Friday, 27 February 2009

Future perfect

The article I wrote for the American Conservative last August, "Future Perfect," has been reprinted on Energy Bulletin, for those who are interested. I highly recommend Energy Bulletin in general -- it is one of the few sites I ritually check every morning, a clearinghouse of the genuinely important news.


Larry Menkes said...


I appreciate your measured and sober assessment of the possibilities for an energy constrained future. Certainly, there could be aspects of simpler living that have some of the positive qualities of "Mayberry". However, it is more likely that at least one other issue will cloud the outlook and skew whatever scenarios we can dream up. That is the potential for climate change to be superimposed on peak oil, as it likely will.

What troubles me when I begin to mentally sketch out the possibilities is the variety of ways the two could interact, depending on the timing and the aspect(s) that manifest. One particularly troubling possibility is that the "scramble" scenario, one of two favorites of MIT and Shell Oil, will begin to unfold.

What seems most likely to come from the environment, if Lovelock is correct, besides some more super-storms, heat waves, and expanding droughts, is sea level rise. Significant rise could occur in as little as a decade or less. And according to those who track the money (and the cryosphere), as little as one meter more could overwhelm the ability of the global economy to cope and adapt.

And since a rough rule of thumb is one inch up equals 100 feet inland, one meter up looks like an average loss of 1.2 kilometers from the world's coastlines. Who wants to calculate the refugee load that a 1 meter sea level rise would generate?

So, depending on how those two unfold, what effects do you think we might expect? Perhaps this calculation will boggle your mind as much as it does mine.

Furthermore, what other black swan event might occur to really complicate our lives? I think that the first two scenarios could easily generate another large surprise or two, perhaps from unexpected sources.

Perhaps the writing out possibilities for our future has merit, and some must do it, and do. But by engaging in such exercises, aren't we really asking if we can survive what the future holds for us?

If so, I rely on something I think came down from E. F. Schumacher. He said that the questions misleads because if we think we will it leads to complacency; if we think we won't it leads to despair. What we must do then is roll up our sleeves and get back to work on whatever is needed to effect a positive outcome.

My favorite answer for now (and what I'm working on) is to rapidly and radically eliminate all of the energy waste in the system. We can do this in the name of fiscal responsibility; a wonderful strategy for these economic times. It avoids the pejorative and other biases accorded to treehuggers and peakniks. Before we come close to finishing that task there will be additional data and more clarity on what that foreshortened future holds, and a next step will become more apparent.

Larry Menkes

yooper said...

Hello Brian! I just came by your article at EB. Outstanding! I cannot agree more! Excellent assessment!

Heh! Where I live, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, it's alot like turning back the clock during the times of Mayberry. We just never experienced the "growth" realized by other areas in the country. Suppose, we won't have that far to fall and that life here will not be all that different (going back in time) than it was 100 years ago, 100 years from now...

Thanks, yooper

Brian Kaller said...


Thank you for the letter, and your thoughts run close to mine. I have given some thought to how peak oil and climate change might affect each other, and I am just putting something together on the subject. It will be posted this week or so.

Shell’s scramble scenario, as much as I know of it, seems entirely possible and worrisome, and I don’t know whether we will experience Lovelock’s extinction scenarios or one of the less dire – but still emergency -- scenarios.

I believe in lobbying governments and corporations, transforming our lives as quickly as possible, but I also believe that we can’t destroy our own lives losing sleep over things that are out of our hands. I’m trying to figure out where to draw that line.

I agree about shedding our wasted energy; today I and other people from my group spoke to auditoriums of teenagers at some local schools, conscripting them to take part in an energy audit of their homes and neighbourhoods. It is a small step, but so is anything.

Thank you very much, Yooper. I recognize your handle from the coomments on John Michael Greer's blog. I moved here from Minnesota, not far away, and I hope I can still see the Upper Peninsula sometime.