With oil running out and no substitute in sight, we need more than stopgap solutions.
by Balavanta dasa
Recently thirty-five of the world’s leading scientists met at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and predicted that our civilization will definitely run out of oil by the year 2000. Corroborating this warning, the Institute of Human Relations, in New York, said, “It is widely agreed that the world’s known oil reserves will not last beyond the present century.”
These and many other portents have led President Carter to call the energy crisis the most important problem facing the American people today. He even created a Cabinet-level department to deal with it. After several months of intense effort, the Department of Energy produced a comprehensive energy plan, which is now being bitterly contested in the United States Senate. But even if this plan is approved and works perfectly, it would only succeed in reducing the rate of increase of energy consumption in the United States from about 3.3% per year to 2% per year (in the process costing about 900,000 jobs and wreaking ecological havoc). In other words, at best we’d simply be paying dearly to put the energy crunch off for a few years.
Despite all this, people in general are not willing to cut down their consumption of energy. The Washington Post reported that Americans ignored the President’s dire warnings about the exhaustion of petroleum reserves: they used 5% more gasoline in August, 1977, than they had the previous year. The problem seems to be that, as one energy specialist put it, “The [energy] problem will be critical before it even appears serious.” At present the heavily industrialized United States, with only 5% of the world’s population, is using more than 40% of the world’s energy output. But how long can this situation last? To catch up to the United States, the rest of the world is racing to industrialize, but the world’s limited energy reserves make the end of the energy bonanza inevitable.
It seems as though we’ve all been taught from birth that Western civilization is just dawning, that it will go on expanding and improving indefinitely, raising the general welfare through the enlightened use of technology. The present facts, however, compel us to reach a different conclusion: that our industrialized civilization is grinding to a halt. The affluent standard of living we’ve created in the last few decades is almost completely dependent on the petroleum industry. From transportation to heating, from manufacturing to agriculture, everything is running on oil—which is now running out. The debate as to when it will run out misses the crucial point.
Naturally, in response to the energy crisis, our leaders are rallying around the banners of various hopeful proposals. Typical is the plan to develop nuclear fission as an alternative energy source. According to one congressman, if we build enough nuclear fission reactors by 1990, “we may be able to provide clean, cheap energy forever.” He neglects to tell us, however, that the fuel used in these reactors could also be used by terrorist groups to produce nuclear weapons, or that the nuclear waste is so persistently toxic that disposing of it is more of a problem than the oil dilemma itself. In this regard Edward D. David, former President Nixon’s science advisor, said, “One has a very queasy feeling about something that has to stay underground and be pretty well sealed off for twenty-five thousand years before it is harmless.”
Like the development of nuclear fission reactors, all the other plans for “cheap energy forever”—harnessing nuclear fusion or solar energy, increasing coal production, extracting oil from shale, and so on—carry with them the seeds of harmful reactions and side effects that would eventually outweigh their supposed benefits.
Thousands of years ago the great devotee and saint Prahlada Maharaja described our present situation very succinctly, and his words have been chronicled in India’s great spiritual classic Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.7.41):
yad-artha iha karmani
vidvan-many asakrn narah
karoty ato viparyasam
amogham vindate phalam
“Materialistic people, thinking themselves very advanced in knowledge, continually promote economic development. But again and again they are frustrated. Indeed, the results they obtain are inevitably the opposite of those they desire.”
The proof of Prahlada Maharaja’s statement is all around us. Every year we manufacture millions of automobiles to speed us to our destination in comfort—and every year tens of thousands of people meet a horrible death on the highways. Every year we proudly watch our gross national product push closer to the $2 trillion mark—and every year we add even more dangerous pollutants to our water and air. And every year we watch in awe as the latest multimillion-dollar medical technology is unveiled—and every year people are growing old, getting sick, and dying, just as before.
The fact is that we have created a hollow civilization based simply on the pursuit of temporary, flickering sense pleasure. We try to create a very comfortable situation, but we succeed only in creating an even more uncomfortable situation. This is the way of material life, devoid of God consciousness. Our entire artificial way of life is based on the shaky assumption that, through science and technology, we can conquer nature, defy God, and create a world better than the one He has already so kindly provided for us. Unsatisfied with the natural comforts God offers us, we create artificial comforts—but we must also suffer the concomitant discomforts. Now, having created a huge artificial civilization, we are suffering such reactions as the energy crisis. In such a situation, what thoughtful person could possibly propose that we try to solve our staggering problems piecemeal? Is it not obvious that these anomalies are inherent in our hedonistic way of life, as Prahlada Maharaja explained so many years ago? Clearly, what we actually need is a wholesale renovation of the entire human society.
Many people think that Marxist communism is the answer. But right away we can discount that idea, since, like Western capitalism, this communism also assumes—falsely—that material advancement will solve life’s problems. The Russians, the Chinese, and their respective allies fail to recognize that technological and economic development will not insure peace and happiness. As is so clear in the West, such development is producing just the opposite. So Marxist communism fails to offer a viable solution to the world’s problems for the same reason that capitalism fails. Indeed, they are both from the same materialistic store.
Another popular response to the energy crisis is the plan to convert the economic base from heavy industry to simple agriculture and cottage industries. The idea is that since so much misery has been produced by “bigness” (with its huge factories, burgeoning technology, and competition for natural resources and money) our only recourse is to return to a simple and natural life. “Small is beautiful” is a popular slogan.
While the truth of this is obvious, it is nonetheless a very partial truth because it ignores the essential need for spirituality and purification in human society. Our modern technological culture has been generated by our intense desire to lord it over and enjoy the material nature. How can people give up this desire so easily and return to a simpler and more austere way of life? After all, as the song goes, “How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” And even if a person can give up some sense gratification for a time, he will soon return to it unless he can replace it with a higher, spiritual pleasure. In India we often see some misguided transcendentalist renounce this world as unreal and go off to the forest or mountains to meditate; but in the end he returns to fulfill his unsatisfied material desires. In the United States many idealistic young people often try to renounce their complicated, materialistic lives and take up a simpler life style, but they find it impossible and return to their old ways. The radicals and hippies of the 60’s have become the insurance salesmen of the 70’s. And as we have already seen, although the American people have now been amply warned of the impending energy crisis, instead of simplifying their lives and using less energy, the vast majority are consuming more energy than ever. Thus, although it may be possible for some rare few, most people would find it impossible simply to give up their sophisticated sense gratification.
So the solution to the energy crisis does not lie in some new technology or in artificial “smallness.” Rather, it lies in transforming our materialistic society into a God conscious one—one fully in harmony with the laws of nature. It is this God consciousness alone that can provide us with both the moral strength and the spiritual pleasure necessary to simplify our lives and reduce energy consumption.
How to achieve the radical transition to a God conscious society—that’s the difficulty. Yet fortunately, models of such a society already exist in the farming communities and temples of ISKCON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. The devotees in ISKCON mold their lives around the teachings of Bhagavad-gita, which contains the essence of Vedic wisdom. The Bhagavad-gita, spoken by the Supreme Lord Krsna five thousand years ago, reveals the knowledge that can enable us to transform our present materialistic society into a God-centered one. The Gita teaches us how to achieve a higher, spiritual pleasure—a pleasure that can keep us very satisfied in a pure, simple life of God consciousness.
As for our economic needs, they are also provided for in Bhagavad-gita. It is not that the Vedic science is impractical or that it leaves out material facilities. On the contrary, Bhagavad-gita and other Vedic literatures detail a most practical culture based on the principles of “simple living and high thinking.” Krsna says, annad bhavanti bhutani: the basic necessity is that everyone have an abundant supply of food. That should be the first concern of a well-organized society. And He also explains how to secure it: krsi-goraksya-vanijyam vaisya-karma svabhava-jam. Simply by growing grains, vegetables, and fruits, and by maintaining cows, we can easily obtain whatever we need to eat.
From cows, which thrive on grasses grown virtually everywhere, we get the miracle food, milk. A single cow will often produce from five to ten gallons of milk a day, and from milk we can get cream, butter, yogurt, cheese, and many other foods. From trees we can get fruits like apples, peaches, or mangoes, as well as many varieties of tasty and nutritious nuts. We can. plant vegetable gardens and also raise wheat, rice, and other grains. In this way, by minimal endeavor, a man and his family can easily live on what is grown within a five-mile radius of their home. And if there are places on earth which will not support this program, they should simply be considered uninhabitable and abandoned.
As for housing, we can easily build it from the wood and earth available everywhere, and for fuel we can use either wood or cow dung. We do not need to scar the earth with gigantic machines simply to maintain an artificial standard of living. From the bull and the horse we can get the energy for transportation and plowing, and from sheep, the cotton plant, and the silkworm we can get the raw materials for cloth. By living in this simple and natural way, we easily obtain all necessities and can use the ample remaining time and energy to cultivate Krsna consciousness.
As mentioned earlier, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness has already begun many projects to establish this Vedic culture of simple living and high thinking. And the members of these projects are daily feeling the joyfulness of a natural life in perfect harmony with the universe and its creator. Without the need of modern, artificial amenities, which have caused the energy crisis, these people are very satisfied simply to accept the gifts of nature and worship Krsna by chanting His holy names and doing His work. Rather than an energy shortage, they have found an abundance of energy—the unlimited spiritual energy that Lord Krsna provides to those who follow His instructions with faith and devotion.