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Look on the Bright Side

Recently I’ve begun compiling a list of things to be cheerful about. Here are some items that should bring a smile to any environmentalist’s lips:

  • World energy consumption is declining. That’s right: oil consumption is down, coal consumption is down, and the IEA is projecting world electricity consumption to decline by 3.5 percent this year. I’m sure it’s possible to find a few countries where energy use is still growing, but for the US, China, and most of the European countries that is no longer the case. A small army of writers and activists, including me, has been arguing for years now that the world should voluntarily reduce its energy consumption, because current rates of use are unsustainable for various reasons including the fact that fossil fuels are depleting. Yes, we should build renewable energy capacity, but replacing the energy from fossil fuels will be an enormous job, and we can make that job less daunting by reducing our overall energy appetite. Done.
  • CO2 emissions are falling. This follows from the previous point. I’m still waiting for confirmation from direct NOAA measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere, but it stands to reason that if world oil and coal consumption is declining, then carbon emissions must be doing so as well. The economic crisis has accomplished what the Kyoto Protocol couldn’t. Hooray!
  • Consumption of goods is falling. Every environmentalist I know spends a good deal of her time railing both publicly and privately against consumerism. We in the industrialized countries use way too much stuff — because that stuff is made from depleting natural resources (both renewable and non-renewable) and the Earth is running out of fresh water, topsoil, lithium, indium, zinc, antimony…the list is long. Books have been written trying to convince people to simplify their lives and use less, films have been produced and shown on PBS, and support groups have formed to help families kick the habit, but still the consumer juggernaut has continued — until now. This particular dragon may not be slain, but it’s cowering in its den.
  • Globalization is in reverse (global trade is shrinking). Back in the early 1990s, when globalization was a new word, an organization of brilliant activists formed the International Forum on Globalization (IFG) to educate the public about the costs and dangers of this accelerating trend. Corporations were off-shoring their production and pollution, ruining manufacturing communities in formerly industrial rich nations while ruthlessly exploiting cheap labor in less-industrialized poor countries. IFG was able to change the public discourse about globalization enough to stall the expansion of the World Trade Organization, but still world trade continued to mushroom. Not any more. China’s and Japan’s exports are way down, as is the US trade deficit.
  • The number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) is falling. For decades the number of total miles traveled by all cars and trucks on US roads has relentlessly increased. This was a powerful argument for building more roads. People bought more cars and drove them further; trucks restocked factories and stores at an ever-growing pace; and delivery vans brought more packages to consumers who shopped from home. All of this driving entailed more tires, pavement, and fuel — and more environmental damage. Over the past few months the VMT number has declined substantially and continually, to a greater extent than has been the case since records started being kept. That’s welcome news.
  • There are fewer cars on the road. People are junking old cars faster than new ones are being purchased. In the US, where there are now more cars on the road than there are licensed drivers, this represents an extraordinary shift in a very long-standing trend. In her wonderful book Divorce Your Car, Katie Alvord detailed the extraordinary environmental costs of widespread automobile use. Evidently her book didn’t stem the tide: it was published in the year 2000, and millions of new cars hit the pavement in the following years. But now the world’s auto manufacturers are desperately trying to steer clear of looming bankruptcy, simply because people aren’t buying. In fact, in the first four months of 2009, more bicycles were sold in the US than cars and trucks put together (over 2.55 million bicycles were purchased, compared to fewer than 2.4 million cars and trucks). How utterly cool.
  • The world’s over-leveraged, debt-based financial system is failing. Growth in consumption is killing the planet, but arguing against economic growth is made difficult by the fact that most of the world’s currencies are essentially loaned into existence, and those loans must be repaid with interest. Thus if the economy isn’t growing, and therefore if more loans aren’t being made, thus causing more money to be created, the result will be a cascading series of defaults and foreclosures that will ruin the entire system. It’s not a sustainable system given the fact that the world’s resources (the ultimate basis for all economic activity) are finite; and, as the proponents of Ecological and Biophysical Economics have been saying for years, it’s a system that needs to be replaced with one that can still function in a condition of steady or contracting consumption rates. While that sustainable alternative is not yet being discussed by government leaders, at least they are being forced to consider (if not yet publicly) the possibility that the existing system has serious problems and that it may need a thorough overhaul. That’s a good thing.
  • Gardening is going gonzo. According to the New York Times (”College Interns Getting Back to Land,” May 25) thousands of college students are doing summer internships on farms this year. Meanwhile seed companies are having a hard time keeping up with demand, as home gardeners put in an unusually high number of veggie gardens. Urban farmer Will Allen predicts that there will be 8 million new gardeners this year, and the number of new gardens is expected to increase 20 to 40 percent this season. Since world oil production has peaked, there is going to be less oil available in the future to fuel industrial agriculture, so we are going to need more gardens, more small farms, and more farmers. Never mind the motives of all these students and home gardeners — few of them have ever heard of Peak Oil, and many of the gardeners are probably just worried whether they can afford to keep the pantry full next winter; nevertheless, they’re doing the right thing. And that’s something to applaud.

But wait, before our cheering becomes an uncontrollable frenzy, we should stop to remember that most of these developments are due to an economic crisis that is taking a huge toll. With the possible exception of the last item on the list (and maybe some of those bicycle purchases), we’re not talking about voluntary behavior that’s evidence of forethought and collective intelligence. Whatever gains in sustainability these trends signify have come at an enormous cost in terms of unemployment, homelessness, and lost retirement savings.

Take all this to its tragic extreme. What if a billion humans died over the course of, say, the next ten years from starvation or swine flu? That would take a lot of pressure off natural systems. There would be more space for other species to flourish, and consumption of natural resources (oil, coal, water, and so on) would decline dramatically, improving the economic prospects of the survivors. So from a certain perspective this unimaginable nightmare might be seen as a good thing — though hardly anyone who actually experienced it would likely see it that way.

Parenthetically, it’s worth noting that this whole line of thought may be dangerous. Some free-market PR hack from the Cato Institute is likely reading along right now just as you are, trying out headlines for a press release. “Environmentalist delights in economic collapse!” might be a good one, or “Environmentalist wants billions of humans to die!” One way to avert that kind of backlash is to keep mum about the fact that economic contraction actually does have benefits, and so far most other environmental writers have been playing it safe in that regard. I’ve crossed the line here, so watch out. I might get us all in trouble.

Now back to our theme. At its core, the dilemma is this: We humans have overshot Earth’s carrying capacity through overpopulation and over-consumption, and have created all sorts of other problems in doing so (such as climate change). But nature will take care of all these difficulties. Overpopulation will eventually be solved by starvation and disease. Over-consumption will be reined in by resource depletion and scarcity. Climate change will take longer to fix, maybe thousands or millions of years — assuming we don’t turn Earth into Venus.

But nature’s ways of solving our problems are not going to be pleasant. And so the enormous, overriding question confronting our species during the remainder of this century will be, Are we humans capable of getting out ahead of nature’s checks so as to proactively rein in our population and consumption in ways we can live with?

Boil down all the environmental literature of the past century, and that’s the essence of most of it. So far, that literature has not had its desired effect: our species has continued to expand both in numbers and in per-capita impact.

But the items outlined above suggest that we’ve turned a corner. It’s no longer a matter of nature “eventually” providing checks on humanity’s boisterous expansionism. That’s starting to happen. And it’s not yet due to climate change: yes, we are indeed seeing potentially catastrophic impacts in terms of melting glaciers and so on, but those by themselves have not tempered the economic juggernaut. Instead, it is resource depletion that has begun to slow the freight train of industrialism. Over the past two or three years, high energy prices burst the bubble of unsupportable property prices and pulled the rug out from beneath the teetering financial derivatives market.

That’s what the whole Peak Oil discussion has really been about. It’s an attempt to identify the key resource whose scarcity will tip the global economy from growth to contraction.

But wait: this essay was supposed to help us look on the bright side. The discussion’s getting kind of dark here.

Okay, my point is this: we have reached the inevitable turning point. The growth trance that has gripped the world for the past several decades is in the process of ending. Even if we get short periods of economic growth, that growth will be in the context of a significantly contracted economy and will only be temporary in any case, as Peak Oil and other resource constraints will quickly damper increasing economic activity. Gradually, as “recovery” gets put off for another month, another year, another few years, people may begin to realize that the expansionary phase of the era of cheap energy is finished. There are of course no guarantees that the public and their business and political leaders will indeed finally “get it,” because the urge to hang onto the growth illusion will be very strong indeed. But if the misery persists, there’s at least a chance that understanding will finally dawn in the collective mind of our species — the understanding that we must get out ahead of nature’s checks and deliberately reduce the scale of the human enterprise in ways that maximize the prospects of both present and future generations.

But all won’t automatically come to that conclusion on their own. A fundamental change in our comprehension of the human condition will depend on more and more public intellectuals articulating the message of deliberate adaptation to limits, so that the general populace has the necessary conceptual tools with which to mentally process their new circumstances. We will also need far more people working on practical elements of the transition. Those will be ongoing needs — a growth opportunity, if you will pardon the irony, for smart and articulate young people interested in making a difference. And they’ll be most successful if they find ways of framing needed behavior and attitudinal changes in ways that are attractive and inviting — as the Transition Initiatives so brilliantly do.

So in that sense, when I say “Look on the bright side,” no irony or sarcasm is intended.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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