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Rumination on Ruin and Renewal

By Dr. Michael P Byron  Posted by Michael Byron (about the submitter)     Permalink
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History is the story of past civilizations that flourished by successfully organizing to meet the challenges of their time. History is also the story of the complete collapse of maladaptive societies.

But our powerful and world-spanning civilization would surely be immune from these laws and lessons of history—right?

In fact, today is a time of profound existential crisis for our global civilization. Indeed, so pervasive is this crisis that it may be fairly considered to be a crisis of the very idea and viability of civilization itself. 

All civilizations, all complex societies and systems, and indeed all ecologies, depend directly upon their available energy resources. Sunlight, soil and climate determine the possible vegetation and animal ecosystems for geographic regions and, at the highest level, for our entire planet.  Nothing can exist for long outside of its energy budget. Plants can support just so many herbivores, which in turn can support a limited number of carnivores. Human settlements—villages, towns, cities, nations—also exist within natural ecosystems and are dependent upon them for survival.

Even so, Earth’s natural energy budget from our sun sets an absolute upper limit of perhaps five hundred million to two billion people that can be indefinitely supported. Within this limit, human organizational efficiency in conjunction with improved technology has allowed for increases in either material quality of life or population.

Technology opened up previously unexploited lands and/or allowed for less technologically adept human populations to be displaced and their lands appropriated. This is how Europeans in the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries were able to displace and replace the population of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, Pacific and Caribbean islands, and to dominate and exploit the more populous though less technologically adept lands of the world. Expansion in population and wealth for European descendents was achieved at the expense of indigenous peoples and the reallocation of biological resources within their former territories to agriculture. Still, the ultimate natural limit of the planet’s energy budget, as supplemented by technology, had not yet been exceeded.

Beginning in the eighteenth century however, we learned to tap concentrated sources of energy stored within the Earth—coal, oil and natural gas. This had the effect of artificially expanding humanity’s energy budget many times over beyond its naturally-supplied energy budget. But over the next two centuries, the human population has increased rapidly towards the limits of its artificial energy budget. In fact our population is still expanding, towards a projected nine billion by mid-century.

Today we live in a world in which the renewable resources of the natural world along with the stored energy resources of hydrocarbons, sustain nearly seven billion of us. Industrialization, its hydrocarbon energy dependence, and the core values of its pioneers - the Europeans - have become global reality.

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The core values of this planetary-scale civilization are those of the European Age of Discovery: That we humans exist outside of and above nature; that Nature is a cornucopia of limitless bounty waiting to be exploited and transformed into wealth for humans; that Nature is also a limitless sink into which we can dump our waste products without incurring any significant adverse effects upon ourselves; and that we only need better technology to keep the wealth flowing in ever increasing abundance.

And yet, the energy foundation of our technological civilization, based as it is almost exclusively upon hydrocarbon energy, is fatally insecure. That is because production of conventional oil peaked in the Spring of 2005 and has declined slightly in the three years since that time.

Production of “all liquids,” a catchall term for all hydrocarbon liquids including ethanol and coal derived oil, has recently shown a slight increase. However this is misleading for several reasons. As Mark Twain once observed, there are “lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics.”

The energy content of liquids such as ethanol is less than two-thirds that of gasoline. So including it in a one-to-one equivalent resource with oil-derived liquids is comparing apples with oranges. Also, the energy required to produce ethanol, from corn at least, is actually greater than the energy obtained by combusting it. Unconventional oil sources such as tar sands require vast amounts of energy from natural gas or other sources, and divert water from vitally-needed agriculture to produce the oil.

Also, demand for energy is now increasing within oil-exporting nations. So each year, less of what is produced in those nations is being exported for the use of other nations. The net amount of energy available from exported hydrocarbon liquids has also peaked.

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At the same time that we are reaching the peak of net energy from hydrocarbon liquid production, coal production is approaching its limits as well. Within the next ten to twenty years, coal production too will peak and then decline. In the meantime, its profligate usage is rapidly accelerating the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, and is driving an accelerating rate of climate change. Increasing winter temperatures are decreasing the snowpack in many populated areas, which is in turn is causing the long term decrease in water supplies for agriculture to feed the planet’s teeming billions—along with diminishing the available water supply for direct human use.

Our economy has been based for five centuries upon the assumption that material wealth would always increase.  From appropriating new lands to developing new energy supplies, this assumption has been fulfilled throughout this half-millennium period. Now however, with hydrocarbon energy about to enter an ever-accelerating decline, and with the environmental consequences of burning hydrocarbons becoming more acute, the assumption of limitless growth must inevitably break down and our economy must collapse.

This collapse is inevitable because capitalist economies are based upon debt. Money lent today for some income-generating activity can be paid back by new wealth created in the future. Investments are based upon the expectation that new wealth will be generated to repay the loans. However, with declining energy supplies, production will decrease and less material wealth will exist in the future than exists today. Once this fundamental change in our reality is widely understood, our whole global economy will collapse.

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