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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.


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.


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.

Faced with the inevitability of resource limits the best scenario is to hit these limits with as small a human population as possible. Our waste and inefficiency then becomes a buffer of unused capacity. As resources decline we can reduce our consumption but still have enough to support life (maybe - if our supporting ecosystems have not collapsed completely).

In contrast, if we hit our resource limits with maximal numbers of humans each living very frugally, then we have no spare capacity to fall back on and we will all perish.

I hope that you now understand that, as a member of an insane, short-sighted, self-interested and broadly unco-operative species the most sane course of action for an individual to take is to consume as wastefully as possible - to save the world we may have to waste it! There are a number of corollaries to this idea:

  1. The wealthiest nations on this Earth are doing the world a favour by consuming as fast and as wastefully as possible. Australians are particularly meritorious in this regard. We even exceed the carbon dioxide output of our commendable American cousins.
  2. The poor, overpopulated nations of this world are the true enemies of human survival. To compensate for their ignorant frugality the developed nations must try to consume ever more and to do it faster. It is only right that we should consume the resources of the poor nations in doing this (so that their damaging populations will meet local resource constraints sooner).
  3. We need to encourage behaviours and living arrangements that increase the use of resources. Activities that increase the efficient use of resources, such as public transport, libraries, organic agriculture and the like need to be recognised for the anti-social activities that they are. People that drive newly manufactured, large, heavy, high-tech vehicles, that live in enormous, poorly insulated, air-conditioned houses, and eat pre-packaged meat-rich meals should be granted the respect that they so evidently deserve.
  4. Interest rates must be kept low to allow increased consumption purchased by cheap loans. An individual’s income should not limit their purchasing power! The words “loan” and “own” sound almost the same so just ignore the difference.
  5. Recycling greatly extends available resources and so MUST be banned until it is needed after the effects of resource limitations become evident.
  6. Increased consumption can be encouraged by the invention of additional excuses to do so. An excellent example is holidays tied to the expectation of gifts - we already have Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day so why not Neighbours’ Day or Workmates’ Day or whatever? With the help of intensive advertising existing traditional holidays can also be usurped for increased consumption. Christmas shopping now begins in late October but why not September or even August?

There are many more strategies for increased consumption than those listed above - and our entrepreneurial youth operating in a stridently free market are just the ones to invent and exploit them! So show your kids your love by showering them with cheap plastic amusements mass-produced in coal-driven Chinese factories - you will be helping us all to reach those resource limits even sooner.

Merry Christmas! (After all, it’s only 10 months away.)

P.S. The world as a whole may be insane but maybe, with your help, your little corner of it can take a different path. (However, it’s a pity that we all breathe the same atmosphere!)

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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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