Category Archives: Peak oil
A guest editorial in the Eugene, OR Register-Guard newspaper today reveals that keeping the dollar the dominant global currency is even more important than oil in US foreign policy and war planning. According to “Crude Facts” by M. Reza Behnam, a political scientist specializing in the politics and governments of the Middle East and American foreign policy there, US wars in the Persian Gulf have been more about about stabilizing the oil currency policies that have fueled America’s expansive economy since 1945 than about securing actual oil supplies.
Behnam notes that when the victors in World War II “met at Bretton Woods, N.H., in 1944 to create a modern, stable global economic system, they agreed to inaugurate an international gold-backed monetary standard reliant on the U.S. dollar – a logical decision at the time, since the United States had the largest gold reserves at $35 per ounce of gold.” In 1971, however, “with gold stores dwindling, President Richard Nixon ended the gold standard.
Political and economic uncertainty characterized the 1970s. Inflation soared as the government freely printed dollars to cover the costs of the Vietnam War and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. The 1973 oil embargo by Arab nations that belonged to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries – payback for U.S. military aid to Israel during the Yom Kippur War – quadrupled oil prices. With the U.S. economy in a nosedive, the Nixon administration, anxious to maintain the global demand for dollars, persuaded the hostile Saudi government to finance America’s debt with its petroleum wealth. Nixon convinced the Saudis that it was in their best interest to price their oil only in U.S. dollars, and to invest their surplus oil profits in U.S. Treasury bills. For its part, the United States agreed to provide weapons and protection to the House of Saud. The agreement ended the oil embargo and bound two disparate countries together for decades. By 1975, all OPEC countries had priced their oil in dollars.
For more than 40 years, global energy transactions and international trade have been conducted mainly in dollars, maintaining the United States’ status as an economic superpower. The petrodollar bargain of 1974 is why Washington staunchly backs the Saudi autocratic government that represses half its population [the Shia minority], funds extremist Sunni groups worldwide, and nurtured 15 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. It also explains Washington’s support for Saudi Arabia’s devastating bombing campaign in Yemen and the two countries’ obsession with Iran as a regional threat.
America’s wars in the Middle East have everything to do with eliminating challenges to the petrodollar system. Such a challenge was central to President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, a country with the world’s second-largest oil reserves, and overthrow Saddam Hussein. Saddam’s fate was sealed when – encouraged by the French and eager to end crippling sanctions – he decided, in late 2000, to trade Iraqi oil in euros, the world’s second-largest reserve currency, and converted his $10 billion reserve fund at the United Nations to euros. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in March 2003 finished off this threat to the petrodollar and sent a clear warning to other countries considering an alternative oil transaction currency.
The 2011 intervention in Libya and the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi can be seen through the same prism. For decades, a number of African countries, led by Qaddafi, had been attempting to establish a pan-African currency based on Libya’s gold-backed dinar. Qaddafi’s goal was to provide the continent with an alternative currency, and to replace the dollar with the Libyan dinar in future oil sales. E-mails from Hillary Clinton’s State Department reveal French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s fears about the threat Qaddafi’s pan-African currency posed to the established economic order. Qaddafi’s life, along with his plan for a united African currency, ended when NATO forces, spearheaded by France and Britain and with U.S. cooperation, invaded Libya.
The 2002 failed coup attempt against President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela – reportedly with the assistance of the CIA – also came shortly after the country considered switching to the euro for its oil sales.” Venezuela continues to be an enemy not because it’s a dictatorship under Chavez’s successor, Nicholas Maduro, but because “in 2007, Chavez instructed the state oil company to change its dollar investments to euros and other currencies.
Cracks appear to be emerging in America’s hegemony over the global financial system, and the United States’ impolitic conduct in the Middle East reflects its angst over these developments. The intensity of U.S. rancor toward Iran has increased as Tehran, along with Moscow, has led the effort to break free from the petrodollar monopoly. That Tehran has been pricing its oil in currencies other than the dollar and seeking to create a Middle East energy exchange market are viewed by Washington as provocative moves, and have placed Iran squarely on America’s target list. Since 2003, Iran has been shifting its foreign-held assets and the reserve funds in its central bank from dollars to euros, and it stopped accepting U.S. dollars for oil in 2007. Another circumvention of the dollar is the establishment of the Iranian Oil Bourse, also known as the Iran Crude Oil Exchange, opened in 2008. Its objective is to sell oil and gas in non-dollar currencies, primarily the euro, the Iranian rial, the Japanese yen, and/or a basket of other major currencies. Onerous Western sanctions have pushed Tehran and Moscow to abjure dollar-denominated trade, favoring euros, rubles, and rials instead. In 2012 Iran, which supplies 15% of China’s oil and natural gas, began conducting its energy deals with China in yuan (China dropped the dollar peg in 2005). India and Russia trade oil with China in rubles and yuan, and China and Japan have agreed to use their own currencies in their transactions. South Korea has also been slowly moving from dollars in its transactions, buying Iranian oil with the Korean won, and shifting its investments to other currencies. As the world’s leading consumer of oil and natural gas, China has enough leverage over Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf oil producers to pay for its oil imports in yuan. Increased trade with China has intensified the pressure on Saudi Arabia to forsake the dollar. The United Arab Emirates has already agreed to use the yuan in its petroleum trade with China.
Saudi petrodollars have financed Washington’s military adventures and spending sprees. As a major holder of U.S. Treasury bills and one of the United States’ largest creditors, the kingdom wields a potent political weapon. It attempted to use that weapon in 2016, threatening to sell as much as $750 billion in Treasuries and assets if Congress passed legislation allowing it to be held liable in U.S. courts for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The Saudis have traditionally seen the United States as their chief regional partner, but the unusual visit to Moscow in early October by Saudi King Salman reveals fissures in the 1974 iron-clad agreement, and an acknowledgement of the changing balance of power in the region.
The world’s reliance on the dollar as the global reserve currency is beginning to erode. Demand for the dollar for global oil and gas transactions is lessening as countries have grown weary with America’s dominance of the world economy and use of military force to punish currency dissenters. The momentum toward non-dollar trading could severely undermine the U.S. economy, one of the most debt-ridden in the world. The house of cards built by the United States in the 1970s could easily collapse if the rest of the world abandons the dollar standard. Right now, the resulting massive economic disruption to the world economy isn’t something most developed nations want to try to live with.
The United States, with its economic imbalances and soaring deficits, has the most to gain by working cooperatively with the rest of the world to gradually reform the global monetary system. But that requires it to forego its imperious myths and trade its belligerent superpower role in favor of international mediation to achieve global economic stability and security.”
In his 3-15 article “Disengage from the spectacle,” posted at http://www.postcarbon.org, Richard Heinberg describes the beginning of the Trump administration as “Empire’s End,” TV’s latest and biggest-ever 24/7 reality show, decades in the making, “with a budget in the trillions, a cast of billions, and a hero-villain more colorful and pathetic than Tony Soprano or Walter White.” He advises that “at least some of us are better off severely limiting our consumption of American national news right now. It’s not that events in Washington won’t affect us – they will. Rather, there are even more important things to attend to, over which we have far greater agency.
First Premise: We’re at the end of the period of general economic growth that characterized the post-WWII era. I’ve written extensively about this, and there’s no need to repeat myself at length here. Suffice it to say that we humans have harvested the world’s cheap and easy-to-exploit energy resources, and the energy that’s left won’t support the kind of consumer economy we’ve built much longer. In order to keep the party roaring, we’ve built up consumer and government debt levels to unsustainable extremes. We’ve also pumped hundreds of billions of tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and oceans, putting the entire biosphere at risk. Our current economic and political systems also require further, endless growth in order to avert collapse. Almost no one wants to discuss all of this, but everyone senses a change in the air: despite jiggered statistics, workers know their wages have stagnated or fallen in recent years, and members of the younger generation generally expect to earn less that their parents. This generates a persistent low-level sense of fear and dissatisfaction, guaranteeing the type of political shift we’re seeing.
Second Premise: The new U.S. regime is adopting an essentially fascist character. When empires decline, people often turn to leaders perceived as strong, who promise to return the nation to its former glory. In extreme instances, such leaders can be characterized as fascist, using the word in a generic sense to refer to authoritarian nationalism distinguished by one-party rule, the demonization of internal and external enemies (usually tinged with some form of racism or anti-Semitism), controls on press freedoms, and social conservatism. Once a nation turns decisively toward fascism, it rarely turns back, since fascist regimes ruthlessly destroy all opposition. It usually takes a foreign invasion or a complete economic-political-social collapse to reset a national government that’s gone fascist.
Those who get the second premise but miss the first tend to conclude that, at least until the new regime neutralizes significant opposition within the government, there are still things we can do to return life to ‘normal.’ But the end of growth ensures that, beyond a certain point, there will be no more ‘normal.’ We’re headed into new territory no matter what. Taking both premises into account, what are the likely outcomes?
It’s possible that the Trump administration will succeed in rooting out or suppressing opposition not just in Congress and the media, but also in executive-branch departments, including the CIA and FBI. In that case we may see at least a few years of authoritarian national governance punctuated by worsening financial and environmental crises against a backdrop of accelerating national decline. But thanks to Premise One, short-term success won’t lead to a stable regime over the long term. Eventually, no matter how vigorously it suppresses real or perceived enemies, the U.S. federal government will collapse as a result of war, economic crisis, or the simple ongoing erosion of biophysical support systems. At that point a possible trajectory for the nation would be to break apart into smaller geographically defined political entities.
The short-term success of the current regime isn’t assured anyway. It’s still possible that establishmentarian Democratic and Republican members of Congress, working with renegade CIA and FBI mid-level officials and mainstream media outlets, could mire the new leadership in a scandal too deep to survive. Or, if Republicans lose control of Congress in 2018, articles of impeachment could be brought against Trump. This wouldn’t guarantee a return to status quo politics in Washington though. Not only does Premise One guarantee that the old status quo is no longer tenable, but on its own terms the political system is now too broken and the nation too divided. In this scenario, pro-regime and anti-regime elites might continue to escalate their attacks on one another until the whole system crashes.
In either case, there’s no national team to root for capable of restoring the status quo ante Trump for long, if that’s even desirable. Under either scenario, competent local governance might provide significantly better living conditions than the national average, but the overall picture is pretty grim. A few years from now I expect that we’ll be in very different territory socially, politically, and economically. Nevertheless, what we do in the meantime could make a big positive difference to people and planet, both over the short term and also over the long term. Here are some specific things you can do:
Disengage from the spectacle. Learn what you need to know in order to assess immediate threats and general trends, but otherwise avoid spending long periods of time ingesting online, print, radio, or televised media. It’s bad for your mental health and takes time away from other items on this list. If you haven’t already done so, make a personal and family resilience plan in case of a temporary breakdown in the basic functions of government (everyone should do this anyway in view of our vulnerability to earthquakes or weather disasters). Are you growing any of your own food? Do you have other practical skills? Do you have stored food and water? Do you have cash set aside? Work to build community resilience as well. If and when national governance breaks down, your local community’s degree of social and biophysical resilience will make all the difference for you and your family. Biophysical resilience relates to local food, water, and energy systems. A socially resilient community is one in which people are talking to and looking out for one another, and institutions for resolving disputes are trusted. Identify organizations that are building both kinds of resilience in your community and engage with them. These could be churches; government and non-profit organizations; food, energy, and health co-ops; neighborhood safety groups; local investment clubs; or Transition groups. Get involved with existing organizations or start new ones. It takes time, but friends like these are more important than money in the bank, especially in times of social and political upheaval. Direct some of your resilience-building efforts toward long-term and nature-centered concerns. – also work that proceeds best in the company of others. Take time as well for the conservation of culture – arts and skills that are their own reward. Connecting with others in your community by enjoying or playing music together, singing, dancing, or making visual art deepens relationships and gives life more dimension and meaning. Participating in protests could enable you to get to know other members of your community or further fragment your community if it’s deeply divided politically. At certain moments in history it’s necessary to take a stand one way or the other on a particular issue, and in the days ahead some issue may require you to plant your flag. This historical moment is also one in which many real heroes and heroines engage in ways that aren’t scripted by any of the elites.”
In an earlier essay, “Traditionalism” through the Lens of Cultural Ecology,” published 2-27 (also on postcarbon.org), Heinberg discusses the political philosophies now vying against each other in Washington. “The common terms liberalism and conservatism have lost their usefulness in navigating these political waters,” he says. Traditionalism is a more useful term, representing “the recent rightward ideological surge in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world, but it remains widely unfamiliar and poorly defined. In this essay, I’ll explore the significance of traditionalism using a conceptual tool I call cultural ecology: an inquiry into the ways society shapes itself in response to geography, energy resources, and other environmental factors. My understanding of cultural ecology is derived from the work of anthropologist Marvin Harris, who investigated how societies were transformed by their shifts from hunting-and-gathering to farming, and how they adapted themselves to various geographies (geographer Jared Diamond also made important contributions along these lines).
In the last couple of centuries, a shift as profound as the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago occurred as societies came to base their economies on the use of fossil fuels. Now, as the fossil fuel era starts to wane, wrenching changes in the social, intellectual, political, and religious foundations of modern society should be anticipated. Fossil-fueled society came to full flower during the 20th century. With unprecedented amounts of energy available, economies grew rapidly, and the expectation of further and unending growth became a core feature of economic and political theory, along with the notion that unending progress was also to be expected in social, scientific, and political realms. Capitalism – the private ownership of what Marx called the ‘means of production,’ along with mechanisms for constant reinvestment in the expansion of those means – was never so much a coherent ideology as a set of cobbled-together agreements and institutions. Since capitalism’s tendency (as Marx observed) was to produce ever greater economic inequality along with worsening boom-bust cycles, efforts were made to restrain those tendencies through redistributive taxation and social programs, along with financial, labor, and environmental regulations (which were seen by many as signs of social and political progress). Immigration and globalization served to reduce labor costs, but were also regarded as evidence of progress toward a more egalitarian, multicultural ideal. The acceptance and resettlement of refugees from political strife or natural disasters represented a national expression of humanitarianism. This was the milieu within which liberal and conservative political discourse took place; that discourse questioned relative degrees of power and benefit enjoyed by social groups (e.g., workers versus managers versus owners of capital) but seldom challenged the shared allegiance to growth. Within a growing economy, there was always more for (nearly) everyone, even though some were able to obtain a much higher percentage of the increasing overall wealth.
The fossil fuel era is now failing. Even without climate change, oil, coal, and natural gas are finite resources extracted using the low-hanging fruit principle. While large amounts of these resources remain, each further increment extracted offers declining energy returns on the energy invested in production, an instance of the law of diminishing returns. The situation with respect to oil is approaching crisis: while production rates are high, costs to producers are soaring, and the higher prices needed to cover those costs can’t be sustained because they tend to frustrate economic growth and kill demand for motor fuel. The petroleum industry is between a proverbial rock and hard place, with debt increasing and profit evaporating. Alternative energy sources will need to be introduced at eight to ten times the current rate of solar and wind build-out to avert a climate or a depletion crisis. In any case, it’s highly doubtful that renewable or nuclear energy could support the consumer economy we’ve come to rely on. Since energy is the basis for all economic activity (a fact mainstream economists have been slow to grasp), the end of the fossil fuel era effectively means the end of growth.
Just as a growing economy encouraged the development of the ideological and social constructs of the 20th century, a stagnating or contracting economy is likely to favor a different and uglier politics whose main themes are: longing (and promises) for the return of a lost condition of abundance, blaming social or political groups for the current situation, and calling for the exclusion of others deemed to be competing with ‘us’ for increasingly scarce resources. This could be a description of what would, in ordinary political discourse, be termed far-right nationalist populism.
Insight into ideological Trumpism can be gleaned from the beliefs of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. According to the website Politico, his favored readings ‘tend to have one thing in common: the view that technocrats have put Western civilization on a downward trajectory and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline. They tend to have a dark, apocalyptic tone.’ One of Bannon’s influences is said to be blogger Curtis Yarvin, a leader of a movement called Dark Enlightenment that rejects egalitarianism and multiculturalism along with the progressive view of world history. Dark Enlightenment supports strong, centralized political leadership, libertarian economics, and socially conservative views on gender roles, race relations, and immigration. Another Bannon favorite is Nassim Taleb, author of the 2014 book Antifragile, which proposes managing systems in a way that benefits from random events, errors, and volatility.
The term traditionalism crops up in the work of Italian philosopher Julius Evola (1898-1974). A recent New York Times article explored Bannon’s fascination with Evola, ‘a leading proponent of traditionalism, a worldview popular in far-right and alternative religious circles that believes progress and equality are poisonous illusions.’ Evola’s book Revolt Against the Modern World speculated that the near-universal myth of a lost Golden Age is actually a collective memory of a time when religious and temporal power were united, and society was ruled by spiritual warriors. He believed that the modern world represents a serious decline from that society.
In my first book, Memories and Visions of Paradise: Exploring the Universal Myth of a Lost Golden Age (1989, revised edition 1995), I explained how the idea of a lost Golden Age has long been associated with various forms of millenarianism, the notion that the current world is degraded and approaching a cleansing crisis from which a revived paradisiacal condition will emerge. Millenarian movements (of which many variants of Christianity and Islam are clear examples) often spring up during times of secular decline or crisis, and typically take the form of a cult led by a charismatic visionary aiming to ‘make the world great again.’ Sometimes a benign character, the leader is more often malign — like Hitler. In my view, the myth of a Golden Age is a deep cultural memory of our shared origin in egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies, when we lived embedded in nature rather than separate from and dominating it.
To summarize, cultural ecology predicts that a historical moment of change such as ours would provide the ideal growth medium for social and religious movements that glorify a largely imagined past, anticipate a cathartic renewal (which they may seek to precipitate), and promise followers a privileged position in the coming order.
Some of the basic features of traditionalism are evident in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which went through an end-of-growth crisis in the 1990s after the collapse of the USSR. In a 2013 speech at the Valdai conference in Russia, Putin warned, ‘We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization. They’re denying moral principles and traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual.’ In a 2014 speech at the Vatican, Steve Bannon called Putin a kleptocrat, but spoke approvingly of his philosophy: ‘We the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what Putin is talking about as far as traditionalism goes, particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism.’ One of Putin’s influence is Aleksandr Dugin, a far-right Russian political philosopher and fan of Julius Evola. Dugin has asserted that, ‘Only after restoring the Greater Russia that is the Eurasian Union, can we become a credible global player.” He’s helped Putin forge alliances with nationalist movements in Europe, including Marine LePen’s National Front in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Ataka Party in Bulgaria, and Hungary’s Jobbik Party. Putin’s friend Viktor Orbán, now prime minister of Hungary, has promised to turn his country into an ‘illiberal democracy’ modeled on Russia. He is virulently anti-Muslim, seeing Islam as a ‘rulebook for another world.’
Traditionalism demands an enemy, and the fear and loathing of Islam is a key feature of far-right populism in both Europe and the U.S. Here’s Steve Bannon on the dangers of what he calls ‘jihadist Islamic fascism’: ‘I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis. There is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act.’ The expectation of an ultimate cathartic clash between a traditionalist Christian West and jihadist Islam is of course shared by radical Islamist movements such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, which themselves represent brands of millenarianism. (The description of the relationship between Islam and the West as a “clash of civilizations” appeared first in a 1957 speech at Johns Hopkins University by British orientalist Bernard Lewis, and Harvard professor Samuel Huntington popularized the idea.)
Societies in decline or crisis don’t always elevate far-right leaders and social movements. The medieval Joachimites and Brethren of the Free Spirit (whose followers endured plagues and wrenching poverty), and the 17th century Ranters in Britain (where small farmers were losing their land to the wealthy) promoted a radically egalitarian vision of human relations. Much more recently, a period of economic contraction and crisis in the United States produced one of the country’s most left-leaning presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Indeed, it could be argued that Barack Obama was an FDR-like figure tasked to address the global financial crisis of 2008, but that his too-tepid response (or the fact that the crisis was too deeply-rooted to yield fully to Keynesian formulae) then opened the way for far-right Trumpism.
Traditionalism therefore characterizes only one phase of the cultural and political aftermath to the end of growth. While for the foreseeable future (and in certain nations or regions) circumstances may favor strong leaders who demonize racial or religious groups and promise a restoration of forsaken values, their regimes may disappear as quickly as they arrived on the scene. Polities may fragment, with formerly united regions choosing to follow separate paths. Currently, large swathes of America (accounting for over half its total population) are proving highly resistant to the Trumpist mental virus, and much the same could be said with regard to Europe.
A far-left millenarian movement could also arise, a form of militant egalitarianism like Bolshevism or Mao’s Red Brigades that could potentially prove as dangerous as any other brand of extreme millenarianism. But our future options need not be limited to competing brands of millenarianism. Individuals and communities can focus on practical efforts to bring the greatest good to the most people (and other species) over the longest time by rethinking and redesigning production and consumption patterns in anticipation of the failure of existing consumerist institutions. The word ‘good’ in the previous sentence is of course open to definition and redefinition, but even a meager understanding of ecology and psychology would suggest that it should point to values like diversity (permitting the flourishing of many kinds of species and cultures), happiness, health, autonomy, and sustainability.” Heinberg then gives the same recommendations as in his 3-15 post. He concludes: “Millenarianism is a collective psychological expression of stress and powerlessness. The antidote is to act. In a time of division, unite. In a time of demonization, reach out.” He then recommends a new Post Carbon Institute online course called ‘Think Resilience: Preparing Communities for the Rest of the 21st Century,'” available at education.resilience.org.
Many of us are struggling daily with anxiety and questions about “what to do now.” Here are some (abridged) ideas from Rob Hopkins, Transition Towns leader, who wrote recently on post carbon.org:
“It’s an oddly Western notion that compassion and anger are incompatible polarities. Consider the ‘wrathful deities’ central to Tibetan Buddhism – wild, horrific visions who symbolize the tremendous effort it takes to vanquish evil. They often carry ritual implements which symbolize wisdom and compassion. On its own, anger is a volatile, unskillful energy. Combined with compassion and wisdom, however, it can be a clear and powerful force. I see it in the work of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock, facing militarization and brutality with resolution, strength and compassion. Wrathful compassion is a powerful tool, and we need it now more than ever before.”
Hopkins also recommends that we “dream big and unleash imagination – beautifully and with humor, care, kindness, and compassion…Before and after President Trump, we fetch wood and carry water – build resilient communities, model new futures, create new enterprises, support each other, and build connections. We speak truth to power in calling out the absurdity of economic growth and increasing emissions on a finite and ailing planet. We reimagine and rebuild local economies, weave imagination and playfulness through all that we do, and work to meet our communities’ needs rather than those of big business. We resist racism, xenophobia, and discrimination. We invest differently, tell new stories, and celebrate together.”
Richard Heinberg, my go-to guru on the future of energy – and therefore technology and society – just posted an important article, “Exploring the Gap Between Business-as-Usual and Utter Doom,” on postcarbon.org. Reminding us that technological progress will soon be running up against Earth’s natural limits and noting that experts in various disciplines “have pointed out dire consequences if policy makers don’t implement course corrections like population stabilization and decline, rapid carbon emissions reductions, and habitat conservation on a vast scale,” Heinberg says that since “society has failed to correct course, dire and multivalent consequences should now be expected…We should anticipate a future that is profoundly challenging; one characterized by societal disintegration and ecosystem failure. In the very worst case, the extinction of most animal and plant species, including humans, is conceivable. And the downward slide will begin soon, if it hasn’t already done so.
The enormous gap between these outcomes – business-as-usual growth and progress on one hand, and limits-induced collapse on the other – has always constituted a disputed yet vital space. The goal of those who say we can’t maintain business-as-usual has never been to promote collapse, but rather to suggest things we could do to alter current behavior and trends so that a crash will be more moderate and survivable. In effect, they have been exploring the gap, looking for landing points on the way up or down the growth escalator; or seeking to close the gap, lessening the boom so that the bust isn’t as severe.
The warning signs that industrial civilization is rapidly approaching non-negotiable planetary limits are now flashing. Each of the last 16 months has established an all-time global temperature record. The oil industry appears to have entered a terminal crisis due to its requirement for ever-higher levels of investment in order to find, produce, refine, and deliver ever-lower-quality resources. Plant and animal species are disappearing at a thousand times the normal extinction rate. And global debt levels have soared since the 2008 financial crisis, setting the stage for an even greater financial convulsion whenever the next cyclical recession hits.
In our new book, Our Renewable Future, energy expert David Fridley and I examine the potential transition to a mostly wind-and-solar energy economy, concluding that, while in theory it may be possible to build enough solar and wind supply capacity to substitute for current fossil energy sources, much of current energy usage infrastructure (for transportation, agriculture, and industrial processes) will be difficult and expensive to adapt to renewable electricity. In the face of these and other related challenges, we suggest that it likely won’t be possible to maintain a consumption-oriented growth economy in the post-fossil future, and that we’d be better off aiming to transition to a simpler and more localized conserver economy. Solar and wind technologies produce a significant surplus of energy over and above the amount invested in building and installing panels and turbines. Further, a lot of current energy usage can be electrified and made substantially more efficient. But key aspects of our current industrial system (including cement production, the chemicals industry, shipping, and aviation) will be difficult to maintain without cheap fossil-fuel inputs.
We won’t know exactly what a post-fossil industrial economy will look like until we address such questions as how much investment capital we’re willing and able to muster for this purpose, whether the economy can continue to function in the face of higher costs for industrial processes, and what shape the financial system will take when GDP growth is no longer possible. But if we don’t make the effort to push the transition forward quickly, there won’t be a post-fossil economy: society will shudder and falter until it lies in ruins.
Given that business-as-usual airports, shopping malls, skyscrapers, and container ships have a small likelihood of remaining useful or replicable much longer, we should be exploring structures that are sustainable – identifying simpler pathways for meeting basic human needs. Since maintaining and adapting current levels of transport will likely be an insurmountable challenge, we might start by aiming to shorten supply chains and localize economies.
Social innovation will probably play a more important role in this adaptive and transformative process than the invention of new machines. Yes, we need research and development in hundreds of technical areas, including ways of building and maintaining roads without asphalt or concrete; ways of producing essential pharmaceuticals without fossil fuels; and ways of building solar panels and wind turbines using a minimum of fuels and rare, exotic materials. But we already have lower-tech ways of solving a lot of problems. We know how to build wooden sailing ships; we know how to construct highly energy-efficient houses using local, natural materials; and we know how to grow food without fossil inputs and distribute it locally. Why don’t we use these methods more? Because they’re not as fast or convenient, they can’t operate at the same scale, they’re not as profitable, and they don’t fit with our vision of ‘progress.’
This is where social innovation comes in. In order for the transition to occur as smoothly as possible, we need to change our expectations about speed, convenience, affordability, and entitlement, and we need to share what we have rather than competing for increasingly scarce resources. We need to conserve, reuse, and repair. There’s no room for planned obsolescence or growing disparities between rich and poor. Cooperation will be our salvation. We’ll be making these behavioral and attitudinal shifts in the context of profound disruptions to the economy and the environment, so a big part of our gap-closing work will consist of building community resilience. That includes assessing needs and vulnerabilities, diversifying local food sources, and strengthening social cohesion and trust by encouraging participation in community organizations and cultural events.” For more on all this go to www.postcarbon.org and www.resilience.org.
“When it comes to forecasting the future,” Heinberg says, “count me among the pessimists. I’m convinced that the consequences of decades of obsession with maintaining business-as-usual will be catastrophic. And those consequences could be upon us sooner than even some of my fellow pessimists assume. Still, I’m not about to let this pessimism (or realism?) get in the way of doing what can still be done in households and communities to avert utter doom. And, while decades of failure in imagination and investment have foreclosed a host of options, I think there are still some feasible alternatives to business-as-usual that could provide significant improvements in most people’s daily experience of life. The gap is where the action is. All else – whether fantasy or nightmare – is a distraction.”
Note: as always, I’ve significantly shortened and slightly edited this article. For the full version, go to www.postcarbon.org.
From a 3-22-16 article by Laurie Mazur for Yes! magazine
Perhaps the best answer comes from Joel Cohen of Rockefeller University, in his aptly titled How Many People Can the Earth Support? It’s an exhaustively researched 532-page book, but his conclusion can be summarized in two words: It depends. That is, the planet’s capacity to sustain human life depends on how resources are used and distributed and on the values and social structures that shape the way we live.
Take food – the number of mouths we can feed depends on what’s for dinner. If all of the world’s people ate like carnivorous Americans – 1,763 pounds of grain each per year, some eaten directly, but most fed to livestock, the 2-billion-ton world grain harvest would support only 2.5 billion people (there are now 7.4 billion of us). But if we all ate like people in India – a mostly vegetarian diet of just 440 pounds of grain per person each year, the same harvest would support a population of 10 billion.
So, there’s some elasticity in the planet’s carrying capacity: better, fairer resource use can expand it. But, in the coming world of scarce fossil fuels, that capacity will contract. In recent decades, for example, food production has pretty much kept pace with skyrocketing population growth, partly thanks to mechanization and cheap oil. Reductions in the oil supply would curtail food production, at least in the short term.
Shortages of natural gas would also make it harder to synthesize nitrogen fertilizer, which has helped triple crop yields since 1950. Vaclav Smil, of the University of Manitoba, told the New York Times that, without nitrogen fertilizer, there wouldn’t be enough food for 40% of the world’s current (much less future) population.
And that’s without considering climate change, which could dramatically reduce crop yields in many parts of the world at a time when global food production must increase by 70% to keep pace with current trajectories of growth and consumption.
So, how many people can the earth support? We don’t know. But, given the uncertain supply of fossil fuels and the grim realities of climate change, it makes sense to aim for the low end of the United Nations’ population projections – about 9 billion people, rather than 13 billion, by the end of this century.
The good news is that we know how to do this. A half-century of experience has shown that the best way to slow population growth is by ensuring access to voluntary family planning services, educating girls, and providing opportunities for women.