The Future Is Not What it Used to Be: Climate Change and Energy Scarcity, by Jörg Friedrichs

Jon Turney is dispirited by the rhetoric of collapse in a sober analysis of two global crises

September 26, 2013

You pretty much know what this book is going to say before you begin reading. While Jörg Friedrichs doesn’t say so, that is part of the evidence for his conclusion. Two worldwide crises loom, he reminds us. Peak oil – the point at which we arrive at the maximum rate of petroleum extraction and decline follows – threatens the energy supply on which we have built everything else. Yet while oil and other fossil fuels last, there will be enough of them to shift climate into a regime that poses new dangers to billions of people. In short, “industrial society as such is the least sustainable form of civilization in history”. And we are not going to do anything about it.

His starting point is that industrial society is transient because it relies on the impossibility of endless growth: Malthus was always right, in principle, and the neo-Malthusians are right now. We face an imminent decline in a currently irreplaceable resource, oil, and a breaching of planetary limits, by releasing greenhouse gases. The likely result is societal collapse some time around the middle of this century.

As he concedes, this is more or less what was projected in the Club of Rome’s 1972 report The Limits to Growth, so his book’s title is a little misleading. For some, this is pretty much the future as it has looked for the past 40 years.

Friedrichs goes on to consider how we might respond to energy scarcity. Using an approach that is new, to me at any rate, he analyses what happened when there were disruptive shortages of energy in modern societies. In a sober, and sobering, chapter, he relates what ensued: “predatory militarism” in Japan in the 1920s and 1930s, and totalitarian lockdown to preserve elite privileges while millions starved in North Korea in the 1990s. The only hopeful case is Cuba in the 1990s, when an unusually cohesive society managed to reconfigure production to feed everyone. None of these is a particularly good model for a global system facing declining oil production, however. It would most likely lead, Friedrichs suggests, not to immediate collapse or any smooth transition, but to painful adaptation that could last a century or more.

There follows a chapter discussing the state of knowledge and argument about our two crises. This, to my mind, is less convincing. Friedrichs sees both climate science and predictions of future oil production as examples of “post-normal science”, in the sense defined by Jerry Ravetz and Silvio Funtowicz. This appears to fit, in that both involve “high stakes” issues, but I believe it is a mistake to conflate the two in terms of the kinds of uncertainty they raise. Predictions of future climate change owing to greenhouse gas effects – on the largest scales at least – seem to me much more solidly grounded than those regarding future oil production.

While peak oil will certainly happen at some point, we don’t know when. That is not good news, of course, because the more oil, shale gas and – worst of all – coal we burn, the graver the climate problem will become.

That being so, Friedrichs moves on to why our response has been so ineffective. The reasons include various kinds of inappropriate discounting and a good deal of denial – in the psychological sense, which is more salient than calling those who contest the facts of climate change “denialists”.

The pessimistic conclusion follows. We know our society and economy must soon change. We will not do anything seriously to prepare for that change. So it will be even more damaging when it comes. A brief concluding chapter does sketch a few more positive possibilities, but Friedrichs says flatly that it is unrealistic to believe they will happen.

And the point of writing a book to tell us this? Well, says Friedrichs dispiritedly, and dispiritingly, intellectual honesty is all he has: “The best thing a moral individual can do is to try to live ‘in the truth’. Life is tragic and sometimes there are no solutions.”

Not good enough, I say. The rhetoric of collapse, which recurs throughout this otherwise serious appraisal of a poor situation, is too all-or-nothing. There is still enough uncertainty to keep proposing solutions. Is there enough time to decarbonise the economy and build a new energy system before climate change has seriously bad consequences? Probably not. Is it still worth trying in hope of averting the worst? In my version of the “truth”, yes. I’ll live in that one, thanks. But I’ll keep thinking about Friedrichs’ version while I do.

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