Peak Oil28 Oct 2008 07:12 am

A long time ago (1995), Jared Diamond wrote a classic article that was published in Discover Magazine: Easter Island’s End.

I implore you to read this. Go do it, now. I don’t mind you leaving, and will be waiting patiently for you to return.

[And if you really cannot bring yourself to spend half an hour reading the whole article, then at least hit the most important part, which is the end: search on "All these strands of evidence" and go from there.]

Welcome back.

I remember seeing that article years ago, but back then it didn’t click with me; in light of things we (finally) understand now, it takes on a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?

The bottom line is that our society is consuming resources in a way that is completely unsustainable. We know from the history of other, long-dead civilizations what inevitably happens when resources are over-utilized; it is downright frightening. So far, all indications are that we are marching directly down this well-worn path. The really scary thing about this particular version of the nightmare is that, for the first time ever, we are doing this on a global scale.

We are depleting natural resources on so many fronts that the news is becoming numbing. Fish populations worldwide are crashing due to overfishing; extinction rates across the planet are unheard of in mankind’s history; we will very likely hit peak production of oil in this decade; there are impending production peaks of a number of other important resources over the next several decades (phosphorous, coal, some metals).

Even those of us in the ‘advanced’ world will soon experience food shortages stemming from soil depletion (due to agricultural misuse), fertilizer shortages (due to peak oil), and water shortages (due to overuse). We are witnessing a global financial meltdown that is due at least in part to rising energy costs. And our energy use is causing climate change that will, at the very least, exacerbate some of the above problems.

Now, with the onset of globally decreasing energy supplies, we are beginning a long (bumpy) ride down to a lower-consumption society. One implication of this is that a centuries-old economic assumption — growth in the long term — is no longer valid. There will be areas of growth, of course, but the days in which a long-term investment in a broad range of stocks will be profitable are drawing to a close.

Tied as it is to the depletion of the resources upon which we depend, Growth (as in global economic growth) will soon become a bad word. The decades-long trend of globalization is coming to an end, and everything about our lives will become much more local. The operational term of the coming centuries will be Sustainable.

What is most important now is to focus on the positive aspects of where we are headed and how to avoid the very possible catastrophes.

We need to face the fact that our children will have fewer material possessions than we have, and our grandchildren far fewer. In my opinion the overarching goal we should have as a society is to provide our descendants with the basics for a full life: water, food, shelter, personal safety, community, freedom, the opportunity for spirituality; and above all, the resources to pass on these opportunities to successive generations. That is ultimately what it means to be sustainable.

This means making some real sacrifices, now. The use of gasoline-powered vehicles has to drop dramatically. We need to eat more locally, and lower on the food chain. We each need to learn how to garden organically, and how to maintain the fertility of our land instead of wearing it out. We need to lower our thermostats in the winter and raise them in the summer, if we heat and cool at all. We need to travel long distances only rarely. We need to stop mindless consumption of goods. We need to live up to the adage “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”. Awareness of our carbon footprint must go way up, as our footprints go way down.

We need to learn how to voluntarily limit our population (uhh, my bad, no more kids for me) or it will be limited for us in very undesirable ways (as it is already in some parts of the world).

Don’t kid yourself for a second that 1) politicians will lead the way out of this mess, or 2) technology will save us from it. On the first front, all politicians that have national exposure have exhibited complete ignorance of the reality or, to the extent that they understand the reality, will not participate in a discussion about it (because they understand that such a blunt discussion of the coming contraction is political death). On the second front: this is a complicated issue, and should be the subject of its own post. But it boils down to the fact that we will be running out of the very resources (especially energy) that could most help us manage a high-tech transition to lower energy. I’m convinced that the future is not one of mini-mansions powered by solar cells and everyone driving around in electric SUVs.

There is a saying: ‘We don’t inherit this world from our parents, we borrow it from our children.’ In less polite terms, to the extent that we don’t start radically conserving our resources, we are screwing over our own and our neighbors’ children and grandchildren. That doesn’t sound acceptable to me; how about you?

The positive aspects of where we’re headed? Yeah, there’s real potential. If we can learn to focus less on material possessions and more on the people, places, and nature around us, our lives (and those of our children) can become much more fulfilling.

But until we make some fundamental changes in our lifestyles, and stop using our resources in profoundly unsustainable ways, we should all consider ourselves

Honorary Graduates


The Easter Island School of Resource Management

Congratulations, everyone. And shame on us.

Now let’s get down to the hard individual and collective work of turning this situation around. The key word being NOW.

2 Responses to “The Easter Island School of Resource Management”

  1. [...] The Unwoven Rainbow » The Easter Island School of Resource ManagementWe need to travel long distances only rarely. We need to stop mindless consumption of goods. We need to live up to the adage “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”. Awareness of our carbon footprint must go way up, … [...]

  2. on 21 Aug 2009 at 2:31 pm The Unwoven Rainbow » Food Security

    [...] fact that we still have relatively abundant cheap energy in the form of oil. But that easy life is going to be pulled out from under our feet over the next few [...]

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