The advent of fossil fuels changed the world profoundly (giving us everything from plastics and automobiles to global warming); the inevitable and rapidly approaching end of the oil-coal-and-gas era will likewise bring overwhelming transformation in its wake. My new book Afterburn explores that transformation—its opportunities and challenges—in sixteen essays that address subjects as varied as energy politics, consumerism, localism, the importance of libraries, and oil price volatility.
Afterburn is a book of “greatest hits”—that is, popular essays that have been previously published—similar in that respect to an earlier book of mine, Peak Everything (2007). Like that previous collection, this one has been carefully selected and arranged, and features an all-new Introduction.
Here are just a few of the highlights:
“Ten Years After” reviews the debate about “peak oil” from the perspective of over a decade’s work in tracking petroleum forecasts, prices, and production numbers. As we’ll see, forecasts from oil supply pessimists have generally turned out to be accurate, far more so than those of official energy agencies or petroleum industry spokespeople.
Environmentalists tend to agree that consumerism is a deal-breaking barrier to the creation of a sustainable society. It’s helpful, therefore, to know exactly what consumerism is (not merely a greedy personal attitude but a system of economic organization) and how it originated (not as a natural outgrowth of “progress,” but as the deliberate creation of advertising and marketing firms). “The Brief, Tragic Reign of Consumerism” tells this story, and explores how we might go about building an alternative sufficiency economy.
Some long-time environmentalists have been anticipating global social and ecological catastrophe for many years, yet it has so far failed to manifest in all its devastating glory; what we see instead are periodic localized economic and environmental disasters from which at least partial recovery has so far been possible. “Fingers in the Dike” explains why industrial society has been able to ward off collapse for as long as it has, and suggests ways to best make use of borrowed time.
In 2011 a student organization at Worcester Polytechnic Institute invited me to give an alternative commencement address to the graduating class (the official commencement speaker was Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil). “Your Post-Petroleum Future” is the text of that address.
Environmental philosophers are currently debating the significance of our new geological epoch—which has been dubbed the Anthropocene, in acknowledgment of humanity’s dramatically expanding impact upon Earth’s natural systems. Some commentators take extreme positions, arguing the new epoch will usher in either human godhood or human extinction. “The Anthropocene: It’s Not All About Us” suggests instead that we are about to bump against the limits of human agency and thereby regain a sense of humility in the face of natural forces beyond our control.
“Conflict in the Era of Economic Decline” discusses the kinds of social conflict we are likely to see in the decades ahead as economies contract and weather extremes worsen—including conflict between rich and poor, conflict over dwindling resources, and conflict over access to places of refuge from natural disasters. This chapter also proposes a “post-carbon theory of change” that encourages building resilience into societal systems in order to minimize trauma from foreseeable economic and environmental stresses.
“Our Cooperative Darwinian Moment” points out that, while we inevitably face a critical bottleneck of overpopulation, resource depletion, and climate change, it’s up to us how we go through the bottleneck—whether in ruthless competition for the last scraps of food and natural resources, or in a burst of social innovation that brings more cooperation and sharing. Biology and history suggest the latter path is viable; it is certainly preferable. However, our chances of taking it successfully will improve to the degree that we devote much more effort now at developing cooperative institutions and attitudes.
Advocates for social change today face a nearly unprecedented opportunity, as I argue in “Want to Change the World? Read This First.” However, in order to make the most of it, they will need to understand historic and current revolutionary transformations in the relationship between society and ecosystem. As society’s energy systems inevitably change, this will bring the necessity for a reinvention of our economy, our political systems, and the explicit and implicit ideologies with which we explain and justify our world. With so much at stake, there has—quite literally—never been a more crucial moment to be aware and active in helping shape the process of societal change.
Welcome to life beyond fossil fuels.
Afterburn: Society Beyond Fossil Fuels is published by New Society. Paperback 224 pages. ISBN: 9780865717886.