The End of a 200 Year Resource Binge

“For 200 years, the material wealth of the world has improved because of increased access to ancient stores of energy. We are mining the Devonian Era, the Pennsylvanian, the Permian, the Jurassic…hundreds of millions of years of stored energy [released] within a span of two centuries or so…. And the whole concept of ‘economics’ rests on that upward…trend….cheap oil made it all look easy. ”
Byron King, The Daily Reckoning, April 2008

Consuming hundreds of millions of years of stored energy in a 200 year binge of economic and population growth has allowed us to give little or no thought to what might be sustainable. It has given us the illusion of easy progress and fed a cheap pursuit of happiness.

Neo-classical economics turns a blind eye to the accounting of our planet’s fossil fuel energy assets, tacitly assuming that their supply is infinite. As a result, the developed world operates with massive off-book ecological deficits and maintains it’s economic growth by importing carrying capacity from the third world. Planet earth is about to call in that debt.

China, Brazil, and India have joined the party just as the festivities have started to unwind and we collectively begin to stagger into a future defined by the geological limits of fossil fuel and mineral depletion. Demand for coal, oil, natural gas, water, food, steel, copper, uranium are no longer being driven by the U.S. They are being driven by these newcomers to the party, and the economics of supply and demand are being felt in the pocket books of America. This is not going to be a short term economic cycle. The combination of emerging market demand and the world wide peak production of fossil fuel and mineral resources will continue to drive up the price and availability of energy and food.

The suburban dwellers of America should be asking themselves some very difficult questions:

If you knew gas would cost $10/gallon within five years:

  • what kind of car would you buy today?
  • would you wait for plug-in hybrids to arrive on the market in 2010?
  • would you move closer to work?
  • will you carpool, ride an electric bike, get a scooter?
  • would you move closer to public transportation?
  • would you find telecommute employment?

If you knew the price of natural gas and electricity would triple in five years:

  • would you cancel the kitchen remodel and spend the money on energy upgrades?
  • would you downsize to a smaller home?
  • would you move to multi-unit, shared-wall housing?
  • would you move to a different climate?
  • would you buy a solar hot water heater instead of granite counter tops?

The “free resource” party is winding down and time is not on our side. As homeowners, what will we do? What will be sustainable? How will we dwell in a post peak world without abundant and cheap natural resources?

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2 responses to “The End of a 200 Year Resource Binge

  1. culturalcapitol

    I love your blog. Let’s exchange blog roll adds.

  2. One thing that is long overdue for revision is the huge legal and societal pressures to live alone or as part of a nuclear family. With each individual or nuclear family having its own car(s) lawnmower, largescreen TV, childcare arrangements, and on and on and on.
    Cohousing is starting to address this sort of thing but I have found that while theory is good the practice is questionable. look at the typical cohousing development and you will see thousand square foot individual houses, most people still commuting to corporate jobs of the kind that create rush hours, and a hundred other wasteful activities that are contrary to the spirit of such an approach.
    Whatever his flaws, B.F. Skinner’s book, Walden Two laid out saner approaches way back in the forties, though the experiences of the kibbutzim, among others, show that there is certainly still a need for improvement for such communities to be sustainable as a desirable choice for any significant percentage of modern people.
    But one way or another, it is past time that we returned to, at the least, the kind of extended family household that was taken for granted until the modern era. Anybody who has lived in a well-run large household knows that from the viability of maintaining a garden to the cost per person in dollars and effort of eating sustainably, group houses and their equivalents are the way to go. I used to run a small one myself and hope to do so again. If nothing else, I miss having all the fresh baked goods I wanted for about a dollar and ten minutes of work a week.

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