Welcome to Peak Resources

Approaching a state shift in Earth´s Biosphere. Source: Barnosky et al (2012).

Limits to Growth update 2014

This will be my first post on this blog and while it is a bit long I really hope people have the energy to read at least some of it. I think this is an appropriate first post since the blog is called peak resources and deals with a broad topic (or interdisciplinary field) that was really only first acknowledged with the arrival of the book Limits to Growth. The post will go through some old facts and new discussions recently posted in a Guardian op-ed

Short Background

In the book The Limits to Growth from 1972 a group of MIT scientists studied different scenarios and modeled likely outcomes in terms of population, food production and pollution etc. to gain insight to modern civilizations limiting factors for continued prosperity on planet Earth. The central argument of the book was simple: since the Earth is finite the quest for unlimited growth in population and material goods would eventually lead to a collapse (or breakdown) of society. In the "business as usual" (BAU) scenario the researchers assumed a growing population and demand for material wealth which in turn would lead to more industrial output, pollution and require ever increasing extraction of natural resources. Human civilization would then reach a first limiting factor at the point in time when resources started to become ever more expensive as they become harder to obtain (i.e. when it takes more energy/capital to extract the same amount of resources). Then, when more and more capital goes to resource extraction, industrial output per capita would start to fall. According to the book, following a business as usual scenario this could start occurring around 2015-2020. 

So, have we followed the trajectory of the business-as-usual scenario or sustinable development? Are there today any indications of hitting limits?

Well, this is what The Guardian op-ed by Turner and Alexander discusses. First of one should acknowledge that the authors of Limits to Growth updated their book in 1994 and 2004, comparing the scenarios with then up to date data for every parameter. Furthermore, G. Turner at CSIRO published a paper called "A comparison of 'The Limits to Growth' with Thirty Years of Reality" (2008), Hall and Day wrote "Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil" (2009), and U. Bardi (2011) and R. Heinberg (2011) have written books about Limits to Growth and its public reception. Updates or comparisons to the original study are nothing new to the academic world, but perhaps to the public. This could be the case since the original study was fiercely attacked by many economists who claimed that there could be no limit to human ingenuity and foresight and thus not to growth. Today there is still a general disliking of talking about limits to growth so many environmental scientists have rephrased the issue as "ensuring prosperity within a safe operating space" (Rockström et al. 2009).

Figure 1. BAU Scenario
limits to growth
 Source: Guardian
In any case, the study discussed in The Guardian is the one released by G. Turner (2014) calledIs Global Collapse Imminent?’, MSSI Research Paper No. 4. The study builds on Turners previous updates, but this time takes a step further by discussing the importance of peak oil and whether the Global Financial Crisis could be viewed as a first sign of hitting the limits to growth. Indeed as Turner writes in the op-ed "Limits to Growth checks out with reality" (fig.1) meaning that we are following the business-as-usual trajectory (just as previous studies mentioned above also have concluded). Okey, nothing really new so far. But then Turner goes on to write "the first stages of decline may already have started". Here the issue of peak oil is critical. Why? Because the global economy is intimately tied to cheap and abundant oil. Another important indicator is debt levels. Unsustainable levels of debt means that if there is a sudden increase in oil prices then gas and food prices becomes more expensive and people cannot afford to e.g. pay their mortgage which could result in massive defaults. Many independent researchers conclude that "easy" conventional oil production (e.g. not inlcuding shale and tar sands) has already peaked (2005-2008). Even the conservative IEA has warned about peak oil. Turner therefore argues that peak oil could be the catalyst for global economic downturn.

However, no one really knows what will actually happen when resources starts to constrain economic growth. Wars and civil unrest could break out, economic inequality could rise, or there could simply be a slowing down of western countries economic growth. Many other possible scenarios could come about as a consequence of limited resources but there is a risk that these crises mask the real underlying issue of ecosystem degradation and so many conventional solutions will not work. To prevent a severe downturn and dampen potential serious ecological consequences we need to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, relying less on fossil fuels and preserving critical ecosystem services and biodiversity for a resilient society in a future of abrupt change. This blog will deal with how to do this and the challenges we face. For more see topics.


Out of the ashes into the fire

0 kommentarer: