free html hit counter Peak Oil Debunked: 20. GROWTH=DEATH OR GROWTH=LIFE?

Wednesday, August 17, 2005


Generally, the discussion in peak oil circles is focused on intervals of time like years and decades, which are just instants in cosmological terms. But let's widen our scope, just for a moment. Imagine the earth and humankind 1,000 years from now, or 10,000 years from now, or a million years from now.

I think a lot depends on what you see. Peak oilers often say: "Even if we overcome peak oil with some breakthrough, that will just make the inevitable crash more severe." In other words, growth per se is actually bad, and in fact deadly. Growth = Death. Growth must be stopped.

But what if we look at the earth as a sort of cosmic egg, from which life (and humans) emerged? Yes, we are growing, but that is to be expected because we are a young, living thing. The cells in a woman's womb divide exponentially for a considerable period of time, and you wouldn't want a peak oiler inside the growing fetus saying growth should be stopped because the womb is finite. Children are supposed to grow, and if your son wasn't growing you wouldn't say: "Oh thank goodness, if he grew anymore, it would only make his inevitable collapse more severe." You understand: when things stop growing, they start dying. So that's the other way to look at it: Growth = Life.

It may be that we are truly confined to the earth. Another possibility is that we will confine ourselves to the earth due to unfounded fears. It reminds me of Christopher Columbus. On his ship, the outcome was very uncertain. I picture anti-growth advocates like the fearful sailors on his ship. "We're going to die. We shouldn't even be out here, if we don't even know whether there's land to reach." There's also a strain of the "Tower of Babel" in their doctrine. Or even a quasi-Christian approach, where the "die-off" plays the role of hell in scaring non-believers into accepting the teachings of the church fathers. The post-peak period will be the Last Judgment, where we humans are punished for our grave sins -- stealing the apple, building the tower, grandiosely dreaming that we could touch the stars, or aspire to be like gods. It's kind of ironic that peak oil non-believers are called "flat-earthers", since it was the flat-earthers who were the anti-growth religious reactionaries, people like the scared sailors on Columbus's ship. Indeed, if you think about it, there's a nice symmetry between "flat earth" thinking and "finite earth" thinking.

If growth=death, then yes, the party is over. We have passed our nadir. We have nothing to look forward to except devolution, hard-scrabble living, societal regression and decay. Science and technology will not advance in any useful way (i.e. any way relevant to energy). Money will be unmasked as the pied piper of growth, and solemnly banished. Finally, someday, a cosmic event will destroy the earth, and that will be the end of it. That is the destiny which the anti-growth movement is offering. That's it. It's a sad, dark vision of defeat.

I guess it all boils down to this: Are we a young life form, or an old life form? Maybe peak oil is just a tough time, like puberty. The peak oilers would seem to say that PO marks middle age. We've gone through our growth spurt, and must now mature, shrink and die. "We've got to powerdown" is just another way to say "It's better to die gracefully."

It's funny. If the peak oilers packaged their agenda in a different way, I would immediately agree with it. I.e.: if they said growth needed to be stabilized until we made the transition to extra-planetary growth. I'm very interested in experiments like Biosphere II which attempt to achieve steady-state, no-growth, perfectly cyclical, waste-free life. I too believe that steady-state systems are extremely important, and we need to make the earth into one. There's a lot of potential synergy there.

But that's not how the peak oilers do it. They come at you arrogant and aggressive, like Jehovah's Witnesses. They've got a pamphlet with a disaster on the cover, and a picture inside of the comparatively comfy peasant lifestyle you will live while all the non-believers get their comeuppance in the "die-off" hell. Believe or die -- that's their motto.

I wish we could strike a happy medium... Isn't there a way to combine concern about the environment, energy and resources with a more optimistic, pro-growth view of the long-run?


At Wednesday, August 17, 2005 at 7:33:00 AM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

in a finite system, continued growth = life until the point where the system will not support more growth. then growth = impossible. there is no optimistic pro-growth view. in a fininte system such as our planet, growth has natural limits. if we continue to grow at 1% per year globally, our population doubles every 70 years. our planet certainly won't sustain that. you'd better get off this blog and start developing cold-fusion and mining dilythium crystals. good luck on your starship, cap'n.

At Wednesday, August 17, 2005 at 8:41:00 AM PDT, Blogger James Shannon said...

Yes, there are limits to growth. But to think that because Peak Oil is reached, up suddenly becomes down and people start running around screaming like extras in a B-movie is sensationalistic thinking.

Allow me to explain my relative non-panic. I am an ergonomics engineer. As such, I realize that there is alot of waste in industry and society at large. If we were to cut wasteful work activities and wasteful energy usage by 20 or 30%, the gains from these improvements would be huge. Enough to maintain a relatively good (albeit less wasteful) standard of living for a long period of time until the next big energy source comes along (at which point, the oil ceiling can be broken though). In the meantime, it will be a mix of traditional oil with synthetic and biofuels mixed in for good measure. Life will be expensive, but life will go on.


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