Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XIX

Steve Bull (
4 min readJun 7, 2021
Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

Fossil Fuels: Contributing to Complexity and Ecological Overshoot

Andrew Nikiforuk is an author and contributing editor of the online media site The Tyee. He has been writing about the oil and gas industry for close to 20 years. In his most recent article he writes about the lies being told by the Canadian government regarding its attempts to reduce carbon emissions. The Canadian government is certainly not alone in its misinformation (propaganda?) and one of the issues I believe is contributing to the lies is a (purposeful?) misidentification of our planet’s fundamental existential dilemma. Below is my comment on Andrew’s excellent discussion.

Thank you, Andrew. You’ve laid out the case for some very, very difficult decisions/choices/discussions that lay ahead of us.

I’m not convinced we will make what I consider to be the correct choices or even engage in some meaningful and productive dialogue since the changes that I believe are needed (degrowth) would be viewed as exceedingly painful to many as it challenges not only some core beliefs but what could be considered rights/entitlements/expectations regarding living standards (and it doesn’t help that we are genetically predisposed to avoid pain and seek pleasure). The brakes that need to be applied to some social practices/policies (perhaps most? all?) would also be challenged by some because I would contend the fundamental dilemma we are having to address is not necessarily carbon emissions, which I would argue is one of the consequences of the underlying issue, which is ecological overshoot.

The finite, one-time cache of easy-to-retrieve and cheap-to-access energy provided by fossil fuels has ‘fuelled’ an explosion in human numbers and sociopolitical/cultural/economic complexities unlike any other time in human pre/history. With this energy resource at our disposal we have constructed a complex, global, and industrialised world with technological wonders that would certainly appear magical to past generations.

Perhaps one of the most important consequences of this finite energy reserve has been our creation of exceedingly complex, fragile, and energy-intensive long-distance supply chains, especially for food, that have allowed us to expand and occupy quite marginal lands and completely ignore consideration of a land’s carrying capacity and ability to ‘sustain’ a local population; but also created a complete dependency by many on these systems. I use my home province of Ontario as an example. We have a population of about 15 million (and growing) but less than 9 million acres of arable farmland (and lessening), suggesting (based upon an estimate of the need of 1 acre of food production per person to supply adequate caloric intake) we are well past our natural environmental carrying capacity. It’s even worse than these numbers suggest since about 70+% of our ‘food’ production is dedicated to corn and soybean for animal feed and ethanol production. As a result we import about 80+% of our food. And many, many regions of the world are in a similar (or worse) predicament.

One of the ‘memes’ I have often used over the past few years has been ‘Infinite growth on a finite planet, what could possibly go wrong?’ We live on a finite planet with biophysical limits. These limits impact what we can and cannot do. Human ingenuity (i.e., science and technology) has allowed us to push on the boundaries of some of these limits to a certain extent but physics and biology can only be ‘delayed’, not vanquished. The energy-averaging systems we have in place (i.e., long-distance trade) to support occupation of marginal lands and expand beyond a region’s carrying capacity require huge amounts of energy to sustain. This has been possible via fossil fuels. In fact, fossil fuels have allowed us to push the apparent carrying capacity of the planet well beyond the biophysical limits imposed by a finite planet.

So what happens when this finite energy source begins to decline in not only actual physical quantities but in the amount of surplus energy it can supply us with due to diminishing returns?

The two extreme and relatively polar-opposite responses are simple. We could curtail our dependency on this resource and greatly reduce our complexities (something that was probably needed to begin decades ago). Or, we could create stories about how our ingenuity will provide us with a scientific/technological solution to avoid the tough path of degrowth — primarily through the magical thinking necessary to believe that there is a ‘green/clean’ energy source that we can tap into to sustain our energy-intensive living standards and global complexities.

I am increasingly convinced we need to take the first path but it seems quite apparent we are taking the second, a path that not only avoids the ‘pain’ that would be perceived by many as we reduce our complexities but one that weaves comforting myths to reduce our cognitive dissonance. The unfortunate thing is the easier path also puts us further into overshoot leading to an eventual steeper and calamitous decline that we cannot mitigate or manage at all. It is well past time to have the tough discussion (especially about how to do it equitably), if we are to have any hope of avoiding a future that will be much, much more challenging if we don’t.

Please visit my website and consider purchasing my fictional novel trilogy to help support my work.



Steve Bull (

A guy trying to make sense of a complex and seemingly insane world. Spend my days pondering our various predicaments while practising local food production...