By Nafeez Ahmed
Mar 23, 2014
A new post-carbon era dawns as the old fossil fuel system dies. It's time to step up.
Last Friday, I posted an exclusive report about a new NASA-backed scientific research project at the US National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (Sesync) to model the risks of civilisational collapse, based on analysis of the key factors involved in the rise and fall of past civilisations.
The story went viral and was quickly picked up by other news outlets around the world which, however, often offered rather misleading headlines. 'Nasa-backed study says humanity is pretty much screwed', said Gizmodo. 'Nasa-funded study says modern society doomed, like the dodo', said the Washington Times.
Are we doomed?
Doom is not the import of this study, nor of my own original research on these issues as encapsulated in my book, A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It. Rather what we are seeing, as I'veargued in detail before, are escalating, interconnected symptoms of the unsustainability of the global system in its current form. While the available evidence suggests that business-as-usual is likely to guarantee worst-case scenarios, simultaneously humanity faces an unprecedented opportunity to create a civilisational form that is in harmony with our environment, and ourselves.
Of course, there are those who go so far as to argue that humanity is heading for extinction by 2030, and that it's too late to do anything about it.
But as other scientists have pointed out, while the number of positive-feedbacks that could go into 'runaway' on a business-as-usual scenario appears overwhelming, whether they have yet is at best unclear from the numbers - and at worst, we find that proponents of fatalism are actually systematically misrepresenting and obfuscating the science to justify hopelessness.
Then there are those on the opposite end of the spectrum who have taken up the personal crusade of spreading joy and happiness by pretending that everything's going to be just fine - all the while ignoring the fact that our leading lights of science such as the US National Academy of Sciences, Nature and the Royal Society are pointing to the convergence of environmental, agricultural and energy challenges in coming decades without some sort of major change.
What the cross-disciplinary study I wrote about last week suggests - like previous research - is that our current trajectory is unsustainable because our demand for ecological resources and services is increasingly going beyond what the planet is able to provide. This 'overshoot' is already responsible for a range of overlapping crises - the financial crash, the food crisis, intensifying civil unrest to name just a few - and is likely to worsen without meaningful action.
Overshoot and inequality are part of the same failing system
Why is this happening? The Sesync study lends credence to an argument I've also made frequently - that at the core of our current civilisational model is a dramatic inequality in access to the Earth's resources, coupled with an ideology which sees those resources as nothing more than a playing field for a minority of members of the human species to accumulate material wealth without limits.
The vast majority of the world's resources - not just monetary wealth, but land, resources and raw materials - is owned and controlled by a tiny minority of states, monarchs, aristocratic families, banks and corporations. It is no accident that the Queen of Great Britain - arguably the harbinger of contemporary global capitalism before its supercession by the United States - is the world's largest landlord, owning about 6.6 billion acres of land. That is one-sixth of the Earth's land surface. It gets worse. 1,318 corporations own 80 per cent of the world's wealth, and out of that, a tiny interlocking nexus of 147 'super corporations' own half of that.
But across the board, as an extensive Chatham House report showed presciently two years ago, resources are depleting, scarcity is increasing, and prices are rising according to the best data available. This is happening, Chatham House argued, due to a combination of stagnating economic growth, continued demographic expansion, intensifying demand, and increasing costs of resource extraction.
The party's over... welcome to the after-party
Since 2005, the world food price index has doubled, remaining at record levels. Simultaneously, dramatic oil price rises have not helped the energy industry sustain profits. Instead, even as investment in oil field development and extraction has increased by 200-300% since 2000, this has translated into a tepid oil supply increase of just 12%. All the best evidence indicates that the dawn of fracking represents not a new revolution for fossil fuels, but rather a "retirement party", to quote US energy analyst Chris Nelder.
Faced with the overwhelming scale of the multiplicity of global challenges we now face, a sense of disempowerment is understandable. However, as I've argued before, it is unnecessary and self-defeating.
Indeed, what we are facing is something far more complex than an 'end-is-nigh' scenario: not the end of the world, but the end of the oldindustrial paradigm of endless growth premised on practically endless oil, that is increasingly breaching its own biophysical limits; and theemergence of an emerging paradigm of civilisation based on a vision of a global commons for all.
Death throes of fossil fuels
As Nelder writes in his latest column, we find ourselves at a potentially exciting crossroads: the literal death throes of the fossil fuel industry, amidst the inexorable, sporadic rise of a new renewable energy system. Renewable sceptics are simply wrong, obsessed with the slow, centralised economic dynamics of fossil fuels rather than understanding the unique, distributed dynamics of the new.
In Nelder's words:
"Underlying the abundance hype over tight oil, tar sands and other 'unconventional' sources of liquid fuel has been a dirty little secret: They're expensive. The soaring cost of producing oil has far outpaced the rise in oil prices as the world has relied on these marginal sources to keep production growing since conventional oil production peaked in 2005...
The toxic combination of rising production costs, the rapid decline rates of the wells, diminishing prospects for drilling new wells, and a drilling program so out of control that it caused a glut and destroyed profitability, have finally taken their toll."
And it's not just the oil companies enduring "major write-downs against reserves" (Nelder points to... Chesapeake Energy, Encana, Apache, Anadarko Petroleum, BP, and BHP Billiton). Coal-fired power capacity will be slashed by 60 gigawatts (GW) by 2016, "more than double" 2012 predictions, while last year nuclear plants were being retired at an "unprecedented rate" with "more on the way" - largely due to issues with "profitability."
The core driver behind this fossil fuel death-spiral is:
"... competition from lower-cost wind, solar, and natural gas generators, and by rising operational and maintenance costs. As more renewable power is added to the grid, the economics continue to worsen for utilities clinging to old fossil-fuel generating assets."
In Germany, for instance, where 25% of the grid is powered by decentralised renewables (over 50% of which is owned by citizens), the three largest utilities, E.ON, RWE, and EnBW "are struggling with what the CEO of RWE called 'the worst structural crisis in the history of energy supply.'"
As Nelder explains, the one-way shift to solar and storage systems constitutes a "real, near and present" threat to centralised utilities:
"Falling consumption and growing renewable power have cut the wholesale price of electricity by 60 percent since 2008, making it unprofitable to continue operating coal, gas and oil-fired plants. Renewable energy now supplies 23 percent of global electricity generation, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, with capacity having doubled from 2000 to 2012. If that growth rate continues, it could become the dominant source of electricity by the next decade."
A new report by Colorado's Rocky Mountain Institute suggests that if renewables continue to be adopted this aggressively, "off-grid systems" will prove "cheaper than all utility-sold electricity in the region just a decade out from today." A Deutsch Bank report late last year confirmed much the same, predicting that solar and renewables are "just at the beginning of the grid parity era."
The rise of the new clean, decentralised energy system is happening faster than anyone anticipated, and in spite of huge government subsidies for the old fossil fuel industry. But it is merely one step on the ladder to a new post-carbon paradigm.
As energy is the underpinning of a society, the unravelling of the fossil fuel system signifies the demise of the old paradigm. By the end of this century, one way or another, this paradigm will be obsolete. It's up to us what will take its place - and as the death-spiral of the old paradigm accelerates, so do the opportunities to explore viable alternatives.
The rise of the new paradigm
The new emerging paradigm is premised on a fundamentally different ethos, in which we see ourselves not as disconnected, competing units fixated on maximising consumerist conquest over one another; but as interdependent members of a single human family. Our economies, rather than being assumed to exist in a vacuum of unlimited material expansion, are seen as embedded in wider society, such that economic activity for its own sake is recognised as the pathology that it is. Instead, economic enterprise becomes aligned with the deeper values that make us human - values like meeting our basic needs, education and discovery, arts and culture, sharing and giving: the values which psychologists say contribute to well-being and happiness, far more than mere money and things. And in turn, our societies are seen not as autonomous entities to which the whole of the planet must be ruthlessly subjugated, but rather as inherently embedded in the natural environment.
In this model, households, communities and towns become producers and consumers of clean energy - and the same could apply to food. On the one hand, we need to put an end to the wasteful practices of the existing industrial food system, by which one third of global food production is lost or wasted every year. On the other, we must shift away from resource-intensive forms of traditional corporate-dominated agriculture.
In some cases, given that at least 70% of global food production comes from small-farmers, we will find that shifting to agro-ecological farming could dramatically increase sustainability and yields. Communal organic farming offers immense potential not only for employment, but also for households to become local owners and producers in the existing food supply chain, particularly in poorer countries - and an increasing shift to agro-ecology could meet the challenges faced by the existing global food system. This verdict is not being promoted by organic zealots, but by the world's leading food scientists convened by the UN Commission on Trade & Development (UNCTAD) and the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development(IAASTD).
This new paradigm of distributed clean energy production, decentralised farming, and participatory economic cooperation, offers a model of development free from the imperative of endless growth for its own sake; and it leads us directly to a new model of democracy, based not on large-scale, hierarchical-control, but on the wholesale decentralisation of power, towards smaller, local ownership and decision-making.
In the new paradigm, households and communities become owners of capital, in their increasing appropriation of the means to produce energy, food and water at a local level. Economic democratisation drives political empowerment, by ensuring that critical decisions about production and distribution of wealth take place in communities, by communities. But participatory enterprise requires commensurate mechanisms of monetary exchange which are equitable and transparent, free from the fantasies and injustices of the conventional model.
In the new paradigm, neither money nor credit will be tied to the generation of debt. Banks will be community-owned institutions fully accountable to their depositors; and whirlwind speculation on financial fictions will be replaced by equitable investment schemes in which banks share risks with their customers, and divide returns fairly. The new currency will not be a form of debt-money, but, if anything, will be linked more closely to real-world assets.
But equally, the very notions of growth, progress, and happiness will be redefined. We now know, thanks to research by the likes of psychologist Oliver James and epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson, that material prosperity in the West has not only failed to make us happy, it has proliferated mental illnesses, and widened social inequalities, which are scientifically linked to a prevalence of crime, violence, drug abuse, teenage births, obesity, and other symptoms of social malaise.
This doesn't mean that material progress is irrelevant - but that when it becomes the overriding force of society, it is dysfunctional. So arguably we must accept that the old paradigm of unlimited material acquisition is in its death throes – and that the new paradigm of community cooperation is far more in tune with both human nature, and the natural order.
This new paradigm may well still be nascent, like small seeds, planted in disparate places. But as the Crisis of Civilization accelerates over the next decades, communities everywhere will become increasingly angry and disillusioned with what went before. And in that disillusionment with the old paradigm, the seeds we're planting today will blossom and offer a vision of hope that will be irresistible tomorrow.
As I wrote four years ago:
"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:
1. 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.
2. More decentralised politico-economic participation through self-managerial producer and consumer councils to facilitate participatory decision-making in economic enterprises.
3. 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.
4. Fostering a new, distributed renewable energyinfrastructure based on successful models.
5. 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 interest.
6. Elimination of unrestricted lending system based on faulty quantitative risk-assessment models, with mechanisms to facilitate greater regulation of lending practices by bank depositors themselves.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. Emergence of a 'post-materialist' ethic recognising 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 consumerism."
And as I wrote last year:
"We do not have the option of pessimism and fatalism. There's enough of that to go around. Our task is to work together to co-create viable visions for what could be, and to start building those visions now, from the ground up."
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and author of A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It among other books. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed