In a recent email, Canadian Professor of Ecology Bill Rees succinctly summed up our collective situation: ‘To raise human enterprise ever further from thermodynamic equilibrium, we must degrade and dissipate ever-greater quantities of energy and material resources extracted from the ecosphere. We have passed the point where the ecosphere can provide sustainably all that we are extracting. Resources are depleted, entropy accumulates. Techno-industrial society has become pathologically parasitic on nature.’
The implication is clear. For us and millions of other creatures to survive, we need to redesign techno-industrial society. Economic contraction is bitter medicine, but it’s part of the cure for what ails us
Well, medicine is on the way. It’s becoming increasingly likely that 2008 will go down in history as the year the second Great Depression began. The unravelling started with the sub-prime mortgage fiasco in the US and is spreading fast. Trillions are being lost in defaults and property devaluation, so get ready for more bank runs, a stock market collapse and perhaps a money panic.
Get ready, too, for a rousing round of ‘Blame the Enviros’. The storyline will go something like this: ‘We could have achieved wealth and comfort for all through the spread of advanced technology, but we lost our nerve. Anti-growth environmentalists talked us into putting climate and endangered species before prosperity and look at the misery they’ve caused.’
It’s a lie, of course. This depression wasn’t caused by voluntary cutbacks in fossil fuels or technology, but because of colossal financial malfeasance within an unsustainable economic system. Endless growth isn’t possible in a finite world, collapse is a matter of timing. Peak oil and climate chaos are inevitable products of an economy based on using more of everything.
A depression will ensue; it’s how we manage the contraction that matters.
Foolish management would entail burning the biosphere for alternative fuels, propping up financial institutions without re-examining the wisdom of growth-based economics and responding to privation and misery with repression and war.
Intelligent management would start with an explicit commitment to redesign the global economy to run with less. We would assess ecosphere resources and identify a humane, equitable path toward gradual reduction in population and total consumption levels so that we draw only upon what Nature can continually provide. We would focus on those aspects of life that bring us increasing satisfaction without requiring more inputs of energy and materials. We would reacquaint ourselves with the values and virtues of community, self-sufficiency and modesty. We would redesign our cities to eliminate cars, while developing renewable energy sources and educating a new generation of eco-farmers.
Handled well, the medicine of contraction will leave Nature intact and humanity in a state of greater happiness, equity and peace. If not… Well, let’s not go there.
The depression is just starting, but it’s not too soon to start the discussion about how to navigate it.
Richard Heinberg is a Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, lectures widely on sane responses to fossil fuel depletion, and is the author of The Party’s Over and Peak Everything.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2008