Grey Conspiracy: Peak Love
by Julian Gough
illustrator Rosie Roberts
America is totally dependent on love. She couldn't function without it. But she hasn’t been able to satisfy her own needs from her own resources since the 1970s. Increasingly, she is dependent on the love of others. “America is in denial about this,” warns James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency. “Love won’t last forever. We've got to start looking for alternatives now.” He fears we may have already reached Peak Love—the point at which global production enters an irreversible decline. If that is the case, the impact will soon be felt by everyone, worldwide—but particularly by Americans, a majority of whom now live in low-density suburbs. James Howard Kunstler smiles, bleakly. “Suburban life—being totally dependent on cheap, freely available love—is unsustainable.”
Some find the prospect of a world without love unimaginable, but historians are quick to reassure us. "We've lived without love for most of human history, and we can live without it again,” says Niall Ferguson, the Tisch Professor of History at Harvard. “As late as the 18th century, love was a luxury. Most people never encountered it.”
But what will a post-love world look like? Optimists say it could look pretty much like this one. They point to the immense reserves of natural affection which remain untapped around the globe. When I visited Professor Dimitri Chang in his spacious corner office at UC Berkeley, he was quick to acknowledge this. But he warns that, in many crucial applications, you can’t simply substitute one for the other. "Technically speaking, love has a greater energy density than affection. If you want an example of what that means in practice, look at jet aircraft. Love can lift people off the ground, and fly them across the ocean. Affection simply can't do that. It's not powerful enough."
Critics of Peak Love claim that worries are overstated—love is out there, we merely have to search for it. But William J. Cummings, an Exxon-Mobil company spokesman, disagrees. “All the easy love and affection in the world has pretty much been found. Now comes the harder work in finding and producing love from more challenging environments and work areas.”
Lord Ron Oxburgh, a former chairman of Shell, concurs. “It is pretty clear that there is not much chance of finding any significant quantity of new, cheap love. Any new or unconventional love is going to be expensive.” He warns that unconventional love is, by definition, harder to find, and harder to convert into a useful form—many kinds of unconventional love contain elements that can be harmful if not handled correctly. "It’s going to be difficult, and risky,” he told me by email. “However, we shall continue our quest for love, from the deserts of Arabia to the frozen Antarctic—and, if need be, to the bottom of the deepest ocean.”
But can we not simply use less? Or, if that doesn’t work, tax it more, to suppress demand? No, says Terry Duffy, Group Executive Chairman of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He explains why. “Love is a commodity for which there is, essentially, unlimited demand. As a species, we'll use as much as we can get. And you have to jack the price up very, very high before people become reluctant to pay it. That’s why this is not like any other supply problem. In our economy, it's part of the price you pay for literally everything. Nothing can be made, nothing can be delivered, nothing can be consumed, without love.”
If Peak Love happens suddenly, with production dropping fast thereafter—as some models suggest—there’s little we could currently do. On average (it varies with the vagaries of war and weather), there are only about 54 days of love in the system, plus 37 days in emergency stockpiles. And when love is gone, it’s gone. What alternative has the capacity to make up such a huge, and potentially abrupt, shortfall? Professor James Lovelock, inventor of the Gaia hypothesis, shocked the Green movement recently when he said that the only thing which could replace love—at least in the short term—was hate.
Experts are bitterly divided on the subject of hate. "Well, hate has an image problem,” laughs Professor Lovelock, as he makes me tea in his kitchen in Devon. “It actually kills far fewer people than love, but of course deaths from hate get a great deal more media attention. Look, hate is simply an unstable isotope of anger. And anger is very, very common, it's everywhere, and in its natural state it's perfectly harmless. Now, certainly, in the long term, hate is not a solution—it’s unstable, it’s toxic, it burns itself up—but hate has this singular advantage: it’s considerably more powerful than love. And it will get us through the long and, I fear, difficult transition to more sustainable replacements.” He hands me a cup of chamomile tea, harvested from his lawn. It’s delicious. “Understandably, people still associate hate with the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But America’s use of hate in World War II was completely different to the controlled use of hate today.” He smiles. “People are often surprised to learn that France—a very green country in many ways—is powered almost entirely by hate.”
Professor Catherine Marlos has studied these problems for years, and thinks only one thing can help us survive the coming crisis. We meet in her lab at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Let’s go through the options.” She holds up one hand, and spreads her fingers wide. “First, we can leave hate out of this, because the public don’t like hate, and the recent problems in Japan have killed it as an option.” She bends one finger down. “Second… compassion. OK, it’s renewable and, in those parts of the world with clear skies, it’s reliable. The sun rises every morning and bathes the world in compassion, at an average rate of one hundred sixty-four watts per square meter. But, you know? One hundred sixty-four watts per square meter isn’t actually so much. I do a lot of work with the Europeans, and they’ve concluded that to supply the EU, you’d need to cover an area the size of Germany. It’s not feasible.” She bends down another finger. “So what’s left? Is faith going to save us?” She shakes her head. “Faith is at its strongest on mountaintops. But people live in the valleys. And faith is intermittent. Often, it fails when you need it the most.” Another finger gone. “Hope? God knows, we’re cultivating hope. Since President Obama’s election, we’ve planted one hundred eighty thousand hectares of hope. But it takes an area of hope the size of Rhode Island to replace the energy you get from a lump of hate the size of your fist. And hope is prone to blight. It won’t be enough.” Now there’s only one finger left. She points it at my heart. “We have to go for enlightenment.”
Back in his office in Berkeley, Professor Chang disagrees. “We’re ten years away from attaining enlightenment—and we have been for the past fifty years. We’ve sunk billions into the pursuit of sustained enlightenment. And what have we to show for it? We’ve achieved enlightenment—at the National Ignition Facility, in Livermore—for maybe a thousandth of a second in total. We cannot sustain it, and we cannot contain it.” He sighs. “Look, I understand that it’s not healthy to be dependent on the love of others. It’s tempting to think enlightenment would solve all our problems.” He looks out the window, at another perfect California summer’s day. “I mean, enlightenment powers the sun. And everything comes from that. Compassion makes hope grow, and sets faith in motion: yet compassion itself comes ultimately from enlightenment. But you cannot achieve enlightenment simply by wanting it badly enough. That’s not how it works!” He turns away from the window. “Meanwhile, if we just used love more efficiently, it would last a lot longer.” Perhaps I raise a quizzical eyebrow, because he laughs and says, “Don’t give up on love just yet. For almost a century, love has given America energy, it’s given us freedom. And, realistically, for the next decade, we’re going to be relying on more of the same. Sure, we’ve tried a lot of alternatives over the years.” He looks me straight in the eye. “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”