Category Archives: MuseLetter

# 206: Look on the Bright Side

MuseLetter 206 / June 2009 by Richard Heinberg

This month’s MuseLetter brings together two pieces that share a connecting theme — is humanity capable of making the necessary changes to save the planet and so itself? The first article Look on the Bright Side discusses this from the viewpoint of the huge shifts that are already occuring as a result of economic decline. Somebody’s Gotta Do It explores the job of trying to lead change and the challenges faced by all who attempt so to do.

Look on the Bright Side

Recently I’ve begun compiling a list of things to be cheerful about. Here are some items that should bring a smile to any environmentalist’s lips:

World energy consumption is declining. That’s right: oil consumption is down, coal consumption is down, and the IEA is projecting world electricity consumption to decline by 3.5 percent this year. I’m sure it’s possible to find a few countries where energy use is still growing, but for the US, China, and most of the European countries that is no longer the case. A small army of writers and activists, including me, has been arguing for years now that the world should voluntarily reduce its energy consumption, because current rates of use are unsustainable for various reasons including the fact that fossil fuels are depleting. Yes, we should build renewable energy capacity, but replacing the energy from fossil fuels will be an enormous job, and we can make that job less daunting by reducing our overall energy appetite. Done.
CO2 emissions are falling. This follows from the previous point. I’m still waiting for confirmation from direct NOAA measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere, but it stands to reason that if world oil and coal consumption is declining, then carbon emissions must be doing so as well. The economic crisis has accomplished what the Kyoto Protocol couldn’t. Hooray!
Consumption of goods is falling. Every environmentalist I know spends a good deal of her time railing both publicly and privately against consumerism. We in the industrialized countries use way too much stuff — because that stuff is made from depleting natural resources (both renewable and non-renewable) and the Earth is running out of fresh water, topsoil, lithium, indium, zinc, antimony…the list is long. Books have been written trying to convince people to simplify their lives and use less, films have been produced and shown on PBS, and support groups have formed to help families kick the habit, but still the consumer juggernaut has continued — until now. This particular dragon may not be slain, but it’s cowering in its den.
Globalization is in reverse (global trade is shrinking). Back in the early 1990s, when globalization was a new word, an organization of brilliant activists formed the International Forum on Globalization (IFG) to educate the public about the costs and dangers of this accelerating trend. Corporations were off-shoring their production and pollution, ruining manufacturing communities in formerly industrial rich nations while ruthlessly exploiting cheap labor in less-industrialized poor countries. IFG was able to change the public discourse about globalization enough to stall the expansion of the World Trade Organization, but still world trade continued to mushroom. Not any more. China’s and Japan’s exports are way down, as is the US trade deficit.
The number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is falling. For decades the number of total miles traveled by all cars and trucks on US roads has relentlessly increased. This was a powerful argument for building more roads. People bought more cars and drove them further; trucks restocked factories and stores at an ever-growing pace; and delivery vans brought more packages to consumers who shopped from home. All of this driving entailed more tires, pavement, and fuel — and more environmental damage. Over the past few months the VMT number has declined substantially and continually, to a greater extent than has been the case since records started being kept. That’s welcome news.
There are fewer cars on the road. People are junking old cars faster than new ones are being purchased. In the US, where there are now more cars on the road than there are licensed drivers, this represents an extraordinary shift in a very long-standing trend. In her wonderful book Divorce Your Car, Katie Alvord detailed the extraordinary environmental costs of widespread automobile use. Evidently her book didn’t stem the tide: it was published in the year 2000, and millions of new cars hit the pavement in the following years. But now the world’s auto manufacturers are desperately trying to steer clear of looming bankruptcy, simply because people aren’t buying. In fact, in the first four months of 2009, more bicycles were sold in the US than cars and trucks put together (over 2.55 million bicycles were purchased, compared to fewer than 2.4 million cars and trucks). How utterly cool.
The world’s over-leveraged, debt-based financial system is failing. Growth in consumption is killing the planet, but arguing against economic growth is made difficult by the fact that most of the world’s currencies are essentially loaned into existence, and those loans must be repaid with interest. Thus if the economy isn’t growing, and therefore if more loans aren’t being made, thus causing more money to be created, the result will be a cascading series of defaults and foreclosures that will ruin the entire system. It’s not a sustainable system given the fact that the world’s resources (the ultimate basis for all economic activity) are finite; and, as the proponents of Ecological and Biophysical Economics have been saying for years, it’s a system that needs to be replaced with one that can still function in a condition of steady or contracting consumption rates. While that sustainable alternative is not yet being discussed by government leaders, at least they are being forced to consider (if not yet publicly) the possibility that the existing system has serious problems and that it may need a thorough overhaul. That’s a good thing.
Gardening is going gonzo. According to the New York Times (“College Interns Getting Back to Land,” May 25) thousands of college students are doing summer internships on farms this year. Meanwhile seed companies are having a hard time keeping up with demand, as home gardeners put in an unusually high number of veggie gardens. Urban farmer Will Allen predicts that there will be 8 million new gardeners this year, and the number of new gardens is expected to increase 20 to 40 percent this season. Since world oil production has peaked, there is going to be less oil available in the future to fuel industrial agriculture, so we are going to need more gardens, more small farms, and more farmers. Never mind the motives of all these students and home gardeners — few of them have ever heard of Peak Oil, and many of the gardeners are probably just worried whether they can afford to keep the pantry full next winter; nevertheless, they’re doing the right thing. And that’s something to applaud.

But wait, before our cheering becomes an uncontrollable frenzy, we should stop to remember that most of these developments are due to an economic crisis that is taking a huge toll. With the possible exception of the last item on the list (and maybe some of those bicycle purchases), we’re not talking about voluntary behavior that’s evidence of forethought and collective intelligence. Whatever gains in sustainability these trends signify have come at an enormous cost in terms of unemployment, homelessness, and lost retirement savings.

Take all this to its tragic extreme. What if a billion humans died over the course of, say, the next ten years from starvation or swine flu? That would take a lot of pressure off natural systems. There would be more space for other species to flourish, and consumption of natural resources (oil, coal, water, and so on) would decline dramatically, improving the economic prospects of the survivors. So from a certain perspective this unimaginable nightmare might be seen as a good thing — though hardly anyone who actually experienced it would likely see it that way.

Parenthetically, it’s worth noting that this whole line of thought may be dangerous. Some free-market PR hack from the Cato Institute is likely reading along right now just as you are, trying out headlines for a press release. “Environmentalist delights in economic collapse!” might be a good one, or “Environmentalist wants billions of humans to die!” One way to avert that kind of backlash is to keep mum about the fact that economic contraction actually does have benefits, and so far most other environmental writers have been playing it safe in that regard. I’ve crossed the line here, so watch out. I might get us all in trouble.

Now back to our theme. At its core, the dilemma is this: We humans have overshot Earth’s carrying capacity through overpopulation and over-consumption, and have created all sorts of other problems in doing so (such as climate change). But nature will take care of all these difficulties. Overpopulation will eventually be solved by starvation and disease. Over-consumption will be reined in by resource depletion and scarcity. Climate change will take longer to fix, maybe thousands or millions of years — assuming we don’t turn Earth into Venus.

But nature’s ways of solving our problems are not going to be pleasant. And so the enormous, overriding question confronting our species during the remainder of this century will be, Are we humans capable of getting out ahead of nature’s checks so as to proactively rein in our population and consumption in ways we can live with?

Boil down all the environmental literature of the past century, and that’s the essence of most of it. So far, that literature has not had its desired effect: our species has continued to expand both in numbers and in per-capita impact.

But the items outlined above suggest that we’ve turned a corner. It’s no longer a matter of nature “eventually” providing checks on humanity’s boisterous expansionism. That’s starting to happen. And it’s not yet due to climate change: yes, we are indeed seeing potentially catastrophic impacts in terms of melting glaciers and so on, but those by themselves have not tempered the economic juggernaut. Instead, it is resource depletion that has begun to slow the freight train of industrialism. Over the past two or three years, high energy prices burst the bubble of unsupportable property prices and pulled the rug out from beneath the teetering financial derivatives market.

That’s what the whole Peak Oil discussion has really been about. It’s an attempt to identify the key resource whose scarcity will tip the global economy from growth to contraction.

But wait: this essay was supposed to help us look on the bright side. The discussion’s getting kind of dark here.

Okay, my point is this: we have reached the inevitable turning point. The growth trance that has gripped the world for the past several decades is in the process of ending. Even if we get short periods of economic growth, that growth will be in the context of a significantly contracted economy and will only be temporary in any case, as Peak Oil and other resource constraints will quickly damper increasing economic activity. Gradually, as “recovery” gets put off for another month, another year, another few years, people may begin to realize that the expansionary phase of the era of cheap energy is finished. There are of course no guarantees that the public and their business and political leaders will indeed finally “get it,” because the urge to hang onto the growth illusion will be very strong indeed. But if the misery persists, there’s at least a chance that understanding will finally dawn in the collective mind of our species — the understanding that we must get out ahead of nature’s checks and deliberately reduce the scale of the human enterprise in ways that maximize the prospects of both present and future generations.

But all won’t automatically come to that conclusion on their own. A fundamental change in our comprehension of the human condition will depend on more and more public intellectuals articulating the message of deliberate adaptation to limits, so that the general populace has the necessary conceptual tools with which to mentally process their new circumstances. We will also need far more people working on practical elements of the transition. Those will be ongoing needs — a growth opportunity, if you will pardon the irony, for smart and articulate young people interested in making a difference. And they’ll be most successful if they find ways of framing needed behavior and attitudinal changes in ways that are attractive and inviting — as the Transition Initiatives so brilliantly do.

So in that sense, when I say “Look on the bright side,” no irony or sarcasm is intended.

Somebody’s Gotta Do It

(First published May 4)

Hi. My job is trying to save the world, and I’d like to tell you a little about my line of work.

First, it’s a job I enjoy. I get to feel good about what I do, and I meet a lot of smart, interesting people. I get to travel to exciting places to attend conferences, and at least some people respect my efforts (though many others think I’m crazy or misguided).

It’s not all a bed of roses. The biggest problems with trying to save the world are: first, that it doesn’t always seem to want to be saved; and second, that those of us trying to save it can’t agree on why it needs saving or how to go about doing so. Let me explain.

When I say “save the world,” I mean preventing human civilization from collapsing in a chaotic, violent way that would entail enormous amounts of suffering and death. I also mean preserving the natural world, so as to minimize species extinctions and the loss of wild habitat. I regard both of these priorities as about equally important, since they are closely interrelated: if civilization collapses chaotically, billions of people will do an enormous amount of damage to remaining ecosystems in their desperate attempts at survival; and if nature goes first, that means civilization will go too, because we rely on ecosystem services for everything we do.

But not everyone who works full-time at saving the world has the same balance of priorities. There are some world-savers who are only (or primarily) concerned about human welfare. Some of these folks are just interested in saving people’s souls by getting them to subscribe to some set of beliefs or other: for them, the world needs “saving” because it is wicked. Others are concerned with human rights or economic justice or international conflict; for them, the biggest threats to our survival are from other people. Then there are those who have concluded that our survival challenge is primarily of an environmental kind: the disappearance of polar bears or honey bees, or the logging of rainforests, or the depletion of resources, or the contamination of the atmosphere or the oceans.

This is a problem. If all of us world-savers can’t get on the same page about what’s wrong, our efforts are likely to lack coherence, or might even cancel one another out. There are no doubt full-time humanitarians who believe that the world needs to be saved from people like me! — from people, that is, who are non-believers and who insist that the size of the human population has to be reduced.

Moreover, if we professional world-savers can’t agree on what the problem is, how do we know there is a problem in the first place? Might the world be better off if we spent our personal energies elsewhere — figuring out how to get rich, or teaching elementary school, or inventing the next generation of social networking software?

Well, I’m obviously personally convinced that the world has some unprecedented challenges on its hands, or I wouldn’t be in this line of work. I could write at great length (as I have elsewhere) about what these challenges are, how they arose, and what we should be doing about them, but there’s no need to repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that I think that we humans, by our very nature, and by the rules of biological existence, will always have problems of fairly predictable kinds, but we have recently gained access to concentrated but depleting non-renewable energy sources that have enabled us to grow our population and appetites for commodities of various sorts to utterly unsustainable levels; and in the process of burning carbon-based fuels we have set in motion a process of climate change that is rapidly spiraling out of control. This is going to be a tough set of problems to solve, because it involves changing people’s lifestyles and expectations, sharing nature’s dwindling bounty of non-renewable resources rather than fighting over the crumbs, and finding ways to reduce population proactively without interfering too much with human rights.

To me, all of this seems obvious, steeped as I am in data showing the limits to various resources, the likely consequences of continued economic and population growth, and the rapidly worsening damage to our environment (and hence to our planet’s ability to support future generations of humans). But I often meet sincere, dedicated people who see things quite differently.

Given that there isn’t a consensus among us, can we world-savers accomplish anything useful?

Well, there is something of a consensus after all. These days most environmentalist world-savers seem to be focused on the problem of climate change resulting from greenhouse gas emissions, almost to the exclusion of any other concern. If you ever happen to attend a meeting of environmental activists, you are likely to hear nearly every discussion turn on carbon dioxide emissions — emissions reduction targets, emissions reduction strategies, future emissions scenarios, and climate sensitivity to various levels of emissions. But even within the increasingly numerous and vocal anti-carbon crowd, there are differences of opinion regarding tactics: some (like Dr. James Hansen of NASA, arguably the nation’s top climate scientist) support carbon taxes, reasoning that cap-and-trade policies will take too long to negotiate and can be gamed in various ways; others (like author Bill McKibben, arguably the nation’s top climate activist) support caps, reasoning that new taxes of any kind are a non-starter for political reasons, at least here in the US (don’t worry: Hansen and McKibben are still friends). Many mainstream environmental organizations back the notion of a carbon market, in which permits to emit CO2 would be auctioned and traded; but Friends of the Earth has come out with a paper titled “Subprime Carbon,” arguing that a market in carbon permits will result in “futures contracts to deliver carbon that carry a relatively high risk of not being fulfilled,” leading to a carbon bubble and an eventual collapse in value. While “world-savers” funded by the big energy conglomerates (I put the term in quotes this time because while these folks act like the genuine article in many respects, their real priority is not to save the human or natural world, but merely some company or industry) want carbon permits to be given away to existing polluters, nearly everyone else thinks the permits should be auctioned. Most existing US congressional cap-and-trade bills (like Waxman-Markey) mandate that proceeds from the auctions should go to government, but many activists (like Peter Barnes, author of Capitalism 3.0) say that the proceeds should be distributed equally to all citizens to help defray the increased energy costs that will result from carbon caps.

US climate policy will soon be decided by Congress, and a global policy will then be hashed out in Copenhagen, so environmentalist world-savers are working overtime these days to get their proposals and perspectives heard.

The fact that so many of us are now focused on one problem is good, especially since it is indeed a survival issue. But I fear that some essential details are being overlooked in the process. Here’s a key example.

Reducing carbon emissions essentially means using less coal, oil, and gas (since carbon capture and sequestration is arguably unrealistic on any substantial scale, other than by reforestation and regenerative agricultural practices). Since “clean” sources of energy probably can’t be scaled up to replace fossil fuels entirely, this means the world will have less energy to go around. (It will no doubt soon have less to go around in any case, because fossil fuels are non-renewable and depleting, and we’ve probably already passed the peak of world oil production — but don’t get me started on that.)

Historically, there has been a very close correlation between energy consumption growth and economic growth, so with less energy available it may not be possible to continue growing the global economy in customary ways. Almost nobody in the climate community wants to talk about that, because the very suggestion that strong, effective climate policies will have a significant economic cost makes such policies far less palatable to folks on Main Street, and certainly to politicians. But I think we should be giving this matter a lot of attention no matter how inconvenient it may be: the fact is, we have an economy that’s designed only to grow; if it stops growing — as has happened over the past six months — the results are perceived as catastrophe. If world energy supplies are set to contract, we need a different kind of economy, one that can still function with a stable or declining throughput of materials and energy. But we’re not even going to start trying to design one until more people start telling the truth about where we’re headed.

This points up one of the dilemmas that go along with trying to save the world: should one just tell the truth fearlessly, or try to frame one’s message so as to make it generally acceptable? The two options aren’t always mutually exclusive, but neither are they exactly the same thing. You see, most people don’t want to be too alarmed, and they don’t want to hear about problems to which there are no ready solutions. So world-savers frequently try to tailor their public statements so that large numbers of people won’t be frightened to the point of despair and paralysis. How many times have I been told, “Keep it positive! Emphasize solutions!” Yet I can’t tell you how often I’ve sat down with an activist whose latest policy paper is all about solutions, and in heart-to-heart conversation they reveal that they don’t really think our species has much of a chance of avoiding major catastrophe, maybe even extinction.

It’s a tough balance. If you tell the truth to a fault, you don’t get invited to policy seminars, and politicians avoid you like swine flu. If you sugar coat the message, you have to live with the knowledge that the vast majority of people on our planet have almost no awareness of what is about to happen to them, and you aren’t telling them. Some of us in the world-saving business naturally gravitate to one side of the spectrum or the other, and I try to be respectful about why people make their choices in this regard. I like to think I’m more toward the “tell the truth regardless” end of the continuum, but in certain situations I find myself hedging in order to get along.

So being a world-saver is partly a matter of politics and public relations. That’s not what drew me to this line of work; but, now that I’m in it, I realize that comes with the territory.

What’s the job like on a day-to-day basis? Well, there’s a lot of time spent at the computer — endless emails, keeping up with relevant news feeds, plus a relentless writing schedule. I’m often on the phone talking to reporters or interviewers, gaining support for programs, trying to build coalitions. Ironically, I find myself on airplanes disturbingly often, traveling to conferences or lectures, emitting tons of carbon as I go. If you were just to watch my actions without being able to understand any of the language I’m employing, you might think I’m doing approximately the same work as a high-powered salesman of some kind. That’s not at all comforting for me to think about. Other world-savers spend their time differently — running demonstration projects of various kinds, doing bio-remediation, or organizing their communities.

How secure is my job? Whenever bad things happen to the environment, people start paying attention to it. The anti-nuke movement could wave a tentative victory banner after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The Peak Oil movement got a big boost in 2008 when the price of oil shot up to nearly $150 a barrel. And the climate movement gets attention whenever there’s a severe weather event, or when some new report documents that arctic ice is disappearing. In general, lots of matters we all care about are bound to get a lot worse in the foreseeable future (sorry to say this, folks, but we’re in for one hell of a century), so business for us world-savers could pick up smartly.

On the other hand, I have no retirement package (though who does, these days?). And just about all the non-profit organizations that I know of are hurting badly because of the Great Recession. Indeed, the current economic crisis is a very big problem for the world-saving industry. Just about all of our money comes from philanthropic foundations, and most of those foundations have a lot less money to dole out than they did a year ago. (Granted, a lot of world-savers already work for free, and many who are currently getting paid will continue to do what they can when their budgets run out; but it’s difficult to get much done with no money at all, and everyone has bills to pay.)

Also, the average family is less likely to get excited about an environmental issue when its economic survival is at question; indeed, people’s very ability to look ahead and focus on large, complex issues begins to falter. “Polar bears? Who Cares! Just give me my job back!”

Another strange wrinkle: this financial crisis underscores the unpleasant truth that business-as-usual simply can’t continue. It’s no longer a matter of telling folks to stop consuming so much; they’re now finding they literally can’t afford to buy cars, travel, and do all the other things that entail carbon emissions. Should we environmental world-savers change our message accordingly? I don’t hear much discussion among my colleagues along those lines; instead, speakers at climate conferences seem hardly to have noticed that global trade is down, global employment is down, global energy use is down.

But hang on: if world energy use has been declining for the past few months, that should mean that carbon emissions are declining, too. (Note: According to NOAA, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is still rising — is there a time lag, or is there some other explanation for this discrepancy between declining energy use and rising CO2 concentrations?) Let’s assume that measurements later this year indeed show atmospheric CO2 levels to be rising slower than before. Trying to explain why something that’s very good for the environment should be correlated with something that’s very bad and painful for ordinary people is understandably awkward, so the possibility that emissions are now declining is hardly being mentioned. But if emissions are truly falling and continue to do so — not because of climate policies, but because of global economic contraction — sooner or later we’ll have to start addressing the fact. And we’d better have a good story. In my view, the fact that the climate movement is being blindsided by this turn of events only underscores the need for a bit more truth-telling about the linkages between energy and the economy.

Are we succeeding? Is the world better off because we’re trying to save it? Well, maybe my opinion is inherently biased, given what I do for a living. As disappointed as I sometimes get about the near-futility of trying to wake my fellow citizens up to the fact that we’re collectively driving straight toward history’s biggest cliff, I don’t see anything better to do with my time. Nor do I see any better hope for humanity than the efforts of the tiny number of our species who understand at least some aspect of our predicament enough to explain it to their fellows and formulate some strategic responses to it.

Would I recommend this line of work to others — to students looking for a career? You bet. There are certainly many other worthwhile things to do with one’s life, but at a time like this we need all the help we can get.

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#205: Spring Cleaning

MuseLetter 205 / May 2009
by Richard Heinberg

This month I have been putting the finishing touches on Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis, which will be published in June by New Society Publishers; and Energy Limits to Growth, which will be released at about the same time by International Forum on Globalization and Post Carbon Institute. In addition, I have given several lectures and attended various conferences and meetings. It’s spring in the northern hemisphere, and time to compost what’s left of the over-wintered annual crops and plant for the next season.

This month’s issue of MuseLetter consists of three recent writings:

  • a short essay, “A Beguiling Veneer of Normalcy”;
  • “World Energy in Crisis,” an invited contribution to the upcoming revised edition of the award-winning book Earth from Above by French photographer, environmentalist, documentary filmmaker, and television journalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand;
  • and an interview for the Italian magazine Consapevole.

A Beguiling Veneer of Normalcy

Recent travels have taken me to Las Vegas, New Orleans, and of course my home city, Santa Rosa, California. The economies of these places are faring quite differently. House prices in Las Vegas have nosedived, and the urban landscape that stretches away from casino theme parks on the strip is starting to look desperate, with empty storefronts everywhere in evidence. In Santa Rosa, the one huge, recently remodeled retail space sitting vacant while a neighboring giant department store sells off the last of its inventory before shuttering for good. Housing prices in Santa Rosa are way down and still dropping fast—now about half what they were three years ago. Meanwhile in New Orleans, an upscale shopping mall I visited had no vacancies (though the shoppers appeared alarmingly few), and house prices are holding up fairly well. Unsurprisingly, folks I spoke to in Louisiana were less worried than ones in California and Nevada.

Differences in perspective are easy to find also within each community. Talk to a person who still has a job and didn’t have much invested in the stock market and you’ll hear a mostly upbeat view of the economy’s prospects; but talk to another person who was recently laid off, or whose retirement savings have shrunk by half or more, and their outlook is decidedly darker.

Are we at the beginning of an epic Depression, or at the bottom of a nasty recession with brighter days only months away? It would seem to be a matter of perspective. Recent bank earnings reports and stock market activity have led many analysts to claim that the economy has indeed reached the bottom of the trough, and that while the recession is not over the worst has passed. Statements emanating from the White House, the Treasury, and the Fed are ambiguous but generally upbeat: president Obama says dark days still await us, but foresees a return to growth; and secretary Geithner and chairman Bernanke are careful not to talk the market down.

The indicators to which I pay attention lead me to a different conclusion. We are indeed seeing a let-up in the frighteningly rapid financial collapse that began to unfold late last summer. That’s to be expected: all the trillions that are being spent on bailouts and stimulus packages must have some effect—though ultimately it will only be to provide a brief interlude before the storm returns in far greater force.

Why such a bleak forecast?

Real estate prices, and especially prices for commercial real estate, have much further to fall. And that means that mortgage-backed derivatives have further to unwind. The toxic assets that caused so much grief to bankers and investors during the last six months have not really been dealt with, and therefore comprise a time bomb that’s still ticking.

As a result, the banks are still not lending. TARP bailout funds are merely being used to clean up balance sheets while the credit crunch continues unabated. And until the toxic assets are fully and finally dealt with, many of the biggest banks remain functionally insolvent even if they happen to be posting quarterly (bailout-based) profits.

But these reasons for concern pale in importance before the deeper, more profound and systemic problems of our time.

Looming first among the latter is of course the global energy picture. World oil production has hit its ceiling, and though demand and prices are now down, further economic growth will push against energy limits that will constrict further with every passing year. But energy is just one of a spate of limits to growth—a list that includes renewable resources (fish, forests, fresh water) as well as non-renewable ones (phosphorus, zinc, indium). And there are crucial limits not only to sources, but also to environmental sinks (including the atmosphere and oceans) that must absorb the waste outputs of industrial society—most notably, the CO2 emitted by our burning of fossil fuels.

At the same time, the economic crisis is contributing to a fundamental realignment of global finances and power on a scale greater than anything seen since World War II. The neoconservative imperial over-reach of the past eight years created a nexus of problems that cannot be sorted out and solved one by one; at best, a few of the nastiest (having to do with Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan) can be kept at bay while the world watches the curtain-closing finale of US hegemony. It would be nice to think that all of this can happen in an orderly, gradual way, but with China’s exports down by over a quarter and domestic unrest welling up within that nation and scores of others around the globe, there is no reason to assume that it will.

In short, while surface appearances could lead one to think that not much has changed from the status quo ante, in fact the beams, rafters, and studs that hold up the facade of normal everyday existence in modern industrial society are rotting and crumbling. In essence, we are witnessing the shift from a century of unprecedented growth to a century of contraction. Cheap, abundant energy led to an expansion of population, consumption, and financial leveraging based on a belief in the inevitability of further growth (Colin Campbell puts this so well: “Banks lent more than they had on deposit, confident that Tomorrow’s Expansion was collateral for Today’s Debt” read more). Fossil fuels represent 85 percent of world energy, and the total amount of energy annually supplied by fossil fuels has almost certainly rounded its inevitable summit and begun its terminal slide.

The down-slope will be long and rough: even though momentous episodic events are no doubt in store, it is probably better to think of this as a “Long Descent” (John Michael Greer) or a “Long Emergency” (James Howard Kunstler) than as complete and sudden dissolution.

I’m tempted to use downhill skiing as a metaphor here in order to convey some morsel of advice as to what we should do to avoid hitting symbolic trees or otherwise coming to unnecessary grief. But in skiing, the downhill bit is the easy and fun part of the experience; getting up the hill takes time and effort (or a powered ski lift). Ironically, for modern society to get to the point of maximum population and consumption was as easy as rolling down a grassy slope. But finding our way peacefully to a lower, sustainable level of population and consumption will be a rocky, uphill march.

If we want to accomplish that march successfully, we need to put ourselves in the proper frame of mind.

We all want some “good” news from time to time. But what’s “good” news and what’s “bad”? Obviously, losing one’s job or home is painful. The media and the government understandably see the preservation of the status quo as good, and anything threatening it as bad. But if we adopt that outlook, we condemn ourselves to a future of endless bad news. In order to make our way through the decades of transition ahead, it’s important that we adopt a longer view, and devote much less effort to preserving a beguiling veneer of normalcy. The more of us who have a long view, the better. Without it, people (including world leaders) will get scared or unrealistically, giddily optimistic and do foolish things.

That’s why it’s important to keep educating one and all about what’s really happening and why. Ultimately we can indeed live perfectly satisfying lives if there are fewer of us, each using much less energy and less stuff. That’s how our species has spent nearly all of its existence on this planet. That’s the true “normal.” If that is our goal, we can chart a course and certainly arrive back in that condition in due time, much the wiser for our high-energy industrial interlude.

The danger comes when those who are making decisions on our behalf don’t realize what is normal, don’t see that as a necessary goal, and try instead to restart the sputtering engine of growth.

World Energy in Crisis

In 2008 the International Energy Agency announced that, “Current trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable—environmentally, economically, and socially.” This statement represents a wide and growing public consensus reflecting concerns about climate impacts from the burning of fossil fuels, as well as questions regarding the security of future supplies of those fuels.

However, replacing the oil, coal, and natural gas energy infrastructure of modern industrial societies will be challenging. Significant changes in the processes by which energy is supplied to, and consumed by, modern societies will require massive influxes of capital across multiple industrial sectors at considerable financial risk. Decades have been spent building this infrastructure, with trillions of dollars invested. If the transition from current energy sources to alternatives is mismanaged, consequences could be severe, as there is an undeniable connection between per-capita levels of energy consumption and economic well-being.

The problem is perhaps best understood by quickly surveying the principal energy sources currently available.

Oil is the world’s current primary energy source, fueling nearly all motorized transportation—cars, planes, trains, and ships—and providing about 36 percent of total world energy. Oil is also non-renewable, and many of the world’s largest oilfields are already significantly depleted. Most oil-producing nations are seeing declining rates of extraction, and future sources of the fuel are increasingly concentrated in just a few countries—principally, the members of OPEC. Competition for access to those reserves has already triggered geopolitical conflict on several occasions. Some analysts are of the opinion that total world oil production has entered its inevitable decline phase, and that production will never again achieve levels seen in the period from 2005 through 2008. Oil is a hydrocarbon fuel, so burning it releases carbon dioxide (70 kilograms of CO2 per gigajoule of energy produced), which contributes to climate change.

Coal has been the fastest growing energy source (by quantity) in recent years due to prodigious consumption growth in China, and now accounts for 27 percent of total world energy. It has the worst environmental impacts of the conventional fossil fuels, both in the process of obtaining the fuel (mining) and in that of burning it to release energy. Because coal is the most carbon-intensive of the conventional fossil fuels (94 kg CO2 per GJ), it is the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change, even though it contributes less energy to the world economy than petroleum does. New carbon capture and storage technologies could reduce this climate impact, but at a significant economic and energy cost (by one estimate, about 40 percent of the energy from coal would go toward mitigating climate impact, with the other 60 percent being available for economically useful work). Coal is non-renewable, and some nations (UK and Germany) have already used up most of their original coal reserves. Even the US, the “Saudi Arabia of coal,” is seeing declining production from its highest-quality deposits. While official reserves figures imply that world coal supplies will be sufficient for a century or more, recent studies suggest that supply problems may appear much sooner.

Natural gas is the least carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels (58 kg of CO2 per GJ); of the world’s total energy, natural gas supplies 23.5 percent. It is easily transported through systems of pipelines and pumps, though it cannot be carried by ship as conveniently as oil, as this typically requires pressurization. Like oil, natural gas is non-renewable and depleting. Recent disputes between Russia, Ukraine, and Europe over Russian natural gas supplies underscore the increasing geopolitical competition for access to this valuable resource.

Biomass, principally in the form of wood used for cooking and home heating, accounts annually for 13 percent of the world’s total energy consumption and is used by up to 3 billion people. Biomass can also be converted into liquid fuel, used to generate electricity, or burned to co-generate heat and electricity. Biomass is distributed widely; this suits it for use in small-scale, region-appropriate applications. In Europe there has been steady growth in biomass CHP (combined heat and power) plants in which scrap materials from wood processing or agriculture are burned, while in developing countries CHP’s often run on coconut or rice husks. In California, dairy farms are using methane from cow manure to run their dairy operations. Biogas is used extensively in China for industry, and 25 million households worldwide use biogas for cooking and lighting. Biomass and biogas are considered to be carbon-neutral fuels, since they operate within the biospheric carbon cycle. While biomass is a renewable resource it is not a particularly expandable one. Often available biomass is a waste product of other human activities: crop residues from agriculture, wood chips and sawdust from wood products industries, and solid waste from municipal trash and sewage. In a less energy-intensive future agricultural system, crop residues may be needed to replenish soil fertility and won’t be available for power generation. There may also be more competition for waste products as manufacturing from recycled materials increases. Liquid fuels made from biomass (biofuels—principally, ethanol and biodiesel) can substitute for gasoline or petroleum diesel, but doubts have recently been raised about the environmental impacts of biofuels production, competition between crop production for biofuels and for food, and limits to the scalability of this energy source.

Hydropower produces 6 percent of the world’s energy and 19 percent of all electricity. The carbon emissions from hydropower are site-specific and substantially lower than those from fossil fuel sources. Much debate about this energy source centers around its effects on society and whether or not a constant supply of water for power, irrigation, or drinking justifies the relocation of millions of people for dam and reservoir construction. The International Hydropower Association estimates that about one-third of the realistic potential of world hydropower has already been developed.

Nuclear power produces 5 percent of world energy (15 percent of electricity) from 435 commercial power-generating reactors operating worldwide. Uranium, the fuel for the nuclear cycle, is a non-renewable resource. The peak of production of high-grade ores is likely to occur between 2040 and 2050, which means that nuclear fuel is likely to become more scarce and expensive over the next few decades. The average grade of uranium is already declining as the best reserves are depleted. Recycling of fuel and the employment of alternative nuclear fuels are both possible, but these technologies have not been adequately developed. The construction of nuclear power plants is slow and expensive, and there is widespread controversy about health and environmental risks from radiation accidents, problems of waste storage, and security threats from black-market distribution of nuclear materials.

Wind power is one of the world’s fastest-growing energy sources, expanding more than five-fold between 2000 and 2007. However, it still accounts for less than one percent of the world’s electricity generation, and less than one-half percent of total energy. Wind power is a renewable source of energy, and there is enormous capacity for growth: it has been estimated that developing 20 percent of the world’s wind-rich sites would produce seven times the current world electricity demand. The cost of electricity from wind power, already relatively low, has been declining in recent years to a level comparable to the cost of electricity from fossil sources. However, the uncontrolled, intermittent nature of wind reduces its value as compared to operator-controlled energy sources such as coal, gas, or nuclear power. The primary way for utility operators to guard against loss of power to the grid during times when winds are calm is to build extra generation capacity from other energy sources. Therefore adding new wind generating capacity often does not substantially decrease the need for coal, gas, or nuclear power plants; it merely enables conventional power plants to be used less while the wind is blowing.

Solar energy encompasses several distinct technologies—several kinds of photovoltaic (PV) cells that generate electricity directly from sunlight; active solar thermal, which makes electricity by concentrating the sun’s heat; and solar thermal water or space heating. Less than one percent of world electricity (less than one-half of one percent of world energy) currently comes from these technologies. Solar power is renewable and could be expanded dramatically, though PV solar cells are still relatively expensive. PV has recently been the fastest growing energy technology in the world, increasing up to 50 percent annually. However, despite the enormous growth of PV energy, in recent years the annual increase in oil, gas, or coal production has usually exceeded total existing photovoltaic energy production. Therefore if PV is to become a primary energy source the rate of increase in capacity will need to be much greater than is currently the case. Like wind, solar power is intermittent.

Other sources of energy, including geothermal, tidal, and wave power, together produce much less than one percent of current world energy.

The inescapable conclusions from even a brief survey such as this are that fossil fuels will likely yield less energy annually in the future than they do currently, while burning them will entail unacceptable environmental costs. Yet society is profoundly dependent on these fuels: together, they provide about 80 percent of world energy. Alternative energy sources exist, but each is subject to limits of one kind or another, and there is no clear scenario in which the energy from fossil fuels can be replaced with energy from alternative sources without (1) enormous investment, (2) significant time for build-out, and (3) significant sacrifices in terms of energy quality and reliability.

The problem of how to continue supplying energy in a world where resources and environmental waste sinks are limited becomes much easier to solve if we find ways to proactively reduce demand for energy. And that project in turn becomes easier if there are fewer of us wanting to use energy (that is, if population shrinks rather than continuing to increase).

How far will energy supplies fall, and how fast? Taking into account likely depletion-led declines in oil and natural gas production, a leveling off of energy from coal, and the recent shrinkage of investment in the energy sector due to the global economic crisis, it may be reasonable to expect a contraction in world energy availability of up to 25 percent during the next 25 years. Factoring in expected population growth, this implies a substantial per-capita reduction in available energy. The decline is unlikely to be evenly distributed among nations, with oil and gas importers being hardest hit.

Thus the question the world faces is not whether to reduce energy consumption, but how. Policy makers could choose to manage energy unintelligently by maintaining fossil fuel dependency as long as possible while making both poor choices of alternatives and insufficient investments in them, in which case the consequences will be catastrophic. Transport systems will wither, global trade will contract dramatically, and energy-dependent food systems will falter, leading to very high long-term unemployment and famine perhaps even in industrial nations.

However, if policy makers manage the energy downturn intelligently, an acceptable quality of life could be maintained in both highly industrialized and less-industrialized nations; at the same time, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced dramatically and quickly. This would require:

  • Direction of significant public and private investment toward renewable energy research and deployment;
  • Re-localization of much economic activity (especially the production and distribution of low-value, bulky items and materials) in order to lessen the need for transport energy;
  • Construction of highly efficient rail-based transit systems and the redesign of cities to reduce the need for car ownership;
  • Retrofit of building stock for maximum energy efficiency (energy demand for space heating can be dramatically reduced through super-insulation of structures and by designing to maximize solar gain);
  • Redesign of food systems reduce energy inputs and the need for food transport; and
  • Reduction of the need for energy in water pumping and processing through intensive water conservation programs (7 percent of world energy is currently used in moving water).

Improvements in efficiency, the introduction of new technologies, and the shifting of emphasis from basic production to provision of services can enable economic growth to occur without an increase in energy consumption, but such growth trends have inherent limits. Over the long run, static or falling energy supplies must be reflected in economic stasis or contraction. Nevertheless, with proper planning, there is no reason why, under such circumstances, an acceptable quality of life could not be maintained. For the world as a whole, this might entail partial redistribution of energy consumption, with highly industrial nations reducing consumption substantially, and less-industrial nations increasing their consumption somewhat in order to make basic necessities available to all.

However, societal adaptation to energy limits inevitably raises the question of population. When population grows but the economy remains the same size, there are fewer economic goods available per person. If energy constraints effectively impose a limit to economic growth, then the only way to avert continuing declines in per-capita access to economic goods is to limit population by (for example) providing economic incentives for smaller families, access to birth control, and support for poor women to obtain higher levels of education. Policy makers must begin to see population shrinkage as a goal, rather than an impediment to economic growth.

Altogether, the energy transition of the 21st century marks a historic shift as significant as the Agricultural Revolution or the Industrial Revolution. In retrospect, the two recent centuries of rapid fossil-fueled expansion in economic activity and in human population levels will likely be seen as a historic anomaly, one that entailed a profound alteration of the global climate through the rapid digging up and burning of carbon-based fuels that had been produced and slowly transformed by geological processes over tens of millions of years. It is unclear how this anomalous and perilous interlude in human history will end and what will follow. The only realistic future scenarios appear to be environmental and economic collapse on one hand, or a managed process of economic contraction and conversion on the other.

Interview for the Italian magazine “Consapevole

Q: Why hasn’t peak oil entered the political agenda yet? Is it because of the opposition of the oil industry, or simply because it is an unspeakable truth?

A: The oil industry has played a role in preventing discussion of peak oil by understating the challenges of maintaining production growth given the decline in discovery of new oilfields, as well as the declining rates of production in existing giant oilfields. However, it is also the case that new issues require time to be understood by the media, policy makers, and the general public. It is only within the past five years that general discussion of peak oil has emerged. By comparison, climate change has been a significant topic for well over a decade.

Q: Do you have hopes that President Obama will face this serious challenge?

A: Our new President inspires many hopes, but in reality he must answer to entrenched economic and political interests. Thus, even if he fully understands the challenge of peak oil—and I am not entirely sure that he does—it may be impossible for him to speak openly about it. He is pursuing the development of renewable energy, energy efficiency, and public transportation, and these will all help mitigate the worst impacts of oil depletion. I am concerned, though, that the efforts along these lines that are politically feasible may be too little, too late.

Q: The Post Carbon Institute, of which you are a Senior Fellow, wrote The Real New Deal to address it to the new administration of the United States of America. Can you sum up the content?

A: This is a document we wrote to inform the Obama Administration about the problem of energy resource depletion and potential strategies to mitigate that problem. It is important to understand that fossil fuel depletion will impact the food system, home heating, electricity generation, and public health as well as transportation. It is also essential to know that alternative energy sources, while essential, will likely be unable to substitute for fossil fuels entirely, and that therefore society must change how it uses energy and find ways to use much less. Other organizations have written energy briefing papers for the new Administration, but we believe that ours frames the problem and its potential strategic responses in a more realistic, integrated way than any of the others that I have seen have done.

Q: In your latest book, Peak Everything, you bring to the table a variety of peaks: most are negative (i.e. population, grain production, fresh water availability), but some are positive (greenhouse gas emissions, environmental destruction). Are you somehow confident that the positive ones may eventually overcome the negative ones?

A: Hopeful, yes; confident, no.

Q: The economy is walking on a very thin line. Is it reasonable to think that this recession will eventually turn into a collapse once the prices of oil shoot back up over 100$ p/b?

Also, would you say this could “help” the world to address the challenges of peak oil and climate change without wasting any more time?

A: Economic collapse could occur in any case, even without a run-up in the oil price, simply because of fundamental errors on the part of the world’s banking and investment class. However, the most likely scenario would include a partial economic recovery that would be cut short by rising energy prices. The economic crisis will “help” only if we take this brief opportunity to implement drastic energy conservation measures and invest substantial sums in new renewable energy infrastructure. This is what we advise in “The Real New Deal.”

Q: What do you believe should be our individual goals for improving the situation and which are the goals to be approached on a governmental level?

A: The goal of both government and individuals should be to maintain coherent social structure during the economic contraction. If social cohesion fails, then we have lost our chance for survival, except perhaps as scattered bands of pitiful and violent creatures. The problem is that government tends to confuse the maintenance of social cohesion with its continuing support for various institutions that are in fact causing the collapse to occur—institutions such as the modern banking and finance system, or the military-industrial complex here in the US. We must abandon some of these institutions and substantially redesign others (such as our industrial food system and our transport system) while keeping the basic fabric of society intact. That will obviously require courage and intelligence at the governmental level, but also initiative and sacrifice on the part of the population as a whole. As individuals, we should be thinking about what will give our communities and families more resilience. That usually means cooperating more with neighbors, growing gardens, reducing debt, and bartering, among many other things.

Q: Most people wait for the “experts” to save us (and the planet), usually through technology. What is your position towards technology in this sense?

A: Technology can empower us, but it can also disempower us. We can become dependent upon complex technologies that we barely understand, so that we feel helpless to question the status quo or to imagine life without our cars, computers, or televisions—even though everyone lived without these things only a century ago. The experts are perhaps even more frightened to think of a world without complex technology, because they spend all of their time in front of computers, gathering information and following trends. Without their computers their way of life would come to an end! But we must begin to think of simpler ways to satisfy basic human needs, because the cheap fossil fuels that power most of our current technology will soon become more scarce and expensive.

Q: You write that it is reasonable to estimate that we might see a 25 to 40% decline in energy available over the next 20-30 years. How did you figure that number out, and what consequences do you foresee worldwide as a result of this lack of energy?

A: Part of this is fairly simple arithmetic. Assume a 3% annual decline in energy from oil beginning in 2010, a 3% annual decline in natural gas beginning in 2020, and a plateau of energy from coal beginning in 2015 with a 2% annual decline starting in 2025. Those decline rates will gradually increase, and are based on forecasts from Energy Watch Group of Germany. But then for the countries that import fuel there is the problem that available exports will decline much faster, because exporting countries will provide for their own domestic needs before they sell their surplus internationally. Then we must factor in the percentage of total energy coming from oil, gas, or coal—about 40 percent, 23 percent, and 25 percent respectively. We can hope for some of the loss in energy from fossil fuels to be made up by new energy production from wind or solar, but probably no more than 25% of the current quantity of energy being consumed will come from those sources in any but a very few nations by 2030. The result: for a fuel importing nation, it would be prudent to expect at least a 25% decline in total energy by that date.

The consequences will, of course, be significant. It is difficult to see how the world economy could grow under such circumstances; indeed, widespread disruption in transport systems and a decline in food production are just two of the more important consequences we can logically expect to see.

Q: In your opinion when will the collapse strike and what countries will it strike first?

A: This is a more difficult question to answer today than it might have been just months ago. Global oil production is peaking now and declines will commence within two or three years, and the countries that import the most oil will be impacted first and hardest. However, in recent months we have seen a global economic collapse that has cause demand for oil to fall substantially. Because demand is still disappearing, the price of oil has also fallen, and there is now surplus oil production capacity worldwide. Depletion of oilfields continues, and the erosion of production capacity has actually accelerated, because low oil prices are discouraging investment in exploration, drilling, and production. Therefore when demand begins to increase again, or when production capacity falls sufficiently to meet existing depressed demand, severe problems will appear. But because we cannot know now how deeply the economic crisis will constrain demand, it is impossible to say when the oil supply crisis will come. It could come later this year, or it may come in three or four years.

Q: Why aren’t people able to see the problems of peak oil and climate change? Is it a psychological block? Is it denial? If so, is it caused by fear of change?

A: Sometimes people do not see things they don’t want to see.

Q: Why does the media talk more about climate change than peak oil?

A: It is understandable that more attention is given to climate change. Far more research has been done on this subject, and for a longer time. Moreover, climate change will have more far-reaching and longer-lasting consequences. However, unless society dramatically and quickly reduces its reliance on oil, it is likely that oil depletion and resulting scarcity will produce more dramatic and immediate economic and political impacts than those from climate change. If we do not address peak oil, society may find itself incapable of mobilizing a coordinated effort to mitigate climate change.

Q: What is the importance of the media in informing people and promoting change?

A: If people do not know what is happening, there is no hope that they will make sensible decisions. They may choose to act irresponsibly even if they know the facts, but without accurate, freely available information there is simply no possibility of a coordinated, successful response to the threats of climate change and fossil fuel depletion.

Q: Would you be able to identify which consequences of climate change are closest to us in time? When do you predict major problems will come about with climate change?

A: The first impact of climate change to affect humans substantially will be changes in weather patterns that make agriculture less productive. This is already beginning, and may result in lower crop yields over the next few years, with worsening impacts following that. Coupled with the impending fuel shortages, this creates the possibility of widespread famines. These may be only years away.

Q: Carbon emissions were 275 ppm at the beginning of the industrial era. They are currently 387 ppm where the safest level is considered to be 350 ppm max. Is there a projection for the next, say, 20 years?

A: That of course depends on how close we remain to a “business as usual” consumption scenario. As a result of the economic crisis and peak oil, I think that it is now virtually impossible for society to continue growth in consumption of fossil fuels according to most of the projections of the IPCC. However, for society to reduce the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases to 350 ppm or below, we will need strong, coherent climate policy. Depletion and economic depression by themselves will not achieve that goal.

Q: The position of most environmentalists is that everything that can aid in cutting the emissions should be pursued (this implies a technological approach). Do you agree with this perspective or would it be wiser to address the problem from a more holistic approach (for example, promoting a simpler lifestyle in order to reduce, not only emissions, but also resources consumption and so on)?

A: We must understand that humanity does not face just one crisis or two, but many. We are depleting a long list of resources, destroying habitat for other species, polluting the oceans, and so on. Even if we managed to solve the problem of climate change through some technology that captured and stored atmospheric CO2, we would still face several other dilemmas, each of which could cause the collapse of organized society. This will continue to be true as long as our population and our consumption of resources continue to grow. The only way to address all of these challenges is to reduce our population and reduce our consumption, so that we are living within Earth’s long-term carrying capacity.

Q: It would obviously be better to leave untouched whatever fossil fuels are still underground. What do you think are the chances of this happening?

A: It depends. That could happen if the economy completely disintegrates, so that social cohesion disappears. Drilling for oil or mining coal in large quantities from deeply buried seams requires social organization; without social coherence, we might burn up the world’s remaining forests but we wouldn’t be able to get at the fossil fuels.

On the other hand, we could get serious about climate change and institute some form of effective cap-and-trade scheme that would get us off of fossil fuels entirely by 2035 or so. If I were laying odds, I think the former would be more likely than the latter; but since the latter is a far more desirable outcome, it still deserves every ounce of effort.

Q: We should reduce the current generation of CO2 by 3/4 within the next 2-3 decades. You stated that we may have 25 to 40% less available of energy within 25 years. Would this lead to a roughly 50% cut in emissions?

A: Not necessarily. On the basis of depletion alone, world oil production will begin to decline around 2010, and coal production around 2025 or 2030. Since coal will peak later, that means that a greater proportion of our energy will be coming from coal than from oil. Therefore emissions may not decline so much or so fast as total energy—unless we implement emissions reduction agreements.

Q: The collapse of the economy will affect mainly the industrialized countries, which are also the ones that generate more carbon emissions. This would be an additional help to bring the emissions down, wouldn’t it?

A: Yes, as long as we handle the economic collapse rationally. My fear is that when people find themselves unable to heat their homes they will burn anything they can get their hands on to avoid freezing. This could be just as true in the northern parts of the US or Europe as in China. If this happens, the result could be deforestation and a temporary increase in carbon emissions.

Q: A huge problem, potentially much more threatening than the melting of the north polar ice cap, is the melting of tundra and permafrost. If that happens the stored methane will be released. Can you update us with this situation? Also, methane generates more CO2 than fossil fuels. What is the ratio?

A: The latest information is frightening: scientific observers are seeing the emergence of methane plumes in Siberia from the melting of permafrost. Methane is 20 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. The methane hydrates in arctic tundra and under the ocean floors contain enough methane to plunge the world’s climate system into an entirely new regime, so that we would not be speaking of two or three degrees of warming, but rather six, ten, or twenty degrees. The survival of the human species would be highly questionable under such circumstances.

Q: According to scientists the increase of the temperature will be between 2 degrees and 6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. What are the consequences with the two extremes?

A: With only one degree of warming we are already seeing the disappearance of the north polar icecap and the melting of most glaciers. Civilization may not be able to persist with 2 degrees of warming, and our species may not be able to survive if the planet heats by 6 degrees.

Q: I believe that pulling ourselves out of this situation will require a cultural shift, and ultimately our capacity to envision a better future. Do you agree?

A: Of course. It is useful to explore the process of cultural change to see how it occurs, because we will need a cultural shift of unprecedented scale and speed. Fortunately we have communications technologies that are capable of changing the thinking of the masses quickly; unfortunately, those communications media are mostly in the control of people who benefit from keeping people thinking along current lines.

Q: The recession is causing loss of jobs, investments, trade, etc. In a way, you could say that we are already moving towards downsizing, which is probably the best and easiest thing we could reduce our impact on the planet. What is your position in this regard?

A: Yes, from the viewpoint of the environment this may be a good thing. But it will only be a good thing for humanity if we are able to maintain societal coherence during the contraction. Again, this will require some intelligence and willingness to share and do without. Much depends on whether our political and cultural leaders can understand what is called for and avoid the temptation to try merely to return the economy to a condition of perpetual growth—which of course is an impossibility—rather than make the difficult choice to build a very different, sustainable economic infrastructure.

Q: How would you address the problem of cutting down emissions in different sectors such as food production, transportation, heating, industry in general and service based industry?

A: That question requires a very long answer—but fortunately it is mostly addressed in our “Real New Deal” document.

Q: Reading your books I have the feeling that you want to inspire people to take action for a better and promising future. What can everybody do in order to accomplish this challenging task? What is your message to your Italian readers?

A: I believe that life can be better without fossil fuels and without economic growth in the forms we are familiar with. Instead of increasing our population and our consumption of resources, we could be increasing our quality of life—better public health, environmental quality, and greater cultural richness. It is simply a matter of what we aim for and how we measure “progress.” It is the transition from one direction to the other that is crucial. We cannot continue with our current direction of favoring conventional growth—the economic collapse ensures that. But finding a direction that leads us to cultural richness and environmental stability will require some care and creativity. Fortunately, creativity is one of our great gifts as a species.

#204: Timing and the Post Carbon Manifesto

MuseLetter #204 / April 2009
by Richard Heinberg

This month’s issue is a compilation of two pieces. The piece “Timing” is a commentary on the timing of global economic collapse and the fraught nature of accurately predicting when this will occur. This is followed by the new Post Carbon Manifesto which is being released this week. The manifesto sets out the new direction of Post Carbon Institute and its role in helping individuals, families, businesses, communities, and governments understand, prepare for, and manage the transition to a post-carbon world.

Timing

The general picture is clear enough. A combination of peak oil, climate change, and the bursting of the mother of all economic bubbles will result in a collapse of the global economy, perhaps of civilization itself. If we are still to avert the worst of a crisis that could eventuate in untold death, destruction, and tragedy, we need to restructure the world’s energy systems and money systems immediately.

This message (in one form or another) is issuing from scores of independent writers, environmental organizations, and economic analysts. Indeed, even before anyone had ever heard of a Credit Default Swap, going all the way back to the early 1970s if not earlier, similar warnings were periodically heard.

But forecasting global catastrophe can be a tricky business, because everyone wants to know just when it will happen. And there’s the rub. As a card-carrying member of the Cassandra Club, I’ve found this a perennial briarpatch. There have been so many variables at play that about all one could say with absolute confidence is that industrial civilization will run out of rope “sometime in the first two or three decades of the 21st century.” But most people consider that too vague, and institutional leaders have shown repeatedly that they are likely to respond only to definite warnings about fairly imminent catastrophe.

This puts an unfair onus on those in the business of waking the world up to the impending crunch. Jump the gun and you wind up sounding silly; make a conservative forecast for some bland-sounding disruption sometime in the distant future and you fail to motivate anyone to change course.

Some recent readings have highlighted these pitfalls in fascinatingly different ways, leading me to draw a fairly striking conclusion (which we’ll get to in a moment) regarding the current global economic crash.

One of these readings is Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 The Population Bomb. There is still much to admire in this book, over 40 years since its publication. Here is mention of the greenhouse effect, along with good analysis of ecosystem degradation, pollution, and the fragility of industrial agriculture. However, the author famously forecast events that didn’t happen within the timeframe he thought they would (I say “famously,” because pro-growth PR trolls have made a cottage industry out of bashing Ehrlich ever since). Granted, these “forecasts” were presented only as likely scenarios, but many readers came away anticipating enormous famines in the 1970s—which, of course, never occurred (or were they merely postponed?).

Another wonderful book from decades past (in this case, 1978) by Warren Johnson, titled Muddling Toward Frugality: A Blueprint for Survival in the 1980s, is a reminder of lost opportunities.

Muddling is one of the classics of a genre that also includes William Catton’s Overshoot. Johnson begins the book with “An Ecological View of History” that manages, in 25 pages, to tell the story of our species about as concisely and clearly as anyone has managed to do (I have a particular fondness for encapsulated cultural-ecological histories—and offered my own version in the first chapter of The Party’s Over—so I know a good one when I see it). He goes on to explain the inevitability of the coming ecological-economic-demographic crisis, again with lucidity. The remainder of the book is a discussion of how we can “muddle through” the tough times ahead toward a way of life that is more localized and less consumptive of energy and resources.

The book is suffused with the aura of its time. In 1978 the world was reeling from soaring energy prices and was in economic turmoil. Johnson assumed that those high prices would continue, and that gradually society would adjust. It would all be rather painful, but we would eventually figure out, through trial and error, how to accommodate ourselves to scarcity, giving up on economic growth and learning to live within limits. Reading this in 2009, it’s pleasing to learn about the relatively shock-free future we can look backward to.

Johnson does note that a few potholes could get in the way of successful muddling. For example, if climate change accelerates, if the economy collapses, if there is geopolitical conflict over remaining resources, or if (as a result of any of these problems) political institutions become destabilized, then muddling just won’t cut it.

Tellingly, most of these scary developments have come to pass.

One possibility Johnson didn’t discuss: What if energy prices fall? Well, in that case there would be no pressure to adapt, and society would go back to its old bad habits of growing and consuming. Then the crunch, when it finally did arrive, would be much worse, making muddling impossible.

That, of course, is exactly what has occurred in the interim. Oil prices plummeted in the mid-1980s, stayed low through the ’90s, the SUV was born, and here we are.

Another recent read: Australian politician and foreign correspondent Colin Mason’s The 2030 Spike: Countdown to Global Catastrophe, published in 2003. The book’s thesis was recently supplemented by Jonathan Porritt’s essay, “Avoiding the Ultimate Recession”: both writings hinge on essentially the same forecast for a giant economic-environmental crunch in about twenty years as a result of converging circumstances that include oil depletion, overpopulation, climate change, food and water shortages, and (in Mason’s analysis) a breakdown of international law.

Mason paints a dire picture of life two decades hence, and then in the rest of his book helpfully details 100 priorities for immediate action to avert the new Dark Age. It’s all great stuff. But the question that leapt to my mind the moment I saw the book’s title was: Do we really have until 2030?

Porritt, to be fair, says all of this could happen as soon as 2020. But still, the essential notion both authors share is that we have one bounce left before the splat, a period of business-as-usual that we must use wisely as a time for rapid proactive re-engineering of society to avert catastrophic climate change, environmental collapse, and resource depletion.

Mason and Porritt understandably don’t want to make Ehrlich’s or Johnson’s mistakes. Porritt tellingly titles his essay “Avoiding the Ultimate Recession.” He’s saying (paraphrasing now): “Hey folks, what we’re seeing currently may be bad, but we’ll get over it. What happens in a decade or two when climate change kicks in will constitute a Depression from which there is no recovery. So let’s get ourselves in gear to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

But the enormity of the current economic meltdown raises the question: Is this really just a hiccup, or is it the beginning of the end (not of the world, perhaps, but certainly of life as we have known it for the past decades)?

It’s still a judgment call, at this point.

Maybe Geithner and Bernanke can pull off a miracle and stabilize the economy. In that case, with energy demand having fallen so far below its level of just a year ago, it might take as long as five years from no—who knows, maybe even seven—for depletion and decline to cause oil prices to spike again, giving the economy the coup de grace. At that point, there can indeed be no recovery, only adaptation. That’s the best-case scenario I can imagine (in terms of preserving the status quo).

But I have a hard time picturing that. A much more likely scenario, in my view: We will see a few months of fairly gradual economic deterioration (slowed by the mighty efforts of the Bailout Brigade), followed by a truly ugly global economic meltdown. The result will be a general level of economic activity much lower than the world is accustomed to. Efforts to right the ship will include protectionist legislation (that will provoke international confrontations), the convening of world leaders to create a new global currency and financial system (which probably won’t succeed, at least not the first time around), and various populist uprisings that will lead to political instability around the globe. Energy demand will remain low, but energy production will fall dramatically due to lack of investment. Carbon emissions will therefore fall too, so the world’s attention will be diverted from tackling the greenhouse gas issue, even though climate impacts from previous carbon emissions will continue to worsen.

But here’s the crux of the matter: unlike the situation the world faced in the 1970s, there is no prospect for another cheap-energy bounce this time. It’s too late to muddle. We have run out the clock on proactive adaptation. From now on, collective survival will hinge on the strategies we adopt for emergency response. Some strategies will make matters worse, while others will lay the groundwork for better times to come. This is what it has come to. One doesn’t wish to sound shrill, but there it is.

The closer we have gotten to the crunch, the smaller the margin of error in predicting it. There really isn’t that much difference between Porritt’s most pessimistic date for catastrophe (2020) and my most wide-eyed optimistic one (2016). But perhaps the closer we get to the event horizon, the less discussions over timing really matter, because the whole conversation makes sense only as a way of motivating coordinated action prior to the crunch. Once the unwinding has begun, no more preparation is possible. Our strategy must change from crisis prevention to crisis management.

That’s where we are right now, in my view.

So what we desperately need to be talking about are ways to manage crisis that will minimize human suffering while preserving the environment and laying the groundwork for a sustainable way of life for future generations.

It’s a new conversation, so it will take a while to re-orient ourselves to it. But let’s not take too long. One thing we can say about the timing that I think just about everyone would agree with: it’s speeding up.


Post Carbon Institute Manifesto:

The Time For Change Has Come

Spring 2009

Download the PDF (500k)

Contents

Introduction

gas stationThe United States is in the beginning stages of an historic economic collapse. As of early 2009, five million Americans have already been pushed into the unemployment line, while an average of more than 600,000 join them each month. The Federal government has thrown more than a trillion dollars at the financial crisis, but the symptoms only worsen.

Meanwhile, an even more profound crisis has been silently gathering for decades and is now reaching a point of no return. This crisis manifests as the twin challenges of global fossil fuel depletion and environmental collapse.

The world almost certainly experienced peak oil production last summer, and peaks in natural gas and coal production are not far off1. But renewable energy sources are nowhere near ready to substitute in the quantities and applications we currently require. The best known, and potentially most severe, of environmental challenges is global climate change. Yet we are also now facing a series of natural resource limits—fresh water supplies, fish stocks, topsoil, and biodiversity—that threaten our very existence.

Our 21st century dependence on 20th century hydrocarbon energy (fossil fuels) is the root of all the economic and environmental threats we face. Individually, each of these challenges would test us. Their combined force will reshape our planet and society in unimaginable ways.

All of the debts for society’s century-long industrial fiesta are coming due at the same time. We have no choice but to transition to a world no longer dependent on fossil fuels, a world made up of communities and economies that function within ecological bounds. Thus the most important question of our time: How do we manage the transition to a post-carbon world?

Post Carbon Institute is dedicated to helping individuals, families, businesses, communities, and governments understand and manage the transition to a post-carbon world. Our aim is to bring together the best thinking and models in such a way that the challenges we face can be easily understood, and the best solutions can be identified and replicated as quickly, sustainably, and equitably as possible.

These are unprecedented times that will test our courage, resourcefulness, and commitment. Many communities have already begun their post-carbon journey. We hope you join us.

The Limits

In 1972, the Limits to Growth report2 explored the consequences of exponential growth in population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion for Earth’s ecosystems. The book came under immediate fire and has remained controversial ever since, but its underlying premise is irrefutable: At some point in time, humanity’s ever-increasing resource consumption will meet the very real limits of a planet with finite natural resources. We believe that time has now come.

An explosion in population and consumption—fed by cheap, abundant energy—has brought previously unimaginable advances in health, wealth, transport, and communications. But this growth has come at an equally unimaginable cost. The world is at, nearing, or past a number of critical limits:

  • Global oil, natural gas, and coal production
  • Climate stability
  • Fresh water and fish stocks
  • Food production
  • Biodiversity and habitats

Some of these limits are now well understood; some remain controversial or unknown to the general populace. The full scope of the damage to the biosphere and the depletion of natural resources would take volumes to describe in detail, 3 but the general picture is inescapable: we face looming scarcity.

It is no coincidence that so many resource peaks are occurring together. All are causally related by way of the historic reality that, for the past 200 years, cheap and abundant energy from fossil fuels has driven technological invention, increases in total and per-capita resource extraction and consumption (including food production), and population growth. We are enmeshed in a classic self-reinforcing feedback loop.

fossil fuel cycle

Our starting point for future planning, then, must be the realization that we are living today at the end of the period of greatest material abundance in human history—an abundance based on temporary sources of cheap energy that made all else possible. Now that the most important of those sources are entering their inevitable sunset phase, we are at the beginning of a period of overall economic contraction.

Challenge & Opportunity

2008 was a year for the history books. Global oil production likely peaked over the summer4 and began its inevitable and terminal decline, leading to great uncertainty and shocks to everything from transportation and manufacturing to food production and healthcare. Climate scientists and activists, impelled by increasing evidence that global warming is happening faster and more severely than even the most dire of prior scenarios had predicted, united behind the call to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 350 parts per million (we are now at 387ppm and rising).

Also in 2008, a new U.S. President was elected with the promise of “change. ” And of course, the global economy began its plunge towards a new Depression, triggered by the US mortgage crisis, the historic spike in oil prices, and the collapse of the automobile and financial industries.

Together, these events signal that the time for real change is upon us.

The Post-Carbon Transition

Seeing an opportunity to simultaneously address the economic and climate crises, the federal government recently authorized $500 million for “green collar” job training5, with the goal of creating new jobs to retrofit buildings and deploy solar and wind energy technologies. While this is a laudable start, the circumstances demand much more.

The post-carbon transition must not be limited to building wind turbines and solar panels, or weatherizing homes. Alternative energy sources and greater efficiencies are important, but will not suffice for two key reasons:

  • There are no alternative energy sources (renewable or otherwise) capable of supplying energy as cheaply and in such abundance as fossil fuels currently yield, in the brief time that we need them to come online
  • We have designed and built the infrastructure of our transport, electricity, and food systems—as well as our building stock—to suit the unique characteristics of oil, natural gas, and coal. Changing to different energy sources will require the redesign of many aspects of these systems.

The post-carbon transition must entail the thorough redesign of our societal infrastructure, which today is utterly dependent on cheap fossil fuels. Just as the fossil fuel economy of today systemically and comprehensively differs from the agrarian economy of 1800, the post-fossil fuel economy of 2050 will profoundly differ from all that we are familiar with now. This difference will be reflected in urban design, land use patterns, food systems, manufacturing output, distribution networks, the job market, transportation systems, health care, tourism, and more. It will also require a fundamental rethinking of our economic and cultural values.

The New Economy

Quite simply, our growth-based economy has failed us and is failing the planet. It is time to embrace a new economic framework, one that sees the economy as a subset of our global ecosystem, not the other way around. Herman Daly and Josh Farley, in Ecological Economics, contrast the two systems clearly:

“We define growth as an increase in throughput, which is the flow of natural resources from the environment, through the economy, and back to the environment as waste. It is a quantitative increase in the physical dimensions of the economy and/or of the waste stream produced by the economy. This kind of growth, of course, cannot continue indefinitely, as the Earth and its resources are not infinite…

“Where conventional economics espouses growth forever, ecological economics envisions a steady-state economy at optimal scale. Each is logical within its own pre-analytic vision, and each is absurd from the viewpoint of the other. The difference could not be more basic, more elementary, or more irreconcilable.” 6

Recent global events have made it plainly clear which of the two economic frameworks is truly absurd.

Leading the Transition

The winds of social change are upon us. Consumerism as we’ve known it is at death’s door—not because everyone has joined the Sierra Club, but because suddenly nobody can afford to buy much of anything. Our new historical moment requires different thinking and strategies, but it also opens new opportunities to solve some very practical problems. Ideas from the environmentalist community that for decades have been derided by economists and politicians—reducing consumption, re-localizing economic activity, building self-sufficiency—are suddenly being taken seriously, and people want to know more about them.

Quietly, a small but growing movement of engaged citizens, community groups, businesses, and elected officials has begun the transition to a post-carbon world. These early actors have worked to reduce consumption, produce local food and energy, invest in local economies, rebuild skills, and preserve local ecosystems. For some citizens, this effort has merely entailed planting a garden, riding a bike to work, or no longer buying from “big-box” stores. Their motivations are diverse, including halting climate change, environmental preservation, food security, and local economic development. The essence of these efforts, however, is the same: they all recognize that the world is changing, and the old way of doing things, based on the idea that consumption can and should continue to grow indefinitely, no longer works.

Alone, these efforts are not nearly enough. But taken together, they can point the way towards a new economy. This new economy would not be a “free market” but a “real market,” much like the one famed economist Adam Smith originally envisioned; it would be, as author David Korten has said, an economy driven by Main Street and not Wall Street.7

Thus far, most of these efforts have been made voluntarily by exceptional individuals who were quick to understand the crisis we face. But as the collapse unfolds, more and more people will be searching for ways to meet even basic needs. Families reliant on supermarkets with globe-spanning supply chains will need to turn more to local farmers and their own gardens. Many corporations—unable to provide a continuous return on investment or to rely on cheap energy and natural resources to turn a profit—will fail, while local businesses and cooperatives of all kinds will flourish. Local governments facing declining tax revenues will be desperate to find cheap, low-energy ways to support basic public services like water treatment, public transportation, and emergency services.

What we need now are clarity, leadership, coordination, and collaboration. With shared purpose and a clear understanding of both the challenges and the solutions, we can manage the transition to a sustainable, equitable, post-carbon world.

Elements of a transition strategy have been proposed for decades, with few notable results. Usually these have been presented as independent—sometimes even contradictory—solutions to the problems created by fossil fuel dependency and consumerism. Now that business-as-usual is ceasing to be an option for mainstream society, these strategies need to be re-thought and re-articulated coherently, and to become the mainstream. But this will require coordinated effort on the part of those who understand both the problems and the solutions.


The Role of Post Carbon Institute

Post Carbon Institute is dedicated to answering the central question of our times: How do we manage the transition to a post-growth, post-fossil fuel, climate-changed world?

It will be Post Carbon Institute’s role to publicly discuss these issues in accessible ways, and as aspects of a systemic, interdependent web of crises. We will gather and analyze response strategies (whether proven or under experimentation), and disseminate them to the individuals, communities, businesses, and governments who need them. We will develop the framing and messaging of these issues so as to significantly raise the visibility and impact of emerging solutions.

We will constantly monitor both challenges and exciting new developments in a range of fields: energy, climate, food systems, land use, green building construction and retrofits, biodiversity and ecological restoration, water, transportation, and new economic systems. We will highlight green-leader cities and businesses, Transition Town 8 initiatives and ecovillage developments, local energy cooperatives, and innovative NGOs.

Through our close relationships with forward-thinking communities and organizations, Post Carbon Institute is uniquely positioned to both draw from their best practices and provide them with the resources they need to quickly scale up and replicate their work. To our knowledge, there is no other organization taking this important leadership role.

The centerpiece of our effort is the development of a select community of Post Carbon Fellows—leading or emerging experts in the most important issues concerning the transition. Post Carbon Fellows will regularly write and speak about both their specific area of expertise and the transition as a whole. Together, Fellows will publish an annual Roadmap For the Transition, covering each of the principal issue areas—and the latest efforts to address the crisis—in a unified, holistic way.

How is this different from what is already happening? Most if not all of the relevant information we are concerned with already exists, much of it on the Internet. There are magazines devoted to various aspects of the “alternatives” movement, and there are organizations doing good work in these areas. But what’s lacking is a unified vision of both the challenges and solutions that sees all of these fields as interrelated.

This unified vision can be communicated through the work of a think tank composed of thought leaders from key fields who can identify, contextualize, and bring to light the most exciting developments within their areas of expertise, while highlighting the relationships between these fields. No other organization is so well positioned to reach, learn from, and support transition efforts in such a broad array of fields. No other organization has the reputation and background to be able to connect grassroots organizers, policymakers, and the media on these issues.

Appeal

As bad news continues to pour in from climate scientists, petroleum geologists, and economists, there is a growing realization that the decisions we make in the next few years will determine what the world will be like for generations—perhaps millennia—to come. This historic moment of transition is a precious and brief opportunity; we all have some sense of what is at stake and what could happen if society continues down its current path.

But if we are successful in our efforts, the movement to nurture a sustainable post-carbon world will go both viral and local. It will become the mainstream, and the kinds of efforts we are championing will be so commonplace that further work on our part will be unnecessary. In the meantime, we have one chance—and it may be humanity’s very last chance—to turn away from the precipice. We have an enormous challenge, and extraordinary opportunity. Please join us.


Resources

Books

  • Barlow, M., Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water. (New York: New Press, 2008).
  • Brown, L., Plan B3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. (New York: Norton, 2008).
  • Daly, H. and Farley, J., Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications. (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2004).
  • Diamond, J., Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail Or Succeed. (New York: Penguin, 2005).
  • Heinberg, R., Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis. (Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, forthcoming 2009).
  • Heinberg, R., Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines. (Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2007).
  • Heinberg, R., The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies. (Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2003).
  • Homer-Dixon, T., The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization. (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2006).
  • Hopkins, R., The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience. (White River Junction: Chelsea Green, 2008).
  • Kolbert, E., Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change. (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2006).
  • Lerch, D., Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty. (Sebastopol: Post Carbon Press, 2007).
  • McKibben, B., Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. (New York: Times Books, 2007).
  • Meadows, D., Randers, J. and Meadows, D., The Limits to Growth: The 30- Year Update. (White River Junction: Chelsea Green, 2004).
  • Murphy, P., Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change. (Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 2008).
  • Pollan, M., In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. (New York, Penguin, 2008).
  • Roberts, P., The End of Food. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008).
  • Shuman, M., The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses Are Beating the Global Competition. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006).
  • Speth, J., The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
  • Wilson, E.O., The Future of Life. (New York: Vintage, 2003).

Films

  • A Crude Awakening
    Directed by Ray McCormack, Basil Gelpke, Reto Caduff. Docurama, 2007.
  • An Inconvenient Truth
    Directed by Davis Guggenheim. Paramount Pictures, 2006.
  • Blind Spot
    Directed by Adolfo Doring. Dislexic Films, 2008.
  • End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream
    Directed by Gregory Greene. Microcinema DVD, 2007.
  • Flow: For Love of Water
    Directed by Irena Salina. Oscilloscope, 2008.
  • The 11th Hour
    Directed by Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen. Warner Brothers, 2007.
  • The Corporation
    Directed by Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar. Zeitgeist Films, 2005.
  • The Future of Food
    Directed by Deborah Koons Garcia. Arts Alliance America, 2007.
  • Who Killed the Electric Car?
    Directed by Chris Paine. Sony Pictures, 2006.

Websites


Footnotes

1. Heinberg, R., Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis. (Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, forthcoming 2009).

2. Meadows, D., Randers, J., Meadows, D., Limits to Growth, the 30-Year Update. (White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2004).

3. Fortunately there are many books, films and websites that explore this scope in detail; see the Resources list at the end of this document.

4. See Heinberg, Richard R. (8 Oct 2008) “Say Goodbye to Peak Oil.” Post Carbon Institute. (http://postcarbon.org/say_goodbye_peak_oil).

5. See Biden, J. (27 Feb 2009) “Green Jobs Are a Way to Aid the Middle-Class.” Philadelphia Inquirer. (http://www.philly.com/inquirer/opinion/40409617.html).

6. Daly, H. and Farley, J., Ecological Economics (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2004), p. 6, 23.

7. Korten, David, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth. (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009).

8. See http://www.transitiontowns.org.

#198: Various Musings

MuseLetter 198 / October 2008
by Richard Heinberg

This month’s issue is a compilation of several recent short writings. The last of these, a set of frequently asked questions about Peak Oil, is a work in progress that will appear in expanded form at www.postcarbon.org.

Lessons from the Soil

It’s hard to learn much or do much about sustainability without getting your hands dirty.

True, global problems of resource depletion and climate change entail some high-level thinking. We need to understand some important numbers—350 parts per million of CO2 (the target necessary to avert catastrophic climate change), 5% production decline rate in existing oilfields (what must be overcome each year to forestall the inevitable peak of global oil output). We need skills in analysis and persuasion. Inevitably, all of this requires much time spent in front of computer screens.

However, while we attend to these technologies and abstractions, we are much more likely to succeed in our ultimate goal of building sustainable culture if we are also grounded in the most basic of activities—obtaining food directly from the Earth.

Reading has taught me a lot. Gardening has taught me as much or more. Often, these lessons tend to be ones that sound trite when put in words: Stay humble; Don’t demand too much too fast; Notice the interconnections; Go slow, but always pay attention and be prepared for rapid-onset opportunities and problems. However, when you garden you don’t just learn these lessons verbally and mentally. You learn them with your whole body.

Leaving food production entirely to others is the essence of full-time division of labor, the origin and vulnerable taproot of civilization. Only in agricultural civilizations has a rigid class system arisen in which the most important decisions are made by people who don’t need to spend any of their time directly contemplating our human dependence on nature. Instead, the managers, accountants, soldiers, and religious functionaries of state societies tend to enclose themselves ever more completely in the language-based solipsistic social matrix that is the source of their power. They pay ever more attention to words, money, and technology; ever less to weather, birds, and insects. And this, ultimately, is why civilizations collapse: the people in charge simply don’t notice that the ecological basis of their society is being undermined.

Sound familiar?

There are lots of good reasons to garden these days—given that food prices are soaring and the nutritional quality of supermarket food diminishes by the year. Those of us who are working on sustainability issues have even more reasons to plant and hoe. We must teach our neighbors the survival skills they will need as fossil fuels dribble away; we must set an example, and help create the gardening networks that will provide food for our communities during the hard times ahead.

But perhaps the best of all reasons to garden is simply our need to stay sane. I mean this in two ways. Yes, the garden is a refuge from a world that often seems to be flying apart. Turn off the television and pick up a trowel: you’ll feel better. But more importantly, if we garden we are more likely to be psychologically balanced people capable of making sane choices. And the world needs people like that at the moment.

(From this month’s edition of The Ecologist)

The Dress Rehearsal Is Over

As oil crosses $100 on its way south, not even a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico and a statement from OPEC that the cartel will cut production by over 500,000 barrels per day seems capable of halting the bloodletting. In response, the Financial Post features an article (Sept. 11) titled (“Peak Oil peak,”) quoting this writer out of context; compare this with my commentary, which was the source of the quote: Hurricane destroys oil infrastructure; oil price falls). Wasn’t the price of oil supposed to rise endlessly? Wasn’t the world supposed to end by now? What happened? What does it all mean?

First, why did the price of oil rise this summer to nearly $150? On this there is little agreement among the mavens. A new report by hedge fund managers Michael Masters and Adam White (released Sept. 10 by Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.) chalks it all up to speculation (Oil speculation blamed for rise in energy prices). Pension funds, college endowments, and other institutional investors bought heavily into commodity index funds earlier this year, and that sent the price of crude to the moon. Recently the same investors have taken their money out of oil futures, and this accounts for petroleum plunging back to earth. Move along, folks, nothing to see here.

But this directly contradicts the findings of an earlier study by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC Report on High Oil Prices). That 100-page report concluded that the price run-up was all about supply and demand.

Confused yet?

Then there is the argument spinning through the rumor mill (sorry, no www attribution available on this one) that says the fall in oil prices since the end of July shows support by Wall Street for Republicans as the nation moves toward the November elections. After all, the reasoning goes, JP Morgan controls 40% of the puts and calls in the oil market; add Goldman Sachs and a few other big brokerage houses and there is the potential for manipulation of roughly half the total oil futures market. If gas prices are rising, the electorate will be more likely to want to throw the (Republican) bums out and demand Change™. Wall street likes the favors the Bush administration has doled out over the past few years and wants more of the same. Or so the story goes.

The more prosaic explanation for the price spike: oil demand was rising, supply wasn’t, so the price went up. When the price got high enough, it (along with the credit crisis) caused the US (and world) economy to go into recession. That has seriously undercut demand for oil.

One thing we can be sure of: price matters; when the market speaks, people listen. During the weeks when petroleum was breaking a record nearly every day, there was unprecedented discussion of the Peak Oil concept in financial journals, both print and online. What’s more significant, people started driving less. Hummers sat on car lots, unsold. Airline companies and auto manufacturers teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. In short, people woke up to the profound vulnerability implied by having based their economy, and by extension their very lives, on an impossibility—the extraction of a non-renewable resource at ever-increasing rates.

As the oil price fell, eyelids drooped.

But the price spike of early 2008 was merely a dress rehearsal. The fall in oil demand gives the world a moment to catch its breath before the inevitable price-ratcheting process starts up again. Meanwhile, at $100 or so, the price of oil is still 50 per cent higher than last year and 10 times the level of a decade ago.

When the next supply crunch comes, we could well see prices of $200, $250, or $300. But again, the rise won’t be steady and unending; we will again see a spike followed by a plunge—this time maybe back to $150.

Meanwhile, will oil at $100 be an occasion for sleepwalking or strategic regrouping? For policy makers, this is a time to think clearly about long-term measures to reduce demand pro-actively and support the development of renewable energy sources. For citizens, it is an opportunity to make the effort to change habits, buy a smaller car, and get involved in community Peak Oil prep work. For those of us who have been involved in such work for several years, this is the hour to prepare for the inevitable tsunami, when journalists will call us day and night struggling to understand the concepts, and when city governments, businesses, and national politicians will plead for advice on how to cope. We’d better be ready.

The world has had an unmistakable wake-up call from the global oil alarm clock; merely to press the snooze button would waste what may be our last opportunity to act before necessity makes us react in ways that are less than optimal.

(published September 11 on www.postcarbon.org)

Interview with French monthly La Décroissance (“The Degrowth”) on the occasion of the publication of The Party’s Over in French (“La Fête est finie”)

Q: “The party is over,” but who was at the party?

In one sense, the “party” was attended primarily by the peoples of the industrialized world who benefited disproportionately from access to cheap fuel and all that it made possible. Americans and Europeans drove cars and shopped at supermarkets, while people in less industrialized countries often experienced a reduction in quality of life as a result of globalization, pollution, and the other consequences of cheap oil. In another sense, the “party” was a species-wide phenomenon, in that cheap fuel enabled an unprecedented expansion of population and resource extraction. So I suppose one could say that, while some were consuming the wine and caviar and others were serving it (and receiving slave wages), we all were involved in the party in one way or another and our fates are entwined with it.

Q: How was this book received in the US and why such a long time for a French translation?

The book was published in North America by an independent publisher, New Society. Within the independent publishing world, the book was a big success and created something of a phenomenon: I was invited to give at least 300 lectures plus dozens more radio and television interviews. I still receive emails almost daily from people who say that reading my book changed their entire view of the world. However, books published by small, independent presses typically receive almost no notice in mainstream journals, and so the vast majority of Americans have never heard of my book and have never seen its cover in a bookstore.

I have been happy to see translations in German, Italian, Arabic, Korean, Spanish, and now French. Of course, every author likes to see her or his work widely distributed around the world, but translation rights must be sought by publishers.

Q: Oil price has brought a beginning of change in habits, in the rich countries. Do you think that could…soften the shock?

Yes, to a certain extent. The first wave of oil price increases (which we have just seen) has had the effect of destroying considerable discretionary demand. People make fewer unnecessary car trips, for example. However, the next wave of price hikes will hit harder, because most of the easiest, cheapest, and fastest efficiency measures will already have been exhausted. Thus it is important that planning begin now for fundamental infrastructure changes to reduce oil demand on a broader scale. These changes–to our transport and food systems, primarily–will require time and investment. Without foresight and planning, the impacts of high oil prices will increasingly strike at the very foundations of our economy and way of life.

Q: Why the oil price did drop by 50 dollars? Is there a link with the Elections in US?

It is possible that the handlers of Wall Street investment funds specializing in oil futures trades favor the Republican party and therefore are seeking to lower the price of oil prior to the election. But I have no solid evidence for this and therefore only state it as a possibility. Most analysts agree that the main reason for the price collapse was a fall in world demand for oil, which has resulted from the economic turmoil caused by record high energy prices along with the unfolding credit and financial crisis. In the long run the end of cheap oil will have far deeper and more lasting effects than the unwinding of leveraged mortgage-backed derivatives, even though today the newspaper headlines are dominated by stories about bank failures. Unfortunately, however, over the short term the financial crisis will make it much harder to address the energy crisis due to the drying up of investment capital.

Don’t Panic; Prepare!

The financial sky is falling. Hey, that’s not my opinion; it’s news straight from the front pages of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. America’s top mortgage companies and investment banks, and the world’s biggest insurer have either already gone bankrupt or are in the process of doing so.

For someone who wrote a book titled “The Party’s Over,” this might seem like a propitious moment to shock readers into greater depths of fear and apprehension. After all, we’re only witnessing the doom of the financial world now; we have yet to see the collapse of the transport and food infrastructure, which is merely fluttering at the moment as the result of high oil prices. When the inevitable and imminent decline in world oil production really starts to bite, the support structure of normalcy will truly come unglued.

Okay, so let’s all have a good scream now: AAAAAIIIEEEEEEGGGGGHHHHHHH!!!!!!!

Good. Now that that’s out of our systems, let’s reflect. Panic helps no one. We have a diminishing amount of time in which to work within a system that still has some semblance of stability. We should take advantage of every remaining moment. Now is the time for careful, methodical action. Chances are, the scaffolding will not come crashing down at once; this will be an extended process lasting many years, perhaps even decades (if John Michael Greer is right in his new book, “The Long Descent”). Nevertheless, certain things will almost certainly become more difficult as “normal life” becomes a fading memory.

Calmly explain to family and friends what’s happening (too many people using too much too fast, inevitable depletion of resources, and economic consequences of same) and urge them to take the situation seriously and start reducing their exposure (Garden! Home energy audit! Bicycle! Smaller car!). Get your money out of risky banks and investments and put it to work in your local community (go to www.solari.com for advice in this regard). If you haven’t done so already, get to know your neighbors and make connections with others in your community who have similar concerns.

When we’re panicked, we tend to think only of our own immediate safety. But now is the time to be thinking of community resilience—because that’s what our long-term prospects really depend on.

Of the well-to-do, in particular, few were gravely disturbed in 1930. Many of them had been grievously hurt in the Panic, but they had tried to laugh off their losses, to grin at the jokes about brokers and speculators which were going the rounds. As 1930 wore on, they were aware of the depression chiefly as something that made business slow and uncertain and did terrible things to the prices of securities. To business men in “Middletown,” a representative small mid-Western city, until 1932 “the Depression was mainly something they read about in the newspapers”–despite the fact that by 1930 every fourth factory worker in the city had lost his job… When the substantial and well-informed citizens who belonged to the National Economic League were polled in January, 1930, as to what they considered the “paramount problems of the United States of 1930,” their vote put the following problems at the head of the list: 1. Administration of Justice; 2. Prohibition; 3. Lawlessness, Disrespect for Law; 4. Crime; 5. Law Enforcement; 6. World Peace—and they put Unemployment down in eighteenth place.

—Frederick Lewis Allen, Since Yesterday

A Few Peak Oil FAQs

1. People have forecast the end of oil many times before. They were wrong every time. Why should anyone take Peak Oil theorists seriously now?

Supply problems with oil are inevitable eventually, since petroleum is a non-renewable, depleting resource. All experts, if pressed, acknowledge that world oil production will reach a peak and decline. Therefore Peak Oil is only a question of when, not if.

So it is perfectly reasonable to investigate the question of when supply problems are likely to appear. Indeed, it would be foolish not to do so.

Like every scientific investigation, the study of oil depletion is typified by a learning curve. In the early days of the oil industry, the data were sketchy and the methods of gathering and analyzing it were—well, crude. As time passed, the analytical tools became more sophisticated and the data pool more robust. Early speculation about oil depletion that was made prior to the 1950s occurred during a period when world discoveries of oil were still increasing. An accurate global peaking forecast was simply not possible then.

M. King Hubbert, perhaps the greatest geophysicist of the last century, did pioneering work in helping elucidate the process of oilfield depletion, and in 1956 correctly forecast that the peak of US oil production would occur around 1970. This was possible largely because US oil discoveries had been declining since 1930 and the US was further along the depletion curve than the world as a whole.

Depletion studies have advanced considerably since Hubbert made that fateful forecast. Moreover, we now have decades more data for exploration, production, and depletion on which to base analysis and forecasts. World oil discoveries have generally declined since 1964, and the average size of oilfields discovered has also declined.

Therefore there is every reason to assume more accuracy for a global oil depletion analysis produced today than, say, an assertion made in 1900 that oil would run out by 1920. Such early pronouncements typically just extrapolated depletion and production declines from existing oilfields without factoring in future discoveries. Today’s depletion analysis not only factors in discovery trends, but also the contribution of new technologies for exploration and production.

Modified Hubbert analysis successfully predicted oil production peaks not just for the US, but for Britain, Norway, Mexico, Oman, Russia, and other producing countries. Meanwhile, official agencies like the US Department of Energy and the International Energy Agency, which do not employ any version of Hubbert analysis, failed to forecast these peaks and declines. If past success is a criterion, Hubbert analysis is a winner.

However, some depletion analysts base their peaking forecasts not on Hubbert analysis, but on a painstaking process of adding up scores of individual production projects and their likely contributions and start-up dates, and then subtracting production that will be lost year-by-year due to declines from existing fields. Tellingly, these “bottom-up” analysts forecast dates for the world oil production peak that are very close to those forecast by Hubbert analysts—most forecasts from both camps falling within the period from 2008 to 2013.

In short, the “They were wrong then, so they must be wrong now” platitude is illogical and misleading. But that won’t stop yet another oil booster from trotting it out yet again tomorrow, or the day after, or the day after.

Prepare to cringe.

2. I’ve heard that oil is constantly being created in the Earth’s crust, that it’s not made out of dead dinosaurs, and that Peak Oil is a scam. Is there truth to these statements?

There is indeed a theory that oil is abiotic—that is, that it is constantly being replenished from deep within the Earth and is either primordial (left over from the early period of planetary formation) or continually generated by geochemical processes; either way, it was not created through the decomposition of ancient algae blooms (no scientist, by the way, thinks oil comes from dead dinosaurs).

This theory is held by a tiny percentage of the world’s petroleum geologists, most of whom happen to be Russian (there is some history behind this factoid, which relates to how scientific research was politicized during the days of the USSR). Even in Russia, however, most geologists adhere to the mainstream view about how oil was formed.

The bottom line: the abiotic theory may have the potential to explain the existence of hydrocarbons in a few rare instances, but the conventional biotic theory has held up extremely well as a basis for oil exploration and is supported by abundant evidence. All commercially significant accumulations of oil are associated with sedimentary rocks. And the oil can be traced via “biomarkers” back to the organisms from which it originated. Even if some methane being vented from oceanic ridges turns out to have an abiotic origin, this is likely to have little to no commercial implications. The world’s oil and gas fields continue to deplete, and simply drilling deeper isn’t likely to accomplish much. For a longer discussion, see Richard Heinberg on Abiotic Oil, Did you hear that Alaska has more oil than the Middle East?.

3. Isn’t Peak Oil just a conspiracy by the oil companies to boost profits? Journalist Greg Palast says so in his book Armed Madhouse.

It would take many paragraphs to thoroughly debunk this notion, and even then doubts would linger. After all, the oil companies have a track record of distorting and manipulating the public discussion going all the way back to the early days of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.

The short reply: It’s a different situation now; 90 percent of the world’s oil production is under the control of national oil companies like Saudi Aramco in Saudi Arabia, or Pemex in Mexico—not independent companies like ExxonMobil. Taken together, these national and independent companies are so competitive and have so little in common—and hold so many secrets from one another—that it is highly improbable that they could successfully collaborate in a conspiracy to force up the world oil price. Where’s the actual evidence that they have done this? On the other side, there is abundant publicly available evidence that most of these producers are struggling to keep production up.

For a longer reply—which is directed specifically to Greg Palast’s conspiracy allegations—see An Open Letter to Greg Palast on Peak Oil

4. Could Peak Oil be a conspiracy on the part of OPEC, then, to raise prices?

OPEC controls about 43 percent of world oil production, 40 percent of exports. It is true that OPEC countries have the ability to raise prices be cutting production, and there have been historical instances where the organization has indeed done this.

One might wonder, then, why OPEC doesn’t just force the price up to $200 or $300 a barrel—after all, its member nations rely primarily on oil sales for government income, so there would appear to be every motive for them to maximize their profits.

Working against this motive, however, is the realization—which has been a long-held belief within the organization—that prices should not be too high, or several undesirable consequences will ensue. First, high oil prices are likely to trigger a global recession, which would undercut demand for petroleum. Further, if powerful oil importing nations were to perceive OPEC’s profit maximization as a direct economic threat, this could lead to forceful efforts—covert or otherwise—to destabilize OPEC nations, many of which are highly vulnerable to this sort of persuasion. Finally, OPEC economists have for many years held that if oil prices are too high for too long, this will force fundamental economic shifts in petroleum consuming economies: electric cars will appear on the market in large numbers, commuters will ride public transit, and so on.

This raises the question: was the oil price spike of 2006 to 2008 engineered by OPEC, or did OPEC merely benefit from it? Clearly, oil exporting nations benefited financially from rising oil prices. Indeed, as the price rose past historic benchmarks without visible calamitous effects on the world economy, OPEC members were jubilant. Once the price surpassed $100 a barrel and began approaching $150, however, it became clear that the world was in fact experiencing severe economic impacts, and that a shift toward electric cars and other oil conservation measures had been provoked. At this point prices began to fall.

All of this might seem to be good circumstantial evidence for an OPEC plot—except for two things: there is no evidence for collusion to raise prices, and the oil price spike can be explained without recourse to conspiracy.

During the three years from 2005 through mid-2008, OPEC members, rather than sitting on large surplus production capacity, were pumping oil at virtually maximum rates. Everyone expects OPEC to maintain some surplus capacity—that is one of the cartel’s main ostensible functions in the world oil market. But during the three years in question, that surplus capacity amounted (according to most authoritative analysts) to no more than 1.5 million barrels per day—a historically small amount. This fact helped push prices up.

It could be objected that OPEC members have failed to invest sufficiently in recent years in exploration, new technology, and the drilling out of existing oilfields. However, in fact investments have in many cases been large—even unprecedented—by historic standards. The problem is that OPEC members’ giant and supergiant fields are aging, so in order to maintain production growth much greater increments of investment are required now than in the past.

Should OPEC be vilified for failure to satisfy the world’s gluttonous demand for ever larger quantities of a non-renewable, depleting resource? The answer, of course, depends on one’s point of view. But it is perhaps not so difficult to put oneself in the shoes of OPEC member states and imagine why a negative answer to the question might make sense from their perspective.

5. An author named Lindsey Williams says there was a humongous oil discovery on a place called Gull Island near Alaska back in the 1970s, and the oil companies (under orders from the government) just capped the wells to keep oil prices from collapsing, bankrupting the oil companies. How do you know Williams isn’t right?

Williams’s claims have been investigated and found to be worthless. You can find the whole story at The facts have not slowed the legend of Gull Island oil

Here’s a quote from that article:

Three wells were drilled from Gull Island. The drilling results were initially closely held, but now the well data are public.

The first two wells were drilled in 1976 and 1977.

In a response to Stump’s 1981 letter, Alaska Oil and Gas Commissioner Harry Kugler said Gull Island No. 1 well tested 1,144 barrels of oil per day from one underground reservoir, while the Gull Island No. 2 well tested 2,971 barrels of oil per day from other.

“We do not believe the evidence from these two wells indicates a massive new oil find,” Kugler said. More wells would need to be drilled before deciding if it made sense to develop the reservoirs, he said. The third well was drilled in 1992.

Geologist Peter Barker was among those monitoring and interpreting Gull Island No. 1 as it was drilled in 1976. The objective was to test a deep structure north of the huge Prudhoe Bay field, the first North Slope field developed, Barker said recently.

“There was an (oil and gas) trap there, but there wasn’t an economic quantity of oil,” he said.

Ken Bird, of the U.S. Geological Survey and an expert on North Slope geology, recently provided some perspective on the Gull Island drilling.

Since 1980 at least four oil pools, the West Beach, Niakuk, Point McIntyre and North Prudhoe pools, as well as Prudhoe Bay satellites, have been developed in the area immediately around the Gull Island wells, Bird said. The four pools in the immediate Gull Island area are in production: According to Alaska’s Division of Oil and Gas 2007 annual report, Point McIntyre had a cumulative production of 396 million barrels of oil at the end of 2006, with 164 million barrels of remaining reserves. The other three pools are much smaller than Point McIntyre. That compares with Prudhoe Bay’s 11.4 billion barrels of oil already produced and Kuparuk River field’s 2.1 billion barrels.

“Both the geologic evidence and the small area not yet developed into oil fields around the Gull Island wells preclude the possibility of a giant oil accumulation,” Bird said.

You can find more at Did you hear that Alaska has more oil than the Middle East?

#196: Coal and Climate

MuseLetter #196 / August 2008
by Richard Heinberg

[This month’s essay is another chapter from the retitled book-in-progress, BLACKOUT: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis.]

Recent reports on global coal reserves, surveyed in previous chapters, generally point to the likelihood of supply limits appearing relatively soon—within the next two decades (a contrary view is represented solely by the BGR report [“Lignite and Hard Coal: Energy Suppliers for World Needs until the Year 2100 – An Outlook,” 2007]). According to this near-consensus, coal output in China, the world’s foremost producer, could begin to decline within just a few years.

Since coal is the most significant source of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions, releasing about twice as much carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced as natural gas, the news that there may be much less coal available to be burned than commonly thought should be heartening to climate scientists and environmental activists, and to policy makers and citizens concerned about the fate of the planet. Reduced estimates of future coal supplies should be factored into climate models—which typically assume that there is enough coal available to permit continued expansion of usage well into the next century.

At the same time, because global warming has emerged as the central environmental issue of our era, climate concerns will inevitably impact how much coal we continue to burn and how we burn it—whether these concerns come to be expressed through caps on emissions, carbon taxes, cancellation of orders for new coal-fired power plants, or the promotion of new carbon sequestration technologies. In any case, the coal industry will be—indeed, already is being—forced to change.

These two trends are surely destined to interact, and the uncertain result will shape climate and energy policy in the years to come.

A Tale of Two Crises

The idea that carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels might contribute to a greenhouse effect raising global temperatures was initially floated in the 1950s. The first evidence that global atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels and global temperatures were both indeed increasing appeared in the early 1960s. The 1980s saw the first calls for international action to limit carbon emissions, with the first Congressional hearings held in 1988, the same year Margaret Thatcher delivered a Climate Change speech to the Royal Society. The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its initial report in 1990. In 1992, the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro produced the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The third IPCC report, issued in 2001, stated that global warming, unprecedented since the end of last Ice Age, is “very likely,” with severe surprises possible. By this time, debate among scientists over the question of whether human activities were contributing substantially to Climate Change had effectively ended. In 2003, numerous observations raised concern that the collapse of ice sheets in West Antarctica and Greenland could raise sea levels faster than most had believed possible. That same year, a deadly summer heat wave in Europe riveted public opinion on the issue. Work to retard emissions accelerated in Japan and Western Europe, and among US regional governments and corporations. In 2007 the fourth IPCC report warned that serious effects of warming have already become evident, and that the cost of reducing emissions would be far less than that of the damage they will cause. In the same year, the north polar ice cap melted to such an extent that the northwest shipping passage was opened for the first time in history.

In short, over the past 50 years anthropogenic Climate Change has evolved from a mere hypothesis to a robustly documented and widely researched phenomenon; and from a concern on the part of just a few climate scientists to a center-stage issue dominating not just environmental studies, but economic planning and global politics as well.

Yet while Climate Change is the greatest environmental crisis that humanity has ever faced, it is not the only serious challenge confronting us. Climate Change is a “sink” problem—the result of dumping into the environment a waste product from the burning of fossil fuels. But there is a simultaneous “source” problem arising from the gradual depletion of the fuels we are burning.

At about the same time the greenhouse hypothesis was first being proposed, geophysicist M. King Hubbert was publishing his first study on the phenomenon of oil depletion. Previously, supply concerns about fossil fuels had centered on the question of when they would run out, and by most estimates that would not happen for a very long time. Hubbert reframed the discussion by pointing out that the rate of extraction of fossil fuels within any given region, or the world as a whole, will reach a maximum and begin to decline long before the resource is exhausted; further, he suggested that it is this peaking of production that is critical for economic planning. By the mid-1970s, US oil production had peaked and begun to decline, as Hubbert had estimated that it would. By this time, Hubbert and a few other petroleum geologists were forecasting a peak in global oil production around the turn of the century. In 1998, Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrère published a landmark article in Scientific American titled “The End of Cheap Oil,” in which they argued that oil reserves in the Middle East were overstated, and that world petroleum production would hit its maximum before 2010. At the time, the world oil price was hovering in the range of $12 per barrel. By 2000, British oil production from the North Sea had begun to fall, and it was apparent that about half the world’s other oil producing nations were also in plateau or decline. In 2005, a study for the US Department of Energy concluded that the world oil production peak would have “unprecedented” social, economic, and political consequences. In 2008, the International Energy Agency warned of a severe mismatch between world petroleum supply and demand in the years immediately ahead. By this time oil’s price had risen to nearly $150 a barrel, and soaring fuel costs were severely impacting the automobile industry, the airline industry, the trucking industry, and tourism.

Because natural gas and coal are also non-renewable, it is inevitable that depletion will result in peaks and declines of output for these fuels as well. However, studies—even unofficial ones—of Peak Gas and Peak Coal have lagged behind those of Peak Oil. While some awareness of coal limits can be traced back at least to the work of Andrew Crichton in 1948, the discussion of Peak Coal really started with the appearance of reports from Energy Watch Group and the National Academy of Sciences, both in 2007. A report from Energy Watch Group on global natural gas supplies is due later this year.

Meanwhile, though the timing of the global oil, gas, and coal production peaks is still controversial, the peaking concept has become sufficiently accepted that its significance for Climate Change has begun to be explored.

Climate Models and Fossil Fuel Supplies

Models for future impacts of Climate Change must be based on two essential parameters: the quantity of future greenhouse gas emissions that can reasonably be anticipated; and the sensitivity of climate to added increments of atmospheric greenhouse gases. Both of these parameters are subject to ongoing research and revision.

In its Special Reports on Emissions Scenarios (SRES), the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has published a series of 40 scenarios for the fossil fuel contribution to future Climate Change. The latest of these reports, in 2007, was a multi-year effort involving more than 1,000 authors and more than 1,000 reviewers. In the assessment modeling, limitations in fossil fuel supplies are not considered critically. For example, in 17 of the scenarios, world oil production is higher in 2100 than it was in 2000—a situation not considered likely even by OPEC.

In 1996 the European Environment Council had said that the global average surface temperature increase should be held to a maximum of 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, and that to accomplish this the atmospheric concentration of CO2 will have to be stabilized at 550 parts per million (the pre-industrial level was 280 ppm and current concentration is close to 390 ppm, though the addition of other greenhouse gases raises the figure to the equivalent of 440 to 450 ppm of CO2). The European Union has more recently adopted a target of 450 ppm of CO2, in line with recommendations from climate scientists.

However, the IPCC scenarios suggest that if fossil fuel consumption continues to increase throughout the century, CO2 concentrations could reach a staggering 960 ppm by 2100, which would result in six or more degrees of warming, tilting the global climate into an entirely new regime and triggering an endless list of environmental horrors.
Jean Laherrère was an early critic of the SRES, arguing in 2001 that failure to understand realistic limits to fossil fuel supplies and to incorporate these into climate models was resulting in highly unrealistic estimates of future atmospheric CO2 concentrations, future temperature increases, and future effects on climate, ocean levels, and so on. (“Estimates of Oil Reserves”)

In April 2007, James E. Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, who has arguably done more than any other scientist in recent years to both assess and publicize the likely impacts of Climate Change, co-authored an important paper (together with P. A. Kharecha of the Columbia University Earth Institute) that discusses fossil fuel supply limits. These authors explicitly mention Peak Oil, and stress that, “[I]t is important to estimate expected atmospheric CO2 levels for realistic estimates of fossil fuel reserves and to determine how the CO2 level depends upon possible constraints on coal use.”

In this paper, (“Implications of ‘Peak Oil’ for Atmospheric CO2 and Climate,”), Kharecha and Hansen discuss five scenarios. In their Business as Usual base case, “Peak oil emission . . . occurs in 2016 ± 2 yr, peak gas in 2026 ± 2 yr, and peak coal in 2077 ± 2 yr.” Most of the IPCC scenarios show far higher CO2 concentrations than Kharecha and Hansen’s Business As Usual (BAU) scenario.

The authors also discuss a “Coal Phase-out” scenario that “moves peak coal up to 2022.” This second scenario “is meant to approximate a situation in which developed countries freeze their CO2 emissions from coal by 2012 and a decade later developing countries similarly halt increases in coal emissions.” This Coal Phase-out scenario shows a peak of atmospheric CO2 concentrations at about 445 ppm in 2046.

One message from the paper is that climate mitigation efforts should not focus so much on reducing oil and gas demand, as these fuels are supply-limited. Rather, they should concentrate on reducing the exploitation of coal and unconventional fossil fuels, since these are demand rather than supply limited for the time being. This message is more explicit in Hansen’s June 23, 2008 Congressional testimony:

Phase out of coal use except where the carbon is captured and stored below ground is the primary requirement for solving global warming. Oil is used in vehicles where it is impractical to capture the carbon. But oil is running out. To preserve our planet we must also ensure that the next mobile energy source is not obtained by squeezing oil from coal. Global Warming Twenty Years Later: Tipping Points Near

However, it appears that Kharecha and Hansen did not take fully into account the recent coal supply reports surveyed in this book (though they do mention the NRC report of 2007). The authors write, “[E]ven if coal reserves are much lower than historically assumed . . . there is surely enough coal to take the world past 450 ppm CO2 without mitigation efforts such as those described here,” but they do not define what they mean by “much lower.” In fact, the EWG, Höök et al., Laherrère, and Rutledge forecasts cited in this book all show future coal supply limits that are roughly in accord with Kharecha and Hansen’s Coal Phase-out scenario, and that achieve a target of approximately 450 ppm CO2.

A month after the release of the Kharecha and Hansen paper, Kjell Aleklett, professor of Physics at Uppsala University and President of Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO), published an article provocatively titled, “Global Warming Exaggerated, Insufficient Oil, Natural Gas and Coal” (May 18, 2007). Aleklett’s main purpose was to take the IPCC to task:

The sum of all fossil resources that the industry considers available is presented annually in BP Statistical Review. According to this rather optimistic estimate, the total energy of all oil, natural gas and coal amounts to 36 Zeta joules (ZJ), a gigantic amount of energy. This is more than what our research group considers likely, but it is still less than what do the [SRES] scenario families A1, A2, B1 and B2 require. . . . Up to 2100, IPCC prognosticates that A2 will need between 70 and 90 ZJ, that is, twice as much as the industry believes is available. . . . We need a new assessment of future temperature increases based on a realistic consumption of oil, natural gas and coal.

David Rutledge published his paper, “The Coal Question and Climate Change,” cited throughout this book, in June 2007. In it, he compared the results of Hubbert linearization modeling of future coal production with the IPCC models. He concluded, “Our Producer-Limited Profile has future fossil-fuel production that is lower than all 40 of the IPCC scenarios, so it seems that producer limitations could provide useful constraints in climate modeling.” More specifically, “The Producer-Limited Profile gives a peak of 460 ppm in 2070″—which is only marginally above the widely accepted target of 450 ppm. The implication is clear: sufficient greenhouse gas reductions will be accomplished by fossil fuel depletion alone, without any need for carbon emissions regulatory policy.

In short, the implication of the latest research might appear to be that Peak Oil, Peak Gas, and Peak Coal will together solve the problem of global Climate Change, without need for intervention by policy makers.

However, this could be a dangerously premature conclusion.

Climate Sensitivity

Recall that climate models depend not only on future carbon emissions (which are contingent, as we have just seen, on fossil fuel supplies as well as on energy policy) but also on climate sensitivity. How will the global climate respond to a given additional increment of carbon dioxide? In general, as observations of impacts from Climate Change are being logged, they are tending to show that past assumptions about climate sensitivity have, if anything, been too timid and conservative.

Most climate sensitivity models are now being seen as subject to three problems. First, they tend to assume a linear relationship between atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and global temperature increase, whereas there is mounting evidence that the relationship is actually non-linear. Second, they tend to assume a linear relationship between global temperature increase and actual impacts to ecosystems and human society, whereas there is mounting evidence that this relationship is also non-linear. Third, such models have created a questionable basis for policy: it has been widely accepted that a future temperature increase of two degrees C (which is assumed to be tied to a greenhouse gas concentration of 450 ppm) must be our target limit, above which changes to the climate will be catastrophic, irreversible, and unacceptable—whereas, in fact, we may already be seeing degrees of change that are catastrophic, effectively irreversible, and unacceptable.

Non-linearity in the relationship between greenhouse gases and temperature increase was demonstrated by a 2005 study by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact in Germany, which concluded that—to keep the temperature from increasing more than two degrees C—the atmospheric concentration of CO2 would need to be stabilized at then-current levels (i.e., 380 ppm). Among other things, the study pointed out that the biosphere’s ability to absorb carbon is being reduced by human activity, and this must be factored into the equations; by 2030, this carbon-absorbing ability will have been reduced from the current four billion tons per year to 2.7 billion tons.

Non-linearity of the consequences of global warming is illustrated by several self-reinforcing feedback mechanisms that, if triggered, could result in effects spiraling far out of human control. Perhaps the scariest of these has to do with the vast amounts of methane (a greenhouse gas over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide) locked in the ocean floor and in the frozen soils of Siberia, Northern Europe, and North America. Climate warming could trigger a rapid thawing that would release billions of tons of this stored methane into the atmosphere. More methane in the atmosphere would create more warming, which would release still more methane. The ultimate consequence might be the tipping of the planet into a new climate regime so different from the current one that many higher life forms (including humans) might find survival difficult or impossible.

The inadequacy of policies that use 450 ppm and a two degree average global temperature increase as targets or limits is illustrated by evidence that catastrophic Climate Change has already been set in motion on the basis of a mere one degree C global temperature rise. For example: Recent observations have established that oceans are absorbing increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, resulting in their gradual acidification. In the last two centuries, the oceans have absorbed roughly half of the amount of CO2 emitted by fossil fuel use and cement production. This has caused ocean pH to fall. Ocean acidity will be devastating to the marine environment within a short period of time—tens of years instead of hundreds of years. Seawater undersaturated in calcium carbonate will make it difficult for shelled organisms to create skeletons and shells. These organisms form an essential link in the aquatic food chain; thus all life in the seas will be impacted. Given that the oceans have already absorbed a substantial amount of carbon dioxide, we are already committed to an irreversible amount of ocean acidification. It is likely that rebalancing the ocean pH will take thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of years.

Ocean acidification again illustrates the disturbing fact that very little about “global warming” is simple or linear. Instead, the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions are complex, mutually interacting, and far-reaching. Rather than merely having to accustom ourselves to winters and summers a degree or two hotter, we will see far more severe storms of all kinds, as well as rising sea levels, collapsing ecosystems, disease outbreaks, species extinctions, profound challenges to agricultural production, and more. We may already have committed ourselves to centuries of overwhelming environmental damage.

If we are already seeing fundamental changes to the world’s oceanic food chain, to the Arctic sea ice, and to glaciers that feed some of the world’s most important river systems, can we afford to commit ourselves to still higher atmospheric greenhouse concentrations (450 ppm instead of the current 390), and to a two degree temperature increase above pre-industrial levels instead of the single degree that has already produced these impacts?

In a recent paper, “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?“, James Hansen, along with eight co-authors, questioned the 450 ppm target and suggested a new one:

Our current analysis suggests that humanity must aim for an even lower level of GHGs. Paleoclimate data and ongoing global changes indicate that ‘slow’ climate feedback processes not included in most climate models, such as ice sheet disintegration, vegetation migration, and GHG release from soils, tundra or ocean sediments, may begin to come into play on time scales as short as centuries or less. Rapid on-going climate changes and realization that Earth is out of energy balance, implying that more warming is ‘in the pipeline,’ add urgency to investigation of the dangerous level of GHGs. . . . We use paleoclimate data to show that long-term climate has high sensitivity to climate forcings and that the present global mean CO2, 385 ppm, is already in the dangerous zone. . . . Ongoing Arctic and ice sheet changes, examples of rapid paleoclimate change, and other criteria cited above all drive us to consider scenarios that bring CO2 more rapidly back to 350 ppm or less.

On the basis of this article and the recent findings that prompted it, climate activists such as Bill McKibben and George Monbiot have also begun to call for more stringent targets—350 ppm target for atmospheric CO2 concentrations and a 100 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050.

This is a far more rapid and drastic reduction in carbon emissions than can be achieved by fossil fuel resource depletion alone.

Further, relying on fossil fuel depletion to safeguard the world’s climate would entail a serious risk: What if the new lower estimates of coal reserves turn out to be wrong? Clearly, the world’s oil and coal reserves are a mere fraction of total resources. If somehow a way were found to transform a significant portion of remaining resources into reserves, this could entail a significant increase in atmospheric carbon emissions.

This risk also extends to unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands, shale oil, and methane hydrates. While the potential for the development of these resources is often overstated, since current technology will permit only a very slow extraction rate for tar sands and perhaps no commercial extraction at all of oil shale and methane hydrates, nevertheless there is always the possibility that new technologies will enable their exploitation on a wide scale. Without a stringent emissions policy in place, the consequences for the global climate would be profound.

In general, human society faces a conundrum: unless non-fossil sources of energy are developed quickly, or unless society finds a way to operate with much less energy, and preferably both, the depletion of higher-quality fuels (natural gas and oil) will mean that efforts to obtain more energy will entail burning ever dirtier fuels, and doing so in proportionally larger quantities in order to derive equivalent amounts of energy.

Therefore, to the question, “Will coal, oil, and gas depletion solve Climate Change?”, the answer is an unequivocal no.

Will Climate Change Solve Peak Coal?

If some Peak Oil-Coal-Gas analysts suggest that depletion will stop Climate Change, climate activists look at the matter the other way around. While peaks and declines in the production of fossil fuels will undoubtedly have enormous societal consequences, these nevertheless pale compared to the potential ecological effects of Climate Change. Peak Oil may result in the collapse of the global economy; Climate Change could do so as well, while also devastating Earth’s ecosystems in a way that would require millennia, perhaps millions of years, for planetary recovery.

But if we proactively deal with Climate Change by reducing fossil fuel consumption, the result will obviously be a reduction in dependence on fossil fuels—and therefore a solution to the problems of Peak Oil, Gas, and Coal. Therefore all that is needed is a clear, sustained, vigorous policy focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

There is some evidence to support this argument. Efforts to reduce carbon emissions are already having an impact on the coal industry, primarily in the US and Europe (though not nearly to the same degree in China and India). In the US, nearly 90 percent of all new coal power plant projects proposed between 2000 and 2006 were delayed or cancelled, according to an October 2007 report by the US Department of Energy—many over concerns about future carbon emissions regulations. Of 151 proposals for new plants submitted in early 2007, almost half had been dropped by year’s end, many blocked by state governments or delayed by court challenges. Most recently, in July 2008 a judge in Georgia threw out an air pollution permit for a new coal-fired power plant because the permit did not set limits on carbon dioxide emissions. In Europe new coal plants are faring better only because higher-efficiency power plants are being proposed.

Climate mitigation efforts typically center on “cap and trade” (or “cap and dividend” or “cap and share”—alternative regimes being proposed by a number of economic equity activists), or on carbon taxes. Any of these policies to restrict carbon emissions will inevitably reduce fossil fuel consumption, impacting coal more than other fuels simply because of coal’s higher carbon content. While future coal-burning power plants could be constructed to capture carbon, which could then be permanently sequestered underground (a technology discussed in the next chapter), over the short term reducing carbon emissions simply means using less coal.

If these efforts were to pick up speed, they would reduce demand for coal (and other fossil fuels), thus heading off shortages and keeping prices lower.

But will climate concerns succeed in driving policy in the face of energy scarcity? Currently, global coal consumption is still growing—faster by volume, indeed, than the consumption of any other energy resource. Can nations experiencing shortages of oil and battered by high energy prices be persuaded to forgo the still relatively cheap energy from coal in order to avert environmental consequences for future generations?

From the perspective of climate scientists and activists, there can be no question: whatever short-term economic pain society may experience as a result of deliberately reducing fossil fuel consumption can hardly be compared with the overwhelming catastrophe that unbridled Climate Change would bring. However, policy makers may look at the evidence through an entirely different lens—one that discounts the future in favor of the present.

In financial markets, the discount rate is the rate that a stock analyst might use to discount a company’s future earnings stream for the purposes of present investment. In his book Material Concerns: Pollution, Profit and Quality of Life, Professor of Sustainable Development and UK government advisor Tim Jackson describes it this way:

[F]uture costs and benefits are taken to have a lower value than present costs and benefits. We can think of the discount rate as the rate of return which is required on capital invested by the company. The higher the discount rate, the lower the value of future costs against present costs. For example, a cost of $200,000 which occurs twenty years in the future has a net present value of $44,000 at 5 percent and $10,400 at 10 percent discount rate. The further into the future costs and benefits arise, the lower their value compared with present costs and benefits.

Environmental psychologists argue that discount rates are rooted in fundamental human psychology, and perhaps even hardwired into our genes and nervous systems. We instinctively value the concrete present over the likely or hypothesized future.

The relevance for Climate Change—and other environmental issues, such as resource depletion—is clear: we tend to discount future costs (such as the impact of melting glaciers) just as we do future profits. Thus, asking society to endure present pain in order to avert more widespread suffering in the future is problematic. The present pain must be minor, and the future suffering profound and credible and not too many years distant, in order to persuade us to take an action that we will find uncomfortable or unpleasant.

In the early years of the decade, as the global economy was booming, policy makers in many nations gave considerable attention to Climate Change. Heads of state conferred, strategies were debated, and agreements were forged. Today, as energy scarcity cripples national economies with pain that is both palpable and growing, there is likely to be a greater tendency to discount the future costs of Climate Change in favor of satisfying immediate demand for fuel, no matter how carbon-intensive it may be. There is abundant evidence that this is indeed occurring.

In Europe, while top climate experts offer ever-shriller warnings about the effects of carbon emissions, Italy is planning to increase its reliance on coal from 14 percent of total energy to 33 percent. Throughout the continent, about 50 new coal-fired power stations are being planned for the next five years. The driver for this new coal boom is unequivocally clear: higher natural gas prices. In Germany, 27 new coal plants are planned by 2020, many fueled by lignite—which can produce a ton of carbon emissions for every ton of coal burned.

In the US, despite the cancellation of so many new coal plants in recent years, the National Mining Association projects that about 54 percent of the nation’s electric power will be coal-fired by 2030, up from the current 48 percent.

Depletion defeats climate policy in other ways. Carbon taxes become a harder policy to sell as energy prices climb; coal cutbacks are more difficult to make when natural gas is getting more expensive and electricity grids are browning out; and using coal to make liquid fuels starts to look attractive as diesel prices escalate.

Will efforts to address Climate Change solve the economic problems arising from coal, oil, and gas depletion and increasing scarcity? It is possible in principle, but in reality the stronger likelihood is that energy scarcity will rivet the attention of policy makers and private citizens alike because it is an immediate and unavoidable crisis. The result: as scarcity deepens, support for climate policy may fade even as climate impacts worsen.

A Combined Approach

Clearly, the world needs energy policies that successfully address both Climate Change and fuel scarcity. Such policies are likely to be devised and implemented only if both crises are acknowledged and taken into account in a strategically sensible way.

If policy makers focus only on one of these problems, some of the strategies they are likely to promote could simply exacerbate the other crisis. For example, some actions that might help reduce the impact of Peak Oil—such as exploitation of tar sands or oil shale, or the conversion of coal to a liquid fuel—will result in an increase in carbon emissions. On the other hand, some actions aimed to help reduce carbon emissions—such as carbon sequestration or carbon taxes—will make energy more expensive, which, in a situation of energy scarcity and high prices, may be politically problematic and therefore a waste of climate activists’ and policy makers’ limited resources.

However, many policies will help with both problems—including any effort to develop renewable energy sources or to reduce energy consumption.

For strategic purposes, it is important to understand our human tendency to discount future problems. We must assess which threats will come soonest, and make sure that our sometimes frantic efforts to respond to these immediate necessities do not exacerbate problems that will show up later. Peak oil is clearly the most immediate energy and resource threat that policy makers must deal with. Peak Coal and Climate Change may seem comparatively distant. But all must be taken seriously if we are to do any better than merely to lurch from crisis to crisis, with each new one worse than the last.

If energy scarcity forces policy changes before climate fears can do so, then perhaps world leaders will find that it makes more sense to ration fuels themselves by quota, rather than the emissions they produce. In any case, it will help everyone concerned to have a clear idea of the ultimate extent of coal, oil, and natural gas reserves and future production, as well as a realistic understanding of climate sensitivity and hence the environmental and economic costs of continuing to burn fossil fuels even in depletion-constrained amounts. Otherwise, the policies pursued may simply waste precious time and investment capital while actually making matters worse.

#193: It’s Happening

MuseLetter #193 / May 2008
by Richard Heinberg

It’s Happening

This month I’ve done an unusual amount of travel. The early days of the month I was on the tail-end of a trip to the UK and Canada, which included a conference at Findhorn, Scotland, appearances in Lewes, Leicester, and Forest of Dean, and two presentations in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Mid-month saw lectures at the local Junior College and the University of Oregon in Eugene via video teleconference. The latter half of the month is mostly devoted to an intensive tour of New England, with many lectures as well as meetings with state officials.

With all of this activity it has been a challenge to keep up with writing. My book-in-progress on future coal supplies is going well but slowly at the moment (two more sections of the draft of Chapter 1 are included here). Also in this month’s MuseLetter are my May column for The Ecologist magazine (“What Car do You Drive?”), a Foreword that I’ve written for the new edition of Mat Stein’s brilliant book When Technology Fails, and a brief blog for the Post Carbon Institute website.

What Kind of Coal?

Coal is a fossil fuel and therefore non-renewable. A combustible, sedimentary, organic rock composed mainly of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, it was formed from vegetation consolidated between other rock strata and altered by the combined effects of pressure and heat over millions of years.

While oil and gas were formed primarily from enormous quantities of microscopic plants (algae) that fell to the bottoms of prehistoric seas, coal is the altered remains of ancient vegetation that accumulated in swamps and peat bogs (peat currently covers 3 percent of Earth’s surface; in previous geologic eras, that percentage was much higher). While oil and gas were formed during two relatively brief periods of intense global warming, roughly 150 and 90 million years ago, coal formation started much earlier and occurred during much longer time spans, with the first primary formation period occurring during the late Carboniferous period (roughly 360 to 290 million years ago), another in the Jurassic-Cretaceous (200 to 65 million years ago), and a third in the Tertiary (65 to 2 million years ago).

All fossil fuels vary in quality. For example, oil from some geological sources is more viscous and may have more impurities as compared to oil from other sources; natural gas likewise varies by chemical composition: its main ingredient, methane, may be accompanied by larger or smaller amounts of sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, or other impurities; if the latter are too extensive the gas is considered uncommercial and is not extracted.

Coal’s variability is in some respects even greater than that of oil or gas: the range of energy density between and among hard and soft coals is wide, as is the range of impurities in coals from differing regions. Much of this variability has to do with the degree of alteration undergone by the original plant material, a process known as coalification. At the high end of the coal spectrum is anthracite—a hard, black coal that has more carbon, less moisture, and produces more energy per kilogram than other coals. At the low end are lignite and sub-bituminous coals, which are brown, friable, and have more moisture, less carbon, and a lower energy content. Coal that contains high amounts of mineral impurities (especially sulfur) may be unusable.

The qualities of coal determine its uses. Generally, only anthracite is suitable for making coke for steel production, a process that requires high temperatures; it is therefore referred to as “metallurgical coal” or “coking coal.” Since anthracite is much less abundant than other coals, it sells for higher prices; it also therefore tends to be mined preferentially. Other coals are used mainly for electricity generation and are therefore known as “steam coal,” but this category includes a wide variety of coal types, from bituminous to lignite. At the lowest end of the spectrum are coals that are barely distinguishable from peat.

Even a thick seam of high-quality coal may be unrecoverable if it happens to lie beneath a town, school, or cemetery. Accessibility is also an important factor: lack of nearby transport infrastructure can pose a serious economic hurdle, since the transportation of coal can account for up to 70 percent of its delivered cost. The cheapest mode of transport for coal is by water; thus coalfields nearest coastal areas are most likely to be tapped for the global export market. While the oil industry has learned to access offshore petroleum and gas, coal that is buried in marine environments is difficult to extract economically with current technology, though there are exceptions (undersea coal has been mined in Britain since the 18th century, and is currently mined on a small scale also in Chile, Japan, China, and Canada).

Coal varies greatly in depth, from surface outcrops to seams buried thousands of feet down. In most instances, underground mining is practical only to a depth of about 3000 feet (1000 meters), though the world’s deepest coalmine, in England, reaches 5000 feet (1500 meters). Obviously, the costs of mining at great depth are much higher than those of working at the surface. Worldwide, 40 percent of produced coal is surface mined (in the US, about 60 percent of produced coal is surface mined).

Coal seams also vary in thickness, from only a few inches to well over 100 feet. Unless they are very close to the surface, seams less than 28 inches in thickness are likely to be uneconomic to mine.

These variations in energy density, quality, location, depth, and thickness all must figure into calculations when geologists and energy analysts attempt to answer the question, “How much useful coal exists”? Cut-off points for whether coal is judged economical to produce tend to be vague and changeable. Two variables capable of affecting such decisions are price and technology. If the price of coal rises, producers may find it economic to dig deeper, to exploit thinner seams, or to mine lower-quality deposits. And with new machines for mining, coal that was uneconomic in the past may now become profitable.

On one hand, as more coal is discovered, as the price goes up, and as new mining machines are developed, coal reserves expand. On the other hand, as we extract and use enormous amounts of coal each year, we draw down those reserves.

One might expect that overall reserves figures would change fairly slowly and in a predictable fashion. In fact, as we will see, reserves figures for several nations have collapsed in recent years, and over the past few decades centuries’ worth of coal has disappeared from global reserves. Given that the world’s economy depends so heavily on coal, this trend is hardly reassuring. If we wish to understand how and why such downward reserves revisions are occurring, it is essential that we look more deeply into the rather specialized, technical process of estimating coal reserves.

How Coal Reserves Are Estimated

The estimation of coal reserves has evolved through the decades, and now constitutes a sophisticated process entailing the work of thousands of trained and experienced coal geologists around the world.

The first step is to identify prospective areas. This is accomplished by means of old-fashioned, painstaking geological fieldwork, carried out with map, compass, and pick. Geologists typically look for coal outcroppings in rock strata exposed by streambeds or by ancient earth movements. Once a prospective area has been identified, cores are drilled to determine the thickness and depth of coal seams, as well as the quality and characteristics of the coal itself. These cores are carefully analyzed and logged to yield a three-dimensional map of the region. Then, using such maps, field sizes are estimated. Finally, reserves for entire regions are estimated by totaling field-by-field estimates.

No matter how carefully this process is pursued, it inevitably incorporates many judgment calls. Remember: reserves are defined not as the total amount of coal present (that’s the resource); rather, they are the portion of the resource that can be expected to be extractable at a profit using existing technology. Not only are reserves limited by resource quality, seam thickness, depth, and location, but analysts must take into account the fact that the mining process will inevitably leave some of the resource behind. This is especially true in the case of underground mining, where in some instances a majority of the coal originally in place remains. A coal-mining engineer in South Africa once described to me in conversation how cost-driven mining techniques often disregard poorer-quality resources, and do so in such a way that once an underground mine is shut down, it is likely never to be re-opened. E. N. Cameron’s At the Crossroads: The Mineral Problems of the United States (1986) discusses how “workings deteriorate, and cave-ins may occur” in abandoned mines, frequently leading to a situation where “costs of rehabilitation may become prohibitive,” “mining of the poorer seams may never be resumed,” and “the coal involved in such mines becomes a lost resource.”

Historically, recovery percentages for underground mining average about 50 percent; for surface mining, 85 percent.

In the ideal case, all of these variables will have been taken into account when a final reserves number for a region or a nation is produced and published. However, ideal cases are rare.

The task of reserves analysts is made difficult, for example, by the fact that private coal companies often keep their data proprietary. Thus when a public agency sets out to compile national reserves statistics, it may find significant gaps in available data. Moreover, some nations simply don’t have the personnel or funding needed in order to properly compile and update records.

There is no single internationally recognized, uniform method for assessing and reporting reserves as a fraction of resources. In the US, coal geologists work with the following carefully defined categories:

  • original resources
  • remaining resources
  • identified resources
  • inferred resources
  • measured resources
  • reserve base
  • inferred reserves
  • indicated reserves
  • measured reserves
  • marginal reserves, and
  • sub-economic resources.

But other countries have their own sets of categories, with varying definitions. Assembling national reserves figures into a composite global picture is therefore a task of enormous complexity. One might expect that this would be the work of teams of data analysts working for the International Energy Agency or some well-funded, prestigious institute. Surprisingly, the task is actually carried out by a husband-and-wife team—Alan Clarke and Judy Trinnaman, whose company, Energy Data Associates, is headquartered in Dorset, England. Clarke and Trinnaman send a questionnaire annually to every nation in the world. According to Clarke, about two-thirds of nations reply, but only about 50 of these replies typically are useful. Some reported data must simply be disregarded as unrealistic. No effort is made to verify reported national reserves figures through independent geological surveys.

The figures from Energy Data Associates are then taken up in the triennial report of the World Energy Council, and are subsequently republished by the IEA, USGS, BP, etc.

Clarke and Trinnaman do the best they can with the information available to them, but given the nature of their data collection methods the results could hardly be regarded with a high level of confidence. (To be continued…)

Foreword to

When Technology Fails

by Matthew Stein, second edition

Technology will fail. You can count on it.

We humans have been making tools for tens of thousands of years. For a similarly long stretch of time we’ve been talking to ourselves and to one another, developing the other strategy that has made us so formidable as a species—languagemaking. Language helped us refine and expand our toolmaking and tool use (imagine trying to produce something as simple as a stone knife if you couldn’t benefit from anyone else’s experience); meanwhile, we invented a range of tools to increase our ability to communicate (writing, printing, the telephone, radio, television, computer networks, and so on). These two strategies—toolmaking and languagemaking—have together made us the most successful large-bodied animal species in planetary history.

Energy always set the rules of the game. All animals obtain their basic biological energy through food (second-hand sunlight), and exert energy through muscles to get what they want and need. Tools helped us leverage muscle energy, and language gave us social power by enabling us to cooperatively strategize, and to diffuse our ideas over distance and time. Both enabled us to appropriate more and more biosphere functions for our own purposes. But always we remained subject to the net energy principle: it takes energy to get energy, and the net marginal profit (from hunting or gardening or farming) was limited and variable, even with the help of bows and arrows, horse collars, and plows.

During the past two centuries, fossil fuels made net energy effectively irrelevant. Suddenly we had access to energy sources produced over geologic time that we could draw down at arbitrarily high rates. The energy required to explore and drill for oil was trivial compared to the energy we could get from burning the stuff. With cheap, high-quality, concentrated fossil energy sources, we could make far more tools than ever before, including mobile ones that carried their energy supply with them. We could make tool networks. We could mechanize production processes. We could free nearly everyone from food-producing routines for other occupations—as factory workers, managers, salespeople, accountants, computer programmers, or advertising artists.

As a result we now live in what French philosopher Jacques Ellul famously called the “technological society”—though he might equally have called it the “fossil-fuel society.” It is a pattern of living so suffused with, and linked by, powered tool and information systems that we have become overwhelming as a species (we’ve taken over about 40 percent of the biological productivity of the planet), but utterly vulnerable as individuals. All that’s necessary to cripple us is for the electricity to go out for a few days.

Indeed, the entire system has failure built into it. It is based on the ever-increasing consumption of depleting, non-renewable energy resources. As we consume the cheapest, most easily accessed of those resources and are forced down the net-energy ladder, the technological systems on which we have come to depend will inevitably shudder and give way.

That’s what I mean when I say technology will fail.

But don’t take my word for it. A recent issue of New Scientist (April 5, 2008) explored the emerging study of how and why complex societies tend to collapse, leading with an article titled, “Why the Demise of Civilization May Be Inevitable.”

Many people think of modern technology as if it were a magical, autonomous entity capable of overcoming our ancient net-energy constraints. In reality, modern technology has merely increased our exposure to collapse. We should stop assuming that just because we’re smarter than the ancient Romans and Mayans, we can’t be brought down by analogous system failures.

Once we begin to come to terms with all of this, what should we do?

Start by identifying tools that are not dependent on the systems most likely to fail. In other words, find tools you can rely on that don’t require fossil fuels or an operating electricity grid system.

Re-learn the skills that enabled our ancestors to thrive without fossil fuels. Get in touch with others who are similarly interested in surviving collapse, and work with them to create community resilience.

Not all of the tools and skills that are likely to be helpful to us are ancient. A good solar cooker, for example, can enable us to heat food cheaply and conveniently without natural gas or electricity—and the solar cookers available today are far more effective than anything that might have been used by tribal peoples in ages past. In other instances, though, we are likely to find ourselves treading well-worn paths, developing ever more respect for how people in traditional societies intelligently solved life’s persistent problems.

For the most part, simpler technologies are likely to be less environmentally ruinous than the high-powered tool systems on which we have come to rely. Thus any effort we make to return to more reliable and resilient tools will also constitute a giant step toward sustainability and environmentally responsible self-sufficiency.

Clearly, information resources will be enormously helpful in our learning (or re-learning) process. That’s where this book comes in.

When I saw the first edition of When Technology Fails in 2000, I was impressed. Here was a comprehensive review of the tools and skills—and the literature—anyone would need in order to get by as technological society hit the skids.

Now, Matthew Stein has updated his classic text, adding a new chapter on proactive actions for making the shift toward sustainability (both personal and global), and updating all the existing chapters with the latest information, including resource guides. The first edition was written before 9/11, when the term “peak oil” was relatively unknown and “global warming” was still considered a fringe topic. A lot has changed in the world since then.

A single book can’t do everything. There is just too much we need to know. Moreover, many skills need to be learned directly from a teacher (you might be able to learn to operate a fire drill on the basis of diagrams, but for me it took personal interaction with someone who was already good at using one). Nevertheless, When Technology Fails succeeds at just about everything we could realistically hope one book might do to inform us ahead of when technology does falter.

Will technology warn us before it fails? It seems to me that it is doing so now. The price of oil is setting new records almost daily. Electricity grids are straining and buckling in countries around the world. Food prices are skyrocketing and food riots are erupting. All you have to do is turn on your computer and surf the Internet for a few minutes and technology will reveal to you all you need to know about how vulnerable technology is making us.

Get ready. Read this book and follow its suggestions for skills development and further research. Adjust your own oxygen mask before helping others.

What Car Do You Drive?

The question inevitably arises soon after readers or lecture audiences first become acquainted with global oil depletion and climate change. I must be asked it at least once a week. Sometimes I reply by reciting how I didn’t buy my first car till age 40, how I later drove an old diesel Mercedes while belonging to a local biodiesel co-operative, how I scrapped that fume-belching heap of metal and replaced it with a Toyota Yaris to protest the Brontosaurian dimensions of the typical American SUV, and how I now often get around town on an electric scooter. But that answer, while respecting the query’s intent, fails to advance the conversation. The question presumes a continuation of car-centered culture, and that is precisely what must be called into doubt.

In many parts of the world (especially North America), automobile ownership is a given. Throughout the last century, the petroleum, automotive, and road-building industries amassed and exerted enormous political power, systematically foreclosing all other transport options through efforts either to starve rail and public transit infrastructure of funds, or to buy them up and dismantle them. Bucking the current massive system of highways and short-lived personal dream machines often requires courage, dedication, and planning. Very few individuals are sufficiently motivated.

Thus it’s understandable that the first policy response to depleting petroleum reserves and the climate threat has been a rush toward biofuels and coal-to-liquids technologies—rather than a questioning of the auto-centric system itself. Yet if either of these alternative fuel sources is expanded enough to replace oil, the car (rather than the atom bomb) may end up being the invention that destroys the world.

Our transition away from fossil fuels will require a societal effort at a scale and speed never before seen; given the limits on our time and money, we cannot afford to waste both investment capital and precious years pursuing false solutions like alternative fuels. Electric cars may be a better idea, since there are lots of promising renewable sources of electricity. But when we step back and compare auto-based transport systems with rail-based options, even electric cars come out looking like resource gluttons. We don’t need alternative cars; we need alternatives to cars, starting with ways to reduce our need for travel in the first place.

Perhaps those of us who have arrived at this conclusion may be forgiven a less-than-joyous response to the recent unveiling of Tata Motor Company’s $2500 Nano, an auto being marketed to tens of millions of previously car-free Asians who can now afford a scaled-down version of the object that half-a-billion inhabitants of wealthier countries take for granted.

Doesn’t everyone deserve the comfort and convenience enjoyed by Americans and Europeans?

It’s an insidious question. Like the title of this essay, it presupposes a great deal. Only by unpacking and ruthlessly picking apart our assumptions about the future of transportation can we hope to overcome the sinister logic of universal car ownership—a logic that leads to universal destruction. Are biofuels a bad idea in every single instance? Probably not. Should car owners be demonized? That’s neither polite nor helpful. But until we collectively, through coordinated policies, reverse course and stop both building roads and looking to alternative fuels for a solution to environmental problems, we’re all on a highway to hell.

It’s Happening

There is a surreal quality to the experience of seeing the unfolding of unpleasant events that one has predicted. Plenty of times over the past few years I’ve said, “I want to be proven wrong!” Who in their right mind would wish to see economic collapse and famine? But it was obvious that, given the direction our society is headed, these must be the consequences. Now, with oil at $117 a barrel, the US economy teetering, and food riots erupting in Haiti, Egypt, and Asia, one could perhaps gain some satisfaction in saying “I told you so.” But what faint compensation that would be. We are all going to have to share the bitter fruits of our society’s century-long growth binge, whether we have criticized it or participated wholeheartedly. The only silver lining is the possibility that now, at last, as the trends (Peak Oil, the failure of growth-based economics, the failure of industrial agriculture, climate chaos, and so on) are becoming so starkly clear, policy makers will begin seriously to contemplate a Plan B (or C, as Pat Murphy insists). For those of us who have been lobbying in that latter direction for some while, this is no time to let up, but rather the ideal moment to redouble our efforts.

#192: Resilient Communities: A Guide to Disaster Management

MuseLetter #192 / April 2008
by Richard Heinberg

Resilient Communities: A Guide to Disaster Management

Resilience: The ability to recover quickly from illness, change, or misfortune; buoyancy; the ability to absorb shocks.

The following is a proposal to help make communities better able to respond to the coming economic shocks from resource depletion, beginning with Peak Oil, and perhaps also to shocks from other causes (such as the ongoing subprime mortgage and credit collapse). In searching for a name for the strategy, I have settled on the phrase “Resilient Communities,” which comes with considerable baggage—useful baggage in this instance. Once I have described and discussed the proposal, I will offer some background materials regarding the terms resilience and resilient communities, mentioning some other projects that have used the same title or that pursue similar goals.

Making existing petroleum-reliant communities truly sustainable is a huge task. Virtually every system must be redesigned—from transport to food, sanitation, health care, and manufacturing. Some fine efforts are under way in towns such as Kinsale, Ireland; Totnes, England; Portland, Oregon; and several cities in northern California to catalog the needed changes and initiate the transformative process. The Powerdown Project, Energy Descent Action Plans, and local Climate Protection initiatives are all important efforts in this direction. However, even in places that began such work two or three years ago, actual oil dependence remains largely unaffected. The transition that is required will take many years, huge shifts in both private and public investment, and fundamental changes in public policy at higher levels of government in order to succeed. Do we have enough time? Will the investment capital be available?

Meanwhile, global oil production appears already to have entered its plateau phase, with a gradually steepening decline in total production—and a much more rapid drop in export capacity among nations with any oil to spare—likely to commence within the next two or three years. It appears that the time available for adaptation is probably far too short to enable needed work to be accomplished. Meanwhile, the financial solvency crisis initiated by the US subprime mortgage fiasco threatens to obliterate trillions of dollars of investment capital, impeding whatever efforts might be undertaken toward energy conversion. Thus few if any communities—including those that have initiated worthwhile projects—will be prepared for the shocks of high fuel prices and fuel shortages that will inevitably follow in the coming years. What to do?

A few months ago, on the day following the most recent “Peak Oil and Community Solutions” conference in Yellow Springs, Ohio, some of the speakers and organizers gathered to compare notes and strategize. At some point during the lively conversation, Faith Morgan, the Director of the film The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, reminded us how, early in Cuba’s crisis period, organic farming advocates had provided crucial advice that helped quickly transform the nation’s food system; without the input of these previously marginalized alternatives advocates, the nation probably would not have survived. I was certainly familiar with the story: I have recounted it in print and in lectures on many occasions. Nevertheless, as Faith spoke, a (compact-fluorescent) light bulb flickered somewhere in my murky skull. Perhaps something similar could happen in other nations or communities—and not just with regard to food, but all the other aspects of modern existence. There are plenty of marginalized “alternatives” advocates who for decades have been researching and promoting low-energy ways of doing things that will make perfect sense in a post-petroleum environment. What if these folks could be mobilized and coordinated, their knowledge made readily available to local officials and the public at large, in preparation for the imminent period when existing systems start to fail in ever more obvious ways?

The notion solidified as I read Naomi Klein’s recent book, The Shock Doctrine, which details how savvy politicians and business leaders have used natural disasters, wars, and economic upheavals as propitious moments for the introduction of neo-liberal economic policies—privatization, free trade, slashed social spending—that are themselves disastrous (though immensely profitable for the few), and that would normally be rejected. In the current instance, as we contemplate a global mega-disaster-in-the-making, it is not difficult to envision neo-liberal or neo-conservative power-holders licking their collective chops over the prospect of doing away with all labor and environmental regulations as citizens everywhere clamor for strong leaders who can implement bold policies to restore relative normalcy.

In other words, crisis equals opportunity—for those who are prepared to seize the day. Unless sensible plans to manage disaster are formulated and put forward now, the opportunity afforded by crisis will be hijacked by a familiar cast of characters.

What follows, then, is a strategy to take advantage of the gathering storm to steer communities in a direction that will make them more sustainable over the long run. I must emphasize at the outset that, while I am making the case for this new strategy as strongly as I can (that’s a writer’s job), I do not wish people already hard at work on proactive energy transition strategies through Relocalization and Transition projects to get the impression that I am saying, “Stop everything you’re doing now, rush to the other side of the boat, and start doing this other thing.” In fact, all I hope to accomplish with this essay is to introduce a new strategic perspective that can be useful to activists as they continue and expand the work in which they are currently engaged.

Anyone can adopt this strategy; however, existing Peak Oil response groups and networks are probably in the best position to do so. Groups wanting to explore this strategy can join the Relocalization Network (www.relocalize.net), if they are not already affiliated, and use that network for sharing information and other resources. Groups could also link Resilient Communities work with the Transition Network (www.transitiontowns.org), Step It Up, Mayors for Climate Protection Campaign, Climate Action Network, and Sierra Club’s Cool Cities program.

What is needed is not just another trademark for yet another activist campaign, but an additional strategy that can be used by any existing organization.

Try This

The strategy I am envisioning might be composed of the following series of steps:

  1. Establish a working group for the purpose of formulating a Community Resilience Plan. The size of the group will depend on who is available and motivated, and on the size of the community. It will be helpful if the individuals involved have experience with organizing efforts and are already trusted, active members of the community. If there is a sufficiently large pool of potential members, group membership could rotate. This could be an entirely new group, or it could be a new project for an existing group. At the very earliest stage, establish a connection with the Relocalization Network.
  2. Identify organizations, businesses, and individuals in your community that have some skill or capacity that will be needed in the post-Peak Oil environment. Look for people who are already working in food production and distribution, health, transport, water delivery, waste disposal, home heating, communication, and crisis management who are able to supply goods or services in their respective field using less energy and fewer imported materials, or who have concrete proposals in this regard. Examples include organic farming and Permaculture groups; herbalists and others able to provide health care in the absence of high-tech equipment; car-share organizations; and bicycle advocacy groups.
  3. Approach these people, inform them that you are formulating a Community Resilience Plan, and ask for their help and participation. Tell them about Peak Oil—if they don’t already know—and help them understand the implications. Point out that their “alternative” skills and knowledge, which they may have grown weary of promoting in the face of general systemic preference for “mainstream” approaches, will soon be crucial to community survival and well-being. In effect, you must appeal to their self-interest as a way to motivate them to expend some extra effort on behalf of a Community Resilience Plan.
  4. Work with these groups and individuals to develop a contingency plan in their respective areas of action and expertise. The plan should answer the question: If your community were suffering from a crisis (unaffordable energy prices, fuel shortages, and knock-on effects such as empty store shelves and rampant unemployment), how could your expertise be rapidly deployed on a large scale to help reduce the impact? What assistance and resources would you need? What steps would have to be taken, and in what order? For example, Permaculturists might have a fine way of producing food locally, but in order to expand their efforts significantly they might need to train teams of gardeners to roam the city planting garden beds on vacant lots or in the front and back yards of willing homeowners. How would these teams be financed and coordinated? How might a surge in demand for garden tools and seeds be satisfied? In each essential field, look for ways to build redundancy with regard to provision of goods and services.
  5. As you are doing all of these things, also contact city disaster management officials, letting them know what you are doing and why. Ask for their input and inquire how what you are doing can be most useful to the community at large. Make sure they have copies of Post Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty, by Daniel Lerch (www.postcarboncities.net).
  6. It might also be useful to contact leaders in some of the mainstream organizations (government agencies as well as private companies) currently responsible for food, water, transport, and energy provisioning and inquire if they have any plans for the time when fuel becomes scarce. If they perceive your project as a threat, they are likely to try to block or undermine it in various ways. However, if they see the project for what it is—an effort to enable the survival of the community in circumstances where current support systems cease functioning—they may be moved to contribute. If they simply deny that any problems are on the horizon, you may have no choice but to continue what you are doing without their input. Again, make sure these leaders have copies of Post Carbon Cities.
  7. Assemble the various suggestions into a coherent Community Resilience Plan. Some sort of document is always useful as a touchstone for collective action. The plan should be comprehensive, modular, and staged. It should offer suggestions for slow-onset as well as rapid-onset disasters. It should also be consistent with proactive plans for the long-term post-carbon transition of society (such as the report of the Portland Peak Oil task force). It should be in a form that can be upgraded and revised continually. And it should be widely available to the public (i.e., published on an easily accessible web site).
  8. Once a document has been formulated, go back to civic leaders and disaster management officials and present the document. At the same time, stage a public roll-out of the plan, arranging newspaper articles and radio interviews as well as a public event at which all of the contributors, and local officials, can offer brief presentations.
  9. When shortages develop and the economy comes unhinged, work with contributing groups and local officials to implement the plan. Without implementation, the effort will have been wasted. This stage will no doubt entail the hardest and most demanding work. It is difficult to foresee the exact circumstances in which that work will be taking place; nevertheless, the more thorough the preparatory efforts, the more successful the implementation is likely to be.
  10. Work with groups in other communities to coordinate programs across regions and nations. Again, the organizations most likely to be helpful in this are the Relocalization Network and the Post Carbon Cities program of Post Carbon Institute, and the Transition Network. Communities should be encouraged to share their experiences, and to share other resources wherever possible. At the earliest opportunity, meta-plans for resilience should be initiated at the state, national, and international levels.
  11. Granted, formulating a plan along the lines I have suggested is a huge task, and the process I have described may not be robust enough and sufficiently engaged with all facets of the community in order to succeed. I welcome input on how to deal with these shortcomings. However, the general thrust of the strategy is logical and strategically sound. Obtaining local government support and public or private funding will be extremely advantageous, as attempting such a task on a purely volunteer basis will create obvious pitfalls of overwork and underperformance.

Why?-and Other Questions

Why do we need another strategy?

I have been directly or peripherally involved in many Peak Oil response efforts over the past five years. Some I would characterize as top-down (starting by trying to convince and enroll policy makers such as city officials), some bottom-up (starting from a grass-roots base of concerned citizens and activists). All begin or end with a long-range plan for reducing the community’s reliance on oil and other fossil fuels—a plan that entails a redirection in investment of public funds, the shifting of priorities, changes to zoning regulations, and so on.

The Resilient Communities strategy is based on observations of what worked in those previous efforts and what didn’t. It is also based on the fact that, even in situations of apparent success (where much publicity was garnered and city councils adopted Peak Oil action plans), nagging doubts remain. What if these efforts are too little, too late? What if society is broadsided by an economic collapse from other sources before the effects of Peak Oil become obvious, undermining proactive plans? When I think of my own community, I wince: despite some good activist efforts over the past couple of years, Sonoma County is really not much better prepared than it was before we started.

During these past few years, I have had opportunity to observe a few policy makers at fairly close quarters and to observe how they think, what they say, and what they do. I’ve concluded that (with a very few notable exceptions), regardless of lip service to sustainability, Peak Oil preparedness, or climate protection, these people’s first priority is economic growth. If their attention to this overarching priority wavers, they soon find themselves out of a job. Thus as long as business-as-usual (or at least business-as-usual lite) is an option, it will be favored. However, looming environmental limits require economic contraction. Peak Oil preparedness is, in essence, the effort to controllably scale back the pace and scope of society’s consumption of energy and natural resources so as to reduce the impact when inevitable shortages arise—and also, ultimately, so as to reduce society’s material throughput to a level that is actually sustainable over the long haul.

Policy makers demand growth, while prudent policy (in light of resource depletion) requires voluntary contraction. This basic contradiction suggests that real change won’t come about until hardship is upon us. And that judgment is in turn confirmed by the one example we have of successful adaptation to energy famine—Cuba’s Special Period—which was not a proactive effort, but primarily a reactive one.

Thus as compared to other plans and strategies, Resilient Communities strategy has a more explicit focus on disaster management.

At the point when maintaining business as usual is no longer an option, there may be a chance for new strategies to be considered. Officials must face crises (whether effectively or ineptly); they cannot simply ignore obvious breakdowns in the societal support system. If a plan can be put forward that helps officials solve pressing, undeniable problems, that plan has at least a chance of being considered.

Granted, the strategies most likely to gain favor in the early stages of crisis are those that promise a return to business-as-usual (even if that promise is hollow). But as those strategies fail and crisis deepens, nets will be cast wider. At some point the Resilience Plan will become the strategy of last resort.

A useful historical example: as the Great Depression gathered gloom, the New Deal was not the US government’s first response (Herbert Hoover dithered for two years); it wasn’t even Franklin Roosevelt’s initial strategy: only after everything else had failed during three to four long years of economic crisis and misery were more radical ideas tried.

How, exactly, is a Resilient Community different from a Transition Town or the Powerdown Project?

There certainly are similarities. Transition Towns do tend to bring alternatives movements together to design solutions, and Chapter 3 of Rob Hopkins’s Transition Handbook offers an excellent discussion of “why rebuilding resilience is as important as cutting carbon emissions.” The Powerdown Project (www.powerdownproject.org) did focus at least partly on disaster management. Indeed, nearly all of the individual elements of the ten-step program laid out above exist in these and other plans. The virtue of the Resilient Communities strategy as outlined here is that it puts those elements together in a new framework that explicitly takes account of the opportunities that crisis affords.

Transition and Relocalization projects tend to have a hopeful, upbeat, attractive tone, and that is one of their virtues. By contrast, disaster management is a sobering subject. Yet while hopeful visions are good and necessary for motivating communities, the real future that is now unfolding is one of crisis heaped upon crisis. Effective response strategies must respond to the facts, however unattractive they may be from a marketing standpoint. The Resilient Communities strategy faces harsh reality and makes the best of it by using it strategically.

The point must be stressed: I don’t mean to suggest that proactive plans to alter energy consumption absent a crisis are a waste of effort, even if they are unlikely to be fully implemented by “business-as-usual” policy makers. The efforts of cities like Portland, Oakland, Willits, Totnes, and others deserve to be celebrated and supported.

Moreover, while a Community Resilience Plan would seek to maximize the opportunity that crisis affords, crisis management can only get us so far toward our goal of reducing and redesigning the human economy so that it does not degrade nature’s carrying capacity. Broad-scale, proactive plans are still essential. Once the crisis has hit, once other remedies have been tried, once the Resilient Communities programs have been adopted, and once “alternatives” begin to become mainstream, then the long-range plans for redirecting economies toward true sustainability will become actionable. Indeed, at every stage along the way we will need some sense of what a sustainable society would actually look like and how we might bridge the chasm between the present and that distant goal.

What’s in it for people in the alternatives movements?

Why should they go to the extra trouble? They are already engaged in important efforts, and are probably overworked.

Folks in the alternatives movements have in many cases been toiling for decades to research and promote sustainable practices. Where they have tried to shape public policy, they may have found themselves ignored or marginalized. The Resilient Communities strategy offers them more than a soap box: it is a chance to use their knowledge and skills in service to community during an imminent time of crisis. While previously they may have found themselves adopting an oppositional or even confrontational stance in relation to industry leaders and policy makers, this is a chance to assume the role of representatives and protectors of the community. If the strategy works, they will cease to be “alternative” and become the “new normal.”

What’s in it for the officials?

Won’t they just ignore or undermine the effort?

Most public officials will gladly sacrifice interests of the alternatives crowd that conflict dramatically with those of the business community. But absent a direct conflict, it is in the nature of politicians to try to keep everyone happy. Resilient Community planning does not focus on conflicts between diverging interests within the community; indeed, its main goal is to improve survival prospects for everyone. If the effort is framed properly, officials should view it as a gift—an aid in solving potential problems that may actually be looming much closer than many politicians and business leaders currently realize is the case.

Resilience in Ecosystems and Economies

For those wishing to adopt the strategy outlined above, the use of the phrase resilient community is not mandatory. Nevertheless, resilience has so many useful implications that it may be useful to spend the remainder of this essay unpacking and exploring a few.

There is a sizeable and edifying literature on the subject of resilience in ecosystems; C. S. “Buzz” Holling is responsible for much of the pioneering work in this regard. An introductory summary of some core ideas related to ecological and economic resilience is contained in the entertaining essay, “Diesel-Driven Bee Slums and Impotent Turkeys: The Case for Resilience,” by Chip Ward.

Briefly, resilient systems are able to withstand higher magnitudes of disturbance before undergoing a dramatic shift to a new condition in which they are controlled by a different set of processes. Reducing resilience increases vulnerability to smaller disturbances. From the website of the Resilience Alliance (www.resalliance.org):

Even in the absence of disturbance, gradually changing conditions, e.g., nutrient loading, climate, habitat fragmentation, etc., can surpass threshold levels, triggering an abrupt system response. When resilience is lost or significantly decreased, a system is at high risk of shifting into a qualitatively different state. The new state of the system may be undesirable, as in the case of productive freshwater lakes that become eutrophic, turbid, and depleted of their biodiversity. Restoring a system to its previous state can be complex, expensive, and sometimes even impossible. Research suggests that to restore some systems to their previous state requires a return to environmental conditions well before the point of collapse.

The notion that human communities can benefit from fostering resilience is far from new; when I did a Google search for “resilient communities” in preparation for writing this article, over 80,000 hits came up, including www.resilientcommunities.org—an inactive website related to an initiative in the late 1990s by Northwest Regional Facilitators and the late economist Robert Theobald). One other example worth noting: the UN has a “Resilient Communities & Cities partnership” program, which aims to “increase the resilience of a city or community to a range of shocks, crises, and disasters including environmental emergencies, industrial accidents, outbreaks of epidemics, economic shocks, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and social conflict.” I’ll mention a few more examples at the end of this essay.

In their 1982 book Brittle Power, Amory and Hunter Lovins argued for the decentralization of energy production in order to foster resilience.

More recently, David Fleming—the originator of Tradeable Energy Quotas (www.teqs.net)—has written and spoken at some length about resilience in the context of preparations for Peak Oil and Climate Change. With Lawrence Woodward, Fleming has authored, “Transition, Resilience and Tradeable Energy Quotas“, in which he notes that a resilient community will need to be “relatively small-scale” and “localized” so that:

  • If one part is destroyed, the shock will not ripple through the whole system.
  • There is wide diversity of character and solutions developed creatively in response to local circumstances.
  • It can meet its needs despite the substantial absence of travel and transport.
  • The other big infrastructures and bureaucracies of the intermediate economy are replaced by fit-for-purpose local alternatives at drastically reduced cost.

Once these conditions are satisfied, new possibilities open up:

  • Local closed systems conserving fertility and materials will become feasible.
  • Local energy production, distribution and storage can be established, linked by local grids.
  • Local social capital and culture can be rebuilt as a necessary condition for the cooperation and reciprocities needed to achieve the transition.

One quality of resilience is redundancy—which is often at odds with economic efficiency. Standard economic theory tells us that if it is cheaper to manufacture a particular widget in Malaysia than to do so locally, then all such widgets should come from a factory in Kuala Lumpur. Efficiency implies both long supply chains and the reduction of inventories to a minimum. The “just-in-time” delivery of raw materials and parts for manufacturing reduces costs—but it increases the vulnerability of systems to fuel shortages.

As we pay more attention to resilience and less to economic efficiency, we begin to see redundancy and larger inventories as benefits rather than liabilities. Other resilience values include diversity (as opposed to uniformity), dispersion (rather than centralization) of control over systems, and, as already noted, the localization (versus globalization) of economies.

More notable “resilient communities” resources include: