The problem extends beyond oil and other fossil fuels, and even beyond climate change: the world’s fresh water resources are strained to the point that billions of people may soon find themselves with only precarious access to water for drinking and irrigation. Biodiversity is declining rapidly. We are losing 24 billion tons of topsoil each year to erosion. And many economically significant minerals—from antimony to zinc—are depleting quickly, requiring the mining of ever lower-grade ores in ever more remote locations. Thus the peak oil crisis is really just the leading edge of a broader Peak Everything dilemma.
In essence, humanity faces an entirely predictable peril: our population has been growing dramatically for the past 200 years (expanding from under one billion to nearly seven billion), while our per-capita consumption of resources has also grown. For a species, this is virtually the definition of biological success. And yet all of this has taken place in the context of a finite planet with fixed stores of non-renewable resources (fossil fuels and minerals), a limited ability to regenerate renewable resources (forests, fish, fresh water, and topsoil), and a limited ability to absorb industrial waste products, including carbon dioxide. If we step back and look at the industrial period from a broad historical perspective that is informed by an appreciation of ecological limits, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are today living at the end of a relatively brief pulse—a 200-year rapid expansionary phase enabled by a temporary energy subsidy (in the form of cheap fossil fuels) that will inevitably be followed by an even more rapid and dramatic contraction as those fuels deplete.
The winding down of this historic growth-contraction pulse doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world, but it does mean the end of a certain kind of economy. One way or another, humanity must return to a more normal pattern of existence characterized by reliance on immediate solar income (via crops, wind, or the direct conversion of sunlight to electricity) rather than stored ancient sunlight.
This is not to say that the remainder of the 21st century must consist of a collapse of industrialism, a die-off of most of the human population, and a return by the survivors to a way of life identical to that of 16th century peasants or indigenous hunter-gatherers. It is possible instead to imagine various acceptable and even inviting ways in which humanity could adapt to ecological limits while further developing cultural richness, scientific understanding, and quality of life (more on this below).
But however it is negotiated, the transition will spell an end to economic growth in the conventional sense. And that transition appears to have begun.
If the physical scientists who warn about limits to growth are right, confronting the global economic meltdown implies far more than merely getting the banks and mortgage lenders back on their feet. Indeed, we face a fundamental change in our economy as significant as the advent of the industrial revolution. We are at a historic inflection point—the ending of decades of expansion and the beginning of an inevitable period of contraction that will continue until humanity is once again living within the limits of Earth’s regenerative systems.
A case can be made that after all this is done, the end result will be a more satisfying way of life for the vast majority of citizens—offering more of a sense of community, more intergenerational solidarity, more of a connection with the natural world, more satisfying work, and a healthier environment. Indeed, it is essential at a challenging time like this to emphasize solutions and benefits rather than dwelling only on the enormity of the crisis confronting us. But those in charge need to understand that looking on the bright side doesn’t mean promising what can’t be delivered—such as a return to the days of growth and thoughtless consumption.
We have entered a new economic era in which the former “rules” no longer apply. Low interest rates and government spending no longer translate to incentives for borrowing and job production. Cheap energy won’t appear just because there is demand for it. Substitutes for essential resources will in most cases not be found. Over all, the economy will continue to shrink in fits and starts until it can be maintained by the energy and material resources that Earth can supply on an ongoing basis.
Is it too late to begin a managed transition to a post-fossil fuel society? Perhaps. But we will not know unless we try. And if we are to make that effort, we must begin by acknowledging one simple, stark reality: growth as we have known it can no longer be our goal.