Sunday, November 08, 2009
Lower Levels of Consumption
The following is an edited version of an article from The Oil Drum:
Over the past 150 years, the relentless combination of exponentially-increasing population and exponentially-increasing per-capita consumption has significantly depleted a wide-range of resources necessary for the continuation of our modern Industrial Civilization. These include both non-renewable resources and theoretically-renewable resources that are being abused to such an extent that they are becoming essentially non-renewable on useful timescales.
Pick any of these key resources and the annual extraction rate data will likely show an exponential increase from the mid-1800’s to the present. Ask scientists about the resource and they will tell you the bad news: the annual extraction rate curve is near, at, or past the point of collapse. Ask conventional economists or politicians and they will tell you the good news: “Everything’s going to be OK; the market will take care of it; It always has.” So who do we believe?
The Easy Stuff’s Gone
As modern Industrial Civilization built momentum, the easiest resources, the “lowest hanging fruit,” were logically picked first. While the ease of extraction and high quality of these resources gave us a great confidence as a civilization, ever-increasing consumption rates actually became ingrained as a necessity for the continuation of our industrial economies. As this consumptive frenzy gained momentum, however,as the easiest stuff was skimmed off every year, the resources that remained were of increasingly lower quality.
What remains now are resources that are much more expensive, of much lower quality, and much more difficult to extract. These are the low-purity metal ores thousands of feet underground; heavy crude oil and gas laced with toxins that must be coaxed with great effort from beneath thousands of feet of ocean, rock, and salt; sparse schools of lower-quality fish requiring monstrous nets and huge ships for their economical extraction; and the nutrient-depleted, thinned-out top-soil requiring significant inputs to obtain reasonable yields.
The Difficult Stuff’s Too Difficult
What remains is so increasingly difficult to access that it would require actual extra-terrestrial energy inputs for their complete extraction. Here’s the dark irony of our resource predicament: The low-quality, difficult half of the resources that remain require an infrastructure for their extraction that can only exist in the presence of the high-quality, easy half of the resources -- the ones that no longer exist. In other words, a relatively large percentage of the low-quality, difficult resources that remain will likely never be extracted. The age of cheap, easy, high-quality resources to power the current version of Industrial Civilization is over, and the age of expensive, difficult, low-quality resources to power a future version of Industrial Civilization will simply never occur. Our beloved Industrial Civilization, this pinnacle of human ingenuity, this shining beacon of light in an otherwise backward Universe, (this destructive monster killing the biosphere) is just about out of fuel. It’s time to get out and start walking.
So what does all this “bad” news mean for our everyday lives? The short answer is that we can expect a rather drastic involuntary reduction in resource use in the not-too-distant future, gradually worsening, and extending into the distant future. This coming resource supply-reduction may well proceed in a stair-step fashion -- unexpected drop, period of stability, unexpected drop, period of stability…etc, giving repeated temporary illusions of “the bottom.” The steady erosion of the resource pipeline will not only utterly cripple our growth-requiring Industrial economy, it will send ripple effects through every facet of our formerly-industrial lives, changing them almost beyond belief.
This decline will be involuntary, it will not be preventable by any combination of political, social, or technological solutions. It will simply occur, and we must simply respond to it.
How we respond, of course, will make a great deal of difference as to whether our predicament becomes disastrous or just very difficult. Moral guidance will be greatly needed throughout. Many important facets of our lives need not decline in the upcoming future – indeed, they may even increase: personal connections with our families, communities, and the natural world; block parties and potlucks; tag-football and pickup-basketball; joking around and shooting the breeze; love in our hearts, etc. In other words, it’s quite possible we just may find a lot more important and fulfilling things than we’re losing. Much is still up to us.