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Pragmatists And Heretics - Peak Oil And Runaway Global Warming

By Bill Henderson

18 September, 2006

There is no more wicked a heresy today than to suggest that the organic growth of our present economy should be interfered with, should be replaced by a much more planned and regulated economy. Is there a fool who would endanger millions of people's lives arguing for the impossible?

In his observations of the recent ASPO conference in Italy Rob Hopkins describes a division between pragmatists and heretics:

"I was struck deeply by the two distinct paradigms visible within the attendees, which I have to say, in my naivity, I was rather shocked by.

"The first paradigm we might call the ‘Business-as-Usual-at-all-costs’ paradigm. This argues that peak oil is simply a problem of energy supply, and that provided we can resolve that, everything will be fine. The second paradigm we might call the ‘Cultural Evolution’ paradigm’, which argues that we cannot solve the problems peak oil presents with the same thinking that got us into the mess in the first place. I’d say that at ASPO 5, the balance was about 5:1 in favour of the former. "

Another example of these differing 'paradigms' (and I know many hate the word) separates those who see ethanol in hybrids as the solution to the end of cheap energy from those who see no solution within a world designed for cars. And even more broadly, from those who think there is no long term sustainable solution within a growth economy, especially one addicted to car/sprawl growth.

In the recently archived transcript of an interview with Matt Simmons and Jim Kunstler both make the point repeatedly that new fuel sources for a car economy are not a practical solution:

KUNSTLER: We are going to use every alternative fuel that we can. There is no question about it. But the bottom line is that no combination of alternative fuels whether they are synthesized coal liquids or wind power solar power hydrogen. No combination of these things will allow us to run the Interstate highway system, Wal-Mart and Walt Disney World the way we are accustomed to running it. We are going to have to make other arrangements and that’s what the people in this country don’t get.

We can maybe 'muddle through' with market adaptability if Simmons and Kunstler are wrong (and to the degree that the general public is aware of the peak oil problem, a business as usual solution is everybody's hope).

But for those of us who are pessimistic, who agree that markets did not facilitate a transition to a post fossil fuel economy while fossil fuel energy was cheap and abundant, who agree that our present socio-economic path has no future, a rational-comprehensive something like Lester Brown's Plan B has to be implemented - several decades ago if not sooner.

Only radical intervention and innovation can get us out of the car economy quickly in order to avoid war or severe economic dislocation. Even if we continue to follow the Bush Admin down the resource war path and seize enough oil, America cannot in all probability survive the collapse of the global economy, and even then our present 'luxury' use of diminishing cheap oil would be starkly evil as millions starve globally.

If you agree that the peak oil problem is not solvable within our present economy with dire consequences then heretical options need to be considered:

An ordered reconfiguration of our economy; a Manhattan-style renewable energy program; plus a US led global 'New Deal' based upon an oil depletion protocol. With organized relocalization to bioregions partitioning globalization and minimizing unnecessary trade; a weightless economy, quality not quantity; America as world's innovative problem solver for a common future and major wealth re cycler.

New post green revolution agriculture; Draconian ecosystem-based natural resource management to protect biodiversity globally; local food.

Turn the volume of advertising way down, stop socially engineering consumers; permaculture infill; trains and public transport; etc., etc. We need the possibility of change that can now happen only marginally as back eddies in an economic current that's unsustainable.

Climate change offers another example of this split in the perception of the severity of the challenge and hence the needed strategic response:

If climate change is linear, several degrees or less over the next century and adaptation is possible, then responses inside the present market economy are practical: carbon taxes, caps and trading, increased efficiency and development of non- carbon energy sources, etc.

But if there is a high enough probability of runaway global warming the threshold or tipping point of which - given 30-50 year time lags - we might be on or approaching already, then we need a Plan B DESPERATELY.

There are 'carbon bombs': carbon in soils, carbon in warming temperate and boreal forests and in a drought struck Amazon, methane in Arctic peat bogs and in methane hydrates melting in warming ocean waters

If the probability of positive feedback from the release of this presently sequestered carbon is significant then much more systemic and radical change must be undertaken and the most important and difficult step is getting off our present market economy path and Plan B innovation is necessary. Escaping service sector path dependence to unblock our ability to change at a necessary scale.

That this argument is too downer and that such radical change is impossible and therefor focusing on governance innovation is counter productive is a valid complaint. But considering the growing evidence pointing to imminent peak oil dislocation and runaway global warming especially, I still ask why is there no informed consideration and debate about needed governance innovation beyond incremental change within the market economy? Is our particular business as usual truly not negotiable - even as the threat of severe dislocation and even potential human extinction increases in probability?

Within the next decade or two, Lovelock forecasts, Gaia will hike her thermostat by at least 10 degrees. Earth, he predicts, will be hotter than at any time since the Eocene Age 55 million years ago, when crocodiles swam in the Arctic Ocean.

"There's no realization of how quickly and irreversibly the planet is changing," Lovelock says. "Maybe 200 million people will migrate close to the Arctic and survive this. Even if we took extraordinary steps, it would take the world 1,000 years to recover." James Lovelock The End of Eden WashPost









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