Peak Oil is You

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Page added on April 9, 2012

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The Earth Is Full

For 50 years the environmental movement has unsuccessfully argued that we should save the planet for moral reasons, that there were more important things than money. Ironically, it now seems it will be money — through the economic impact of climate change and resource constraint — that will motivate the sweeping changes necessary to avert catastrophe.

The reason is we have now reached a moment where four words — the earth is full — will define our times. This is not a philosophical statement; this is just science based in physics, chemistry and biology. There are many science-based analyses of this, but they all draw the same conclusion — that we’re living beyond our means.

The eminent scientists of the Global Footprint Network, for example, calculate that we need about 1.5 Earths to sustain this economy. In other words, to keep operating at our current level, we need 50% more Earth than we’ve got.

Watch Paul Gilding’s TED Talk

In financial terms, this would be like always spending 50% more than you earn, going further into debt every year. But of course, you can’t borrow natural resources, so we’re burning through our capital, or stealing from the future.

While they use different words, leaders and experts around the world are acknowledging this. Chinese Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian said last year, “The depletion, deterioration and exhaustion of resources and the worsening ecological environment have become bottlenecks and grave impediments to (our) economic and social development.” If I had said that in the ’90s, when I was the global head of Greenpeace, it would have been dismissed as doom-and-gloom extremism!

Even the previous heresy, that economic growth has limits, is on the table. Belief in infinite growth on a finite planet was always irrational, but it is the nature of denial to ignore hard evidence. Now denial is evaporating, even in the financial markets. As influential fund manager Jeremy Grantham of GMO says: “The fact is that no compound growth is sustainable. If we maintain our desperate focus on growth, we will run out of everything and crash.” Or as peak oil expert Richard Heinberg argues, we are moving beyond peak oil and into “peak everything.”

Despite this emerging understanding, the growth concept is so deeply ingrained in our thinking that we will keep pushing economic growth as hard as we can, at whatever cost is required.

As a result, the crisis will be big, it will be soon, and it will be economic, not environmental. The fact is the planet will take further bludgeoning, further depleting its capital, but the economy cannot — so we’ll respond not because the environment is under great threat, but because the science and economics shows that something far more important to us is jeopardized — economic growth.

A good indicator is that, despite the recession of the past few years, oil and food prices are approaching record highs again, driven by underlying, long-term trends that even a recession can’t slow down. Grantham calls this “the most important economic event since the Industrial Revolution.”

If serious growth returns, the resulting resource price spikes, particularly oil and food, will soon kill it again. As a result, what we are facing is not a few bad years of slow growth like this past recession, but a fundamental shift — the end of cheap resources and an environment in a state of collapse.

Even normally cautious bodies like the International Energy Agency and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development are sounding the alarm, with the latter recently releasing a comprehensive report forecasting a world in 2050 that will be defined by resource constraint and its economic impacts. They even dare to ask: “Will the growth process undermine itself?”

So when this crisis hits, will we respond or will we simply slide into collapse? Crisis elicits a powerful human response, whether it be personal health, natural disaster, corporate crisis or national threat. Previously immovable barriers to change quickly disappear.

In this case, the crisis will be global and will manifest as the end of economic growth, thereby striking at the very heart of our model of human progress. While that will make the task of ending denial harder, it also means what’s at risk is, quite simply, everything we hold to be important. The last time this happened was World War II, and our response to that is illustrative of both the denial and delay process and the likely form our response to this crisis will take.

When we look at history we tend to see the progress of events as inevitable, but it was rarely so at the time. Indeed, the UK’s powerful response to Hitler and the United States’ equally extraordinary mobilization after Pearl Harbor both followed long years of denial and debate.

Many argued that the threat wasn’t that great, the response would be too expensive to afford, the public wouldn’t support it. Sound familiar? But when the response came, when the scale of the threat was finally accepted, our response was breathtaking. As Churchill told his country: “It is no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”

With denial gone, governments knew what was “necessary.” They directed industry to support the war — banning civilian auto production just four days after Pearl Harbor. They raised massive amounts of money to fund investment and technology research at an extraordinary scale — indeed, U.S. spending on the war rose from 1.6% of GDP in 1940 to 37% just five years later. To achieve this, they curtailed personal consumption and drove remarkable behavior change to free up financial and other resources for the war effort.

Do you find this hard to imagine today? Then try to imagine the alternative — that in a collapsing global economy and society we will stand by and simply watch the slide. There is no precedent in modern history on which to base that conclusion and plenty of evidence for the alternative. Humanity may be slow, but we are not stupid. Get ready for the great disruption.


8 Comments on "The Earth Is Full"

  1. Kenz300 on Mon, 9th Apr 2012 1:11 am 

    Quote — “we are moving beyond peak oil and into “peak everything.”

    Too many people and too few resources.

    It is time to focus on the people. Every country needs to develop a plan to balance population, food, water, energy, oil, and jobs. Those that do not will be trying to export their excess people to other countries.

  2. BillT on Mon, 9th Apr 2012 2:41 am 

    Perhaps, in a perfect world, we could turn our path to one of lessor things and zero growth, but that is not going to happen. It would take a huge book to list and enumerate all of the things in the way. Stupidity and greed being the main two obstructions. Neither will be overcome in any time frame that will save our civilization. There is no desire to change by 99.999% of the population, and especially the 1% that controls the world today.

  3. Peak Oil Survival on Mon, 9th Apr 2012 3:41 am 

    We must quit arguing over the issues and start preparing for what has already begun.

  4. Kenjamkov on Mon, 9th Apr 2012 8:55 am 

    We need to experiment with resource based economies, yesterday. Hundreds of small resource based communities to learn from each other, networked even, so we can design a better, sustainable, system.

    The economic system is clearly flawed.

  5. Mike on Mon, 9th Apr 2012 10:36 am 

    I Utterly agree with Kenjamkov. Resource based economies are the only way out that i can see. I have studied anarcho capitalism and the telling point with that otherwise interesting angle is that most of them deny peak oil, climate change and resource depletion and don’t even begin to understand net energy. Anarcho Capitalists (free markets) think technology always has and always will sort out all our problems (history proves this false)

    The RBE is the only system i have ever scene that make 100% sense. People seem to think it is centrally planned due to the fact a computer shares out global resources equally as and when they are needed. To me this seems no different to what we have already in place in supermarket stock control (on a larger scale) but with the best interests of all humans and animals.

    As Kenjamkov says, we need to start creating independent villages/towns that are self sustaining and voluntary (free of money). we then network all these villages together and share ideas (open source)

    As other towns collapse due to the short comings of a globalized market based on cheap energy these eco towns will grow and voluntarily help other people to build their own towns and to help educate them on how an RBE works.

    The only thing stopping it is a lack of education and fear of change. There is no scientific reason why in 10 years we couldn’t all be living in a totally money free environment with open access to travel anywhere and do whatever we want. free markets (selfishness) are standing in our way.

  6. Arthur on Mon, 9th Apr 2012 3:28 pm 

    Never heard of RBE before…

  7. Kenz300 on Mon, 9th Apr 2012 6:52 pm 

    Is your community sustainable?

    Does it produce it’s own biofuels?

    Does you local landfill produce biofuels, energy (methane) and raw materials for new products?

    Does your community produce food grown locally?

    Does you community have a local distributed power source for electric generation?

    Does wind and solar power play a part in your communities energy system?

    Can we move to a more self reliant and sustainable future?

  8. Mike on Tue, 10th Apr 2012 12:05 am 

    Take a look Arthur

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