Most of us don't think too far ahead into the future—perhaps a few years or so, or at least long enough to make sure we don't run out of snacks. We put away money for retirement, but we don't really think much about what the world will be like when we actually get to retirement 20 or 30 years from now. We sort of assume everything will be pretty much the same, but with more cool gadgets, better hair-saving drugs, and wall-sized TVs in every room.
But there are people who do "serious thinking" about what the world will REALLY be like in 10, 20, or 50 years from now. Their mission is to analyze current data, predict future trends, and stimulate action now so Father Future doesn't get the better of us in those far-off years.
One of these groups, the Post Carbon Institute, is here today to talk about the end of the fossil-fuel era and other troubling trends. Here's their opening salvo:
Degradation and destruction of the biosphere due to human activities threatens life on the planet, human and otherwise. The problem is systemic: "business as usual" presages catastrophic climate change, extreme levels of species extinction, fishery depletion, untenable human body burdens of toxics, not to mention largely unhealthy disconnected lives along the way. Human civilization is egregiously far from a "steady state" and is (literally) driving in the wrong direction. There are no easy solutions.
Egad! Things don't seem nearly that bad now—can we really be currently in a historic "golden age" but headed for a future that's bad, bad, bad? There are indeed plenty of troubling trends out there—for those who care to look. So, it's a good idea to occasionally think about these futuristic things—and to understand the solutions.
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Global Relocalization — A Call to Action
Peak Oil, the Energy Peak, and Trouble
The essential systems that form the foundation of our industrial civilization depend on unfettered access to cheap oil and natural gas. As supply begins to drop and is no longer able to meet demand, less work will be possible, which means less economic activity. Alternative energy sources, conservation, and new energy carriers such as hydrogen will undoubtedly play a role in future energy systems, but collectively they will not be enough to offset declining oil and gas production and preserve industrial society as we know it.
The good news is that there is a possibility for largely positive outcomes in spite of the looming trouble. Such success will, however, demand significant preparation, quick action, and enduring behavioral change.
The imminent peaking of global oil production and the fact that natural gas production has already peaked in North America could be the catalyst for a positive transformation of industrial society. It could also be a recipe for disaster. Without unprecedented preparation and cooperation, oil and natural gas depletion will precipitate massive disruptions to essential systems, including those for food, energy, transportation, security, and health care. It will almost certainly also mean a major decrease in the earth's carrying capacity—i.e. the number of people the planet can sustain.
The Energy Peak—A Death Knell for Progress?
If the energy peak (and the beginning of the decline in energy availability) becomes apparent to the general public during a crisis, we will find ourselves well along the path of:
- endless war for control of dwindling resources;
- "black hydrogen" fueled by coal and a reemerging nuclear industry;
- further restrictions on citizen and human rights; and
- increasing concentration of wealth via the money system.
During a period of draconian governance in the midst of a permanent energy crisis, all of the gains garnered by environmental and social justice movements in the past 50 years will be subject to rollback, at a minimum. Recent history is full of examples of what happens when humans with powerful weapons get desperate— they reach for demagogues, Fascism (corporate-driven governance), and war.
Relocalization—A Primary Solution for the Energy Peak
Though no panacea exists for dealing with the peaking of energy supply, "global relocalization" is clearly a building block. Relocalization is the process by which communities localize their economies and essential systems, such as food and energy production, water, governance, media, and even money. This process will require that we:
- rebuild our cities to significantly reduce overall transportation needs;
- support localization of essential systems; and
- use ecological city design as a framework for this transformation.
To effectively address energy scarcity and curtail biosphere destruction, relocalization must occur globally and with some degree of integration. Essentially, human civilization needs to prepare itself to do with less energy, fewer natural resources, and fewer material goods, with the ultimate goal of being able to live within a reduced planetary carrying capacity. Any other approach will lead to a form of assisted suicide—with nature doing the assisting.
It is urgent that localization begin now. Yet how many times have we heard and ignored such urgent calls? Everything still seems to be going all right—at least for those in control of the economy and the corporate media—but hitting the energy peak will change that.
The energy peak will affect the heaviest energy users the most. At first they will use their control of the money system to stave off disaster, but that will not last long. If the US suffers a severe enough dollar crisis, it will find itself catastrophically exposed as the world's largest energy importer and will be vulnerable to the desires of the energy exporters, all of whom will have reason enough to bring the reign of American economic empire to an end. The US military has presumably understood this, and they may not be willing to stand by and be emasculated by energy and economic constrictions.
Relocalization Must Start Now
Many prominent oil analysts think global oil production has already peaked; others believe it will happen within a few years, with only small additional increases in production in the meantime. We must start taking measures to rebuild our communities now. This is quite a different kind of urgency from the usual calls to save the planet, or the koalas, or the Yangtze, all of which are in deep trouble but none of whom directly affects most of us in our insulated, industrial worlds. This is a plan to save us—and the rest of the creatures in the biosphere along with us.
There is another reason for urgency. There is a trend towards fewer family farms and the continuing loss of infrastructure, knowledge, and wisdom about local, sustainable living techniques. Thus, there are ever fewer working examples and models that can be applied to a given locale. To fill the void, communities must begin localization experiments to discover what works and what does not work in a given locale. This knowledge must be
gained before the crisis. If experiments fail now, they can at least be counted as useful information. If they fail later, in conditions of crisis, people are likely to suffer grievously.
More broadly, to save precious time and resources, communities will need to share experiments, outcomes, and lessons learned. Communities will also need to integrate the experience and knowledge developed by existing organizations and individuals working on localization at both the policy and community levels, including scientific research that supports localization efforts and the practices of indigenous peoples (those that have not yet been wiped out by empire and its latest incarnation, globalization).
Fight the Energy Peak —
Join the Relocalization Movement
The Post Carbon Institute is seeking like-minded citizens, organizations, volunteers, and activists to create a coalition to support community relocalization projects and experiments, as well as online database access and community tools that can help streamline the relocalization process. We are also organizing conferences and creating a speakers' bureau of energy, biosphere, and localization experts to help spread the word.
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The Post Carbon Institute is an educational institution and think tank that explores in theory and practice what cultures, civilization, governance, and economies might look like without the use of non-renewable hydrocarbons as energy and chemical feedstocks. Julian Darley is the group's Founder and Executive Director and is author of High Noon for Natural Gas.
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