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Not the end of the world

You know that things are beginning to heat up when both sides of a controversy declare victory at the same time. Over the last week or so, that’s happened in the peak oil scene. On the one hand, quite a number of cornucopians – those enthusiastic souls who believe that we can get ourselves out of the hole we’re in by digging faster and paying less attention to where the dirt lands – have trumpeted the discovery of a few new oil fields as proof that peak oil is a myth.

The Bakken shale, a geological formation down in the basement of the northern Great Plains, has attracted the bulk of this cheerleading in the last few weeks. Mind you, the Bakken’s a significant discovery; there’s apparently a fair amount of oil down there, though the technical challenges involved in extracting more than a tiny fraction of it are immense, and nobody’s yet sure if the energy that can be extracted from it will be more or less than the energy cost needed to extract it. Even if it turns out to be the oil find of the decade, though, and North Dakota oil millionaires start showing up as a recognized type in American popular culture, the most the Bakken can do is make up some of the production losses from older oil fields and slow, for a time, our descent from Hubbert’s peak.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, the number of voices proclaiming the imminence of total collapse has skyrocketed. Typical is a recent post in Sharon Astyk’s useful peak oil blog. Astyk claims that recent events have decisively settled the debate between the fast-crash and slow-grind models of post-peak oil reality, in favor of the fast crash – and we’re already in it. Her argument is basically that the drastic spikes in food and energy costs over the last few months have outrun the limits of the slow-grind scenario; ergo, the fast crash is here.

I’ve commented several times in these essays about the way that linear thinking distorts our view of the future, and Astyk’s prediction makes a good example. The drastic price spikes in many commodities over the last few months offer a warning that shouldn’t be ignored, but treating them as evidence that industrial society is about to implode imposes a linear model onto the complex realities of socioeconomic change. The fact that change is happening quickly right now does not mean that it will continue to happen at the same pace, or even in the same direction.

Human societies are complex homeostatic systems that respond to changes in their environments by trying to maintain their equilibrium. Both the cornucopians and the fast-collapse theorists too often lose track of this basic rule of human ecology, but it’s interesting to note that they do so in different ways. In the face of faltering oil production, industrial societies intensify the search for new oil fields and exploit fields that would have been considered uneconomical in the halcyon days of cheap oil; that’s how they try to maintain equilibrium. These are responses to crisis, however, not evidence that the crisis is over. When an oil reservoir as geologically challenging as the Bakken looks like a good place to drill, that in itself provides a good measure of how serious the drawdown of existing reserves has become.

At the same time, soaring costs of energy and food are among the ways that a market-based society attempts to maintain equilibrium when supply fails to keep up with potential demand. Rationing by price is a profoundly inequitable way to sort out who gets food and energy in a time of shortages, and who does not, but unless the industrial world goes through drastic political changes in the very near future, it’s the way we’re stuck with, and it does have at least one pragmatic advantage: the ration coupons (we call them “money”) and the entire system of rationing are already in place, ready to use, without massive social engineering.

As prices go up, a great many of the poor and disenfranchised worldwide are sliding closer to the edge where destitution turns into starvation. That’s a tragedy, and a moral crisis of no small magnitude. Still, those who think that it announces the imminent collapse of industrial society need to revisit the history of the nineteenth century, when famines racked the Third World with appalling frequency and a good half of the population in many industrial nations lived in desperate poverty. Most people in the industrial world nowadays, I suspect, have forgotten just how much routine deprivation was a part of ordinary life before the brief twentieth-century heyday of cheap abundant energy.

At the same time, rising prices in a market society also help drive responses to crisis. Here in Oregon, much of the farmland in the long and fertile Willamette valley has been used for years to grow grass seed for the lawn-improvement market. This year, though, a good many of the grass-seed farmers are planting wheat instead – the grass seed market is weak, while the price they can expect for wheat is higher than it’s been in generations. Similar responses are beginning to show up in other agricultural and economic sectors; that’s the sort of response that can be expected, after all, from a complex homeostatic system.

That’s also why the collapse of previous civilizations follows a stairstep process that combines periods of severe crisis with periods of partial recovery. Knocked out of one state of equilibrium by the pressures driving it toward collapse, a society in decline finds a new balance lower down the scale of socioeconomic complexity; when that balance becomes unsustainable, another transition follows, and then another point of equilibrium lower still; that’s the underlying logic of the theory of catabolic collapse, the basis for most of what appears on this blog. It’s hard to argue against the suggestion that we’re entering such a period of crisis just now, and if this is the case, we can expect hard choices and troubled times in the years immediately ahead.

In the case of today’s soaring food prices, likely results include increased starvation in the world’s poorest countries, and a sharp increase in the world’s roster of failed states. Meanwhile, drastic economic, political, and cultural readjustments will hit the industrial world as income redistributes itself from urban centers to farm country. Further down the road, expect prices of many agricultural commodities to come crashing back to earth as steep increases in production intersect with the boom-and-bust cycle of commodities speculation. They’ll head back up thereafter – many centuries will likely pass before food is ever again as cheap compared to incomes as it was in the second half of the twentieth century – but the wild swings in commodity prices will place added pressure on economic systems already creaking under existing strains.

Perhaps the most likely result of the current wave of crises, however, is the twilight of the much-ballyhooed global market of the twentieth century’s last decades. That was never the wave of the future its cheerleaders labeled it; it was a temporary artifact of a world in which energy costs had been forced so low, and economic disparities between nations raised so high, that distance apparently didn’t matter and arbitraging labor costs across continents seemed to make economic sense. As energy costs have risen in recent years, nations with energy resources have done the sensible thing and recognized the political dimensions of economic exchange. Free-market fundamentalists who denounce this “resource nationalism” seem to have forgotten that the government of Russia, for example, was not elected by the citizens of America, and gains no conceivable benefit by embracing policies that benefit American consumers or politicians while disadvantaging their Russian equivalents.

The food crisis has pushed this same transformation into overdrive. Governments around the world that once made their nations’ ability to feed their own people a sacrosanct element of national policy, and were talked out of this sensible strategy during the heyday of cheap energy, have suddenly realized that the lukewarm gratitude of foreign politicians and the plaudits of economists snugly sheltered in their ivory towers don’t count for much when a hungry mob heads for the presidential palace. Most of the Asian countries that produce rice, the grain that has soared most in price, have accordingly limited rice exports to ensure that their own people get enough to eat. Where fossil fuels and food crops go, other resources will follow; my guess is that potash for fertilizer, an essential resource for industrial agriculture, will be next in line.

The “free market,” for that matter, was never that free in the first place; a slanted playing board designed to maximize the flow of wealth to the world’s industrial nations and minimize flows in the other direction, it replaced more straightforward forms of colonialism while maintaining unequal patterns of exchange that allow the 5% of the world’s population who live in the United States to dispose of about 30% of the world’s natural resources. It’s not surprising that countries assigned the short end of the stick by these arrangements would throw them off as soon as they could get away with it, and the resource crunch now underway offers them a perfect opportunity to do so.

The end of the global economy may make life a good deal harder for those of us in the United States and those other industrial nations, such as Canada and Australia, that have become used to the absurdly lavish energy and resource expenditures of the recent past. It bears remembering, though, that people in Europe maintain a standard of living in many ways higher ours on roughly one-third the energy per capita Americans seem to think is necessary for civilized life. We can get by, and get by tolerably well, on much less energy and many fewer resources than we think.

This is likely to be a crucial point to keep in mind as the present crisis unfolds. It’s not the end of the world, or even the end of industrial civilization, but if history is anything to go by, we could be in for a couple of very rough decades. A crisis phase in the downward arc of catabolic collapse is not a pleasant thing to live through, and we can expect it to have social, economic, political, and (unless we’re extraordinarily lucky) military dimensions that will transform most people’s lives for the worse, temporarily or forever. That need not stop us from facing the emerging crisis with as much grace and humanity as we can muster, while doing our part to lay the foundations for the ecotechnic societies of the future – unless, that is, we allow premature proclamations of triumph or catastrophe to distract us from the work that must be done.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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