Naysayers about the potential for a radical shift in the foundational structure of civilization argue by looking backward, not forward. “It has never happened before and so it cannot happen now.” But there are three fundamental differences.
First, the change of our climate away from the Holocene and into the Anthropocene is without any historical analog, even looking back hundreds of millions of years. Nafeez Mosadeq Ahmed terms this “Earth System Disruption.”
Industrial civilization is undergoing a second geophysically driven change that will shake it to its roots. It has never happened before and it cannot happen again. You can call this “peak oil,” but as Richard Heinberg pointed out, its really “peak everything.”
The thin driving wedge that will crack open our assumptions about what is normal will be financial collapse, but that is just a reflection of what the peak oil community has been saying since M. King Hubbert presented a paper to the 1956 meeting of the American Petroleum Institute:
[W]e are living on a finite world and infinite growth of material consumption is simply not possible.
Nor, as Paul and Anne Ehrlich warned nearly half a century ago, is exponential population growth. Ahmed terms this “Human System Destabilization.”
The unprecedented part — something few advocates for a renewables revolution yet grasp — is that each time humans moved from one dominant energy supply to the next it was towards greater caloric density at lower cost. We went from firewood to charcoal, to whale oil, to coal and coal gas, to petroleum and natural gas, and each time we got more bang for our buck, production and automation revolutionized, and our population and its footprint leaped another notch. After conventional oil peaked in the first years of the new millennium (just as Hubbert forecast in 1974), unconventional sources like fracked gas and oil shales filled the gap, but with a significant hitch — they cost more.