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.