We are now at a peak moment in history, perhaps at the apex along the arc of progress (as this vulgar term is understood colloquially) of our industrial civilization, from which we will surely experience a perilous decline, what James Howard Kunstler calls The Long Emergency, perhaps even an outright collapse.
In the past 150 years since the Industrial Revolution, we have seen extraordinary advances in the technologies that undergird almost every aspect of our modern way of life. Perhaps the most obvious measures of progress are seen in the fields of transportation and communications – my grandparents saw horse-drawn carriages eclipsed by the automobile and lived to see a live video transmission of Mankind’s first footsteps on the moon – yet other advances, ranging from the way we grow and produce our food to the manufacturing of goods that never seem enough, have just as significantly affected (but not necessarily improved) our standard of living. And all this progress has been enabled by the petrochemical industry. Oil, natural gas and other petroleum products fuel the engines of industry and the raw material inputs into the manufacturing of many goods, particularly plastics, fertilizers and even food. They fuel the engines of our personal vehicles and the global transportation system of trucks, airplanes and ships that transport goods, much of it food, around the world. No longer are we simply dependent upon on the limited resources of our locality; we have an entire global economy that avails us of the world’s resources and it is all quite literally fueled by oil. For now, at least. But that is about to change. This peak is a tipping point.
Accompanying this unprecedented rate of progress has been a senseless disregard for the depletion of non-renewable resources and degradation of our natural environment, which impose natural limits to growth. Our environment gives us the context for our lives and our civilization depends upon its resources but there has been an irrational denial of this reality. The true costs of these resource inputs and the collateral damage have not been factored into our economics; they are considered externalities. Our whole modern economy is based on the ludicrous idea of unrestrained and limitless growth.
Beyond the impending problem of depleted fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources (such as minerals) is the unsustainable extraction of otherwise renewable resources, where the rate of consumption exceeds the rate of renewal, poses a serious risk to our society – not to mention the ecological damage inflicted upon the environment. People in many parts of the world are already suffering from the effects of related environmental damage, including shortages of fresh water and the loss of arable land (impacting food security), wildlife species and habitat, forests, rivers and streams, oceans, marine life and habitat, biodiversity, etc.
Added to these sustainability issues is the matter of what Paul Ehrlich called The Population Bomb, the fact that global population is growing exponentially. The Malthusian consequences hotly debated decades ago have since been largely denied, owing to optimism that fecundity rates can be significantly reduced through efforts to improve conditions in the so-called developing world by alleviating extreme poverty and achieving more equitable social justice. While there was once considerable merit in this argument, especially considering the lower growth rate achieved in many developed nations, it fails to recognize that we have probably already exceeded the carrying capacity of our planet. Time may have run out for the graceful self-regulation of our species and conditions could become very ugly on a shrinking planet.
Worse yet, the population issue is compounded by an exponential rise in consumerism, with an attendant rise in demand for the depletion of ever more resources and the degradation of even more of our environment. A morality play is unfolding as the developing world aspires to achieve the Western lifestyle we have so heavily promoted; yet, tragically, despite our sense of social justice, they shall not be able to attain what we cannot even keep for ourselves.
Finally, adding to an emerging sense of urgency is the issue of climate change, which has recently received considerable press, although the court of public opinion seems to be as-yet undecided. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence for human-caused global warming, there is little appetite to change the status quo in order to preclude the worst of the foreshadowed impacts. Even if climate change cannot be definitively attributed to anthropogenic causes there remains significant risk of the potential impacts, such as the flooding of lowland areas by rising oceans due to melting icecaps and glaciers; droughts and famines arising from monoculture crop failure; species extinctions due to habitat loss; etc. Yet, if carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels really do contribute significantly to global warming then we have an even more compelling reason to urgently shift our ruinous oil-based economy towards something more forgiving.
Adaptation to these deteriorating conditions may not be easily accommodated; the ensuing regional social pressures may erupt into civil unrest, mass migrations and wars over limited resources. Those societies most directly and severely impacted first will, of course, most likely be in the historically disadvantaged South. Globalism will be dead; in the North, the first and most significant impacts will most likely be economic with rapidly increasing security risks arising from the obstinate loss of empire, which may portend a reversal of the social liberal agenda that has unfolded since the time of the Enlightenment as the corporate-state plutocracy clamors to hold onto its wealth and power. As societies collapse, comfort will likely be sought in the false hopes of despots and prophets.
Even if the worst of such apocalyptic scenarios are not to be fully realized, we must recognize that we cannot continue along the same path, denying our interconnectedness with the natural world. Technology will not save us. Renewable energy only takes us so far; there is no viable alternative for many uses of fossil fuel. Our survival – either as a society or a species, choose one – demands that, rather than trying to prop up our present way of life, we must find a more sustainable way to live. We need to find a new standard of living.