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Peak everything

This issue is an edited version of the Introduction to Richard Heinberg's new book Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines.

A few excerpts are posted here. See Global Public Media for the entire posting. -BA

... Upon first encountering Peak Oil, most people tend to assume it is merely a single isolated problem to which there is a simple solution - whether of an eco-friendly nature (more renewable energy) or otherwise (more coal). But prolonged reflection and study tend to eat away at the viability of such "solutions"; meanwhile, as one contemplates how we humans have so quickly become so deeply dependent on the cheap, concentrated energy of oil and other fossil fuels, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we have caught ourselves on the horns of the Universal Ecological Dilemma, consisting of the interlinked elements of population pressure, resource depletion, and habitat destruction - and on a scale unprecedented in history.

Petroleum is not the only important resource quickly depleting. Readers already acquainted with the Peak Oil literature know that regional production peaks for natural gas have already occurred, and that, over the short term, the economic consequences of gas shortages are likely to be even worse for Europeans and North Americans than those for oil. And while coal is often referred to as being an abundant fossil fuel, with reserves capable of supplying the world at current rates of usage for two hundred years into the future, a recent study updating global reserves and production forecasts concludes that global coal production will peak and begin to decline in ten to twenty years.4 Because fossil fuels supply about 85 percent of the world's total energy, peaks in these fuels virtually ensure that the world's energy supply will begin to shrink within a few years regardless of any efforts that are made to develop other energy sources.

Nor does the matter end with natural gas and coal. Once one lifts one's eyes from the narrow path of daily survival activities and starts scanning the horizon, a frightening array of peaks comes into view.

...The (Rude) Awakening

The subtitle of this book, "Waking Up to the Century of Declines," reflects my impression that even those of us who have been thinking about resource depletion for many years are still just beginning to awaken to its full implications. And if we are all in various stages of waking up to the problem, we are also waking up from the cultural trance of denial in which we are all embedded.14

This awakening is multi-dimensional. It is not just a matter of becoming intellectually and dispassionately convinced of the reality and seriousness of climate change, peak oil, or any other specific problem. Rather, it entails an emotional, cultural, and political catharsis. The biblical metaphor of scales falling from one's eyes is as apt as the pop-culture meme of taking the red pill and seeing the world beyond the Matrix: in either case, waking up implies coming to the realization that the very fabric of modern life is woven from illusion - thousands of illusions, in fact.

In order for that fabric to be held together, there is the requirement for one master illusion, which is the notion that somehow what we see around us today is normal. In a sense, of course, it is normal: the daily life experience of millions of people is normal by definition. The reality of cars, television, and fast food is calmly taken for granted; if life has been like this for decades, why shouldn't it continue, with incremental developmental changes, indefinitely? But how profoundly this "normal" life in a typical modern city differs from the lives of previous generations of humans! And the fact that it is built on the foundation of cheap fossil fuels means that future generations must and will live differently.

Again, the awakening I am describing is an ongoing visceral as well as intellectual reassessment of every facet of life - food, work, entertainment, travel, politics, economics, and more. The experience is so all-encompassing that it defies linear description. And yet we must make the attempt to describe and express it; we must turn our multi-dimensional experience into narrative, because that is how we humans process and share our experiences of the world.

The great transition of the 21st century will entail enormous adjustments on the part of every individual, family and community, and if those adjustments are to be made successfully, rational planning will be needed. Implications and strategies will have to be explored in nearly every area of human interest - agriculture, transportation, global war and peace, public health, resource management, and on and on. Books, research studies, television documentaries, an every other imaginable form of information transferal means will be required to convey needed information in each of these areas. Moreover, there is the need for more than explanatory materials; we will need citizen organizations that can turn policy into action, and artists to create cultural expressions that can help fire the collective imagination. Within this whirlwind of analysis, adjustment, creativity, and transformation, perhaps there is need and space for a book that simply tries to capture the overall spirit of the time into which we are headed, that ties the multifarious upwellings of cultural change to the science of global warming and peak oil in some hopefully surprising and entertaining ways, and that begins to address the psychological dimension of our global transition from industrial growth to contraction and sustainability.

Most of the peaks that are before us cannot be avoided, but there are many things we can do to navigate down and around them so as to enhance human sanity, security, and happiness. Let us do those things. Let us work to make a future world from whose vantage point, decades hence, we can look back on these premonitions as having been far too gloomy.

Editorial Notes: Full text is posted at Global Public Media and on Heinberg's own site. In the list of peaking resources, do not forget Peak Phosphorus, a nutrient that is essential for plant life and agriculture. A phosphorus peak is much more insidious than it appears at first. -BA

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