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Could peak oil save the human species?

Nobody likes to hear a bleak diagnosis. But without a proper diagnosis, if you have a serious illness, your chances of survival become vanishingly small.

Enter Guy McPherson, conservation biologist, climate scientist and blogger, who despite his gloomy outlook about the prospects for industrial civilization--he thinks it could disappear within his lifetime--regards himself as an optimist. Why? Because back in 2002 after he finished editing a book on global climate change, he concluded that "we had set events in motion that would cause our own extinction, probably by 2030."

But, then he discovered the concept of peak oil and realized that "its consequences might bring the industrial economy to an overdue close, just in time." That development would make it possible for humans to persist on the planet for a considerably longer time by saving the life support systems of the Earth essential to both humans and the other species which humans rely on. Peak oil became a cause for optimism rather than pessimism.

I asked McPherson, who gave a talk this weekend near where I live, what would change his mind about the trajectory of industrial civilization. He answered that the discovery of a miraculous, cheap, easily scalable new energy source would probably allow our current arrangements to persist for a while longer. But such a development would be a death sentence for the human race since it would lead to the total destruction of the life support systems we rely on, systems which are only seriously crippled now. It would result in further population overshoot, resource depletion including that of soil and water, and further destruction of species we rely on for our well-being.

He likened what we are doing now to constructing an extra floor on the top of a 30-story brick structure using bricks pulled from the lower floors. We are engaging in the "world's largest game of Jenga" with the building blocks of our existence.

He says the emerging collapse of our modern living arrangements is not a recent phenomenon, but actually an ongoing process. He traces it back to the oil crises of the 1970s which were the beginning of the end. The key metric in his view is a peak in per capita oil consumption in 1979. McPherson says he would not be surprised if the endgame for industrial civilization plays out very quickly given the long period of stress both human society and the biosphere have been under for the last generation.

As a response he suggests focusing on four things: water, food, maintaining proper body temperature, and community. Water and food are obvious needs, but many of us don't think about whether the climate we live in will allow us to maintain proper body temperature. We have central heating and air conditioning to help us with that. But when such amenities are not available, the climate where we live will become crucial to our well-being and comfort.

By community he means building ties of mutual support with one's neighbors. "There ain't no lone rangers in collapse," McPherson explained. "If you look for ways to serve your community, you've got a good life ahead." His model is Monticello (minus the slaves) where "agriculture was the center of commerce and therefore the center of life."

As part of his own preparations he lives on land at moderate elevation with deep soils and easily accessible water. He grows food and raises goats for milk. The area is already populated by what he calls "life-loving economic doomers" who do not need to be convinced that industrial civilization is coming to an end. Mutual assistance is a way of life. Practical concerns trump philosophical and religious differences.

To do all this McPherson left his position as a tenured professor. He says at the beginning he knew practically nothing about how to provide the necessities for himself. "I could barely distinguish between a zucchini and a screwdriver," he explained. Now, he's milking goats, making cheese, growing vegetables and performing myriad our tasks necessary to a more localized existence, one that does not rely so heavily on the far-flung logistical networks of the globalized economy.

He doesn't call what he's doing "sustainable," a term which, he said, has even been co-opted by Wal-Mart. Instead, he refers to it as "durable," meaning he is trying to build a way of life that will outlive industrial civilization. He said his cosseted existence as an academic did little to prepare him for what he is doing now. But precisely because of this he is convinced that "if I can do this, anyone can do this."

And, in the manner of a principled prophet on a lonely mission, he soldiers on each day trying to help others build a durable way of life before it's too late.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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