The complete version of my Letter to the Editor of Cascadia Weekly (published July 13, 2011. The letter was given the unfortunate title "Dark Future" by the Weekly. For sure, I see hard times in our future, but there are also many opportunities. As David Holmgren has written, "We have trouble visualizing decline as positive, but this simply reflects the dominance of our prior culture of growth." My primary reason for writing the letter was to point out that, contrary to Michael Klare's position, I don't think 30 years of violent resource wars are inevitable. Our future could be brighter than Klare envisions.
Thank you for publishing Michael Klare’s recent article (“The New Thirty Years’ War: Winners and Losers in the Great Global En...,” 6/29/11). There are many points on which I agree with Mr. Klare, most importantly that we are entering a period in which issues of energy will be front and center as climate chaos is in our face and supplies of fossil fuels are dwindling. This is an important discussion to be having.
As Klare notes, the planet will need a new system for organizing itself around energy needs, but it is extremely unlikely that in 2041, on a hotter and stormier planet, that economic growth and continued growth in energy consumption can continue. Klare is correct to note that alternative energy systems today cannot replace fossil fuels at current rates of consumption. I believe he is also correct that we need to be putting more effort into developing these resources. However, to expect that these resources will be able to meet future “requirements” after another 30 years of implied growth does not compute.
Two years ago I served on the city and county appointed Energy Resource Scarcity / Peak Oil Task Force. The task force agreed that energy scarcity was an urgent concern, and the majority believed that declining energy will be a key driver of human history in the coming years – see the city’s website for a copy of the report.
The good news is that, contrary to Klare’s assertion, there is a possibility of turning back from participation in violent resource wars. David Holmgren (co-originator of Permaculture) has pointed out that spending resources to capture more resources works in an era of rising energy, such as the 20th Century. In the years to come, during the era of energy decline, those that continue to pursue that strategy will fail, and that failure will be obvious very quickly. Warfare is energy intensive, and is a loser’s game when resources are scarce.
Holmgren goes on to state that in ecosystems with limited energy available, we see large amounts of symbiotic and cooperative relationships, networked structures, and a great diversity. When there's less to fight over, nature (including people) can learn pretty quickly that it’s not worth fighting. Strategies that people in the past have seen as idealistic or utopian, are actually just effective survival strategies for any ecosystem experiencing limited energy.
I believe Klare is right to place his bet on local, resilient, and efficient energy systems that are “decentralized, easy to make and install, and require relatively modest levels of upfront investment.” An important addition to this recommendation is to recognize that we will need to curtail our energy consumption to the level at which the ecosystem allows for humankind to remain truly sustainable on this planet.
Systems ecologist Howard Odum warned us of the real danger nearly 40 years ago: “The terrible possibility before us is that there will be the continued insistence on growth with our last energies by the economic advisors that don’t understand, so that there are no reserves with which to make a change.” We can choose instead to embrace the transition and be willing to adapt to what our ecosystem demands of us. In doing so we may come to realize that what is good for the ecosystem is good for us. It is time to let go of economic expansionism and “seek out the condition now that will come anyway.”