Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Degrowth and peak oil



This is a condensed version of the talk that I gave at the 3rd international conference on degrowth, in Venice, on Sep 21 2012



Hello, everybody; I think you came to listen to me today because you want to know something about the situation with crude oil, that is of "peak oil". So, what I can tell you is that the peak has arrived and we are now in the post peak world. It is an event that is taking place slowly, over several years, but I think we can say with reasonable certainty that the petroleum production peak was in 2008.

To prove what I am telling you I could show you data and graphs, but I think that the best way for you to realize that the peak is past us is to think about how much people are discussing about oil substitutes. You know, all those things that produce flammable liquids that we can use to fuel our cars: biofuels, tar sands, shale oil, you surely heard about all that. And you surely heard about the idea of a "new age of oil," that some say it is coming and that is supposed to be a good thing. But this "new age" is based on dirty resources which have been known for decades (at least) and I am sure you understand that they are expensive, if nothing else by looking at gas prices. Today, we are forced to use these resources exactly because we passed the production peak of conventional crude oil. In this way, we have been able to mask the peak, for the time being, avoiding an obvious decline of production of liquid fuels. In a sense, we acted as those people who try to mask their age by dying their hair. They may succeed in looking younger, but only for a while.

The problem, however, is not so much for how long we'll be able to keep the production of liquids stable; it is that the resources we are using for this purpose have a low energy yield and do tremendous damage to a lot of things. We are destroying enormous areas, poisoning the water aquifers, and forcing agriculture away from food production. More than that, we are increasing the amount of greenhouse gases generated for the same amount of energy produced. Emissions keep increasing and climate change accelerates, as you could see from what happened to the North Pole this year.

So, in a sense, peak oil has been a big disappointment. It was perhaps the first modern appearance of the concept of "degrowth", when it started being discussed some 10 years ago. We expected that the post peak age would have stimulated the development of clean resources and some of us (myself included) thought that it would have saved us from global warming, or at least greatly reduced its importance. But, that has not been the case, unfortunately.

Today, we are discussing another kind of degrowth, intended mostly as a personal choice and most of us seem to believe that it is a good thing. It is an attitude that looks similar to the one we had about peak oil 10 years ago. But is it possible that we are making the same mistake? That is, could we be too optimistic about what degrowth can bring to us?

Let me ask you a question: what problems exactly do you think that degrowth can solve? Maybe you think that degrowing you'll be happier and this may well be. But can degrowth solve the climate problem? Can it reduce pollution and the stress on the ecosystem? Surely, if everyone decided to reduce their consumption, the impact of human beings on the planet would be reduced. But if just some of us decide for degrowth, wouldn't the resources that we don't consume be consumed by someone else? Then, the human impact wouldn't change.

Besides, even if voluntary degrowth were to have a significant effect, would that be enough? Climate change could be irreversible by now, in the sense that we may have unleashed mechanisms that will cause the Earth to keep heating up independently of what we do. Reducing emission or even stopping burning fossil fuels altogether wouldn't stop warming. If this is the case, degrowth alone would not be a solution, just as peak oil wasn't one. Will we need geoengineering to save ourselves? Perhaps, but is geoengineering compatible with degrowth? If our economy shrinks a lot, where would we find the resources needed for geoengineering?

I am not asking you rhetorical questions: I don't know the answers myself. What I know is that we are facing incredibly complex problems. We don't know what kind of solutions might exist for global warming and for ecosystems collapse. We don't even if solutions exist at all. But I think we can say, at least, that it has been growth at all costs that has led us to the quandary in which we are now. Stopping growth surely can't harm us as much!




29 comments:

  1. "In a sense, we acted as those people who try to mask their age by dying their hair. They may succeed in looking younger, but only for a while."
    Hi Ugo,
    Very funny!

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  2. Ugo, I share your concerns, and I don't think we can "solve" the problems without societal changes that goes further than peoples' voluntary change of consumption patterns. That is all well and fine, but we need to address those drivers in society that push us further into the growth paradigm, which are capital accumulation, unlimited global competition and profit, i.e. unfettered capitalism.

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  3. btw, there things you have to fill in to "prove you are not a robot" are getting harder and harder to pass - had to try three times. A proof that robots are getting smarter or that I am becoming a robot?:-)

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    1. That's becoming more and more worrisome, yes. At some point, we'll be shut off and robots will do everything by themselves: posting and commenting.

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  4. Ugo,

    how could we possibly have (global?) degrowth with (still) exponentially rising global population, where 1 billion people are hungry and still more of them without electricity?

    People who are thinking about the long-term future (just a fraction of popullation, but still...), tend to decide to have less or no children, thus one might conclude that fraction of " future blind" population increases, which is not a godd trend.

    And signs that thanks to higher oil prices and retreating arctic ice Shell and other companies are happy to explore polar regions to extract more oil are not encouraging.

    And, finally, recent develepments on the international battle-field (think Izrael vs. Iran, Syria vs. own people, China vs. Japan, deflating Greece and Spain etc.), are not very encouraging either... and I forgot rising food prices and resulting food riots... but I am Cassandra too :-)

    Alex

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    1. "thus one might conclude that fraction of " future blind" population increases"

      That's a good point. Quick, Cassandra Legacy readers, breed now! :)

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    2. Nat,

      that impossible, since breedin is not "Cassandrian" ;-)

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    3. Well, I don't know if we have time to worry about our legacy (Cassandra's legacy). Things are moving so quickly that it may not matter any more whether we have children or not.

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  5. Nice talk Ugo, and the hair dying image inded "works" very well !

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  6. New article on geoengineering:

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21528831.700-can-geoengineering-avert-climate-chaos.html?full=true


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  7. I concur with you. Have we destabilised the climate and other ecosystems to the point where we can no longer rely on a benign environment for food production and now need to create artificial environments to support ourselves (e.g. aquaculture)? In which case, can we safely dismantle our industrial civilisation and "go back" to more natural ways? Are we now beyond nature and passed the point of no return? To cap it all, is the global economy now too frail to continue producing highly complex hi-tech products for the foreseeable future? So many converging issues...

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  8. Replies
    1. Hello Guy,

      I am still thinking to join you in your "walking away from the empire" ;-)

      I am from Slovakia, but...


      good luck!

      Alexander

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    2. I know, I know..... I don't usually bet on anything, but extinction by 2030 would be a 50-50 one, unfortunately.....

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    3. Ouch, Ugo, that is TOO HIGH... no?

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    4. Ouf..... I never understood exactly what they mean when in TV they tell you that tomorrow there is a 50% chance that it will rain. Maybe they mean that if it were a hundred times tomorrow, then it would rain fifty times... I don't know; better to take an unbrella with you, anyway.

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    5. Or better yet. There are times when the weather person points out that it is raining outside and then says there is a 40% chance of rain today. I look at the graphs of the Arctic Sea ice and ponder, is Ugo acting like those weather people? ;-)

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  9. Ugo,

    Thank you for your candor. After attending the degrowth conference in Montreal May 2012 I created this video and posted it on you tube.

    How Much Degrowth is Enough? Sept. 2012
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcQYI4yo8mM

    It comes to the same conclusion -- most of the degrowth community is not addressing reality.

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    1. There is no civilization without growth, as Jason Godesky shows in his Thesis #12: Civilization must always grow. Degrowth, "peaceful, sustainable" civilization is a much a pipe dream as the technocratic fantasies of "power too cheap to meter" or the libertarian daydreams of "small government."

      There is no solution anywhere.

      We cannot escape ourselves. ~Henri

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    2. Interesting video, Jack. I'd say a wee bit pessimistic..... but, very unfortunately, maybe not so much.

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  10. It seems that all nations--all civilization everywhere in the world at this time--have been and are still addicted and therefore committed to growth. As best I know only the Chinese even attempted to stabilize their population, and they largely failed. As others have mentioned, a growing population cannot be maintained under a regime of degrowth. But equally--population cannot be maintained under any other method, either. And so, obviously, population cannot be maintained at all. Therefore, it won't be. How will this be managed? Well, I am sure that in the corridors of power there are very clear ideas about who should be culled. But even that does not matter overmuch: By deciding to do nothing for the better part of a century humans have now turned the problem over not to the corridors of power, but to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. While this is sad and regrettable, the fact is that the Four Horsemen (Famine, Disease, War, and Death) are fully competent to carry out the job. And they will.

    Jevrons Paradox may not really apply, but it does provide a soft and convenient excuse for those who wish to do nothing. So go ahead, grab your excuse, party till you drop, and accelerate at the wall! Again, no matter. Likely, we have already blown through the CO2 boundaries and committed ourselves to a vastly warmer climate, in which case the civilization we have known will no longer be possible. So, saving--or reforming (were it even possible)--that civilization is also not a concern. Degrowth will happen, because it must, but not in a way anyone would want it to happen: Just another window that has closed, another threshold limit blown by.

    So what does degrowth really mean for us? Just this: Knowing full well that available resources of all kinds will be shorter than they are now, we learn now (as individuals and small groups) how to live with less as training and as practice. Training and practice which will be necessary if one intends in the future to survive at all.

    Human extinction was always a possibility, and still is--but it is a little early to assert that it is sure. Humans are a fairly weedy species and might be among the most likely mammals to survive--assuming any mammals do. The whole trend toward anaerobic life that comes with rapid warming will represent the largest problem--not the rise in temperature per se.

    The second largest problem--but arriving sooner--will probably be all those nuclear reactors we built, which with their spent fuel pools will melt and burn as soon as the power goes out creating little Fukushima and Chernobyl dead zones all over the northern hemisphere. So the inhabitable area of the earth will only be a small portion of what it is now--but it will not be zero.

    --Gaianne

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  11. Hello / Salve Ugo, I was reading Jorgen Randers recent new book "The World in 2052" when towards the middle of the book I came across your "glimpse" on "The Future of War and the Rise of Robots" (which I thought was good, fairly realistic. and definitely, overall, a "very good glimpse" into the future. (and BTW have you had a chance to read Tom Engelhardt's book The United States of Fear?)....(among other things he also talks about robotic warfare, drones and etc. etc.)

    And when I got to the end of the glimpse written by you I also was delighted to learn that you have a website called "cassandralegacy". I do not have a personal website and I don't blog (though I do write lots of emails to friends with assorted brilliant analyses and prognoses) but I very often sign off what I consider to be some of my more clever and "optimistic" e mails as "Massandra". (which as you can guess is a mythical animal which in this specific case is half Cassandra and half Massimiliano) (i.e. me !) (or a suitably variable dosage and duly appropriate combination of the two depending on the situation or issue at hand)

    And amazingly enough besides our common "Cassandric" inclinations we are of roughly the same age (I was born in 1946, so I am a few years older than you) and I also definitely have been inspired by the "Limits to Growth" school of thought. In fact I was an undergraduate at MIT (in chemical engineering) just a few years before the Meadows and Randers book first was published in 1972. (I graduated in 1967)

    And of course I also read their 2002 update and am planning to soon read your own Limits to Growth analysis of methods and results which I just discovered you published in 2011. I am not sure what you concluded but I found that the scenarios (which were never meant to be precise forecasts or predictions) identified in the first edition of the Limits to Growth, turned out to be mostly correct.

    And I still remember the early reception of the book in the U.S. where it was either: a) ridiculed b) scoffed at, or c) otherwise lampooned or more simply d) just ignored; And much later, since the world had "not run out of key resources" nor had there been a "malthusian growth in population"....(neither one of which the book had said would happen)....it then obviously and definitely must have been totally wrong and could and should be totally dismissed !

    And now of course we also have not just the old set of self-interested actors trying to belittle the relevant science and the relevant scientific approaches and systems methods, but also new actors such as the Koch Brothers, Fox Channel and a whole bunch of other such.


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  12. In another blog of yours you also do a couple of quite good scenarios (or so I thought) i.e. "the bad scenario" and the "good scenario" (which are also fairly humorous)..(and you apparently also seem to be an extremely strong believer in fusion energy and its imminent arrival on the world scene!).

    Your two scenarios are certainly "temporally comprehensive" since you go back a mere 10 billion years and forward another 10 billion years and since you base them on a sufficiently ambiguous blend of data and speculation that it is very hard to argue for or against them, or take exception to either one of them ! (and so I certainly like them BOTH !)

    But now I face the following very serious problem, acute dilemma, Gordian Knot and Riddle of the Sphynx (all combined) (regarding which perhaps you could offer me some guidance as to how to resolve the matter )

    I now have about four or five scenarios (if not more) that I need to either reconcile or select among: (and these are only the ones I happen to have found out about, so there definitely could be plenty more out there)

    i) the IPCCC scenarios (i.e. the good, the bad and the ugly)

    ii) your two extremely "temporally comprehensive" scenarios (following the arrow of time in BOTH directions for about 10 billion years)

    iii) Jorgen Randers own scenario in his book The World in 2052 which I am now reading...and

    iv) Paul Gilding's scenario in his equally quite good book The Great Disruption

    v) And perhaps even the scenarios in the 2002 Limits to Growth Update

    (not to even mention any scenarios you may have put forward in your 2011 analysis of Limits to Growth which I haven't even read yet)

    So what is a poor Massandric mind to do?

    i) Play it safe and just go for the very worst scenario of them all?

    ii) Or take the average of all the scenarios and decide that the mean or the median is right?
    or...

    iii) should I pick one over all the others, which I think could be quite unfair to the authors of the scenarios I did NOT pick.

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  13. Or finally should I just come up with a scenario of my very own that I probably would just happen to like the most?

    But a bit more seriously for a moment, so far of all the scenarios I have read about so far, I tend to agree with Jorgen Randers' the most. Paul Gilding I also agree with but he seems to think....(or he seems to believe he needs to say) that by 2020 the effects of climate change will be so glaring and disruptive that mankind (and womankind too) will mount a massive effort to stop adding more and more gigatons of CO2, methane and etc. to the atmosphere and hence "solve the problem in the nick of time" (something which I thought was just a tiny bit optimistic) (to say the least) (and your own two good and bad scenarios I also liked a lot but I prefer not to worry too much about the further evolution (or re-evolution) of planet earth over the next ten billion years and am more interested in what may or may not happen over the next 100 years. (which the current cohort of humans has a marginal chance of being able to affect one way or the other)...(barring of course the ever possible mega-asteroid event, which would put us all out of our misery much more quickly and with a lot less pain than climate change)

    So i) how do I select the most realistic and probable scenario and ii) what can I possibly do about it that would make the slightest bit difference to the outcome? (though I do really believe that had the world seriously heeded the message of Limits to Growth number one way back in 1972, we probably would not be anywhere near in the mess we are in)

    But it is also a truism that there is no point either a) crying over spilt milk or b) crying over emitted CO2 and methane or c) crying over old growth forests that have all been cut down....(and/ or crying over a lot of other things humankind has done to the planet over the past half century that definitely bring tears to one's eyes)

    Or maybe I should just travel back in time to the late 1960's and simply ask Timothy Leary. As in please "answer my weary query, Timothy Leary theory"?

    So as I wallow back and forth between the various possible answers above....I also would like to thank you for your very interesting article (and I also will read your 2011 Limits to Growth article) and send you.... "saluti coridali" da parte di Massimiliano qui a Bangkok.

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  14. Thanks, Massimiliano. Are you Italian, BTW?

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    1. Si, sono Italiano (nato a Torino) e con ambedue i miei genitori italiani, ma ho anche la cittadinanza statunitense....and I lived a fair part of my life neither in Italy nor in the United States....but long enough in each so that I am fluent (or at least so I think) in both languages.....so I am not sure exactly how to answer your question above ! (though I just did) But you haven't told me yet how to resolve the "Gordian Knot and the Riddle of the Sphynx I described above !... so I look forward to your reply. Or maybe I should just wait for that mega-asteroid to hit Earth or for some super volcano to do its thing (La Solfatara dei Campi Flegrei?) so that I can stop thinking about it all, altogether? (ovviamente sto solo scherzando) (and one also on occasion has to find a few things to make oneself laugh, otherwise one could easily get really depressed thinking about both the present and about the most probable/possible/plausible and even just remotely likely future !

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    2. Well, Max, I don't have a precise answer to all your questions. The future will be what we want it to be. And the problem is that the large majority of humans have chosen a very bad future. My personal opinion is that the next horseman to come will be called famine; and it will come together with the one called "drought". That will sweep away a lot of worries that we have at present. Then, we may (just may) see a frantic attempt to sweep away the problem by any means at hand. Including a minor nuclear winter. Who knows? It might even work.

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  15. O.K. Ugo & many thanks. (& of course I didn't really expect you to have all the answers to all those questions !) But I do note that in the main you definitely deserve your "Cassandric" borrowed persona, though I am not sure Cassandra would have said that "the future will be what we want it to be" which easily could have put her entirely out of the prophecy business, and had she said it, given her curse, she probably would not have been believed about that either.

    So most probably you have been hopelessly (but correctly) influenced by science, physical chemistry, physics, cosmology and all the like. And I suppose that in many respects I too have "succumbed" to the siren song of science, (and even to more or less scientific thinking in social realms such as politics and economics) which ends up making living a lot more difficult and tricky (though also more exciting and far more real and realistic)... than simply "having faith" or "believing in destiny" and all the like. (which has always seemed to me like total abdication)

    And regarding your definitely fairly Cassandric sounding predictions about which horseman might come first and which might come second, I too think famine is a very likely first arrival global candidate and of course it will be closely correlated with droughts. But the different horsemen may decide to ride to different regions of the world just to keep humanity guessing.

    So around this "neck of the woods" (S.E. Asia) instead, lots of typhoons, hurricanes and floods seem to be the preferred option for physics to do away with all those pesky (and largely ignoramus) (and largely also complacent and narcissistic) human beings.

    But if we want to make it easy on ourselves we can always think that it was all Eve's fault and of course Adam's too, for listening to her and for eating that apple. (and well before Steve Jobs came on the scene of course which would have completely changed the result of eating apples) (or would it have?)

    Right now I am having a relaxing evening here at home watching TV switching back and forth between RAI TV Internazionale, (il gran Vespone di Porta a Porta was just on and I actually tend to quite like him) the BBC, Fox Channel, (which I watch mainly for ideological vaccination purposes) and also Al Jazeera to also hear a bit of real news.

    And I certainly would hate to have to even try to "take the cultural and ideological average" of all those channels which could well prove even more difficult than taking the average of the various "good" or "bad" scenarios for the future.

    And tomorrow is another day.

    Grazie di nuovo e buon proseguimento lungo i purtroppo quasi completamente imprevedibili cammini della vita....ma con la tua fedele amica (ed anche la mia) al tuo fianco.... cioe' la nostra carissima e fedelissima (e quasi infallibile) CASSANDRA !

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)