We know that fossil fuels are poisonous, that they cause myriad social and environmental crises. Why then are we unable to stop using them? Our inability to deal with the problem of fuel invites a perverse question: does fossil fuel know that we don’t need it? This is a version of a joke told by Slavoj Zizek (regarding belief and commodity fetishism): briefly, a man believes that he is a piece of grain; he goes to a psychologist and he is cured of this delusion. Time passes, and he returns to the analyst and tells him, “There is a chicken outside of my house; I am afraid he will eat me.” The analyst says, “But you are cured of your delusion; you know that you are a man, not a piece of grain.” The man replies, “Yes, I know. But does the chicken know?” This joke helps us to understand how we could know that fuel is causing catastrophe, but because our survival is wholly dependent upon fuel, we could contain the contradiction; we could hold the two separate. This was the way in which Zizek hopes to explain our relationship to money and commodities, and the same insight, that in spite of our ability to describe the commodity and its effect upon our lives, our enacted belief is in those commodities and relationships – our paradoxical affirmation of what we claim to deny – can help us understand what fossil fuels mean.
The control of heat is a much more primal force than money (though for our empire they have become inseparable – what would happen if global oil transactions ceased to be conducted using US dollars?) Heat is necessary in an absolute sense, and with the advent of modern fuel based technology, our relationship of dependency has become one of total humiliation. This is a deep human humiliation under the strain of which we have uncoupled cause and effect, history and politics. What is the power of a man and his thoughts in comparison to an airplane, or more to the point, what is the meaning of a “community” which is entirely dependent upon imported sources of fuel for all of its survival needs (for food, transportation, heat, etc.)? We have internalized this craven dependency; it operates unconsciously even for those people who are consciously aware of climate change for instance, or the fact that their commute is ruining their marriage, etc. In this reduction of ourselves, what remains held in common are sentimental images of human interaction, and similarly man in this humiliated state, with labor, now wholly machine and fuel, just the idyll of labor, is left only with romantic and sentimental relationships with other individuals. This is the world of your town Christmas party and the play-date trips with your wife.
Commonly our relationship to fossil fuels is called an addiction. When we observe a drug addict or drunk doing the same thing to themselves that we all do with fuel, we alternate between hatred and pity of their apparent madness – ultimately their desire through addiction to transcend unto death. Unlike fuel which is unconsciously accepted as beyond our control, the traditional addict abandons what control we are assumed to have; the addict intrudes upon our sentimental selves – our last pathetic gesture toward virtue. Their rejection of control is our proof of their madness. But as we have walled off the reality of our dependency on fossil fuels from our sentimentality, that which remains of our idea of humanity, we cannot recognize or even describe our true belief in fuel’s transcendent power.
We have to replace combustion of fossil fuels for the generation of heat and power in almost every role in which they currently function. Through politics and the reinvention of our infrastructure, we can resolve the joke – we can let the chicken know that we are men not kernels of grain. The very act of this replacement of fuels is the process by which we will mature beyond pale sentimentality toward actual virtue and community.