Sunday, March 11, 2012

The narrowing window for a transition to a sustainable industrial society

The viability of modern civilization depends on two important dimensions: 1) the continuous availability and deployment of essential resources and 2) the long-term productivity and habitability of our environment. Acquiring and deploying the necessary resources tends to be a short-term goal. We may have stockpiles of ready food, fuel and other nondurable goods, but they are not typically meant to last for years.

Our long-term goal ought to be maintaining the productivity and habitability of our environment. It is, after all, the only environment we have. But, of course, in the interest of maintaining an ever increasing availability of resources (economic growth), we have injured the long-term productivity of our farm fields, fisheries and forests and put ourselves at the mercy of unforeseen declines in the rate of extraction of energy and other key finite resources from the Earth. And, we threaten the planet's habitability for humans and many other creatures by causing rapid climate change through the burning of fossil fuels, changes in land use and the release of other potent greenhouses gases such a nitrous oxide and methane into the atmosphere.

All of this has implications for the amount of time we have to transition to a sustainable industrial society. Nearly everyone, even wild-eyed resource optimists, believes we must make this transition at some point because of our reliance on finite fossil fuels and metals. The current talk of vast new supplies of oil and natural gas and vast remaining supplies of coal has people thinking that we have plenty of time for such a transition. The fact that the data do not support these claims is one strike against this line of thinking. But even if it were true, we would have to consider the consequences, namely, enormous additional greenhouse emissions that are likely to heat up the planet so much that food supplies will fall off sharply and water supplies will decline as rainfall patterns are disrupted. So, while one development--increased availability of energy resources--would tend to lengthen the window for a transition to a sustainable society, the climate effects would narrow it all the more.

Even if we discounted climate change (which we shouldn't), increased cultivation using industrial farm methods will tend to degrade the soil and eventually bring down agricultural productivity. Increased harvesting of food from the world's oceans would tend to undermine and even permanently prevent the recovery of their fish and seafood populations. Pollution of fresh water resulting from increased industrialization would require the use of more and more resources to purify that water. And, the harvesting of ever greater amounts of fiber from the world's forests will undermine future forest productivity by impoverishing the land upon which they grow. Each of these has the effect of destroying the long-term carrying capacity of the Earth and thus its productivity for human needs.

So, it turns out that we have several additional causes for the shrinking of the transition window. And, when we come back to reality on actual likely future energy supplies, we reintroduce one more reason for an urgent transition. Perhaps we could simply speed up our adaptation. Certainly, an all-out effort to transition to renewable energy and to a cradle-to-cradle recycling scheme would help (however politically unlikely such an effort might seem). But it has essentially taken us 50 years to build out an energy infrastructure of pipelines, refineries and service stations for oil and a second one for natural gas. We probably do not have the luxury of that kind of time to build out a renewable energy society either because we don't have the necessary fossil fuels (which must be used to build that society) or because climate change is moving too fast to make such a leisurely time line prudent (or both).

So when government officials or industry spokespersons or media commentators speak only of new energy supplies extending the time before we must make a transition to a sustainable society, they are thinking one-dimensionally. This is seductive and dangerous thinking. It is seductive because it seeks to make simple what is really a very complex and multi-layered transition. It is dangerous because that one dimension ignores all the other factors that are making a transition so urgent.

It is also dangerous to judge the resilience and success of our current living arrangements solely by our level of wealth or health. We are using up the natural capital upon which our very survival depends more rapidly than it can be regenerated. It's true that one can experience the illusion of great wealth by spending all one's savings in a week. But life after that would become quite precarious as a single large expense, say, a large medical bill, could send one to bankruptcy court.

That is how we are living with respect to the natural systems we depend on. Right now we are in the last day of a week of a natural capital spending spree. When those natural systems become incapable of sustaining our accustomed consumption and pollution levels, we could find ourselves caught in a kind of natural bankruptcy, living in straitened circumstances but without much preparation.

Some will say that the window for a transition to a sustainable industrial society has long since passed and that we are destined for an eventual return to an agrarian and craft society. There are two problems with this kind of thinking that have nothing to do with whether it is correct or not. First, almost no one will be able to accept such a message upon the first hearing and perhaps not ever. If you argue something which your audience will likely never accept, you will miss the chance to move them incrementally toward your view.

Second, it is unlikely that there will be a clear line in any future society between what we call industrial and what might be called craft. No matter how difficult our circumstances become, we will not suddenly forget how to generate electricity. Nor will we forget how to do many other things which form the basis of industrial society. Of course, we may not be able to do these things on the same scale as now. But, I think it is permissible to talk about doing many of the same things we do today on a much smaller scale to meet our needs.

Using a comprehensible and palatable message at least makes it more likely that people will think that a transition is possible and want to participate in it. Without that, the length of time available for a transition won't even matter.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.


Mary Logan said...

"...return to an agrarian and craft society. There are two problems with this kind of thinking that have nothing to do with whether it is correct or not. First, almost no one will be able to accept such a message upon the first hearing and perhaps not ever. If you argue something which your audience will likely never accept, you will miss the chance to move them incrementally toward your view."

I agree that the transition between industrial and lower energy society will be a continuum. But your statement above is a bit of a catch 22. If we subvert the message and make it "palatable," then we have compromised the theoretical basis and values that support the argument, thus ending up with the bargaining and "green BAU" that you are complaining about in the first place? Thinking that we have time and wiggle room to make changes has brought us to the point that we are now at?

Once you start the compromise process, your theories about how the world works start to change. If you lie down with dogs, you'll get fleas.

Kurt Cobb said...


Just so you know, I keep my flea collar handy. The dangers you point to in my proposed strategy are real. But if you approach people in a way that makes them mistrust you, how will you ever gain their trust? Another Catch-22.

The tactic I'm suggesting will more likely build trust upon which a deeper conversation leading to a more thoroughgoing awareness can take place.

I agree that we haven't much time. And yet the human heart and mind move at their own pace. Getting some people on board is better than getting no people on board.

Mary Logan said...

I keep a fogger at hand. When our worldview consists of markets, demand, and money, we have a market hammer, and everything's a nail.

There's room for multiple approaches, some are ready to hear more than others. The internet can be a great educational rabbit-hole for unfolding understanding. Science, however, needs to be held to a different standard?

I was thinking of the field of ecological economics in my first response, and the nature of the slippery slope of science theory. Here's what happens when we start to compromise ideals regarding the relationship between man and nature, and absorb the language and measures of economists, in illustrative quotes below from an article at EOE. If our hammer is global markets, with Nature as one more resource to be brought into our free-standing market system, then capitalism and genetic engineering are our nails?

"The future vision of a sustainable planet with a high quality of life for all its citizens (both humans and other species) within the material constraints imposed by [a closed system.]

Ecological economics deals with all these, and accepts much of neoclassical theory regarding allocation.

The policy instrument that brings about an efficient allocation is relative prices determined by supply and demand in competitive markets.

Subject to these social decisions, individualistic trading in the market is then able to allocate the scarce rights efficiently.

This involves extending the existing market to internalize the many environmental goods and services that are currently outside the market.
Natural capital productivity is increased by: (1) increasing the flow (net growth) of natural resources per unit of natural stock (limited by biological growth rates); (2) increasing product output per unit of resource input (limited by mass balance); and especially by (3) increasing the end-use efficiency with which the resulting product yields services to the final user (limited by technology).

Certainly investments are made in increasing biological growth rates, and the advent of genetic engineering may add greatly to this thrust.

The term “environmental externality” is now very much a part of the vocabulary of international discourse, though the international institutions designed to deal with externalities are far too weak.

Mary Logan said...

Here's another example from this morning's "Ask Amy" column in the paper. If we compromise on reality, we learn to believe that faith is stronger than reality. Earlier societies did not have that luxury; it is the fossil fuels that have allowed us to escape reason.

Dear Amy: I have a granddaughter who is 5, and one day while we were on vacation, she and I were sitting together, and she started to ask me if I am going to get old.

I told her that we all get old, and that is why we have birthdays. She broke down crying, saying that she didn't want me to die and that I had to promise her that I would not have any more birthdays.

It took us more than an hour to get her calmed down. She is dead set against anyone having any more birthdays. She also said she didn't want to have any more birthdays after she turns 6. Because of this I did not let them write "Happy Birthday" on the cake when my birthday rolled around.

Is there some other approach we can take so she doesn't get upset?

— Ontario, Canada

Dear Ontario: Death is a profound issue and definitely something to get upset about, especially when you're 5. You cannot and should not avoid this.

You should examine your and other family members' reactions. You should have reassured your granddaughter calmly without resorting to a childlike promise that you won't celebrate your own birthday, for goodness' sake.

This merely reinforces her fears that birthdays are somehow dangerous and to be avoided.

If this comes up again, assume the role of the wise granny. Hold the girl close and say, "There, there — everything is fine. I'm not going anywhere any time soon."