“We have only two modes—complacency and panic.”
—James R. Schlesinger, the first US Dept. of Energy secretary, on the country’s approach to energy (1977)
As avid readers of our blog will recall, in his book, The Transition Timeline, author Shaun Chamberlin lays out with startling clarity four very different visions of a world reacting to the realities of peak oil.
Here, we take a look in detail at the first—and most disturbing—of these visions: “Denial: Business as Usual.”
The following is an excerpt from The Transition Timeline by Shaun Chamberlin. It has been adapted for the Web.
>In this possible future we failed to heed the ever-stronger evidence that we were facing a sustainability emergency until the consequences of our choices became overwhelmingly clear. As a result, we missed the opportunities to take action to prepare for the coming shocks and our fragile globalised structures were found wanting when they came.
- Ever more desperate measures employed in the name of maintaining a growing economy
- Environmentally destructive energy sources like tar sands and ‘coal to liquids’ exploited
- IPCC announcement in 2019 that climate change is now unstoppable met with anger and disbelief
The collapse of the American economy (the most indebted country in the history of the world10) was the beginning of the end for the story of globalisation, as its flagship foundered. By 2011 the dollar had become so devalued that it was not accepted at all in many places around the world. As it became ever more obvious that the world’s greatest consumer was going to remain unable to afford the world’s products a painful global economic slowdown ensued.
This was difficult enough, but the situation was not helped as over the following years it became apparent that the peak in global oil production had transpired in 2010. As the global recession deepened into depression it did reduce demand for oil, but the world’s economies remained overwhelmingly dependent on abundant supplies of fossil fuels. As the realisation that the supply simply did not exist spread, oil markets panicked and the price of oil shot even higher, briefly spiking to the highest level it would ever reach (over €300 a barrel) in late 2013. Natural gas prices followed suit. In many parts of the world essential services were cut due to a lack of affordable energy, and unpredictable power cuts became routine for the majority of the world’s electricity users. Those countries with available coal reserves —including the UK—increased production as fast as they were able, in desperate response to the punishing cost of energy imports and the weakening currencies of energy importers.
As the panic spread outwards from the energy markets, share prices and house prices tumbled and stock markets crashed. The ubiquitous globalised economy appeared to be dragging everyone down with it. Companies were bankrupted and mass unemployment and homelessness ensued, yet as the hole got deeper we found no better response than to dig faster.
A wave of outraged disbelief spread around the world as people began to realise that the money they had worked for decades to earn represented no security at all. Under this level of stress, cultural stories like ‘every man for himself ‘ and ‘survival of the fittest’ led to an increasingly desperate and individualistic struggle for the necessities of life, while wars over food, water, energy and resources sparked around the world. By the middle of the decade fascistic political parties were becoming significant political forces in many countries and environmental and political refugees in their millions were seeking new homes.
In the UK, society became ever more polarised between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, with gated compounds and private security becoming the norm for the former, while the majority—and in particular groups like the elderly who were already at risk from fuel poverty—struggled to afford to keep and heat their homes.
Against this backdrop, the increasing impacts of climate change continued to assert themselves while ineffectual climate policies did little to stem the flow of emissions. Droughts affected farming yields as fish stocks collapsed due to both overfishing and the stresses of their changing environment. Water became an even more desperate issue than food in many parts of the world as droughts combined with the disappearance of snow and ice, killing the vast rivers of melt water that used to bring fresh water to billions of people and support critical ecosystems.11
September 22nd 2019 is the date so many of us remember. It was the day on which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its gloomy statement announcing its analysis that it was now too late to avoid unstoppable runaway climate change. The critical tipping points were passed in 2016, and climate feedbacks had now taken over from human emissions as the primary factor driving continued warming. As the news spread it was largely met with shock and anger, causing a fundamental shift in our cultural stories as the notion of leaving a world better than that we were born into seemed to become an impossibility. Desperate attempts at ‘geo-engineering’ appear to be only making the problems worse and we have had to face the fact that our species has probably sealed the fate of most of life on Earth.
This understanding, combined with the near-global suffering, has led to new cultural myths gaining power. Preachers speaking of God’s vengeance on humanity’s greed seem to be everywhere, and the political processes are increasingly dominated by empty promises of revolutionary change and protection.
View from 2027
By 2027 the world human population is in heavy decline, and it is also estimated that 30% of all species of life have become extinct, primarily through habitat loss and pollution. The rate of species loss is only increasing. Warfare, social unrest and market chaos have also hamstrung fossil fuel consumption in recent years—global oil production is down to 22 million barrels/day and much of our fossil-fuel infrastructure lies unused and rusting.
- CIA World Factbook, national current account balances: https://www.cia.gov/ library/publications/the-world-factbook/ rankorder/2187rank.html.
- See e.g. ‘Response of Nebraska Sand Hills natural vegetation to drought, fire, grazing and plant functional type shifts as simulated by the century model’, Mangan, J., et al., 2004, Climatic Change, 63, 49-90.