More on Exceptionalism

Sharon October 13th, 2006

My last post got some interesting responses, and I think it would be useful to discuss them a bit more, in part perhaps because I may not have been fully clear, but also because I think this whole concept of exceptionalism is a delicate subject.

Deb’s comment, that believing that you have the right policy strategies is, in fact, a kind of theory of exceptionalism is both true and untrue. It implies that your ideas are exceptional – in the sense that they are more right than other people’s ideas. But I don’t think believing that you have better policy plans than other people implies a theory of moral exceptionalism (btw, I was being somewhat ironic when I used the phrase “we who know better”). While Deb is absolutely right that no strategy will ever be perfect for everyone, it is also the case that we do need policies on every level of government for responding to peak oil. And yes, I think my ideas, and the ideas I admire are better than other people’s ideas. I think this for several reasons. First of all, I’m not a moral relativist – while I think that human beings are all pretty similar, I don’t think all ideas or schools of thought are equally good. Some of them are quite bad, in fact. Second, I don’t think that because policy can’t perfectly respond to everyone’s needs that we’re better off without it – people can articulate their needs, and help refine it.

I do think that a proposal like the Community Solutions Plan C (my own views are similar, if not exactly identical) or Heinberg’s Powerdown have significant merits, and one of them is that they meet the criteria of “what if you are wrong.” A solution that imagines us making enormous investments in alternative energies risks causing a disaster if peak oil and the associated economic problems are closer than we think, or if we rely on technologies, such as carbon sequestration, that are neither proven nor safe within any margin of error. But a scenario in which we engage in voluntary curtailment and relocalization has a number of virtues – if we’re wrong, say, about peak oil, we’re still probably right for the purpose of social justice and climate change. And the allocation of resources to social welfare, rather than to creating private wealth is something that can be changed if it turns out we’re richer than we think we are.

I think Deb raises a good point – there’s a level of arrogance and hubris (I’ve got a good bit of both) inherent in believing you know what is best for the nation and the world. And yet, someone has to do it. I think my ideas (which aren’t really so much mine, but the ideas of better and smarter people like Pat Murphy, Richard Heinberg, Julian Darley, etc…) are better, and I’d rather see them implemented than the ideas of most of those presently in power. But it is hubris, and if the stories of greek mythology turn out to be true, I’ll be changed into some animal and chased across the earth if I’m wrong ;-) .

RAS’s point is, I think, especially well taken. The psychological weight of learning that your lifestyle can’t last is traumatic. Personally, I think these traumas are best handled by finding lots of useful work to do, and lord knows, there’s plenty. But if the emotional consequences of understanding peak oil are too traumatic, they can be immobilizing. There’s a website out there that I’ve criticized in the past – I think they encourage you to find peak oil depressing. But I’m famously skeptical of the theraputic model, being a therapist’s child. So for those who come into contact with peak oil and can’t go any further, you might check out That said, however, I think that the psychological element will to some degree receed when more people are peak oil aware – that is, I think that when “everyone is doing it” the emotional trauma of peak oil, or the capacity for denial will simply change. Families who think they have too much going on to address peak oil will suddenly find they have a little spare time to make sure their kids get to grow up. Peak oil is deniable precisely because it is a minority viewpoint – but not, I think, for very long.

I agree with most of what Dougii says, although I think you misunderstand me when I say what matters is what you believe. I believe that actions are what matters (in fact, that’s a basic tenet of my religion – Judaism presumes that actions, rather than intentions, are what is judged and what matters) – but you cannot act persuasively towards others if you believe that the general population is made up of people whose personal greed or selfishness would prevent them from ever learning what is necessary. Your actions are shaped by how you think and what you believe.

The next step, if we are to change the world, is to make what is necessary to address peak oil into the public agenda for the nation. My personal preference is to do so from the bottom up – as a grassroots movement that is open to as many people as possible – not just historical liberals, but the new environmentalists arising from conservative Christian movements, traditional American patriots who value America, and believe that America can lead the world – this time into sustainability and justice, and every ordinary person. We can’t rely on counter-culturists – we have to create a collective culture. And if we’re going to do that, we need a big tent, and a general message, and a way for ordinary people to act. Then we wait for the “leaders” to catch up.


5 Responses to “More on Exceptionalism”

  1. PeakEngineer says:

    I agree with you that a grassroots movement appears the best way to spread the message, and it’s slowly trickling into the mainstream. But just like with global warming, the amount of resistance is large, as people prefer not to change their ways.

  2. jewishfarmer says:

    I guess I don’t know – perhaps they prefer not to. Or perhaps they would prefer doing it, but don’t know how, or why, or why it would be preferrable.

    Human beings make tremendous changes in their lives all the time – voluntarily. I think a big part of the problem is that we haven’t made it fun enough, or provided enough social support for it. Don’t get me wrong – I understand the barriers. But if we could convince millions of people to wear hot pants, or swallow goldfish, or do their hair like Farrah Fawcett, we can convince them to grow gardens. We just haven’t.



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