Part 1: Oil depletion – nature’s shot across our bow
The impending oil crisis that we hear so much about today is nature’s warning shot across our bow. One reason that the prospect of an oil shortage is so alarming is that it will be the first time that modern civilization has bumped up against a planetary limit to an important material resource. But oil shortages are just the first waves of a flood tide of change.
Fundamental to the paradigm that has enabled western society to dominate much of the world for the last several millennia is the belief that the Earth provides an almost limitless store of natural resources. Similarly, it assumes that the natural systems of the planet are immune to human activities. Over the last two centuries, these assumptions resulted in explosive population growth and economic prosperity for much of the world. This paradigm is quickly coming to an end.
As with oil, the price of many other economic minerals is expected to rise as supplies from easily extractable sources are depleted within the next 50 years. We have passed the limit of how much green-house gasses the atmosphere will absorb without altering the climate. Worldwide, forests are disappearing, grasslands are deteriorating, water tables are falling, fisheries are collapsing, and soils are being depleted. And then there is that explosive population growth. Simply put, human civilization is outgrowing the Earth’s capacity to support it.
We can argue about how far we can stress a natural system before something snaps, or how much of what resource is left, but the fact that the planet’s natural resources do have limits is increasingly obvious. Just as obvious is the fact that there would eventually be a planetary limit to human population. But not many expected to begin feeling the crunch in such a forceful and sudden way as oil shortages, and global climate change will soon impose on us.
Today, there is no viable energy source that can readily replace oil, especially as a fuel for transportation. Recent studies suggest that even a fast-track program to build the infrastructure required to replace oil with any new energy source would take 20 to 30 years (2). Given these facts, an energy scarcity that may well last several decades seems very likely to occur.
The most immediate threat from this energy scenario is a prolonged economic disruption. Capitalism as we now practice it is based on the presumption of economic growth and ever-increasing financial equity. Economic growth requires energy. If an energy scarcity seems inevitable, investors will lose confidence that the economy will continue to grow and recession or depression could well result.
Even if we do stretch out the oil supply long enough to make the transition to another energy source, there are those other planetary life-support systems that are crashing. And then there is that explosive population growth.
We have a fairly good idea of what our society must do to make the transformation from an economy destined to collapse to one that can be maintained indefinitely. The new economy will be based on reuse and recycling of inorganic materials and the wise management of forests, farmlands, and fisheries. We will have to shift from a reliance on a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fossil fuels to living within the energy budget that the sun supplies on a daily basis. And, eventually, we will have to not only curtail population growth, we may have to maintain a finite global population at a lower number than we have today. Given enough time, we can engineer a soft landing and a livable world for future generations.
One thing is for certain, the sooner we begin the shift to an economy that can be sustained indefinitely, the easier the transition will be. The good news is that we have the technology today to begin making the changes required to get us out of this mess – probably. I say probably because global warming may have become self-generating at this point and we cannot predict what the ramifications of that will be. That said, new technologies for renewable energy, electric cars, and bacteria that produce oil from sewage sludge are very exciting and offer reason for hope.
Unfortunately, no technological fix will provide a bridge that we can simply drive across to a sustainable future. Despite the fanciful schemes that most politicians would have us believe, we will not be able to just substitute fuels, fill our tanks with ethanol, biodiesel, or Kool Aid, and continue to drive our monstermobiles. What will be required, even under the best scenario, is a drastic change in the behavior and lifestyle of all of the peoples of the industrialized world. Like it or not, much of the American lifestyle that evolved during a relatively brief era of cheap abundant fossil fuels will be a distant memory.
Mike Thompson is a member of APPLE, or Alliance for a Post-Petroleum Local Economy. He lives in Grass Valley
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