“One thought alone occupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.”
J.M. Coetze, Waiting for the Barbarians
But things which can’t continue, won’t. These include not just the U.S. empire but, looking to the whole developed world, our luxurious way of life and complex industrial society. We usually assume the era of our empire over the earth will be prolonged to some vague future extent that is not relevant to our present personal plans – which is to say, prolonged indefinitely.
It’s time to wake up and notice the desperate measures we are undertaking to get the fuels we need to keep it all going, the dust storms, the storm surges, the paralysis in the Capital, the inanity and surreality of our public discourse. The end of our misbegotten and predatory empire is at hand. By the middle of this decade tremendous strains will be even more evident than today, and by 2020 our outlook will be quite different. There are too many reasons for this to explain in detail, so in this post I will touch upon only a couple of them and in (alas!) a qualitative way.
If this is true, shouldn’t we start investing our hopes and lives in what will soon follow? Assuming we care about our children and grandchildren. Major changes take time, and we have very little of that, so we had better get started now.
Now is the only time in which action ever occurs (though our power of making promises can extend it), but “for now” what I mean is that this is something that each should start taking care of this week, and every week after that. Most of us in the U.S. live a cave of political ignorance and inexperience, so we don’t know what to do or how to proceed. We may even think we participate in a democracy because we vote! The first steps we take will brighten our path, as long as we keep going. The country we thought we had is lost, so it will be a brave new world, regardless. The biggest question is whether we are brave enough for it, which means first and foremost overcoming the ingrained and enforced selfishness of consumer society.
But why do I think our complex industrial society so threatened, so imminently? I hope more technically-minded readers will be patient with the elementary descriptions which follow and the near-total lack of references. I might backfill those later.
A complex industrial society requires thermodynamically cheap fossil fuels, which means fossil fuels which can be obtained with great efficiency using fossil fuels already produced and at hand. That efficiency, which is now rapidly falling worldwide, is what gives us a surplus of cheap energy to produce and maintain the non-energy part of our economy. Our economy, and the built world that has accreted as a result of its operation, are produced by heat engines run on fire. However remote or hidden, fire is still the sine qua non of our economy and society. Not just fire is required, but the efficient use of fire in heat engines, where the overall efficiency is subject to the energy needed to acquire the appropriate high-quality fuels.
Two major problems with this arrangement are now fully apparent.
We have a climate problem, the worst and most urgent problem humanity has ever faced.
Fire produces carbon dioxide, a potent and very long-lived greenhouse gas which has progressively destabilized the earth’s solar energy balance and hence climate, directly threatening not just civilization but the existence of most species, including ours. One commonly-used fuel, methane, is lighter than air, leaks during its acquisition and processing (especially if that acquisition involves high-pressure fracturing of host rock), and is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide over the crucial years and decades ahead.
Worse, the destabilization of the earth’s climate has begun to lower the reflectivity of the earth (as white sea ice is replaced by dark water and dark, northward-marching forests replace the white snows of the tundra and taiga) and is also beginning to liberate large natural stockpiles of carbon dioxide and methane. These and other positive feedbacks threaten runaway heating of the earth, which if continued would turn earth into a very different kind of planet, destroying most or even all life on earth (the “Venus syndrome”). Our danger cannot be exaggerated and catastrophic effects in the form of drought and more frequent and severe storms have already begun.
This is the worst problem humanity has ever faced and no effort or investment can be spared in fighting it. Prompt large-scale investments that can efficiently help halt global heating, and possibly even reverse it, and which therefore might save humanity and the living earth that supports us (not to mention particular economies and markets to which we may be attached), are by definition economic. Barring supervening events beyond human agency, the collapse of societies, currencies, nation-states, of civilization, and the extinction of the human species itself all await us in successive and ever more terrible tsunamis if we do not stop and if necessary reverse global warming and allow natural agencies (no active agencies appear practical) to lower the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
The genocidal outcomes now in train are not be profitable to any but the most execrable predators, and even for them and their children there would be no escape. This predation nonetheless is underway, supported by the most villainous campaign of lies. Our own dirty secret is that we enable them. It’s political passivity and lack of political success, not individual lifestyle virtue or lack thereof, which is the problem. Voluntary simplicity or voluntary anything is not going to solve this problem under the regime of present economic signals. If prices are weighted sufficiently differently of course, then slashing greenhouse gas emissions would be happily chosen by nearly everybody – happily, that is, in comparison to the alternatives available.
Preventing runaway climate change will not be cheap, when “cheap” is evaluated by those who will lose out in the economic transformation, using metrics that favor them. Every expense we make to prevent climate deterioration is somebody else’s income. Upgrading a building to save energy and produce energy onsite is too often called a “cost,” when it is income to the contractor (and all the employees, subcontractors, and suppliers) and an investment to the owner and community. Billings for wasteful, polluting energy for the building will decline, as they must and should. Creative destruction, just like Schumpeter said.
Obviously, alternatives to extinction are economically efficient in comparison to it.
But where would the money come from?
The only way the necessary transition can be achieved is by diverting two mighty economic streams and discovering two hidden economic bonanzas. It’s a package deal. We don’t get the bonanzas without diverting capital and the accompanying cultural change of heart.
First, we must divert a non-trivial part of the mighty current of excess First-World consumption into investment in climate-saving infrastructure worldwide, which is the only way to prevent our economies from collapsing in any case. A significant carbon tax and 100% rebate would do that in a highly efficient and progressive manner, just to give one policy example. It is a central one, however. Jevon’s Paradox reminds us that we must tax or otherwise control what we don’t want excessively consumed.
Second, we must reclaim the stream of scarce capital that flows into our military machines. Militarism – which is something different and more than investing prudently in legitimate security needs – hurts three ways: it wastes capital and ravages our economy; it perverts the state and civil society and the ideas animating it; and it leads to war. The fellow with a whole drawer of hammers will see nails everywhere.
The two bonanzas we generally do not recognize (especially in the U.S.) are first and foremost the tremendous creative and compassionate energies of human beings, now clotted and confused by consumerism and an ideology of selfishness. We tend to identify, too narrowly, cultural creativity with mere “new technology” on the one hand, and we likewise fail to see the potential economies and businesses that a more robust social and environmental contract would generate. The two go together. “You must make your living by loving,” said the master of the Concord woods and fields.
The other bonanza we do not appreciate, because policies do not internalize the economic externalities of ignoring it, is the tremendous physical energy available from sun, wind, and tidal waters that is available if we would but learn to live in some semblance of harmony with their limits and timing.
Needless to say, there can be no harmony on a planet warming this much and this fast.
Fortunately or unfortunately, peak oil is here
The second big problem with our industrial society is the flip side of the first. Although terrible, it is also a harsh blessing, if we could but make “the trend our friend.” It is this: the thermodynamically “cheap” fuels required to operate industrial civilization are already, or will very soon become, unavailable at a rate necessary to support economic growth as it has been defined heretofore. At greatest immediate issue is oil.
Gathering the best of the best new oil availability prognoses is going to be a project for tomorrow’s and future posts. Bear with me if you can.
There are no simple short-term substitutes for oil and the transportation fuels derived from it. There is no other equally portable fuel with comparable energy density that can be easily injected into efficient engines on a large scale. For some uses (e.g. commercial aviation) there is no positive net energy substitute available, although synthetic fuels could be manufactured. For the U.S., trillions of dollars would need to be invested over a period of decades to effect a transition. But we don’t have decades.
It is not the absolute availability of oil-based fuels that is primarily at issue, although that is likely to be a problem as well in some areas due to refinery outages, long supply chains, and panic buying. The big problems are chronic and inescapable: the freighting down of economies by high fuel prices which become incorporated in all transportation and in key industrial and agriculture commodities, all of which directly and indirectly take away from other spending, which depresses the economy in general.
As Charles Hall and John Day put it in 2009, “We do not live in an informational age, or a post-industrial age, or (yet) a solar age, but a petroleum age.” It is not at all clear that economic growth as we have known it for many decades is compatible with oil that is priced as it is today. Any economic recovery which increases oil demand under oil supply constraints will cause oil prices to rise and thus will hit a “glass ceiling.”
A more acute phase of the problem arises when the rate of decline of oil availability significantly exceeds the rate at which oil demand can be destroyed (for example through the provision of economic substitutes, e.g. better-mileage cars, carpooling, mass transit, telecommuting, and so on).
A sudden problem will occur when a bellwether minority of the public, investors, and governments recognize that this relative shortfall is occurring or could soon occur.
Our economy and (debt-based) financial systems, and all that is contingent on them – which comprise pretty much the whole world to homo consumptor – depend very sensitively on economic growth, real and perceived. Changes in perception, or sudden changes in circumstances, can lead to very rapid changes in value and very rapidly changing physical conditions, on a scale of days even. The dangers here too cannot be exaggerated. The interconnected global financial system is a powder-keg of fictitious value and vast, unsecured debt, which continues in its metastable condition by virtue of information control and regulatory allowances. When (not if) confidence in future growth falls, all growth-based assets (which is most of them) will lose a lot of value.
For this reason the very rapid deployment of oil-replacing transportation systems is a national and global security imperative. Investments in such systems are also one of the few ways the heavily oil-addicted U.S. economy can be effectively stimulated in a time of peaking oil production and declining net oil exports globally. Such investments directly stabilize transportation and improve household and supply-chain stability and security.
The nationalistically-minded among us will note that if the productive portion of GDP – say, the value of goods and services potentially saleable abroad – rose per barrel of oil used in the U.S., U.S. exports would move closer to competitive parity with other more oil-frugal economies. At present, a barrel of oil adds more value in developing countries – specifically China – and so these countries can afford to pay more for that barrel of oil, using cash derived from export sales. Net oil exports have been falling for six years worldwide, and a greater and greater fraction of remaining exports are going to East and South Asia for this reason. The U.S. economy is too oil-inefficient to compete on straight price terms for remaining oil stocks, this fact could very easily lead to more war. The Iraq war was substantially about oil, as many key actors have later stated. Addiction to oil leads to addiction to war, direct and proxy.
Finally, which side are you on?
These dangers will be mediated, for better in many cases and for worse in others, by fragile and fallible human institutions, many of which are organized for private gain or along nationalistic lines. Yet every country and people will soon discover it is in crisis.
Thus we live in interesting times. Other rapidly-catastrophic problems which could be mentioned, but the impacts of these two problems alone are more than the human mind and heart can comprehend, let alone address in practical governance.
We might seek comfort in individual and community adaptations, which are necessary and which we must attempt, but which will be inadequate if the goal is to prevent mass destruction and suffering. Development of these two crises alone, if we do not or cannot prevent them, will sweep away all our adaptations, some quickly, some more slowly.
So we are now thrown into the most existential of situations. Not everyone sees this yet but they will, and soon. Every single person will sooner or later be touched by the direct or indirect effects of these problems. We will choose and we will respond. For the sapient it is a brand-new existential problem – and an opportunity to show our quality.
Here in New Mexico the dire effects of climate change have already begun to arrive with a vengeance, and our weak government and peripheral economy are especially vulnerable to national economic decline. Our state’s economy now teeters on the edge of precipitous decline. The easiest course for us to take in New Mexico – and it is a future which many parties near and far are choosing for us – is one of recolonialization along progressively more authoritarian and military lines, accompanied by passive environmental devastation and depopulation.
Some of this is baked in the cake. The Chihuahuan desert will march north, embracing the southern half of the state. All forms of water – in the soil as well as in rivers, reservoirs, and pipes – will be considerably scarcer. Real estate values will decline, at a pace and to a degree dependent in part on policy. Powerful parties with financial and psychic investments in the status quo will block the dissemination of knowledge – not just selectively, since it is hard to pick and choose, but willy-nilly all knowledge, for which propaganda and ideology are the ersatz. All factors which might lead to devaluation of those fixed investments and income streams, such as democratic voice and standing that might eventually lead to other priorities, are being systematically cut down, abetted by the unconsciousness of those who might otherwise defend them. This process is very far along.
So we have an emergency, as surely everybody knows. For responsible and healthy adults, business as usual cannot continue under such circumstances, in either normative or actual terms. “Responsible” and “business as usual” are not compatible adjectives.
No one can fully understand all this or what to do about it. The Study Group is a collection of people who have been trying to do so for a long time – several decades, for some of us.
It is clear that our various roles and careers must now change, and they are being changed. Each of us can be powerfully protective of life, if we choose to be. Opinion and sentiment merely avail nothing. Which side are you on?
 For a good discussion of this issue see Charles Hall, Stephen Balogh, and David J. R. Murphy, “What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have?” (pdf).
 Exceptions are minor. Existing hydropower is the least fuel-dependent large-scale energy source we have, although even it requires maintenance services that depend heavily on fossil fuels. New hydropower, even if it were environmentally acceptable, is obviously another matter.
Nuclear power, which we might mistakenly think does not rely on fossil fuels, is actually totally dependent on them. Leaving aside the uranium mining problem, nuclear power requires exacting conditions to operate safely and reliably that include diverse and reliable general and specialized supply chains, a stable electrical grid, near-certain physical security, and many other social, political, and economic conditions that directly or indirectly dependent on thermodynamically-cheap fossil fuels. Until proven otherwise it is therefore best to assume that nuclear power, but only where certain exacting conditions are present (the extent of which is highly debatable), can amplify or complement a fossil fuel-based energy system. In any case there is no indication that a safe, reliable, large-scale nuclear power based energy system would be possible without the heavy use of relatively cheap fossil fuels. In particular I am unaware of studies that examine the practicality of nuclear power under conditions of declining transport fuel availability. Nuclear power, because of its extreme energy density (several orders of magnitude higher than chemical reactions), and the dangers to life posed by those reactions and their waste products, appears to be the most fragile “non-fossil-fuel” (sic) energy source we have. To some degree this is expressed in its ever-rising cost despite extensive public subsidies, but many of the most important underlying managerial risks are still clearly not “marked to market.”
 Other industrial gases we produce in large quantities are far more potent still, pound for pound. James Hansen tells us that he output of a single refrigerant factory is sufficient to ensure there will never be another ice age.