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Two Scenarios for Our Post-Petroleum Future

By Peter Goodchild

04 March, 2012

Even those who admit the existence of a problem with petroleum decline are a small minority of the human race, but working within that framework we can nevertheless say that there is quite a spectrum of opinion. In the general absence of established liturgies, creeds, or canons, no absolute definitions are possible, but there seem to be two intellectual poles.

(1) "Moderate" or "transitional": The world will go through somewhat of a struggle as oil is declining, but eventually oil will be replaced by solar power and other forms of energy. Human life will then go on smoothly, although we may have to be somewhat more frugal.

(2) "Extreme" or "apocalyptic": When resources such as fossil fuels and metals go into serious decline, there will be widespread famine. Large-scale political and economic systems will vanish. There will be no substitutes for those previous natural resources, and civilization will disappear.

At the risk of unfair pigeon-holing, and certainly with no wish to create a "star system," it might be said that, among the more visible creators of scenarios, Heinberg, Kunstler, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, and New Society Publishers (among other publishers) can be lumped into that first group. Hanson, Duncan, Catton, and Youngquist would probably all belong in the second. Gever, Meadows, Kaplan, Klare, Brown, and Simmons are somewhat harder to place. There are also those who write on the issue of overpopulation -- e.g., Hardin and Ehrlich -- without necessarily bringing in the question of fossil-fuel decline.

Between those two poles there are of course many possible variations, and many subordinate questions. Will there be a rise in the crime rate, or will the need for cooperation prevail? Is overpopulation a serious (or the most serious) problem, or is it a matter of a more-equitable distribution of resources? If we assume that alternative forms of energy are possible on a technological level, is there enough time to implement these on a global scale before humanity succumbs to the loss of fossil fuels? To what extent will politicians wake up and begin to play a leading role? Do artificial "debt crises" (kleptocracy) cause more damage than resource decline? How long can we go on dabbling with nuclear war in order to control the oil supplies? And so on.

But these variations and subordinate questions are secondary matters. What is first needed is to recognize that there are at least two distinct "schools" of futurology, and that they are, to a great extent, mutually incompatible. From "electric cars and wind turbines" to "beans, bullets, and band-aids" is an enormous gap, the distance from one planet to another. The first scenario means we can wait for technicians and politicians to solve any problems. Partly because politicians do not like to deal with unpleasant topics, however, the second may require more in-depth planning on a personal level, beginning with food and shelter.

Even then, we cannot simplify matters by saying that one vision is utopian and the other is dystopian. Probably most people would regard a return to the Paleolithic as undesirable, but members of our genus lived in that pre-civilized world 400 times longer than in civilization. Diamond, Lee, Ferguson, and Gowdy generally claim we were happier in those early days: warfare, inequality, disease, and resource depletion are far more typical of the post-Paleolithic world.


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Diamond, J. (1987, May). The worst mistake in the history of the human race. http://www.environment.ens.fr/perso/claessen/

Duncan, R. C. (2005-06, Winter). The Olduvai theory: Energy, population, and industrial civilization. The Social Contract. http://www.thesocialcontract.com/pdf/sixteen-two/xvi-2-93.pdf

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Ferguson, R. B. (2003, July/August). The birth of war. Natural History. http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~socant/Birth%20of%War.pdf

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Hardin, Garrett. (1995). Living within limits: Ecology, economics, and population taboos. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heinberg, R. (2011). The end of growth: Adapting to our new economic reality. Gabriola Island, B.C. New Society Publishers.

Kaplan, R. D. (2001). The ends of the Earth: From Togo to Turkmenistan, from Iran to Cambodia A journey to the frontiers of anarchy. Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith Publisher.

Klare, M. T. (2002). Resource wars: The new landscape of global conflict. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Kunstler, J. H. (2003). The long emergency: Surviving the end of oil, climate change, and other converging catastrophes of the twenty-first century. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Lee, R. B. (1968). What hunters do for a living, or, How to make out on scarce resources. In R. B. Lee and I. DeVore, eds., Man the Hunter. Chicago: Aldine Publishing. http://artsci.wustl.edu/~anthro/articles/lee_1968_1.pdf

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Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians , published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is prjgoodchild{at} gmail.com



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