Sunday, January 10, 2010

Beginning our descent

In his book The Long Descent (A User’s Guide to the End
of the Industrial Age), John Michael Greer makes the point
again and again that the age of cheap, abundant fossil-fuel
energy is over, and that we in the richer countries, at least,
had better get used to it. People take ‘progress’ for granted,
he says, but it’s time—way past time—to wake up and
realize that the bounty off which we have lived for the past
two or three centuries, especially the underground oil
reservoirs created by millennia of decomposing organic
matter, will never be there again in such quantities and,
ultimately, won’t be there at all.

So what? you may say: ingenious Man, who has unlocked
the secrets of nature, who has brought us the marvellous
comforts of civilization, who has created the motorway
and the megalopolis, the laser beam and the Laz-y-Boy,
clever Man, all-conquering Man, who has, in the words of
Derek Mahon, ‘tamed the terrier, trimmed the hedge/and
grasped the principle of the watering-can’—this species of
ours will surely come up with other ingenious ways of
keeping the show on the road and those of us in the lucky
countries, anyway, secure in the lifestyle to which we’ve
become accustomed? Why, even as we speak (you may
say), electric cars are being developed, new sources of
energy tapped. Build that road! Buy that car! All will be
well, because, well, it just will.

Greer will have none of that. Everything we take for
granted today as the essence of industrialized
civilization, he says, is based on a once-and-once-only
oil bonanza that can never be replicated. Nothing—
repeat, nothing—comes even close as a substitute. Oil’s
net energy ratio is something like 200 to 1, ie, for every
unit of energy it takes to generate usable oil you get 200
more, whereas a solar cell, say, has a ratio of 10 to 1 at the
most optimistic. That's precisely why we exploited it so
greedily. And don’t think that nuclear power might yet
save the day, whatever the waste problems: uranium
resources are severely depleted too. In any case, to tap
and develop alternative energy sources has—up to now
anyway—required a great deal of machinery powered by,
but you knew this, fossil fuels.

In short, as the oil runs out, our way of living is going to
have to change dramatically. Greer emphasizes at great
length that this doesn’t mean we’ll revert to primitivism
and go back to living in caves, because the history of all
previous civilizations is that they don’t vanish overnight
but go into a steady, sometimes centuries-long decline
(hence ‘The Long Descent’) punctuated, even, by
upsurges. But it does mean a tremendous readjustment
of expectations and indeed actions now, because, baby,
your nice little Western ways are simply not sustainable.
Maybe in your lifetime, yes, but you wouldn't want to
keep partying at your children and grandchildren's
expense, and leave them to pick up all those popped
balloons—would you? Of course you wouldn't.

Greer's book, essentially, is a sustained attempt to help
us in the early 21st century get over the ‘conviction that
our civilization is exempt from the slow trajectories of
rise and fall that defined all of human history before the
industrial revolution.’ Unfortunately, as he says, ‘We
have lived so long in a dream of perpetual economic
and technological expansion that most people
nowadays take progress for granted as the inevitable
shape of the future.’

One could go on. I won’t. This all the world knows well—
it was spelled out comprehensively nearly 40 years ago in
the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth—yet none knows
well to shun the apparent heaven that leads men to this
hell. ‘Oil,’ says Greer, ‘provides 40% of all energy used by
human beings on Earth, and it powers nearly all
transportation in the industrial world.’ And we are now at
the historical moment of peak oil: there will never be as
much of it again. Your task for 2010: go figure.


Giovanni said...

Isn't it the case that our running out of oil (or it becoming so scarce and expensive that it becomes economical in comparison to use the alternatives) is pretty much the only thing that could save the planet in the first place? I'd take descent over annihilation any day. I'm also unsure why a change in lifestyle ought to be necessarily equated with the opposite of growth and progress. Say it turns out we have to ditch cars, and reinvent our cities around other modes and philosophies of movement transportation. Yay, says I.

Also: the input-output ratio of oil may be higher than solar but the sun's always there (ditto wind and tides and so forth), on tap as it were. Think of the costs, and especially the human costs, associated with the geopolitics of securing the oil supply for the West. They ought to factor in somewhere.

I'm a lot more concerned with the world running out of water and fertilisers (some of which are petrochemical based, I know) than I am of oil wells drying up.

Anonymous said...

"Think of the costs, and especially the human costs, associated with the geopolitics of securing the oil supply for the West."

i think the future will call that "the invasion of iraq".

as for civilisational decline/descent/whatever, it is the normal state of affairs. all civilisations decline at some point, the question to my mind is the extent to which the cultural capital in that civilisation can be kept for it's descendants.

i think i'd happily see our science move forward, if only there is enough room left in people's minds once they stop listening to the pop music.

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