As if oil depletion was not scary enough comes news of Peak Coal. According to the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas, a peaking of all oil and natural gas will come as soon as 2010. Now we have a detailed report that U.S., Chinese and global coal production could all maximize by 2020. Since these three fossil fuels represent over 87% of total world energy, Peak Energy is really just a few short years ahead, probably between 2010 and 2020.
Could alternatives fill the gap? Unfortunately not. According to Richard Heinberg, "a realistically possible 2.5 percent annual decline in all fossil fuels averaged over the next 20 years would require developing almost 10 quads of energy production from new sources each year." Then consider that the current world amount of installed wind and solar capacity, the result of many years of effort and investment, stands at less than one quad. Neither could nuclear be expanded quickly enough.
Future prospects for an expanding industrial society look grim. In fact, "collapse" is a common word in the Peak Oil literature. The pithy title of Richard Heinberg's 2003 book The Party's Over sets the tone.
Yet, is doom-and-gloom just over the hill?What if the Party was just beginning? What if energy depletion was really liberation from oil and coal (and global warming angst) and it led to liberation from oppressive workplaces and alienating governments?And why not? We have all we need for satisfying lives: plenty of company, art, food, technology, money, even energy, at this point. All we have to do is to demonstrate to people how to channel their creativity into building sustainable, walkable communities with non-polluting renewable energies and low-input manufacturing and agriculture!
I don't believe the current paradigm -- corporate-dominated governments, free markets, individual material accumulation -- can do this. In fact, because world economic growth is dependent on cheap energy, many Peak Oil'ers believe world GDP's will begin to shrink. As the capitalist economy contracts, we will have plenty of time to re-employ laid-off people in cooperative workplaces. (The Mondragon region of Spain provides an example.) That will require the expertise of local and state governments, non-profits and the cooperative sector to redesign workplaces to meet more and more of our needs regionally, if not locally. Above all, it will have to call on people's suppressed talents to work for the community in new democratic ways. All we have to fear is orthodoxy, cynicism and paralysis.How much of the human spirit is repressed dealing with the stultifying atmosphere of hierarchical workplaces and overbearing bosses? Much more than we think, I believe. People have a need to be part of active communities that accomplish tasks, without fear of being fired. It's in our DNA. It's how we thrive. Barn-raising, with a keg and a pizza.When people are forced to work for money and survival by selling their souls to the highest bidder, much of their life/psychic energy goes into maintaining their equilibrium. It's an emergency response that we inherited that was only supposed to be used for short periods of time. We cannot flourish in such an environment.But for over a million years, our bodies and minds have evolved to enhance group survival. Freedom and cooperation, perhaps even group competition, provided the species with the maximum flexibility and creativity to fill all existing land niches on the planet, from desert to tundra. That's why the most fulfilling feelings we are capable of (things like a sense of accomplishment, love, friendship, etc.) are all related to others and the group (or, in some cases, nature).My suspicion is that the coming decades could be among the best for many privileged communities. Those with social stability, responsive governments and local resources will be best-suited for the transition to low-carbon economies. (Others may fragment, if they can't keep the lights on and the water running.)
We can hope that energy depletion rates will be mild enough to allow most communities to adapt. Lessons learned can now be sent around the world in microseconds. And there is nothing like a crisis, even a drawn-out planetary crisis, to focus the mind. In the words of Studs Terkel, ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things.
We must continue to push at the national level for an end to war and militarism, and a redistribution of money to social and infrastructural needs, including mass transit and renewable energies, including wind, solar, geothermal, wave and tidal. We must work for global justice, and equitable, aggressive global warming agreements that will preserve the world's remaining forests and the biosphere. But it is at the local level where people can work together to make quick progress, which can feed into the social movements we so badly need.We are at a unique point in human history. Can it be a turning point? Can we put together all we have learned to provide meaningful and sustainable lives for all? Perhaps, but I think we must act as if we can. The secret may just be in unleashing the freedom of the individual to work for the good of the community (without coercion, needless to say). To turn from self to other. That released social energy could just more than compensate for the decline in fossil fuel energy. Together we thrive, or individually we will all sink.