“It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of this little world don’t amount to a hill of beans to all these crazy people” – Collapsablanca
It’s Friday night and what John Michael Greer often calls ‘the predicament’ is in full swing over at the QuadRanting place.
Ma and Pa QuadRanting are sipping a chilled New Zealand white and nibbling pistachios. QuadRanting Jnr is watching YouTube on his tablet. He’s got headphones on but his helpless giggles keep cutting across Monty Don on BBC2, who’s looking ravishing in HD against the backdrop of a French millionaire’s recreation of a XVIIth century potager.
As it’s Friday, we’ve got the coal-effect gas fire on in addition to the central heating. And the wood/coal stove in the kitchen is still alight too – although to be fair, the stove is the only heater we use during daylight hours.
Cables and pipes radiate out from this cosy little scene to the Great Unsustainability Support Machine. For the avoidance of doubt on that subject, my role in the drama is to toggle my attention between Mr Don on the telly and the coffee table edition of the Post Carbon Institute’s “Energy – Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth“, which is open on my lap.
A bit of context here. QuadRanting’s gross income puts us narrowly into the highest/luckiest/most spoilt or whatever you want to call it quintile of UK earners. It was not ever thus, though. No silver spoons in our family. Nevertheless, the chain of lucky accidents that began with where and when I was born has borne me blindly along, atop a rising tide of pillaged common natural inheritance, to the point half a century later where I’ve washed up amidst the most materially-privileged 2% or 3% of humanity.
One wonders what my great-grandfather – a Sierra Leone-born black slave in Ghana who bought his freedom from his local owner by joining first the British army in Accra and later the Navy, which brought him to England after a decade spent patrolling the Caribbean – would have thought of where his lineage was headed.
Great-granddad was a fluke of history. Timing and chance as much as character and determination got him from up country Ghana to the East End of London, from where his children and grandchildren headed west and south to leafy middle class suburbs.
Of course the lifestyle now enjoyed by his descendants was equally a fluke of history. Seventeen years after he was born, the modern oil age began in Pennsylvania. Thirty years after he landed in London, Spindletop inaugurated the explosive draw-down of the Earth’s energy inheritance that brought us to where we are today.
Which is at or near some kind of epochal peak in human history. For I’m in complete agreement with the PCI, and James Howard Kunstler, Nicole Foss, JMG, Tullet Prebon, the New Economics Foundation and many others, that the curtain has come down on the era of turbocharged growth bookended by my great-grandfather and his great-great-grandchildren.
What’s left to us is weak growth. For a while anyway. And even that can’t last for long as declining net energy sucks us on to its inexorable glide path. Stasis isn’t an option either. It’s as if the laws of thermodynamics are having their revenge: we can’t win; we can’t break even, and we can’t get out of the game. The PCI’s coffee table tome bleakly exposes the incredible cost of maintaining the gigantism that underpins high-energy civilisation. That civilisation is a precondition of my way of life, as described up top, (which is materially affluent by UK standards but decidedly average by American ones).
One obvious question is what am I going to do about this? Well, nothing, obviously. But surely one should do something when one realises that humanity is skipping, twirling and limping up a deadly cul-de-sac?
My dear fellow, welcome to the predicament.
Around six years ago, when I was beginning my mental journey into the ramifications of peak oil, I saw a clip of Michael Ruppert urging an audience of college kids to get out of (or stop going further into) debt. We’d been paying down our mortgage faster than necessary anyway – because it seemed vaguely like a good thing to do. Peak oil awareness sank sharp teeth into the backside of our good intentions, so we boosted our efforts and got out 10 years early.
We already lived in a small country town but, even so, we put chickens in the garden for eggs and the table, and started growing more of our own fruit and veg. Resilience and community matter: we got stuck in and helped to prevent half the town’s small number of allotment gardens going under houses. I could go on.
According to chaos theory, any of those gestures could have been the butterfly’s wing-beat that set off a chain reaction that culminated in a hurricane that would sweep away all the rotten, fossil-fueled overgrowth threatening the planet. Quite a violent image, of course, and only really a charming little fantasy (though a surprisingly popular one).
What has actually happened? Six years on, another 400 million humans have been born. Complexity and energy-dependency have risen massively everywhere. The financial breakdown predicted and chronicled for the past five years at The Automatic Earth has already taken one massive lurch forward with the financial crisis and is now coasting on something of a false flat before the next great spasm.
Our civilisation is doing what all civilisations do: outgrowing its resource base and morphing into something else through a phase of unstable contraction. But as JMG and a few others keep trying to point out, it’s quite likely that the process will take hundreds of years to work itself out. Along the way, there are bound to be some pretty impressive moments – after all, ours is by an order of magnitude the hugest civilisation to reach this point.
Such a moment could hit us in the next six months, in a couple of years or not for another decade or more. Like markets that can behave irrationally for longer than investors can remain solvent, collapse can easily take its own sweet time. Much as I’d love to be the brave little boy holding his finger in the dyke until the cavalry arrives (gaily blowing mixed metaphors on their burnished bagpipes), realistically nothing I do will change anything, even though I kept on doing whatever it was for years.
The energy-waste economy
There’s you could call the Paradox of the Inflection Point. It’s about being the first to walk away from over-consumption. Phrases like “we all need to make do with less” abound in the peak oil-o-sphere and they are no less true for being endlessly repeated. But we need to remember a couple of things about overconsumption. One is that it is merely the flip side of overproduction. Focusing on consumption makes us feel as though we’re in control but the truth is that the most of the impetus is “push” from the production side. As long as small fraction of stuff makes a buck, the rest can go straight to landfill as long as there’s surplus energy to market the next ship load of waste
Walking away from over consumption (bearing in mind that even a modest Western lifestyle would overload the planet if every human lived it) solves nothing at an individual level. My individual decision to be more slowly wasteful than someone else has no measurable impact on the tar sands operation, or the rate of coal fired power station construction or the sales of new cars in the UK. It cannot affect the decision of a Brazilian rancher to clear x more hectares of forest because the touch-points between her and me are utterly tenuous.
I could go off grid, I could starve, I could die. It wouldn’t make an iota of difference to the big picture. In the 50-odd years since I was born, I’ve gone from being one two-and-a-half-billionth part of the human machine to one seven-billionth. I live like a king. I consume as much energy as 200 pre-industrial workers. Yet if my existence blinked out tomorrow, the future trajectory of history wouldn’t deviate by a micron.
The paradox is that if voluntary simplicity really did have societal, as opposed to individual or small-group, effects, then collapse would happen all the sooner. The involuntary simplicity being forced on nations from Greece to the UK and US, because oil is now too expensive to waste, is promoting descent at an increasingly smart pace.
So I sit in our comfortable, well-insulated, warm home with fast broadband. It is cold outside. The economy has begun its long term contraction. The great pensions collapse of the late 20-teens is gathering pace behind closed doors. We know what is happening and why. Surely I should be trying to do something. Make sacrifices. Cut back. Or get out and warn people that the world they’ve believed in for a lifetime is coming to an end.
What’s stopping me? Is it hypocrisy? Moral cowardice? Or is that there is really not a lot to be done. We’re in extreme overshoot as a species. Collapse is coming – probably catabolically. It cannot be avoided or realistically pre-empted. So I’m going to cross that bridge when it comes to me.
As it surely will.