I’ve been chastised for making predictions, particularly by other scientists. Science, after all, is a conservative enterprise filled with conservative people reluctant to make predictions even when our future as a species is at stake.
That reluctance explains, in part, the mess we’re in. Consider global climate change, for example. Before he was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry, Svente Arrhenius predicted a dramatic increase in global temperature as a result of burning fossil fuels. Arrhenius published his prediction in 1896. More than a century later, the ultra-conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a nearly identical prediction. Only after 111 years of evidence has accumulated, only when it appears too late to save our species from our own actions, only then do we take notice. Not by calling for serious action, but by awarding the IPCC the Nobel Peace Prize. Well, half of it, anyway.
When you’re on a cruise ship, and you have the only window, and you see a tsunami headed your way, what shall you do? “Good” scientists would plead for research to verify the existence of tsunamis. And they would be rewarded for this action with research funding from fellow scientists. The wonks at the Oil Drum, for example, will be trying to access the internet to argue about whether we’ve passed the oil peak long after the electrical grid fails. On the other hand, I believe informed people — even scientists — should sound the alarm when a threat appears on the horizon. I believe we have an obligation to work toward solutions for individuals and, when appropriate, for society. If that makes me a poor scientist, I can live with it, bearing in mind the famous words of Albert Einstein when he found out about Hiroshima: “If I had known they were going to do this, I would have become a shoemaker.”
So, here goes. Bear in mind that what follows is a prediction. Like any prediction, it could well be wrong. We could continue to change our behavior, for example, thereby preventing a complete meltdown of the industrial economy. Government officials could demonstrate some leadership, perhaps by telling people about the approaching tsunami and calling for individual and collective action. I don’t think either of those steps is likely, at least not in sufficient quantity to prevent an apocalypse.
Caveats aside, it’s easy to forecast the apocalypse, if only because it’s already here. Never have so many species and cultures been driven to extinction. If my predictive ability is decent, industrial civilization will soon join the 23 major civilizations that preceded it, thus alleviating some of the horrifying oppression borne by the world’s species and cultures. And, if we’re lucky and the crash is complete quickly, there’s a decreasingly small chance our own species will squeeze through the global-change bottleneck, thus ensuring our survival beyond century’s end.
So, what do I foresee next year, and in a decade? Nothing less than a renaissance. It might even save us from ourselves. The cost? Unimaginable human suffering and mortality.
It is difficult to imagine we’ll escape economic collapse by the dawn of 2010. Even mainstream media are filled with dire economic forecasts for the year ahead. Imagine what they’re not telling you. Better yet, look here, here, here, here, and here. There’s much more, but you get the idea.
So, what does this mean for you, me, and a few billion other “civilized” folks? An economic collapse results in formal unemployment of about 100 percent, and worthless currency. Therefore, oil and its distillates become unavailable, as do food at the grocery store and water from the taps.
I’m reminded of the story told by one of the students in my honors course earlier this semester. He was in Zimbabwe when the economy collapsed last summer. Virtually over night, annual inflation skyrocketed to the millions of percent. He didn’t eat for several days, but he was able to flee the country because he had U.S. dollars and access to the airport. Many exiting citizens were greeted at the border by South Africans who put tires over the heads of the Zimbabweans, filled the tires with gasoline, and set them afire. Seems nobody likes immigrants when resources are scarce.
When the industrial economy completes its ongoing collapse, lots of city folk will try to immigrate to the country, where water still flows from a few rivers. I can’t imagine they’ll be met with open arms and offers of assistance. But, as I’ve written and said, the existence of Buddhist monks indicates we can power down with the tranquility of Buddhist monks. My money, though, is on more human, less humane, behavior. Thus, my choice to defend the landbase and the community in the vicinity of the mud hut.
Several writers, including James Howard Kunstler, Richard Heinberg, and Kenneth Deffeyes, seem to think the price of oil must skyrocket to bring down American Empire. I think not. It appears the ongoing collapse, driven by expensive oil, will be complete even as the price of oil stays “low.”
That’s next year’s prediction. Please weigh in with your own. Now, on to the ten-year outlook, which you’re likely to find much direr, for reasons I fail to understand.
By 2018, we’ll be firmly in the post-industrial dark age. Kunstler’s novel, A World Made by Hand, closely matches my outlook (I think we’ll approach Kunstler’s version of the world before his book suggests; it’s set in ca. 2025). The final third of the book descends into distractingly silly superstition, but otherwise the book offers a plausible portrayal of our post-petroleum future. All activities have become very local, and the world has become very large. Travel is restricted, for all practical purposes, to walking and riding animals. Global climate change has warmed upstate New York, where the characters struggle to capture water, grow food, and maintain civility when civilization has failed. Violence is extremely local, unlike the violence we visit upon other countries, cultures, and species on an unrelenting basis.
Unlike the fictional characters in Kunstler’s book, I see great hope and great beauty in our own post-carbon world. Despite the presence of a limited form of civilization — there will still be a few functioning solar panels and windmills in ten years — we’ll be depending on each other and living close to the land that sustains us. Any stored food will be gone, the climate will be completely out of whack with our memory and expectations, but Earth and its native flora and fauna will be making serious comebacks. Most of the marauding hordes will be a distant memory, along with ammunition for the remaining guns, though the problem of evil will continue to appear on a frequent basis. People will continue to seek power, but the world to be conquered will be restricted to a sparely populated few acres.
We’ll be thinking more, and differently, and undertaking a lot of manual labor. We’ll struggle to feed ourselves, physically and emotionally. If we commit to a different set of arrangements than those to which we’ve become accustomed, the bounty of the natural world will assist with the former. The renewed and renewing beauty of the natural world certainly will help with the latter.