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From Start to Finish: Why We Won and How We Are Losing

By       Message Robert Jensen     Permalink
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--Deep-water oil and gas drilling is touted as a savoir, but it comes with much greater risk of environmental and political calamity.

--The opening of new resources in the Arctic, which will become more accessible as global warming melts ice, comes with ownership disputes that will not be easily resolved and increased chances of military conflict.

--The tar sands, shale gas, and other "unconventional hydrocarbons" require heavy energy inputs and create more problems in the production process. Klare quotes Howard Lacorde, a Cree trapper, reflecting on the tar sands: "The land is dead" (p. 103).

--The main victims of evermore intense mineral mining are indigenous people and natural landscapes, raising troubling questions of how many people and how much land we are willing to sacrifice for industrial development.

--On rare-earth minerals, China was willing to ignore environmental dangers to lower costs, and other countries with deposits -- Canada, Australia, and the United States -- dropped out of the market and can't restart easily.

--And then there's the resource we can't live without -- food. The global "land grabs," particularly in Africa, by wealthy countries are exacerbating the loss of arable land due to desertification and urbanization. Welcome to "peak soil," part of the era of what some are calling "peak everything." Klare suggests we get used to "the end of "easy' everything" (p. 210).

In the first seven chapters of the book, no reader is likely to accuse Klare of avoiding difficult realities. In his final chapter, however, he fails to confront forcefully what all this means. Klare points out that we can't end our reliance on these materials overnight and that, although the transition has to start now, developing new technology will be expensive and it is cheaper in short run to keep the old. There are incentives for people, corporations, and countries to compete in the race for what's left, and he acknowledges that the "race to adapt" won't immediately replace the "race for what's left":

In the short term, no doubt, those who prevail in the age-old struggle for finite resource supplies will still enjoy substantial economic and political rewards, but as time goes on those rewards will prove harder and harder to come by, while the price of failure will be increasingly high. On the other hand, those who focus on the new energy and materials technologies will have to pay high start-up costs but will see greater benefits in coming decades (p. 233).

It may be true, as he writes, that eventually "power and wealth will come not from control over dwindling resource supplies, but from mastery of new technologies" (p. 227). But he seems unrealistically confident that "ultra-efficiency and the adoption of renewables" will somehow win out:

At some stage, however, the economics of innovation will outperform the economics of procrastination -- especially when the price of oil and other finite resources becomes substantially higher, as is certain to happen (p. 228).

He argues that the countries that do this will gain competitive advantages by being freed up from supply disruptions and military needs.

Like the current scramble for the world's last remaining resources, the race to adapt will spell doom for slow-moving companies, and it will cause a grand reshuffling of the global power hierarchy. But it is not likely to end in war, widespread starvation, or a massive environmental catastrophe -- the probable results of persisting with the race for what's left (p. 234).

Those are nice notes on which to end -- hopeful without being naively optimistic. But there's one problem: time is most definitely not on our side. If he's right about the data, the time frame for these shifts is far less than is likely required for an even moderately smooth transition. We're not talking about problems for the slower companies or a mere reshuffling of the world hierarchy, processes for which we have historical precedents, but instead massive change of a very different order. Whatever we think we know about how this is going to unfold, it's best to assume things won't be predictable or pretty. After such a straightforward account of the data, Klare's timid "race to adapt" rhetoric seems inadequate, even silly.

James Howard Kunstler is willing to be blunter. Despite my distaste for some of his odd political/cultural rants (more on that later), Kunstler is refreshingly uninterested in spinning a bad situation. He is willing not only to read the data about resources without illusion but also to assess the state of the culture without the triumphalism so common in the affluent world.

Let's start with the question of time remaining. Kunstler writes that when people ask about the time frame for the "long emergency" (his phrase for our moment in history), he tells them that "we've entered the zone." He's not claiming a crystal ball and isn't interested in specific prediction, nor does he have a tidy list of solutions. Instead, he points out that we can't expect to tackle problems until we recognize them: "The most conspicuous feature of these times is our inability to construct a coherent consensus about what is happening to us and what we're going to do about it" (p. 2). Kunstler rejects the demand people often make that analysts and critics must always present "solutions." What people typically want is not a serious conversation of what obviously has to change; the first step in talking about real solutions is to recognize we humans must dramatically reduce our consumption of energy and materials, effectively ending the lifestyle of widespread affluence subsidized by cheap energy. Because that's hard, people are "clamoring desperately for rescue remedies that would allow them to continue living exactly the way they were used to living, with all the accustomed comforts" (p. 7).

Kunstler avoids the popular term "collapse," which implies dramatic destruction, and prefers "contraction." But whatever the term, there's no avoiding that we have "no credible model of a postindustrial economy that would permit our accustomed comfort and convenience to continue as is" (p. 10). Borrowing from anthropologist Joseph Tainter, who argues that societal collapse often results from an overinvestment in complexity that has diminishing marginal returns, he avoids rescue remedies that assume we can invent our way to paradise simply because we want that to be true. "Innovation cannot be an end in itself," he writes, "and we have made ourselves prisoners to a cult of innovation" (p. 52). He not only rejects techno-fantasies such as vertical farming in skyscrapers, but recognizes that lots of good projects aren't going to get us all the way home. For example, urban gardens can't replace large-scale farming -- fresh produce is great, but humans live primarily on grain crops (wheat, rice, corn, beans) that won't be grown in community gardens.

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Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. His latest book, All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, was published in 2009 (more...)

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