Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Plan C-B

“Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change” by Pat Murphy is one of the most well-researched and comprehensive books I’ve read on the causes of the major crises threatening humanity and what to do about them. The book was recommended by one of the founders of my local Transition group, who found in it concrete suggestions about how to go through “energy descent,” one of the primary goals of the community oriented international Transition movement (Murphy himself runs Community Solutions, a like-minded organization).

If you enjoy detailed analysis full of facts (especially numbers) like I do, you will find “Plan C” to be a treasure-trove. What’s best, in my view, is that Murphy fairly lays out the logic and data behind what he sees as the four main responses to peak oil (the point in time where supplies of oil will start to inevitably decline) and global warming (climate change caused by excess greenhouse gases in the atmosphere), and why he favors just one of these responses -- reducing consumption quickly to a sustainable level (energy descent, equivalent to “radical simplicity”). Of the other options, he gives the most attention to the low probability of finding new technologies that could maintain something like our current standard of living (Plan B); describes how continuing business-as-usual (Plan A) will lead to disaster; and briefly mentions that some people might simply expect the worst and do their best to survive (Plan D).

Based upon my own research, I’ve advocated a variation of Plan B: Developing a way of living based on renewable and replaceable resources. I dismiss Plan A for much the same reason Murphy does, because population collapse is a virtually certain result; and the close tracking of world population and consumption has led me to shy away from a generic Plan C because it follows that a loss of population would accompany less consumption.

Having documented Cuba’s survival of its own “peak oil,” Murphy suggests that the world could survive by similar means, with the rebuilding of community and a return to a more frugal way of life. This assumes that population and consumption can be decoupled from each other; but I can imagine an alternative explanation that maintains that coupling: There is a fraction of consumption, determinant of overall health and well-being, that is proportional to overall consumption on a global scale (or at least in closed systems); this fraction may be as low as 20%, based on a comparison of U.S. waste data from 1997 quoted in Murphy’s book, ecological footprint data for countries from the World Wildlife Fund in 2003, and my own projections of world per capita consumption. It turns out that more than 80% of U.S. waste is in carbon dioxide (by weight), the main human contribution to global warming, which easily accounts for the remaining amount if extrapolated to the rest of the world (in fact, as Murphy discusses in-depth, most of the carbon dioxide is generated by the richest countries like the U.S, who are rich because they have access to the most fossil fuels). These considerations don’t offer me much comfort, however, since my projections are based on the 20% we directly use, and they show that amount (along with population) reaching a peak in a dozen years; while fossil fuel use is expected by the peak oil experts to reach its maximum imminently, if it hasn’t already.

It is likely that the carbon dioxide we’re putting into the atmosphere will have the effect of cutting back on our available time due to the use of more resources as we adapt to the resulting climate changes. The best way to reduce this threat is to curb consumption of fossil fuels; but to keep the world population from decreasing, we will need to maintain the remaining 20% of consumption while more renewable and reusable resources are brought into use. Those who consume more fossil fuels will necessarily bear the brunt of this effort, which will likely also, according to my research, buy a few years as the statistical distribution of consumption within the world’s population becomes less lopsided toward excess consumption (this is a much smaller gain than I suspect Murphy and others like David Korten would be comfortable with, but it is 25% of the time I estimate we have left before the population peak). We will need a good “Plan B” to carry us from there, but with a very different vision of the lifestyle we want to maintain than the one driving the “green” technologists of today.

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