Lame Hephaistos: Technology at the World’s End

Glenn C. Arbery, Ph.D.

In the summer of 2005, I read a book called The Long Emergency that crippled me for months. It cast the entire present world under the shadow of coming destruction; it made me fear for my children and grandchildren. Of all the books that I have ever read – outside, say, the Book of Revelation – this one is unquestionably the most ominous and convincing in its vision of what is about to happen. It details what we can expect in the next generation or so as world supplies of oil, past the peak of production, begin to decline, and alternative sources of energy fail to supply an answer.

In his earlier books, James Howard Kunstler has been a critic of suburbia, scathing in his diatribes against urban sprawl. In some ways, The Long Emergency, subtitled “Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st-Century,” simply puts his earlier arguments into a global and historical context, since urban sprawl obviously results from a plentiful supply of cheap oil. The author of nine novels, Kunstler puts his narrative gifts into imagining a future of radical scarcity and showing how war, famine, pestilence, disease, and death will result from a failing supply of oil. If we don’t do something, he says – and we won’t – then we are living in the end times of civilization. He unfolds a pitiless argument about the absolute dependence of the world economy on plentiful supplies of oil, not only in terms of transportation, but also and perhaps more crucially in terms of food supply. Cut off the oil, and the entire structure of modern life collapses.

Perhaps most dispiriting is Kunstler’s chapter called “Beyond Oil: Why Alternative Fuels Won’t Rescue Us.” Puncturing our casual expectations that somebody will come up with something, he explains why hydrogen, natural gas, coal and tar sands, shale oils, ethanol, nuclear fission, solar, wind, water and tidal power, and methane hydrates, either individually or in combination, will not be able to replace oil. “Oil is an amazing substance,” he writes. “It stores a tremendous amount of energy per weight and volume. It is easy to transport. It stores easily at regular air temperature in unpressurized metal tanks, and it can sit there indefinitely without degrading. You can pass it through a pipe, you can send it all over the world in ships, you can haul it around in trains, cars and trucks, you can even fly it in tanker planes and refuel other airplanes in flight…. It can be refined by straightforward distillation into many grades of fuel – gasoline, diesel, kerosene, aviation fuel, heating oil – and into innumerable useful products – plastics, paints, pharmaceuticals, fabrics, lubricants. Nothing really matches oil for power, versatility, transportability, or ease of storage. It is all these things, plus it has been cheap and plentiful.”

Kunstler maintains early in his book that he has taken a kind of middle position between those who are irrationally optimistic about the oil supply, and those who are so pessimistic that they imagine a “die-off” that will leave us radically crippled, not just as a civilization, but as a viable species. He claims that he has hope for a return to local life, which he imagines as more or less pre-industrial, like life among the Amish, whose recent grace in tragic circumstances has moved us all. Still, even in his comparatively sanguine assessment of the future, Kunstler writes that “millions of people are going to die.” It’s no wonder, in the wake of such analyses, that web sites pop up, such as peakoilblues.com, which offers help for those suffering under a near-suicidal depression about the future. After you read Kunstler’s book, it doesn’t seem like a joke. The sense of individual helplessness in the face of such large, global inevitabilities can be crippling, simply because you see the problem and you don’t know what to do.

I went through a period of several months last year when optimism about the future seemed to me ironic at best and laughably foolish at worst. I couldn’t talk about anything else. I remember flying in over Dallas at night August a year ago, fresh from reading Kunstler’s book, and looking out the window at mile after mile of streetlights, all the way to the horizon, thousands of cars streaming on the expressways, all the air-conditioned houses illuminated, all the millions of people in them ignorantly dependent on an infinite supply of a very finite source of energy. It was like seeing back from the future into a city already destroyed, as New Orleans would be only two weeks later. Our bleak course was already set, I thought, and events would unfold, inevitably, until long, angry lines began to form at the gas stations as they had in the late seventies. World wars by the major powers over the remaining oil were sure to come. Food would begin to run out at the grocery stores. There would be riots across the country, epidemics, desperation.

Here’s a sample of the way Kunstler envisions the future, taken from his chapter called “Running on Fumes.”

The demoralization could easily be worse than that of the Great Depression because we will not be living in “want amidst plenty,” as FDR put it, but in hardship amidst scarcity. Our desperate problems with oil and gas will effectively shut down the growth of our industrial economies, and with that our expectations for economic progress, as we have known it…. Climate change, environmental degradation, falling living standards, and social disorder will be the oil age’s gift of entropy to future generations. The transient and ephemeral condition of industrial hypergrowth that the world has known for just over 200 years will be over. Energy will be at an extreme premium, and human survival skills will be the new capital. (234)

A year ago, my wife and I had already begun to talk about moving to far northern Wisconsin on Lake Superior, where we have some land. We had fantasies of learning to farm. Our children and grandchildren would at least have a haven from the coming water shortages. Maybe they wouldn’t have to suffer the worst effects, for example, of the steady depletion of the great aquifers beneath the Great Plains that sustain most of America’s agriculture.

Imagining all these things in advance, I seemed to stand outside our entire culture, as though I could somehow watch this unfolding history from above, even as I lamented what would happen to us all. What the facts truly were, I had very little way to judge. A reader’s factual uncertainty is one of the phenomena accompanying Kunstler’s kind of jeremiad, because experts can always be found to disagree, especially about the future. A young friend who works for Exxon says that we aren’t facing shortages anytime soon, because new techniques – such as drilling sideways for five miles or more, if need be – will make it possible to tap reserves that would previously have been unreachable. In a way, that’s heartening, but it also means that as gas prices go back down, we will probably remain complacent until it’s too late to act on the necessary scale to rethink our energy use. Kunstler and others say that for the coming energy crisis we need something like the Marshall plan or the Manhattan Project.

Last year, I did not want good news. Without being fully conscious of it, I began to prefer evidence of our doom to hopeful prognostications, and 2005 conveniently provided a great deal of material for doomsayers. I strongly disliked having the most fatalistic vision challenged or even palliated. There was something darkly attractive about such a vision of doom, and it took me several months to recognize that I might be responding more to that attraction than to the facts of the situation. When Katrina sent oil prices higher than they had ever been before, I felt that the prophet Kunstler had been vindicated. The very existence of so many powerful hurricanes seemed irrefutable evidence that global warming, caused by our heedless use of cheap oil, had made the weather more extreme: the storms were growing fiercer and more frequent, a trend that would continue indefinitely into the future unless we did something drastic right away. I wanted that to be true. I had bought into a vision of the future that simultaneously robbed me of effective hope and set me outside those who could not see or face the truth. I was becoming addicted on the cultural level to that dark emotion, surely punishable somewhere in Dante, that the Germans call schadenfreude, a kind of glee in misfortune.

Having read Kunstler, I could see what the untutored millions could not, yet there was not a thing I could actually do about world dependence on oil. It was a strangely volatile, almost Dionysian, combination of dire knowledge and helplessness to act, taking place in surroundings of ordinary, uninterrupted American comfort and prosperity, when no one that I knew was actually suffering at all. After the effect of Kunstler’s book began to wear off, I began to read other ones such as Jared Diamond’s Collapse about the combination of factors that led the collapse of the Mayans, for example, or the Norse settlements in Greenland. I saw and reviewed Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, about global warming. Most recently, I read Timothy Egan’s book about the Dust Bowl, The Worst Hard Time, which shows how a combination of market stimuli and shortsighted governmental policy led to the greatest environmental disaster in our nation’s history. None of them has quite the same charge as Kunstler’s book, though. None of them asserts quite as absolutely that we have already made the worst choices and that we are now probably past the point of no return.

My question is this: why did I want it to be the case that modern civilization might be about to collapse? Obviously, I don’t really want that to be true. What I do want, though, is to be on the other side of it, which means that I do very much want the way we live to change, and I do not think it will or perhaps can on the large scale. That requires some explanation. So let me put the question this way: why do I want it to be the case that our future is more local, less abstractly globalized; less dependent on technology, and more aware of people and particulars, less virtual and more real; more at home with the natural rhythms of time and the material world, less anxious to overcome time or kill it; less alienated from a world that we dominate, more open to what is?

In other words, there are really two problems. One is how we fix this situation we’ve gotten ourselves into by depending too much on oil, which is essentially a technological question. The other is how we can get past considering technological questions the only real ones, since this was way of thinking that got us in this situation to begin with. Is it really the case, in other words, that the solution to the problems caused by technology is more technology? Or is the issue a matter of addressing the hubris of modern technology, which began in full force with the thought of Machiavelli, Francis Bacon, and René Descartes. Machiavelli opened the way by showing that the political conquest of fortune was like building dikes and dams for flood control – in short, a structural how-to technique for dealing with probable human and natural behavior in terms of power. The founding principle of modern technology, articulated by Bacon, is the betterment of man’s life on earth through the conquest of nature, made possible by extracting nature’s secrets under torture (Bacon’s metaphor, not mine). When Descartes valorized the mental world at the expense of the material one, it became possible to treat space as pure extension, like a mathematical grid, and time as featureless duration, abstracted from the being of any particular thing. Nature itself became an abstraction. The result, on the one hand, was the rise of modern science, and on the other, the loss of a human cosmos, a world on our own lived scale.

It would be not just hypocritical, but absurd, to complain about the improvement of human life brought about over the past several centuries. Without this “conquest of nature,” none of us would be here. But we also know that solving problems about how to use things or solve problems by not asking the ultimate questions has left us uneasy under the sky, “distracted from distraction by distraction,” as T.S. Eliot put it in the Four Quartets. Too often, we can regard even religion more as a technique of moral repair rather than as a way to open us into mystery. In the technological world, we think of a mystery as something to be solved. What we need is poetry – and that sentence, I admit, sounds absurd. We can’t run our cars on poetry. But two of the most telling analyses of our situation are grounded in exactly this opposition between modern technology and poetry or poiesis: the response of the Southern Agrarians to industrialism in 1930 in a book called I’ll Take My Stand and the essays of Martin Heidegger after World War II, especially “The Question Concerning Technology.”

The Agrarian movement grew from the work of a group of Southerners who had published a journal called The Fugitive at Vanderbilt University in the early 1920s. At the center were four men who would have a major cultural impact over the coming decades, not only because of their thought about Agrarianism – which most of them eventually renounced – but also because they taught several generations how to read and think seriously about poetry. John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, and Robert Penn Warren each contributed in some major way to what Seamus Heaney calls “the redress of poetry,” the correction it provides for imbalances in the culture. In I’ll Take My Stand, they joined eight other Southerners in opposing the agrarian way of life associated with South to the industrial life embodied by the North; in a way, they were re-fighting the Civil War, this time intellectually, on the basis of an opposition between modern technology and an older agrarian way of life.

In the introduction to the volume, John Crowe Ransom cuts against the cultural grain by exposing the assumptions and effects of industrialism: “Industrialism is the economic organization of the collective American society. It means the decision of society to invest its economic resources in the applied sciences…. The capitalization of the applied sciences has now become extravagant and uncritical; it has enslaved our human energies to a degree now clearly felt to be burdensome”(xxi).

Notice that language: “enslaved our human energies.” Instead of liberating us, in other words, industrialism has found a way to isolate human energies – to abstract them from the people who havethose energies – and enslave those energies, while leaving the people themselves at least technically free, as they have to be in order to buy things. The most notable way that industrialism does its enslaving is through its transformation of labor, and Ransom is undoubtedly thinking about the introduction of the assembly line by Henry Ford. It is a matter of how labor is to be understood;

The contribution that science can make to a labor is to render it easier by the help of a tool or a process, and to assure the laborer of his perfect economic security while he is engaged upon it. Then it can be performed with leisure and enjoyment. But the modern laborer has not exactly received this benefit under the industrial regime. His labor is hard, its tempo is fierce, and his employment is insecure. The first principle of a good labor is that it must be effective, but the second principle is that it must be enjoyed. Labor is one of the largest items in the human career; it is a modest demand asked that it may partake of happiness. (xxii)

The implication of industrialism, as Ransom makes clear elsewhere, is that labor is a resource to be used, and the time not spent in labor is to be used in consuming the products of industrialism.

By rendering all of life economic, industrialism effectively erases the distinction between capitalism and communism: “it is simply according to the blind drift of our industrial development to expect in America at last much the same economic system as that imposed by violence in Russia in 1917,” writes Ransom. Also included in its effects are a general denigration of religion, simply because the attitude of industrialism toward nature does not allow the religious attitude to unfold:

Religion is our submission to the general intention of a nature that is fairly inscrutable; it is the sense of our role as creatures within it. But nature industrialized, transformed into cities and artificial habitations, manufactured into commodities, is no longer nature but a highly simplified picture of nature. We receive the illusion of having power over nature, and lose the sense of nature as something mysterious and contingent. The God of nature under these conditions is merely an amiable expression, a superfluity, and the philosophical understanding ordinarily carried in the religious experience is not there for us to have. (xxiv)

If God is dead, to use Nietzsche’s metaphor, it is because, for Ransom, industrialism removes from view the nature where God reveals himself and replaces it with a “highly simplified” human substitute.

Much of the Agrarian view came out of the poetry that Ransom and others wrote. As poets, these men became aware of what it was that a poet needed culturally in order to make a coherent world in the poem, and they kept running up against the effects of industrialism in making the poetic universe more difficult to conceive. Dante, by contrast, had no such difficulties. They conceived of agrarianism is the way of life most conducive to a stable and fertile view of the cosmos. As an actual alternative for Americans, Agrarianism obviously had no chance; already in the thirties, farming itself was beginning to be industrialized, which was necessary to sustain an industrial economy, and the life of the individual farmer was long gone as a possibility. But the real question that these men tapped into through thinking about poetry was the nature of technology, a more comprehensive word than industrialism, and in that sense, they were remarkably prophetic. Also thinking in the same vein, though in no way influenced by them, was the philosopher Martin Heidegger, considered by most philosophers the greatest thinker of the 20th century.

Heidegger’s essay “The Question Concerning Technology” addresses what the Agrarians call industrialism on a still more fundamental basis. His argument is very complex, and anyone who knows Heidegger knows that it’s necessary not just to pull out thoughts, but to enter the stream of his thinking, which we don’t have time to do. But basically his argument is that technology – the word derives from the Greek techne and logos – still shares some of its original meaning which had to do with bringing forth something, a kind of revealing that was characteristic of poiesis, the root activity of poetry. Techne, in other words, is craft or art. Essentially, his essay concerns the way that ancient techne becomes modern technology. He analyzes the difference between the modern understanding of cause, which is always efficient cause, like driving a nail with a hammer, for example, and the four causes as Aristotle understood them. Modern technology, in his view, is not simply modern science practically applied, but it is the very way that modern science sets about to know things:

What is modern technology? It too is a revealing. Only when we allow our attention to rest on this fundamental characteristic does that which is new in modern technology show itself to us. And yet the revealing that holds sway throughout modern technology does not unfold into a bringing-forth in the sense of poiesis. The revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging, which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy that can be extracted and stored as such. But does this not hold true for the old windmill as well? No. Its sails do indeed turn in the wind; they are left entirely to the wind’s blowing. But the windmill does not unlock energy from the air currents in order to store it.

When Heidegger says that the revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging, he means something like this: unlike ancient thought, which would look at the way things belong to each other, modern technology frames them – in other words, removes them from their context of belonging – and it challenges them with specific questions. It looks at reality the way that Uncle Sam looks at a potential recruit in those famous World War I posters. It wants a specific thing, and it means to get it.

Notice that at the very heart of its challenge to nature is an abstraction: “energy that can be extracted and stored as such.” Heidegger does not use the example of oil, but he might as well. He gives the example of a tract of land “challenged into the putting out of coal and ore.” Instead of what it used to be for the peasant farmer, the earth now reveals itself “as a coal mining district, the soil as a mineral deposit.” The peasant used to farm this very land. “The work of the peasant does not challenge the soil of the field. In the sowing of the grain it places the seed in the keeping of the forces of growth and watches over its increase.” In other words, Heidegger thinks about farming here, not as a conquest of the soil, but as a cooperation with it, a deliberate participation in the kind of bringing-forth that nature does. By contrast, modern farming has also become technological: “Agriculture is now the mechanized food industry. Air is now set upon to yield nitrogen, the earth to yield ore, ore to yield uranium, for example; uranium is set upon to yield atomic energy, which can be released either for destruction or for peaceful use.”

In other words, everything in nature ceases to be what it is in its own way of being, and is revealed by modern technology to be what Heidegger calls “standing-reserve,” one of the key ideas of his essay. “Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering…. We call it the standing-reserve. The word expresses here something more, and something more essential than mere ‘stock.’ The name “standing-reserve” assumes the rank of an inclusive rubric…. Whatever stands by us in the sense of standing-reserve no longer stands over against us as an object.”

If it no longer stands over against us as an object, that means it has disappeared as what it is, so that everything in the world becomes mere potential and process. Heidegger’s bitterest example in this essay is what a hydroelectric plant set into the current of the Rhine does to this famous, once poetic river. The hydraulic pressure of the River “sets the turbines turning. This turning sets those machines in motion whose thrust sets going the electric current for which the long-distance power station and its network of cables are set up to dispatch electricity. In the context of the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears as something at our command… The river is damned up into the power plant. What the river is now, namely, a water power supplier, derives from out of the essence of the power station. In order that we may even remotely consider the monstrousness that reigns here, let us ponder for a moment the contrast that speaks out of the two titles, “The Rhine” as dammed up into the power works, and “The Rhine” as uttered out of the art work, in Hölderlin’s hymn by that name. But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.”

In another example, Heidegger thinks about what happens to a man on a forest path. Unlike the path his ancestors walked, it is now under the sway of modern technology, and here he very much sounds the same note as the Agrarians. The walker is “commanded by profit-making in the lumber industry, whether he knows it or not.” Instead of trees, what he actually confronts in the forest is “the orderability of cellulose” governed by the need for paper to be delivered to newspapers and magazines, which in turn configure public opinion in ways that become available on demand. Instead of belonging to each other, objects disappear into stockpiles of standing-reserve.

That brings us back to oil, which has become for us the essential matter of standing-reserve, necessary for everything else. For one thing, what it is already reduces eons of past organic life into a standing-reserve of energy. The heat and pressure of the earth have already transmuted millions of once-living things into this black gold, like a displacement of the dream of the alchemist. Once we have it, it can become all the things that Kunstler lists: gasoline, diesel, kerosene, aviation fuel, heating oil, plastics, paints, pharmaceuticals, fabrics, and lubricants. Whatever hides must be set upon to reveal this most precious kind of standing-reserve, regardless of what covers it – virgin forest or ocean. This kind of challenge to the natural world makes perfect sense from within the modern technological view. Anything else is sentimental.

The question is whether it is possible for us to get outside this view. Heidegger tries it in exploring the four causes, but he has to return to the Greek to do so, because there the essential poetry lies. We are used to calling the four causes the material, formal, final, and efficient – what something is made of (material), what its shape is (formal), what it is for (final), and who makes it (efficient). It’s easy to understand the one who makes it as a cause, but what’s hard is to understand how these others are causes at all. That’s where the Greek comes in. Heidegger distinguishes the Latin word causa from the Greek word aition, defined not as “that which brings about an effect” but as “that to which something else is indebted.” He clarifies what he means by indebtedness or “belonging” with the example of making a chalice. The silver from which it is made and the aspect or look of a chalice are both indebted to each other:

But there remains yet a third that is above all responsible for the sacrificial vessel. It is that which in advance confines the chalice within the realm of consecration and bestowal. Through this the chalice is circumscribed as sacrificial vessel. Circumscribing gives bounds to the thing. Within the bounds the thing does not stop; rather from out of them it begins to be what, after production, it will be. That which gives bounds, that which completes, in this sense is called in Greek telos, which is all too often translated as “aim” or “purpose,” and so misinterpreted… Finally there is a fourth participant in the responsibility for the finished sacrificial vessels lying before us ready for use, i.e., the silversmith – but not at all because he, in working, brings about the finished sacrificial chalice as if it were the effect of making… The silversmith considers carefully and gathers together the three aforementioned ways of being responsible and indebted. To consider carefully is in Greek legein, logosLegein is rooted inapophanesthai, to bring forward into appearance.

Logos is speech or reason, understood here as essentially poetic in bringing something forth. These four ways of belonging, are the four ways of “occasioning” the chalice. “They let what is not yet present arrive into presencing.” The poetic has to do with bringing forth, either by nature (phusis) or by art (techne).

So what should we do, abandon technology altogether? Not so, according to Heidegger, who quotes to lines from holder when: “but where danger is, grows/the saving power also.” In thinking about technology, in other words, we might find our way back to its truth and art. “How can this happen” Heidegger asked. “Here and now and in little things, that we may foster the saving power in its increase.”

As it happens, I read just last week an essay by young man named Matthew Crawford, who gave up his job as head of a think tank in Washington in order to open a motorcycle repair shop. (Surely he read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance somewhere along the way.) He had been miserable before, but he found himself happy doing this kind of work. Is it because he wasn’t cut out for abstract thought? No, it’s because he loved the actual thinking that went along with fixing motorcycles. A thoughtful craftsman, he describes at the beginning of his essay the way that technology now tends to be toward more and more hidden. He writes that Sears catalogues used to include “blown-up parts diagrams and conceptual schematics for all appliances and many other mechanical goods. It was simply taken for granted that such information would be demanded by the consumer.” Does that mean that we’ve become less technological? Far from it: “A decline in tool use would seem to betoken a shift in our mode of inhabiting the world: more passive and more dependent. And indeed, there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them.” The way he says that – “the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves” – reminds me very much of what Heidegger is talking about when he says “here and now and in little things,” and it brings me at last to lame Hephaistos.

In Book 18 of the Iliad, the goddess Thetis goes up to Olympus to get Hephaistos to make new armor for Achilles. Hephaistos is the limping God whose bustling about arouses such laughter and the other gods earlier in the poem. Yet he is the maker of their things, the divine smith identified with fire, the one from whom Prometheus stole that ancient energy we still seek. Unlike the other gods, in their uprightness and shining, he is more like “the spirits of Prayer, the daughters of great Zeus” who are “lame of their feet.” His own mother cast him out of heaven in shame at his appearance. This archetypal figure of techne may have something to say to those of us who are similarly crippled, in our case by a disastrous dependence.

Most people remember the great shield that Hephaistos fashions, but just as interesting to me is the memory stirred in this craftsman God when his wife announces the arrival of Thetis, Hephaistos responds,

‘Then there is a goddess we honor and respect in our house.

She saved me when I suffered much at the time of my great fall

through the will of my own brazen-faced mother, who wanted

to hide me, for being lame. Then my soul would have taken much suffering

had not Eurynome and Thetis caught me and held me,

Eurynome, daughter of Ocean, whose stream bends back in a circle.

With them I worked in nine years as a smith, and wrought many intricate

things; pins that bend back, curved clasps, cups, necklaces, working

there in the hollow of the cave, and the stream of Ocean around us

went on for ever with its foam and its murmur. No other

among the gods or mortal men knew about us

except Eurynome and Thetis. They knew, since they saved me.’

These goddesses give him space to work at the world’s end, where the stream of Ocean bends back in a circle and all things return to their origin. He makes little things, like chalices, and, as we approach what might be a terrible future, it is illuminating to imagine him there, bent above his work, entirely engaged in minding the ways of occasioning and bringing these first things into appearance, a poet as Homer is a poet. It lets us realize how rediscovering things and their logos can begin to salvage our nature, as it salvaged his, even if we run out of gas.

The Long Emergency struck me down with its apocalyptic strain, and I have not yet been persuaded that what Kunstler imagines will not take place. If it does, then there is also a spiritual question implicit in it as well. That dimension Roman Guardini addresses in the last two sentences of a work written in the 1950s called The End of the Modern World. “In essence,” says Guardini, after describing modernity in much the same terms as the Agrarians and Heidegger, “man’s existence is now nearing an absolute decision. Each and every consequence of that decision bears within it the greatest potentiality and the most extreme danger.” It is difficult not to think that our decisions now – not just whether we buy hybrid cars or recycle paper, but the entire way we set about to be in the world from now on, if we can begin to think on different terms – will count for many generations to come.

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