Why the Climate Change and Peak Oil Movement Are Failing

John Michael Greer points out why the climate change and peak oil movements have very little traction among the powerful people who make the rules.

…three factors.

The first was the astonishing political naivete of the climate change movement. All through the last decade, that movement has allowed its opponents to define the terms of public debate, execute a series of efficient end runs around even the most telling points made by climate science, and tar the movement in ever more imaginative ways, without taking any meaningful steps to counter these moves or even showing any overt interest in learning from its failures. Partly this unfolds from the fixation of the American left on the experiences of the 1960s, a fixation that has seen one movement after another blindly following a set of strategies that have not actually worked since the end of the Vietnam war; partly, I suspect, it’s rooted in the background of most of the leading figures in the climate change movement, who are used to the very different culture of scientific debate and simply have no notion how to address the very different needs of public debate in society that does not share their values.

This latter point leads to the second primary factor in the failure of the climate change movement, which is the extent that it attempted to rely on the prestige of institutional science at a time when that prestige has undergone a drastic decline. The public has become all too aware that the expert opinion of distinguished scientists has become a commodity, bought and sold for a price that these days isn’t always discreetly disguised as grant money or the like. The public has also been repeatedly shown that the public scientific consensus of one decade is fairly often the discarded theory of the next. When you grow up constantly hearing from medical authorities that cholesterol is bad for you and polyunsaturated fats are good for you, and then suddenly he medical authorities are saying that polyunsaturated fats are bad for you and some kinds of cholesterol are good, a certain degree of blind faith in the pronouncements of scientists goes out the window.

Part of the problem here is the gap between the face institutional science presents to its practitioners and the face it shows to the general public. In the 1970s, for example, the public consensus among climate scientists was that the Earth faced a new ice age sometime in the not too distant future. This was actually only one of several competing views aired privately among scientists at the time, and there were spirited debates on the subject in climatological conferences and journals, but you wouldn’t have learned that from the books and TV programs, many of the former written by qualified scientists and most of the latter featuring them, that announced an imminent ice age to the world at large. It’s become fashionable in some circles just now to insist that that never happened, but the relics of that time are still to be found on library shelves and in museums. When I visited the Museum of Natural History in Washington DC a year ago, for example, the exhibit on ice age mammals had a fine example: an illuminated display, prominently located, explaining that scientists expected a new ice age sometime in the next millennium or so. An embarrassed staff member had taped up a makeshift sign next to it announcing that current scientific opinion no longer supported that claim, and the display would be replaced sometime soon.

The mental whiplash caused by sudden changes in scientific opinion, each one announced to the public in terms much less tentative than it generally deserves, has played a larger role in hamstringing climate change activism than most of its supporters may find it comfortable to admit. Notice, though, that the uncertain nature of scientific knowledge didn’t prevent the passage of the Endangered Species Act or a baker’s dozen of other environmental initiatives in the Seventies; in fact, the scientific community was far more divided over ecological issues at that time than it is about climate change today. That was arguably a benefit, because it forced proponents of environmental protection to approach it as a political issue, to get down into the mud wrestling pit with their opponents, and to address the hopes, fears, and concerns of the general public head on, in terms the public could understand and accept. By and large, climate change activists have not done this, and this is an important reason why they have been so thoroughly thrashed by the other side.

Still, I’ve come to think that a third factor has played at least as important a role in gutting the climate change movement. This is the pervasive mismatch between the lifestyles that the leadership of that movement have been advocating for everyone else and the lifestyle that they themselves have led. When Al Gore, after having been called out on this point, was reduced to insisting that his sprawling mansion has a lower carbon footprint than other homes on the same grandiose scale, he exposed a fault line that runs straight through climate change activism, and bids fair to imitate those old legends of California’s future and dump the entire movement into the sea.

…I long ago lost track of the number of times I’ve heard people in one or another corner of the activist scene throw up their hands in despair and describe the task of organizing people to seek some form of change or other as being like trying to herd cats. In point of fact, herding cats is one of the easiest things in the world. All you have to do is go to the place you want the cats to go, carrying with you a #10 can of tuna and an electric can opener. The moment the cats hear the whirr of the can opener and smell the fragrance of the tuna, they’ll come at a run, and you’ll have your herd exactly where you want them. Now of course that strategy assumes two things. It assumes that you’re willing to go to the place you want the cats to go, and it also assumes that you have something to offer them when they get there.

That sums up what has been one of the most critical problems with the climate change movement: it has been calling on the world to accept a lifestyle that the movement’s own leaders have shown no willingness to adopt themselves, and thus have been in no position to model for the benefit of others. That’s left the movement wide open to accusations that it means its policies to apply only to other people – accusations that have not exactly been quelled by the efforts of various countries, the US very much included, to push as much of the burden of carbon reduction as possible onto their political and economic rivals. I trust I don’t have to spell out how such suspicions will be amplified by Shearman’s cheerleading for exactly the sort of authoritarian politics in which some people’s carbon footprint would inevitably be more equal than others’.

All these points are profoundly relevant to the core project of this blog, for many of the weaknesses I’ve traced out are also found in the peak oil movement. That movement has no shortage of political naivete, and it has plenty of spokespeople who mistakenly assume that their professional expertise – significant as that very often is – can be cashed in at par for influence on public debate. It also has its share of leaders who are perfectly willing to talk in the abstract about how people need to ditch their autos and give up air travel, but insist that they themselves need their SUV for one reason or another and wouldn’t dream of going to the next ASPO conference by train. These are serious weaknesses; unchecked, they could be fatal.

Of course there are other, critical reasons why a certain degree of political sophistication, a recognition that expertise is not enough to carry public debates, and a willingness to embrace the lifestyles one proposes for others – and especially the last of these – are essential just now. The most important of those reasons is that in terms of industrial civilization’s energy future, it’s very late in the day.

Why did John Michael Greer move from Oregon to Maryland?

John Michael Greer walks his talk. He moved from Ashland, Oregon, to Cumberland, Maryland, based on his view of the future. While this may seem odd for a guy who is quite unconventional, his reasoning makes sense, given his assumptions. Read his essay on the move East at the link below (check out the great comments). I've included an excerpt below.

By the way – if his view of the future is on the mark – this is good news for the people who live in cities and towns that have been devastated by the transfer of jobs to lower-wage countries. Maybe my hometown of Martinsville, VA, will start to rebound!

Note: Greer has begun laying the groundwork for a nonprofit organization, The Cultural Conservers Foundation, aimed at preserving the legacies of the past and present into the future.

Link: The Archdruid Report: Betting on the Rust Belt

America is learning the hard way, as Britain did a century ago and Spain a century and a half before that, that the sheer economic burden of maintaining a global military presence is quite capable of pushing even the richest nation into bankruptcy. The Asian industrial powers that once churned out consumer goods for American stores are calmly retooling, using the billions we send them each year, to produce goods to meet the desires of their own newly prosperous people. Meanwhile the age of cheap abundant energy that made 20th century-style globalism possible in the first place is coming to an end around us. The economic model that built California’s past prosperity, in other words, is done enough to poke with a fork.

As far as I can tell, very few people on the west coast – or anywhere else – have begun to think through the implications of that troubling fact. I wonder, for example, how many states within driving range of California have drawn up plans to deal with the massive influx of economic refugees that will likely follow once California’s relatively lavish entitlement programs are slashed to the bone or shut down completely. I wonder whether any of the other west coast states, for that matter, have faced up to the possibility that the import-driven gravy train they’ve been riding for the last half century may just have run off the rails. If that’s the case – if Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle play the same role in coming decades that towns such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo and Gary played in the recent past – some of the most basic assumptions of American social geography are headed for the dumpster.

Sussing out the geography of the future in advance is no easy task, but the constraints bearing down on what’s left of the American economy offer a few hints worth noting. Now that we’re on the downslope of Hubbert’s peak – world production of conventional petroleum peaked in 2005 – energy costs will, on average, take a larger bite out of economies around the world with each passing year. One of the implications is that transport costs will no longer be a negligible part of the cost of goods shipped over long distances. More energy-efficient transport modalities will tend to replace less efficient ones because they, and thus the goods they ship, will be more affordable; equally, diseconomies of distance will tend to outweigh economies of scale and foster the reemergence of regional economies. Among the likely beneficiaries of these changes are the towns that thrived best in an earlier, more regional economy — those that are well served by rail and water transport, surrounded by farming regions that don’t depend on irrigation, not too far from major markets, and provided with ample and inexpensive real estate for the factories and warehouses of a downscaled and relocalizing industrial economy.

Storing Wealth in Uncertain Times

Charles Hugh Smith questions the whether gold is the best way to store wealth in the coming "Great Transformation", when oil becomes very scarce. (I remember how valuable gasoline was in the movie Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior). He suggests that having a convenient supply of energy and food are the most valuable sources of wealth in very hard times. Excerpts below.

Link: Of two minds: The Great Transformation: Trends and Cycles of History.

If we understand that "money" as a store of wealth is simply stored energy, then we reach another understanding of "the problem" and thus of the "solution."

Let's say that the fragile supply chain of remaining oil breaks down in a complex interaction of positive feedback loops. Oil would not just be costly; it would be unavailable to individuals. The government would undoubtedly ration what was left for essential services like agriculture, food distribution, police and hospitals, etc.

Let's say we anticipated this and responded not by hoarding gold but by buying a 100 KWhr/day solar power array, productive land in a mild climate, a store of fertilizer and a few electric vehicles to share with our family/community. We own zero gold but we own a power supply, the means to grow food and transportation that does not require petroleum.

Now would we sell these productive assets for gold? At what price, if they were essentially irreplaceable? What would we do with our pile of gold if we can't go anywhere, can't grow food and have no power source?

The holder of gold assumes that all goods can be purchased with a means of exchange holding a tangible value, i.e. gold or an equivalent commodity. But this may not be entirely true. Yes, we will sell some of our power/energy output for gold, but we will not sell our "wealth" i.e. the power plant for gold, which may or may not be able to buy a replacement. As a store of wealth, gold is no match for a productive source of energy.

The reason is "money" as a store of wealth is simply stored energy. From this point of view, fertilizer is stored energy. You may or may not be able to exchange "money" in any form for stored energy, for "wealth" is either stored energy or the capacity to generate energy sustainably. Everything else is merely a means of exchange.

Will gold hold more value as a means of exchange than paper money? If history is any guide, yes—but that's a different "problem" than building or storing wealth.

There are many other examples of "problems" whose solutions may well completely fail to address the structural challenges we face.

John Michael Greer Interviewed

Janaia at Peak Moment Conversations interviews one of my favorite bloggers and thinkers, John Michael Greer. He's articulate and informed – be ready to learn and smile. You can read his essays at The Archdruid Report.

Link: Peak Moment Conversations » Blog Archive » 138 The Twilight of an Age.

In his book, The Long Descent, John Michael Greer observes that our culture has two primary stories: “Infinite Progress” or “Catastrophe”. On the contrary, he sees history as cyclic: civilizations rise and fall. Like others, ours is exhausting its resource base. Cheap energy is over. Decline is here, but the descent will be a long one. It’s too late to maintain the status quo by swapping energy sources. How to deal with this predicament? He lays out practical ideas, possibilities, and potentials, including reconnecting with natural and human capacities pushed aside by industrial life.

Does Science Fiction Offer Guidance about the Future?

John Micheal Greer describes how some science fiction writers explore the future, sometimes with surprising accuracy. He says that some writers picturing the post peak oil landscape are producing peak oil fiction that could be useful for people who want to prepare for a very different world. Excerpts below.

Link: The Archdruid Report: The Future That Wasn't.

Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, the hugely successful pop spirituality phenomenon of two years ago, was exactly such a rehash of forgotten commonplaces; its promoters correctly guessed that ideas that appealed to the public during the boomtime of the 1920s, no matter how dubious those ideas were, would be just as popular during the late housing bubble. No doubt they’re sorting through the rather different self-improvement literature of the 1930s in search of a bestseller for the decade ahead of us.

The interesting thing is that there were thinkers busy during these same decades whose visions ended up having a huge and enduring impact on the way the entire Western world thinks about the future. These visionaries weren’t to be found in the ivory towers of academe or any of the other prestigious places where people, then and now, expect great minds to be found; they didn’t even have the cachet of romantically starving to death in garrets. Most of them could be found in ordinary urban apartments and homes, hunched over clattering manual typewriters, as they fed a couple of dozen cheap gaudy magazines with science fiction stories.

…serious literature rarely has a major impact on society. Its readership is too small and too well educated to slip into the uncritical enthusiasm that shapes the imagination of an age. Most often it turns out to be the popular literature, the reading material of housewives, factory workers, and schoolchildren, that reaches into the crawlspaces of culture where the future takes shape. By shedding literary credentials and wrapping itself in the gaudy finery of the pulp magazines, science fiction worked its way into the collective imagination of the modern world.

…science fiction in its pulp days transformed itself from a somewhat esoteric literary genre to a folk mythology that still shapes most of our thinking about the future today. Onto the blank screen of infinite space, as a result, the modern imagination projects all the dreams, fantasies and fears other cultures assign to more obviously metaphysical realms. Many of the essays I’ve posted on this blog have focused on disputing assumptions about the future that root straight back into the science fiction of the pulp era.

What makes this all the more interesting is that the grand future shared in common by most science fiction from the pulp era straight through to the 1970s – the leap upward from Earth to the first colonies on the Moon and Mars, the expansion through the solar system, the inevitable arrival of interstellar flight, and the panorama of star federations and galactic empires to follow – has lost nearly all the conviction that once made it look like the inevitable shape of things to come. It had its day, and accomplished certain things in that time; without Jules Verne and his many successors, human footprints probably would never have been left on the Moon, but its day is over now. Those who still cling to the old hope today – I am thinking of Ray Kurzweil and the Extropians here – have been reduced to wrapping Protestant eschatology in the borrowed garments of science fiction; rapture into heaven followed by immortality is a religious concept even when the god who is expected to provide it is named Technology. It’s a measure of this loss of faith that the publication of science fiction novels in the English-speaking world, at least, has declined steadily since the late 1980s and now amounts to only a few hundred titles a year.

In this light it’s interesting to note that the impact of peak oil on the future of the industrial world has begun to be explored using the toolkit of fiction. James Howard Kunstler’s World Made By Hand is the example most people in the peak oil scene know about, and deservedly so; it’s a rousing, readable tale that borrows from familiar genres (notably the Western) to portray the aftermath of the petroleum age in accessible terms. More experimental and, to my taste, even more interesting is Caryl Johnson’s self-published “essay-novel” After The Crash, which weaves together a tale about the writing of a narrative history of the end of the Hydrocarbon Age in post-Crash Philadelphia with social criticism directed at the present and speculation about the future.

…Just as science fiction enabled people to get their heads around such improbable realities as moon landings decades in advance, peak oil fiction could make it easier for people today to make sense of the approaching changes in our own world.

Practical Capitalism

Here's an excerpt from an essay by Eric Andrews that suggests how to adapt to a world characterized by overspending governments, boom and bust economies, deflation and inflation, greed, and shortages.

Link: oftwominds.com Readers Journal-Eric Andrews 12/29/08

Real, useful capitalism requires not a response to the belated price signal but visionary action. And since it is already too late to alter large, long-term issues at the Governmental level—say, mass transit, zero-energy homes, or building the transmission and generation capacity to support wind-fueled electric cars—the best any of us can do is to think ahead to make sure that we ourselves are insulated from unnecessary trouble. That is to say, if you want pickled herring on Friday, would you save in strawberry jam and hope to trade? So if you want a retirement that includes food, energy, and security, wouldn't it make more sense to invest directly in those things? The working of the price signal depends on somebody else thinking ahead and saving for you, anticipating what you may need and making it. But we already know those needs will not be met in the macro sense. So if you want them and want them reliably, shouldn't you buy them now while they're cheap? Things such as a low-energy/low money input house. Things such as ways to provide and produce your own food: a greenhouse, a mushroom log, a garden, a chicken coop. Perhaps become a marginal producer of energy with investment in wind, PV, or whatever other creative solution takes your fancy. As you will have far less to buy later, higher prices and shortages will have less effect on you while the yearly savings of non-buying accrue year after year. You thereby use your retirement savings far more wisely, with far more certainty and control.

Adapting to Peak Oil

John Michael Greer suggests that composted gardens and small farms provide a fallback plan for the industrial farms that are very dependent on petroleum for energy and fertilizer. Do not read this if you think that we can continue to consume energy like we have in the past. Excerpts below.

Link: The Archdruid Report: The Little Steps That Matter.

What makes these (ethanol and nuclear energy) and similar projects as destructive as they are futile is precisely that they are meant to allow us to continue living our lives in something like their present form. That fantasy, it seems to me, is the single largest obstacle in the path of a reasoned response to the predicament of peak oil. The hard reality we have to face is the fact that the extravagant, energy-wasting lifestyles of the recent past cannot be sustained by any amount of bargaining or any number of grand projects. Accept that reality, on the other hand, and redefine the situation in terms of managing a controlled descent from the giddy heights of the late industrial age, and the range of technological options widens out dramatically.

Is compost a replacement for fossil fuel-based fertilizers? In the straightforward sense of this question, of course not.

Instead, it’s a bridge – or part of a bridge – that reaches beyond the end of the industrial age. The industrial model of agriculture, for reasons rooted primarily in current economic and political arrangements, has established a stranglehold on food production in the developed world. Barring drastic political intervention – a new Homestead Act, say, meant to repopulate the abandoned farm country of the Great Plains – that situation is unlikely to change suddenly or soon.

At the same time, this doesn’t mean that the industrial model of agriculture will actually work well in a postpeak world. Far more likely is a situation in which soaring fossil fuel prices cascade down the food chain, turning industrial farms and their far-flung distribution networks into economic basket cases propped up by government subsidies, sky-high food prices, and trade barriers that keep other options out of the existing marketplace. In such a context, local microfarms and market gardens, and the cooperatives, farmers markets, and community-supported agriculture schemes that give them a market outside the existing system, are guaranteed steady and dramatic growth.

Oil is the greatest problem of all time

I’ve been hoping that some really smart people would tackle the dependence on oil problem. Silicon Valley and Microsoft helped put PCs in every office and home when it seemed impossible, so why not solar-powered electric cars. I’m fed up with the defeatist attitude so common in the US of … "it will be 50 years before we can get off oil."

Here’s a glimmer of hope, inspired by Shimon Peres, the former Israeli Prime Minister and now President, who said: "I believe Israel should go from oil to solar energy. Oil is the greatest problem of all time—the great polluter and promoter of terror. We should get rid of it." He was addressing his feelings to Shai Agassi, who wants to design a practical and affordable electric car.

Shai Agassi (he lives in Silicon Valley) is the kind of person who might make it happen. Below are some excerpts from a BusinessWeek article about his plans.

Source: The Electric Car Acid Test: Shai Agassi’s audacious effort to end the era of gas-powered autos by Steve Hamm, BusinessWeek, Jan 24, 2008.

On Jan. 21, Agassi, Olmert, Peres, and Ghosn unveiled the novel project, under which Agassi’s Silicon Valley company, Better Place, will sell electric cars and build a network of locations where drivers can charge and replace batteries. Olmert has done his part, too. Israel just boosted the sales tax on gasoline-powered cars to as much as 60% and pledged to buy up old gas cars to get them off the road.

Agassi contends that Israel is just the start. He hopes to expand his business into several other countries over the next few years, with China, France, and Britain among the potential markets. Ultimately, he believes that his company and others like it could shake two pillars of the global economy, the $1.5 trillion-a-year auto industry and the $1.5 trillion-a-year market for gasoline. "If what I’m saying is right, this would be the largest economic dislocation in the history of capitalism," says Agassi.

Yet soaring oil prices and the threat of global warming give Agassi an opening. Governments worldwide, like Israel, are getting more serious about reducing their dependence on oil and are more concerned about the effect of carbon emissions on climate change. And the auto industry is placing large bets on alternative power vehicles like never before.

Agassi does bring a new perspective to the alternative fuel world. The trouble with traditional electric cars is that they can go only 50 or 100 miles and then they need to stop for hours to recharge their batteries. Hybrids overcome the mileage limitations, but only by burning gasoline. One of Agassi’s unconventional ideas is to separate the battery from the car. That will allow drivers to pull into a battery-swapping station, a car-wash-like contraption, and wait for 10 minutes while their spent batteries are lowered from the car and fully charged replacements are hoisted into place. Better Place will build the service stations, as well as hundreds of thousands of charging locations, similar to parking meters.

Agassi’s other unusual idea is for Better Place to operate as something akin to a mobile-phone carrier. He plans to sell electric cars to consumers at a relatively low price and then charge them monthly operating fees. The total cost of owning an electric car, including the up-front price and ongoing operating expenses, is expected to be less than that of a conventional car.

What got Carlos Ghosn (chief executive of Renault and Nissan) excited was Israel’s willingness to slash import taxes for green vehicles and alter domestic sales taxes in ways that would make the economics of the plan work. "This is a unique situation," says Ghosn. "It’s the first mass marketplace for electric cars under conditions that make sense for all the parties." As a result of getting involved, the Nissan-Renault Alliance has made electric autos a top priority. Initially, the companies expect to produce electric cars for Israel and other countries by modifying existing models, but eventually they plan to introduce new models designed from the ground up to run on batteries developed by Nissan.

Immediately after the Davos meetings, Peres urged Agassi to take on Project Better Place as his own business. Agassi was in line for the CEO job at SAP, but Peres challenged him to change course: "In your young life, there’s nothing better you could do." A few days later Hasso Plattner, SAP’s chairman, called Agassi to say CEO Henning Kagermann had signed on for two more years. Since that would push back Agassi’s opportunity to move into the CEO spot, he saw it as a sign that he was free to leave and pursue other career paths. He quit on the spot, though two months went by before his departure was final.

He felt strongly about the need for a peaceful resolution to Middle East conflicts, and he figured that one way to reduce tensions was to reduce dramatically the world’s dependency on oil. He had chosen Project Better Place as the name for his project because of the challenge to the Young Global Leaders a year earlier to try to make the world a better place. He couldn’t think of anything more important he wanted to do.

By spring, Agassi was refining his business ideas. Those years at SAP gave him a unique perspective on overcoming the hurdles to widespread electric vehicle adoption. He saw that the vehicles needed an infrastructure comparable to NetWeaver to make them viable. On a 10-hour flight from Tel Aviv to New York, he laid out the core business model for Better Place.

During the summer, he concentrated on raising money. His big break came during a meeting with Israel Corp.’s Ofer last June. Agassi was in Israel to raise money from the country’s leading industrial families. One of Agassi’s allies, investor Michael Granoff of Maniv Investments, a New York company that concentrates on alternative energy investing, arranged a meeting on June 12 in Ofer’s office on the 23rd floor of the Millennium office tower—with a panoramic view of the coast. Agassi laid out the economic rationale for electric vehicles and explained his business plan. As he wrapped up, Ofer quipped to one of his colleagues: "I guess we’ll have to sell the refineries."

Agassi couldn’t guess where the conversation would go next. He had to rush to a meeting with Peres, but Ofer accompanied him down to the lobby. As they said their goodbyes, Ofer leaned forward and delivered some stunning news: "I’m going to invest in this, and I’m going to be your biggest investor. I’ll put in $100 million." A flabbergasted Agassi didn’t know how real the pledge was, but when the initial round of $200 million in funding for Better Place came together last October, Ofer kept his word. Agassi lined up a wide range of other investors, including investment bank Morgan Stanley (MS).

In December, Agassi saw his dream come one step closer to reality. With his backers in place and the company’s launch scheduled, he took a test drive in a Renault that his employees had converted to run on electricity. The modified Renault Mégane is capable of going from zero to 60 in eight seconds and has a top speed of 130.

The Carrying Capacity of the Land

We live in the Atlanta area, where August’s intense heat, with no rain, has turned into beautiful blue skies and low humidity in September through November, with almost no rain. The governor has blamed environmentalists for Atlanta’s main water source drying up and has started leading prayer groups to bring rain. It’s heresy to point out that the rapid residential and commercial development throughout the area has created an insatiable thirst for water that cannot be satisfied by the current water resources.

I’ve included some excerpts on the use of resources below from writer and thinker John Michael Greer. Ignore his message if you don’t use energy or water, or, if you believe that your favored political party will save us. One of the targets of his sharp writing tool is the drought in the Southeast and Atlanta. Click on the link below to enjoy the full flavor of his commentary of the current state of our culture.

Link: The Archdruid Report: Lifeboat Time

As depletion of existing oil fields accelerates, the struggle to prop up the current production plateau promises to become a losing battle against geological reality.

Meanwhile the carbon dioxide generated by the 84 million barrels a day we’re currently pumping and burning, along with equally unimaginable volumes of coal and natural gas, drives changes in climate that only a handful of oil company flacks and free-market fundamentalists still insist aren’t happening. Worried scientists report from Greenland and West Antarctica that for the first time since measurements began, liquid water is pooling under both these huge continental glaciers – the likely precursor to an ice sheet collapse that could put sea levels up 50 to 60 feet worldwide within our lifetimes.

In related news, Atlanta may just be on the verge of edging out New Orleans as the poster child for climate catastrophe. Unless the crippling years-long drought over the southeast United States gives way to heavy rains very soon, Atlanta will run completely out of drinking water sometime in the new year. The city government has had to explain to worried citizens that they are out of options, and there aren’t enough tanker trucks in all of Dixie to meet the daily water needs of a big city. Nobody is willing to talk about what will happen once the last muddy dregs in the Georgia reservoirs are pumped dry, and the drinking fountains, toilet tanks, and fire hydrants of greater metropolitan Atlanta have nothing to fill them but dust.

As Macchiavelli commented in a different context, though, people care more about their finances than their lives, and even the Atlanta papers have seen the drought shoved off the front page now and then by the latest round of implosions in the world of high finance. For those of my readers who haven’t been keeping score, banks and financial firms around the world spent most of the last decade handing out mortgages to anybody with a pulse, packaging up the right to profit from those mortgages into what may just be the most misnamed “securities” in the history of financial markets, and selling them to investors around the world.

On this noticeably unsteady foundation rose the biggest speculative bubble in recorded history, as would-be real estate moguls borrowed dizzying sums to buy up property they were convinced could only go up in value, while investors whose passion for profit blinded them to the risk of loss snapped up a torrent of exotic financial products whose connection to any significant source of value can be safely described as imaginary. All this hallucinated wealth, though, depended on the theory that people with no income, job, or assets could and would pay their mortgage bills on time, and when this didn’t happen, the whole tower of cards began coming apart. Some of the world’s largest banks have already taken billions of dollars in losses, and nobody is even pretending that the economic carnage is over yet.

Economic Development and Energy

John Michael Greer writes about the future of societies in relation to the abundance and concentration of energy resources to which it has access. This is especially pertinent as the realization that Peak Oil may be real dawns on the American public. In the debate over switching our energy sources from petroleum to sustainable energy, the influence of big oil companies on many policy makers guarantees a short-term outlook and possible economic decline for countries who are dependent on an increasingly scarce resouce available mainly from unstable governments.

Link: The Archdruid Report

White’s law holds that the level of economic development in a society is measured by the energy per capita it produces and uses. Since the energy per capita of any society is determined by its access to concentrated energy resources – and this holds true whether we are talking about wild foods, agricultural products, fossil fuels, or anything else – it’s worth postulating that the maximum level of economic development possible for a society is measured by the abundance and concentration of energy resources to which it has access.

…a society’s maximum level of economic development will be reached, on average, at the peak of a bell-shaped curve with a height determined by the relative renewability of the society’s energy resources. A society wholly dependent on resources that renew themselves over the short term may trace a “bell-shaped curve” in which the difference between peak and trough is so small it approximates a straight line; a society dependent on resources renewable over a longer timescale may cycle up and down as its resource base depletes and recovers; a society dependent on nonrenewable resources can be expected to trace a ballistic curve in which the height of ascent is matched, or more than matched, by the depth of the following decline.