Sunday, September 26, 2010

Could peak oil save the human species?

Nobody likes to hear a bleak diagnosis. But without a proper diagnosis, if you have a serious illness, your chances of survival become vanishingly small.

Enter Guy McPherson, conservation biologist, climate scientist and blogger, who despite his gloomy outlook about the prospects for industrial civilization--he thinks it could disappear within his lifetime--regards himself as an optimist. Why? Because back in 2002 after he finished editing a book on global climate change, he concluded that "we had set events in motion that would cause our own extinction, probably by 2030."

But, then he discovered the concept of peak oil and realized that "its consequences might bring the industrial economy to an overdue close, just in time." That development would make it possible for humans to persist on the planet for a considerably longer time by saving the life support systems of the Earth essential to both humans and the other species which humans rely on. Peak oil became a cause for optimism rather than pessimism.

I asked McPherson, who gave a talk this weekend near where I live, what would change his mind about the trajectory of industrial civilization. He answered that the discovery of a miraculous, cheap, easily scalable new energy source would probably allow our current arrangements to persist for a while longer. But such a development would be a death sentence for the human race since it would lead to the total destruction of the life support systems we rely on, systems which are only seriously crippled now. It would result in further population overshoot, resource depletion including that of soil and water, and further destruction of species we rely on for our well-being.

He likened what we are doing now to constructing an extra floor on the top of a 30-story brick structure using bricks pulled from the lower floors. We are engaging in the "world's largest game of Jenga" with the building blocks of our existence.

He says the emerging collapse of our modern living arrangements is not a recent phenomenon, but actually an ongoing process. He traces it back to the oil crises of the 1970s which were the beginning of the end. The key metric in his view is a peak in per capita oil consumption in 1979. McPherson says he would not be surprised if the endgame for industrial civilization plays out very quickly given the long period of stress both human society and the biosphere have been under for the last generation.

As a response he suggests focusing on four things: water, food, maintaining proper body temperature, and community. Water and food are obvious needs, but many of us don't think about whether the climate we live in will allow us to maintain proper body temperature. We have central heating and air conditioning to help us with that. But when such amenities are not available, the climate where we live will become crucial to our well-being and comfort.

By community he means building ties of mutual support with one's neighbors. "There ain't no lone rangers in collapse," McPherson explained. "If you look for ways to serve your community, you've got a good life ahead." His model is Monticello (minus the slaves) where "agriculture was the center of commerce and therefore the center of life."

As part of his own preparations he lives on land at moderate elevation with deep soils and easily accessible water. He grows food and raises goats for milk. The area is already populated by what he calls "life-loving economic doomers" who do not need to be convinced that industrial civilization is coming to an end. Mutual assistance is a way of life. Practical concerns trump philosophical and religious differences.

To do all this McPherson left his position as a tenured professor. He says at the beginning he knew practically nothing about how to provide the necessities for himself. "I could barely distinguish between a zucchini and a screwdriver," he explained. Now, he's milking goats, making cheese, growing vegetables and performing myriad our tasks necessary to a more localized existence, one that does not rely so heavily on the far-flung logistical networks of the globalized economy.

He doesn't call what he's doing "sustainable," a term which, he said, has even been co-opted by Wal-Mart. Instead, he refers to it as "durable," meaning he is trying to build a way of life that will outlive industrial civilization. He said his cosseted existence as an academic did little to prepare him for what he is doing now. But precisely because of this he is convinced that "if I can do this, anyone can do this."

And, in the manner of a principled prophet on a lonely mission, he soldiers on each day trying to help others build a durable way of life before it's too late.


tubaplayer said...

How excellent! A fellow traveller. And I have goats too, but no milk until next year.

John Andersen said...

My son starts college next year hopefully at the one of his choices that has a permaculture farm where the students learn by doing and come out with the international certificate in permaculture.

Young people (and old) need to be embracing the life Guy has embraced.

It's that or likely falter sometime in the next two decades.

Kalki said...

Industrial Hemp Industrial Hemp Industrial Hemp.

Repairs soil
Absorbs co2
Improves health
25,000 industrial uses
creates jobs
creates self sufficiency
Renewable every year

If this is not grasped THE USA will not survive.Its the only alternative that can provide liquid fuel thats required.

Unknown said...

Hopefully Rob Hopkins won't be offended if I repost a comment I made over at the Transition Culture blog. It explains why my view is different from McPhersons. (Does this make me more pessimistic than McPherson? I'm not sure I ever thought I would see myself that way.)

Here is the quote:
We already know that human beings have historically devastated biomass stores on this planet(read: forests), even while also using lots of fossil fuels. Moreover, we know that deforestation continues to be the biggest problem in places where fossil fuel use isn’t actually the highest per capita (Africa, Brazil, Haiti). There are also already concerns about deforestation in Siberia, and that is just because of demand for wood for consumer products made in China, NOT for fuel. Telling billions of high-energy users in richer countries to start burning more wood is, in my opinion, a recipe for stripping the planet bare of its remaining forests. I’m not sure that the math on CO2 emissions even matters!!

We only have two options. 1) use less, and 2) get what we do use from sources that can be truly disassociated from the carbon cycle, such as solar (thermal and electric), wind, and (if we can accept its other problems for as long as it lasts) nuclear. We can insert a fair amount of such technology into the world without killing Gaia.

Frankly, my biggest fear for the future of humanity is that economic and civilizational collapse will eliminate the technological knowledge necessary to maintain completely carbon-FREE sources of energy, and that billions of helpless, desperate people will see no other options but to burn the biosphere until it is gone.

ccpo said...

Unfortunately, Peak Oil will not destabilize society fast enough to mitigate climate issues unless it happens really, really quickly.

The first reason is below. Pay very careful attention to what they say about sea bed and permafrost methane.

"Present pledges by governments to reduce emissions will still result in a global average temperature increase of 3.5 to 3.9 C by 2100, according to the latest analysis. That would result in an Arctic that’s 10 to 16 degrees C warmer, releasing most of the permafrost carbon and methane and unknown quantities of methane hydrates.

This is why some climate scientists are calling for a rapid phaseout of fossil fuels, recommending that fossil fuel emissions peak by 2015 and decline three per cent per year. But even then there’s still a 50-percent probability of exceeding two degrees C current studies show."

Secondly, you could stop all emissions tomorrow and we're still committed to another 1C warming, yet those clathrates are already melting.

Third, a recent paper indicated CO2 concentrations as low as 400 ppm could lead to disintegration of the Greenland Ice Sheet. We are about three years away from that.

Another couple of papers have placed overall climate sensitivity at 5C, which would indicate we are already committed to about 2C.

Also, with collapse would come the burning of whatever is available, including forests. That is, it won't necessarily stop emissions.

No, there is only one sure answer to climate taking us all out: Don't just reduce emissions, but draw down carbon back to pre-industrial times.

That means the creation of regenerative systems for us to live within. It means growing food regeneratively and the same for forest ecosystems to take up carbon and reducing consumption drastically.

Steady state economics would appear to also be an only option.

Sorry the news isn't better, but PO cannot and will not save us unless it is extreme, and comes incredibly fast.


Guy R. McPherson said...

"PO cannot and will not save us unless it is extreme, and comes incredibly fast."

I think it will. As I said during my presentation, many sources indicate the industrial economy will be done by the end of 2012. I suspect that's fast enough. At least, that's my hope.

Unknown said...

"many sources indicate the industrial economy will be done by the end of 2012."

Surely you don't mean to say there will be no 'industries' left on earth in two years. Statements like this, if meant to be taken seriously, need to be more specific.

Guy R. McPherson said... for those sources, jaggedben, starting with

mobil bekas said...

Let's consider the fact The United States is the largest energy consumer in terms of total use. That facts should realized US people, that they consumes oil more than other people in this Earth. So, every body (including us) should take responsibility about this condition and starting to change their behavior on oil consumption.

To save our planet, we need to change our behavior, our consumption on oil and gas. High demand of oil will make Oil company explore more and more oil and gas, the we produce more heat and pollutions, damage our ozone.

Because when the needs of oil is decreasing, the Oil company will decrease their production. This is a good news for us, that we have a power to control oil production by changing our consumption behavior.

So, let's start to buy smaller car (engine), use electric power wisely, shut down the computer after working, use public transport to workplace.