The End of Civilization and the Extinction of Humanity

Peak oil spells the end of civilization. Runaway greenhouse spells the end of humanity. This is my latest attempt at standup tragedy.

This is the transcript of a talk I delivered 17 August 2007. It was the keynote address for a conference organized by, and for, students in the University of Arizona’s Master of Public Health (MPH) program. I sent the transcript to a few people, upon request, after I gave the talk. It’s been making its way through cyberspace and judging from the many unsolicited email messages I have received from people I don’t know, it’s been provoking some thought and perhaps even some action. My ego is going to miss the Internet.

This talk started as a 20-minute set of after-dinner comments at a conference on assigning economic value to ecosystem services (the conference was organized by The Research Ranch Foundation). It grew into this hour-long polemic after a few iterations and much commentary. Due to time constraints, I cut about a quarter of it before I delivered it to the MPH crowd. You’re getting the unconstrained version here, which serves as a long-winded response to Robert W’s comment on my first blog entry: I welcome comments even from irrational people (many would argue I am one), and you’re right about them (me?) as a source of answers. When the inmates are running the asylum — and they seem to be, at least in this country — it doesn’t pay to scream, “You’re all crazy” at them.


The invitation to speak today is quite an honor, and I appreciate the opportunity. It’s also quite a challenge, because I know so little about what you do. As I understand personal health, from my medical doctor, I should eat less and exercise more. I assume public health means everybody should eat less and exercise more. That’s about all I know about public health, and I assume it’s not quite the whole story.
The standard approach at commencement ceremonies, graduation events, and other such celebrations is to tell young people they are this country’s most precious resource. Frankly, I think that should scare the hell out of you. Have you seen what we do to precious resources in this country?
Since my knowledge of public health is, shall we say, incomplete, I can make few promises about content and none about quality. That said, I must warn you: I’m an equal-opportunity offender with a passion for stirring the societal stew. Edward Abbey, the iconoclastic author from Tucson, was fond of saying society is like a stew: if you don’t stir it up every now and then, the scum rises to the top. Clearly, we’ve needed a lot more stirring since we lost Cactus Ed’s voice in 1989.
Speaking of scum rising to the top, my dean keeps asking me to quit stirring the pot. Apparently by pointing out the absurdities of Americans and their self-indulgent lifestyles, university professors threaten to interrupt the money being siphoned away from big-business donors and toward our football team. So I keep reminding my dean, and anybody else who’ll listen, that one of my favorite quotes comes from George Orwell: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Not surprisingly, my dean doesn’t appreciate Orwell nearly as much as I do. Of course, he doesn’t appreciate me nearly as much as I do, either. Fortunately, if tenure means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. In my case, that means trying to wake people up: specifically, the inordinate number of them who are sleeping on the railroad tracks.
It’s a wonderful afternoon and I love the idea and format of today’s program. I would much rather use this opportunity to discuss our common future with you than deliver a sermon to you. As a result, I tried to prepare these comments in light of three criteria – they should be brief, they should be funny, and they should be brief. Considering my lack of skill as a standup comic, I will focus on the first and third criteria.
My internal clock is set at the standard professorial 50 minutes. So in this case, “brief” means early an hour. I suspect it will not seem brief to you, though: I’ve been told that listening to me is about as much fun as gargling razor blades, so this might seem like a long time. This is my way of admitting I will fail to respect any of the three criteria.
I have been plagued lately with the central question underlying Schopenhauer’s philosophy: How to get through a life not worth living?
Socrates famously concluded that the unexamined is not worth living. I’m surprised it took two millennia for somebody — that somebody being Schopenhauer — to realize that the examined life is far, far worse.
I told you I wasn’t funny.
This is one of the many prices you pay for having a PBS mind in an MTV world: You realize that, although ignorance is bliss, bliss is overrated. Otherwise, we’d all be comfortably stoned, all the time. Especially you, since you have ready access to the appropriate pharmaceuticals. We can talk more about those pharmaceuticals later this afternoon … preferably in private.
So then: How to get through a life not worth living?
Schopenhauer gave the answer to his own question in three words: Will to live.
Schopenhauer’s successor Nietzsche extended this idea with his own three-word answer: Will to power. Nietzsche knew the lust for power often exceeds the will to live.
And shortly before his death in 2003, the great human-rights advocate and intellectual leftist Edward Said addressed the issue: “There is no point to intellectual and political work if one were a pessimist. Intellectual and political work require, nay demand, optimism.”
Said was suggesting that, without optimism, we may as well take the Hemingway out.
They say the truth will set you free. The truth does not set you free, it just pisses you off. At least, that’s my experience.
I admired Said for his courage, and I still admire his contrarian views. And, as a self-proclaimed intellectual who is often accused of inappropriately meddling in political work, I am naturally inclined toward optimism. There’s no reason to stir the pot if you think the human condition is hopeless.
But I suspect Said did not know about Peak Oil or runaway greenhouse. Surely his optimism would have been dampened, had he only known about these two profound consequences of our insatiable desires.
Oil supply — at the level of the field, county, state, country, or world — follows a bell-shaped curve; the top of the curve is called “Peak Oil,” or “Hubbert’s Peak.” We passed Hubbert’s Peak for world oil supply and began easing down the other side about two years ago. We’ll fall off the oil-supply cliff next year. Because this country mainlines cheap oil, it is easy to envision the complete collapse of the U.S. economy within a decade. The Great Depression will seem like the good old days when unemployment approaches 100% and inflation is running at 1000% per year. Obviously, this is a very good thing … for the world’s cultures and species, other than our own. After all, in the name of economic growth we have ripped minerals from the Earth, often bringing down mountains in the process; we have harvested nearly all the old-growth timber on the continent, replacing thousand-year-old giants with neatly ordered plantations of tiny trees; we have hunted species to the point of extinction; we have driven livestock across every almost acre of the continent, baring hillsides and engendering massive erosion; we have plowed large landscapes, transforming fertile soil into sterile, lifeless dirt; we have burned ecosystems and, perhaps more importantly, we have extinguished naturally occurring fires; we have spewed pollution and dumped garbage, thereby dirtying our air, fouling our water, and contributing greatly to the warming of the planet; we have paved thousands of acres to facilitate our movement and, in the process, have disrupted the movements of thousands of species. As I wrote in one of my recent books, the problem is not that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions — it’s that the road to Hell is paved. We have, to the maximum possible extent allowed by our intellect and never-ending desire, consumed the planet and therefore traded in tomorrow for today. And we keep making these choices, every day, choosing dams over salmon, oil over whales, cars over polar bears, death over life. And when I say we keep making these choices, I do not mean you and me — we have essentially nothing to do with it — I mean the politicians and CEOs who run this country. They are killing the planet and, when they notice the screams, they turn up the volume on Fox News. Meanwhile, most Americans took the blue pill without really thinking about the consequences. In the wake of these endless insults to our only home, perhaps the biggest surprise is that so many native species have persisted, thus allowing for our continued use and enjoyment.
When I tell people about Peak Oil, the immediate response is something like, “C’mon, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is setting records; the economy looks great.”
Uh-huh. Never mind the asset bubble built by shaky investments. Never mind the manipulation of the money supply by the Federal Reserve Bank since the Fed’s monetary policy was removed from public view by Ben Bernanke. Never mind that the Dow, which is based on a whopping 30 companies, is in free-fall when measured against any metric except the U.S. dollar, which is falling even faster. Never mind that serious stock-market investors represent a slim minority of the world’s populace.
Ignore all that, and think about this: When you jump off a 100-story building, everything seems fine for a while. In fact, the view just keeps getting clearer as you get closer to the ground. What could possibly go wrong? Well, maybe one thing. It’s not the fall that kills you. It’s the sudden stop at the bottom.
The American pragmatist philosopher and pacifist William James struggled with the same question every single morning: Shall I get out of bed? I really don’t know how he did it … physically, that is: Personally, I’m emptying my bladder before I’m fully awake in the morning. So I struggle with the follow-up question: Shall I spend the day teaching and writing, or shall I do something useful? Shall I blow up a freeway, a building, a dam, or some other sign of destruction disguised as progress? So far, I’ve opted for the “civilized” option, the one that results in more people consuming more stuff and hurtling us ever closer to the sudden stop at the bottom of the fall. But tomorrow’s a new day; there’s hope for me yet. ‘Course, a career in academia has me ill-prepared for useful work, so I’ll have to learn a lot before I can take meaningful action against the machine of death known as “civilization.”
Passing Hubbert’s Peak may be good news for species and cultures, other than our own, but it obviates technological solutions to many of our most pressing problems, including runaway greenhouse. You could argue that technology has never solved a social problem, but only made them worse, so this point may be irrelevant. If you’re a fan of technology, you might conclude that burning the planetary endowment of oil precludes development of a sustainable civilization on this planet. Any intelligent species that evolves in the wake of our demise — our planetary successors — will lack the supply of inexpensive energy necessary to create a sustainable civilization. Following this line of thought, each planet gets a single shot at sustainability, and we blew ours when we let the neo-conservatives rip the solar panels off the White House and pursue economic growth as our only god. Again, you could argue — and I would agree — that civilization is inherently unsustainable, and that we can approach sustainability only by accelerating civilization’s ultimate collapse and forcing us back into the sustainable societies of the Stone Age.
As the Buddha said, “there is no torrent like greed.” Or, as Al Gore said in a recent speech about our national energy policy, this country needs a new dipstick. I did not get the impression he was volunteering. And that’s okay with me. I mean, here’s a guy who thinks the climate crisis can be solved by a bunch of professional narcissists strutting across the world’s stages stroking their Stratocasters. Sorry, folks, but even the world’s greatest consumers can’t spend our way out of this one.
Speaking of the climate crisis, what about runaway greenhouse? Runaway greenhouse simply means that positive feedbacks are overwhelming Earth’s climate system and we cannot stop the warming of planet Earth. Had we passed the oil peak a decade earlier, we would have been forced to reduce CO2 emissions and therefore prevent the frying of the planet.
But Peak Oil came too late to save us. It appears humanity will be restricted to a few thousand hardy scavengers living near the poles within a century or two. Shortly thereafter, Homo sapiens will join, in extinction, every other species to occupy the planet. Recent projections indicate that, by century’s end, there will be no planetary ice. That’s dinosaur days, and the end of the human experience. It’s very small consolation to me that, as the home team, Nature bats last.
We will persist about 10% as long as the typical species of mammal, giving credence to Schopenhauer’s view that the human experience is a mere blink of an eye bounded on either side by infinities of time. Despite our apparently brief stay on this most wondrous of planets, it has become clear we will take a large percentage of the planet’s biological diversity along with us into the abyss.
Alas, “there is no torrent like greed.”
Knowledge of Peak Oil and runaway greenhouse leads me, again, to the question of Schopenhauer: How to get through a life not worth living? I have struggled mightily with this question – much to the chagrin of my wife, I can assure you – and have turned to my intellectual predecessors and heroes for answers.
I start, as I often do, with Socrates. Socrates pursued a life of excellence by questioning those who would tolerate him and his many inquiries. He knew we were beings singularly tuned to quality. Within the next few minutes, I will mention each of the six primary questions of Socrates, the questions that represent the qualities he found so important to the human condition: What is good? What is piety? What is virtue? What is courage? What is justice? What is moderation? These questions are as vibrant and relevant today as they were more than two millennia ago. I encourage you to consider the questions of Socrates as you attempt to live a life of excellence, and as you move forward in your promising careers. I suspect many of you are thinking: “My career seemed promising … until he showed up.”
At about the same time Socrates was getting himself killed for asking too many questions, the son of a wealthy king on the other side of the planet was forsaking the family fortune and asking questions of his own. Unlike Socrates, the Buddha was willing to hazard a few answers, which have come to be known as his four noble truths. The first of those truths: “Life is suffering.”
It’s hard to believe Schopenhauer wasn’t a Buddhist, given the primary question underlying his philosophy.
Never mind runaway greenhouse: The Buddha didn’t even know about oil, much less Peak Oil. In the absence of such knowledge the Buddha, like Socrates, concluded that a life of moderation contributes to a life of excellence. I think it’s pretty impressive that Socrates and the Buddha reached the very same conclusion even without using the Internet to assist their obvious plagiarism. In the spirit of Socrates and the Buddha, we may want to consider some moderation ourselves, although it’s likely too late for moderation to solve the pressing problems associated with Peak Oil and runaway greenhouse.
So then, back to the question: How to get through a life not worth living? Schopenhauer was a very smart guy, but his response to his own question is wholly insufficient: Will to live is inadequate for most philosophers, as it is for me.
Nietzsche was perhaps the most brilliant person to occupy the planet so far, but his response similarly leaves me wanting: Will to power is meaningless if we abuse the power … and it seems that abuse of power is what the hairless monkey does best. Small wonder Nietzsche was impressed with Buddhism and the Buddha’s second noble truth: “Desire is the source of suffering.” As Americans, we expect our every desire to be fulfilled, planet Earth be damned. If our desires include Hummers and hang-gliders, Thai take-out and plasma-screen TVs, well, those are among the many rewards of Empire. As long as the costs of Empire remain obscured from view, we’re as happy as pigs in … well, you know.
So much for these two famous 19th-century German philosophers, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. But even Said’s unremitting optimism may seem unwarranted in light of knowledge that has emerged since his death.
But wait. I’m not ready to dismiss Said just yet. My response to the question of Schopenhauer is rooted in Said-style optimism that is perhaps unwarranted but nonetheless undeniable.
You’ve likely heard the old expression: An optimist believes this is the best of all possible worlds, and a pessimist fears this is true.
My optimistic response to the question of Schopenhauer has two primary components: friendship and hope.
I’ll talk a little more about hope shortly. But I’ll start with friendship.
I turn to Aristotle for my favorite definition of friendship: a relationship between people working together on a project for the common good. Without the common good, we might as well restrict friendship to drinking buddies. The distinction is as clear as that between being a citizen and being a consumer. Sadly, I suspect most Americans don’t know the difference. Public health is a paradigmatic example of the common good, making us friends in the Aristotelian sense.
In Aristotle’s definition of friendship we find traces of his teacher’s teacher, Socrates. After all, one of the six primary questions of Socrates was, “What is good?” For focusing on the common good, I suspect Socrates would have been pleased with Aristotle – and perhaps even with those of us in this room, although I will admit it may be asking too much to expect the blessing of a long-dead Greek Cynic.
And speaking of Greek Cynics, it’s pretty clear the prophet of America’s dominant religion was heavily influenced by Greeks and especially the Cynics. Yet a Time magazine poll conducted late last year found that 61% of Christians in this country believe God wants them to be financially prosperous. Never mind the biblical root of all evil. Never mind the gospels, especially the gospel of Mark. When three out of five self-proclaimed followers of a poor, homeless prophet who dedicated his life to working with the poor believe they are entitled to wealth, it’s no wonder you don’t hear much about the common good these days. This stunning statistic brings to mind another of Socrates’ questions: “What is piety?”
The Greatest Generation of Tom Brokaw, the generation that saved the world from fascism during World War II — or so the story goes — that’s the generation that begat the greatest generation of consumers in world history. It’s been a wild ride, but it’s time to turn out the lights: The party’s just about over. The baby-boom generation’s legacy, their “gift” to you, is a world depleted of resources, ruined by Empire, and ruled by fascism masquerading as Republic.
In One with Nineveh, the ecologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich describe the American social system as, “capitalism for the poor, socialism for the rich.” Our socioeconomic system is designed to subsidize the wealthy and pulverize the downtrodden. And, of course, to pulverize our precious resources.
Contrary to society’s general disregard for the common good, I have to believe that the greatest measure of our humanity is found in what we do for those who cannot take care of themselves: the myriad species, cultures, and yes, even impoverished individuals in our own country, who never stood a chance in the face of American-style capitalism.
I have to believe, in other words, that our humanity is measured in our willingness to protect the common good. And, by pursuing and protecting the common good, we become friends in the Aristotelian sense.
I’m willing to call the pursuit of the common good an exercise in virtue, bringing to mind another Socratic question: “What is virtue?”
With today’s focus on public health, we are pursuing the common good. But I will be the first to admit that we have our differences. Indeed, the wonder of DNA ensures our uniqueness. The odds against any one of us being here are greater than the odds against being a particular grain of sand on all the world’s beaches — no, the odds are much greater than that: they exceed the odds of being a single atom plucked from the entire universe. To quote the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, “In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I that are privileged to be here, privileged with eyes to see where we are and brains to wonder why.” If a student in one of my classes wrote like that, I would reward the sentiment … but I would correct the grammar.
Enough about friendship for now. What about hope, the second component of my optimistic response to Schopenhauer’s question?
I view hope as the left-brain product of love, analogous to democracy as the product of freedom, or liberty. Notably, Patrick Henry did not say, “Give me democracy or give me death.” Like the rest of the founding fathers, Henry knew that freedom was primary to democracy; without the guiding light of freedom, or liberty, democracy breaks up on the shoals. Love keeps our left brain in check — that’s the message of the world’s religions. But our right-brain love creates the foundation for hope: love for nature, love for our children and grandchildren, love for each other. Without love to light the way, hope breaks up on the shoals.
Mind you, hope is not simply wishful thinking. And that’s a problem, considering we’re immersed in the ultimate “wishful thinking, something-for-nothing” culture. How else to explain books such as The Secret, which proclaims that happy thoughts will generate happy results, including personal wealth? How else to explain the prevalence of, and widespread acceptance of, casinos? And it’s not just acceptance: it’s adoration, if the boob tube and the local movie theater are to be believed. Not so long ago, gambling was frowned upon because, instead of adhering to a culture of an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, it reflects the expectation that a person can get something for nothing. No, hope is not wishful thinking.
And another thing: hope is not a consumer product. You can’t walk into Wal-Mart and order up a carton of hope. Indeed, given the demise of cheap oil, there’s unlikely to be a Wal-Mart — or any other large institution, for that matter — to walk into at all within a few years. Even if Wal-Mart, the federal government, or the University of Arizona somehow find a way to survive, we’re going to have to generate our own hope, one person at a time. Just as an economic collapse happens one person at a time, so too must hope happen one person at a time.
When I’m not playing social critic, I am a conservation biologist. I admit conservation biology is a value-laden enterprise, hampered by — and perhaps assisted by — bridges between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The greatest value of Earth is, always has been, and always will be, that it exists. Not that it is useful. But that it is. Perhaps that makes me an artist trapped in a scientific pursuit. But, at least for me, it allows hope to emerge from the tonic of wildness, thereby providing context for this most insignificant of lives. It allows hope to flicker. And if there is a flicker of hope, I believe we must treat it like a beacon. Hope, my friends, is everywhere.
“Hope is the thing with feathers,” said Emily Dickinson. Her other poems indicate that she was not restricting her thoughts to birds: Dickinson found hope throughout the glory and wonder of nature.
My friend and colleague, the planner Vern Swaback, is fond of saying he finds hope in “a person’s dedicated life.” I cannot improve upon Vern’s comment, but I can offer a few other personal examples.
I find hope in the poems of the teenaged girls at the juvenile detention facility where I help teach stewardship through poetry.
And I see hope flickering every day in the eyes — and therefore in the minds and in the hearts — of the students with whom I am fortunate to work on a daily basis.
Hope is our humility overcoming our hubris in the face of long odds. This will require an enormous amount of courage. We must rise to Nietzschean heights in the style of the Overman.
Hope is self-proclaimed liberals and self-proclaimed conservatives in the same room, discussing our common future.
Hope, then, rooted in friendship, is my response to Schopenhauer. Hope, in other words, rooted in friendship — let’s call it Platonic love — rooted in the right-brained friendship expressed by honoring each other and hugging trees.
Will to live is no solution: It’s a problem, as Schopenhauer himself admitted when he proclaimed, “to desire immortality is to desire the eternal perpetuation of a great mistake.”
Our will to live — rooted in the evolutionary drive to survive — makes us shortsighted and self-motivated (or, in the case of many of us, self-absorbed).
We are inherently incapable of considering, much less empathizing with, our grandchildren’s grandchildren. That’s why we are willing to bake the planet beyond the point of habitability within a very few generations. This brings to mind another question of Socrates: “What is justice?” I do not know what justice is, but I know it is unjust to leave the world worse than we found it.
It seems evolution dealt us a bad hand — it gave us the big brains, but they’re not quite big enough.
Evolution drives us toward “flight or fight” — that is, to survival.
If we survive, evolution drives us to procreate: Nearly 4 billion years of evolution are screaming at us to breed. Evolution has some bad company on this one, in the form of the world’s largest religious group, and the world’s fastest-growing one.
If we clear the first two hurdles, evolution prods us to acquire material possessions.
And these three outcomes of evolution — the drives to live, procreate, and accumulate possessions — are disastrous to the common good.
If Schopenhauer’s “will to live” offers no viable solution, Nietzsche’s “will to power” is even worse, for it reveals our darkest nature. It’s small wonder Nietzsche abandoned the Overman late in his career. Or perhaps the Overman abandoned Nietzsche.
Maybe Said wasn’t so far off the mark:
Said said “optimism” … I say “hope.”
Said said “intellectual and political work” … I say “the common good.”
But we seem not so far apart, Said and I. Just like, on close inspection, those of us in this room: Our intellectual and political work require, nay demand, optimism. For without it, hope is lost for both kinds of humanity:
Without optimism, hope is lost for the individual, personal variety of humanity that is the measure of our character.
And without optimism, hope is lost for our entire species, and many others on this planet. That hope is lost, too, without big doses of courage, justice, moderation, and virtue.
Well, then: How do we get from here to there? How do we, in the words of the anthropologist and poet Loren Eiseley, “seek a minor sun” when faced with our final freezing battle with the void? How do we, as a species, use our hope and our friendship to address the urgent issue of Peak Oil while simultaneously solving the problem of runaway greenhouse? These are the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced. Tackling either of them, without the loss of a huge number of human lives, will require tremendous courage, compassion, and creativity. Many experts who write about simply one of these issues — Peak Oil — predict complete economic collapse within a decade, followed shortly thereafter by utter chaos and the subsequent death of more than 80% of the world’s population. After all, the exponential curve of human population growth matches perfectly the exponential growth of world energy supply, suggesting that the downturn of the energy curve will cause a large-scale die-off of human beings. And if you think chaos can’t overwhelm descend on this country, you weren’t paying attention to New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Horrible as that event was, nearly everybody involved knew it was a temporary inconvenience; I’m concerned how people might act when they recognize Peak Oil as a long emergency. One by one, starting in 2012, the world’s cities will experience permanent blackouts; and once we enter the Dark Age, the Stone Age won’t be too far behind. Bear in mind, I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I know the current culture — the culture of make believe, or the culture of death, depending on how deeply you care to think about it — is the worst possible route for most of the planet’s species; as a conservation biologist, I realize the faster and more complete the collapse of Empire, the greater our biological legacy. On the other hand, the paralyzing hand of fear grips me every time I think about Peak Oil; a life in the ivory tower is damned poor preparation for Stone-Age living. Fortunately, I only think about it a few thousand times each day.
Can we get from here to there? We have the best excuse in the world to not act. The momentum of civilization is powerful. Resisting those in power will almost certainly lead to imprisonment, torture, perhaps even death. Those are pretty good excuses to forego action. So the question becomes: “Would you rather have the best excuse in the world, or would you rather have a world?” To tackle Peak Oil and runaway greenhouse at the same time might require larger doses of courage, compassion, and creativity than we can find in ourselves.
But I hope not. And in that hope, we find the agenda ahead, laid out in ten huge steps by James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency. This is a not a 10-step plan in the usual sense; rather, we will have to start all of these steps simultaneously, and now. These steps are ginormous. That’s a new word, as of last month when Webster‘s declared it so. Interestingly, I read about it under a tiny headline. And I was quite disappointed that ginormous was chosen, but gihugic was not. In any event, here are the 10 steps:
Step 1: Expand our horizons beyond the question of how we will run the cars by means other than gasoline. The TechnoMessiah will not save us from ourselves, nor will she magically create a substitute for crude oil. The mainstream media would have you believe ethanol is the savior, when in fact the most likely outcome of the ethanol craze is that we’ll use our gas tanks to burn through the last six inches of topsoil in America’s breadbasket. Biodiesel represents the most viable of the alternative fuels, but it requires a choice: We can use our farmland to grow food, or we can use it to grow fuel for our cars. Given the choice between eating and driving, I suspect many Americans would choose driving. But cognitive dissonance runs so deep, they’ll choose to drive … to Burger King. This obsession with keeping the cars running threatens our lives and our species. Cars are not part of the solution, whether they run on fossil fuels, moonshine, peanut oil, or buffalo chips. Rather, they are very clearly part of the problem, and a large part at that. It’s time to abandon the car, time to make other arrangements for nearly all the common activities of daily life.
Step 2: We must produce food differently. Industrial agriculture is destined for disaster, and will leave in its wake sterile soils and an agricultural model at a grossly inappropriate scale. Within the next decade or so, small-scale farming will return to the center of American life. Think of the Victory Gardens of Oil War II as a small-scale, temporary experiment. Say goodbye to the 3,000-mile Caesar salad to which we’ve become accustomed; say hello to locally grown food, recognizing that you might have to grow your own. In the near term, this situation presents many business and vocational opportunities for creative, hard-working people. First, though, we will have to retrieve considerable knowledge from the dustbin of history. And in arid regions such as Tucson, Arizona, we’ll need to obtain our water differently, too. When oil becomes too expensive or too limited in supply, we won’t be using it to suck water from deep in the ground. In the absence of fossil fuels, the human carrying capacity of the Tucson basin is approximately zero.
Step 3: We must inhabit the terrain differently. The American suburbs and the interstate highway system are designed for a culture that has no future: the misguided car culture. The suburbs in particular represent perhaps the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Our suburbs essentially require us to live far from our places of work and play, and also far from all consumer goods, from food to furniture. We will have to learn to inhabit differently, or not inhabit at all, most areas currently dominated by asphalt, concrete, and tall buildings. These include, for example, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Tucson. Our cities must contract. Our towns must be re-inhabited and the areas around them must be re-structured to accommodate small farms and the manufacture of goods to serve the towns. This entire process will require gihugic demographic shifts and is likely to be turbulent. When the trucks stop bringing food and the water stops flowing through the taps and the diesel-powered trains are no longer bringing coal to the power plant; when all this is happening and the thermometer reads 105 degrees and the calendar says summer’s not here yet; you’d better get along with your neighbors, especially the heavily armed ones who take a strict interpretation of the Second Amendment. If you’re looking for a job in the decades ahead, look no further than the brand-new fields of architecture, planning, and political leadership. The old versions of these enterprises are useless and must be abandoned. Consider our cities, as they currently stand: We have no sense of public space. Any small piece of beauty we might otherwise find between Wal-Mart and Target is obscured by the curvature of the earth. Our strip-malls are so ugly even winos won’t hang out there. There’s not enough Prozac in the world to make them seem nice. Are these places worth caring about? Are they worth defending? I’d guess there are at least 100,000 places not worth caring about in this country, and the number is growing. Actually, there might be 100,000 places not worth caring about in the Phoenix metropolitan area alone. When we have more places not worth caring about than places that are worth caring about, perhaps that day will come that we’ll run out of young people — people your age — willing to spill their blood in the Middle East to defend our hyper-indulgent, non-negotiable way of life. That’ll be a dreadful day for American Empire, but a wonderful day for the rest of the planet.
Step 4: We must move people and things differently. You’ve probably all seen the bumper sticker on about every fourth 18-wheeler on the interstate: “Without trucks, America stops.” That’s about right, at least with respect to economic growth. And the trucks are going to stop within the next half-decade or so. Shortly thereafter, the interstate highway system will simply collapse. Let’s not waste our time trying to prop up our hallucinatory economy with its fatal dependency on cars and trucks. Rather, we could restore public transit. We could start with our railroads –currently, we have a rail system the Bulgarians would be ashamed of — and we could electrify our railways so they can run on renewable energy. Then we could move to the waterways, starting by ripping out the condos and bike paths from the inner-city harbors and then restoring the piers and warehouses (not to mention the sleazy accommodations for sailors). Numerous career opportunities lie ahead for those hardy individuals willing to put away their iPods and Blackberries long enough to chart the course. Whoops, there I go, showing my age again … put away their iPhones, not their Blackberries.
Step 5: We need to transform retail trade. The demise of Wal-Mart is at hand. Personally, I think that’s a nice silver lining, albeit in a large bank of very dark clouds. The national chains have used inexpensive oil as the foundation for predatory economies of size, and therefore as the springboard for killing local economies. Cheap oil is fundamental to the 12,000-mile supply chain underlying the “warehouse on wheels” approach to the just-in-time delivery of cheap plastic crap. Don’t think for a minute that Internet shopping will replace small, locally owned shops in every town: After all, Internet shopping relies on cheap delivery, and delivery will no longer be cheap in the days ahead. In addition, Internet shopping depends on reliable electric-power systems. Electricity is a short-lived luxury because all sources of power are derivatives of oil; for example it takes a lot of oil to rip coal out of the ground, and then a lot more to deliver it to the power plant; it takes a lot of oil to construct a solar panel or a wind turbine, or even to maintain dams used to generate hydroelectric power. Again, there are plenty of career opportunities for energetic individuals interested in small, local businesses. In the locally owned shops of the future, even the much maligned “middle man” will be making a comeback (so, too, will the lesser-known “middle woman”).
Step 6: We have to start making things again. We will have far fewer choices when we go to the store, but we still will need clothes and household goods. We don’t know how we’re going to make things, or even what we’re going to make, in part because we haven’t made much of anything in this country for such a long time. But I’m counting on American ingenuity to light the way. If you’re looking for a job, there’s plenty that needs to be done because there’s plenty that needs to be manufactured.
Step 7: We need artists again. When the power goes out, we won’t get to decide between listening to Britney Spears and watching the latest rendition of American Idol. See, I’m full of good news! We’re going to need playhouses and live performance halls, albeit without high-tech light and sound systems. And we’ll need musicians and actors and playwrights and stagehands and theater managers. We’ll need storytellers, too, to keep history alive when the publishers stop printing books. Again, the Internet is unlikely to save on-demand canned entertainment if the power’s on the fritz. We’ll be able to look back on the Internet as a wonderful piece of technology, if only because it unmistakably disproved the old expression: “A million monkeys at a million typewriters could reproduce Shakespeare.”
Step 8: We must reorganize the educational system. Yellow fleets of school buses are on their way out. We have invested heavily in centralized systems of primary and secondary school — most recently and disastrously in the form of “No Child Left Behind” — and we will undoubtedly continue to invest in that centralization at the expense of true education. Such investment will slow the transition to a reasonable system of education that perhaps will grow, in fits and starts, from the home-schooling movement. More good news: It seems we will not be stuck with a public school system focused on churning out automata to serve industry. The current system was described by Jules Henry in his 1963 classic, Culture Against Man: “School is indeed training for later life not because it teaches the 3 Rs (more or less), but because it instills the essential cultural nightmare fear of failure, envy of success, and absurdity.” Henry’s scathing critique correctly pointed out that public schools eviscerate individuality and creativity, and therefore serve corporate America at the expense of Americans. The demise of corporate America will solve that problem. I suspect higher education is doomed to fail for myriad reasons, including terminal indifference of the academy to societal needs. But if you can write a coherent paragraph and do long division, you can already out-perform most college graduates. If you can teach youngsters to do these things, I suspect you have a bright future as a teacher in a post-carbon world.
Step 9: Our medical system must be completely reorganized, and I’ll expand on this topic shortly. Without power-hungry high-tech tools, we’ll need real doctors again: people who understand how the body actually functions. In the coming barter economy, they’ll likely make house calls to work for a meal or a place to sleep. On the other hand, we’ll all be eating less and exercising more, so my doctor will be happy about that. All in all, there will be less concern about blood pressure, cholesterol, and various pulmonary conditions. And, for people like you, there will be plenty of career opportunities in the near future.
Step 10: Our entire socio-economic and political system will become much more local. Every large system will fail. If you can find a way to do something practical and useful on a smaller scale than it is currently being done, you are likely to be well fed and even revered in your local community. Local politics will assume increasing importance as first the federal government, then the state government, simply fade from relevance. Neo-conservatism clings tenuously to life but, much to the dismay of Business Party I and Business Party II, will soon be dead. The collapse of American Empire will bring many opportunities for local heroes. I can imagine one possible exception, one large system that may not collapse: the Church. Because religions deal in the transport of ideology, rather than Wheaties and widgets, I fear they might assume the same power they did during the last Dark Age. I fear the rise of the Church not because I am opposed to other peoples’ spirituality, but because I believe the problems we face can be solved only with secular approaches, not with wishful thinking. That said, the worst possible outcome would be a battle to the death in a game of Last Man Standing. Our focus on the common good precludes a mentality of Us vs. Them; with the common good, there is no “Them.”
There you have it: a thumbnail sketch of the agenda. I’m sure I’ve left out many important items, but take heart: any number can play, and there is so much to be done. We’re sleepwalking into the future — headed for a cliff of our own making — and it’s time to wake up.
This, then, is the bottom line: This is not the time for wishful thinking. It’s the time for doing. The way to feel hopeful about the future is to get off your butt and demonstrate to yourself, and perhaps to others, that you are a capable, competent individual determinedly able to face new circumstances.
In the arena of public health, that means dealing with the biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
During the time of Christ, in the Mediterranean region, the population of humans was viewed through the same lens as other populations. As such, human deaths often occurred in large numbers, as a result of war, conquest, famine, and pestilence – these are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as described in the gospel of John. The Four Horsemen of the New Testament are reminiscent of much of the Old Testament. Among the many exemplary passages in the Old Testament is this one from Deuteronomy: “The Lord shall smite thee with a consumption, and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning.”
Yikes. A quick review of the Old Testament suggests the Lord was partial to quite a bit of smiting. Strange and often fatal diseases were attributed to Divine Retribution. They still are, by some people. Not so long ago, President Ronald Reagan declared AIDS to be “God’s revenge” on homosexuals. That was after he ripped the solar panels off the White House, but before he oversaw the military conquest of Grenada, a tiny island-country in the Caribbean most of you haven’t heard of, until now.
Until very recently, large-scale die-offs were viewed as “normal,” in much the same way we view as “normal” our K-12 system of education, or weekly shopping trips to Safeway, or using a cellular telephone. The description and management of human populations back in the days of the Greek Cynics was oriented along population lines, with relatively little societal regard for individuals. Contrast that perspective with our laser-like focus on individuals. Let’s take a quick look at the Four Horsemen, one at a time. Famine’s as good a place to start as any, considering that my limited understanding of public health tends toward eating … or, eating less.
The years ahead will see a dramatic rise in deaths from starvation, as we become unable to transport vegetables from the Central Valley of California to the American Southwest, or any place else in the country. The inability to retrieve high-fructose corn syrup in the form of cheese doodles and soda pop from the vending machine down the hall won’t hurt us a bit, individually or collectively, but it’s symptomatic of far greater problems. At the population level, starvation is called famine. And famine looms large, right here in the richest country in the history of humanity.
We’ll also see pestilence — what we call disease, when it happens one person at a time — making a big comeback. Cheap oil allows us to sanitize our water, lethally cook harmful organisms, sterilize the surfaces on which we prepare and eat food, and manage many potentially catastrophic diseases. Contemporary American healthcare is completely dependent on ready supplies of cheap oil, for grid-based electrical power, backup generators, and thousands of pieces of equipment we all take for granted, from IVs and syringes to disposable gloves and plastic containers for tossing out contaminated needles and other sharp objects. When the trucks stop running, we won’t even be able to deliver antibiotics, unless ginormous numbers of non-apocalyptic horsemen suddenly appear. I hope society will retain some understanding of germ theory, so you are able to live at least half as long as your grandparents.
Famine and pestilence are two of the Four Horsemen; war and conquest are the other two. Already, resource wars have begun, and they are likely to ratchet up in the near future. The so-called bipartisan Iraqi study group concluded that Operation Iraqi Freedom was conducted in pursuit of black gold. In fact, just to make the acronym transparent, the invasion should have been called Operation Iraqi Liberty.
Regardless of the name of the invasion, it truly was “mission accomplished” for George W. Bush: We ensured ourselves a spot at the OPEC table, while also piratizing … er, I guess I’m supposed to call that privatizing … the oil fields of Iraq for American companies. Although the Oilman in the Oval Office correctly pointed out, in his 2006 State of the Union Address, “America is addicted to oil,” his solution is absurd. Rather than stressing conservation, as a conservative might do, his goal is to find more oil by any means necessary. ‘Cause that’s the way to deal with addiction: find more substance for the addict.
I fear Oil War III is just getting started.
And conquest? That’s just another name for war, albeit without a fight from the vanquished. We’ve done that throughout our history, as have many other nations. I’ve no doubt we’ll continue.
The Four Horsemen are lurking in the background, obscured by the never-ending, irrelevant chatter of the corporate media. Here’s my impression of Fox News: blah blah blah Britney Spears blah blah blah Threat Level Orange blah blah blah Paris Hilton blah blah blah … Fox News: the only national news source without a liberal bias. The corporate media’s weapons of mass distraction notwithstanding, soon enough the Four Horsemen will be riding tall enough for everyone to see. Population-scale rules from two millennia ago will re-assert themselves.
Socrates understood the importance of maintaining societal norms in the name of the law, even when justice failed at the level of the individual. And public-health practitioners back in Socrates’ day undoubtedly understood that the good of the one, or of the few, sometimes must be sacrificed for the good of the many. These practitioners understood this fundamental concept even before Mr. Spock pointed it out on the starship Enterprise. (One of the problems I encounter in speaking with people your age is that my cultural references pre-date you by a couple generations; sorry about that.)
A lot has changed in the two thousand years that have transpired since Socrates drank from that fatal cup.
As an aside, I once asked a roomful of students, “What was Socrates’ most famous quote?” I thought someone would answer with the one about the unexamined life being not worth living. Instead, somebody immediately yelled out, “I drank what?”
Many, and perhaps most, of the changes that have transpired during the last two millennia have occurred during the last century. We can trace many of those changes to American exceptionalism and our focus on the individual. In this country, we too infrequently take a population approach to public health. We decree every life worth saving, including the one-pound baby born 12 weeks premature, the 95-year-old with cancer in all the major organs, and everybody between. To a great extent, we have traded in a perspective on the population for an obsession with the individual.
Never mind human dignity. Our doctors are the best. They — meaning we — can save anybody. The costs, which are enormous, have been ignored in the name of vanity. These costs include economic, environmental, political, social … and moral.
Some countries have looked back to move forward. Ireland uses medical generalists in their communities to advance the public health. They preserve the good of the many at the occasional expense of the one, or of the few. Yet babies and old people die at the about the same annual rate in Ireland as in the United States. No, Ireland’s public-health practitioners don’t get to write articles about saving the lives of babies with no statistical chance of living. They don’t get to bask in the reflected glory — or maybe it’s the hubris — of their seven-figure salaries while their peers enviously wonder when they’ll have a chance to break the new record. But perhaps, in focusing on communities and therefore letting go of some individual lives, Ireland has preserved something we’ve lost: something economic, environmental, political, social … or moral.
I’ll finish where I started, which was the common good as the basis for friendship and hope. And, of course, with the ancients.
Without the common good, and the struggle on its behalf, there can be no Aristotelian friendship. There can be no justice. And there can be no virtue.
Therefore, I am forced to conclude that: 5,000 generations into the human experience, with the end of humanity in clear view, our shared goal must be … the common good.
And I further conclude that: As friends, we reveal our differences, we appreciate our differences, and then we set them aside … for the common good.
With hope shining like a beacon, we struggle together … for the common good.
We have in our hands the destiny of our planet, including our own species and so many others. In the end, for finite beings such as ourselves, the historical process is irrelevant; all we have is our legacy, but that legacy is lost to us (as individuals). Yet we are unique beings in that we are able to recognize the historical process as something larger than ourselves. We judge that process worthy or not worthy based on our own singular experience (we judge the universe; fortunately, it doesn’t judge us back). For me, the universe is a worthy endeavor because the lens through which I view it is colored with the relationships I have experienced; those relationships include humans and nature.
All the Socratic ideals are born again in the love we feel … for each other, for our families and tribes, and for the natural world. Walking a path that honors the planet and ourselves is a responsibility we share, you and I — a responsibility unlike any other in human history. And it is not just a responsibility, but also something more: It is a joy, and a privilege.
Thank you.

Comments 20

  • Mr. McPherson,
    It’s people like you – intelligent, witty, knowledgeable, and articulate that make the termination of our species all the more sad. This essay is one of the very best I have read regarding Peak Oil and Climate change and the End Times.
    You might want to check out our little cyber-tribe on cyclonesrealdeal or It is a community that speaks of these things and attempts to prepare for the times to come. My husband and I live in Central Oregon and are growing things and trying to live sustainably. We’ve been working on it for three years. We have an Indian elder in Montana, a stone mason, Rockpicker, who is also a wonderful poet, Cyclone himself who is an outraged person in Indianna, Stoney, who lives in S. Carolina and is an ex-Navy Seal and half Indian, a wonderful sensitive man from Belgium, a young woman in Alabama. Several wonderful people who have come to mean a lot to each other and are trying to deal with these troubling times. Join us anytime. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • PBS mind in an MTV world?
    Would that be like the NPR mind, the kind that switchs off druing the 1+ hour communte to work, soaking up all the psuedo Liberalism?
    Americans consider themselves liberal even though they dress in clothes stiched together by child labor in slave camps overseas, or feed the pet cat more calories than the typical African. Proof we’re dead.
    I was living at Ground Zero during the Battle in Seattle – I watched the majority of those protestors drive away in SUVs or late model VWs – that is, after they messed up my neighborhood.
    The dirty truth about cars is, MPG doesn’t really matter much – most of the inputs are up front costs. Hybrids are actually more enviromentally damaging than the heavy duty diesils built in Soviet Union because they require so many more resources. Add the fact that the lighter hybrids wear faster and require more replacement parts – and what you have is an American people going into a very rough future in complete denial.
    Hybrids & eating local won’t cut it – only population reduction will result in a smaller footprint. Technology will never relieve the overcrowded conditions on a lifeboat – it might save lives, but it con’t create more seats.

  • I very much enjoyed reading the transcript of the talk you gave to University of Arizona’s Public Health Programme. How did the speech go down? Did your audience understand what you were saying – who thought who was crazy? Like you, I too admire Jim Kunstler’s writing, he does doom and gloom more cleverly and more amusingly than any other writer I know. He is the grumpy old man to beat them all, and he obviously enjoys it. There are some quotes you give that I must remember, the one about the scum rising to the top is great, and your own quip about the country’s precious resources, lovely.
    This admiration for James Kunstler isn’t without its reservations, however. It is my feeling he is unduly apocalyptic, though of course I understand he is writing from an American perspective, and perhaps he sees the extremes of our present way of life in that country, not entirely reproduced elsewhere in the world, though not for want of trying in New Zealand. My reason tells me that it is perfectly possible, as biologically sentient organisms capable of reason, wisdom and logic, to overcome all these problems, climb the mountain, and find on the other side a glorious, infinitely sustainable future. But my heart also tells me, as a life-long pessimist (that I am still alive to write this is amazing enough), that we won’t succeed – that basically we are more creatures of nature than of reason, and that like any other species that is ill adapted to its environment, we will greatly suffer the consequences of this failure. If this is the case, then perhaps Kunstler is even a bit optimistic. I don’t know if you have read Colin Tudges book “And so shall we reap” (a devastating critique of industrialised agriculture) but at the start of the book he says “Humanity’s future is somewhere between glorious and dire, it is hard to be more precise”
    I am no philosopher, though one of my four daughters (I obviously failed my green credentials there) has just completed an honour’s degree in Philosophy here in Wellington, and is now doing a masters plus some tutorials – I have sent her a copy of this talk, but I have become increasingly interested in the philosophical implications of global warming (and peak oil and overpopulation and ecological damage etc.) and humanity’s present inability to either come to terms with it, to understand or, perhaps more accurately, to comprehend it, and finally how to deal with it.
    This is a copy of a letter I have recently sent to our Prime Minister, Helen Clark, here in New Zealand.

    Rt Hon Helen Clark,
    Prime Minister,
    Parliament Buildings,
    Dear Ms Clark,
    Item One
    This story was published in the papers on the 11th July:-
    Great South Basin oil and gas quest set to begin
    The government announced today that oil and gas exploration permits for four areas of the Great South Basin (in the southern oceans off Southland) have been awarded to two major groups of investors:
    “The intensity of work proposed for the Great South Basin is unprecedented in New Zealand’s history and will effectively double the amount of investment in oil and gas exploration here over the next few years,” Harry Duynhoven said.
    “It is one of world’s hot spots for exploration. The data indicates the potential for commercially viable finds, which could have significant future benefits to New Zealand.” Mr Duynhoven said oil companies were expected to spend $1.2 billion exploring the Great South Basin, and a share of that money would be spent in the southern region.
    “Although the world is working to lessen its reliance on fossil fuels, we will be dependent on oil and gas for some time to come. It is in our economic interest that the oil we use comes from local sources if possible.” 

    Item Two
    Earlier this year in an important speech in the US, you indicated that New Zealand’s future was to become the first country in the world to be “carbon neutral”. You are reported as having said “Climate change posed as big a threat to the world as the threat of nuclear holocaust had done during the Cold War” and you went on to say that you “wanted climate change to become one of the defining issues for the country’s national identity”. In a speech to Parliament earlier this year, you used the word sustainable, or sustainability, over thirty times.
    These are mightily important policy statements, and I applaud you commitment to a sustainable and low carbon future, even if the details of what carbon neutrality actually means or implies, and how it will be achieved, are missing.
    But, and obviously I am missing something rather important here, can you please explain how Item One is logically compatible with Item Two?
    You see, your mutually irreconcilable policies in regard to global warming and economic expansion perfectly illustrates the folly of our present human condition.
    Isn’t this a moral or ethical question as much as an economic, or even an environmental one? In fact, failing to recognise this matter as the supreme moral question of our time leads exactly to the absurd results that your mutually contradictory policies are an example of. And in this regard, aren’t you, your government, and most of the rest of humanity, failing in their moral duty to this planet, and our children who will live in it? It really is very, very simple. If you truly believe that global warming is happening, that it is changing our planet in ways impossible to predict and, to use your own words, poses a greater threat to humanity than the holocaust of nuclear warfare, then no other consideration is important. And if no other consideration is important, then it is immoral to be spending vast sums of money to try to support our present unsustainable economy, which is actually the cause of all this trouble in the first place, in this destructive quest for more wealth by drilling for oil and then burning it, and in doing so, causing further global warming.
    Do you agree that global warming is the most important issue facing mankind, or not? If you do, then why are you pursuing this course? If you don’t agree, then why are you claiming that you do?
    Yours faithfully,
    Dr John K Monro

    So my question is whether or not you, as a philosopher biologist, would agree that it might simplify so many things if we could reduce the problem to one of morality? I certainly see it as such – to me it reduces all the absurdities of trying to deal with global warming and the impossibility of reconciling environmental concerns against economic ones. For every argument one way, there seems to be another the other. I had a “correspondence” about this on the Real Climate web site, but this is already a long enough missive and I won’t reproduce it all here, but what follows is the substance of what I wrote.

    It would be my contention that AGW is, as much as anything, a moral issue, the supreme moral issue of our times. Our moral obligation to our planet arises from our moral obligation to each other. Whilst we can certainly examine AGW from a scientific, political, economic, environmental or societal viewpoint, I don’t think we are going to get very far until we admit this moral perspective.
    And this is why I believe that we should be looking at the morality of what we are doing. It brings everything back into focus. We continue to make the most appalling errors by treating this issue as one of pure logic. It would be nice to think that humanity could be guided by logic but, generally, this doesn’t happen. It is not logical to damage our planet any further, but it is not entirely illogical to try and sustain our present standard of living either, it has brought humanity many undoubted benefits. But by simplifying all these discussions and arguments to a simple moral perspective we avoid these pointless and irresolvable arguments. What we are doing to the planet and ourselves is immoral, here are some reasons why.

    It is immoral to be fouling our own nest.
It is immoral to fail to take action to deal with global warming.
It is immoral to undertake actions that will make global warming worse.
It is immoral not to care for others as we would wish to be cared for ourselves.
It is immoral for rich nations to cause damage to poor ones who are not responsible.
It is immoral not to care for our children.
It is immoral not to care for their children
It is immoral not to care for the planet that sustains us.
It is immoral to diminish the lives of others for our own benefit.
It is immoral to require others to deal with problems that we have created.
It is immoral to try to get others to ignore the problem.
It is immoral to care more for our present wealth than any of these other things.

    I could go on, I often do. But I will end with observing that there is now something distinctly Darwinian in what we are doing – in fact I think Darwin would have a good chuckle at our expense, if, as a humane man, he wasn’t weeping. We are the universe’s first species, as far as we know, intelligent enough to have discovered the theory of evolution, the principle of natural selection and survival of the fittest. What is now so ironic is that we seem determined also to be the universe’s first species to delierately set out to prove it.

    Sorry to take up so much space in your in-box, I don’t really know what I am expecting when I send you my thoughts, but here they are anyway. No reply expected.
    Yours sincerely,
    Dr John K Monro (Medical practitioner)

  • A nicely written synopsis. Unfortunately there are too few who understand the dire peril looming in the near future. I wonder at the number of students who’ve heard or read this who actually took some heed.
    It is hard to imagine anything that could save us from our imminent demise, outside of something unprecedented in innovation – sometimes referred to as out-of-left-field, a term borrowed from American baseball vernacular I find a little presumptuous being Australian. But, those with any hope must cling to this shred as the turning tide begins to run red.
    The only way out, for the powers-that-be, is through demand-destruction of the worst kind. Unfortunately I think this entails mostly resource wars and starvation, possibly with a little man-made pestilence thrown in.
    The limits to growth of nearly every kind are being seen everywhere, with energy leading the way, this is certainly the main fatal flaw of a capitalist system that relies on infinite growth.
    It is only the distance between meals that defines the civilized human from the uncivilized; the barbarians have always been within the city’s walls. It should be interesting to see how quickly complex societies collapse into chaos, but it will not be pretty and surely something to avoid if possible.
    Peak-Oil will arrive first, if it hasn’t already (August 10 2005 appears to be the consensus among many). It will certainly show first in America where cheap-oil is becoming a past-tense expression; Mexico will be unable to supply exportable oil by the end of 2008 and this will require a substitute if current demand is to be met – Iran would do nicely if it weren’t for a bunch of pesky Iranians.
    This is where politics and economics collide, regardless of the ecology roiling as a hammer-blow in the aftermath of such a collision.
    There are answers out there, Richard Heinberg’s Powerdown, and, a host of alternate economic models along with permaculture etc. but these will never see the light of day beyond the ken of the few.
    What do we few do? Some write and some act to warn of the impending disasters to come while even more prepare to head for the hills to avoid the conflagration. It all depends on the individuals’ own circumstances. I have two young children so I must prepare for the worst case scenario and have an escape route and plans for relocation when the time comes, otherwise I’d likely join the mob and try to ride the wave.
    I really hold little hope for civilization though when the most aware folk I’ve met are in their elder years, and what few meetings I’ve been to are bereft of the youth needed to bring about the revolution needed for change.

  • It would seem, that we are in for a classic die-off. New species of hominids will evolve on the continents. The last homo sapiens may be born very shortly now.

  • The last comment seems very optimistic to me. It is nothing for a family to blink out. If there is hope of an evolving hominid genepool, particularly from our own species, then perhaps we can move toward the “honorary” of “sapiens” in our current specific name. Future taxominists will doubtless strip our species of “sapiens” (the wise) and tie our legacy to “faber”, the toolmaker.

  • I appreciated this speech even though I was not present to see it given. I think we’ll all still be wrestling with these issues of morality in a time of Die Off until we face that final fate ourselves. It’s an important topic that people who are Peak Oil aware tend to not want to bring up. What becomes ‘moral’ or right when not everyone can eat, when Humanity’s state resembles that of a frantic ant colony fleeing the insecticide of a suburban yard keeper?
    In answering the question, I refer to the writings of a famous Psychologist and Nazi Death Camp survivor Viktor Frankl, which can best be summed up in his description of how fellow inmates in the camps dealt with their horrific fate:
    “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who
    walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of
    bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient
    proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of
    the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of
    circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” p. 104 of Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl).
    In our last days on earth, how are going to act? In the fashion of greed and ego that brought us to this point? I’m going to strive (despite my many shortcommings) for grace under pressure–if not to prove to some future surviving clan but to myself that humans are fundamentally ethical, moral creatures, even if they are oh so adept at destroying themselves.

  • Thanks for an excellent article, one of the best I’ve read. But as a Norwegian living in Thailand, I see things a little differently. US are in deep, deep shit. But there are many other nations who haven’t created suburbia yet. Thank God! And Europe has a very good railroad system in place. So I think (hope) we can descend down Hubbert’s Famous Bell Curve with style. My biggest concern is the Armed Madhouse in Washington who is playing “Last Man Standing”
    Good luck to all of us in these troubling times.

  • A fine start, Professor. I like the blog title. It’s good that it wasn’t already used (or abused).
    I was also pleasantly surprised to see mostly supportive comments. I hope that trend continues.

  • ‘When the inmates are running the asylum … it doesn’t pay to scream, “You’re all crazy” at them.’

    For me it’s not so much crazy as immature. Childish. Some days I wonder if I’m already dead, and forever doomed to attend Lord of the Flies Junior High School.
    I’m often tempted to tell the 14 year old boys who claim to be 40 year old men, “Yes, I used to believe that stuff, too. But then I grew up.” As you say, that doesn’t pay. Still I often wish I could scream, “Oh, grow up!” with some expectation that it might happen.
    I really work at treating everyone with the respect I can muster. Intellectually I know that’s more likely to pay off, someday. But, geez, I’d really like to feel I live in a place where reckless kids have adult supervision.
    Remember family gatherings that had a kids table and a grown-up table? I’d really like to sit at the grown-up table again.
    Whatever happened to the grown-up table?

  • The url link is an, I think, appropriate Skinny Puppy video (there isn’t one for “Human Disease”).

  • I really enjoyed your essay, found it compulsive reading and inspiring, so much so that I downloaded it into my folder of ‘Great Reads’ …. until I came across your paragraph on Ireland. This may be off-topic, but then again, I must defend my country as you defended yours!
    “Some countries have looked back to move forward. Ireland uses medical generalists in their communities to advance the public health. They preserve the good of the many at the occasional expense of the one, or of the few. Yet babies and old people die at the about the same annual rate in Ireland as in the United States. No, Ireland’s public-health practitioners don’t get to write articles about saving the lives of babies with no statistical chance of living. They don’t get to bask in the reflected glory — or maybe it’s the hubris — of their seven-figure salaries while their peers enviously wonder when they’ll have a chance to break the new record. But perhaps, in focusing on communities and therefore letting go of some individual lives, IRELAND HAS PRESERVED SOMETHING WE’VE LOST: SOMETHING ECONOMIC, ENVIRONMENTAL, POLITICAL, SOCIAL … MORAL.”
    I don’t know when, where or how you got that impression of contemporary Ireland. That is not Ireland of the 21st century, maybe of the 20th century.
    Have you heard about the Celtic Tiger ?…. the economic success story of my country.
    Ireland is now one of the most oil dependent countries in the world. Today, we travel more car miles per head of population than Californians. We are on a campaign of building new motorways, threatening archaeological sites that existed some 1500 years before Socrates and the Buddha, ie The Hill of Tara. You may heard of the recent controversy over the German Ambassador and his remarks that we are obsessed with ‘07’ cars (new cars), not to mention our love of the largest SUV’s that money can buy, including the all-American Hummer.
    We have destroyed so much of our untouched, beautiful countryside, (remember, we escaped the industrial revolution of the 19th century), with a rural planning policy, (or lack of!) that allowed a blight of one-off, unsustainable, housing, each house bigger than the next…. in a ribbon development of rural suburbia. The Irish cohesive, close-knit community is gone, forever. ‘it’s with O’Leary in the grave’.
    We have one of the fastest rising suicide rates in the world. A government study(2005) remarked that a major contribution was a breakdown of our community-style of living to one of an individualist, materialistic style which has come with economic prosperity.
    Serious crime, gang-land killings, relatively new to this country, now hit our TV screens everyday. Even the innocent get gunned down in the game, as in two weeks ago. Cocaine use is now the common recreational drug, ‘money talks’.
    Our economy, one of the fastest growing in the world at the turn of this century, due to capital inflows from Boston (‘the multinational’) and Berlin (EC grants), is today mainly based on the building boom, the so called ‘bubble’, helped by an influx of cheap labour from the poorer Eastern European countries.
    In a recent Unicef study of the top 24 developed economies we rank 4th highest in the relative poverty stakes, the U.S. in 1st place, and we are practically alone in that we are decreasing our share of social spending.
    And, to put it mildly, our Health System is in a mess, especially if you cannot afford private health insurance. In the so-called recent improvement of our health system, the government increased middle-management numbers by 10,000% (Prof Crown, Oct 2007), yet our waiting lists for treatment have not improved. Sorry, but maybe you should have taken France or Germany or Cuba as an example of a working health system.
    We have many tribunals running here for a long time, trying to figure out what politicians, including our current Prime Minister, did what ….. who paid off who, and nobody seems to know ….. are they all lying … where are the morals now?..
    Ireland is the quoted example of an economic success story, the model for many of the new Eastern European entrants to the EC. I happened to be in beautiful Romania before their accession to the EC and was asked by a stranger how we did it? “Greed”, I answered him. Ironic the quote ‘capitalism for the poor, socialism for the rich’ for Romania.
    No, Ireland has NOT preserved something we’ve lost: something economic, environmental, political, social … or moral.
    We just adopted your ways.

  • my feeling is that every thing is going more or less according to nature’s plan – vast numbers of seeds are usually produced by a plant – the same w/ viable species on viable planets – as carl sagan said the universe most likely is brimming w/ life forms – somewhere out there a species is making the right decisions – sadly ours doesnt’ seem to be 1 of them – but whatever happens: peak oil, runaway global warming, a massive human die off – the lesson to remember is to keep tryin’ – live by the `scandalous gospels’ – of the great teachers – love, compassion, hope & if possible, keep that sense of humour – thanx for `tryin’ …will santana

  • We are living in the real,original,Vanity Fair.
    In chapter 6 of Bunyan’s, Pilgrim Progress, the 1st vice that Bunyan mentions as being sold in the town of Vanity at their ongoing fair is houses.

  • We are entering the terminal economic Depression. The Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff showed that these happen on a regular basis every 50-60 years. And every Depression is always worse than the one before. We barely survived the last one, and everything is so much more dire now than in the 1930’s,
    that the Capitalistic System cannot survive in it’s present form.

  • The Three Generation Rule:
    The world always has had a
    great economic Depression every 50-60 years because that roughly corresponds to 3 generations. The Depression is so horrendous that anyone who lives through one cannot repeat their errors that led to it again, nor can their children, the 2nd generation. But the grandchildren, the 3rd generation, who have no memory of the past, must always repeat the mistakes of their grandparents in the basic essentials.
    Human nature never changes,so economic history must always repeat itself every 3rd generation.

  • The 3 Generation Rule is immutable. Many fools have said that measures taken by the government or the Federal Reserve would prevent another Depression.Nothing could be farther from the truth.
    Vanity and Greed, the essential ingredients for the operation of the Capitalistic System will always out.

  • ” I see our country going off a cliff “, Carl Ichann on “60 Minutes”, March 9,2008. This from one of the world’s foremost capatalists.

  • Dr. McPherson,
    In your commentary in the AZ Republic today, you mention, “its too late”…to some extent I agree…but, ALL forms of stored energy need to be reduced to ther “common denominator” of hydrogen (yes, carbon filament storage tanks have been available via NASA & DOD for 30 years to the “right people”…
    Thi public needs t transition to new fueling structures…(only meny-in-politics / lask of information to the public —keeps this from happening…politicians “afraid to the touch the issue” — media sources not wanting to offend their biggest advertisers etc…
    See for more info…we’ve been at it a long time…KNOWING their is a solution…the universe is 70% hydrogen…competition is not as profitable as cartels..
    Russ V.

  • I think you will enjoy the perspective of the writers on our contrarian news and opinion website. Here’s an investor’s guide called Peak Oil Facts: How to Survive the Coming Crisis