Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XVI

Steve Bull (https://olduvai.ca)
4 min readMay 24, 2021
Knossos, Greece (1993) Photo by author

Finite Energy, Overconsumption, and Magical Thinking Through Denial

Another quick thought on our impending energy cliff situation and comment on an article suggesting overconsumption is our greatest threat and that we can be happy without it.

This is an excellent article.

The threats humanity faces are never simple and always multifaceted and intertwined. Overconsumption by a relatively small percentage of our world’s population is certainly one of the contributing factors. As is the way we create and distribute ‘money’ and our sociopolitical systems, to mention just two.

Underpinning all of these complexities is energy and the one-time, finite cache of energy provided by fossil fuels has provided a boost to human exploitation of the planet unlike any other time in humanity’s 100,000+ years of existence. In the waning days of this phenomenal energy surplus (be it due to supply constraints because of diminishing returns or some recognition of the negative consequences of its use — which are many and go far beyond the production of greenhouse gases), scaling back ‘advanced’ economies’ overconsumption tendencies could help forestall the energy decline we have begun to experience. It is unlikely, however, to prevent it — I would argue it is mostly magical thinking to hold on to the idea that some ‘clean’, ‘renewable’, and ‘sustainable’ energy source will suddenly appear and save us; a ‘solution’ that would not in any way address the mountain of other dilemmas we face, such as lack of arable lands and fertile soils, biodiversity loss, the negative repercussions of our past several centuries of expansion and exploitation, and numerous other biophysical limits imposed by a finite planet.

In fact, I would argue there are many reasons a pullback in our consumer-(profit-)driven societies is unlikely to happen, not least of which is the ruling class’s motivation to expand/control the wealth-generating systems that provide their revenue stream and the societal repercussions that always seem to arise when a people’s living standards (expectations? entitlements?) are threatened.

Another, and perhaps the most significant, roadblock to ‘righting’ our path is the somewhat dominant narrative that alternative energy sources (that many erroneously label ‘green’ and ‘clean’; and are used as supportive fodder by the ruling class to justify ‘sustainable’ growth — a perverse oxymoron if ever there was one and truly more marketing sloganeering than a reflection of reality) can be mostly easily transitioned to in order to continue ‘fuelling’ advanced economies very energy-intensive lifestyles. As long as the illusion persists that our current ways of living (and I’m speaking of ‘advanced’ economic societies) can in any way be ‘sustained’, we will travel towards a collapse/decline which can neither be reversed nor managed in an equitable or relatively-non-catastrophic way (‘catastrophic’ for advanced economies, not so much for economies that don’t have the same expectations and/or are more self-sufficient, and for much of the rest of the ‘natural’ world).

This is the way things go for a species that has overshot the natural carrying capacity of its environment. Humanity has the unique abilities to be aware of and possibly mitigate the fall that accompanies this biological phenomenon but I am doubtful we will use our ‘ingenuity’ to do anything but take the easier and seemingly less painful path of attempting to maintain our current tendencies (we are, after all, genetically predisposed to seek pleasure and avoid pain, even if the pain experienced now were to be significantly less than that that is to arise somewhat later in time). We will continue to use all the cognitive distortions we are prone to to propagate and hold on to comforting narratives that avoid the inconvenient ‘facts’.

Of course, denial is the first stage of grief and often, if not always, accompanies a significant loss. We, however, need the majority of people to move directly to the final stage of grief that is acceptance and as I have often argued on these pages recognise (and posthaste given the speed with which exponential growth always overwhelms a system) that the best way to mitigate our impending energy descent (and that of other physical resources) is to pursue degrowth strategies. The conversation on how to do this equitably and wisely is long, long overdue and the longer we avoid it, the more precipitous will be our ‘fall’.

In fact, it may actually be too late as some suggest and all the arguments and competing narratives are just ‘academic’ at this point — we would only truly know in hindsight. Perhaps the best one can do is to try and make one’s household and local community as resilient and self-sufficient as possible. It is sometimes wise to plan for the worst and hope for the best; although hope is not really a strategy and the planning/action part is what’s really important. Yes, stop consuming as much and change your expectations but also be prepared for a future of less and not one of perpetual growth and prosperity as our ruling class pushes (what politician has not promised ‘more’ to garner support? as the article highlights). ‘Normal’ is what we make it, not what we are told by others — especially those who seek to ‘profit’ from us. It is going to take a massive paradigm shift for us to weather the impending energy cliff and we are quickly losing time to prepare, both physically and psychologically.

Please visit me at my website.

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Steve Bull (https://olduvai.ca)

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...