Welcome to AntiPeak.com. This site will summarize the state of the world today in terms of energy and resource scarcity in order to find and evaluate possible solutions. Although not yet written, I want to share the probable trends of the 21st century as an introduction.
I don’t foresee the future as being anything as grim as the ones depicted in Mad Max and Elyseum, but it wouldn’t be a suitable bedtime story either. It’s not the end of civilization, but we are seeing the end of an era. We’ve enjoyed consistent growth in consumption, population and economies on the upwards slope of the fossil fuel production curve, and there will no doubt be a lot of turmoil on the downwards slope when those trends are reversed.
The general trends of our civilization were predicted in 1972 by a group of MIT researchers called the Club of Rome. It was the first time computers were used to simulate and make predictions about the future of our society. In their seminal work “The Limits to Growth” the group presented a number of different world scenarios. The first was a business-as-usual scenario, which predicted the collapse of our global systems midway through the 21st century. Their other scenarios detailed plans for how we could avert this systemic collapse through different policy changes. The intent of their research was that their warnings would be heard and that these dire conclusions would be avoided. But instead their work was widely ridiculed, criticized for being too pessimistic, and generally ignored.
Every couple of years the group updates their simulation with the most recent data, but each new book just confirms that we are right on schedule with the not too bright business-as-usual scenario laid forth in 1972. Furthermore, the recent alternative scenarios based on different policy changes no longer predict that we can have a smooth transition over to a sustainable world. It will be a bumpy ride. Given our current trajectories, here are some of the fairly inevitable trends:
1. Energy trend
There will be a decline in available net energy. We’re unlikely to be able to grow the renewables at a pace anywhere near enough to replace declining fossil fuels on a 1:1 basis. That’s why energy conservation, efficiency, and curtailment of energy use will have to occupy center stage in our transition policy. The price of declining oil exports will fluctuate, as high oil prices leads to demand destruction and recession, but the general price trend will be upwards as we go after ever lower quality reserves requiring greater investments of energy for each unit of energy produced. The transformation of our energy infrastructure is a costly multi-decade process in the best of times, but facing economic contraction, an enormous debt load, the retirement of the baby boom generation, climate change and other predicaments converging all at once may leave us unable to completely make the transition.
What we’re facing initially is a liquid fuel problem, which renewables cannot directly solve as they produce electricity. In the short term countries like China are producing coal-to-oil plants offset the oil decline, but as they alone are already using 50% of the global coal production for electricity these plants won’t change much. Coal and natural gas are also likely to face their global production peaks within the next two decades, leading to higher prices of electricity and potential supply disruptions.
2. Economic trend
As our economic system becomes starved for energy we won’t be able to maintain business as usual much longer. No matter how much money we inject into the system it won’t change the fact that demand has outstripped supply for the world’s most important commodity. People will have to cut back on discretionary spending because of rising cost of oil, and in turn food and other commodities, leading to more layoffs and recession. High unemployment will also put downwards pressure on salaries which further reduces tax revenues and lead to a self-reinforcing debt default cycle, both for individuals and governments. Defaults in turn would lead to deflation as capital is destroyed, but we’re more likely to face increasing inflation as a result of governments flooding the economy with money in order to try and maintain things as they are.
3. Environmental trend
Declining fossil fuel reserves will force us off the carbon economy, leading to reduced carbon emissions at a rate no man-made policies could enforce. However, our impact on the climate will likely be felt for centuries to come. The cost of climate change is already estimated to be hundreds of billions of dollars each year from extreme weather, droughts, flooding, human displacement, conflict and loss of biodiversity, and it will get worse before it gets better. Climate change won’t kill us, but it will have an impact on our food security and affect the livelihoods of millions of farmers, especially in the poorer countries. Chances are that when the economy goes into terminal decline and profits are threatened, many of our attempts to save the environment will be abandoned.
4. Transportation trend
In the transport section the general trend will be decreased mobility. In response to higher liquid fuel prices we will adapt by driving less. Commercial air travel will also continue its decline in the years ahead as they’re very susceptible to high energy prices. Those who can afford it will switch over to plug-in electric and hydrogen cars, but for many private motoring will have to give way to cheaper, more energy efficient public transportation, such as trains and buses. People living in suburbia, which accounts for 50% of US population, will have the greatest problems, as that living arrangement practically requires private cars and cheap fuel. The US oil companies bought up and tore down the railroads to motorize the population without much objection, but that will prove to have been a very bad idea going forward. Vehicle miles driven per capita in the US peaked in 2005 and is already on a steep decline.
5. Population trend
When limits are hit the tendency is to overshoot them and collapse. Not to even out in a nice orderly fashion. As a species we have seriously overshot the human carrying capacity of the globe by subsidizing it with cheap fossil fuel energy. Modern agriculture has been described as the process of transforming fossil fuel energy into food with a bit of help from sunlight, to the tune of 7 calories of fossil fuel being embodied in every calorie consumed as food. Our heavily mechanized agriculture system relies on inputs such as diesel, natural gas based chemical fertilizers, and oil based pesticides, in order to increase yields. Many farms also rely on fossil aquifers for irrigation instead of just annual rainfall, which clearly isn’t sustainable. Without fossil fuels our crops will shrink and more manual labor will be needed, making smaller farms and increased numbers of farmers necessary.
Although energy and food get scarcer, population will lag behind and isn’t likely to peak until 2030-2050 between 8-10 billion. While this population decline can be done humanely by reducing the number of children born today, we aren’t likely to choose that option willingly, or any of the others options. Population control is controversial to say the least. Everything that increases global population is inherently considered “good”, such as medicine, sanitation, public health, law and order, clean air and scientific agriculture. As such nature will have to choose for us from the other side of that equation: wars over scarce resources, violence, famine, malnutrition, disease, accidents, stopped immigration and pollution.
Keep in mind that these are global trends and they won’t apply the same to every country, let alone every community or individual. All things being equal, richer countries are likely to fare better and adapt faster to the changing circumstances. But 80% of humanity lives on under $10 per day, so it doesn’t take a large disruption in prices for that demographic to reach crisis level. Also keep in mind that reduced consumption of energy, goods and services do not necessarily mean a worse quality of life. Americans use 50% more energy than Europeans, but they are not happier than us because of it.