Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Finding the Continuum From Here to Sustainability

Social evolution is, in itself, a continuum. But just as species evolution is. according to many prominent biologists, marked by punctuated equilibrium (sudden mutational blips in the midst of long periods of evolutionary stasis), so too has been the development or evolution of human society. The smooth, steady continuum is a myth, just as the smooth bell-curve that depicts peak oil is a myth. The path of any evolutionary process is as uneven as an untended cobblestone road.

In the case of both species evolution and human social evolution, the punctuated equilibrium has been generally a function of available energy. When a species overshoots the energy carrying capacity of its environment (which for most means exceeding the food supply) sudden bursts in evolutionary change happen as certain existing mutations in the gene pool are suddenly favoured by the changes in environment. Mutations are common but it takes certain conditions for them to become favoured.

In the case of other species that energy is derived from food alone. Only in the case of man does external energy, in the form primarily of fossil fuels, enter the picture. Our use of external energy has for millenia interrupted the cyclical nature of evolutionary punctuated equilibrium, smoothing out the large peaks and valleys of natural evolution because we have in that time had access to and used more energy than what we are limited to in the natural food supply.

There has been little change in our man-made environment, little opportunity for mutations to achieve dominance in human species. But as our hospitals and medical journals will reveal, mutations happen all the time. That creates the potential for an uncomfortable relationship; the longer the period of stasis the more abrupt and dramatic the period of punctuated equilibrium will be when it comes.

Human society (as opposed to the human species) has, however, gone through a process of evolutionary punctuated equilibrium each time there has been a major change in our energy supply, as with the discovery of a new energy source (See my articles in this blog; Energy as the Catalyst in the Punctuated Equilibrium of Human Population Growth and Alternative Energy, Add-ons and Replacements ). This was the case with the taming of wind power, the discovery of peat, coal, oil, electricity, natural gas, the taming of water to produce hydro-electricity, uranium to produce nuclear power and even the advent of agriculture.

As with any other species taking a new food item into its diet, each of those energy sources has been exploited as an add-on to our ever-increasing energy mix. With each new energy source discovered, the proportion of total energy use satisfied by the old sources decreases (though the absolute usage may stay as high as it was) in favour of the new, usually more efficient energy source. An energy source is rarely abandoned by choice once it has been incorporated into the energy mix.

Only depletion that forces the abandonment of an energy source seems to be able to accomplish that. This could be seen, for example, in Cuba with the withdrawal of the Soviet Union and the virtual, and sudden, elimination of oil as an energy source for that country. They were suddenly forced into finding a way to live without what had been their dominant energy source. (It is interesting to note now that oil has been discovered in Cuba's territorial waters the U.S. and the oil majors want to challenge Cuba's claim to those waters so they can have access to the oil.) Similarly, wood as a source of heat energy was virtually abandoned in Britain, due to massive deforestation, as coal became the dominant heating fuel in its place.

Life on the way up the energy slope, as each new source of energy is exploited, is as herky-jerky and traumatic as the punctuated equilibrium of species evolution. A look at the the past three centuries since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution is the history of dramatic and sudden changes affecting the whole of society. The Industrial Revolution itself dramatically changed the landscape of Europe and North America in just a couple of decades as coal became a primary industrial fuel as well as the preferred home-heating fuel.

As would be expected, the way down the energy slope will also he very uneven. Never in human history, however, have we had a period when the net total energy available was in decline. But that will be the case with peak oil because natural gas, coal, uranium, hydro-electric production all appear as though they will be peaking at roughly the same time. Is there another magic energy source waiting in the wings? It is possible - through various alternatives like wind, solar, methane, tidal and other alternatives - to replace the energy derived from one of those sources (except oil). But there is no other energy source that is seen as even fractionally possible to replace our total energy mix, or replacing oil alone.

If, however, you can accept that species evolution has been a continuum, and that human social evolution to this point has been a continuum, then it should be possible for you to see the changes that will happen as a result of peak oil as a continuum. That can help take the fear out of the peak oil issue. The most frightening aspect about peak oil for most people is the dramatic and abrupt changes it will make in the way we live our lives.

But change is change, whether it is perceived as good or bad. Change is what you make of it. If you approach it with fear and negativism it will be difficult and traumatic, even debilitating. If you approach it with excitement and a sense of adventure, however, it can be a life-confirming experience. Peak oil, after all, will happen whether you like it or not. The changes that it will bring will happen whether you like them or not. You may as well make the best of it.

A continuum through peak oil to a post-carbon future will be a process of transition, adapting to and adopting changes into your lifestyle that move you inexorably toward the lifestyle you will have to be living in that post-carbon world. There is a growing grass-roots transition-town movement that started in Britain but has expanded to other parts of the world, including North America. These are communities that are planning how their community will transition into a post-carbon world. Some of these are medium-sized cities, many small towns. Admittedly, many of those efforts are faltering because they fail to get the wider community involved. But the fact that the movement keeps expanding means, hopefully, that a critical mass is building.

The continuum that so many are looking for in order to find comfort in accepting the peak oil theory and/or joining the peak oil movement has to be found in understanding what the post-carbon world will look like. Knowing that it is possible to reasonably understand the evolutionary changes society will go through between now and then. One absolute, however, is that the continuum, the transition, can not be found in or based on business as usual, by clinging to the present. That is a dead-end path.

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