Only 500 generations ago, hunter-gatherers began cultivating crops and forming their tiny communities into social hierarchies. Around 15 to 20 generations ago, industrial capitalism erupted on a global scale.
In the last generation, the entire human species, along with virtually all other species and indeed the entire planet, have been thrown into a series of crises, which many believe threaten to converge in global catastrophe: global warming spiraling out of control; oil prices fluctuating wildly; food riots breaking out in the South; banks collapsing worldwide; the spectre of terror bombings in major cities; and the promise of ‘endless war’ to fight ‘violent extremists’ at home and abroad.
We are running out of time. Without urgent mitigating, preventive and transformative action, these global crises are likely to converge and mutually accelerate over the coming decades. By 2018, converging food, water and energy shortages could magnify the probability of conflict between major powers, civil wars, and cross-border conflicts. After 2020, this could result in political and economic catastrophes that would undermine state control and national infrastructures, potentially leading to social collapse.
Anthropogenic global warming alone illustrates the gravity of our predicament. Global average temperatures have already risen by 0.7C in the last 130 years. In 2007, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) told the world that at current rates of increase of fossil fuel emissions, we were heading toward a rise in global average temperatures of around 6C by the end of this century, leading to mass extinctions on a virtually uninhabitable planet. The Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences has reported that current fossil fuel emissions are exceeding this worst-case scenario.
Many scientists concede that without drastic emissions reductions by 2020, we are on the path toward a 4C rise as early as mid-century, with catastrophic consequences, including the loss of the world’s coral reefs; the disappearance of major mountain glaciers; the total loss of the Arctic summer sea-ice, most of the Greenland ice-sheet and the break-up of West Antarctica; acidification and overheating of the oceans; the collapse of the Amazon rainforest; and the loss of Arctic permafrost; to name just a few. Each of these ecosystem collapses could trigger an out-of-control runaway warming process. Worse, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California at Berkeley now project that we are actually on course to reach global temperatures of up to 8C within 90 years.
But our over-dependence on fossil fuels is also counterproductive even on its own terms. Increasing evidence demonstrates that peak oil is at hand. This is when world oil production reaches its maximum level at the point when half the world’s reserves of cheap oil have been depleted, after which it becomes geophysically increasingly difficult to extract it. This means that passed the half-way point, world production can never reach its maximum level again, and thus continuously declines until reserves are depleted. Until 2004, world oil production had risen continuously but thereafter underwent a plateau all the way through to 2008. Then from July to August 2008, world oil production fell by almost one million barrels per day. It’s still decreasing, even according to BP’s Statistical Review 2010 (which every year pretends that peak oil won’t happen for another 40 years) – in 2009 world oil production was 2.6 percent below that in 2008, and is now below 2004 levels.
Oil price volatility due to peak oil was a major factor that induced the 2008 economic recession. The collapse of the mortgage house of cards was triggered by the post-peak oil price shocks, which escalated costs of living and led to a cascade of debt-defaults. A study by US economist James Hamilton confirmed there would have been no recession without the oil price shocks. While the recession slumped demand, allowing oil prices to reduce, experts now warn of a coming oil supply crunch by around 2014. As climate change intensifies natural disasters – such as droughts in food-basket regions, floods in South Asia and the heatwave in Russia – and as the full impact of peak oil eventually hits, costs to national economies will rocket, while world food production declines.
Already, global warming has exacerbated droughts and led to declines in agricultural productivity over the last decade, including a 10-20 per cent drop in rice yields. The percentage of land stricken by drought doubled from 15 to 30 per cent between 1975 and 2000. If trends continue, by 2025, 1.8 billion people would be living in regions of water-scarcity, and two-thirds of the world population could be subject to water stress. By 2050, scientists project that world crop yields could fall as much as 20-40 per cent.
Maps released by scientists at the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment (SAGE), University of Wisconsin-Madison, show that the earth is “rapidly running out of fertile land” for further agricultural development. No wonder, then, that world agricultural land productivity between 1990 and 2007 was 1.2 per cent per year, nearly half compared to 1950-90 levels of 2.1 per cent. Similarly, world grain consumption exceeded production for seven of eight years prior to 2008.
Apart from climate change, the ecological cost of industrial methods is fast eroding the soil – in the US, for instance, 30 times faster than the natural rate. Former prairie lands have lost one half of their top soil over about a 100 years of farming – but it takes 500 years to replace just one-inch. Erosion is now reducing productivity by up to 65 per cent a year. The dependence of industrial agriculture on hydrocarbon energy sources – with ten calories of fossil fuel energy needed to produce just one calorie of food – means that the impact of peak oil after 2014 will hugely constrain future world agricultural production.
But oil is not the only problem. Numerous studies show that hydrocarbon resources will become increasingly depleted by mid-century, and by the end of this century will be so scarce as to be useless – although we do have enough to potentially tip us over into irreversible runaway global warming.
Former TOTAL geologist Jean Laharrere projects that world natural gas production will peak by around 2025. New technologies mean that unconventional forms of natural gas in the US might prolong this some decades, but only if future demand doesn’t increase. The independent Energy Watch Group (EGW) in Berlin projects that world coal production will also peak in 2025, but the journal Science finds that this could occur “close to the year 2011.” EGW also argues that world production of uranium for nuclear energy will peak in 2035. According to the Hydrocarbon Depletion Study Group at Uppsala University, unconventional oil – such as oil shale and tar sands –will be incapable of averting peak oil. Greater attention has turned to thorium, which certainly holds greater promise than uranium, but as pointed out by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Washington DC, thorium still requires uranium to “kick-start” a nuclear chain reaction, and as yet no viable commercial reactors have been built despite decades of research.
The exponential expansion of modern industrial civilization over the last couple of centuries, and the liberal ideology of ‘unlimited growth’ that has accompanied it, has been tied indelibly to 1) the seemingly unlimited supply of energy provided by nature’s fossil fuel reserves and 2) humankind’s willingness to over-exploit our environment with no recognition of boundaries or constraints. But the 21st century is the age of irreversible hydrocarbon energy depletion – the implication being that industrial civilization, in its current form, cannot last beyond this century.
This means that this century signals not only the end of the carbon age, but the beginning of a new post-carbon era. Therefore, this century should be understood as an age of civilizational transition – the preceding crises are interlocking symptoms of a global political economy, ideology and value-system which is no longer sustainable, which is crumbling under its own weight, and which over the next few decades will be recognized as obsolete. The question that remains, of course, is what will take its place?
While we may not be able to stop various catastrophes and collapse-processes from occurring, we still retain an unprecedented opportunity to envisage an alternative vision for a new, sustainable and equitable form of post-carbon civilization.The imperative now is for communities, activists, scholars and policymakers to initiate dialogue on the contours of this vision, and pathways to it.
Any vision for ‘another world’, if it is to overcome the deep-rooted structural failures of our current business-as-usual model, will need to explore how we can develop new social, political and economic structures which encourage the following: