Civilization is in trouble

Scary answers to some deep questions have me very, very concerned
Principal author:
John L. Clark


I provide an overview of my thoughts on the problem facing society, why I find it compelling, and how I want to respond to it.

I am driven to understand how things work. How else can I be useful and try to make things better? I have asked many questions to try to reach this understanding; not surprisingly, I have not found all the answers, but what is surprising is some of the specific questions that have gone unanswered. In this essay, I provide an outline of my current thoughts on the answers to these questions as well as their grave consequences. This essay provides a launchpad for my plan to develop the answers further and to educate others about outcomes arising from these answers.

Science and mathematics have provided me (and humanity in general) with many sound and beautiful answers to discrete questions about how many processes work, from the interaction of forces that allow people, cars, and even planets to move about; to the storage and extraction of energy in food by organisms; to a fine understanding of electromagnetic radiation directed into devices such as street lights, microwaves, and computers; to the manipulations of symbols in those same computing systems. But I have also wanted to know how civilization works. Who decides how much a shirt, a car, or a home costs? How is it that these things are so abundant to so many, but not to all? How does the system provide a steady supply of power to my outlets, and food to our supermarkets? For a long time, I didn't even know how to approach these types of questions.

Lacking direction on those questions, I focused on a few narrow domains where I could understand how things worked, but my larger curiousity about the nature of human civilization still churned within my mind. Recently (within the last few years), I have been able to better formulate the question that bothered me and then to come up with the core of an answer, which has led me to a nearly paralyzing realization. A useful technique for reporters and other social investigators is to follow the money, and along those lines I have started to ask, "what is the source of our success?" It's a fun game to try to answer this yourself, and I encourage you to give it a shot.

A friend of mine boldly accepted my challenge, and responded with the lovely answer “grace, courage, perseverance”. In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama gave a similar and stirring answer:

[T]hose values upon which our success depends -- honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.

While all of these traits have helped us to succeed, by themselves they do not feed us, support us, and allow us to be productive. Having only these values on the surface of Mars, one would rapidly be a curious, courageous corpse. Thankfully, we have a beautiful and life-giving home that allows our curiousity and hard work to bear fruit.

Sadly, we—you, I, and all people—have taken and continue to take more than our just share of the deep reservoir of wealth that our planet had to offer. Energy deluges our planet every day from our sun and, like a battery, millions of years of that sunlight was stored in the Earth as fossil fuels. Those fossil fuels power our cars (moving us Americans over 3 trillion miles in 2007), light our cities, heat our homes, and bring us electricity. Also, they are a key ingredient in many of the vast number of things that we use, from clothing to computers to cell phones. Perhaps most importantly, our entire agricultural system is heavily dependent on petroleum and other fossil fuels, not only for processing and transporting crops, but critically for fertilizing the soil that nourishes those crops. We depend on oil for our very food. Our need for fossil fuels continues to grow, but they are finite, and their availability will soon drop off dramatically.

We have extracted oil and other fossil fuels at steadily increasing rates for centuries; this has lead to steady growth in our population and in our ability to affect the world around us. This wealth of energy is the key to our entire economic system. As Professor Albert Bartlett demonstrates so clearly and directly in his presentation, Arithmetic, Population, and Energy, steady growth is the same thing as exponential growth, and exponential growth rapidly consumes the underlying resources and space. I strongly encourage you to listen to what Professor Bartlett has to say in that presentation. Our energy is running out, and our growth cannot continue.

Since our entire civilization is built on top of an assumption of growth by consuming ever increasing amounts of abundant energy, the effects of diminishing returns from those energy sources will be gravely destabilizing. I fear that without an adequate response, these effects will be truly catastrophic. In 1956, geophysicist M. King Hubbert applied a consumption and discovery model to predict that US oil production would peak between 1965 and 1970, and production has been decreasing in the United States since 1970, following very closely the path predicted in his model. Obviously, we have simply (but not cheaply) switched to imports. Hubbert also applied his model to global oil production, and predicted that it would peak around 2000, although he and other scientists later pushed that estimate back to 2010 based on decreased consumption in the 1970s and 1980s. And here I am, writing this after a fourth of 2010 has become history. Our window to act may be very small, indeed. We have been blissfully stealing oil from our planet and our future to sate our own desires, and deceiving ourselves as to the true source of our unprecedented prosperity. This deep, civilizational injustice is our great sin. We worship growth, easy abundance, and the free market. This sin weighs heavily on me, and as I look around, it appears to weigh heavily on the world.

Many leaders and authors have provided a great deal of additional information about this problem, which is commonly known as Peak Energy or Peak Oil (as well as the closely related problem of Global Warming). In the first part of this essay, I needed to simply introduce this problem and motivate you as to its urgency; some people working on this problem, such as Richard Heinberg, have raised an "all hands on deck" call to action. I strongly agree that this problem asks us all to recognize our fault and work to change our course. This is no small request. I feel personally driven to do everything I can to help others learn about and work to reverse this great injustice. But now, knowing what we know, what should we do? What should you do? What should I do?

Clearly, we need to admit that we have a problem, and then work together to bring about a solution. Since we have built beyond our means, this will require sacrifice from everyone. I plan to continue working here to explore ideas and opinions that I have as well as news that seems to be relevant. Some leaders advocate a local, bottom-up approach to trying to turn our civilization around, while others are pushing for change from the government. I think the eventual solution will involve localizing our civilization, but to affect the transition we will need the power that the government brings to bear. The government is the expression of our collective will, which is precisely what is needed to make changes at the necessary scale. I will eagerly discuss possible solutions at all levels, though.

When it comes to the government, one problem is to orient our will in the right direction, or, more plainly, to work to influence the government. There are many systemic problems in our government, which can be seen as symptoms of our addiction to abundant energy. For example, corporate interests are directly tied to their ability to use this abundant energy; this energy gives them great power, and these corporations have a great deal of influence on the government. We need to work on governmental reform, and then work on specific policy changes that explicitly halt, and even reverse, our assumptions of growth and our slavery to fossil fuels.

You want something specific that you can do now? With respect to government reform, I ask you to support the Fair Elections Now Act (FENA). With respect to specific policies, I ask you to support the Cantwell-Collins CLEAR Act, and to make Peak Energy the top priority of your discussions with your congressman or congresswoman. I would be happy to get together with you to have an advocacy party, or to work on any local transition initiatives in the Cleveland area. I am currently investigating ways to organize politically in a meaningful and effective way. On the local front, hopefully I'll be able to get involved with a community garden soon, and it would be good (though very likely insufficient) for all of us to take more local and personally sustainable steps.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, this is all an outline. I plan to expand on these ideas in future essays, and comment on current events to see how they affect our ability to move toward a world in balance. I hope and pray that we can work together on this.

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