Rooting for Collapse?

Gail the Actuary, who often writes about peak oil and resource scarcity issues at The Oil Drum, makes the case here that we’re on borrowed time. But unlike Jeremy Grantham, she doesn’t think we can do anything about it:

There is no real solution to our predicament. Even if a cheap liquid fuel could be found in abundance tomorrow, at most what it would do would be move the problem down the road a little way. Population would continue to grow. Pollution would become a greater and greater issue. We would have more problems with fresh water. We would likely come to another limit, in not too many years.

This pessimistic outlook is oddly embraced by one of the writers at Ecological Sociology:

What I love most about Gail’s presentation is that she finally concludes that “there is no solution.” This is the conclusion I came to almost a year ago. When you put the whole ball of wax together, you have to face that fact that there really is no solution. That’s either a ‘bad thing’ or a ‘good thing’ depending on what is collapsing and whether you’re really invested in keeping it going. What is collapsing is globalized Capitalist civilization, and frankly, I’m not sorry to see it go.

This cavalier attitude really rubs me the wrong way. The dominant global economic order may well be poised to collapse, but wishing for it to happen strikes me as insensitive to the amount of suffering that would occur. And just out of curiosity, exactly what sort of (sustainable) economic system does this writer see rising from the ashes? [UPDATE: Shaun’s response is here.]

Thankfully, a much less depressingly fatalistic view can be found over at the Oil Drum thread:

From what I see in urban Seattle, the generation of people in their 20’s and 30’s are developing a very different set of expectations than the generation before them. Younger people are driving smaller vehicles if not walking or biking, living in smaller spaces, delaying having children, renting instead of owning, spending their money on experiences and good food rather than consumer goods. It reminds me most of European urban living where a high quality of life requires a much lower level of consumption.

I’m not disagreeing with Gail’s premise at all. The current Business As Usual is not sustainable. What people often miss, however, is that there is a generational change underway and that the upcoming generation may not want or miss the current BAU.

In other, less well endowed countries there will undoubtedly be much misery in the years ahead (see Somalia today). But in the US at least, there are (and always have been) many ways to live within our still bountiful resources. It won’t necessarily look like what many people think of as ‘normal’ today. But for some of us it will be a very welcome change.

Be the change you want to see in the world.

Indeed. It’s also better than waiting (expectantly) for the world to crumble all around you.

26 Responses to “Rooting for Collapse?”

  1. Jack Hughes says:

    Richard Black (BBC journo) is on the record as wanting a “medium-sized climate catastrophe” to shock people into action.

    I struggle with this mind-set – it’s like wanting regular plane crashes to remind us that planes can crash. 

  2. Jack Hughes says:

    Extrapolating from some trendy people you know in Seattle to all of mankind is a stretch.

    This is another example of the Marie Antoinette syndrome that dominates green-thinking. 

  3. Keith Kloor says:

    Jack, on the contrary, I don’t see him extrapolating at all. He’s just offering an observation–one that I can echo from my perch here in trendy NYC…

  4. Ed Forbes says:

    The doom and gloom crowd has been with us for centuries. They have been crying wolf over something for the last 1000 years.
    .
    Current crowd is little different than the millennium crowd of 1000 AD.
    .
    Yawn”¦.next

  5. harrywr2 says:

    I wish I had saved the link.

    A Canadian Economist a couple of years ago predicted the next 20 years would look more like June and Ward Cleaver then The Huxtabole’s. Nothing wrong with living like June and Ward Cleaver.
     
    On the ‘energy pessimism’.

    Natural Gas is the bridge fuel for transportation. I have a friend in Turkey that had his car converted for a few hundred dollars to be ‘dual fuel’, he runs natural gas most of the time then switches to gasoline when he needs range. Of course in the US by the time the NHTSA and EPA certifications are done the conversion ends up being a few thousand.(Maybe Government could fix that!)

    Uranium is the bridge fuel for electricity production.

    Someday  someone will figure out ‘energy storage’ and battery operated vehicles and intermittent energy sources will be viable.

  6. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    John Quiggin has the most interesting take on peak oil that I’ve read in a long time.

    “discussions around Peak Oil are dominated, not by economic analysis, but by a range of more or less apocalyptic scenarios. In these scenarios, an end to ever-growing output of oil means an end to industrial civilisation as we know it.

    “There are a number of misunderstandings here. A lot of discussion seems to assume that Peak Oil means an immediate end to oil production, when the Hubbert curve implies a gradual decline over 100 years or more.”

    And
    “The Oil Peak that actually mattered was the peak in consumption per person, which took place back in 1980 at 5.3 barrels per person per year. Since then, consumption per person has dropped to 4.4 barrels per person per year.”

    And
    “One of the few upsides of the disastrous Fukushima meltdown is that it has allowed a perfect test of this theory. Following the meltdown, Japan has taken 38 of its 54 reactors offline. It’s now midsummer there, and the blackouts predicted by the scaremongers have not occurred. Instead, the reduction in supply has been handled by (mostly voluntary) efficiency measures.

    “Energy is important, but it is no more “˜essential’ or “˜special’ than many other goods and services in a modern economy. If the supply is reduced, the market will respond to bring demand into line, especially if this response is facilitated by sensible government policy.”

  7. mondo says:

    If the US government was seriously interested in ensuring ample supply of crude oil, and sourced domestically or in Canada, all it would have to do is to guarantee a price of, say, US$60 per bbl for new projects that meet specified criteria, that price being sustained for, say, 20 years.  

    The reason is that there are many opportunities to generate oil from oil shales, tarsands, tertiary recovery from existing fields, coal to oil conversion etc.   The nature of most of these projects is that they are very capital intensive, which means that only the oil majors have the capacity to fund them.  However, if smaller project sponsors were guaranteed an offtake price of US$60, then they would be much more likely to secure the funding needed to develop the project from the capital markets, because the price risk is eliminated from the equation. 

    The last time that major projects were developed of the type I am referring to, the oil price soon enough fell to around US$10 which caused major financial problems for the project owners and their financiers.   Memories are long.

    Obviously there are significant environmental impact and other issues that would need to be resolved as well.  But if the US is genuinely concerned about assuring ample supplies of domestic crude, I suggest that my proposal would be a major factor in ensuring that result. 

    In fact, the real risk of such a policy would be that oversupply would likely be stimulated that would drive the price of crude down.  One could imagine that existing producers might not favour such a policy.
     

  8. Menth says:

    I am by no means an intellectual titan and frankly am probably well below the bell curve of intelligence of the readers of this blog but I find this story quaint and hilarious. 
     
    I also would say that as much as I sometimes disagree with Jonathan Gilligan’s take on climate and policy he is always measured, rational and interesting with his comments. Fellow AGW policy proponents could learn a lot from him.
     
    p.s. I’ve spent the past little while away on my sailboat absorbing the wonderful atmosphere everyone frets about from in front of their computer screens, has anyone connected the London riots to climate change yet? Romm-ulans I’m looking in your direction.

  9. Eli Rabett says:

    Ever hear about any street riots in the winter??

  10. Bill says:

     PPP reseves for conventional oil are in the order of +100yrs. Alberta and Venezuelan oil sands are at least another 200yrs. Other unconventionals (oil sands, oil shales etc) would be at least a further 100yrs.

    Nearly all of the above resources would certainly be economic at $80BBl. (though as mondo says, they are high capex).

    “Peak Oil” is just another Arts degree buzz word.

  11. Jarmo says:

    In other, less well endowed countries there will undoubtedly be much misery in the years ahead (see Somalia today).

    The main problem with Somalia (and large parts of the rest of Africa) is political instability and lack of good government… or any government.

    The paradox of environmental degradation is that rich countries, who spend more resources than sustainable, are also the ones with the ability to become sustainable. Population growth has stopped and with basic needs procured, people also care about environment.

    Dirt poor countries, with very “sustainable” carbon footprints, just double their populations every 40 years despite all the misery and create a locust effect. I know, they do not a the choice.

  12. Stu says:

    I agree with the last paragraph in Keith’s post. Thinking in these terms of a ‘business as usual’ may be as quaint or naively placed as thinking of climate as essentially static. 

    With regards to energy – we seem to be surrounded by resources. The question isn’t so much about where to find energy but instead what to do with it instead, or even whether to use it at all.  

    “What is collapsing is globalized Capitalist civilization, and frankly, I’m not sorry to see it go.”

    Spoken like a depressed teen… 

  13. Gary Bowden says:

    Jonathan: “Energy is important, but it is no more “˜essential’ or “˜special’ than many other goods and services in a modern economy. If the supply is reduced, the market will respond to bring demand into line, especially if this response is facilitated by sensible government policy.”

    This is simply wrong. Stop eating for awhile and see how that works out. When you stop putting energy into a living system, it dies. Ecosystems and social systems, in this sense, are no different than people. This isn’t to say that there aren’t societies (Hello USA!) that over consume (use energy inefficiently) and would benefit from a diet. But it is a mistake to treat energy as just another economic good/service.

    Bill: “PPP reseves for conventional oil are in the order of +100yrs. Alberta and Venezuelan oil sands are at least another 200yrs…. “Peak Oil” is just another Arts degree buzz word.”

    The issue isn’t future availability, it is bang for the buck and cost. There is little cost (either in $ or in energy use) to take oil from the fields in Saudi Arabia. It takes loads of each to access the Alberta oil sands. Viewed from the perspective of energy return on investment analysis (EROI), the peak in conventional oil is, indeed, a significant matter. Which world would you rather live in — one where you get 30 dollars back for each dollar you invest or one where you get 5 dollars back? The shift from one to the other obviously has significant economic implications.

    Keith: I’ve drawn Shaun’s attention to your post and encouraged a reply.

  14. Marlowe Johnson says:

    @12
     “Stop eating for awhile and see how that works out.”

    to which I would say ‘stop drinking water and see how that works out’ 😉 

    I think that is the point that Quiggin was more or less trying to make…

  15. Keith Kloor says:

    Jonathan (6)

    Thanks for the link to Quiggen’s essay. It is very interesting, including his responses in the thread. This passage (which you also noted) jumped out at me:

    “But discussions around Peak Oil are dominated, not by economic analysis, but by a range of more or less apocalyptic scenarios.”

    One could easily say the same for discussions on climate change. 

      

     

  16. Can anyone point to me to the part(s) in Shaun or Gail’s contributions where one could infer that they are “wishing for it to happen” or “insensitive to the amount of suffering that would occur”? I don’t see that.

  17. Keith Kloor says:

    Rust:

    Shaun writes:
    “What is collapsing is globalized Capitalist civilization, and frankly, I’m not sorry to see it go.”

    I would be sorry to see it go, despite all its inequities and ponzi-scheme characteristics, because that is the only system we have. (Why not try to improve it?) If it collapses, what do you think would happen and what would replace it?

    Additionally, if you’re not sorry to see the world’s economic system go bye-bye, then it’s incumbent on you to at least offer a substitute that you think would work better. 

      

  18. I said the GLOBALIZED capitalist civilization is collapsing. The system will start reorganizing itself at the nation/state/local level. You don’t have to take my word for that: ask economist Jeff Rubin about that, or read his book “Why Your World is About to Get A Whole Lot Smaller.” Nonetheless, there will be suffering. as we’ve seen already, as globalized systems totter and fall. The return to the local will not be easy or painless.

  19. Mary says:

    When I first encountered the Peak Oil issues some years back, I got on some of the doomer discussion boards. I was never sufficiently “doomer” but they did often link to interesting topics on energy so I hung out there. And mocked the bunker-bound ones.

    There were few women there, but those of us that were there had convos in the background sometimes. One of the other women observed that the bunker boys seemed very much to be the types who hadn’t succeeded in the current world order, and were hoping like hell that the apocalypse was coming because then they’d have a chance to be on top, with their gun skills and low-impact tool mastery.  That struck me as sorta true of their perspective….

    Anyway, back to current reality: I was discussing with my housemate how interesting it was that both of our (slightly younger) boyfriends don’t drive. And he was noting that his younger nephew also doesn’t drive–and it seemed to be more common among those groups than our mid-40s peers. Costs (including insurance, car ownership, parking, gas, student loan debt, etc) may have conspired to keep these kids from adopting the car lifestyle at the same rate we did. But it also could be that their helicopter parents just drove them everywhere and they didn’t think they needed it…we couldn’t figure out which it was. 

  20. Keith Kloor says:

    Shaun,

    Thanks for stopping by and for the clarification. Personally, I don’t see that happening (return to the local), but I’m no economist, and on your recommendation, I’ll take a look at Rubin’s book….Oh, and I’ve also updated the post with a link to your comment.

  21. harrywr2 says:

    Jonathan Gilligan Says:

    August 17th, 2011 at 10:07 pm
    Japan has taken 38 of its 54 reactors offline. It’s now midsummer there, and the blackouts predicted by the scaremongers have not occurred. Instead, the reduction in supply has been handled by (mostly voluntary) efficiency measures.

    First, it’s normal for Japan to have 1/3 of it’s reactors offline. For whatever reason the japanese have always had a rather poor untilization rate.
     
    If I look at Tepco’s demand and supply forecast here –
    http://www.tepco.co.jp/en/press/corp-com/release/11081205-e.html

    Last years maximum summer peak demand was 59.99 GW. Their current in service generating capacity is 56 GW with a maximum projected demand of 55 GW.

    In most developed countries the utilities maintain a significant amount of reserve capacity. For example in the US we have 60 GW of oil fired generation that hasn’t been economic to run for 30 years. They are relatively inexpensive to maintain and can be fired up quickly if we need to. Of course no one will like the price of the electricity but it’s better then rolling blackouts.

    We also have a whole slew of 60 year old coal plants that run at 25% efficiency laying around that are ‘moth balled’.

    The case in Japan is similar.

    The rolling blackouts immediately after the  Fukushima incident were as much a result of the fact that a number of fossil fired plants were damaged and a lack of adequate stockpiles of coal, oil and LNG to fire up the ‘reserve’ capacity.

    The Japanese ‘reserve capacity’ is up and running. Conservation and  demand management(large industrial concerns shifting primary production to off peak demand periods) is making up for remaining shortfall.

    Of course the negative impacts of ‘shift work’ on quality, productivity and accident rates is well documented. http://www.electri.org/ekn/view_page.aspx?id=556&sync=yes

    What the Fukushima accident has proved is that old, inefficient, filthy coal and oil fired plants can be brought back ‘from the dead’ relatively quickly and that large industrial concerns will accept the negative impacts of ‘shift work’ if they have no other choice.

  22. Stu says:

    Mary says:

    “Anyway, back to current reality: I was discussing with my housemate how interesting it was that both of our (slightly younger) boyfriends don’t drive. And he was noting that his younger nephew also doesn’t drive”“and it seemed to be more common among those groups than our mid-40s peers. Costs (including insurance, car ownership, parking, gas, student loan debt, etc) may have conspired to keep these kids from adopting the car lifestyle at the same rate we did. But it also could be that their helicopter parents just drove them everywhere and they didn’t think they needed it”¦we couldn’t figure out which it was. ” 

    I sometimes think the car, symbol of independence and freedom for previous generations, has been recently replaced by the computer, and for the very young, perhaps the mobile phone. Most ‘travel’ these days is done virtually, through computer game worlds, international forums for socialising, etc. We are not going out into the world so much as the world is coming to us. I’m 35 now, and I’ve never owned a car and I hold only a learners permit. There are times when I’d have loved a car to go to the beach or some other thing but at the same time I’ve always felt that the burden of ownership outweighs the benefits. When you spend 98% of your time in the city with decent public transport, who wants to deal with parking, congestion, maintenance, registration, and all the rest of it?
     

  23. Mary says:

    @Stu: that’s an interesting perspective, thanks for that. It never occurred to me that computers were the new independence/freedom.  I’m really curious about this now, and whether this is mostly local to my household or if it’s larger than that. Your comment makes me think it’s bigger. 

    And it’s funny, a lot of my over-40s friends would love to not drive, but they can’t because of chauffeuring kids around to school things and such.  

    I’m intrigued. Gonna look up some trends. 

  24. Jeff Norris says:

    Mary and Stu

    I think you are both on do something.  Mary if you have not found this data base yet checkout

     http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics.cfm#
    http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/ohim/hs00/dl.htm

    Taking a quick look it seems that licenses for less than 19 years of age is trending downward as % of total drivers and even the age group  20-24 seems to be showing a decline also.  One reason I would suggest is that tougher restriction on teenage drivers means a license is less useful as a means to gain  independence.   Another or contributing possibility is that drivers Ed is pretty much gone in High school.  Parents have to pay private companies for the course or supplemental courses in order for their teenagers to drive.   

    Paying for drivers ed makes me wonder if the percent of low income teenage drivers is much lower now than it was 15 years  ago and if this might lead to a further handicap on their possibility for success.

  25. Mary says:

    @Jeff: interesting–I hypothesize that we hit peak driver and we are on our way down! At least that’s what the trend looked like at the end, but that was only 2000. I looked at total licensed drivers/population. But there may be other ways to slice it. I wish I had time to fish out more recent data. Maybe some statistician can suss that out.

    That’s a good point about changing the system so it’s not in schools anymore too. And other legal issues.

    If cutting driver’s ed led to a population who craves biking and public transport, I think the oil and car industry will be in for a surprise 🙂

  26. Mary says:

    Hey guys–I know this thread is long dead, but for my own purposes of memory loss I wanted to put this here. Check out the intriguing shift in miles traveled by the yoots:
    http://daily.sightline.org/2011/08/25/a-generational-shift-in-driving/
    We haz data. I am still intrigued about why.

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