Over the last month I have received over a dozen e-mails from readers who have noticed an up tick in the number of articles and editorials appearing in the main stream media about the possibility of a truly apocalyptic end to global civilization. The sentiment of the e-mails is something like: if the MSM is running these stories/editorials is it possible that it is because even they are starting to see that things really are getting dangerous? I too have noticed what seems to be more articles that at least address the possibility that our consumptive growing society might have sown the seeds of its own destruction. Even the rah-rah Tom Friedman has warned that there may be trouble afoot in the climate arena (but of course he holds onto his techno-cornucopian vision that “E-Tech” will save us if only we get cracking on investment in research.
Even the recent spate of oil and natural gas cornucopian views that flooded the papers and air waves a few months ago are starting to give way to articles and talking heads questioning that perspective. They are even asking some of the right questions, like, if there is this flood of oil from shale coming on the market, why does the price of oil remain stubbornly above $90 per barrel and fluctuates up from there? I have even seen a few articles pointing out that shale gas and tight oil wells have a very early and steep decline rate compared with other wells suggesting that the total volume of fuels being extracted will not come near the estimates made earlier. This is indeed a remarkable sign. Not because it gives us hope that maybe the public will wake up if the media start putting these stories out there, but because, as one reader put it, “...maybe it is because its gotten so bad that they can no longer ignore it.” Another reader, voicing a similar sentiment, went on to ask,“When they get it doesn't it mean that it is already too late?”
Almost all of the readers asked the same question. “Does this mean the end is near?” If the MSM gets it sufficiently to start putting out the stories, doesn't that mean its so bad that there really is nothing we can do?
My reply is simple. Yes, but... The “end” should not be thought of as an abrupt event, like falling of the “fiscal cliff” was portrayed. The end just means we've passed the peak (of oil, income growth, you name it) and we're starting down the decline slope. No one really knows how steep that slope is. Indeed we can't rule out coming to a real cliff if climate change forces us into a new attractor basin (like in catastrophe theory). But from my perspective we have long ago passed the peak of progress and development and the end has already started. It is just that it is now really getting noticeable (e.g. Hurricane Sandy's effects opened a lot of eyes). Hardly anybody noticed the beginning of the end of technological, high powered civilization. I didn't.
During the decade when I think the overall peak occurred I was getting enamored with microcomputers and real-time control as well as deepening my understanding of systems science and evolution theory. I was captivated by the progress of science and our understanding of how things worked. So it didn't occur to me that there were signs I was missing. As a younger man, as an undergraduate in biology, I had paid attention to Rachel Carson and Paul Erhlich as well as some other “doomsday” writers. And I could see the logic of exponential growth coming to an end with consequences. That is why, later, when I got a chance to work in the solar energy field I jumped in with both feet guilty of believing that it would be a techno-fix for the energy problem. I got distracted, however, by the exciting times with the birth of microcomputers and later the availability of personal computers. It was truly a candy store for me. The earlier sense of potential disaster waned. Careers and family supplanted my fears. Besides, Ronald Reagan said it was morning in America! Those were heady days. But that is exactly the kind of phenomenon you will see at the peak. By definition the peak is the top!
And then the signs did start to become clear. Population numbers were still climbing exponentially and the shock of realizing how we had gone from a couple of billion people to four billion in such a short time started me thinking again. I started paying attention again in the mid 90's and started connecting a lot of dots. Since that time I have paid not so much attention to events as to trends and rates of change, the dynamics of the world. How fast is water becoming a problem? How fast are soils degrading? How fast are we putting CO2 into the atmosphere? How fast are we depleting our fossil fuels? And, of course, what are the consequences of adding (subtracting) that next increment of degradation? Then there was the economy. It was not behaving as economists said it should. Globalization was turning on Americans viciously. Bubbles were forming and bursting at increasing rates. When 2009 rolled around I couldn't say I had predicted the Great Recession, because I really didn't know much about sub prime mortgages and other weirdo financial instruments that had fooled us all with smoke and mirrors, but it didn't take long to recognize the basic underlying forces that actually burst our giant financial bubble. I had studied peak oil and energy return on investment. I already had a pretty clear idea that energy was the real currency of the economy and that money was just a surrogate token representing real work - or should have been. Understanding the financial implosion as the result of declining EROI and the peak of conventional oil production was quite easy. Yet almost no economists and certainly no politicians (or most citizens for that matter) can even imagine what that means. They are still trying to explain the phenomena using already discredited economic models.
And then I looked back in time to see if I could detect the onset of the precedent conditions. And it was clear that from the late 1970s on, we were starting down the slope of civilization decline. We are now at the stage where we are noticing the acceleration.
I'm not really making a prediction here, but it seems to me likely that 2013 will turn out to be the year more people notice it and important people start to admit we have a problem. Obama has already indicated, in his second inaugural address, that he wants to tackle climate change. Well great. Nice to have the company in recognizing the problem. But once he starts getting a real education in the dynamics of the situation he will inevitably realize that it is too late to stop climate change and it is even too late to do anything meaningful in the way of a national response to adaptation. Horse out of the barn already, Mr. President. But nice sentiments. Now, may I suggest you take a really hard look at energy too? At some point he will finally realize that all of the standard thoughts about having our kind of civilization are for naught. Can't be done.
The future belongs to small, adaptive communities that can either adopt a settled permaculture, or take to nomadic lifestyles, possibly going back to hunter-gather regimes. In any event the key idea is adaptability. Resilience and learning from experience. Ultimately the wise will inherent the earth.