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Does Democracy require the Fossil Fuel Happy Hour?
Pierre Charbonnier says yes
So, a bunch of thoughts are swirling around for me and haven’t had time to gel, but since this is a diary and doesn’t pretend to be fully formed essays, I’ll share the pieces here:
Ukraine’s top climate scientist, working from Kyiv to finish her contributions to the IPCC’s latest catastrophic report on climate change, has called out that the fighting in Ukraine is a fossil fuel war.
The world funded Russia’s military buildup with purchases of Russian oil, and continues to do so: “Today, the reality is that the Russian state is paying for its war against Ukraine with the funds it receives every day from the sale of oil and gas. Though the Biden administration is taking steps to ban the import of Russian energy, and Britain and the EU have said they will phase out or sharply reduce their dependence on it, each and every day for now, Russia receives $1.1 billion from the EU in oil and gas receipts, according to the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel. In total, oil and gas revenues make up 36 percent of the Russian government’s budget, the German Marshall Fund estimates—money, of course, it is now using in a campaign to terrorize Ukraine, for which the West is sanctioning other parts of Russia’s economy. It is an utterly absurd situation, like something from a satirical novel.” (He goes on to cite a scene from Catch 22, which I read in junior high and which shaped my worldview in the way that only books read at that age can.)
I finally got the English version of Affluence and Freedom: An Environmental History of Political Ideas, which argues that our notions of freedom, autonomy, and democracy are part and parcel of what my friend Kamyar Enshayan calls the “fossil fuel happy hour.” Basically, Charbonnier shows that the material conditions of abundance/affluence that came from spending the geological savings of fossil fuels from the beginning of the industrial revolution have been integral to our understanding of freedom/autonomy/democracy. The reason democracies are having such a hard time right now, Charbonnier argues, is that as the happy hour comes to a close (or, worse, continues well past the state where our drunkenness is compatible with human life, i.e., we keep burning fossil fuels), the central concepts of democracy don’t really work any more. I’m still trying to get through to what potential openings he might see for the “next thing,” but I’m not to the end of the book yet.
This also pulls in the piece that Trumpist supporters are mainly the castoffs or victims of the oil economy, yet one of their strongest bizarro-world beliefs seems to be a knee-jerk devotion to continuing the fossil fuel happy hour and blocking any transition to renewables. It feels to me like there’s some piece here that fits together.