Global economic systems crash not only because of greed, fraud and toxic assets, but because those systems rest on fallacies about the natural world. The Ponzi scams and derivatives swindles of international bankers are no substitute for real economy: the living ecological systems, energy, soils, minerals, forests, and seas.
The self-serving theories of growthaholic economists peel away from this deep reality like cheap wallpaper. Since the days of Akhenaten and Caesar, overfed profiteers have insisted that their elite and esoteric genius creates wealth. When they salted the soils or decimated forests, they would march into the next watershed or “discover” another continent.
Those days are over. There are no more giant resource pools to plunder. The wealth of Pharaohs and stock hustlers arrived not from their genius, but from their facility with deception, fashioning loans with fantasy money, and trading bets on the changing value of paper promises, the modern “derivatives” market. But in the end, all this affluence relies on the real wealth: nature, her systems, her materials, and her energies.
Markets will rally and crash again, and paper pushers will stuff more cash into their safety deposit boxes, but in the end, money cannot replace soil and water. Gross domestic products provide no surrogate for authentic well-being.
As world stock markets collapsed this fall, several urgent environmental events rumbled below the superficial hand-wringing, like deep volcanoes awakening to announce, “Nature shall not be mocked.”
It’s the soil, folks
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us,” wrote American ecologist Aldo Leopold five decades ago. “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
Economists ignored, even ridiculed, such warnings from ecologists, and the planet now faces a shortage of fertile soil, the result of erosion, salination, contamination, desertification, and a swelling population. UN Agriculture head, Lennart Bage, announced last summer, “Fertile land with access to water has become a strategic asset.” It always has been, for everything that lives.
This year, Iran bought over 1 million tons of wheat from the US, something it has not done since 1980. Iran would not come begging to its avowed enemy if it had any other option. Iran, the Saudis, and other oil-rich Middle East nations rely on global agriculture for grain. The United Arab Emirates buy farmland in Sudan and Kazakhstan. South Korea seeks land in Mongolia, China in Southeast Asia. Libya leases farms in the Ukraine.
With the closing of Ukrainian shipments, only three major grain exporters remain: North America, Australia, and New Zealand. However, these global producers rely entirely on fertilisers and fossil fuels. However, the production of phosphorus, principal component of fertiliser, is rare and in decline, and the era of cheap energy is coming to an end.
The big bonfire
Globalisation is literally running out of gas. Geologists at the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) Conference in California, in September, confirmed that world oil production has stopped growing and will begin its inevitable decline during the next decade.
A US Department of Energy study (The Hirsch Report) warned in 2005 – the year that global production plateaued – that society required a 20-year lead time to implement an optimal new energy plan. It is already too late for such a measured response, and this failure to act in time is the direct result of denial from lobbyists and economists, who chanted “eternal growth,” while obscuring or ignoring the evidence before them.
Conventional economic theory has claimed that resources are virtually infinite, that only capital and labour are required to create “wealth.” Oil depletion exposes this tragic conceit. Oil production declined last year in eight of the top twelve producing nations. Every major oil field on the planet is in decline, and global discoveries peaked 40 years ago.
Meanwhile, economic growth promoters expect humanity to double its vehicle fleet over the next decade, from 1 billion to 2 billion vehicles, while building more roads across arable farmland.
Wind and solar power developments will help mitigate the coming energy crunch, but will not replace cheap liquid fuels. Biofuels will have certain localised value, if based on agricultural waste, but will prove insignificant on a globalised scale. Corn ethanol undermines food agriculture, and will not remotely replace cheap oil. Cellulose and algae biofuel projects cannot even produce net energy, so they are not economic at any price.
New oil discoveries and recovery technologies lag hopelessly behind the decline of conventional oil fields. Oil industry promoters recently proclaimed “90 billion barrels of oil” in the Arctic. However, these lobbyists failed to mention that this oil – even if it could be confirmed and recovered – represents three years of global supply.
The best and cheapest energy source is conservation. The only environmentally feasible solution to the end of cheap liquid fuels is to burn less. Analyst Randy Udall, who drafted Colorado’s Renewable Energy Mitigation Program, told the ASPO conference that energy companies have no use for conservation. Instead, they will burn more coal, make liquid fuel from coal, and melt bitumen at unearthly temperatures in low-efficiency tar sands and oil shale projects.
Udall called our era of history “the Big Bonfire.” We burn a million tons of fossil fuel every hour, releasing 80-million tons of CO2 each day. And here, we arrive at the third big crack in the growthaholics’ thin facade.
According to the international Global Carbon Project, last year’s annual increase in carbon emissions, 2.9%, exceeded previous projections, “generating stronger climate forcing and sooner than expected.” All the international gatherings, carbon-trading festivals, and Kyoto handshakes have failed to reduce carbon emissions or even stabilise the growth rate of these emissions.
Meanwhile, in September, Orjan Gustafsson of Stockholm University – with the International Siberian Shelf Study, sponsored by the Russian Science Academy and American Geophysical Union – announced evidence that millions of tons of a methane gas – 25 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas – now escapes into the atmosphere from beneath the Arctic seabed. As the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned, the deep permafrost appears now to be thawing.
Scientists on board Russian research ship Jacob Smirnitskyi recorded methane bubbling to the sea surface, causing air-borne concentrations 100-times background levels. Ten previous expeditions since 2003 did not detect these levels of free methane. The new data describes releases so intense that the methane does not have time to dissolve in seawater but rises as bubbles to the ocean surface. Similar releases have been recorded in the East Siberian and Laptev Seas, amounting to millions of tons of methane from melting sub-sea permafrost.
The escaping methane represents a massive exhalation of ancient hydrocarbons likely captured in the Paleozoic warm era when amphibians crawled from the sea. The carbon escaped once before, during the Permian ecological collapse, 225 million years ago, leading to peak Mesozoic heat, and was recaptured as methane during the last 100 million years. Meteorologists warn that this significant store of ancient carbon could lead to run-away global warming, far beyond the influence of human technologies to sequester or forestall.
The methane represents an unaccounted cost of doing business in the era of the “big bonfire”. Market wizards may shave toxic assets from their balance sheets, but they cannot dictate nature’s accounting.
Regardless of stopgap bailouts and more paper promises, economic collapse will continue in fits and starts until humanity achieves genuine ecological balance, adopts a steady state economy, and finally understands that ecology is the foundation of human enterprise. There are only two options for living cultures in a physical system: homeostasis or collapse.
Future generations will have every right to dismiss the “big bonfire” as an era of ignorance and unconscionable excess. But I want future generations to know this: Many from our generation never sold you out. We kept our eyes open, witnessed the truth, and did our best to warn our bumbling, myopic civilisation.
I speak to many young people, who are terrified and/or angry about the state of the world, the wasteful extravagance of society, and needless ecological destruction. I experienced similar reactions when I learned as a child that our world could be vapourised by nuclear weapons. When we’re young, our families and teachers protected us from certain disturbing realities. If we remain naïve or ill-informed, the discovery of alarming truths about our world may create shock and outrage.
The best way to never again be disillusioned is to not be illusioned in the first place.
Economic sleight of hand won’t restore our place on this Earth. Human survival strategies now will be as much about resilience during transformation as finding “solutions” to preserve untenable expectations. Our resilience will include a rediscovery of a richer life with simpler means, a genuine quality of life that cannot be purchased but only lived. Human society can change, and in fact has to change. Don’t get depressed. Get informed and get active.
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