If we persist in ignoring this fact, and continue pretending that our obsolete Capitalistic Profit Focused Neutral Market will save us, then we aresurely doomed. … Today’s author warns us of the risks of continuing such behavior.
A Proper Civil War
The human race faced the probability of famine at the dawn of the 20th century for a couple of reason which I’ll delve into in a moment. We’ve put off that reckoning for a century but instead of seeing things for what they were and governing ourselves accordingly we used our wits and fossil fuel endowment to climb even further out onto the branch of unsustainability.
Nearly seven billion of us now perch on that branch, meant for a third of that number, and not all of us will pass through the needle’s eye of economic collapse, energy depletion, and environmental change.
The light’s going to start coming on for the masses this summer and we’ve got a choice; a rational explanation and a rational response, or falling down the disloyal Christian Right’s apocalyptic bunny hole.
The Oil Drum is the center of the universe for serious discussion regarding peak oil, Real Climate aggregates peer reviewed climate change science, and I trust The Automatic Earth as the root for any exploration of global financial issues. As I read them I’m not seeing recession, and I’m not seeing depression; we face epochal change.
We used to get our nitrogen fertilizer from various nitrate deposits around the world. The last ones to be worked were in Chile and at the turn of the 20th century the fear they’d run out was very real. You’re wondering what this has to do with energy? The replacement for the Chilean deposits’ contribution to global agriculture was the discovery of various means of synthesizing ammonia, the first gateway chemical we make on the way to biologically accessible nitrogen. The hydrogen needed for the process came first from hydroelectric power but today two thirds of production is coal based and the rest runs on natural gas. The United States uses half of the natural gas produced ammonia and very little of that which is made with coal.
The coal production will still go on, but at what price? The Holocene age during which our species evolved had a normal carbon dioxide concentration of 180ppm to 280ppm. We became fossil fuel consumers right at the peak of the norm .. and then knocked it a hundred parts per million higher. Good bye Holocene, hello Ohshitocene. The world is going to be hotter, drier, and when the rain comes it’s going to be wilder than we’ve ever seen. Adding to that with coal based ammonia production, the dirtiest possible means, isn’t going to help the situation.
Natural gas as a hydrogen source leading to nitrogen production is even more uncertain. Jon Freise has published another report on the natural gas market and it doesn’t look good. The economic mess has reduced investment and gas fields depend on a constant flow of new wells to maintain production, as 40% or more of the total production from a gas well happens in the first year. Heating and electric generation are two other big uses. Add those up, factor in the ill conceived Pickens Plan, and it’s a real mess in the making.
The foundation of our government is based on the thinking of John Locke and he assumed, looking out from 17th century England, that the world was infinite. Everywhere we look we see limits, from the North Pacific garbage patch to the inevitable loss of access to low Earth orbit. Everywhere we go we wipe out resources and leave a mess in our wake. Locke’s infinite Earth has been replaced by one that is quite simply irritated with us.
Our economic system depends upon compound interest, compound interest depends on expanding economic activities, and all of those activities and the thinking behind them came together in an era of steadily increasing energy. Wind gave way to coal gave way to bunker oil and we moved goods and people across the seas at will. Wood gave way to coal gave way to natural gas and our homes and places of business were always comfortably warm. Electricity was always a creature of fossil fuel and it’s path is a curious reverse as we put in more and more renewable sources. Even with an immediate, forceful move to a purely renewable future the journey back to this planet’s solar maximum will look like the Trail of Tears.
The facts of the matter are clear. Less energy means less economic activity and anything we try to do using our old fossil fuel addiction to drive it makes our environmental situation worse. Ammonia production is an energetic and economic activity that produces half of all the protein humans consume. Our warming, acidifying seas are responsible for much of the rest. This story does not end with a happily ever after.
We have to interpret our situation so we can find a path forward. We have the choice of reason, understanding the geology of oil and gas depletion, understanding the ecology and atmospheric chemistry of global warming, and debunking the so called ‘science’ of economics, with its disregard for what economists called ‘externalities’ once and for all.
The other choice is the irrational domain of religious fanaticism. Instead of seeing cause and effect, see everything that happens as some master plan on the part of a supernatural force, leading up to an apocalyptic ‘end of days’. Don’t circle the wagons here on our relatively safe, relatively lightly populated continent, but instead focus on those who cleave to a different supernatural force.
I think we’re going to pick both. We’re constrained by our history, constrained badly. We’ve had a rich, largely empty continent that took two centuries to fill. We had a civil war once, but with separate geographic territories and uniformed, organized armies fighting for formal governments it was like few other civil wars in history. This next conflict, it’ll pit the rational against the religious, Hispanics against a subset of the whites, and it’ll put great stress upon and perhaps bring an end to the continental United States as we know it today. We don’t have any more room to grow, either geographical or energetically, and as George Monbiot says we’ll be
“fighting like cats in a sack” soon enough.
I wish I was wrong, I truly do. But I look back over the last fifteen months of diaries and two jump right out at me: My prediction of Mexico as a failed state from January 4th of 2008 is first … and 385 days later the U.S. Joint Forces Command agreed with me.
Mexico; poorer than us, drier than us, running smack into the depletion of its massive oil field in the Bay of Campeche, and coming apart due to drugs and corruption, all the while with the best and brightest of the Mexican nation making the way from the Mexican state to ours. This place is our neighbor, our soon to be our failed state as Iraq is to Iran, and it’s the canary in the North American coal mine.
Another thing I wrote, a mere review of someone else’s work, also seems an appropriate reference at this time. Dmitry Orlov’s fine book, Reinventing Collapse. Find a copy of this book and have a look; the parallels are too many to ignore. And we all know about Chechnya, Georgia, and there are other brush fires still burning nearly twenty years after their collapse.
Some times I have a little hope and I share. This is not one of those days. There are still things that need to be done to secure what of our nation that can be saved, but understand this well: We’ve got a visible ethnic minority that’ll be a target for scapegoating and a significant fraction of the population with an apocalyptic worldview who can no longer be counted as loyal. The rubbing those two groups together may very well be the spark that ignites a conflagration.