By Richard Heinberg
This month's Museletter 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.
Download printable pdf version here (PDF, 244 KB)
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 now—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
Download the PDF (500k)
The 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 off 1. 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.
In 1972, the Limits to Growth report 2 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.... See the full Post Carbon Institute Manifesto
Footnotes for this portion
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).