The end of the world as we know it and the rise of the post-carbon era
By Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed
Online Journal Contributing Writer
Sep 24, 2010, 00:22
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
- Widespread distribution of ownership of
productive resources so that all members of society have a stake in
agricultural, industrial and commercial productive enterprises, rather
than a tiny minority monopolising resources for their own interests.
- More decentralised politico-economic
participation through self-managerial producer and consumer councils to
facilitate participatory decision-making in economic enterprises.
- Re-defining the meaning of economic growth
to focus less on materially-focused GDP, and more on the capacity to
deliver values such as health, education, well-being, longevity, political
and cultural freedom.
- Fostering a new, distributed renewable
energy infrastructure based on successful models such as that of the
borough of Woking in Surrey, UK.
- Structural reform of the monetary, banking
and financial system including abolition of interest, in particular the
cessation of money-creation through government borrowing on compound
- Elimination of unrestricted lending system
based on faulty quantitative risk-assessment models, with mechanisms to
facilitate greater regulation of lending practices by bank depositors
- Development of parallel grassroots
participatory political structures that are both transnational and
community-oriented, by which to facilitate community governance as well as
greater popular involvement in mainstream political institutions.
- Development of parallel grassroots
participatory economic institutions that are both transnational and
community-oriented, to facilitate emergence of alternative equitable media
of exchange and loans between North and South.
- Emergence of a �post-materialist�
scientific paradigm and worldview which recognizes that the cutting-edge
insights of physics and biology undermine traditional, mechanistic
conceptions of the natural order, pointing to a more holistic
understanding of life and nature.
- Emergence of a �post-materialist� ethic
recognizing that progressive values and ideals such as justice,
compassion, and generosity are more conducive to the survival of the human
species, and thus more in harmony with the natural order, than the
conventional �materialistic� behaviours associated with neoliberal
Dr. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed is Executive
Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development in London. His
latest book is A User�s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization (Pluto, 2010).
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