We're at the end of growth. Growth of the economy, of consumption, of wealth. Below I'll describe in brief why this is the case and the beginnings of what we might do about it.
Last week I mentioned that the predicaments we face with energy and the environment, especially as they impact the economy, are often viewed from a optimistic or a pessimistic angle.
Optimists proclaim: someone will figure out a solution, technology is advancing so fast that it will solve everything, the problems aren't as bad as people think, there is a great plan and once we convince everyone to implement it we're set, etc. Pessimists counter: civilization is inherently irredeemable, everything we do hurts the environment, we deserve a comeuppance for how badly we've trashed the planet, etc.
As the data comes in, the optimistic view isn't supported by the facts, but the pessimistic view makes things worse than they need to be. Maybe we need something new. Let's call it optimistic pessimism.
By optimistic pessimism I mean that there is cause for pessimism, but instead of viewing that pessimism as inherent and letting it run its course, we need to take an optimistic view regardless.
There are cold hard truths we first need to grapple with: we have passed or are near many of the peaks in natural resources, both by drawing down non-renewable resources and by hyperexploiting renewable ones.
For example, here are some points we've passed and haven't looked back (approximate dates):
- 1979: Peak per-capita gross energy production
- 1986: Peak grain per capita
- 1989-1995: Peak wild fish catch
- 1990: Peak net energy production
- 2000: Peak fresh water availability
- 2005: Peak conventional oil production
- 2011-14: Peak all-liquids (conventional+unconventional oil) production
It's possible to overshoot a resource base - civilizations have done it time and again - but only temporarily.
The list above is a small subset of what we've depleted or are depleting, and many of the critical ones - oil, for instance - have no real substitutes. As I mentioned last week, even if there were substitutes, we would have to have started a crash program 20 years ago to transition without economic impacts. But it's too late for that.
So what might happen? Let's focus on oil for now. By all indications we are currently in the period of peak liquid fuel production, and the prices we're seeing reflect that. Most recessions in the past few decades have coincided with an oil price spike.
However, since oil production was increasing steadily until the mid 2000s, the economy had head room to grow. That is, after each recession, it took a while for prices to rise because despite increasing demand, production was going up too. Now production is flat and soon to be headed down, so even a partial recovery like the one we're experiencing now is sufficient to cause a price spike, and drive a new recession; I expect we'll see another recession or slowdown within the next 12 months. That means that our recoveries never get us out of the hole we were in from the previous recession before the next recession digs us down even deeper.
"Energy scarcity will cause a recession of a new kind - one from which anything other than a temporary, partial recovery will be impossible. We humans may, if we are intelligent and deliberate, create a different kind of economy in the future, building steady-state, low-energy, sustainable societies...But the industrial-growth global economy that we are familiar with will be gone forever. The timing of this event will depend upon that of the global petroleum production peak."
In other words, we're at the Limits to Growth that seemed so far off when they were first predicted (here is their business-as-usual scenario from their 2004 update):
That doesn't mean the industrial economy will disappear overnight, but it does mean that we should expect a cycle of recessions followed by brief (~3-5 year) partial recoveries, continuing for the next couple of decades. Consider what your life might be like after 3 or 4 cycles of recessions with no meaningful recovery, what the economy might be like, what your community might be like.
What it does mean is that we're at the End of Growth as we know it. That's a major turning point, as our entire economy depends upon growth to continue functioning. What will happen when growth no longer occurs due to fundamental resource constraints?
Now for the optimism. Not the kind that usually goes with these sorts of posts: I'm not going to suggest a rescue remedy that will solve the problems above, because there isn't one.
Rather, I'm going to suggest that this isn't the end of the world and individual action is worth undertaking.
Alternative energy won't resolve the matter, as I discussed last week, because there isn't enough time for a transition. Conservation may be the only option we have, but most wouldn't consider that a "solution" because it requires us to fundamentally change how we live. We're at a point where large scale collective (governmental) action is unlikely. However, individual action is still available to us, and can make a difference in our own lives and those around us. The key is to avoid falling into the trap of false solutions.
Here are some things (far from comprehensive), from easiest to hardest, that each of us can do to prepare for this new, hard time. None of these are new ideas:
- Weatherize one's home or apartment
- Stop purchasing consumables and disposables
- Eat only organic, local produce
- Stop eating meat/eggs/dairy not from farms that are local, grassfed, and organic
- Use public transportation and travel by train
- Grow, prepare, and preserve and can one's own food
- Use only truly renewable energy sources
- Withdraw from the money economy
It is difficult to do them all at once, and few have done them all yet. I certainly haven't, but I'm making progress on each. In time, we will all be forced to do all of them - it's just a matter of whether we're forced into it or proactively adjust to new circumstances.
I'll write more about false solutions next time.
Update: Here are a number of great books to check out on these topics. I've tried to roughly organize them.
The Ecotechnic Future, John Michael Greer
The Post-Carbon Reader, Richard Heinberg et al.
What We Leave Behind, Derrick Jensen
Deep Economy, Bill McKibben
The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan