Introduction: Energy and History
The simultaneous onset of climate change and the peaking of global oil supply represent unprecedented challenges for human civilization.
Global oil peak has the potential to shake or even destroy the foundations of global industrial economy and culture. Climate change has the potential to rearrange the biosphere more radically than the last ice age. Each limits the effective options for responses to the other.
The strategies for mitigating the adverse effects and/or adapting to the consequences of climate change have mostly been considered and discussed in isolation from those relevant to peak oil. While awareness of peak oil, or at least energy crisis, is increasing, understanding of how the two problems of climate change and peak oil might interact to generate quite different futures is still at an early stage.
Over the last thirty-five years the climate-damaging impacts of fossil-fuel burning and other sources of “greenhouse gases” has shifted from being a worrying hypothesis of some climate scientists to one of the primary drivers of environmental awareness from the schoolroom to the boardroom. Rapid economic growth in developing economies, especially China and India, addictive consumer economies in the long-affluent West, and ongoing population growth are driving emissions ever higher. Meanwhile the evidence of actual climate change is accelerating, with the alarming rates of Arctic sea-ice melting being the most dramatic. This is belatedly creating an urgency in the halls of government and international legal conventions. Economic policy in the affluent countries is gradually shifting under the weight of evidence that economies must be decarbonized whether or not that reduces economic growth.
During the twentieth century, most thinking about the future was based on the assumption that technological and organizational complexity will continually expand in lockstep with economic growth. The most substantial challenge to those assumptions about the future was the modeling work of Jay Forrester and colleagues in the Limits to Growth Report (1972) commissioned by the Club of Rome, a prestigious international public policy “think tank.”
While the energy crises of the 1970s illustrated the vulnerability of industrial society to oil shortage, the oil glut and low prices of the 1980s, combined with a barrage of misinformation, saw these ideas lose favor. A whole generation of economists, politicians, business people, and even environmentalists learned that, for better or worse, the limits of resources were not going to threaten “business as usual.”
It is only the recent escalation of energy and commodity prices that has seen energy, resources, and the limits of nature again being widely recognized as the key drivers in human economic systems. This return to notions of limits so clearly outlined 36 years ago has also raised the specter of the more fundamental scarcity of food, identified more than 150 years earlier by Thomas Malthus. Rising food prices are now widely recognized as being driven directly and indirectly by the cost of energy. The demand for biofuel, the cost of energy-dense fertilizers, climate-change-related droughts, water scarcity, and the impact of rising affluence driving increases in meat consumption from agribusiness-production systems are all contributing to this global crisis. Those who suggest the likely return of the four horsemen of the apocalypse (famine, pestilence, war, and death) are more vocal than ever before despite being labeled Malthusian or just “doomer.”
The evidence that global industrial civilization is in the early stage of an energy transition as fundamental as the one from renewable resources to fossil fuels is overwhelming. Using the ecological history of past civilizations as a base, I review the evidence about the future in terms of four possible long-term scenarios: techno-explosion, techno-stability, energy descent, and collapse. While faith in techno-explosion as the default scenario is now waning, the hope of more environmentally aware citizens and organizations depends on techno-stability, characterized by novel renewable energy sources, while the fears of total collapse of human civilization are continually fed by evidence about climate change and resource depletion, among a range of related emerging crises. Energy descent, where available energy and resulting organizational complexity progressively decline over many generations, is the most ignored of the four possible long-term futures, but I think the evidence is strong and increasing that it is the most likely in some form or other.
Rather than gathering together all of the evidence to support the claim for the energy-descent future, I build on thirty years of permaculture thinking and activism to further develop the thinking tools that can help us all adapt to energy descent as it unfolds, irrespective of whether we believe it to be humanity’s fate. Energy descent is likely to give birth to a new culture, one more different from our current globalized culture than post-Enlightenment capitalism and industrial culture was from its precursors in Europe. The energetic contraction will force a relocalization of economies, simplified technology, a ruralization of populations away from very large cities, and a reduction in total population. Over time there will be a redevelopment of localized cultures and even new languages, although these developments may be outside the time frame of the peak-oil and climate-change scenarios described here. I focus on four plausible scenarios by which peak oil and climate change could generate the early stages, over the next ten to thirty years, of the energy-descent future.
Permaculture is a design system for sustainable land use and living that was proposed by Bill Mollison and me during the 1970s when the evidence for the energy-descent future was growing strongly. Despite resurgent energetic and economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s, permaculture has spread around the world. This spread has reflected both mounting disaffection with consumer culture in affluent countries and the increasingly desperate needs of those left behind by development in poor countries. As energy and food costs now rise around the world and disaffection mounts with the inability of governments to deal with the emerging energy and environmental crisis, permaculture is attracting increased attention from those acting to secure their families’ future and contribute to a better world. As a conceptual framework, a collection of practical strategies, and a self-help and grassroots movement, permaculture provides the hope and the tools to allow humanity to weather the storms and even thrive in a world of progressively less and less available energy. The energy-descent concept was an explicit foundation for my articulation and explanation of permaculture concepts in Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability published in 2002, just before the current rapid rise in oil and commodity prices began to stimulate wider interest in energy descent. This new book uses permaculture thinking to tell stories about the energy-descent future that can empower us to take adaptive and positive action.
Energetic Foundations of Human History
The broad processes of human history can be understood using an ecological framework that recognizes primary energy sources as the strongest factors determining the general structure of human economy, politics, and culture. The transition from a hunter-gatherer way of life to that of settled agriculture made possible the expansion of human numbers, denser settlement patterns, and surplus resources. Those surplus resources were the foundations for what we call civilization, including the development of more advanced technologies, cities, social class structures, standing armies, and written language. Archaeology records a series of civilizations that rose and fell as they depleted their bioregional resource base.
Lower-density simple agrarian and hunter-gatherer cultures took over the territory of collapsed civilizations and allowed the resources of forests, soils, and water to regenerate. That, in turn, gave rise to new cycles of growth in cultural complexity.
In the European Renaissance, the medieval systems that evolved from the remnants of the Roman Empire were reinfused with knowledge and culture from the Islamic and Asian civilizations and grew into competing nation-states. A combination of the demands of internal growth and warfare between nations almost exhausted the carrying capacity of Europe. As this ecological crisis deepened in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, European exploration in search of new resources carried the “diseases of crowding” around the world. In the Americas, up to 90 percent of many populations died, leaving vast resources to plunder. Starting with the repatriation of precious metals and seeds of valuable crop plants such as corn and potatoes, European nations soon moved on to building empires powered by slavery that allowed them to exploit and colonize the new lands well stocked with timber, animals, and fertile soils, all rejuvenating in the wake of the collapse of indigenous populations.
European population, culture (especially capitalism), and technology then grew strong enough to tap vast stocks of novel energy that were useless to previous simpler societies. European coal fueled the Industrial Revolution while food and other basic commodities from colonies helped solve the limits to food production in Europe. As industrialization spread in North America and later in Russia, oil quickly surpassed coal as the most valuable energy source, and accelerated the jump in human population from one billion in 1800 to two billion in 1930 to now over six billion in one lifetime. This massive growth in human carrying capacity has been made possible by the consumption of vast stocks of nonrenewable resources (in addition to expanding demand on the renewable biological resources of the planet). Rapid rates of urbanization and migration, technology change, increasing affluence, and disparity of wealth as well as unprecedented conflicts between global and regional powers have accompanied this transition.
The history of the twentieth century makes more sense when interpreted primarily as the struggle for control of oil rather than the clash of ideologies. In emphasizing the primacy of energy resources I am not saying that the great struggles between ideologies have not been important in shaping history, especially capitalism and socialism, but most teaching and understanding of history underestimates the importance of energetic, ecological, and economic factors.
The fact that conflict has increased as available resources have expanded is hard to explain using conventional thinking. One way to understand this is using older moral concepts about more power leading to greater moral degradation. Another equally useful way to understand this is using ecological thinking. When resources are minimal and diffuse, energy spent by one human group, tribe, or nation to capture those resources can be greater than what is gained. As resources become more concentrated (by grain agriculture, for example, and even more dramatically by tapping fossil fuels), the resources captured through diplomacy, trade, and even war are often much greater than the effort expended.
The final phase in the fossil-fuel saga is playing out now as the transition from oil to natural gas and lower-quality oil resources accelerates, with massive new infrastructure developments around the world as well as increasing tension and active conflicts over resources. We can only hope that nations and humanity as a whole learn quickly that using resources to capture resources will yield less return and incur escalating costs and risks in a world of depleting and diffuse energy.
The Next Energy Transition
Quite early in the exploitation of fossil resources the debate began about what happens after their exhaustion, but it has remained mostly academic. The post–World War II period of sustained growth, affluence, and freedom from the adverse effects of war had the effect of entrenching the faith in human power and the inexorable arrow of progress that would lead to more of whatever we desired. Consideration of external limits or cultural constraints on affluence remained at the fringe. Throughout most of the twentieth century, a range of energy sources (from nuclear to solar) have been proposed as providing the next “free” energy source that will replace fossil fuels.
In so-called developing countries, the power of the dominant globalist culture, both as a model to emulate and a mode of exploitation to resist, preoccupied most thinkers, leaders, and activists. The key issue was how to get a share of the cake, not the limits to the size of the cake.
But the super-accelerated growth in energy per person of the post–World War II era came to an end with the energy crisis of 1973, when OPEC countries moved to exert their power through oil supply and price. The publication of the seminal Limits to Growth report in 1972 had defined the problem and the consequences by modeling how a range of limits would constrain industrial society in the early twenty-first century. After the second oil shock in 1979 the debate about the next energy transition intensified, but by 1983 a series of factors pushed energy supply off the agenda. Economic contraction, not seen since the Depression of the 1930s, had reduced demand and consequently prices for energy and natural resources. In affluent countries, the conversion from oil to gas and nuclear for electricity generation reduced demand for oil. Energy-efficiency gains in vehicles and industry further reduced demand. Most importantly, the new supergiant oil fields in the North Sea and Alaska reduced Western dependence on OPEC and depressed the price even further. All other primary commodity prices followed the downward trend set by oil because cheap energy could be used to substitute for other needed commodities.
The economies of the affluent countries were further boosted by two important changes. The shift from Keynesian to Friedmanite free-market economic policies reduced regulatory impediments to business and enlisted public wealth for new private profits. At the same time, the Third World debt crisis in developing countries triggered by collapsing commodity prices didn’t slow the flow of interest repayments into the coffers of Western banks. In line with the new free-market ideology, structural adjustment packages from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank provided more loans (and debt) on the condition that developing countries slash education, health, and other public services to conserve funds for repayments.
The scientific consensus about global warming in the late 1980s and early 1990s renewed the focus on reducing fossil fuel use, not to conserve resources, which were widely thought to be abundant, but to reduce carbon dioxide additions to the atmosphere. But with energy prices low owing to a glut of oil, the main action was an acceleration in the shift to gas as a cheap and relatively “clean” fuel.
Half a century earlier, in 1956, the startling predictions by eminent petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert that oil production in the United States, the world’s largest producer, would peak in 1970, had almost destroyed Hubbert’s career and reputation. Ironically, the controversy within the oil industry over Hubbert’s methodology and predictions was not known by the authors of the Limits to Growth report and was not part of the 1970s public debate over limits of resources. It was nearly a decade later, at the depth of the greatest economic recession since the 1930s, that the industry acknowledged that oil production in the lower forty-eight states had in fact peaked and declined despite the greatest drilling program in history. Hubbert also estimated a global oil peak early in the twenty-first century.
In the mid 1990s the work of independent and retired petroleum geologists who were colleagues of Hubbert reviewed his original predictions using new information and evidence, triggering the debate about peak oil that grew and spread along with the Internet in the last years of the millennium. But with the cost of oil as low as ten dollars a barrel, the gurus of economics and oil supply quoted in the mainstream media thought that oil was on the way to becoming worthless and redundant through glut and technological advances. The delusions of cheap energy were widespread. Ironically, many environmentalists concerned about the mounting evidence of, and inaction of governments about, climate change, put their faith in the “hydrogen economy” powered by clean renewable technologies to save us from polluting the planet to death.
While energy and consequently food costs in affluent countries remained the lowest in human history, the evidence for energy descent rather than ascent made little impact outside the counterculture. Since 2004 the rising cost of energy, and now food, is focusing the attention of leaders and the masses on questions of sustainability not seen since the energy crises of the 1970s.
The research, activism, and awareness of energy and climate issues provide a context for the growing debate about the ecological, economic, and social sustainability of everything from agriculture to human-settlement patterns and even fundamental human values and beliefs. There is a huge body of evidence that the next energy transition will not follow the pattern of recent centuries to more concentrated and powerful sources.
The likelihood that this transition will be to one of less energy is anathema to the psychosocial foundations and power elites of modern societies that it is constantly misinterpreted, ignored, covered up, or derided. Instead we see geopolitical maneuvering around energy resources, including proxy and real wars to control dwindling reserves and policy gymnastics to somehow make reducing carbon emissions the new engine of economic growth.