Sunday, July 20, 2008

Peak Everything

In my last post I discussed the phenomenon of Peak Oil. But it's not just oil that's peaking. Most peak oil people are quick to point out that our natural gas supplies are just as limited. More to the point, peak oil theorist Richard Heinberg has published a newer book, Peak Everything, where he claims that oil and gas are just the tip of the iceberg.

Some nonecological types, when confronted with peak oil, will say not to worry--there's always coal and nuclear power. Forgetting about the environmental implications of using these fuels for a moment, reading Heinberg makes you wonder how long even things like coal and uranium will last. Heinberg claims that world coal production will peak in ten to twenty years and the uranium supply will begin diminishing midcentury. He also says that over the next hundred years we will also see declines in population, grain production, arable land, wild fish harvests, fresh water, climate stability, and yearly extraction of copper, zinc, platinum, silver, and gold--and he has charts to back this up. The next few decades are going to bring us less energy, food, and fresh water. From there, Heinberg sees things leading to a lessening of consumption, economic growth, mobility, technological change, and political stability.

He does say that the news isn't all bad. Some other things he thinks will peak over the next century include: economic inequality, environmental destruction, and greenhouse gas emissions. And he points out that there are things that are not in any danger of peaking. He doesn't list renewable resources like wind and solar (although they won't be going away); instead he lists community, cooperation, ingenuity, artistry, and things like satifaction from honest work, intergenerational solidarity, personal autonomy, leisure time, happiness, and 'the beauty of the built environment'.

He sees an end to Industrial Capitalism. And Heinberg isn't the only one. James Kunstler, whose book The Long Emergency has a similar dire forecast, has also written a novel, World Made by Hand, that tries to imagine what a post oil world would look like. There is a whole website (Life After the Oil Crash ) devoted to thinking about life beyond our current western civilization. There are, of course, lots of writers who think that all this is nonsense. Some don't believe in peak oil (a few, like the abiogenic theorists, don't even believe that there are limited supplies of oil) and others think we have the technology to replace oil and whatever else we run low on. They deride the believers in industrial decline (and I am coming to be one of them) as 'peakniks'.

But I don't think we can make wind turbines and solar cells fast enough. The hydrogen fuel cell is in its very early stages of development and struggling there. Coal (which many nations are turning to) causes massive pollution and accelerates global warming (which is already a major problem). I can summarize the difficulty with nuclear power in two words: waste storage.

I really think that we are coming to the point where we may need to choose between poisoning ourselves with what little coal and uranium we have left, and seeing industrial civilization come to a grinding halt.

And it may be soon, especially if we want to eat. One of the major effects of oil and other energy shortages is around food production. Food supply is very dependent on oil, not just for transportation and distribution (and it is very dependent on oil for this) but for the creation of fertilizer. The so-called Green Revolution was completely fueled by oil. I don't think it's an accident that food prices are rising as fast as oil prices and that food riots are breaking out. We are going to need to learn to grow our own food again. Heinberg, writing in Peak Everything, predicts a vast increase in the number of people becoming gardeners and farmers. He has a chapter called 'Fifty Million Farmers' where he claims that we will need to see the majority of workers return to farming if we are going to survive.

I talked in an earlier post about the need to move from Agitating (protests) to focusing on Educating and Organizing. Here's where that really comes into play. Like the Chinese word for 'crisis' (made from the symbols for 'danger' and 'opportunity'), the possibility of industrial collapse gives us a risky chance to create local, decentralized systems that could work for us. The situation reminds me of the title of Martin Luther King's 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Whether the collapse of corporate capitalism would result in dangerous chaos or the opportunity to recreate community will probably depend on how much education and organizing of alternatives we are able to do now.

(Actually, from a social change perspective, it doesn't matter whether capitalism collapses or not. Even if the peak oil stuff is all wrong and we do need to struggle with the system, the same work of educating and organizing alternatives would have to happen before we can tear down the system. Unfortunately, as history has taught us, without an alternative in place, after the revolution things slowly return to where they were before the struggle, only with different people in charge.)

Quote of the day: "...efforts to try to bring industrialism to ruin prematurely seem to be pointless and wrongheaded: ruin will come soon enough on its own. Better to invest your time in personal and community preparedness. ... Learn to understand and repair (as much as possible) existing tools--including water pumps, farm implements, and woodworking tools--that are likely to still be useful when there is no gasoline or electricity." - Richard Heinberg
Word (or phrase) of the day: Womanism
Hero(es) of the day: Emma Goldman

No comments: