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What we don't know

A response to John Michael Greer

John Michael Greer is as intelligent a voice on the issues of peak oil and sustainability as one can find. His recent piece entitled "Not The End of World" displays his broad reading in history and his deep understanding of culture. And, while history is an excellent source for understanding human nature and the natural world, it doesn't have the predictive power which he attributes to it.

In many ways history can tell us what to expect from people when they face circumstances similar to those observed in the past. But, it cannot tell us what to expect from events which are the result of far more decisions by people and far more changes in the natural world than any individual or even any group can observe or analyze.

First let me say that I too imagine that we will experience a stair-step decline in the functioning of global societies as our energy supplies recede. Greer is quite correct that historically humans have met resource declines with struggles to adapt, and that these efforts have changed the dynamics of the decline.

But I think he is too dismissive of those who worry about a rapid, steep decline. Greer takes the catastrophists to task because of their linear thinking: high prices and short supply today mean only ever higher prices and ever smaller supply of everything tomorrow and tomorrow in a straight line. The implication is that this will lead to the rapid destabilization of modern society. But, he is correct that historically, complex societies and their markets tend to take nonlinear courses. What he omits is that nonlinear systems can sometimes turn abruptly and steeply downward.

In truth, no one can know what the future holds because there are too many unknowns. We don't know how much oil is left? We don't know how much will be extracted and at what rate? We don't know when the peak in oil production will occur? And we don't know how severe the decline from the peak will be? We don't know how quickly alternatives will be found and deployed and whether they will give us anything near the energy that oil currently does? We have guesses, some optimistic, some pessimistic. But we don't have any certainty. (Of course, similar questions are being asked about natural gas, coal and uranium as well.)

I think the more important question to ask is this: What can we reasonably prepare for? A nearby oil peak followed by a swift and catastrophic decline in oil production might very well mean a quick end to industrial civilization. And, a very chaotic and nasty end it might be. But as a friend of mine recently asked, "How can you prepare for the end of civilization?" He didn't think anyone could. Our lives are too tightly intertwined. We will either overcome the energy and environmental challenges we face together or we will all go down together.

(I suppose one could become a survivalist and with expert knowledge of plants and animals live in the forest. But how many could actually do this? And, even if all us knew how, we would quickly deplete those forests and other sources of food as well.)

I think what we can reasonably prepare for is something that provides some semblance of continuity. We can prepare for a society that retains its basic functions: agriculture, mining, manufacturing, transport, and at least a modest technical base, especially the electrical grid. We can focus on those things which will be critical to our survival and let go of those things which we won't be able to save. (See my previous piece, "Triage for the Post-Peak Oil Age.")

While we cannot be sure what the future holds, I agree with Greer that we musn't be too hasty in assuming that we are now headed for the swift demise modern civilization. I'm not sure how we could prepare for it anyway. But it may be useful for each of us to dwell on the worst scenario for a bit as a picture of what might ultimately come to pass if we don't act decisively and resolutely now.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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