November 2006: Thinking the Apocalyptic Unthinkable

Oil-dependent civilization will end before century does
November 1, 2006

Whether the human species will survive this century is now—or should be—the main concern of everyone. It’s no longer a far-fetched Chicken Little “the-sky-is-falling” bugaboo. Enough evidence has been found to show us beyond doubt that the next several decades will be the most perilous to confront humanity since the dawn of recorded history.

So many global threats loom ahead that the chance we can avoid their combined devastation is minimal. They are rapidly converging. Destructive climate change—mostly man-made—is accelerating. The oil and natural gas that support our way of life are dwindling. The proliferation of hair-trigger nuclear weapons could unleash a fiery global holocaust. The spread of AIDS could be just the first of a series of deadly pandemics. A severe water shortage is developing that threatens the lives of billions.

If we are smart enough, diligent enough, cooperative enough, and lucky enough, we may escape most of these catastrophes. We could avert the worse consequences of global warming, get serious about disarmament, develop vaccines against our microbic enemies, and even learn to decontaminate and share our water.

The one threat we absolutely can’t avoid, however, is the exhaustion of a gift of Nature that our modern “civilization” was founded and is wholly dependent upon: fossil fuels. They comprise a non-renewable resource, built up over many millennia, that we have been squandering for the past century. It will start to run out soon and may be entirely depleted before mid-century. And, long before the last drop goes into the last tank, the ever-worsening shortage will cause social, economic, and political upheaval on a colossal scale everywhere. Civilization as we know it will collapse.

This apocalypic forecast will be rejected by most people. As the famous psychologist Carl Jung once observed, “people cannot stand too much reality.” And that’s especially the case when the reality they face challenges most of their assumptions about the world they live in.

It’s comforting to look for and cling to tempting escape hatches. Surely the oil and gas will be replaced by alternative forms of energy: solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, hydrogen, methane. And nuclear—especially nuclear. The problem with relying on any of these alternatives, however, is that none of them—or even all together—will never provide the cheap, effective, and widely accessible power now derived from fossil fuels.

To fully explain the limitations of all the renewables would take a book-length exposition. That’s what James Howard Kunstler has done in his stark and scary book The Long Emergency, which you’ll find reviewed on Page 17. One by one, in Chapter 4, he analyzes all the alternative fuels and explains why they won’t rescue us. Natural gas supplies, like oil, are also running out. Hydrogen-powered cars and industries are a pipe-dream. A return to coal may keep some of the economy going, but at intolerable costs to the environment. Hydroelectric capacity could be increased somewhat, and so could nuclear power, but they both depend on plants and machinery that could only be manufactured en masse in a fossil-fuel-reliant economy. (And nuclear power has a deadly and still unsolved radioactive waste storage problem.)

Solar and wind energy are attractive alternatives, but they require solar panels, wind turbines, and other equipment that could only be made in large quantities by oil-and-gas-driven factories. As Kunstler points out, “the batteries, the panels, the electronics, the wires, and the plastics all require mining operations and factories using fossil fuels.” And the components would have to be transported to the sites of the solar and wind-farms by trucks, planes, or ships that now are also fuelled by oil. “Could these systems exist,” Kunstler asks, “without the platform of an oil economy to produce them?”

If our governments and corporations decided to face the future energy crisis instead of ignoring it, we’d have some hope of making a less chaotic transition. If, say, 25% of our present use of fossil fuels were devoted to making the hardware and component parts that renewable energy sources will need (instead of the current 2%), some of the social and economic convulsion could be abated. There’s no sign, however, of such a sudden outbreak of political or corporate intelligence, so we have to lower our expectations.

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What lies ahead is nothing short of cataclysmic. We live in a world created and based on cheap energy. Fossil fuels power fast air, sea, and land transportation. They fuel the massive increase in agricultural output that in turn has permitted the explosive five-fold growth of human population in little more than a century. All the manufacturing and technological marvels of the past 100 years—from telephones to high-definition TV, from prop-planes to jet airliners, from ball-point pens to plastics—all have their origin or creation in cheap fossil fuels.

The days of this “advanced” civilization are numbered—and so is the affluent lifestyle it has sustained. Most of the gadgets and services to which we’ve become accustomed will be lost long before the oil is gone. No more comfortable suburban homes dependent on fossil fuels for heating and car-commuting. No more big-box stores and malls because the “free trade” that generates cheap-labour-made goods from China will have stopped.

Our species doesn’t exactly have an admirable record of dealing with scarcities. Instead of sharing declining resources equitably, we invariably fight over them. With drinkable water, arable land, and even food becoming increasingly less available along with the oil, what are the prospects of avoiding horrendous conflicts over diminishing supplies? Not that bright.

Kunstler and some other analysts foresee a future by mid-century in which 80% or more of the planet’s present population will have perished, victims of famine, disease, wars, and ecological ruin. The survivors will be those who have set up sustainable communities with the capacity to grow sufficient food for their inhabitants. But they will have few of the amenities now so common in the early years of the century. In effect, they will have regressed to a way of life not much different from the pre-industrial-revolution era. (A nuclear holocaust, of course, would probably make the whole planet uninhabitable, but that’s a worst-case scenario that puts an end to all speculation about humanity’s future.)

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This is not to purvey a doom-and-gloom outlook. Facing reality, however, also means assessing the danger of ignoring it. One of the problems of all those now raising the alarm—even reputable ecologists, energy experts, and other scientists—is the reluctance of most of their readers and listeners to make that mental leap from the prosperous and productive present to the stark, bleak, shortage-ridden future that lies only a few decades ahead. It’s a difficult intellectual exercise, and one that most people will resist as long as they can cling to any excuse for denying or delaying the need for it.

For those of us in civil society groups, the challenge is even more formidable. If we recognize the gravity of the imminent end-of-oil crisis (and most of us do), what’s our reaction? Most of us are involved in some way in what we call “the struggle for a better world.” That struggle has many aspects. It includes efforts to reduce poverty, help the hungry and homeless, work for a more equitable society, clean up the environment, pursue peace and disarmament, oppose corporate globalization, and strive for real political democracy. All very worthwhile projects. But if we really foresee a breakdown of the whole socioeconomic system that spawns all of these inequities, do we continue to try to ameliorate each of them for the time left before the entire system begins to fall apart? Or do we turn our collective efforts toward trying to avert societal and economic collapse, or, failing that, to preparing a survival strategy?

The two approaches, of course, may not be mutually exclusive. But ongoing efforts to help the poor and needy should surely be made in the broader context of the end of oil and other converging global catastrophes.

The religious fundamentalist “end-timers” have pretty much abandoned any effort to deal with current social, economic, or environmental concerns that are not related to what they believe is the imminent Second Coming apocalypse. Why worry about the depletion of oil, about global warming, about poverty or disease or anything else when the world as we know it is to come to an end soon, anyway? We may dismiss these people as fanatical idiots, but their numbers are now in the millions in the United States, and even in the hundreds of thousands in Canada. With their growing political influence (read Marci MacDonald’s exposé in the October Walrus), they constitute one of the biggest barriers to effective crisis-averting political action.

We on the left have to resist a similar tendency to slack off the pursuit of immediate reforms that, even if achieved, wouldn’t last very long. Why, for example, keep opposing globalization, free trade, and other manifestations of corporate power if the end of oil is going to bring the whole unfair system crashing down in a couple of decades anyway? Well, if for nothing else, because it’s this same excessive corporate power that is forestalling the political action required to cope with a post-fossil-fuel future.

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A pertinent question that some may wish to ask in this twilight of our oil-driven civilization is whether the human race deserves to survive. Considering our irresponsible mistreatment of the planet and its resources, not to speak of the callous abuse of billions of our fellow humans, what do we have to offer in our defence? What human accomplishment or virtue can we cite that comes close to offsetting all our crimes and failings as a species? Do we deserve to become extinct (to make ourselves extinct) as yet another of Nature’s biological failures? She made the mistake of endowing us with what we in our hubris call intelligence, and we’ve misused it to vandalize the planet and brutalize most of the creatures on it, including most members of our own species.

Mark Twain, before he died, became bitterly cynical about humanity. Farley Mowat, a famous contemporary Canadian author, has become almost as despairing as Twain about humankind’s future, or even our right to have a future. Based on their keen observations of human history and behaviour, their harsh appraisals of their species are hard to rebut.

The best I can do is to repeat something I wrote to Farley a few years ago. I told him that any species capable of producing someone of his intellectual stature and compassionate nature should not be universally condemned and relegated to the evolutionary scrapheap. The same could be said about Mark Twain and hundreds of other writers and authors, about the many thousands of good and caring social activists (and even a few politicians) who have striven tirelessly over the centuries--no matter how unsuccessfully--to lessen human barbarism and make our society truly civilized.

Whether the valiant efforts of the “do-gooders” are enough to redeem all the terrible violence and villainies perpetrated by the majority of our species is a dubious premise. However, even if the scales are still badly overbalanced by the appalling mountains of human evil, perhaps the existence of a Mahatma Gandhi or a Florence Nightingale or a Leonardo da Vinci or an Elizabeth Fry or a Tommy Douglas might be enough to earn us a stay of execution.

On condition, of course, that we spend the next 20 years or so--starting now--trying to save ourselves.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor.)