By Darcy HitchcockIs worrying a life-stage phenomenon? It seems the older I get, the more I have to worry about. There are so many troubling trends: climate change, oil supplies, terrorism, the future of Social Security and pensions, population growth, bird flu, Iraq, nuclear proliferation. It’s enough to make you sick! None of us want to live our lives in terror of something that may not happen. But we also don’t want to be unprepared.
If we want to have a Plan B in our back pockets, in case Plan A doesn’t turn out well, we must develop the plan with a clear view of reality. But our ability to reason has some quirks. Humans have a tendency to assume that the future will be like the past and that change will be gradual. Our brains filter information that doesn’t fit with our existing worldview. However, systems reach tipping points, creating discontinuous change. The Internet dot-com bubble burst. Mount St. Helens did blow her top. A tsunami erased entire villages in Asia. Even in the face of clear and compelling scientific and expert testimony, we usually hope for the best and don’t muster the necessary will to solve the problem or adequately prepare. Such is the case with climate change and peaking oil supplies. It appears that society is intent on pursuing business as usual, hoping that a catastrophe won’t occur.
Humans also have a tendency for hubris and hold a faith in technology that sometimes exceeds our abilities. The Titanic sunk. The Challenger exploded. The New Orleans levies breached. Betting the future of complex life on earth on hopes for a hydrogen economy and renewable energy doesn’t guarantee success.
Since civilization’s Plan A seems to be running into problems, why are we in a collective state of denial? In the book Red Sky at Morning, James Speth said, “Apathy is a shield people use to protect themselves against despair and powerlessness.” When faced with such monumental consequences, we all prefer to avert our eyes. But powerlessness and helplessness are insidious. We push these problems into the shadows but we still know they are there.
Let’s pull the boogeyman out of the shadows and get a good look. If we examine what I’m calling a Perfect Storm and consider how we could survive it, we might find insights of things we could do now that would make our lives better now. Scenario planning is a useful strategic planning tool. Let’s apply it in this context.
With scenario planning, you invent different possible future scenarios based on trends and then explore the likely implications. The following three trends give me particular heartburn because they could combine into a Perfect Storm scenario: peak oil, climate change, and the interdependency associated with globalization.
Peaking oil supplies—We can only know in hindsight when we reach the peak production of oil supplies globally, but many experts believe that we are in a period of that peaking right now. Demand is already stressing production capacity and that fact acts as a damper on economic growth, like two well-matched boa constrictors in a deadly embrace. Higher oil prices may make it more feasible to go after such new sources as tar sands, but these require more energy to extract, yielding less and less net energy in return. While the peak will not bring an immediate, precipitous decline in production, advanced technologies are drawing down the supplies at a faster rate. The ride down the bell curve of oil production is likely to be jerky as oil fields are abandoned and natural gas wells peter out.
Climate change—The arguments are over. Virtually no credible climatologist questions whether we are in a warming period and that humans are largely to blame. What is particularly scary, though, is that this too is not likely to happen slowly and predictably. Human induced climate change is likely to create natural feedback loops that increase it even further. As arctic ice thins, the darker surface of the water will absorb more of the sun’s radiation. Melting the tundra will release gigantic quantities of methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. As these changes interact in complex ways, they could cause huge oscillations in our climate from year to year, equivalent to the temperature change that thawed the last ice age. If the Gulf Stream, the Atlantic’s stir stick, shuts down from the melting of glaciers, it could paradoxically send Europe into an ice age. While there is disagreement about the likely effects, scientists now believe that these changes could happen abruptly, in decades, not centuries.
Globalization—We have created a finely tuned global economy where a disaster in one part of the world can have economically devastating effects around the globe. In The End of the Line, author Barry Lynn begins by describing a Taiwan earthquake in 1999. Had the damage been worse, the quake could have shut down the semiconductor industry worldwide, yielding an impact greater than any terrorist attack to date. To make matters worse, competitive pressures have squeezed out any slack. In systems critical to our industrialized world, instead of building redundancy, we’ve “built the most efficient system of production the world has ever seen, perfectly calibrated to a world in which nothing bad ever happens.” Lynn likens this to living in a house where every day, your architect removes a few more bricks from load-bearing walls to test the limits of the structure.
To sum up, we have no slack in our economic or energy system, the foundation of our current society. Those systems plus our climate are subject to increasing volatility and will interact in unpredictable ways. What do you think is the likelihood of our society dodging all the lightning bolts in this storm?
Unfortunately, there are few ways to predict whether these trends will cause a Perfect Storm in this century. However, imagine in the next decade another Katrina hits, let’s say, Baltimore, a long-term drought parches the Mid-west breadbasket states, and we get another calling card from al Qaeda. At what point does business as usual no longer work? At what point does the fabric of our modern civilization tear?
Is collapse the most likely scenario? No one knows. Is it a clear possibility? Yes.
What would we have to do to resolve the climate/energy conundrum? John Browne, the CEO of BP (formerly British Petroleum) has been shocking audiences by saying that to stabilize greenhouse gases (at double pre-industrial levels with unknown consequences) while maintaining economic growth, we’d need to build 700 nuclear power plants, stop all deforestation while undertaking a massive effort to reforest areas, and increase the use of solar power by a factor of 700. (See ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Chaos’ in Fortune, January 23, 2006.) There are a few more items on his wish-list, equally daunting. What are the odds that our society will have the mettle to do all this before our energy supplies become so constrained that we can’t do it?
Some believe that the market will take care of the problem, that new technologies will be developed in time to avert catastrophe. But the market signals are likely to come too late. Remember that it will take fossil fuels to build the solar cells and wind turbines. No chicken, no egg. Without a Manhattan Project-like effort and unprecedented reallocations of capital, we could miss the window of opportunity for a soft landing into the post-carbon world.
On a national level, there are actions we could take to lessen the likelihood of this Perfect Storm. Of course, a realistic energy policy is key. It could be facilitated with a carbon tax that makes renewables cheaper than fossil-fuel energy. Some say nuclear power will need to be part of the solution, given the huge amounts of energy that can be produced, but I still worry about leaving highly toxic waste for hundreds of future generations. Distributed power where the power generation is near the customer would make it feasible to use the waste heat that many of these plants create. Every state should set a renewable standard, specifying the percent of power that comes from renewable sources, that ratchets up to 100%. According to the Hirsch report, a crash program undertaken 20 years prior to peaking could avert significant economic disruption but waiting until the peaking would likely result in decades of liquid fuel shortages. So time is of the essence.
Government and utilities could create programs similar to the Golden Carrot, a program that radically improved the efficiencies of refrigerators. Promise to install $1 million worth of solar cells in two years, with the contract going to the company with the photovoltaic system that generates the most amount of power for the money.
Municipalities should evaluate their ability to provide basic needs locally and work to correct any glaring deficiencies. Could your city or town provide enough food, water, fiber and shelter within a 100-mile radius? How would waste disposal and emergency services be provided?
Cuba is an interesting test case. Prior to 1989, Cuba imported most of its fuel, two-thirds of its food, and four-fifths of its machinery. When the former Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba’s supply lines were cut off and because of US sanctions, Cuba had few other sources to tap. They had to invent Plan B in a hurry. Reportedly, no one starved, although Cubans lost on average 30 pounds. Then now emphasize the production of vegetables and beans, eating less meat, dairy and eggs. A large percentage of the food eaten in their urban areas is now grown in the city.
Some communities, including Ithaca, New York, have created their own currency to bolster the local economy. Ithaca Hours are traded for products and services but can only be redeemed in the community. The relationships these build could be important to surviving the Perfect Storm. People think more creatively about their assets and the exchange feels more personal, more like a favor than a soul-less monetary transaction. Local currencies develop social capital that could be the basis of a post-carbon economy.
On an international level, Richard Heinberg, author of The Party’s Over and Powerdown, is proposing an oil depletion protocol where oil-producing nations agree to ratchet back production by about 2 percent per year. This would make oil production and prices more predictable, lessening the likelihood of nasty surprises.
It’s unclear whether the world’s leaders have the political will and vision to take these actions, and it’s also unclear whether it’s already too late to avoid serious climatic and social-economic upheaval. Instead of throwing up our hands, let’s play with this Perfect Storm as a scenario. Boogymen aren’t always as terrifying in the light of day. Could we adapt?
Imagine a future much different from our present. Assume that our society didn’t do a good enough job to transition out of the oil age into a carbohydrate economy to maintain the same lifestyle but we averted complete social chaos and ecological collapse.
As Joel Barker, author of The Power of Vision, has repeatedly said, when the paradigm changes, everyone goes back to zero. What made one group successful in the past may actually be a liability. So the ways in which we now prepare for a rainy day may be useless. A large stock portfolio may not insulate citizens from the shock; you can’t eat your 401-K. Capital assets owned by businesses may become liabilities; a 19th-story office with a great view but no power for the elevator or air circulation, a fleet of aircraft with no fuel, or manufacturing equipment dependent upon electricity.
However, three things would likely be of value in this scenario: certain tangible assets, certain skills and social capital.
Certain tangible assets would be of value and could be traded. These probably don’t include jewelry and gold bullion but might include assets like prime farmland, hand tools, shelter, bicycles, stores of food and seeds, sleeping bags, and livestock.
In today’s world, it would be foolish to stop funding your IRA or 401-K. However it might also be prudent to invest some money in tangible assets that would be useful now and also in our Perfect Storm world. My husband and I, for example, are investigating solar panels. With current technology, the solar cells would not provide for all our household energy needs but in a pinch, could supply power for critical functions. Even something as simple as a rain barrel could prove to be a good investment.
Ask yourself what you’d put on your resume for a job in this post-carbon economy. What skills do you have that would be valued? Chances are your role in society would be much different that it is today. My resume might read, “Gardener. Knowledgeable about edible and medicinal native plants. Will train horses in exchange for manure.”
In today’s world, are there simple skills that you would enjoy learning that might be useful in a Perfect Storm world? Would it be so bad to spend less time in a cubicle and more time gardening? Knitting is having a come-back. Attend a class on rammed earth, straw-bale or cob construction techniques. Learn to make a willow chair or operate a spinning wheel. Dust off your bike and ride to work. Turn off the TV and practice storytelling. Perhaps these simple skills could bring some tranquility to our frenetic pace.
Social capital could backfill the loss of industrial infrastructure. Strong, positive relationships would make survival more likely. Get to know your neighbors and learn what they can do.
It can be surprisingly easy and rewarding to facilitate relationships in your neighborhood. When my husband and I bought a house on Failing Street in Portland, I was disappointed to find that the neighbors hardly knew one another. The Northwest Earth Institute discussion courses gave me an excuse to pull some of them together long enough to get to know one another. This has evolved into the unFailing Street monthly potluck. For years, neighbors thanked me for bringing the neighborhood together but I did it for selfish reasons; after weathering a household disaster with little community support, I yearned for a stronger support network. I take pride in the fact that the lesbian couple, who would barely open their screen door when I invited them to the course, last year hosted one of our potlucks. When an elderly neighbor got a compression fracture, it was our neighborhood that took care of her. I hope that these bonds, that enrich my life every day, would also help us weather a crisis.
In the Perfect Storm scenario, we would have to find a way to help everyone. It’s not enough just to protect your family and friends. Haves and Have-Nots in a resource-constrained world is prescription for conflict. Unless we want a Mad Max world of violence, we’ll need to ensure everyone can meet their basic needs.
We need to face the monumental problems our industrial society has created. We can hope for the best but must plan for the worst. Many other great human societies—Mayan, Anasazi, Easter Islanders—have faced societal collapse from a combination of resource depletion and climate change. Let’s not allow history to repeat itself.
By exploring how to adapt to climate change, I don’t at all mean to downplay the seriousness of the threat. However, focusing on the doom and gloom doesn’t create much change in our society. It just shuts people down. Instead, we need to find a positive path forward. By examining the Perfect Storm as a hypothetical scenario, it makes it possible for people to think creatively without becoming immobilized. And it provides insights for action that make sense to do now, things that would make our lives more fulfilling now. This analysis has given me ideas for actions I can take and that’s an empowering, uplifting feeling. I encourage you to do the same. Drag that boogeyman out from under your bed. Think of this as just an intellectual exercise, a thought experiment. See what you can learn from your Plan B that would influence what you do today.
Heinberg, Richard (2003) The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies. New Society Publishers.
Heinberg, Richard (2004) Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World. New Society Publishers.
Hirsch, Robert (2005). Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation and Risk Management, February, 2005. SAIC.
Linden, Eugene (2006) ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Chaos’, FORTUNE Magazine, January 23, 2006, p. 134-145.
Lynn, Barry C. (2005) End of the Line: The Rise and Coming Fall of the Global Corporation. New York: Doubleday.
Linden, Eugene (2006) The Winds of Change. Simon and Schuster.
Lovins, Amory et al (2004) Winning the Oil Endgame. Rocky Mountain Institute.
Senge, Peter et al (2005) Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations. Doubleday.