“We have only two modes — complacency and panic”
…said James R. Schlesinger, the first US Department of Energy secretary while talking about his country’s approach to energy, back in 1977. Well, not much has changed since then. Many, if not most of us, are still stuck in complacency mode and respond to our long term energy, material and ecological issues by stating: ‘Oh, fusion, solar — or fill in the blank — will surely save us’, disregarding the growing body of evidence that it is exactly this, the (over)use of technology what is responsible for the predicament we face today. We have mined the Earth so thoroughly, and grew our economy so large, that there will be simply not enough resources to replace the fossil fuel system with wind, solar, nuclear — or any combination of these. Yet, our political class remains complacent saying: ‘All will be fine, we just need more investment’. Is there another way, though, to approach this dilemma?
During my years as a maintenance engineer I quickly learned that all technologies need constant upkeep, repair and an eventual rebuilding. No machine, solar panel, microchip, train, car or anything else lasts forever. Parts wear down, break, corrode, deteriorate. The same is true for civilization writ large. If there is a hard rule of thumb, when it comes to building complex systems like the economy, it is this:
Entropy is a bitch and it won’t let you leave without paying.
Since all — I repeat: all — of our machines are built out of raw materials found in finite mineral reserves, all contribute to the eventual draw down of the very resources they depend upon. And no, it doesn’t matter if it’s oil, silicon, copper or uranium. To make matters worse, these minerals all take an ever larger amount of energy to get from ever poorer quality reserves as rich deposits deplete. These materials are called non-renewable for a very good reason.
Some, who do get it though, on the other hand, tend to fall into ‘panic’. ‘Oh, my God! Run for the hills, the sky is falling!’ When I first learned about peak oil in the early 2000's I admit, I did succumb to panic. I did not know what to do. Everything seemed futile: ‘Oil can leave us any day now!’ — my thinking went. ‘The trucks will stop delivering goods, agriculture will shut down’ — all at once, everywhere, of course — ‘and we are all going to die’. Doom set in.
Yet, here we are, almost twenty years later and the world economy is still rattling along. Peak conventional oil happened in 2005 (as predicted), it’s price skyrocketed, bursting the housing bubble and kick-starting the great financial crash in 2007–2008. Then came the shale revolution thanks to an unprecedented exercise in money printing (helping to offset the prohibitive costs) and all seemed to be fine. The complacency crowd, with our political elites leading the charge, felt that they had won the argument, forever.
Fast forward ten years, and in 2018 oil production peaked again: this time globally, including non-conventional resources. Lock-downs just made this matter worse. Oil production did not recover ever since, and it seems doubtful that it ever will for more than a fleeting moment. Meanwhile the rattle from the engine box did get louder. Although the world economy managed to get along by adding an ever larger amount of debt and throwing in ever more biofuels, synthetic crude and other gimmicks, we seemed to have hit a limit to our desires to grow our energy consumption forever and a day more.
This has become blatantly obvious in 2021 already (OK, at least to those who were paying attention). Energy prices shot through the roof, killed many businesses and crippled economies across the world. Then came the war in Europe further exacerbating the issue. The globalized economy has started to develop some serious cracks, which just have become wider ever since. But this was just the beginning.
As the US, the world’s biggest oil producer as of today and the only one who could substantially grow its output since 2005 (largely offsetting the peak in conventional production) will start to decline later this decade, there will be no more bunnies in the hat. We have tapped the source rock, and the rattling sounds have just become louder. The fossil fuel economy has hit hard limits to growth and soon begins its long descent.
These are all but symptoms, however. Not the cause, but the agent that will help technological civilization to meet its ancestors on the pages of history books. ‘Oops, did I just said that? What is this, dwelling on doom-porn again?!’
Well, like it or not, this civilization together with its gadgets and gimmicks will meet its fate. Not because oil will run out. Not because the burning of fossil fuels overheats the planet. Not because it has already consumed and trashed the best natural and mineral resources it needed for the much vaunted energy transition. Not because it cut down all the old growth forests, caught all the fish, and hunted all the wild beasts to extinction. Not because it raped, poisoned then sucked dry its agricultural land.
No. Industrial civilization will pass away because it was unsustainable from the get go. It has always used more than Earth could naturally regenerate. It doesn’t matter if it’s running on agriculture, wood, coal, oil, uranium or polysilicon wafers, if it’s using these inputs at a thousand if not a million times faster than they get replaced.
Yet, our civilization believes somehow that all this doesn’t matter and keeps pinning its entire existence on rapidly depleting mineral resources and a dying ecosystem. As evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin wrote in his small book The Triple Helix (thanks to Dave Pollard for the quote):
“The cause is the narrow rationality of an anarchic scheme of production that was developed by industrial capitalism and adopted by industrial socialism. In this, as in all else, the confusion between agencies and causes prevents a realistic confrontation with the conditions of human life.”
What a beautiful way to put that we were short sighted and stupid. Now stir in exponential growth: the doubling of resource use every few decades. It increasingly looks like that we are at the last doubling: if we were to keep up this tempo during the course of the next 22 years, we would need to mine as much minerals as we did during our entire written history. Let that sink in for a moment.
The ‘problem’ is, that these materials are a) simply not there or b) would require more energy to get than what we can hope to gain by mining them. Oh, did I mention that we still use diesel engines to mine copper, lithium and all the rest? What about mines powered by wind and solar? At this point I must quote Simon Michaux, who has a degree in physics, geology and mining engineering:
“We are not mining with solar panels and wind turbines… and when we do, shit’s gonna get real.”
Now what..? Doom? Not so fast. The world economy is still rattling along so far despite the reduced amount of oil (and the much reduced net energy) it has available. Why? It readjusts. It cannot heal itself, as it is still based on the old flawed principles which have led to its current state, but it certainly has some juice left to muddle along.
The world economy is a complex self-adapting system, the size of which is limited by the energy it has available. Since its main energy source, oil, has most probably peaked, the amount of material and energy it can consume is peaking as well. Such systems are inherently unstable though: they either grow, or start to deflate. There is no steady state or stable equilibrium for an economy which is entirely based on rapidly depleting reserves of materials and energy.
Contraction now seems to be inevitable, but how will it look like? If you imagine the availability of resources like a 50t hydraulic press, the upper pressing plate of which representing the amount of material and energy available to the economy in a given year, then you have seen it rising throughout the past couple of centuries. It has reached its upper limit though, and the plate has started to come down again, ever so slowly.
Now imagine the world economy as an ornate vase put under this press. As long as the ceiling, represented by the pressing plate, kept rising we could put an ever bigger vase under it. As soon as the plate has started to come down, however, instead of replacing the said vase with a smaller one, we did nothing.
First, nothing seemed to happen. Then the press touched the upmost part of the vase. Cracks have started to form… and all of a sudden, snap! The ornate handle of the vase broke. The pressure relieved, but the press did not stop moving. For a while nothing seemed to happen. Then the pressing plate reached the rim of the vase, and pressure has started to build up again…
You know the rest: the vase is now about to break into half: a few large chunks surrounded by many smaller pieces. We are witnessing just that these years. Geopolitics. Finance. Resources. All seem to realign along fault lines and cracks, which were in the making since decades. The loud crack is not far away.
We can but hope that the crack will not produce a good dose of radioactive fallout.
Fast forward a few decades (and a few more loud cracks) and the press settles at the bottom: leaving nothing but dust and rubble beneath. This is how it ends. Not by a loud boom, destroying everything all at once, but through a step-wise process with smaller and larger setbacks, interspersed with release periods when the economy can respite, even grow again for a while. Every crash releases energy and materials others will be able to use, until they themselves start to feel the pressure.
The irony of the situation is that we were asking the wrong question all the time. We were debating what type of vase to put under the hydraulic press, never minding the fact that all would be crushed in short order. No one seemed to take seriously the idea that perhaps we should step outside the hydraulic press and start building an alternative system based on the regenerative capacity of this fragile planet, to use natural resources wisely, leaving mass consumption, exploitation and pollution behind.
Doom is in the eye of the beholder. The message of overshooting our natural resource base, soon resulting in a shrinking food, material and energy availability, all made worse by climate change and a dying ecosystem might send some shrieking at the top of their lungs that the world is over, while pushing others back into the cushions of denial.
Panic and complacency seems to be the only options we have. There is a third way to approach the end of industrial civilization though. One, which inspires meaningful action but doesn’t presupposes an ever growing (and forever available) material base. One, which sees science and technology as building blocks to a bridge leading to a more sustainable lifestyle. One, which doesn’t imply that we need to return to the caves, but one which inspires us to transcend industrial civilization and to build an Ecotechnic world.
Yes, it would mean giving mass consumption, transporting and wasting goods across the surface of the planet or living a lavishly luxurious life. Yes, it would mean doing more meaningful work, reusing, reutilizing or recycling the many products left behind by industrial production. Yes, it would mean conserving remaining ecosystems, resources and energy by radically downsizing our material footprint.
This approach allows the use of solar panels, and even nuclear power plants, presuming that we can handle the waste these technologies generate at mining and manufacturing. Knowing, however, that the resources that make these energy sources available are slowly dwindling, we must also think one step ahead and find more sustainable ways to produce the energy we need, or find ways to do without.
The industrial-financial economy is dead — it just doesn’t know it yet.
What the world economy — in its current form — needs is not a return to growth, or replacing its main source of energy, but a hospicing service. There is only one rule: cause no harm. It makes no sense to destroy whatever is left of the biosphere while mining for lithium, copper, uranium or what have you, in order to ‘save’ our current way of life, when it results in even more exploitation, and ultimately the death of the planet. The goal is not to heal or rein in industrial civilization — it is impossible — but to ease the pain of its passing, continuously letting features which were the most unsustainable go, while simultaneously inventing ways to get by with less, peacefully.
Until next time,