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The End of the Age of Extraction

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderToday’s global economy is causing shortages of natural resources (both renewable and nonrenewable) as we come to the end of what might be called the Age of Extraction. A true cost, steady state economy, on the other hand, would prevent resource problems by maintaining population and resource consumption well within the carrying capacity of the planet.

Energy and mineral shortages, along with depletion of forests and fisheries, are driving the extractors and harvesters to evermore remote places. No longer able to find gushing oilfields, vast stands of virgin timber, or waterways teeming with fish, the extraction companies are racing to the farthest reaches of the planet in search of profits.

The end of the Age of Extraction does not mean that such resources will disappear. In his recent book, The Quest, Daniel Yergin describes oil and gas discoveries that he predicts will turn the Western Hemisphere — from Canada to Brazil — into the next Saudi Arabia. But today’s extraction is pursuing fuels that are either dirty or hard to get. We see more pollution, both from accidents and mundane chronic causes, increasingly pushing civilization beyond the carrying capacity of the earth, wiping out more and more species, and accelerating climate destabilization.

Today’s global economic operating system tolerates and even abets severe pollution damages as industries externalize the costs from their books. Scarcity has made some of the most environmentally devastating energy and mining projects “short-term cost effective.” For example, according to price and revenue figures, it’s cost effective to extract oil from tar sands in Alberta, a process that requires huge energy inputs, grotesquely contaminates land and water, and poisons people, fish, and wildlife.

A surge of fracking to reach natural gas deposits more than a mile underground has attracted drillers in a manner reminiscent of the California Gold Rush days. Fracking, along with very deep offshore oil drilling, illustrates the contamination that is occurring from energy extraction in numerous locations. Shell oil company is preparing to drill in the Arctic Ocean where little if any emergency relief will be available to contain a spill.

Overfishing during the Age of Extraction (photo taken in 1983) has pushed the goliath grouper to the edge of extinction.

Overfishing during the Age of Extraction (photo taken in 1983) has pushed the goliath grouper to the edge of extinction.

Along the world’s coastlines overfishing has depleted stocks. Some near inshore “fisheries” have actually become fishless. Recent analyses of the history of fishing off the California coast, as seen through interviews with three generations of fishermen, produced startling findings. The youngest group (age 15-30) had no idea that it was once common to fish right off the coast. They didn’t view the coastal zone as being overfished because, they said, there were no fish in this zone (see p. 140 of Climate Wars by Harald Welzer).

The oldest group (age 55 and above) could recall eleven species that had disappeared from today’s far offshore fishing ground, whereas the group between age 31 and 54 could recall seven, and the youngest group only two. Sixty years ago the oldest group could recall catching 25 goliath groupers per day, but by the 1960s the number had plunged to eleven, and then to only one a day in the 1990s. Tragically, only ten percent of the youngest group believed that stocks of the grouper had disappeared because they didn’t think they were ever there to begin with.

Today this experience is being repeated on a massive scale as ocean trawlers are “vacuum cleaning” the oceans as they seek scarce schools of fish. A strong potential exists to push fish and other renewable resources beyond the point of recovery.

The world economy has been unable to reverse the depletion trend. Without a true cost, sustainable economy, nations are faced with three choices. They can:

  1. reject concerns about shortages and environmental decline and proceed for a few more decades with expanded drilling, mining, and harvesting;
  2. acknowledge the problem and adopt policies that lead to sustainable resource use and reliance on renewable energy; or
  3. treat the situation like a wartime crisis as President Franklin Roosevelt did in World War II when practically overnight he forced Detroit to shift from making cars to manufacturing ships and airplanes.

High-tech operatives try to assuage public concern with the claim that geoengineering on a gargantuan scale can enable the oceans to absorb more carbon and produce more cloud cover to prevent planetary overheating. For those nations that can’t get a robust program going on such easy technologies as wind and solar energy, the claim for geoengineering as a savior from climate disruption seems a tad on the ambitious side.

After the transition to a true cost, sustainable economy, the extractive projects I have described would be a curious relic. The global economy would be seen as a subset of Spaceship Earth. Survival on board the spaceship depends on using sufficient supplies (not ever increasing supplies) of resources, as well as consumption rates that are commensurate with regeneration rates.

Too many world leaders are focused on restoring an economy that has been undermining the life-support systems of Spaceship Earth. A different kind of economy — a true cost economy — is needed to take us forward at the end of the Age of Extraction.

The Fracking of “The Limits to Growth”

by Herman Daly

Herman DalyOne tends to read the obituary column more attentively as one gets older. That is probably what led me to notice the death of George P. Mitchell, age 94 — that plus the fact that he was from the Texas Gulf Coast (Galveston and Houston), the part of the country where I grew up. The obituary credited Mr. Mitchell, highly successful oil mogul and geologist, with having been the major developer of the technology of “fracking,” and praised him for thereby having guaranteed energy independence and continued economic growth for the U.S.

Wait a minute, I thought — could this be the same George Mitchell who organized the 1975 Woodlands Conference on Limits to Growth, and did so much to promote serious discussion of that book? Yes it was. How strange! On the one hand he was actively concerned about the likelihood that growth would wreck the planet, and on the other hand he was the major developer of the most growth-pushing and planet-wrecking technology of recent decades!

My first thought was that such a contradiction was irreconcilable. But on second thought I began to think of a possible reconciliation. It is a matter of sequencing. Does a new extractive technology arrive before or after limits to growth in resource throughput are in place? If we were to first enact limits to growth in resource throughput, then even a violent extractive technology such as fracking would be constrained in its ability to wreck the planet on a large scale. The lower carbon content of natural gas might reduce global warming enough to make up for additional extraction damage to the environment. However, if we insist that unlimited growth must remain our first goal, then fracking will just increase total greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention groundwater depletion and pollution. With growth in first place, even soft technologies, those that increase efficiency of resource usage, are likely (thanks to the Jevons Paradox) to promote growth in resource throughput to a scale that is on balance harmful.

A charitable understanding of this contradiction in Mitchell’s life is that perhaps he tried to gain acceptance of limits to growth before he developed fracking, but the effort failed. Or, maybe more likely, he saw no contradiction and pursued each activity independently — growth as a private entrepreneur; limits to growth as a public citizen. Subsequently he was at least a proponent of strong environmental regulations on fracking. But, with growth in first place, such regulations will be no more successful in limiting damage done by frackng than the Woodlands Conferences ultimately were in promoting limits to growth.

George P. Mitchell poses with his statue in the Woodlands (photo credit: AP).

George P. Mitchell poses with his statue in the Woodlands (photo credit: AP).

What happened at the Woodlands? Mitchell was inspired by Dennis and Donella Meadows’ book, The Limits to Growth, to fund and organize a series of five biennial conferences to be held at The Woodlands, a planned community developed by Mitchell just north of Houston. The first Woodlands Conference in 1975 was a great success. Its theme was “Alternatives to Growth.” In addition to the Meadows, speakers included E. F. Schumacher, Jay Forrester, Wendell Berry, Lester Brown, Amory Lovins, Bruce Hannon, Gerald Barney, and many others including yours truly. The anti-limits position was led by Herman Kahn. The idea of a steady-state economy got a respectful hearing. It was an excellent beginning, to be followed by four more conferences on the same theme.

Somehow by the third conference the theme had mutated from “limits and alternatives to growth” to “management of sustainable growth.” The leadership passed from Meadows and Meadows to the Aspen Institute and the University of Houston. Instead of challenging business-as-usual, the emphasis shifted to sucking up as usual to business interests. The new, “more balanced” view was that we really must not limit growth, just focus on good growth rather than bad growth. Growth had somehow become “sustainable,” contrary to the main conclusion of The Limits to Growth. The reasoning behind this reversal was kept vague. There was an utter failure of nerve on the part of scientists and especially economists to confront the continuing challenge that George Mitchell and the Meadows had initially set up. Indeed, practically no economists attended the conference. The very idea of limiting growth was too big a pill for economists, politicians, and most scientists to swallow. They coughed it up and silently spit it into their napkin at the conference banquet.

I briefly met George Mitchell but did not know him personally. Maybe he changed his mind about limits to growth; maybe he thought that more energy would always overcome any limits; or maybe he figured he had given the issue of limits his best shot with disappointing results, and it was time to move on. Compared to other leaders in the fossil fuel industry George Mitchell was a beacon of light, as well as a civic leader and philanthropist. Since 1975 there has been serious retrogression in leadership of the fossil fuel industry. Just compare George Mitchell to the Koch brothers!

The bad news is that evidently things still have to get much worse before we will muster the courage and clarity to try to make them better. The “good news” is that things are indeed getting worse — thanks to our mistaken belief that growth in GDP and its close correlate, resource throughput, must, even in a full world, always increase wealth faster than illth.