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To save the world we may have to waste it

By Michael Lardelli - posted Friday, 15 February 2008


“The only thing worse than peak oil now is peak oil in 20 years time.”

I first heard this comment in 2004 not long after finding out about the imminent peak in the world’s oil production rate (“peak oil”). Now in 2008 it seems we passed the peak of conventionally-mined oil more than a year ago. When I start to feel depressed about the implications of the decline in world oil production this comment helps me to deal with it. Let me explain:

Nothing happens without energy and oil is the master facilitating resource of our civilisation. Oil provides the majority of the world’s energy, and almost all of its transport energy - in a highly concentrated form that is easy to store and carry. It is also the source of plastics that are part of almost every aspect of modern life.

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With oil driving the Green Revolution we have increased our population to nearly seven billion and our current consumption patterns are destroying the world’s ecosystems - our life support mechanism.

The ecological foot print of the human race is currently 1.25 planet Earths and rising. The abundant energy of oil allows us to exceed the sustainable carrying capacity of our world for a short period but with irreparable environmental consequences. The longer we continue on this path the more damage we do and the more severe the ultimate ecological penalty to be payed.

Declining rates of oil extraction mean a compulsory and unavoidable reduction in energy use. With declining energy availability comes a decreased ability to impact on our environment. Our weight of numbers is great and our impact will remain considerable for some time - but if we are unsustainable now just imaging how desperately worse off we would be if our oil supply allowed another 20 years of population and consumption growth!

Fortunately our energy reserves are far more limited than many believe. Even the most damaging fossil fuel - coal - will probably show peak production before 2030. Once coal goes into decline it’s game over for industrial civilisation. There is simply no other concentrated source of energy to fall back on. (Nuclear energy resources are too limited.) Our industrial activity must decrease because “energy” is defined as “the capacity to do work” so less energy means less work done.

The current, suicidal path of our civilisation was understood decades, if not centuries ago. With this knowledge the only sane course of action has been to turn back, reduce our energy use, reduce our consumption, stabilise our population and try to find ecological balance.

But humans are not sane. We are short-sighted and think mainly of ourselves. We fight, we breed and we die - just like any other mindless species on this planet. That is how nature works.

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I am one of those “pessimists” that has great faith in the ignorance and short-sighted self-interest of human society. If you forced me to wager money on whether the world’s billions of human inhabitants will unite in self-imposed austerity to overcome climate change or, instead, will ignore their own children’s long term best interests and continue to consume and pollute then I would bet on the latter.

The moment declining fossil fuel reserves threaten economic growth we will see all talk of reducing carbon emissions thrown out the window as we desperately look for something (anything!) to burn to keep the lights on.

If the short-sighted greed and self-interest of our species threatens our survival then what is the “sanest” course of action for an individual to take? The answer is not obvious. If I choose voluntarily to reduce my consumption, then all I do is leave unused resource capacity that allows more human mouths to be born. If some of us adopt frugality but the rest do not stop population growth then our species will reach its resource limits with many more mouths to feed than if we all consumed as wastefully as possible.

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About the Author

Michael Lardelli is Senior Lecturer in Genetics at The University of Adelaide. Since 2004 he has been an activist for spreading awareness on the impact of energy decline resulting from oil depletion. He has written numerous articles on the topic published in The Adelaide Review and elsewhere, has delivered ABC Radio National Perspectives, spoken at events organised by the South Australian Department of Trade and Economic Development and edits the (subscription only) Beyond Oil SA email newsletter. He has lectured on "peak oil" to students in the Australian School of Petroleum.

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