As economies contract, a global popular uprising confronts power elites over access to the essentials of human existence. What are the underlying dynamics of the conflict, and how is it likely to play out?
- The dramatic increase in societal complexity seen during the past two centuries (measured, for example, in a relentless trend toward urbanization and soaring volumes of trade) resulted primarily from increasing rates of energy flow for manufacturing and transport. Fossil fuels provided by far the biggest energy subsidy in human history, and were responsible for industrialization, urbanization, and massive population growth.
- Today, as conventional fossil fuels rapidly deplete, world energy flows appear set to decline. While there are enormous amounts of unconventional fossil fuels yet to be exploited, these will be so costly to extract—in monetary, energy, and environmental terms—that continued growth in available fossil energy supplies is unlikely; meanwhile alternative energy sources remain largely undeveloped and will require extraordinary levels of investment if they are to make up for declines in fossil energy.
- Declining rates of energy flow and declining energy quality will have predictable direct effects: higher energy prices, the need for increased energy efficiency in all sectors of society, and the need for the direction of an ever-greater proportion of increasingly scarce investment capital toward the energy sector.
- Some of the effects of declining energy will be non-linear and unpredictable, and could lead to a general collapse of civilization. Economic contraction will not be as gradual and orderly as economic expansion has been. The indirect and non-linear effects of declining energy may include an uncontrollable and catastrophic unwinding of the global system of credit, finance, and trade, or the dramatic expansion of warfare as a result of heightened competition for energy resources or the protection of trade privileges.
- Large-scale trade requires money, and so economic growth has required an ongoing expansion of currency, credit, and debt. It is possible, however, for credit and debt to expand faster than the energy-fed “real” economy of manufacturing and trade; when this happens, the result is a credit/debt bubble, which must eventually deflate—usually resulting in massive destruction of capital and extreme economic distress. During the past few decades, the industrialized world has inflated the largest credit/debt bubble in human history.
- As resource consumption has burgeoned during the past century, so have environmental impacts. Droughts and floods are increasing in frequency and worsening in intensity, straining food systems while also imposing direct monetary costs (many of which are ultimately borne by the insurance industry). These impacts—primarily arising from global climate change—now threaten to undermine not only economic growth, but also the ecological basis of civilization.
For the sake of any national policy maker who may be reading this essay, here are a few take-home bullet points that summarize most of the advice that can be gleaned from our scenario exercise:
- Guarantee the basics of existence to the general public for as long as possible.
- At the same time, promote local production of essential goods, strengthen local social interconnectivity, and shore up local economies.
- Promote environmental protection and resource conservation, reducing reliance of fossil fuels in every way possible.
- Stabilize population levels.
- Foster sound governance (especially in terms of participation and transparency).
- Provide universal education in practical skills (gardening, cooking, bicycle repair, sewing, etc.) as well as in basic academic subjects (reading, math, science, critical thinking, and history). And finally,
- Don’t be evil—that is, don’t succumb to the temptation to deploy military tactics against your own people as you feel your grip on power slipping; the process of decentralization is inexorable, so plan to facilitate it.
1. Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies, by Joseph A. Tainter
3. Why Climate Change Will Make You Love Big Government – Christian Parenti, Energy Bulletin
4. Could Ecuador be the most radical and exciting place on Earth? – Jayati Ghosh, The Guardian
5. Occupy the Neighborhood: How Counties Can Use Land Banks and Eminent Domain – Ellen Brown, Truthout
Originally published as Richard Heinberg’s Museletter #237
Image credit: Frayed Knot firemind/flickr
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