Listening to the empty blather of the American presidential candidates, one would assume that the long golden era of post-WWII prosperity stretches ahead of us as far as eye could see. But nothing could be further from the truth. Our nation, its people, and most critically its leaders, are living in a state of denial.
As America’s presidential election campaign shifts into high gear, politicians seem to be deliberately ignoring the fact that America and the world are faced with rapidly approaching resource and environmental crises of sufficient magnitude to end civilization in the coming decades. It’s reminiscent of the line from Act V, Scene V, of Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
Why do I say this? After all I was the Democratic Party's candidate for US Congress in California's 49th Congressional District in 2004. I was also a delegate at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, as well as serving on the San Diego County and State of California Democratic party Central Committees between 2003 and 2006.
I say this because I must. Consider that America is a national political economy that is nested within a global political economy. This global political economy is in turn nested within the Earth’s geological and biological web of life and matter. Human civilization in general and American society in particular, is wholly dependent upon these non-human inputs for their very existence. Yet these are either taken for granted entirely (the Republicans), or are accorded lip service but otherwise ignored (the Democrats).
Industrial civilization runs on oil. Yet production of oil and other hydrocarbon liquids has peaked, or nearly reached its peak. See the graphs compiled from the United Nations International Energy Information Agency (IEA) and the US government’s Energy Information Agency (EIA) at: http://www.peakoil.nl/wp-content/uploads/2007/09/oilwatch_monthly_september2007.pdf.
A good and brief primer on “peak oil” for those who are not familiar with this concept can be found at: http://www.theoildrum.com/node/2693#more.
At the same time demand for oil has increased from an annual growth rate of about two percent to about three percent in recent years as nations such as China, and now India, rapidly industrialize. Discovery of new oilfields peaked in the mid-1960’s and has declined precipitously ever since. Right now for every three to four barrels of oil the world consumes one barrel of replacement oil is discovered. (See http://www.aspo-ireland.org/contentFiles/newsletterPDFs/newsletter82_200710.pdf.)
Human civilization in general and America in particular—we use more energy per capita than anyone else on the planet—are living off of rapidly depleting oilfields discovered forty years ago. Supply is decreasing while demand is increasing. This is a recipe for disaster. The 2005 Hirsch Report (See http://www.acus.org/docs/051007-Hirsch_World_Oil_Production.pdf.) found that transitioning from one source of energy (oil) to another requires a massive and sustained effort over several decades. If you wait until the problem becomes acute then it’s simply too late to deal effectively with it.
In my recent book Infinity’s Rainbow: The Politics of Energy, Climate and Globalization, I explain in detail that no combination of alternative energy sources can allow us to maintain our present levels of energy consumption.
Additionally, a byproduct of industrial civilization is accelerating climate change. Burning fossil hydrocarbon fuels has placed large and growing quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) into our atmosphere. Most people are aware of this problem. However, most are not aware that this process is activating multiple positive (i.e., amplifying) feedback loops which are in turn accelerating the human caused process of climate change. These include methane being released from thawing arctic permafrost. (See http://www.agu.org/sci_soc/prrl/prrl0410.html and also http://observer.guardian.co.uk/world/story/0,,1869000,00.html.)
Methane is a greenhouse gas which is about thirty times more powerful in its heat-trapping effects than is CO2. In fact, vast deposits of methane stored on the continental shelves of the Earth—far greater than those found on land—are released as part of the overall warming that result from CO2 emissions in conjunction with arctic methane releases: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=0000C2C7-68A2-14F3-A56883414B7F0000&chanID=sa003.
I could go on listing the positive, amplifying feedback lops we have set into motion; however, the methane releases themselves are more than sufficient to end human civilization abruptly. Many scientists believe that just such an oceanic methane release (triggered by volcanic action) is what caused the Permian extinction two hundred and fifty one million years ago. That extinction killed off at least ninety percent of all life on Earth. (See: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2003/08/030828071722.htm and also http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2002/dayearthdied.shtml.)
We are in the process of setting the same forces into motion. (See: http://www.alternet.org/environment/64735/?page=entire and also http://survivalacres.com/wordpress/?p=977.)
So consider that we are facing the collapse of not just the “American Way of Life” (i.e. conspicuous and unconstrained consumption of global energy and resources—a level of gluttony which would shame an imperial Roman!) but of planetary industrial civilization due to peak oil and the increasingly desperate wars to control this resource. Only an all-out national effort of the intensity and scale of WWII —in coordination with similar scale efforts across the planet—has any hope of allowing for industrial civilization to be maintained into the coming decades.
Consider the effects of our substituting lesser quality hydrocarbon such as coal for oil: the more we are able to prolong our wasteful and ecologically irrational civilization, the epitome of which is our much vaunted “American Way of Life,” the greater the probability that we unleash climactic forces which will be both beyond our control and beyond our civilization’s capacity to endure. Consider that if oil supplies decline too soon we are doomed to civilizational collapse, because the decades of transition required will not be there.
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