The five interrelated themes of Peak Planet, Peak Oil, Peak Debt, Peak Inequity and Peak Complexity underpin our emerging reality - an inevitable transition into an age of limits and a post growth economy.
This reality is the context for our work.
Our global civilisation is in ecological overshoot. According to the latest WWF Living Planet Report we’ve been in ecological overshoot since about 1970. We’re now consuming resources faster than the planet can regenerate them. We’re generating what we consider waste faster than the planet can re-assimilate it into non-toxic interactions, let alone useful resources. We require the equivalent of 1.5 planets to support our current population and global consumer lifestyles, both of which are rapidly expanding.
This ecological overshoot is inherent to civilisation. Cities require the continuous exploitation of the rural and natural hinterland . Indeed, knowledge of all forms of evolution shows the tendency of organisms to expand their habitat and exploit natural resources. Without negative feedback loops to keep growth in check, civilisations will exhaust their ecological carrying capacity .
Right now we’re at or close to the limits of available arable land, fresh water, wild harvest from the sea and a number of critical minerals. These include phosphorus (vital to our industrial food system), indium (used for touch screens and solar panels) and, most importantly, oil.
Perhaps the best known and most pressing form of ‘waste’ is our greenhouse gas emissions. These include carbon dioxide, mostly from energy production and transport, and methane and nitrous oxide, mostly generated by industrialised animal-based agriculture. These emissions are destabilising the climate, causing sea level rise and acidifying the oceans. Left unchecked this could make this planet unfit for any form of complex society for thousands or even millions of years to come.
In pursuit of these diminishing resources we have exterminated or displaced a large proportion of the planet’s wild plants and animals. We are now well into the planet’s sixth Great Extinction .
The inevitable natural correction that rebalances human activity with that of the Earth’s carrying capacity has begun. It will play an increasingly important role in our day-to-day lives.
The sensible question now is not how we can avert this correction. That is impossible. The question is how constructively and to what extent will we seek to respond to its nature, its effects and the impact it has on us.
Global oil extracted using conventional methods peaked around 2006 . Peak oil does not refer to the moment in which we completely deplete oil supplies. It refers to the point at which the rate of oil extraction begins terminally declining. This typically occurs after approximately half of the oil in a well has been extracted. In practice, we extract the more readily accessible oil first and leave more inaccessible oil for later. We can continue to increase the rate of extraction during the first half of the oil well’s life cycle. During the second half, the ability to increase the rate of extraction is decreased and the financial and resource cost of extraction rises. This is bringing on a period of global energy descent. It will continue to compound year on year for many generations to come.
The energy oil exploitation has made available for human use is unprecedented in all human history. There is no foreseeable way in which this can be globally maintained, let alone continue to grow. In the long term the energy we extract from fossil reserves cannot be matched with existing nuclear power technology or so called ‘renewable’ alternatives, such as solar, wind, hydropower or geothermal energy.
Because of Peak Planet and Peak Oil, Humanity no longer has the ability to genuinely increase material wealth through the easy exploitation of resources. We increasingly use debt and theoretical financial instruments to artificially ‘grow’ the economy instead.
Effectively, the debts can never be paid off. Even if we could extract, process and sell all the planet’s resources it wouldn’t generate enough income to pay the debt that’s been created.
At the same time the dominant economic system requires continuous growth to sustain itself. So our financial systems are tearing themselves apart. The pollution and conflict generated by the ongoing exploitation will increasingly undermine its economic, as well as its ecological, viability.
Where confidence in any aspect of this system fails, some debts must be re-evaluated or written off. This is what happened in the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008. Crises like this are set to continue and worsen. It is highly likely that this will trigger repeated breakdowns in the global economic system at irregular but reducing intervals within our lifetimes and those of our children.
42 million people, or 0.8% of the world’s population, currently have net financial worths in excess of US$1 million. That group — roughly the global 1% — controls 44.8% of the world’s financial resources . Meanwhile, the people on Earth who are in the bottom half of net worth almost certainly have less than 1% of the world’s financial wealth.
By some measures industrialised society has reduced financial poverty around the world. But it has done so largely through colonial genocide and ecological destruction. This has undermined or destroyed the long term resilience, real prosperity and natural resources available to much of the Earth’s human population.
It has also super-concentrated wealth into the hands of a few. The current dominant capitalist model ensures major businesses, infrastructure, the media and much of the machinery of state power is owned and/or controlled by a minority of the very rich.
Sections of society that continue to benefit from this will be understandably extremely reluctant to relinquish this wealth and control. This has so far effectively stifled the fundamental changes required for a genuine attempt to transition to a sustainable and just society. This society is now faltering under the pressures inherent in the way it operates. Wealth and power are less and less secure. This is driving various forms of upheaval and conflict at a time when stability and unity are urgently needed.
As societies grow and develop they tend to use more energy and become increasingly complex to solve problems. These 'solutions' inevitably generate more problems, which require more energy and complexity to solve...
In its early stages, increased complexity brings on many of the material benefits generally recognised as 'prosperity'. However, beyond a certain point, increased investments in complexity don't generate the benefits or well-being they once did.
Humans tend to resolve challenges by adding complexity to the existing situation. This in turn generates new and more complex challenges. Eventually, the requirements of maintaining the existing levels of complexity overwhelm a society. It either no longer has the resources to resolve its problems of complexity, or it reaches what Canadian academic Thomas Homer-Dixon calls an ‘ingenuity gap’, as the problems become too complex to resolve .
These spiralling demands cannot be sustained indefinitely. The ‘great unravelling’ of these complexities is a feature of our times.