Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Agent Black

Though I have the same deep hardwired love of cars as most Amurrican males, I've always viewed our car-centric transportation system as a bit ..off. That comes, I suppose, from having to spend so much time in it. Yeah, I know, there are distractions for when we drive. I should be yammering away on my cell or texting or listening to people scream at each other on talk radio.

But more often than not, I pay attention to where I am, and what I'm doing. I look out across an expanse of tarmac and idling steel and flesh stretching to the horizon, and I think...this isn't progress. Progress should feel...graceful. Progress should be...moving. As our society has grown around the easy availability of petroleum, cities and towns and communities built on a human scale have vanished. The burbs have flourished and spread like a fungus on the inside of an unwashed thigh.

Oil has meant growth, without question. It has driven massive expansions in infrastructure, and underlies all modern commerce and industrial agriculture. It is the engine that made the explosive human population growth of the 20th century possible.

But I wonder: is it the growth that kills?

Agent Orange is my favorite metaphor for growth-unto-death. That narsty substance, in the event that you don't know your 20th century history, was a herbicide sprayed onto the forests of Vietnam by fleets of American planes. To kill Viet Cong, we had to deprive them of cover...so we killed their jungles. Agent Orange was the plant toxin we used, and it works in a very interesting way.

It simulates a plant growth hormone, and essentially causes most broadleaf plants to go into a period of explosive and unsustainable fecundity. After spraying, leaves would grow huge. Fruit would be immense, distended, mealy and inedible. A jungle poisoned by Agent Orange would, for a short while, be an alien wonderland of insane, outrageous production...and then, having exhausted itself, the jungle would die.

For 100 years, we've consumed the black blood of ancient dragons, and from that easy but finite energy have grown explosively. But the age of oil is ending. As I look out across what human society has become, I do now and again wonder.

Are fossil fuels our Agent Black?

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