Thursday, May 06, 2010

tipping point: near-term systemic implications of a peak in global oil production

David Korowicz - Complexity, Economy, Civilisation & Collapse from Feasta on Vimeo.

FEASTA The credit crisis exemplifies society's difficulties in the timely management of risks outside our experience or immediate concerns, even when such risks are well signposted. We have passed or are close to passing the peak of global oil production. Our civilisation is structurally unstable to an energy withdrawal. There is a high probability that our integrated and globalised civilisation is on the cusp of a fast and near-term collapse.


As individuals, and as a social species we put up huge psychological defences to protect the status quo. We've heard this doom prophesied for decades, all is still well! What about technology? Rising energy prices will bring more oil! We need a Green New Deal! We still have time! We're busy with a financial crisis! This is depressing! If this were important, everybody would be talking about it! Yet the evidence for such a scenario is as close to cast iron as any upon which policy is built: Oil production must peak; there is a growing probability that it has or will soon peak; energy flows and a functioning economy are by necessity highly correlated; our basic local needs have become dependent upon a hyper-complex, integrated, tightly-coupled global fabric of exchange; our primary infrastructure is dependent upon the operation of this fabric and global economies of scale; credit is the integral part of the fabric of our monetary, economic and trade systems; a credit market must collapse in a contracting economy, and so on.

We are living within dynamic processes. It matters little what technologies are in the pipeline, the potential of wind power in some choice location, or that the European Commission has a target; if a severe economic and structural collapse occurs before their enactment, then they may never be enacted.

Our primary question is what happens if there is a net decrease in energy flow through our civilisation? For it is absolutely dependent upon increasing flows of concentrated energy to evolve and grow, and to form and maintain its complex structures. The rules governing energy and its transformation, the laws of thermodynamics, are the inviolate framework through which all things happen- the evolution of the universe, the direction of time, life on earth, human development, the evolution of civilisation, and economic processes. This point is not rhetorical, access to increasing flows of concentrated energy, which can be transformed into work and dispersed energy, is the foundation upon which our civilisation stands. Yet we are at a point where these flows are, with high probability, about to begin decreasing. We should intuit that an energy withdrawal should have major systemic implications, for without energy flows nothing happens.

The key to understanding the implications of peak oil is to see it not just directly through its effect on transport, petrochemicals, or food say, but its systemic effects. A globalising, integrated and co-dependant economy has evolved with particular dynamics and embedded structures that have made our basic welfare dependent upon delocalised 'local' economies. It has locked us into hyper- complex economic and social processes that are increasing our vulnerability, but which we are unable to alter without risking a collapse in those same welfare supporting structures. And without increasing energy flows, those embedded structures, which include our expectations, institutions and infrastructure that evolved and adapted in the expectation of further economic growth cannot be maintained.