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Converging global crises and why we deny them

The evidence has become quite persuasive that humans are bumping into interrelated natural limits to growth that spell big trouble no matter what we do. We appear to be in the grip of multiple interrelated crises that are converging into an overall crisis.

What do I mean by converging crises? The situation we now see ourselves in is one where the problems posed by the natural global limits on growth are so intertwined that, if we try to deal with any one problem individually, it tends to make the other problems worse.

For example, global warming is merging with peak oil as a major threat. This is because it will necessarily take a lot of oil to deal with either global warming, or a growing shortage of cheap oil itself. The growing list of simultaneous crises we face involves peak fossil fuel, peak food production, water shortages, a stalled global economy, species extinction, and a rising global population.

Compare the situation now with 50 years ago, when none of the five crises listed below seemed too hard to deal with. A steadily rising population and its per capita impact are at the heart of our problems. The 1972 book, The Limits to Growth, used models that tried to project trends to roughly quantify global growth limits.

Richard Heinberg's recent book, The End of Growth, is centered on fossil fuel energy limits that mean that our main policy option going forward will be using our current economic output differently, and hopefully more wisely. The various emerging and interacting limits to growth mean that we will need to learn to be happier with less, to abandon consumerism, and to make a major transition toward working together in the current decade.

The list of converging, interacting crises that we face will certainly have to deal with global warming as a central problem. The nature of the problems we face and their interactions have become like a contracting net that surrounds us. The situation is deceptive and conducive to denial because, like a net, it seems to offer a little room to maneuver in any given direction.

What the public sees on TV and reads in the newspaper is largely comprised of descriptions of the symptoms of problems, frequently calling for more spending as the best solution. In this way, whether or not we want to solve our problems is made into a political choice. Dealing honestly and straightforwardly with the deeper causes of a cluster of interacting problems is much more difficult and disturbing.

Global warming or peak oil by itself would require a unified consensus and focused national effort, similar to winning WWII, to deal with adequately. From the standpoint of global warming, based on the climate science, the future looks either bleak, very bleak, or somewhere in between. Adding a list of other serious problems can hardly improve this situation.

It is the system itself that is unsustainable, but the public tends to interpret the problem as being a function of bad leadership. The polls leave no doubt that our polarized and dysfunctional federal government is unpopular; Congress is now ranked as less popular than the United States going Communist.

There is little public agreement on what to do. Many believe that we have lost our way as a nation, and they see things getting worse. A prevailing hope is that some politicians will know how to create jobs (didn't FDR get us out of the Great Depression?). By electing the right politician, the economy might recover, and that could give us enough money to solve our other problems.

Now let us switch over to what science is telling us. The long-term problems we now face are said to be serious enough to threaten global human survival. It has now been a full 20 years since a majority of the world's Nobel Prize winning scientists cosigned the "World Scientists' Warning to Humanity."

More recently, top scientists have become even more urgent in their warnings that the limits of nature are taking us to a tipping point -- a point at which the limits we face will lead to a rapid deterioration of our situation regardless of our policies. Here is an Ecoshock Radio link to the situation, introduced by Prince Charles.

A prestigious group of scientists from around the world is warning that population growth, widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, and climate change may be driving Earth toward an irreversible change in the biosphere, a planet-wide tipping point that would have destructive consequences absent adequate preparation and mitigation. UC Berkeley professor Tony Barnosky explains how an increasing human population, coupled with climate change, could irreversibly alter Earth’s ecosystem.

If you a prefer a scary but still science-based energy limits and global warming scenario, this video clip is worth pondering. There is a chance that we have already reached a global warming tipping point where positive feedback effects like polar methane release take over.

This interview with a long time futurist, Jorgen Randers, suggests that we might possibly have 40 years of something resembling a normal life yet to come. He is still pessimistic about what will happen beyond then, primarily because of global warming.

The two main barriers he sees are the relentlessly expansionist nature of capitalism, and democracy itself, with its preference to favor short-run policies.

James Howard Kunstler is an excellent writer with an uncommon grasp of energy economics, and a good sense for how the end of growth is likely to interact with U.S. culture and politics. His 2005 book, The Long Emergency, described converging natural limits centered on peaking oil. His new book, Too Much Magic, is an update written to debunk the seductive dream that some kind of new technology will save us, and allow economic growth to continue as it always has in the past.

Kunstler describes the delusional thinking surrounding the slow unraveling of American life, since our energy problems argue that we face a long and unwelcome future of economic contraction.

Al Gore was warning the nation of global warming in his 2000 election, but he was defeated by a president stubbornly in denial of natural limits to continuing growth. Since then, as a nation, we have led the world in global warming denial. A well-established and well-funded right wing media effort has been organized to deny that there are any limits to growth, and to oppose environmentalist concerns that are deemed to be harmful to profits.

Let us look briefly at five converging and interacting factors that I see as the most threatening. Each has its own timing and economics and dynamics.

  1. Scientific denial as a well-funded, primarily Republican political war serves mainly to prevent public opinion from being mobilized into policy change to rationally deal with the other crises. Policy change to deal with global warming was seen as a big threat to many existing oil-addictive industries. The current investments have been highly profitable, at least for a few.

    Global warming denial propaganda has worked well for the past decade, but especially in the last year things have been changing. Climate change is causing heat waves, forest fires, and droughts to an alarming degree, developments that have strongly shifted public opinion toward acceptance. However the denial efforts continue at a high level and have been broadened to include peak oil.

  2. Global population growth is slow at about 1.1% globally, but it tends to drive all the other crisis factors by steadily increasing food requirements. We are almost certainly at peak per capita food already. Food shortages play out as food cost increases. These are a powerful cause of riots and political turmoil and instability in the countries that cannot afford to buy food.
  3. Global warming and climate change are part of a slowly developing crisis that has taken many decades to develop. It comes with a built in latency factor that is expected to about double the apparent effects, but these effects have now gotten to the point of causing catastrophic droughts, floods, and food failures.
  4. Peak oil is another slowly developing crisis, which will probably end soon with a rude awakening. The cheap conventional oil already peaked in 2005.The addition of much more expensive non-conventional oil has kept the world on a plateau, but the price is still high enough to trigger a global economic crisis and prevent recovery. The "cornucopian" denial-of-any-limits lobby has discovered peak oil and is busily denying it.
  5. An impossible debt burden is a predictable consequence of an expansionist economic system, unable to expand any further in a finite world. If finance capital is unregulated it will try to extend more credit than can possibly be repaid. Capitalism has always been prone to periodic credit crises -- termed the capitalist business cycle -- which, in an era of expansion, can be relieved by using Keynesian stimulus.

    Since continuing growth is impossible without cheap oil, the global economy is headed toward the mother of all global economic crises. Even the best political and economic policy can only delay the crash.


Next time we'll take a closer look at this short list of converging crises.

[Roger Baker is a long time transportation-oriented environmental activist, an amateur energy-oriented economist, an amateur scientist and science writer, and a founding member of and an advisor to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil-USA. He is active in the Green Party and the ACLU, and is a director of the Save Our Springs Association and the Save Barton Creek Association in Austin. Mostly he enjoys being an irreverent policy wonk and writing irreverent wonkish articles for The Rag Blog. Read more articles by Roger Baker on The Rag Blog.]

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