This post explains how oil and gas have made possible the legalization of marijuana, among many other effects of the culture of consumption that came to us with this fossil fuel.
Each energy source brings with it certain cultural values that we need to accept in order to access that source of energy, which makes possible the cultures that depend on it. Best known are the cultural values that came with coal and the industrial revolution — the need for a disciplined work force with social class consciousness and a strong work ethic not only conditioned the way we perceived each other in each industrialized society, but also inspired virtually all industrial governments to pass legislation in the 19th century requiring universal public education. The effect was felt not just in the mines, but equally among all the railway workers who transported the fuel and all the factory workers who depended on it to power their steam-driven plants. So coal, coke and steam brought us universal education — which would have been considered nonsense as late as the 17th century, when most children had to spend time learning how to take care of crops and livestock, and was only a fond idea of some Enlightenment thinkers in the 18th century, yet became law in all industrial countries in the 19th century.
Oil and natural gas as an energy source had a very different effect on our value systems. Oil and gas did not require large numbers of disciplined workers to toil underground in very organized and self-disciplined ways, as did coal. A relatively small number of workers can sink an oil well, as long as they are supported by the geological knowledge industry as to where to locate the well. Once the oil is pumping it is simply a question of protecting the pipelines that get the product to market. The value nexus shifts from the production end of the transaction, which is critical for coal, to the opposite end of the transaction — consumption. Oil and gas brought us the culture of consumption.
As observed in chapter 12 of Art & Energy: How Culture Changes (The AAM Press, 2014), the “roaring ’20s” were the first period in which this oil culture of consumption, so closely tied to the automobile and its internal combustion engine’s use of gasoline, affected the culture of those countries where automobiles became widespread — the United States of course in the lead, thanks to Henry Ford’s policy that encouraged Ford dealers to offer car ownership payments on time. So the culture of consumption gave birth to universal credit. Meanwhile Scott Fitzgerald was the first writer to recognize it, achieving lasting fame for his novel, The Great Gatsby.
Yet in the 1920s the culture of consumption is still controversial. As I observe in the book, Fitzgerald is a moralist who disapproves of Gatsby. Only in the late 1950s and early ’60s, when oil and gas replace coal as the primary source of energy — when we have become wholly dependent on these fossil fuels to sustain our culture — does the accompanying culture of consumption become unquestioned as the cultural norm. Gas station loyalty cards made of plastic (oil) begin to be used in the ’50s, and are soon copied, first by department stores and then adopted by banks. People are no longer seen as defined by their position in the production process, we are all now seen as consumers, and we all have the proof of it in our pockets or purses — credit cards, without which it has now become extremely difficult even to prove one’s identity. As coal brought us universal public education, so oil and gas brought us universal credit.
Each of these self-defining cultural values conveys certain responsibilities. But we all have a human spirit that resists their controls on our behaviours. From time to time we all need a break from the roles that these energy sources and their values impose on us. The self-discipline and class consciousness that came with coal and the industrial revolution stimulated the mass production and distribution of alcohol. “Let’s get hammered!” uses an industrial metaphor to invite friends to join in a temporary escape from the discipline imposed by the coal culture of production. The cultural value of alcohol in industrialized society was very different from what it had been in all previous cultures fueled by firewood or dependent on the energy of slaves.
Oil and gas imposed no such disciplines. In the culture of consumption we are encouraged to see ourselves and others simply as consumers. By the 1960s the status of alcohol was changing in all credit-card-carrying societies, as wine with meals or wine and cheese parties replaced inebriation as the commonly accepted rationale for alcohol consumption. But the human spirit is irrepressible, and so we sought at least temporary relief from life as a consumer — which is ultimately rather boring, after all the latest gadgets have been bought.
Yet to serve as a release within the culture of consumption, this new diversion had to be something we could buy, and it had to give us the feeling, however illusory, that we can be or indeed are something other than just consumers. The solution, of course, was to make the consumption of illicit recreational drugs mainstream.
In the coal-based culture of production, recreational drugs had been a marginal culture, enjoyed by musicians, writers, artists and other “Bohemians” whose creativity required a more elevating escape than alcohol could provide. Aldous Huxley linked them to aboriginal uses of peyote or other intoxicating substances. But in the oil and gas culture of consumption, where everyone is equally regarded as a consumer, drugs went mainstream, providing a consumable product that induced an hallucinatory temporary escape from the life of a consumer. In the 1960s, Timothy Leary led the way with his call to young people to “drop out, tune in and turn on”. The counterculture of consumption had arrived. “Let’s get high” replaced “let’s get hammered” as an invitation to escape temporarily the prevailing definition of who we and others think we are.
The coal-based production culture regarded the legalization of marijuana as unthinkable, since it appears to be diametrically opposed to the self-discipline that is at the core of the production culture. As long as the majority of legislators (most of whom are in their 50s or older) came from the coal culture, there was very little chance that marijuana would be legalized, even if statistics showed that alcohol is far more harmful to society.
However, people born since the late 1950s have been brought up in the oil and gas culture of consumption. They are indifferent to the values of self-discipline, and welcome the temporary release that marijuana offers from their universally accepted roles as credit-card-carrying consumers. By the second decade of the 21st century enough of these people are old enough (50 and more) to be dominant in some legislatures, especially in states that were not strongly characterized by heavy manufacturing, that they are able to muster a majority for the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington states, and perhaps soon in Alaska. Other countries’ approvals suggest that like oil and the culture of consumption, this is a global phenomenon.
The legalization of marijuana is an example of cultural change. The culture of consumption that came to us with oil and gas took half a century to do so, but has now made it possible. Energy transition make years, sometimes centuries, but it remains a powerful engine of cultural change, especially when the energy source is as dominant as oil and gas still are today. Even though the culture of stewardship associated with renewable energy is incoming, this example demonstrates that the energy source on which we are still dependent can continue to generate significant cultural change today.