I've concluded that
there are three useful ways to think about mitigating
the effects of Peak Oil and the other Problematique crises humanity is
facing, related to the time horizon under
look for the near-term technologies and behaviours that
will promote a softer entry into the coming depletion phase. I
like hybrids, BEVs, car-pooling, improvements to mass transit and fuel
rationing in this group.
develop approaches that will
be useful in the medium term, for supporting "lifeboat" communities or
regions: permaculture and urban
gardening, a revival of food preparation from scratch, small-scale
wind, solar and hydro power, and low-energy living in general.
perspective is more difficult: how to cope with a whole
enough oil, and possibly having gone through a crash. At this point I
don't know what the most useful approaches might be to cope with
that scenario, other than explicit knowledge-retention projects
guard against the loss of knowledge as well as the loss of
hard to predict past what is essentially a singularity (though hardly a
hopeful one as postulated by Ray Kurzweil). I hope that if
we get serious about the relocalization and lifeboat approaches that
successful communities might provide nuclei for social regeneration in
and the Genetic Basis of Human Behaviour
Two ideas underpin
analysis of the looming crisis.
ecological concept of overshoot.
when a population exceeds the long term carrying
capacity of its environment. It's not just that there are "a lot
of people", as a simplistic definition of overpopulation might
imply. It has everything to do with how much of the resource base
those people require to live. The ecological niche from which we
extract our resources has expanded to become the entire planet.
Our species requires not just the renewable resources of that niche but
is rapidly chewing up the non-renewable resources as well,. Given
those facts, it's obvious that our way of life is unsustainable.
If the time horizon for its continuation is now measured in decades it
is likewise obvious that we are in overshoot. The extent of
the overshoot is debatable, but the mere fact of it is not.
problem with overshoot (aside from the fact that it always
results in a population crash of some degree) is that the underlying
resource base is damaged by over-use. When that happens, the
population remaining after the decline or crash
may not have
sufficient resources to rebuild either their numbers or the structure
of their ecology. I address this more below in the discussion of
heartily recommend Catton's "Overshoot"
and the latest update to
to Growth" for an understanding of the topic, a sobering
analysis of why we are already in overshoot, and the inevitable
driver for my thinking is genetics
as it relates to to
There appears to
be a mechanism built into every reproductive species,
from bacteria to flatworms, robins to rabbits, tigers to
chimpanzees that favours
excess reproduction beyond the replacement rate. It's easy to
understand why that is a general rule of nature. In an
where there are predators this is a survival-positive trait: if a few
individuals get eaten, the species isn't threatened. However,
are no predators, it's catastrophic. Think of the rabbits in
Australia. We are like those rabbits: we have no predators except
ourselves. The result is a human population that has quadrupled
in a century, to which we add over 75 million new members every year.
reproduce is complemented by a second genetic imperative: the urge to
maximize our comfort by accumulating as many resources for ourselves as
possible. As long as the
population didn't grow and tool use stayed limited this drive also
enhanced rather than threatened our survival. Unfortunately, when our
brains gave us
ability to build tools to conquer our predators and dig deep into
resource base of our ecological niche, natural selection didn't
have enough time to endow us
with a corresponding genetically-mediated sense of restraint that might
have made this
only restraints we have
on our reproduction rates and resource use come from our
intellect. And while intellect is a
very powerful tool for manipulating the outside universe, it is
extremely weak when it comes to modifying our own behaviour. In the
main, genetically encoded behaviour
patterns tend to rule the day.
planetary destruction (and accompanying self-destruction) we are
starting to recognize is in large measure
inevitable due to the collision between the
immovable rocks of these two genetic imperatives and the irresistible
force of our prodigious cerebral cortex.
we as a species are in many ways at the mercy of
our genetics in terms of both our reproductive behaviour and our
consumptive behaviour. As a result I
deeply believe that we are heading for a
significant die-back of the human species over the next 50 to 100
years, as our behaviour drives us deeper and deeper into overshoot on
an already ravaged planet.
For those with a need
to look Mother Nature square in the eye, Reg Morrison's "The
Spirit in the Gene" provides an unflinching look at this dilemma.
Cycles and Resilience
inherent morbidness of the conclusion that human decline is
inevitable, one area of research that is very heartening is the
relatively new field of complex adaptive systems. Recent research
ecosystems has generated some useful understanding about adaptive
cycles and system resilience.
concept is that all complex adaptive systems (of which human
civilization is one) go through
looping cycles as they grow and decline. On the way up the front
of the cycle as the system
grows, it gains in integration, efficiency and brittleness. The
brittleness combined with resource depletion or negative outside
influences pushes the system over the top of the loop and into
decline. During decline the system loses
integration/efficiency/brittleness and gains
modularity/inefficiency/resilience. The degree of resilience a
retains as it grows determines how steep the inevitable decline will be.
the system has regained enough resilience during the decline, it can
loop around the bottom of the cycle and growth can restart. There
caveat - the system will not have access to the same resources that
available to fuel the previous growth cycle because they may have been
used up. As a result the character of the system will be
next time around because it will have to find different
will, however, re-grow unless the ecological niche has been
catastrophically damaged and extinction results. I don't think it
go that far with us.
formulation is the perfect anodyne for the paralyzing
despair that can result from perceiving the progress of civilization as
a simple two-dimensional journey of growth, elaboration, crisis,
collapse and disappearance,. While it may for some resonate
uncomfortably of the ideas of resurrection, reincarnation and the Wheel
of Karma, it nonetheless identifies a perfectly naturalistic context
within which we can find a home for much of the human experience.
These concepts are
addressed in Thomas
Upside of Down", and for me were the most useful
insights in the book. .Further
information can be found on the net in the work of the Resilience Alliance.
All in all
perversely hopeful, but I want to make sure
I don't generate any false expectations about the future, or encourage
magical thinking. Business as usual, as we've come to
define it during the last 100 years, is utterly unsustainable, and is
unlikely to last longer than another couple of decades. Any
that attempt to maintain it beyond that will risk making the coming
worse by stretching out the growth phase of the cycle we're in.
why I tend to discount some technologies (e.g. biofuels, solar power
and hybrid cars) that others view as helpful.
I know all
may sound a bit gloomy and fatalistic,
but I strongly believe that these conclusions are amply justified by
evidence. We have a lot of work in front of us, no matter how we
decide to approach this. The only thing that is unacceptable is