04/05/2007 01:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Global Problematique

I'm on a listserv, where somebody made the fateful mistake of casually asking me, "from a Gristy environmental point of view, wouldn't it be a good thing if fossil fuels ran out?" In return, they received ... a whole bunch of words. Then I thought, "hey, wait, I just wrote a bunch of words without putting them on the blog! What the eff am I thinking!?"

So, without further ado, here's a whole bunch of words:


I don't particularly consider myself an environmentalist as such, and I wouldn't presume to speak for Grist. I just consider myself a progressive and a humanist -- one who thinks the issues of climate change and energy depletion are not being taken seriously enough. At risk of becoming the guy in the corner ranting with the homemade cardboard sign, I'll just try to summarize what I see as a mutually reinforcing network of oncoming problems, and leave it at that. I apologize in advance for prolixity -- I'll only do this once:

  • Right now we already have a tense balance between oil supply and oil demand, resulting in substantial price volatility. Even minor perturbations have ripple effects. As James Woolsey is fond of reminding people, any kind of real disturbance -- unrest in Nigeria, a terrorist attack on oil refineries, spreading war in the Middle East, revelations that Saudi reserves have been grossly exaggerated -- could prompt a global economic downturn.
  • The reason for this tense balance is that supply is already having trouble keeping up with skyrocketing demand. There's no slack. The economic boom in China means that demand is going to rise even faster, and lots and lots of very smart people (including, now, the GAO) are confident that supply is going to peak and start declining soon. More tension.
  • The rising cost of oil will push nations to burn more coal, the most emissions-intensive energy source. IPCC Working Group I recently reported that climate change is upon us, and happening faster than most models had predicted. IPCC WGII will report this Friday that deleterious effects are already being felt all over the globe, and they're going to accelerate for the next century (whether or not we release any more carbon, but faster and worse if we keep up our present pace). That means droughts, floods, storms, heat waves, and rising sea levels, hitting the poorest parts of the world hardest. More tension.
  • The impacts of climate change and expensive energy will likely cause political unrest and waves of immigration in the developing world; this at a time when America seems intent on going down the imperial path, pushing for global hegemony unrestrained by international institutions. Income inequality is rising both globally and domestically. More tension.
  • Global population is expected to rise to north of 9 billion this century. More tension.
  • The Chinese and Indian economies are booming, sucking up more grain, concrete, copper, water, natural gas, forests, arable land, etc. etc. etc. Chinese demand alone for many of those commodities is expected to exceed total current global demand within the century. More tension.
  • Oceans are dying; fisheries are on the verge of collapse; the 6th great extinction is underway; the green agricultural revolution is reaching hard physical limits. More tension.
  • Now, per my previous email, the possibility that coal might also be peaking and declining sooner than we thought. More tension.

It seems to be a shared assumption of both parties, perhaps the entire developed world, that rising prosperity will continue indefinitely. Thus the conservative response to climate change: "hey, our kids will be richer than us -- let them deal with it." But the global prosperity explosion of the last few centuries has largely been driven by cheap fossil fuels, and cheap fossil fuels will be a thing of the past within the century.

Any one of the problems above could be solved, but each exacerbates the others, so they all have to be solved together. We have to have to find a way to drastically reduce our energy use through efficiency and conservation; shift to renewable, low-carbon energy; create zero-waste industrial processes and zero-carbon living and working arrangements; and find a way for China and India to satisfy their citizens' demand for prosperity without irreparably fouling the atmosphere and depleting the world's natural resources.

In short, humanity has to exponentially reduce its environmental footprint and decouple economic growth from greenhouse-gas emissions. It would be an extraordinarily challenging task under the best of circumstances, requiring foresight and international cooperation the likes of which we've never experienced. But it won't be the best of circumstances. Our political systems will be under extreme stress, and my worry is that political systems under stress tend toward militarism, nationalism, authoritarianism, and heightened inequality.

I would be more sanguine if I saw less bread and circuses and more alarm and planning. Alternatively, someone could explain why I've got this all wrong and should stop worrying.

Lordy, now I need a beer.