It turns out that fossil fuels suffer from a couple of serious drawbacks: depletion and pollution. Coal, oil, and natural gas are finite substances we extract from the Earth’s crust using the low-hanging fruit principle. While we’re not about to run out of these fuels in an absolute sense, the effort required to get them is increasing. We’ve already extracted all the easy stuff, and beyond a certain point it will take more energy to obtain the remaining fuels than they will yield when burned. We haven’t arrived at that point yet, but years before we get to fossil-fuel energy break-even the global industrial system will begin to shudder and shake. And, yes, we may already be at that stage according to some analysts.
By Richard Heinberg
Pollution, the other drawback to fossil fuels, was recognized as a problem many decades ago when coal smoke began to cloud industrial cities like London and Pittsburgh. But it turns out that an invisible and odorless pollutant, carbon dioxide, will have much greater long-term impact than smoke. By burning tens of millions of years’ worth of ancient plant matter in just a couple of centuries, we are releasing hundreds of billions of tons of CO2, changing the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere and oceans, causing climate patterns to become more chaotic, and thereby threatening not just global agriculture but the ecological cycles that support myriads of other creatures in addition to ourselves.
If the energy-climate conundrum were all we had to worry about, the obvious answer would be to transition industrial society to operate on other, less problematic energy sources. Unfortunately, it turns out that a full energy transition to renewable alternatives like solar and wind power won’t be easy (for reasons I’ve discussed here, here, and here). But there’s even worse news: the energy-climate problem isn’t our only survival-level ecological dilemma.
As we’ve grown our population and our per capita consumption rates, we’ve been taking habitat away from other organisms. As a result, nature is in full retreat. Vertebrate and invertebrate animal species have suffered average population declines of 70 percent in the past 50 years, and thousands of plant species are endangered as well.
Not only are most people apparently willing to ignore the loss of Earth’s biodiversity as long as the industrial economy can continue to keep them fed, clothed, housed, and entertained, but they are also largely unaware of the exhaustion of the materials that feed the industrial machine. As high-grade ores deplete, miners are forced to dig deeper and process more ore in order to produce the same amounts of copper, iron, aluminum, and dozens of other critical materials. Yet merely the same amounts won’t do: we need to double these amounts every 25 years to enable economic growth at recent rates—and we need loads more materials to build vast numbers of solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries that will be needed to substitute for fossil fuels.
Some scientists use math to determine how close we are to planetary limits. One such effort goes by the name “planetary boundaries”; its main proponents, scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, calculate that, of nine critical global ecological thresholds that might lead to collapse, humanity has already crossed six. A related effort is being undertaken by the Global Footprint Network, which tracks our “ecological footprint”—how much of Earth’s biological regenerative capacity is being used by human society. Our footprint scorecard currently shows humanity using resources as if we lived on 1.75 Earths—which it is only possible to do temporarily by, in effect, robbing future generations.
Altogether, civilization’s survival dilemma in the 21st century is best described by a concept from population ecology—overshoot. This refers to the situation where a crucial resource temporarily becomes more abundant, thereby enabling a group of organisms to grow its population beyond levels that can be sustained over the long run. For a population of field mice in overshoot, the critical resource might consist of small plants whose unusually robust growth has been triggered by high levels of rainfall. For humanity currently, the critical resource is fossil energy. Temporary energy abundance has led to many good things (for some of us, anyway): more food, more people, more commercial products, more knowledge, more comfort, and more convenience. But we are about to become victims of our own success.
Indeed, humanity’s confrontation with limits will make this century pivotal. Whether it’s the rate of emission of greenhouse gases, the proliferation of “forever chemicals,” the depletion of soils and minerals, or the destruction of habitat for other species, in each case we see industrial society plunging headlong over the guardrails. Our collective survival will depend on whether we can restrain population growth, resource extraction, and waste dumping so that we can get onto a path that can be sustained for centuries or millennia. That means de-growing economies, starting with the wealthiest ones like that of the United States.
But culturally we are ill-equipped for this necessary re-adaptation process. Indigenous wisdom, which should be our guide, persists in traditional societies fighting for cultural survival. Everywhere else, the dominant industrial worldview holds that talk of limits is dreary, scary, unimaginative, and uninspiring. Where limits are undeniable, as with carbon emissions and climate change, we try to finesse them with clever math (carbon credits, anyone?) and sophisticated technology.
Further, worsening economic inequality is undermining the social cohesion needed for a cooperative human about-face. Indeed, the people who are empowered to decide what direction society takes are in almost all cases ones who tend to benefit most from overexploitation of resources. They’re the very people least likely to propose measures that would pull us back from the precipice.
The Pleasure and Solace of Loving Limits
We have flown so far from safe boundaries that our only possible landing path entails a crash: the policies required to fully align our industrial system with nature’s sustainable productive capacity would themselves trigger enormous economic and political problems. Imagine the response of American citizens if new regulations required them to cut back on energy and material usage by, say, 50 percent. What would happen to the economy in that scenario? There’s no easy answer to overshoot, when it’s gone to such lengths. This is not to say that activists should stop protesting new fossil fuel production projects, or that planning agencies should stop advocating more energy efficiency and solar panels, or that conservationists should stop protecting creatures and ecosystems. We must do what we can, even if it’s not enough to avert all the environmental, social, and economic crises that we’ve been fomenting with decades of over-consumption.
However, in addition to such worthy efforts, at least some of us can adopt an attitude fundamentally different from the dominant “Star Trek” mindset—an attitude geared to help us find an equitable way through the Great Unravelingthat’s already begun, while laying the conceptual and cultural foundation for a truly sustainable society. The key will be a new(ish) attitude toward limits—a willingness to view them not as restrictions always to be fought against, but as boundaries that enable systems to work.
Sure, limits can sometimes be a straitjacket. Few of us like arbitrary strictures of outmoded custom. But far too little is said about the benefits of nature’s limits—including the starkest limit of all, mortality. It’s sad when loved ones die, and few of us look forward to our own demise; hence the perennial quest for an elixir of eternal life, or at least a cure for cancer. But if nobody died, the planet would quickly fill with humans and empty of all the things that feed and provision us. Death clears space for new life; it is the non-negotiable price of admission to the great banquet of existence.
Denying and fighting limits is hard work. We can afford to relax a bit and learn to better appreciate the immense beauty of the masterpiece that nature creates out of finite resources and lifespans.
In addition to Indigenous thinkers, some ancient Greek and Chinese philosophers understood the value of limits. Stoics like Seneca and Epictetus taught that we should view apparent obstacles as opportunities. They said things like, “You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” In China, at roughly the same time, Taoist sages proclaimed, “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” Don’t just respect limits; celebrate them and work in harmony with them.
This is a philosophy grounded in nature’s way. Mortality, loss, beauty, and wisdom all arrive in the same package; sadly, many of us stop unwrapping it before we get to the wisdom at the center. Wisdom says: embrace limits even as they snap back, knowing that, in the long run, everything moves toward balance.
It’s a philosophy that’s especially relevant in difficult times, such as ones we are entering, when it may be helpful to remember: this too shall pass. Even the craze for limitlessness has its limits.