Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Bottleneck

A little while back the Celtic Chimp asked me why I was so pessimistic about the immediate future, and for some more detailed description of what I thought was coming down the line. This is by way of an answer to him.

My bottom line assumption is that we are entering into the 'hitting-the-wall' phase predicted by the authors of the Club of Rome report 'Limits to Growth'. I see the problem of Peak Oil as the most prominent of those limits, but it is by no means the only one (and, even though I'm becoming more sceptical of "global warming" as such, there are plenty of other candidates).

The core point about 'limits to growth' is that, once you hit the limit, growth ceases. One of the most interesting things I've learnt in my research on this over the last few years is something called 'Liebig's Law', or, 'the law of the minimum' which states that the growth of any organism is restricted by the resource which is least plentiful. If you are growing a plant in a pot on your windowsill, that plant will need certain things to grow - water, sunlight, minerals from the soil and so on. When you reach a limit for any particular one of those things then it doesn't matter how much more there is of all the other elements needed, growth will come to an end. (I should emphasise here that I'm primarily talking about physical growth - more stuff, more people). So it doesn't really matter which area of human existence we focus on - it could be clean air, it could be clean water, it could be topsoil, it could be overpopulation - my particular interest just happens to be energy, and so we can talk about Peak Oil.

Peak Oil is that point at which the flow of oil reaches its maximum. After that point, the availability of oil will continually decrease, no matter what resources are brought to bear. My view is that - partly as a result of the collapse in oil prices over the last few months - we have now passed this point of peak oil production and are now in an 'undulating plateau'. The price of oil has decreased, partly through the firesale of financial assets (which will pass) but also due to the severity of demand destruction caused by the economic downturn. The problem will emerge with further strength when the economy gets through the economic aspects of the present crisis and tries to get back upon its previous growth-based models: the price of oil will increase again and choke off that economic growth. In sum, my view is that, for a period of 10-15 years, economic growth has ceased, indeed, that it will go into reverse. I see much of the middle-class Western lifestyle coming to an end over this period; a vast amount of unemployment which will - in a benign outcome - shift to working the land, or, in a less benign outcome, the resurrection of a slave society.

There will be manifold problems throughout human society, as the availability of cheap and easy energy has underwritten the expansion of industrial society for around three hundred years. Peak Oil represents that moment when human society is required to shift from a society based around energy which is cheap and plentiful, to a society where energy is scarce and expensive. No other fuel source can replace what oil presently accomplishes. The other fossil fuels are themselves subject to limits and resource constraints (which includes nuclear) whilst the renewables, which are longer term options, suffer most from problems of scalability. My optimistic feeling is that on the other side of the crisis there will be some resurgence of energy production (from renewables) but that level of energy will be significantly lower than today.

Most of the things which we have become accustomed to accomplishing with ease will become difficult. That will include feeding ourselves, and the difficulty of obtaining food will catalyse many extremely unpleasant secondary effects. Many of the most sombre commentators on the phenomenon of Peak Oil have become persuaded of the 'Die Off' scenario, whereby the majority of the human race will not live past around 2025. I am persuaded of the truth of much of their analysis; I differ primarily in allowing room for hope. Rather than seeing a terminal 'die off', I see us rapidly approaching a bottleneck - a time of greatly increased pressure and tension, and not all of us will get through. However, decisions that we make now - more at the personal and local society level than at the government level (I tend to see the government as a problem not a solution, as people know) - will make a big difference to what happens. Learn to store more food. Learn to garden or develop a skill that will allow for trading for food. Get to know your neighbours and develop contacts across the community.

I foresee a time of tremendous upheaval and suffering in this crisis that has now begun; a time with greater parallels to the 1340s than the 1930s, and a lot of people, a lot of societies, quite possibly even some nations (eg the US and UK in their present form) will not make it through. Yet I also believe that what we do now will make a difference in the end, and I trust that our labour will not be in vain. "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

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