I was asked yesterday what I thought the odds were that the scenario of breakdown followed by rebuilding a better society (a subject often brought up on the Oil Drum and other venues these days). I hadn't really given it much thought in that framework (putting odds on it), but as many of you know I am rather convinced that that is going to be the most likely scenario. It is either that or complete loss of civilization and a regression of human evolution or extinction.
So I spent a little time trying to estimate the probabilities of various scenarios just based on the evidence I look at (by definition this can't be ALL evidence!) So here is my best guess at this time (FWIW):
Business as usual - BAU (0%). We will simply switch out alternative energy sources for fossil fuels and increase efficiencies and conservation within the next 20 years without the process disrupting either the continuance of consumption in the OECD and continuing development of the rest of the world. Population going to 9+ billion. This is the techno-cornucopian scenario that many old-school politically "astute" environmentalists and political leaders promote.
Greatly reduced business (15%). We will be able to switch over to alternatives, etc., but with great changes in lifestyles and probably many years of sacrifice as we adjust to less consumptive ways to live. Population getting marginally larger and then stabilizing at 8+ billion. This is the scenario that most writers project as what will and SHOULD happen. It depends entirely on the techno efficacy argument (if everyone starts now and cooperates completely).
Disruption of all business and agriculture (75%). The decline of fossil fuel energy will come much sooner than most are ready for. There will be a completer breakdown of institutions and states. Likely to be resource wars, but mostly local, at best regional, as there will not enough fuel and other resources to conduct large-scale wars of old (Darfur example). We will not be able to construct an adequate energy infrastructure and will even have trouble coming up with local solutions. Changing climate will devastate various regions but those less affected may succeed in creating local communities based on local agriculture and low-tech manufacture (see "World Made By Hand" by James Kunstler). Population down to 2 billion within 100 years.
Human extinction within 100 years (10%).
These are WAGs of course. But if I honestly try to add up the likelihoods this is what I come up with. The reason is that our reliance on high potential energy is so great and most people take it for granted, thus will have a hard time believing scenario #3 is so likely, while at the same time harboring firm beliefs that technology will somehow come through as they believe it always has in the past. Of course it hasn't really, at least not always (war on cancer). Technology has allowed us to do more with material resources, certainly, getting more functionality from those resources over time. But matter is different from energy. The technology of energy is fundamentally different from that of matter. The only reason we could work such wonders with matter was that we tapped into this incredible bank of high potential energy called fossil fuels. And we've gotten a lot of bang for our buck. But the fuels are running low and are much more difficult to extract, meaning there is far less net energy to work magic on matter these days. And at a time when there are so many more of us wanting some of that magic.
I realize this is a bleak outlook. Although I cannot help but see a positive side to it from the standpoint that a greatly reduced population, each consuming far less resources, is going to be good for the planet (unfortunate to have to have that view). And I think that humanity will have learned a valuable lesson and not make the same mistakes if given another chance to create something that we might call civilization. That would take a completely new energy source since we will have used up all accessible fossil fuels, but at very low populations with modest material needs some form of solar energy conversion to electricity would be sufficient. So, while hard to contemplate such a gloomy scenario, harder still to live through it, there is a possible bright side for the world as a whole.
I recommend "The Up-Side of Down" by Thomas Homer-Dixon.
Comment by e-mail from Mike Roddy on Nov. 17, 2009:
I don't think you're being pessimistic, George. Those numbers look like good educated guesses to me, and are even on the optimistic side.
Two recommendations: "A Really Inconvenient Truth," by Dan Miller. He's a retired engineer and tech magnate (though still a young man), helped on Gore's movie, and works closely with Berkeley climate scientists. As a Cal grad, I also know a few of them, and one (Dr. Harte) told me long ago that IPCC was way too optimistic. Miller's video shows that mainstream climate science predicts a significant probability of human extinction, and that data from the last couple of years show methane feedbacks and all kinds of frightening events as being well under way. Apparently we've been unable to measure the extent of the Siberian Arctic methane releases, but the 50 mmt estimate is just the very beginning. The game has changed even in the last year, increasing Game Over (human extinction) probabilities. The basic science indicates a very grim future unless transformative actions begin immediately.
Miller asked a Berkeley climatologist and IPCC delegate where she saw global temperature in 2100. Her answer? A 6 to 12 degree Celsius increase. I'm a homer here in believing that Berkeley holds the highest concentration of really smart people on earth, and that this kind of talk is hardly alarmist or fringe. The science department faculty was never really politically woolly per the outdated campus stereotype that a few people still cling to.
Second recommendation: The November Scientific American cover story, which is a plan for full conversion to renewable energy by 2030 in this country. The details are accounted for, including cost, materials availability, land, and so on. It's an important and extremely well done contribution. If Miller is right, this is basically our only alternative, and it has to begin now.
You can google the Miller video, and the November Scientific American issue is still on the newsstands, but not for much longer.
I'm tired of bugging you, Andy [Revkin], because I'm fond of you, like the rest of us. But you really need to move the bar where it belongs, and feature both of these stories [in The New York Times science section].