There's a lot of depressing news going on these days. But it was ever thus. However, there's something a little bit worse in character about present-day bad news. In the past, we could rely on the hope that whatever bad happened now, there was a "progress" way out; time and ingenuity would solve our problems. But with Peak Oil apparently looming over our shoulders, now seeming to overshadow the long-term threat of global warming, it seems like the opposite is true: it's all downhill from here.
It's an immobilising sentiment. And you'd think that that was irrational---a sentiment generated by the scale of the problem, but I'd like to play the "Devil's advocate" and say that it is, in fact, the rational response.
Like most people, I'm used to many of the comforts of technology. However, there are some I do without: I don't own a car, which is a biggie, and in fact most of my day to day travel is done on foot. (Let's leave aside the plane travel for now...) But I cannot imagine living in or surviving a world in technological and economic decline. And if I cannot imagine it, how can the masses who rely even more than I on cheap energy would be able to go without, let alone actually choose to do what needs to be done and let go early enough that there is sufficient available energy for the truly important things, like health care and so on.
In fact, I cannot imagine human (North American) society as a whole choosing to scale back in advance. There's always one group or another that thinks it's sufficiently important to continue to consume ever-increasing amounts. The only scale-backs I can think of are those which are forced by supply: Peak Oil.
The optimists tell us that there is a way out: the Julian Simonesque dictum that human ingenuity and the market are sufficient to solve most problems and can be assumed to work. As the price of energy goes up, so does this incentive to find new, hitherto unknown (not-so-)cheap sources, and this can be reliably counted upon---inventiveness given demand seems to be quite powerful through history. However, this seems like a risky fantasy to me. So much safer to conserve, isn't it? But let us survey the existing options for action:
- The pollyannas are wrong, and there is no cheap energy escape hatch from the Peak Oil Problem. Then we're doomed (assuming I'm right that people won't stop consuming). Then the smart thing to do is to continue to enjoy life as before---worse, yet, perhaps to consume even more before it becomes impossible to do so.
- The pollyannas are right, and the supply problem is solved by the ingenuity of demand. In which case, it is still appropriate to consume as before. Perhaps, to consume more than before, in order to hasten this economic process!
Either way, it seems to be worth it to be consuming, not conserving. Make of that what you will. But if the truth lies in between the two, then the calculation is a little different.