Toward a peak everything postanarchism and a technology evaluation schema for communities in crisis.

Author:Brucato, Ben


In 1982, William Catton elucidated a conception of carrying capacity in his book Overshoot. (2) In a tradition of environmental commentary over the prior decade, (3) Catton warned that ecosystems and the Earth as a whole had capacities partially based on available resources that were being exceeded by human use. Human production and consumption were overshooting far beyond the carrying capacity of their ecosystems, and Catton recommended significant decreases in productive and consumptive activity. This was an ecological basis for a revolutionary reorganisation of modern society. Additionally, this approach shifted the discussion away from overpopulation, per se, and toward the issue of overproduction and overconsumption.

Despite a long history and more recent work which challenges essentialising approaches to scarcity, (4) underneath the political contingencies of unequal distribution exist very real shortages of materials upon which most human communities now depend. Holmgren acknowledges that climate change and resource scarcity are 'caused by collective human behavior and potentially can be ameliorated by human behavior', but also that they 'arise from geological and climatic limits beyond human control'. (5) Three decades later Catton wrote a sequel, Bottleneck, (6) in which he effectively argued that perhaps had warnings from three decades prior been taken seriously and drastic measures employed at the time, a now-inevitable catastrophe might have been avoided. Being too late for this crisis to be averted, all the world's inhabitants will need to prepare for a certain material shortfalls and the devastating social consequences thereof. Bill McKibben makes similar arguments with more concern focused on the impacts of climate change. McKibben contends that humanity is not 'going to get back the planet we used to have, the one on which our civilization developed'. (7)

This catastrophe has created the material basis for a struggle that transcends the contingencies of state formations and economic relationships to global capital. While these crises differently impact those at variously intersecting subject positions, everyone will be forced to respond to them in particular ways for survival. Indeed, tasks specific to our varying social and geographic positions will differ, yet all life on this planet--human and otherwise--is deeply touched by this constellation of ecological shifts. While those in different industrialised and informatised countries will face challenges unique to their technical infrastructures and culture, especially when compared against the 'underdeveloped' world, it is likely few will be immune to the challenges this new scarcity will pose over the rest of this century and beyond.

In Peak Everything, (8) Richard Heinberg considers the confluence of multiple resource shortages. To his past work on peak oil, (9) Heinberg now adds attention to peaking production of coal, natural gas, water, grains, minerals, ores and more, as it collides with rising populations and global temperatures. Heinberg demonstrates that many of these resources will not be available in useable quantities for even a fraction of the population of current users by the end of the current century. He cites a report that 'analyzed 57 non-renewable natural resources (NNRs) in terms of production levels and price', which concludes that those in civilisation 'are not about to "run out" of any NNR; we are about to run "critically short" of many'. (10) These depletions leave little opportunity to reach quality-of-life improvements through more equitable distribution. Instead, he refers to Ivan Illich, who in Energy and Equity wrote that inequality is encouraged by increasing energy flows. (11) A limit--whether derived by ecological limits or via radically democratic means--on total energy use from a given source is historically more consistent with equality among human populations. Heinberg and Illich make particular reference to gift economies, which compared with market and money economies are both energy intensive and produce increasingly wider gaps of inequality by any conceivable measure.

The peak everything condition is a particularly inhospitable part of the material and political legacy that the world's population inherits. Its future is not certain, but a range of probable scenarios will guide most political and economic activity ahead of us. Rather than develop an apocalyptic resignation, we should see in these prognostications the necessity of thoughtful rearrangements of production and communities which may indeed have the added benefit of challenging the authority of the state, capital, scientific experts, large-scale technics and so on. More importantly, since significant changes to the technological base will become a matter of necessity as a result of these resource shortfalls, assessing new technologies from an anti-authoritarian position will enable the building of a new base that is more valenced toward non-authoritarian relations among people and our environment.


While Heinberg and others have provided significant quantitative data and analysis that project material shortfalls, the complex variables in play would be best confronted by acknowledging uncertainty. In this and the next section, I emphasise the importance of uncertainty through the use of sources who apply scenario-based analysis. David Holmgren, a founder of the permaculture movement, described four probable scenarios determined by the speed of oil decline and the degree of destructiveness of climate change experienced. These narratives place society and environment in interaction in an uncertain future, in which somewhat unpredictable rates of resource depletion and climate change will strictly confine the range of options for sociopolitical responses. According to Holmgren, these 'descent scenarios' are 'plausible and internally consistent stories about the future that help organisations and individuals to achieve a broad and open-ended adaptability to inherent unpredictability'. (12) As such, the rate of oil decline and the severity of impacts of climate change will prefigure the available options for social responses, discussed below.

The brown tech scenario is what Holmgren would predict if oil had recently peaked, and declined at roughly 2 per cent per year along with a 'subsequent peak and decline in natural gas' coinciding with 'the severity of global warming symptoms ... at the extreme end of current mainstream scientific predictions. In this scenario strong, even aggressive, national policies and actions prevail to address both the threats and the opportunities from energy peak and climate change'. (13) The result, given present political conditions, would be the centralisation of political organisation to resolve climate-initiated disasters, and continued reliance on non-renewable energy due to the slower decline in resources and technological lag. Politically, '"top-down constriction" summarises the essence of this scenario in that national power constricts consumption and focuses resources to maintain the nation-state in the face of deteriorating climate and reduced energy and food supply'. (14)

In the green tech scenario, the 'adverse climate changes are at the low end of projections', non-renewable energy resource production declines slowly, and thus 'the sense of chaos and crisis is more muted [than the brown tech scenario] without major economic collapse or conflict'. This 'most benign' scenario presented by Holmgren seems the worst-case scenario ever acknowledged in popular political discourse. In the green tech scenario, resources 'flow to a greater diversity of responses at the global, national, city, community, and individual level'. Holmgren predicts in such a situation a 'resurgence of rural and regional economies on the back of sustained and growing prices for all natural commodities including feedstock and biofuels'. (15) This scenario would eventually evolve toward the earth steward variety discussed below, as non-renewable resources dwindled. '"Distributed powerdown" summarizes this scenario by emphasizing both the distributed nature of resources and power, and the planned contraction involved'. (16) The initial mobilisation of expertise and resources to transform regions into high-tech sustainable modes of production would challenge any strongly democratic processes to respond to such a situation.

In the earth steward scenario, rapid drops in energy resources cause catastrophic economic collapses that first result in considerable social upheaval leading to a 'bottom-up rebuild'. This scenario results from 'the extreme end of predictions by peak oil modellers (10-15 per cent decline per annum)' and 'an even faster decline in gas production plus a simultaneous peak in coal production'. (17) Economic depression would be certain, existing resource wars would escalate, and new conflicts would emerge over resources that have been historically secure. 'This economic collapse and these political stresses, more than the actual shortage of resources, prevent the development of more expensive and large-scale nonrenewable resources that characterize the brown-tech scenario or the renewable resources and infrastructure of the green-tech'. (18)

The lifeboat scenario is one of 'civilization triage'. In this scenario, predictions of catastrophic climate change like those by the Climate Action Centre prove true, (19) while a drastic decline in energy resources combines to force a total global civilisation collapse. Widespread wars, famine, and disease ravage most communities. For Holmgren, the lifeboat scenario would see 'the retention of cultural knowledge of the past combined with a moderately habitable environment', possibly allowing 'new civilizations to emerge that build on at least some knowledge and lessons from ours'. (20) This cyclical determinism...

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