The power of television in Asphaltistan

I’m just back from a quick vacation in the vicinity of Morro Bay, California. Most importantly and enjoyably, I communed with sea otters, pelicans, herons, and egrets while kayaking on the calm waters of the bay. But I also spent a little time reading and writing, and I watched more television than I’ve seen in years.

The tube was plucking my heart strings like a cheap banjo, making me care about people I’ve never met as they played roles they couldn’t care less about. Between heroically manipulative drama and humor, the “news” convinced me that the media, politicians, and a vast majority of industrial humans actually care about the living planet. Television feeds our massive case of collective desire, one bullshit sandwich at a time.

Of course, there was nary a mention of global climate change or peak oil, much less the thousands of daily insults we visit on the non-industrial cultures and non-human species. The hologram works brilliantly through its ignorance of issues that actually matter and in-the-face irrelevant distractions.

As a consequence of television’s power, I’m firmly convinced the ongoing economic collapse will not reach completion while the television remains on. Viewers are simply too easily and chronically manipulated by the irresistible medium. Resistance is futile.

Along the way to Morro Bay from Tucson, I had the distinct displeasure of driving through Lower Asphaltistan. And not once, but once each direction. Driving through L.A. is only slightly less amusing than swimming through hot asphalt, naked. After suffering for hours at a stretch through the experience of speeding, stopping, swearing, and swerving through the world’s premier example of car culture, there’s the additional problem of getting the deeply embedded asphalt, reeking from every pore, off the body at the end of the day. No amount of scrubbing in the shower expunges the feel and odor of L.A.

Image courtesy of


This essay is permalinked at Energy Bulletin.

Comments 28

  • The members of my family own more than one television per capita. I own zero, but they gladly compensate for my inadequacies in that regard. So, of course I ask why that has come to pass. (In my youth, my parents refused to even own a television because they did not want me to watch it. -That all melted away for the other siblings.)

    “Why do you always attack me for relaxing? Why can’t I relax? This is the only time of the day I have to relax!”

    So, with the small amount of personal time that you have each day, you want to fill it up with what others want you to think about, and nothing else? You don’t feel insulted that you are expected to endure advertisements as relaxation? What about knitting? Then you get a pair of socks out of the transaction?

    “I just don’t want to have to think about anything right now!”

    But they make you think about homicides and product consumption!

    “No, I get up for ice cream during the commercials. Don’t talk right now, I’m missing the good part.”

    I’m sure ice cream goes great with the Biggest Loser. -Glad to see the new diet is working out for you all…

    As you can see, I am immensely popular. I’m also sure that my active lifestyle (struggling to have enough wholesome food to eat) prevents me from needing a diet support group that cannot actually point out that I use my growing girth and chest as a shelf to support the ice cream tub, while I stare with reckless abandon.

  • From 3 am to 5 am the roads through LA are nearly empty, timing is everything.

  • Can that picture be real?

    Please say it isn’t so.

  • That picture isn’t real, but it will be one day unless we change.

  • Television, what an incredible tool for manipulation of the public. It’s what made us the consumers we are. And yes, reality won’t sink in until the distraction from the tube is gone.

  • About once a quarter, we make the trip south from the People’s Republic of Canuckistan to visit relatives.

    We don’t have a TV. Well, that’s not really true — we don’t have an antenna. There’s a TV somewhere, permanently hooked up to a VCR and DVD player. Don’t recall the last time it was turned on, although we do watch movies on the computer.

    But I digress. My in-laws have the TV on constantly! They don’t actually watch it very much. They have it on during meals, and since my immunity has been degraded from years of not watching TV, I find it riveting.

    “How can you just ignore this!” I think to myself. “There are little people trapped in that box over there!” But mealtime small-talk continues as if incredible dramas involving the work of hundreds of people were not taking place just a dozen feet away.

    To me, this is one of the greatest crimes of TV. Once upon a time, the amount of work that went into a half-hour TV show — to be ignored while millions of “viewers” do other things with the TV on — would be brought to fruition in a huge theatre, to which people would arrive in fancy carriages, dressed in their best clothing.

    Television has cheapened acting, and all the theatre production work that goes into it. It may be appreciated by a few, but for every one who sits riveted, enjoying the nuanced interplay of acting, directing, music, costume, sets, videography, management, etc., there are hundreds chewing high-calorie, heavily processed collections of industrial chemicals that some call “food.”

    I suppose all those TV production people are happy to have jobs, and don’t miss the totally involved appreciation they would have received in an earlier, energy-poor time.

  • Hi Guy,

    You say the collapse won’t be complete while the television remains on.

    There are plenty of TV’s in the world, probably at least a billion. Even some of the poorest, most dispossesed people living on the fringes of the Amazon tune in pretty regularly. Over the centuries, these people were lucky to be marginalized rather than extinguished. Their world never “developed” industrially. But the one technology that seems to make its way into the remotest communities in the world, however poor they may be, is television.

    The tribe is confused, greatly stressed by the threats to its economic and cultural traditions from the extractive lumber and mining operations, agricultural monocultures, metropolitan sprawl that extends deeper and deeper into the Rain Forest. Their young people are faced with inability to make a livelihood the old way, and feel the pull to civilation. But even those who stay trade in the old tribal rituals for a new one – group TV watching.

    It’s cheaper than ever. It’s immediate. The images are compelling. It’s an escape. it’s a narcotic. There’s also a definite vested interested in getting TV’s out there in the remotest places so we can all be “on message”.

    Nevertheless, serious collapse may very well be underway while TV seems alive and well. It will just become increasingly irrelevant and ineffective in controlling mass society as stark economic reality, breakdown of civil society removes the curtain. Even while this is occurring though I would not be surprised to see hundreds of millions tuned into World Soccer, or Oprah, or Brazilian Soap Operas, or Springer. Many will return to it as an electronic security blanket. Others for pure entertainment, fully aware that the medium is meaningless.

    As economies falter and old business models are superseded, there may be a chance for growth of niche market video delivery via local access cable, satellite, or Internet – with useful, educational content for large niche market audiences. If it’s subscriber-based, community-produced, community-funded, not dependent on corporate advertising etc. it could work. This in fact was the dream of the early cable pioneers and why the industry fought fought very hard to subdue and later co-op it. Corporate megaconglomerates have similarly fought low-power FM radio.

    But one should not lose hope that we may be able to harness these technologies for positive purpose in the years ahead, regardless of the rate of economic contraction or volatility that ensues.

    Scott Schneider

  • ‘only put on the TV if it improves upon the silence’
    quaker/matt saying

  • ProfEmGuy:

    I have to disagree about TV.TV will greatly accelerate economic collapse.

    Without TV an oil soaked pelican would die in isolation.With TV,many
    millions see that death,which will in turn bring about the death of one of the world’s
    largest corporate criminal organizations–BP.

  • As I write this the CEO’s of the major oil companies are turning
    cannabalistic on BP on C-SPAN 3.

    Just one more example of how TV is accelerating economic collapse.

    Double D

  • Television is an instrument of corporate capitalists, not “our massive case of collective desire,” whatever that is supposed to be.

    Likewise, “car culture” is the result, not the cause of cars-first transportation. That, also, is a capitalist imposition.

    You might try thinking a bit harder before you denounce entire cities and cultures, and award yourself medals for your independence of mind.

    We aren’t going to change the world if we leave our institutions safely unexamined behind verbal clouds.

  • Frank Mezek, good point. I hope you’re correct.

    Michael Dawson, I wrote television “feeds our massive case of collective desire” … please read before you post irrelevant comments. I agree about capitalism and car culture, but doubt it matters which came first, car culture or the “cars-first” mentality. In fact, they are one and same, are they not?

    Cities are the apex of civilization, with which I routinely take issue. Car culture, the best example of the industrial economy, is horrifically omnicidal. I am opposed to cars, the industrial economy, and the entire culture of civilization in which they are embedded. What am I missing here? That is, with what are you taking issue?

  • I think it was put very well awhile ago…
    Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1978) is a book written by Jerry Mander which argues that there are a number of problems with the medium of television. Mander argues that many of the problems with television are inherent in the medium and technology itself, and thus cannot be reformed.

    But for those that do enjoy some sort of media may i suggest sampling/selecting something from this audio catalog

    selecting a title will allow you to read a short program description before deciding whether you wish to download the free audio program. All are works by working class folk. (Hey, they can read and have valid life experiences too!)

    be forewarned, this is not the usual concept of US msm.


  • Television began with great potential, just like the internet. And when it reaches its potential even today, it can be wonderful. Some of the scenes I have witnessed from the jubilant international crowds at the World Cup are priceless. Sport itself has benefited greatly from television. I listened to the first half of Brazil vs. North Korea on the radio while driving today, and then caught the second half on television while eating lunch at a taqueria. The televised portion, the color of the uniforms, the expressions on the faces of members of both teams, etc. was truly fabulous.

    To me, the biggsst problem with television is thta it has the ability to make rubbish highly profitable. It intensifies the greed factor in everything. It confuses well-meaning people with entertainment and/or advocay under the guise of journalism (think Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity vs. Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann), and exploitation under the guise of education/conservation (think Steve Irwin and Jack Hannan).

    There is something bizarre in the nature of modern culture that places a bizaree status of heroic import on anyone who happens to have a job on camera and celebrities often end up tesitifying in front of Congress simply because they are celebrities (Meryl Streep and pesticides in the fruit industry/ Keven Costner and oil spills).
    Children AND adults idolize anyone who is on television from Brittney Spears to Betty White.

    Television exploits human sickness and weakness and turns straw into gold. It mesmirizes and hypnotizes and substitutes whimsy for logic and “feel good” from “do right”.

    The golden rule of television is “if it makes money, it is good, if it does not make money, it isn’t and does not exist.” So, Maury replaced Connie Chung and Jerry Springer supplaned Phil Donahue.

    It is a mess, because humans are a mess. It brings out our worst because the lowest common denominator is more profitable in our culture than high culture or high intellect.

    But, at its best, it can give us the best of ourselves, and so I am pleased to park myself in front of a television now and then, though I have not owned one in decades.

    Stan Moore

  • ProfEmGuy:

    You are not missing anything—nor is Stan Moore.

    Double D

  • In 1957 Vance Packard wrote “The Hidden Persuaders” about advertizing tactics, can you imagine what advances advertizers have made since then?

  • Why do all governments promote spectator sport? Because it diverts attention away from the fact on how badly we’re getting screwed.

  • I see that you drove to and from your holiday, Guy…….

  • Rhisiart Gwilym:

    Of course I drove! Allow me to explain why, for about the kajillionth time in this space.

    1. I doubt anybody wants to bring the industrial economy to a halt more than I do.

    2. I understand Jevons’ paradox. Read about it, please, and get back to me.

    3. Therefore, I drive and fly as frequently as I can afford.

    Won’t you join me?

  • Barack Obama and television —

    It appears from here that Barack Obama understands the power of television to (1) artificially create prestige and “hero” status for anyone seen on the screen (including morons like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin), (2) to disseminate misleading information to gullible viewers totally unmovitated to do their homework, and (3) to create mythology that appers real because it is visible to the naked eye.

    Obama knows that he cannot possibly mitigate the damage done by the BP oil spill during his term of office, and he has absolutely no ability to speak for future office-holders. so his claims that the spill will be mitigated are patently false

    Obama probably knows that the spill is much worse than ever publicized, yet he knows he can get away with partial truths without exposure in a meaningful time frame because he is automatically given obscene levels of wiggle room by “progressives” and “Democrats”

    Obama is surely counting on the maxim that “perception is reality” in the world of television, and since he is perceived as being a populist and a progressive, he must be such — all evidence to the contrary.

    And since his political opposition is nutty as a fruitcake on their own merits, it really does not matter what he says and does. The American public is not capable or even deserving of self-governance and deserve what they get, which is manipulated, screwed and discarded.

    And now for the bad news: The internet is an even more effective and distracting social networking, sales promotion vehicle that takes the public even farther from reality than television could. Rather than organize effective political movement towards democracy and government of the people, by the people and for the people, the internet is ruled and dominated by the corporations, who purchase government for their own purposes.

    Check mate — the game is over and we all have lost.

    And the oil spills endlessly…

    Stan Moore

  • How long do we expect the casing to last on any well?

    When we insert a straw, we have made a commitment.

    Steel is strong, but not permanent.

    BP is no different than other companies, only early to the tragic party.

    Obama demonstrates a complete lack of forethought. (Drill, baby, drill!)

    And we cheer for the future we desire, not the one we face.

  • Paint It Black (Jagger/Richards)

    I see a red door and I want it painted black
    No colors anymore I want them to turn black
    I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes
    I have to turn my head until my darkness goes

    I see a line of cars and they’re all painted black
    With flowers and my love both never to come back
    I see people turn their heads and quickly look away
    Like a new born baby it just happens every day

    I look inside myself and see my heart is black
    I see my red door and must have it painted black
    Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts
    It’s not easy facin’ up when your whole world is black

    No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue
    I could not foresee this thing happening to you

    If I look hard enough into the settin’ sun
    My love will laugh with me before the mornin’ comes

    I see a red door and I want it painted black
    No colors anymore I want them to turn black
    I see the girls go by dressed in their summer clothes
    I have to turn my head until my darkness goes

    Hmm, hmm, hmm,…

    I wanna see it painted, painted black
    Black as night, black as coal
    I wanna see the sun blotted out from the sky
    I wanna see it painted, painted, painted, painted black

    Hmm, hmm, hmm,…

  • Richard Heinberg on Obama’s TV speech:

    Published Jun 16 2010 by Post Carbon Institute, Archived Jun 16 2010

    A tepid plea for unspecified change

    by Richard Heinberg

    Last night’s presidential speech on the Gulf oil spill had been pre-billed by the Washington Post as Barack Obama’s “Jimmy Carter moment.” But reading any of Carter’s speeches (a good one to start with is that of April 18, 1977) side by side with last night’s bromide is an invitation to nostalgia and bitter disappointment.

    President Obama offered up one promising paragraph:
    “For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we have talked and talked about the need to end America’s century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires. Time and again, the path forward has been blocked—not only by oil industry lobbyists, but also by a lack of political courage and candor.”

    It sounds for all the world as though the President is about to unleash a grand program on the scale of the New Deal—an energy Moon Shot, a rousing call-to-arms reminiscent of December 8, 1941. But this is what follows:

    “So I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party—as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels. Some have suggested raising efficiency standards in our buildings like we did in our cars and trucks. Some believe we should set standards to ensure that more of our electricity comes from wind and solar power. Others wonder why the energy industry only spends a fraction of what the high-tech industry does on research and development—and want to rapidly boost our investments in such research and development. All of these approaches have merit, and deserve a fair hearing in the months ahead. But the one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet. You see, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon. And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom. Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is our capacity to shape our destiny—our determination to fight for the America we want for our children, even if we’re unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don’t yet know precisely how to get there, we know we’ll get there.”

    Translation: “I don’t have a clue what to do; but, if anyone else has some good ideas, I’m all ears.”

    Look: I want Obama to succeed; I want it earnestly, even desperately. And so I hate to be critical. It’s true that we’ve all got to work together to solve our energy crisis, and that means rising above partisanship. But leadership is sorely needed here, and leaders must set definite goals.

    Jimmy Carter at least had a plan. He proposed lofty objectives and investments: targeted reductions in oil imports, an energy security corporation, a solar bank. In contrast, Obama’s strategy seems to be to avoid specifics while insisting that we Americans will somehow overcome our oil dependency because . . . well, because we’re Americans. We’ve gotten through other scrapes throughout our history as a nation, so why not this one? “I demand action,” the President seems to be saying, “but I’m unwilling to say what that action should be.”

    Yes, we Americans have risen to meet previous challenges. The problem is, we haven’t been doing so well in dealing with the energy crisis, which has been going on for at least forty years—since 1970, when U.S. oil production peaked and began declining. Despite complaints, exhortations, and hand-wringing from both Democratic and Republican administrations, very little has actually been accomplished. America continues to import more oil, and to burn enormous amounts of coal and natural gas—and the monetary, geopolitical, and environmental prices we pay for these depleting fuels just keep escalating. Mr. Obama seems to say that now something has changed, but it would be nice to know what, and why, in a lot more detail.

    The reality is that nothing significant has been done to deal with our energy crisis because tackling it will require fundamental changes to our economy—to our transport and food systems, even to our financial institutions. Until we are willing to honestly face the fact that an “American dream” based on ever increasing rates of consumption of non-renewable resources is a dead end, and that we will have to dramatically cut back on energy usage in order to make a transition away from fossil fuel dependency, all discussion about renewable energy, efficiency standards, and energy research is fairly pointless.
    Call it the Carter Curse. Ever since the great peanut farmer-President scolded the American people about the need to reduce consumption in his famous series of cardigan-clad homilies, leaders have shied away both from telling the American people the truth about just how dire our energy dilemma really is, and from proposing any remedies powerful enough to make a difference. Instead we get only whimpers about our “addiction to oil” and timid suggestions to raise fuel economy standards another notch. It is assumed that if any President actually told it like it is—the way Carter did—he or she would suffer the same fate. Carter’s plan, after all, was ignored by Congress and ridiculed by candidate Ronald Reagan, who trounced Carter in the 1980 election.
    Maybe the Carter Curse is real. Perhaps straight talk about energy is political suicide. But if nobody at least tries—if no one has the courage to make specific proposals that are commensurate with the scale of the challenge that faces us—then the political survival of the current office holder is essentially irrelevant. If no one is willing to confront the Carter Curse head on, then in effect we face a failure of our political system that will also ensure a failure of our economic system, our food system, and our transport system.

    I keep hoping that’s not the case, but hope needs to be based on evidence from time to time, and I’m not seeing any.
    Original article available here

  • The BP Effete Syndrome:

    I have had many first hand,personal experiences,that strongly suggest
    that the British are just worn out.The BP disaster had to happen.The
    Industrial Revolution started in Britain.The five stage life cycle of birth,growth.maturation,decadence and death applies here.

    BP is just part of their death stage.Perhaps the British are no longer
    capable of competently managing anything.

    Typical of the death stage,is the living on myths.One of the greatest
    myths is that the Rolls Royce is a fine motor car.Nothing could be farther from the truth.If you talk to any Rolls Royce owners,they will
    ruefully tell you that in fact the Rolls Royce is one of the worst cars
    ever built.The electric windows on a Rolls often don’t work.Lucas,another British company,produces the world’s worst,most unreliable guages and electronics.The bain of anyone who has ever owned
    any British car.

    The British Concorde,in contrast to the French Concorde,was an unmitigated disaster.I know,I’ve flown on both.

    I could go on and on—but you get the picture–British capitalism
    is worn out to the point that nothing should be a suprise,including the Gulf disaster.

    Double D

  • Oh! and US capitalism is much better. The last time I looked 70% of US GDP was consumption based. Not exactly productive is it?
    Anyway why am I discussing capitalism, productive or consumptive they are both part of the excess paradigm, which SUCKS!

  • “I’m firmly convinced the ongoing economic collapse will not reach completion while the television remains on”

    The revolution will certainly not be televised.

  • It seems like there is finally some good news with the spill. The Houston Chronicle reports, U.S. ships were being outfitted earlier this month with four pairs of skimming booms airlifted from the Netherlands and should be deployed within days.” Better than never, I guess. For all those feeling pretty gloomy about this situation, I recommend a good laugh… Here’s a funny joke,