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Page added on June 26, 2012

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Forget peak oil, we may have reached ‘peak GDP’

Forget peak oil, we may have reached ‘peak GDP’ thumbnail

We will find out in this century whether we are living in the era of peak everything: peak food, peak water, peak biodiversity, peak energy, peak population and even peak gross domestic product – argues campaigner

Economic growth and population growth, these are undoubtedly the questions of our time. These questions are highlighted by most of today’s major news events: climate disruption, economic meltdown, hunger, poverty, species extinction and economic inequity. We have all heard of peak oil, but we will find out in this century whether we are living in the era of peak everything: peak food, peak water, peak biodiversity, peak energy, peak population and even peak gross domestic product. Several of these scenarios are potentially cataclysmic and we face them precisely because we have been embracing values and pursuing policies that are inherently unsustainable.

Behind these values and policies is a nearly universal belief in the benefits and essentiality of growth. Increasing the scale of humanity – population and economic throughput – has long been considered both good and inevitable. As a civilization, we have avoided examining whether such expansion continues to benefit us and whether it is even feasible going forward.

It seems quite logical to think that humanity cannot increase our population and economy forever if we are limited to planet earth as our life-support system. Economist Kenneth Boulding described it rather articulately in 1966 when he wrote of the “spaceman” economy. We can no more expect the earth to support 12 billion people – or 7 billion living like millionaires – than we could expect one of today’s spacecraft to provide bunks, food, oxygen and water for 500 crewmembers. If we can understand this at the small scale of a spaceship, why is it that we cannot comprehend it on a global level?

Growth optimists assure us the scale of the human enterprise on earth is not limited by natural resource supplies. This is based on a belief system rationalised by the observation that we have managed to “innovate” our way around resource limits during 200 years of unprecedented growth. It is difficult, if not impossible, to change this kind of faith with words of logic – or even facts. Once we conclude our current values and practices are unsustainable or no longer delivering good lives, we are faced with the question of what should replace them.

While a list of prescriptive, sustainable policies and practices can be assembled – it would be long, incomplete and unreliable. We do not know all the answers, because up to now too few of us have applied our creative genius to this exercise. Those few have had too little time and opportunity to fully explore alternative systems and strategies. This is not to say there aren’t some good efforts underway.

A necessary first step, however, is much simpler – though not any easier. That step is to alter the fundamental value or belief that underpins our civilisation’s policies and practices. That is a crucial first step, one that will unlock a treasure trove of possibilities. We must move from a fundamental belief in the wondrous powers and possibilities of endless growth, to an understanding that we live in a spaceman economy. We need to believe in the wonders of nature, including its beauty, but also its necessity, its fragility, and – most importantly – its limits.

We must replace our emphasis on quantity with a focus on quality, give up more and embrace enough, jettison competition and value collaboration. Once we take that step, we turn the key and open the door to a world of possibilities. We will unleash creative minds to contemplate, experiment and try new ideas and models for practices, policies and systems that can allow our civilisation to live within its means on earth.

Public Service Europe


11 Comments on "Forget peak oil, we may have reached ‘peak GDP’"

  1. BillT on Tue, 26th Jun 2012 2:55 pm 

    Tech forever! The new religion and all about hope, not reality. All we have to do is pretend we can change about 7 billion minds and hundreds of years of ingrained habits in the next few years.

    It took decades to get people to accept that cigarettes killed, and there are still a significant percentage who light up and will never quit until they’re dead. And you want to change whole lifestyles almost overnight while the capitalist elite still brainwash most of the world with advertising, reinforcing the consumer child in all of us to spend, buy, waste…until we drop dead in Walmart. Then they will sell our loved ones a very expensive burial system to make the elite richer one last time. Change the 1% and you will change the world.

  2. DC on Tue, 26th Jun 2012 5:53 pm 

    Our course we ‘innovated’ our way around our problems. We did it with by throwing more cheap fossil-fuels and resources at our ‘problems’, while ironically, makeing them worse at the same time. Innovation works really well when you have cheap energy and resources to throw at problems that cheap energy and resources helped create in the first place. Its a lot harder, not impossible, just very hard, when those resources you plan to innovate your problems away(temporarily), are suddendly a lot more expensive and not near as plentiful.

  3. Arthur on Tue, 26th Jun 2012 7:20 pm 

    Peak oil and peak GDP go hand in hand.

    Technology was fueled by… well fuel. Fuel enabled technology and technology used fuel. That’s not an argument against technology, it is merely an argument technology with a high energy footprint. I am always slightly amused when good old Bill, sitting somewhere in a (air-conditioned?) room in the Philipines, keeps on fulminating against technology in general and broadcasting his message over the entire planet using the most sophisticated technology ever invented: IT, the internet, servers, glass fiber cables and microprocessors. I agree with Bill that industrial society, certainly in the coming decades, is dead in the water. Cars, aviation, steel mills, aluminium factories, all to be vanished, at least to a large extent. But we must not throw away the child with the bathwater. We need to select what can be used in the future and what not. Technology means: genius, art, efficiency, productivity and most of all: methods. You can build a medieval cathedral without fossil fuels, but not without technology. Culture will be transformed by the impending depletion of everything. There is no reason why in the future we will not be able to produce new marvels of culture & technology. One thing is already clear: future society will be centered around IT with a low energy footprint. Bill should think about that when he presses the Submit Comment button under his next post.

  4. keith on Tue, 26th Jun 2012 8:31 pm 

    I heard every time you do a google search it’s like boiling a cup of water.
    I don’t know how low the foot print IT is. Think of all the mining we do to obtain the materials to build and maintain IT. IT has it’s place but it requires massive energy to run. How many people leave their Computer’s on and cell phone chargers on all day. We really face a population problem. It’s been ignored up to now, because increasing pop equals increasing GDP/GNP, but these increases require energy. Now with energy becoming limited? I guess we face, like any other species, that threshold where food production can’t keep up with the Pop. We tech save us? Tech will save those who have energy!

  5. Arthur on Tue, 26th Jun 2012 9:10 pm 

    Keith:

    Energy Requirements for the Internet:

    http://deepresource.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/1436/

  6. BillT on Wed, 27th Jun 2012 3:51 am 

    Arthur, I do think about it before I push the Submit button…lol. Do you really understand the levels of energy it takes to keep the internet online? I think not. It is more than satellites, undersea cables and towers. It is thousands of people all over the world in buildings air condition like my condo and powered by huge banks of generators somewhere nearby. It is mines and trains, trucks, ships, and planes moving the materials that make all of the support items for the system. It is factories and people and their living energy needs. It is again rockets that put new satellites in orbit, ships that replace cables under the seas, it is trucks and cranes that repair and replace towers by the thousands. All of these require huge amounts of energy in the form of fuels. You cannot orbit a satellite using electricity. Nor can you mine minerals or ores. Then we have the end users of this one technology that requires all those receiving gadgets they are constantly upgrading so we buy new ones.

    Yes, tech will survive, but on an 18th century level that does not require energy input beyond wood and sunlight.

  7. BillT on Wed, 27th Jun 2012 3:56 am 

    Arthur, what I am saying is that IT cannot exist on a ‘low energy’ level. Maybe until those toys wear out, but then it is over.

  8. JohnRM on Wed, 27th Jun 2012 5:28 am 

    There is a chance that a solar/hydrogen economy could work, but its real iffy, at this point.

  9. DC on Wed, 27th Jun 2012 6:38 am 

    There is no such thing as a ‘solar’\hydrogen’ economy. There have been solar economies for thousands of years, loosely referred to as, pre-industrial civilization. Some were very powerful, complex and highly organized, even by current standards. There is no such thing as a hydrogen economy, because a H2 economy would require more energy to run than it produces. Our ‘economy’ works because it produces lots of net energy. Everything you take for granted exists because of this single fact. A H2 economy would turn that on its head. Producing H2 would deliver energy at a net-loss to society. What would a economy like that look like to us? It would be a high-tech fuudalism where 5-10% of the population gets to live comfortable, while the other 90% toil with hand-tools and live in houses with dirt floors to make it possible for the 10% to live like kings.

    A high tech solar economy is not impossible, but it too, would be less energy intensive than what we think of as normal.And would support less people than we have now. Solar power could run basic services, lights, communication, It would be far less than what we take for granted now. No $99 flights to disney-land and wall-mart on a solar budget-even a high-tech one.

    GDP is going to shrink along with shrinking oil production. It will still shrink if we use Solar power, and it would completely tank if we were dumb enough to try to power things with H2.

  10. Rick on Wed, 27th Jun 2012 3:49 pm 

    Sorry the Internet in the long term, is not sustainable. Meaning I agree with BillT.

  11. Arthur on Wed, 27th Jun 2012 6:55 pm 

    http://energyzarr.typepad.com/energyzarrnationalcom/2008/08/the-true-cost-o.html

    100 page requests of 350k each cost 0.3 Watthour.

    That’s nothing.

    Bill, we do not need satellites for the internet, just cables, which are already in place, at least in the developed world.

    Kiss your car goodbye but the internet is here to stay.

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