(Survival Manual/2. Social Issues/ Our Future, Parts 1-4)
H. Energy Descent: The Ignored Scenario
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Public discussion of energy descent is generally seen as unrealistic, defeatist and politically counterproductive although many activists promoting sustainability strategies privately acknowledge that energy descent maybe inevitable. I want to expand the systems approach to future energy transitions by focusing on the most ignored of the long term scenarios for the following reasons.
_1. We do not have to believe that a particular scenario is likely before making serious preparations. For example most people have fire insurance on their homes, not because they expect their primary asset to be destroyed by fire but because they recognize the severity of this unlikely event. Similarly, energy descent scenarios, by their very nature, require more forethought and proactive planning than energy growth or steady state scenarios (to avert catastrophic consequences) .
[Image at left: Amish horse cart outside of SUV’s in auto sales lot, Raleigh North Carolina. 2005. A model for energy descent in more ways than the obvious. The Amish driver is likely to be a farmer, a symbol of the greater number of people who will be involved in food production both domestically and commercially in a future of less energy; in ironic contrast to the Burger King take away food sign in the background.]
_2. The rapidly accumulating evidence on both climate change and peaking of world oil supply, to name the two most important factors, makes some sort of energy descent increasingly likely despite the deep structural and psychological denial of this evidence.
_3. The likelihood that permaculture principles and strategies (not necessarily by that name) could inform societal-wide redesign and re-organization in an energy descent future. Since this scenario is the one in which permaculture is naturally at the fore, it is logical for those committed to permaculture to think more deeply about energy descent.
Ecological modeling suggests an energy descent path that could play out over a similar time frame to the industrial ascent era of 250 years. Historical evidence suggests a descent process that could involve a series of crises that provide stepwise transitions between consolidation and stabilization phases that could be more or less stable for decades before another crisis triggers another fall and then another restabilisation.
There is a desperate need to recast energy descent as a positive process that can free people from the strictures and dysfunctions of growth economics and consumer culture. This is now apparent to many people around the world and is far more fundamental than a public relations campaign to paint a black sky blue. It is a necessary process to provide a sense of hope and connection to fundamental human values expressed by every traditional culture throughout human history; that the pursuit of materialism is a false god.
One of the positive aspects of energy descent that is often overlooked is that it is a culture of continuous and novel change over many human generations. Ironically the growth culture of the previous several hundred years provides us with some conceptual and cultural experience at dealing with change that traditional peoples in more stable societies lacked. We are now familiar with continuous change, that we must do something different to our parent’s generation and that our children must do something different again. This may seem a small bright spot when considering the challenges of energy descent but it is a real asset that we must harness if we are to deal with energy descent in the most graceful way possible.
Section II Explores the relevance of permaculture design systems to an era of energy descent.
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Serious and thoughtful responses to energy descent futures over the last 30 years (from both sociological and ecological perspectives) have received limited attention academically. In affluent countries, movements advocating low energy lifestyles, such as permaculture, have contributed mostly to action and changes at the fringes of society. Permaculture has been stress tested in poor countries and in crisis situations, and as fossil fuel depletion hits levels of
affluence globally, its relevance will likely increase radically.
[Image at right: Melliodora central Victoria 2004. View over poultry deep litter yard, roof runoff garden, olive and fruit trees to house with solar clerestory showing above trees. ]
Permaculture was one of the environmental design concepts to emerge from the 1970’s debate over energy and resource availability and was founded on the assumption that the next energy transition would involve the re-emergence of biological systems as central to economics and society. The vision that informed permaculture design, teaching and action saw relocalized food and renewable energy production, revitalized household and community economies and bioregional political structures establishing a permanent (i.e. sustainable) human culture. The opportunistic use of fossil fuelled wealth and waste to fund the transition was an integral part of the permaculture strategy. I see permaculture design generating more appropriate biological and human capital in ways less demanding of physical resources and with low depreciation rates that are useful to a world of energy descent. In my book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, I explained the title in terms of the Energy Descent future undermining the steady state notions inherent to most thinking about sustainability and even permaculture.
Permaculture has spread around the world but has an extraordinary, perhaps unique role in Australia, as a concept, a collection of design strategies, and as an environmental movement. A definition is included in the Macquarie dictionary and it is almost a household word. As a “brand” it carries a great deal of good will but also much baggage and is generally regarded in policy and planning circles as marginal to mainstream decision making. Some more thoughtful people recognize it as tuned to a world of declining resources that will require adaptive strategies quite different from those being pursued currently.
Permaculture is already contributing to changing Australian suburbs and lifestyle via bottom up and organic processes. Increasing community awareness of environmental issues combined with rises in the cost of energy, water and food are likely to lead to an explosion in permaculture inspired activity in Australian cities, towns and rural landscapes. It is now essential that academics, educators, activists, planners and policy makers understand permaculture as both a factor in the social and physical fabric of Australian society and a conceptual framework for the organic redesign of society and culture for the energy descent future in Australia as well as globally.
Not surprisingly, Permaculture solutions have been more effectively applied in community and agricultural development work in many majority world communities where energy descent has been a reality for many people. While these conditions can be understood in terms of inequitable distribution of resources rather than fundamental limits, they provide models for behavior in response to energy descent. The most dramatic example is the role that permaculture strategies and techniques played in rapidly increasing urban food production as part of a multi pronged strategy to avert famine in Cuba in the early 1990’s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. What is particularly interesting about this model is that Cuba is a middle income country with a long history of industrialized agriculture and an urbanized and dependent population similar to many affluent countries. Today Cubans have life expectancy and other indices of development comparable with the USA while using one seventh the energy and resources.
Permaculture is, intuitively, most relevant to the Energy Descent scenarios in which there is a major decline in the power from non-renewable resources but many of the strategies are synergistic with those focused on appropriate responses to the Techno Stability scenario which demands a degree of relocalization of food supply and other key economies and a shift from centralized to distributed energy sources.
One way to understand permaculture is as a post-modern integration of elements from different traditions and modernity that involves continuous change and evolution.
Sometimes permaculture is understood as simply returning to traditional patterns from the past and is consequently criticized as impractical. While it is true that older, more traditional patterns of resource use and living provide some of the elements and inspiration for permaculture, it is certainly more than this. One way to understand permaculture is as a post-modern integration of elements from different traditions and modernity that involves continuous change and evolution. This builds on the human experience of continuous change rather than static tradition as well as the more recent emergence of design as a new literacy that allows us to effectively and efficiently respond to and redesign our environment and ourselves.
B. Climate change and Peak Oil as Fundamental Drivers of Change
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The simultaneous onset of climate change and the peaking of global oil supply represent unprecedented challenges driving this energy transition but historians may look back with the verdict that the efforts at transition were too little too late. The immediacy of the problems undermines many of the options for longer term restructuring around renewable energy and appropriate infrastructure. The systemic interlocking of human/environment systems suggests other apparently independent crises from the psychological to the geopolitical are being drawn together to reinforce an historic inflection point.
C. Climate Change
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While Peak Oil has remained a concept at the fringe of public debate and policy, climate change has gathered speed as the key environmental issue demanding attention alongside more traditional concerns about economics and security. The creation of the IPCC in 1988 reflected the scientific consensus in the mid 1980’s that increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide was caused by human emissions but the realization that climate change was already happening began to take shape in the 1990’s and by 2007 even political leaders in the USA and Australia (who had become infamous for denying climate change) began to accept it as a reality. It has been the increase in drought and extreme weather events more than increases in average temperatures or subtle ecological changes that have spurred the political and public realization that climate change is already happening. The focus has shifted from impacts on nature to impacts on humanity.
Strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions have become almost synonymous with the sustainability concept. New financial instruments such as carbon trading have developed despite the uncertainty about international agreements to underpin and sustain them. Renewable energy sources have grown significantly especially in countries with the most progressive responses to climate change. At the same time geological sequestration of carbon dioxide has been strongly promoted as a way to allow coal-fired power stations to continue to provide the bulk of the world’s electric power without creating climate chaos. The nuclear industry has been recast as an environmental savior. Despite all the focus on the issue, the emissions of greenhouse gases worldwide has continued to parallel economic growth. Consequently the emissions increases have been higher than even the worst case (business as usual) scenarios produced in the earlier reports by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).
The most recent evidence on climate change is showing that the rate of onset of warming in the Arctic make the IPCC’s fourth report look incompetent in its failure to be alarmist enough. Hansen’s report suggests that the onset of severe impacts from climate change are now inevitable even if there is a huge world wide effort at mitigation. Greenland ice cap melting and sea ice retreat are occurring now far faster than expected. This new evidence has been ignored by the IPCC’s ponderous processes for its reports. James Hansen’s research suggests that sea level rises could be 5 meters by 2100 rather than the 0.5m used in the IPCC’s fourth report. This suggests that the onset of severe impacts from climate change is now inevitable, even if there is a huge world-wide effort at mitigation.
There is also very little evidence that mitigation within the context of modern affluent society will radically reduce greenhouse gas emission in any case. Most of the increases in efficiency and other gains through technology have been countered by increases in emissions elsewhere. This may appear to be due to the small scale and spread of these gains but there is a more fundamental problem that is known to systems theorists as the “rebound effect” or the “Jevons’ paradox”. A gain in resource efficiency in one part of a system is immediately used to drive growth in another part. For example, the savings made in reducing Economic recession is the only proven mechanism for a rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions house heating costs is typically being spent on something like an overseas holiday by a householder. This suggests that without radical behavioral and organizational change that would threaten the foundations of our growth economy, greenhouse gas emissions along with other environmental impacts will not decline. Economic recession is the only proven mechanism for a rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and may now be the only real hope for maintaining the earth in a habitable state.
Further, most of the proposals for mitigation from Kyoto to the feverish efforts to construct post Kyoto solutions have been framed in ignorance of Peak Oil. As Richard Heinberg has argued recently, proposals to cap carbon emissions annually, and allowing them to be traded, rely on the rights to pollute being scarce relative to the availability of the fuel. Actual scarcity of fuel may make such schemes irrelevant.
D. Energy Reserves and Production Peaks
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Most of the comparative discussion about energy resources has focused on “Proven, Probable and Possible Reserves”. These are economic concepts about what can be profitably extracted using current technology and prices. Banks lend massive amounts of money to develop energy projects over long periods with risks of price collapses that can reduce or eliminate profits. The Proven reserves represent assets that can be considered as collateral by the lender. There is a long history of “reserve growth” of Proven reserves. While some of this is due to technology improvement, and more recently price rises, very little is due to finding more oil. Most is simply due to shifting reserves from the Probable to the Proven category driven by reporting policies and regulations.
Nationalization of oil reserves in the 1970’s allowed OPEC countries to report reserve growth with less scrutiny by western banks and in the 1980’s radical revision upward of reserve figures were made without finding any more oil. This hopeless corruption of reserve figures, of arguably the most important set of accounts in the world, was not exposed until the late 1990’s with the work of Campbell and Laherrere beginning the current debate about peak oil. It is still yet to be accepted or acknowledged by governments or intergovernmental agencies such as the International Energy Agency, charged with providing transparent and accurate information on energy resources.
The debate about Peak Oil has also highlighted the confusion in economic and political discourse about the importance of production rates and their potential to keep expanding. This collective myopia on the part of the intelligentsia is all the more stunning because it has been increasing rates of energy production (not reserve growth) that has underpinned economic growth. The orthodox view that healthy reserves, by themselves, can ensure expanding production has been show to be false.
The collective myopia on the part of the intelligentsia is all the more stunning because it has been increasing rates of energy production that has underpinned economic growth.
Similarly, the conventional wisdom that coal reserves are so great that we can expand coal based electricity with or without carbon sequestration, and make liquid fuel from coal is now being widely challenged. As with oil, we see that reserve figures are of dubious reliability and large reserves do not mean that production rates can necessarily increase. The slow rate of increase in oil production from the Canadian tar sands, despite massive investment, heroic logistics (and massive environmental damage) proves that large reserves do not necessarily lead to high production rates. The fact that Canada, overnight, became the nation with the largest oil reserves in the world because it was allowedto classify its tar sands as oil, highlights the arbitrary nature of the reserve concept. It is highly likely that nowhere near enough fossil fuels can be mined fast enough to generate the worst case emission scenarios of the IPCC. It is just unfortunate that climate change seems to be happening at much lower levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide than predicted in those same models.
The evidence on peak oil is gathering so fast that it is now certain that the world has already peaked in the production of cheap (conventional) oil and that the peak production of “crude plus condensate” (the standard measure of oil) may have already passed despite vigorous debunking of peak oil that continues in policy circles and the media. The steady climb in prices for eight years should have been enough to lift production if that were possible. The impacts of peak oil are unfolding all around us in the world but they are being regularly interpreted in the media as caused by more familiar (above ground) factors such as terrorism, oil nationalism, corporate greed or incompetence, speculators, etc. The combination of rolling crises and obfuscation of the issues is leading to confusion and inappropriate responses (from oil wars to biofuels from agricultural crops) that are compounding the problems.
The debate amongst peak oil analysts has now shifted from when, to at what rate, the world will decline. The debate amongst peak oil analysts has now shifted from when, to at what rate, the world will decline after we move off the current plateau in production. The decline rates in the UK and Mexico have provided progressively stronger evidence that the application of modern management and technology in oil production, while delaying peak, ultimately leads to faster decline rates than had been expected (based on past rates of national decline). If these higher decline rates follow through into global decline, then mitigation and adaption strategies, without economic collapse will be very difficult. Given the accelerating consumption of natural gas and coal we should assume peak production of both will quickly follow oil peak.
Access to oil will likely decrease far more rapidly in importing nations as explored in the next section
Collapsing Oil Exports
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Another factor is already accelerating the impact of global peak on the importing countries. Almost all of the oil producing countries have rapidly growing economies driven by large oil revenues and in many cases rapidly growing populations. Internal consumption in these countries is ensuring that after peak, the rate of exports declines much faster than production. The two largest producers and exporters Saudi Arabia and Russia are the prime examples. Global economic growth may continue for some years in oil and resource rich countries, but not in the importing countries that have been used to affluence and continuous economic growth for the longest.
[Image at left: The rising cost of intercontinental shipping costs is threatening to reverse the globalization of manufacturing.]
Alternatively, a constant state of corruption, dysfunction and/or open war, in oil exporting countries can have the effect of enforcing exports in the face of shortages at home. Although this appears counter-intuitive, the failure of functional governance in the national interest combined with a shattered or stunted economy reduces the capacity of the national market to pay for oil and allows foreign oil companies to gain favorable concessions and military protection from corrupt governments. Aspects of this scenario are at work to maintain the flow of oil from Nigeria and Iraq to the USA and other large importers.
Thus, we can see both the collapsing exports, and enforced export scenarios unfolding simultaneously as the major expression of the struggle for declining production. This suggests at the very least, massive shifts in geo-political and economic power over the next few years, even if global growth continues.
Section III considers one other compounding factor, that of decreasing net energy returns.
A. Net Energy Return
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An even more fundamental issue is that of net energy return. It takes energy to get energy. Fossil fuel resources have been such an abundant source of concentrated energy that the investment of energy we make in exploration, mining, transport and processing has been relatively small. Even when we consider all the energy embodied in equipment and infrastructure, the net energy return or profit has been very high. Adding all the energy and resources needed to train and support all the engineers and other employees in the energy industries still leaves a huge net energy profit which explains why the oil industry has been such a profitable one. However now that we have passed the peak of production of conventional oil, the net energy yield from new projects tapping the heavy, deep ocean, arctic and small remaining amounts in old oil fields, using advanced recovery methods, is less and less.
This decline in net energy yield results in an increasing proportion of society’s real wealth being devoted to the energy harvesting sectors of the economy, leaving less and less for all other sectors.
Other resources sectors with rapidly increasing demand for energy include mining and metal processing, which currently use about 10% of world energy supply, have an escalating demand as lower quality ore bodies are mined. The implications of declines in Energy Return On Energy Invested (ERoEI) are so shocking that there is much confusion and denial about the concept of net energy.
The idea that biofuels or coal to liquids will simply replace oil and gas the way oil and gas have replaced wood and coal shows an astonishing degree of ignorance of the concept of net energy. When we moved from wood to coal and on to oil, the increase in power available to humanity was not just from the increasing quantity of energy, but from the increasing quality. The quantity is easily measured in joules (heat energy released) but the quality is something scientists are more confused about. It is widely accepted by scientists that energy quality is real and determines the usefulness of energy, but without an agreed way to measure quality, it is largely ignored.
The net energy concept is just beginning to surface in the media and policy circles as a way to assess alternative energy sources and strategies, especially in the debate over corn ethanol in the USA. While different methods of accounting for net energy produce substantially different net energy profit figures, they all show a pattern of higher returns for current and past sources of fossil energy than new ones. Economic power and profit from past development of different energy sources also reflects these general patterns revealed by net energy calculation methods. This suggests they can be used to predict real economic impacts of future energy systems.
The declining net energy yields of our energy resources results in an increasing proportion of society’s real wealth being devoted to the energy harvesting sectors of the economy, leaving less and less for all other sectors.
[The above graph models gross energy availability. Due to decreasing net energy yields of many of the above resources, actual available energy for society will likely decrease more dramatically.]
The promotion by the US dept of Agriculture of research showing a Energy Return On Energy Invested of 1.6 as a good result, indicates how the understanding of these issues is very poor, even by the scientifically literate. A society based on an energy source of this quality would be constantly investing 62% of its energy back into the energy industry (the 1 in 1.6), leaving only the remaining 38% of the total energy in society for everything else, ie. health, education, culture, food production, law, leisure and so on. Our modern industrial society has been fueled by energy sources with Energy Return on Energy Invested as high as 100 and at least 6 (requiring between 1% and 17% of the wealth created being invested to get the yield)
Ironically conventional economics is blind to this shift because one type of economic transaction is considered as good as another, so growth in the energy sector at the expense of say personal consumption is not seen as indicative of any fundamental problem.
My own tracking of these issues over the last thirty years leads me to the conclusion that the next energy transition is to sources with lower energy production rates and lower net energy yield which in turn will drive changes in human economy and society that are without precedent since the decline and/or collapse of previous complex civilizations such as the Mayans and the Romans.
The most sophisticated method of evaluating net energy, with the longest history of development, is EMergy Accounting developed by Howard Odum and colleagues. It has informed my own development of permaculture principles and strategies over the last 30 years but unfortunately it remains unknown or at best misunderstood in academic and policy circles. EMergy accounting includes ways of measuring energy quality (called “Transformity”). This makes it possible to account for small quantities of very high quality energy in technology and human services that undermine many of the more optimistic assessments of alternative energy sources including biomass, nuclear and solar.
To test the relative impact of net energy compared with declines in energy production rates, I used a recent assessment of global energy production through to 2050 by Paul Chefurka published and discussed on The Oil Drum website. The study was well referenced and its assumptions and methodology were clear. It took account of likely reductions from oil, gas and coal but included reasonably optimistic figures for future production from renewables and nuclear. It shows a peak in total energy production about 2020 followed by a decline to 70% of 2005 production by 2050. This is a very serious reduction given an expected global population of 9 billion. Below are the key production projections and energy mix pie charts from the study.
Using published EMergy accounting studies I multiplied these current and projected global energy sources by their net EMergy yield ratios. This shows that the energy quality of 2050 energy mix will be 58% of the 2005 energy mix. This suggests that declining net energy is a greater factor than projected declines in production. Multiplying these factors together suggests real energetic power available to humanity will be 40% of current yields. This does not allow for the energetic cost of carbon sequestration (still unknown) to ameliorate the otherwise disastrous impacts on the climate of the increased use of coal.
The net energy return from fossil fuels including coal will decline so that the above calculation of humanity having about 40% of current net energy by 2050 may still be optimistic. Further it does not take account of decline (or increase) in the average net energy return for a particular source. While it is possible that net energy return from newer renewable sources (such as solar and even wind) could conceivably improve with time, it is more likely that they will decline as the embedded fossil energy contribution (to the new energy sources) declines. A new evaluation of the net energy return of gas production in North America using a methodology developed by Cleverland and Costanza suggests net energy return is in the process of a collapse so severe that net energy yield from gas in Canada will effectively fall to almost nothing by 2014 and that similar results apply to US production. This is very different from the official view that claims the USA has 86 years of production at 2004 levels based on production to reserves ratios.
The implications of some of this information is so shocking that the naïve and simplistic idea that we are running out of oil and gas (rather than just peaking in production) may be closer to the truth than even the most pessimistic assessments of peak oil proponents a decade ago.
Section IV considers briefly some other major factors besides Peak Oil and Climate Change which will determine the future.
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Many other factors beyond Climate Change and Peak Oil are increasing the stress on global ecosystems and humanity making some form of energetic descent if not collapse, seem inevitable. A few of the more fundamental ones need at least a mention.
• Critical materials depletion
Accelerating economic growth and energy extraction over the last decade has greatly increased depletion of other essential non-renewable resources, especially phosphates for food production and non ferrous metals for industry. Almost all the unfolding plans and projects for energy transition beyond oil will place more demand on these depleting resources. For example, the demand for nickel steel alloys required for high pressure natural gas pipelines is pushing up the price of nickel and further depleting the remaining stocks. As lower quality deposits of critical materials are tapped, energy demands for extraction and processing will escalate dramatically and production rates will fall. The title of Richard Heinberg’s latest book Peak Everything sums up the situation.
• Water depletion
Water is the most abundant resource used by humanity, but the growing demand, is so vast that the limits once specific to a bioregion, are now being expressed at the global scale. Although I don’t subscribe the view that global water shortage will constrict global growth before or more severely than liquid fuel supplies, the global water crisis is already quite severe. Even if we attribute the most dramatic impacts of droughts directly to climate change, other factors are independently contributing to the water crisis. The loss of wetlands, perennial vegetation and forests as well as soil humus are all reducing the capacity of catchments and soils to catch and store water between periods of rain, which in turn, escalates demand for irrigation. Increasing affluence is directly and indirectly increasing water consumption especially through intensive livestock husbandry dependent on irrigated fodder crops. The extraction of ground water beyond recharge rates, including huge reserves laid down after the last ice age, makes many water resources as depletable as fossil fuels, giving rise to the term “fossil water”. Finally, the decline in water quality is increasing death and illness from water borne diseases, demand for expensive water filtration and treatment as well as bottled water supplies.
• Food supply
The unfolding global food crisis can be largely attributed to the manifold interactions and knock on effects of energy costs and climate change including droughts and bad seasons, biofuel demand and escalating costs of (energy intensive) fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation. Other factors exacerbating the crisis include rising affluence increasing demand especially for beef and cotton, past low prices destroying farming as a livelihood and failure of the land reform agenda in most countries. Fixing these secondary factors is technically possible, but seems unlikely. But there is also evidence that agriculture is running up against fundamental yield limits for our main crops that, despite all the promises, genetic engineering has failed to break through. Widespread application of organic methods and permaculture design, especially when applied to small scale systems could reduce the impact of the crisis but this will not be simple or quick.
• Population Pressures
The continued growth in human numbers is now pushing well beyond that which could be sustainably supported without fossil fuels. Although affluence, conflict and other human created factors are multiplying the impact of population, there are structural factors that make the large and growing human population more important than it might otherwise be. The total size of the human population, its density of settlement in cities and the constant interchange of microbes due to travel and trade are all powerful factors increasing the likelihood of new and old diseases creating pandemics on an unprecedented scale.
• Financial Instability
The accelerating growth and concentration of debt and financial assets especially in the housing and derivatives markets is destabilizing the global economy. The virtual impossibility that future growth in the real economy could ever be large enough to justify those debts and assets suggests a major and enduring economic contraction in the near future. Alternatively we may see the financial crisis in the USA trigger a collapse similar to that which happened in the Soviet Union. If China, India, Russia and other growing economies survive relatively unscathed, completely new global power and economic systems could emerge quite quickly.
• Psychosocial limits to affluence
The psychosocial limits of affluent consumer culture suggest that multi generational mass affluence may burn itself out in a few generations, through dysfunctional behavior, addictions and depression. While the “Roaring 20s” in affluent countries gave some examples of the excesses of affluence that were swept away by the Great Depression and Second World War, the three generations of affluence since then have stimulated lifestyles and behaviors that are amplifying unsustainable resource consumption to new heights. The onset of severe psychosocial dysfunction in the long affluent western world could be as powerful a force as the financial system instability.
• Species extinction
The accelerating rate of species extinctions suggests humans have initiated a wave of extinctions on the scale of the asteroid that is believed to be the cause of the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Apart from the ethical and psychological issues involved, it is hard to predict how, and when this will result in major adverse impacts on humanity other than to recognize that it is eroding the genetic base that we will increasingly depend on in the future, as well as increasing ecological instability that is undermining our ability to produce food.
Despite the severity of these and other associated problems I see climate change and peak oil as the most fundamental ones for the following reasons:
1. They both are inevitable consequences of the accelerating use of fossil fuels, the undeniable primary factor in creating the explosion of human numbers, cultural complexity and impacts on nature.
2. They both appear to be generating immediate and severe threats to humanity
3. They both show a long term pattern of accelerating intensity
4. They both contribute directly or indirectly to the impact of the other serious problems threatening humanity and nature.
To suggest that the next energy transition will fall well short of the past patterns of human collective expectations is a gross understatement. My quick overview of evidence around the most critical issues suggests we need to refocus our assumptions about the future around energy descent while developing the psycho-social and eco-technical capacity to respond to the range of possible scenarios that we could face.
While continued efforts to better understand the rate of onset of climate change and the decline in oil production is very useful, an equally important task is to understand how these factors will combine to create differing futures.
Continued in (Survival Manual/2. Social Issues/Our Future, Part 3 of 4)