By Elliott Campbell
I had the pleasure of attending the 4th Eco-Summit, held in Columbus Ohio and hosted by William Mitsch at Ohio State University. This was a large conference, over 1600 people, featuring preeminent ecologists from around the world including Simon Levin, E.O. Wilson, Robert Costanza, Bernie Patten, Sven Jorgensen and plenary sessions by popular authors Jared Diamond and Lester Brown. As a recent PhD graduate and nascent systems ecologist I found the Eco-Summit to be edifying, inspiring, as well as incredibly frustrating.
The presenters and attendees of this conference acknowledge the challenges that lie before humanity and collectively much of the knowledge and skill base necessary to meet these challenges was present within the audience. However, a cohesive vision of how to go forward using this knowledge to guide humanity towards a “sustainable” future was absent. The reasons behind the lack of a cohesive plan of action are varied and include discipline specificity, intellectual hubris, and lack of organizational infrastructure, but I believe at the heart of the matter is a frustration and resignation that the world is locked into an ecologically ignorant, consumptive, growth based economy. To place it in an ecological context, like a cloud of locusts or bacteria in a petri dish we will inevitably consume a resource until it is exhausted and then die off.
Two sessions of the Eco-Summit were dedicated to the “prosperous way down” or related ideas and were led by former H.T. Odum students Mark Brown, John Day, Dan Campbell, and Charlie Hall. The prosperous way down is the idea that instead of exponential population growth followed by resource exhaustion and subsequent exponential decline, humanity can expect the coming decline and decrease its consumption and population slowly, preventing catastrophe. These sessions were well attended and featured a healthy dose of debate. Speakers presented compelling evidence for the rapid approach of peak oil from now to within the next 10 years and peak phosphorous within 50-100 years. Calculations done through either emergy or energy return on investment (EROI) show that renewable alternative such as photovoltaics and wind will not be able to fully replace the current global demand, much less the requirements of rapidly expanding standard of living expected in China and India. EROI is a simple, incredibly important concept that is completely absent in economics and political decision-making. EROI looks at how much energy is necessary to produce energy for consumption. For instance, in the early 1900s it only took 1 barrel of oil to produce 100 barrels of U.S. domestic oil. Today it takes 1 barrel of oil to produce 11-18 barrels of U.S. domestic oil (Murphy and Hall, 2010). Thus, much more energy is necessary to produce an equal amount of oil and less energy is available to drive economic growth. Studies have shown that the Canadian tar sands have an EROI of 2 (Hall, 2008); less than most renewable energy sources. This is an excellent example of economics failing to give tools to help us decide is what is most beneficial to society. Speakers suggested policies that would help in slowing consumptive growth and moving towards growth in intellectual capital and happiness, including measuring growth using the genuine progress indicator (GPI) and not GDP, slowing economic growth by pegging currency to a resource (think gold standard with natural resources) and slowing population through making family planning more available and educating women. Herein lies another source of frustration— the world we live in is light years away from adopting any of these measures with no plan for moving towards the prosperous way down even at this gathering of experts. This concern was raised several times and the general consensus was that a global disturbance will be necessary before humanity realizes that changes must be made. The question of what this disturbance will entail, how many billions of people will suffer, and how the people in power will respond, remains.
Technological fundamentalists were not absent from the Eco-Summit. In fact this paradigm was more dominant than that of the need for a prosperous way down. Lester Brown, the head of the World Watch Institute, stated that we had plenty of wind power and would soon be running the globe with it. While he is correct that wind is one of the more promising renewable energy alternatives he ignores wind intermittency, the location-specific nature of enough wind strength for electrical production, the indirect inputs necessary to produce wind and transport electricity, and, most importantly, the unavoidable second law losses associated with production and transportation. A woman at the prosperous way down session insisted that we would simply move to solar power, a power source with a low EROI even in the most ideal of situations. Renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and geothermal do make sense to exploit but only where they are abundant and give a net energy benefit. The inability of decisions makers to simply look at the net energy benefit and not the economic incentives (often subsidies) has led to many failed alternative energy ventures (see Obama’s largely failed “green job” initiative).
I think it is important to communicate that the scientists speaking in these sessions take no joy in sharing a message of doom and gloom. No one wants to be the bearer of the news that very likely the lives of the next generation will be of a lower quality. However, if we have this knowledge it is a moral obligation to communicate it to others. Actions that we take now will have huge ramifications for the future. Everyone hopes that a new, abundant, clean energy source is discovered, but the current state of knowledge shows that renewable alternatives are not capable of fulfilling the role of fossil fuels in society. Perhaps a “holy grail” of energy sources (i.e. cold fusion) will be perfected 20, 30 years down the road. Everyone, including those of us advocating for a prosperous way down, will rejoice, but this is not a certain outcome and relies on making a tremendous leap of faith with a non-zero chance for catastrophic consequences.
A Choice Must Be Made
We now face an incredibly important juncture in human history where a choice must be made: either drastically change how we consume resources and our social, political, and economic structure or continue with business as usual. To those who would advocate for the business as usual approach I pose this question— what are the costs associated with moving towards the prosperous way down? Drastic changes in how we live, certainly, but it is possible that it can be done while maintaining the key aspects of quality of life. Now, ask yourself, what are the potential costs of business as usual? Even the most ardent technological fundamentalist must acknowledge that there is a chance they are wrong and inaction in terms of bracing for energy limitations has potential catastrophic ramifications. Energy does not simply power our cars and lights, we rely on fossil fuels for every aspect of our lives, the clean water we drink (pumped from a reservoir), the food we eat (grown with fossil fuel derived fertilizer and transported to us using fossil fuels), and increasingly our social interactions (charging our ever-present phones and laptops).
Of course, we won’t just one day wake up and find our lights won’t turn on, but it can be argued that we have already seen the beginning effects of fossil fuel limitation. Many theorize that the recent war in Iraq was largely due to the U.S. wanting to secure the large oil reserves of that nation. While fossil fuel limitation was not a direct cause of the recent global recession it was indirectly responsible. The rate of growth in real wealth (benefit independent of monetary value) and infrastructure enjoyed due to cheap, high-energy return on investment oil was no longer possible in the mid 2000s.
This may have triggered in part the investment boom and artificial inflation of the stock and real estate markets. The logical extension of what we have seen so far is more resource wars, greater economic inequity and combined with a growing global population a dwindling resource base that cannot support global demands. This exact situation has been observed throughout history, in both economies and ecosystems, and inevitably leads to a catastrophic population crash. The question is, if we know that this is even a possibility and do nothing to attempt to halt our course, are we responsible for the consequences? I think that we are and as such, given a non-zero potential for catastrophe, it is immoral for society to continue on the path of ecological ignorance, over-consumption, and exponential growth. It is up to those who realize this, my peers in the scientific community and aware citizens like those who are reading this blog, to give this message and hopefully, eventually, affect positive change that will ripple out to the local, national and global scale creating a better future with less. Φ
Elliott Campbell recently received his doctorate from the University of Maryland and is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Maryland. This article was originally published on Oct. 30, 2012 by A Prosperous Way Down, and archived Oct. 27, 2012.