms, to find adequate drinking water, food, and shelter.

How are people supposed to muster a sense of hope amid these harsh realities? Confronting our species’ mortality as well as the complexity of today’s profound challenges are the first steps towards making the changes that are required in order for humanity to survive the profound threat that this era holds.

The acknowledgment of the vulnerability shared by all living things can give us the courage to avert the worst of the storms. Right now there are specific historical circumstances that broadly determine the conditions of our collective mortality.

The Petrolocene

We live in an era built, driven, fed, and clothed by fossil fuels. Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer deemed it the Anthropocene because it appears to be a geological epoch dominated by humanity. The Petrolocene, however, emphasizes how the dire ecological realities of this era — mass extinction, the climate crisis, disease, and hunger to name a few — materialized chemically and physically: through the extraction, combustion, and transformation of oil and other fossil fuels.

Societies would not have been able to actualize the same large-scale technological transformations of the Industrial Revolution and beyond without the power of coal, oil, and natural gas. Look around you and chances are that every product you see has had some significant inputs from fossil fuels during its lifecycle. From this standpoint, fossil energies, rather than humanity per se, are the sine qua non of this era on Planet Earth. Without fossil fuels we would be living in a staggeringly different and more sustainable ecosphere.

Loss of global habitat and the proliferation of toxic chemicals either derived from or powered by fossil fuels have put global ecosystems squarely in the crosshairs of systemic collapse in human-specific ways. Take away fossil fuels and this global-scale damage would not have been possible. Sure, firewood could’ve powered trains up until a certain point. But societal limits and collapses — once forest resources were spent, for example — would have occurred much sooner, and wouldn’t have been as overwhelming or as fundamental as those currently being delivered by today’s climate crisis. Without fossil fuels our societal and ecological realities would be entirely different; more pointedly, the world would be free of the apocalyptic cataclysm humanity now faces.

The Covid-19 pandemic is offering just an inkling of what the human world will confront due to the changes brought about by the Petrolocene. And without the use of fossil fuels on a massive scale it is clear that the conditions for Covid-19 and its devastating spread could simply not have materialized: the combination of high population density and widespread world travel enables disease contractions and transmissions to mimic the chain-reactions of combustion itself.

This is what the Petrolocene already looks like: Catastrophic wildfires, severe droughts, overwhelming hurricanes, tornadoes, record-breaking floods especially in coastal regions, and unprecedented global pandemics. Our planet now faces ecological catastrophes and societal hardships on scales never before experienced by humanity. Soon, weather events alone will be enough to overwhelm global infrastructure, economies (including food systems), and governments. We will need the utmost of human creativity, cooperation, and perseverance in order to survive. On the bright side, vibrant new communities may be able to sprout from the ashes of these terrifying social and ecological disasters.

The Psychology of Fossil Fuel Addiction

In pondering these weighty topics I turned to the Jungian analyst Dr. John Beebe, who told me in a recent conversation, “knowing that fossil fuels are killing us does not change that we are presently psychologically powerless to stop using them. Recognizing such powerlessness over an addictive substance is the famous ‘first step’ in the recovery process laid out by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).”

But how can this notion of human powerlessness be effectively recognized and understood? And who are the key addicts that drive societies to destruction?

Politically entrenched multinational corporations and their billionaire shareholders are easy to target as the central fossil fuel addicts. They are the systems and individuals that most thoroughly uphold lethal patterns of fossil fuel consumption. But one can also locate a dependence in the psyches of consumers. “Behind individual substances as addictive agents lies the overarching idea of a perfect life,” Beebe says. He points out that “addiction to perfection is often what gets one to turn to a dangerous substance to hasten perfection’s arrival.” Fossil fuel industry marketers and consumers have, in a sense, co-created the idea that consuming the “products of progress” can yield a more perfect life. The purveyors of the Petrolocene Economy have taken advantage of these powerful enticements, effectively undermining more ecologically harmonious futures. Consumerism creates emptiness and pain and then promises instant relief and pleasure, thus reinforcing these cycles of addiction.

Centuries-old cultural narratives about science, nature, and humanity have also polished the mirage of the Petrolocene. An undying story from the annals of European scientific culture has been the notion that humanity is the captain of its own ship, leading an expedition through a once “wild” and unwieldy nature that we now corral, harness, and even possess. This story of human dominance was at first bold and intoxicating and then became almost matter-of-fact. The term “Anthropocene” can feed into the narrative of human dominance and control. But perhaps the most salient attribute of this epoch is humanity’s lack of control over both its own future and the future of life itself.

photo of traffic jam
“Knowing that fossil fuels are killing us does not change that we are presently psychologically powerless to stop using them,” says Jungian analyst Dr. John Beebe. Photo by Shiyang Huang.

“In a sense,” Beebe notes, “oil-addicted ‘Anthropos’ may lose ownership of its time on Earth by an inability to act on the recognition of its own dangerous addiction…. In the same way that addicts are named by the substances they desire, humanity writ large might be named by its own lethal addiction.” The addict loses control. Having intoxicated its host, the substance has become predominant. And where might this “oil zombie captain” lead us?

Earth’s zombie captain is compromised and controlled by substances that are “toxic as well as intoxicating,” Beebe notes. This dangerous addiction may indeed “return the species to the dead we are currently feeding upon…. There is both short term and long term morbidity due to fossil fuel use and abuse.” Humanity’s response must include confronting this mortal danger and recognizing that fossil fuels remove the remaining scraps of human agency through their addictive properties and chaotic global effects.

To Hope

To hope is the willingness to take the appropriate actions in response to the nigh impossible. To hope is to not give up despite all odds being against you. To hope is, and must be, a verb rather than a noun; it is in taking the appropriate actions in response to crisis that empowers this hope. Earth can no longer afford to have its beings dwell in the illusion of the passive bystander. Embracing the fact that we are active members of this planetary community is essential to the practice of hope.

One barrier to enacting hope is the recognition of crisis to begin with. Just as the smoker may have trouble believing that cigarettes will lead to the contraction of lung cancer, the same can be said of the growing climate crisis. It is difficult to envision the broad and systemic collapse of agricultural systems that would be induced by the continued emissions of greenhouse gases. One does not have the luxury of learning from another society’s experiences with the same problems as can be done with cigarette addiction. One can, however, look at the current symptoms of the planet’s illness: hundreds of thousands of climate refugees who serve as profound precautionary tales, not to mention the many species of flora and fauna experiencing extinction already. There is reason for optimism, however: despite considerable corporate resistance, reductions in cigarette consumption have been successful through political action and policymaking.

Since arising billions of years ago, life has managed to persist and persevere. Ironically, we human beings would not have evolved if it had not been for a mass extinction event. The Cretacious-Tertiary (also known as K-T, Cretaceous-Paleogene or K-Pg) extinction event some 66 million years ago that wiped out the majority of life on Earth also opened the door for mammals to proliferate and evolve.

Generating hope is not just about coming to terms with inherent limits; it is also about appreciating nature and its processes of survival, renewal, and genesis. In this universe life miraculously arose from nonliving things.

The Plantaeocene, Livestockocene, Microbocene, and Insectocene

Plants outweigh all animals on earth by a factor of over 200. At any given time there are 3 times more chickens on Planet Earth than there are human beings. Even within the human body itself, bacterial and fungal cells outnumber human cells. Insect biomass on the planet weighs 15 times more than humanity’s biomass (and insect numbers dramatically eclipse the human population). All told, human beings account for 0.01 percent of life on Earth. And yet, human beings and livestock are now more bountiful than all of the planet’s wild mammals, thanks to the Petrolocene. Some insect species are also experiencing unusual population declines. This has created the illusion of human dominance over nature. But a geological flash in the pan is no sign of dominance.

“The meek shall inherit the Earth.” It is conceivable that within 1,000 years, insects may functionally take over the planet, which by that time may be uninhabitable for humans. Any way you look at it, there is more than a touch of hubris in the term “Anthropocene”; it is an idea that doesn’t capture the full picture. But if we were looking for the most destructive processes on Earth, it is possible that we might indeed point to specific behaviors and practices of the human species.

A Post-Petrolocene World

To acknowledge the Petrolocene is also to hope for a future in which humans still roam the Earth. It is also to recognize that humanity is just a small part of the larger story of a planet that existed billions of years before us and likely will continue to exist billions of years after us. Even the oil pulled from the ground has been around much longer than our species has. It goes without saying that the sooner we stop using fossil fuels, the better. To do this it is necessary that more and more people authentically connect to the biogeochemical realities of this planet, our species, and its fragile life support systems.

It is my hope that there will be an era after the Petrolocene. In this post-Petrolocene I would imagine that human societies will learn once more how to live in harmony with nature rather than opposed to it. In this hopeful scenario we might call the next era the “Ecocene” or Symbiocene; or perhaps we won’t need a name for it other than nature itself. But it can no longer be the Anthropocene or Petrolocene. Ultimately, what’s at stake is not the accuracy of the nomenclature of geological epochs. Rather, what is at stake is humanity itself and the life-systems that support it. Once we come to terms with our collective mortality, we must not forget to celebrate our collective vitality; not just animals, but the plants, fungi, and bacteria that sustain us and will be central to fostering hope and building lasting solutions.

The Petrolocene is defined by the extraction of nearly a hundred million barrels of crude oil per day processed, combusted, and converted into myriad chemicals that crowd the planet’s lands, seas, and skies. But the problem with oil is not that it is anthropogenic, unnatural, or artificial. The problem is that it is killing us. For the continued sustenance of life on Earth it is crucial for humanity to confront its addiction, its mortality, and even its powerlessness, so that we can work together to enact the profound hope necessary to progress and to survive beyond the potentially lethal Petrolocene.

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We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

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