Time To Terminate Western Civilization Before It Terminates Us
By Guy R. McPherson
18 August, 2010
Actually, this review is too late for the many people who have already endured economic collapse. As any of those folks can tell the rest of us, we do not want to receive the lesson after the exam.
I’ve written all this before, but I have not recently provided a concise summary. This essay provides a brief overview of the dire nature of our predicaments with respect to fossil fuels. The primary consequences of our fossil-fuel addiction stem from two primary phenomena: peak oil and global climate change. The former spells the end of western civilization, which might come in time to prevent the extinction of our species at the hand of the latter.
Global climate change threatens our species with extinction by mid-century is we do not terminate the industrial economy soon. Increasingly dire forecasts from extremely conservative sources keep stacking up. Governments refuse to act because they know growth of the industrial economy depends (almost solely) on consumption of fossil fuels. Global climate change and energy decline are similar in this respect: neither is characterized by a politically viable solution.
There simply is no comprehensive substitute for crude oil. It is the overwhelming fuel of choice for transportation, and there is no way out of the crude trap at this late juncture in the industrial era. We passed the world oil peak in 2005, which led to near-collapse of the world’s industrial economy several times between September 2008 and May 2010. And we’re certainly not out of the economic woods yet.
Crude oil is the master material on which all other depend. Without abundant supplies of inexpensive crude oil, we cannot produce uranium (which peaked in 1980), coal (which peaks within a decade or so), solar panels, wind turbines, wave power, ethanol, biodiesel, or hydroelectric power. Without abundant supplies of inexpensive crude oil, we cannot maintain the electric grid. Without abundant supplies of inexpensive crude oil, we cannot maintain the industrial economy for an extended period of time. Simply put, abundance supplies of inexpensive crude oil is fundamental to growth of the industrial economy and therefore to western civilization. Civilizations grow or die. Western civilization is done growing.
Not only is there no comprehensive substitute for crude oil, but partial substitutes simply do not scale. Solar panels on every roof? It’s too late for that. Electric cars in every garage? Its too late for that. We simply do not have the cheap energy requisite to propping up an empire in precipitous decline. Energy efficiency and conservation will not save us, either, as demonstrated by the updated version of Jevons’ paradox, the Khazzoom-Brookes postulate.
Unchecked, western civilization drives us to one of two outcomes, and perhaps both: (1) Destruction of the living planet on which we depend for our survival, and/or (2) Runaway greenhouse and therefore the near-term extinction of our species. Why would we want to sustain such a system? It is immoral and omnicidal. The industrial economy enslaves us, drives us insane, and kills us in myriad ways. We need a living planet. Everything else is less important than the living planet on which we depend for our very lives. We act as if non-industrial cultures do not matter. We act as if non-human species do not matter. But they do matter, on many levels, including the level of human survival on Earth. And, of course, there’s the matter of ecological overshoot, which is where we’re spending all our time since at least 1980. Every day in overshoot brings us 205,000 people to deal with later. In this case, “deal with” means murder.
Shall we reduce Earth to a lifeless pile of rubble within a generation? Or shall we heat the planet beyond human habitability within two generations? Or shall we keep procreating as if there are no consequences for an already crowded planet? Pick your poison, but recognize it’s poison. We’re dead either way.
Don’t slit those wrists just yet. This essay bears good news.
Western civilization has been in decline at least since 1979, when world per-capita oil supply peaked coincident with the Carter Doctrine regarding oil in the Middle East. In my mind, and perhaps only there, these two events marked the apex of American Empire, which began about the time Thomas Jefferson — arguably the most enlightened of the Founding Fathers — said, with respect to native Americans: “In war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them.” It wasn’t long after 1979 that the U.S. manufacturing base was shipped overseas and we began serious engagement with Wall Street-based casino culture as the basis for our industrial economy. By most economic measure, we’ve experienced a lost decade, so it’s too late for a fast crash of the industrial economy. We’re in the midst of the same slow train wreck we’ve been experiencing for more than a decade, but the train is teetering on the edge of a cliff. Meanwhile, all we want to discuss, at every level in this country, is the quality of service in the dining car.
When the price of crude oil exhibits a price spike, an economic recession soon follows. Every recession since 1972 has been preceded by a spike in the price of oil, and direr spikes translate to deeper recessions. Economic dominoes began to fall at a rapid and accelerating rate when the price of crude spiked to $147.27/bbl in July 2008. They haven’t stopped falling, notwithstanding economic cheerleaders from government and corporations (as if the two are different at this point in American fascism). The reliance of our economy on derivatives trading cannot last much longer, considering the value of the derivatives — like the U.S. debt — greatly exceeds the value of all the currency in the world combined with all the gold mined in the history of the world.
Although it’s all coming down, as it has been for quite a while, it’s relatively clear imperial decline is accelerating. We’re obviously headed for full-scale collapse of the industrial economy, as indicated by these 40 statistics. Even Fortune and CNN agree economic collapse will be complete soon, though they don’t express any understanding of how we arrived at this point or the hopelessness of extracting ourselves from the morass.
We know what economic collapse looks like, because we’re in the midst of it. What does completion of the collapse look? I strongly suspect the economic endgame is capitulation of the stock markets. Shortly after we hit Dow 4,000, within a few days or maybe a couple weeks, the industrial economy seizes up as the lubricant is overcome with sand in the crankcase. Why would anybody work when the company for which they work is, literally, worthless? Even if they show up for a few days to punch the time-clock, the bank will not issue a check, and the banks won’t be open to cash it. It won’t be long before publicly traded utility companies don’t have enough employees to keep the lights on. It won’t be long before gas (nee service) stations shutter the doors. It won’t be long before the grocery stores are empty. It won’t be long before the water stops flowing through the municipal taps.
There are those who question my credibility, particularly when I make predictions. We’re in the midst of a war to save our humanity and the living planet, and some readers are worried about my credibility, as determined by the power of the main stream. My responses are two-fold: (1) I’m hardly sticking my neck out, unlike when I made my “new Dark Age” prediction in 2007 (at which point the price of oil had yet to exceed $80/bbl, the industrial economy appeared headed for perennial nirvana, and everybody who read or heard me thought I was insane); of the fifty or so energy-literate scholars I read, about half indicate the new Dark Age starts within a year, and a large majority of the other half give us less than two years; (2) Get over it. This war has two sides, finally. This revolution needs to be powerful and fun, and we cannot afford to lose. We cannot even afford to worry about seeking credibility from those who would have us are having us murder every remaining aspect of the living planet on which we depend for our survival.
Credibility? Respectability? It’s time to stop playing by the rules of the destroyers. We need witnesses and warriors, and we need them now. It’s time to terminate western civilization before it terminates us.
Lesson over. The exam comes within a couple years. And pop quizzes come up every day in this unfair system.
Guy R. McPherson is Profesor Emeritus at the University of Arizona. Educated in the ecology and management of natural resources, his early scholarly efforts produced many publications of little lasting importance. In mid-career, he began to focus on development and creative application of ecological theory, primarily with an eye toward conservation of biological diversity. Currently, his scholarly efforts focus on social criticism, with results that appear most frequently on newspaper op-ed pages. In addition, he facilitates research by students and he prepares synthetic documents focused on articulation of the links between (1) environmental protection, social justice, and the human economy and (2) science and its application. These efforts have produced more than 100 scholarly papers and nine books.
In 2009 at the height of a productive career, McPherson left the university to prepare for collapse. He now lives in an off-grid, straw-bale house where he puts into practice his lifelong interest in sustainable living via organic gardening, raising small animals for eggs and milk, and working with members of his rural community.
Guy R. McPherson, Professor Emeritus
University of Arizona
School of Natural Resources & the Environment and
Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology
Biological Sciences East 325
Tucson, Arizona 85721