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The Human Ecology of Collapse, Part One: Failure is the Only Option

Part One: Failure is the Only Option

The old legend of the Holy Grail has a plot twist that’s oddly relevant to the predicament of industrial civilization. A knight who went searching for the Grail, so the story has it, if he was brave and pure, would sooner or later reach an isolated castle in the midst of the desolate Waste Land. There the Grail could be found and the Waste Land made green again, but only if the knight asked the right question. Failing that, he would wake the next morning in a deserted castle, which would vanish behind him as soon as he left, and it might take years of searching to find the castle again.

As we approach the twilight of the age of cheap energy, we’re arguably in a similar situation. It seems to me that a great deal of the confusion that grips the peak oil scene, and even more of the blind commitment to catastrophically misguided policies that reigns outside peak-aware circles, comes from a failure to ask the right questions. A great many people aware of the limits to fossil fuels, for example, have assumed that the question that needs answering is how to sustain a modern industrial society on alternative energy.

Ask that, though, and you’re back in the Waste Land, because any answer you give to that question is wrong. The question that has to be asked is whether a modern industrial society can exist at all without vast and rising inputs of essentially free energy, of the sort only available on this planet from fossil fuels, and the answer is no. Once that’s grasped, other useful questions come to mind – for example, how much of the useful legacy of the last three centuries can be saved, and how – but until you get past the wrong question, you’re stuck chasing the mirage of a replacement for oil that didn’t take a hundred million years or so to come into being.

Other examples could be cited easily enough. As the world’s political leaders busy themselves in Copenhagen for a round of photo ops and brutal backroom politics, though, the unasked question that hangs most visibly in the air is why human societies, faced with choices between survival and collapse, so consistently make the choices that destroy them.

It’s implicit in most discussions of peak oil, climate change, and nearly any other global issue you care to name, that if we all just try hard enough we can overcome the crisis du jour and chug boldly on into the future. Those in the political mainstream tend to insist, in the face of the evidence, that replacing the people currently in charge of political or economic systems with somebody else will solve the problem. Those outside the political mainstream tend to insist, also in the face of the evidence, that swapping out current political or economic systems with others more to their liking will solve the problem.

Nearly all the media coverage of the Copenhagen circus, mainstream or alternative, falls into these camps. While the mainstream right pounds its collective fist on an assortment of lecterns and insists that the polar bears would be just fine if the last round of elections had gone the other way, the mainstream left fills the air with pleas that Obama live up to the nearly messianic fantasy role they projected onto him – will somebody please explain to me someday how a head of state got given the Nobel Peace Prize while he was enthusiastically waging two wars? Meanwhile the socialists are insisting that it’s all capitalism’s fault and can be solved promptly by a socialist revolution, never mind the awkward little fact that the environmental records of socialist countries are by and large even worse than those of capitalist ones; other radicalisms of left and right make the same claim as the socialists, often with even less justification.

Still, I think a great many people are beginning to realize that whatever results come out of Copenhagen, a meaningful response to the increasing instability of global climate will not be among them. James Hansen, among the most prestigious of global warming scientists, has announced to the media that he hopes the Copenhagen talks fail, because none of the options being taken to the talks would have any useful result; we’d be better off, he argues, to start over again from scratch. He’s right about the first point, it seems to me, and wrong about the second, because if we start again from scratch, care to guess where we’ll end up? Right back where we are now, face to face with the yawning gap between those things that are politically possible and those things that would actually deal with the crisis at hand.

Those people who are not in positions of power, and thus don’t have to face the consequences of political decisions, commonly insist that politicians can or should simply leap across chasms of this sort to deliver the goods to their constituents. Copenhagen offers a useful lesson on why such rhetoric is wasted breath. Suppose, for the sake of discussion, that Obama agreed to cut US carbon emissions far enough to make a real impact on global climate change. Would those cuts happen? No, because Congress would have to agree to implement them, and Congress – even though it is controlled by a Democratic majority – has so far been unable to pass even the most ineffectual legislation on the subject.

Suppose the improbable happened, and both Obama and Congress agreed to implement serious carbon emission cuts. What would the result be? Much more likely than not, a decisive Republican victory in the 2010 congressional elections, followed by the repeal of the laws mandating the cuts. Carbon emissions can’t be cut by waving a magic wand; the cuts will cost trillions of dollars at a time when budgets are already strained, and impose steep additional costs throughout the economy. Those latter would be unpopular even if the consensus on climate change were accepted on faith outside the scientific community, which it isn’t. Even those Congresspersons who would most like to see carbon emissions cuts made into law do think about their prospects of remaining in office now and again.

Even between nations, a rough and ready version of the same pattern of checks and balances applies; any nation that accepts serious carbon emission cuts will place itself at a steep economic disadvantage compared to those nations that don’t. Watch the way the competing power blocs at Copenhagen are trying to shove responsibility for emissions cuts onto one another, and you can see this at work. Remember the failed trade negotiations of the last decade, in which Europe and the US tried to browbeat the rising industrial powers of the Third World into accepting a permanent second-class position? They’re at it again, using carbon emission allotments in place of trade treaties, and the Third World is once again having none of it.

Notice that what’s happening in all these cases is that the system is working the way it’s supposed to work. Elected representatives, after all, are supposed to worry about what their constituents back home will think; the excesses of each party are supposed to be held in check by the well-founded worry that the other party can and will make political hay out of any missteps the party in power might happen to make. For that matter, national governments justify their existence by defending the interests of their citizens in international disputes. In most cases, these checks and balances are not only useful but vitally important; unchecked power in any aspect of human life pretty consistently turns into tyranny. In certain cases, though, these otherwise helpful protections turn into barriers that keep necessary decisions from being made.

The belief that none of this matters, and that somebody or other could fix the problem if they wanted to, runs deep. This is why so much of the rhetoric on both sides of the climate debate focuses so obsessively on finding somebody to blame. Of course there has been reprehensible behavior on both sides. Business executives whose companies will bear a large share of the costs of curbing carbon emissions have funded some very dubious science, and some even more dubious publicity campaigns, in order to duck those costs; academics have either tailored their findings to climb onto the climate change bandwagon, or whored themselves out to corporate interests willing to pay handsomely for anyone in a lab coat who will repeat their party line; politicians on both sides of the aisle have distorted facts grotesquely to further their own careers.

All this has been fodder for endless denunciation. Beneath all the yelling, though, are a set of brutal facts nobody is willing to address. Whether or not the current round of climate instability is entirely the product of anthropogenic CO2 emissions is actually not that important, because it’s even more stupid to dump greenhouse gases into a naturally unstable climate system than it would be to dump them into a stable one. Over the long run, the only level of carbon pollution that is actually sustainable is zero net emissions, and getting there any time soon would require something not far from the dismantling of industrial society and its replacement with something much less affluent. Now of course we would have to do this anyway, since the world’s fossil fuel supplies are depleting fast enough that production limits will begin to bite hard in the years and decades ahead, but this simply sharpens the point at issue.

Even if it turns out to be possible to power something like an industrial society on renewable resources, the huge energy, labor, and materials costs needed to develop renewable energy and replace most of the infrastructure of today’s society with new systems geared to new energy sources will have to be paid out of existing supplies; thus everything else would have to be cut to the bone, or beyond. Exactly how big the price tag would be is anybody’s guess just now, but it’s probably not far from the mark to suggest that the population of the industrial world would have to accept a Third World standard of living, and the population of the Third World would have to give up aspirations for a better life for the foreseeable future, for such a gargantuan project to have any chance of working.

I encourage those who think this latter is a politically viable option to try to convince their spouses and friends to take such steps voluntarily. Any politician rash enough to propose such a project would be well advised to kiss his or her next election goodbye. Any president who even took a step in that direction – well, I doubt many people have forgotten what happened to Jimmy Carter. For that matter, I’m sure there must be climate change zealots who have given up their McMansions, sold their cars, and now live in one-room apartments in rat-infested tenements with six other activists so all their spare money can go to building a renewable economy, but I don’t happen to know any who have done so, while I long ago lost track of the number of global warming bumper stickers I’ve seen on the rear ends of SUVs.

Nobody, but nobody, is willing to deal with the harsh reality of what a carbon-neutral society would have to be like. This is what makes the blame game so popular, and it also provides the impetus behind meaningless gestures of the sort that are on the table at Copenhagen. It’s a common piece of rhetoric these days to say that “failure is not an option,” but this sort of feckless thoughtstopper misses the point as totally as any human utterance possibly could. Failure is always an option; when trying to prevent it will lead to highly unpleasant personal consequences, without actually having the least chance of preventing it, a strong case can be made that the most viable option for anyone in a leadership position is to enjoy the party while it lasts, and hope you can duck the blame when it all comes crashing down.

Those who have their doubts about anthropogenic climate change can apply the identical logic to the industrial world’s sustained nonresponse to the peaking of world oil production, or to any of half a dozen other global crises that result from the collision between an economy geared to infinite growth and the relentless limits of a finite planet. In each case, the immediate costs of doing something about the issue are so high, and so unendurable, that very few people in positions of influence are willing to stick their necks out, and those who do so can count on being shortened by a head by others who are more than willing to cash in on their folly.

There’s another way to understand the paradox that makes failure the only viable option, but it will involve a glance backwards over the history of the sustainability movement and the theoretical structure – systems theory – that once undergirded it. That glance, and its implications, will occupy the second part of this series.

Editorial Notes: Part One of a three-part series.

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