Localization (social movement): Wikis

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Localization (or localisation) describes a range of behaviors and processes that reflect the natural human tendency to come together and self-organize in the face of difficult conditions, such as the interruption or collapse of centralized services.[1] In a contemporary context the term describes the intentional or reactive movement of individuals, communities, institutions, and societies toward ways of living or operating based on resilience, relationships, personal responsibility and environmental stewardship, as opposed to complete dependence on energy-intensive complex systems. These behavioral processes are a form of group action sufficiently organized to be described as a social movement.

The term is sometimes used to refer specifically to the transition of communities to environmentally sustainable modes of production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services, and to socially sustainable structures of ownership and governance.[2] A key feature of localized communities is their emphasis upon resilience and adaptive capacity, namely increasing their capability to maintain social stability, material quality of life and environmental health in the face of economic shocks that arise from declining energy and resource availability.

Efforts to undertake localization, such as those of local food, buy local and Transition Towns, are often based on philosophies such as sustainable living, greening, downshifting and voluntary simplicity that prioritize social justice, environmental justice and ecological stewardship over economic growth. Localization efforts tend to reduce negative environmental consequences focus on reduction of the demand for consumer goods (eco-sufficiency) over improvement of net return on investment of material, energy and land use (eco-efficiency).[3]

A number of schools of social and economic thought that tend to support localization, such as degrowth, steady state economics and anti consumerism, are actively critical of economic growth. Similarly, a number of religious belief systems and practices, such as Amish Mennonite church tradition of the anabaptist denomination of Christianity, ascetic sects of Bhuddism and Hinduism, and Jainism prescribe production and consumption behaviors that align with localization and discourage wealth maximization as a normative principle.[4] It should be noted, however, that localization is not itself based on any single philosophy, religion or school of social, economic or political thought. Moreover, localization should not be construed as the opposite of globalization. Indeed, many of the achievements of globalization, such as the integration of national economies through trade, capital flows, migration and the spread of technology are deliberately preserved and developed by localization. While localization centers upon local communities, these communities are both self-reliant and mutually supportive, giving localization regional, national and international dimensions.

Contents

Definitions

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As a Social Movement

Localization is a process of social change that aims to build just, equitable and resilient communities that thrive within ecological limits. While many cultures, both past and present, prioritize resilience within ecological limits, localization as a social movement was developed in response to the specific threats of peak oil and climate change. Key among the movement's goals is to show how people may improve their quality of life while also consuming substantially less energy.

As Adaptation

Localization is a process of socioeconomic adaptation pointing toward localities. The details of that process, and to what it is adapting, are the subject of significant academic debate. The possibility of a significant decrease in available energy and material in the coming decades means that such debate is prudent, given the importance of identifying the implications of such a drop and planning for transition.[5] As a process of adaptation, localization encompasses a range of possible trajectories of economic downshift. These trajectories are predicated upon a set of premises, and predict a range of probable outcomes.

Premises

  • Economic growth is subject to ecological constraints
  • Declining availability of inexpensive energy
  • Declining availability of ecosystem services
  • Declining availability of raw materials
  • Declining capacity of costless oceanic and atmospheric waste sinks

Premise 1: Economic growth is subject to ecological constraints

Environment Equitable Sustainable Bearable (Social ecology) Viable (Environmental economics) Economic Social
The "Three Pillars of Sustainability", a depiction that perpetuates the misconception that part or all of human economic and social systems can exist indepedently of ecological systems. Clickable.
A more accurate depiction of the relationship betwee humans and the environment: three circles enclosed within one another showing how both economy and society are subsets that exist wholly within our planetary ecological system.
Three circles enclosed within one another showing how both economy and society are subsets of our planetary ecological system. This view is useful for correcting the misconception, sometimes drawn from the previous "three pillars" diagram, that portions of social and economic systems can exist independently from the environment.[6]

Early Works

In 1751 Benjamin Franklin wrote Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc., in which he observed:

There is ... no Bound to the prolific Nature of Plants or Animals, but what is made by their crowding and interfering with each other's Means of Subsistence.[7]

This work influenced Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, who went on to write An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, in which he observed:

The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man."[8]

Although Malthus is commonly credited with first raising doubts about the long run prospects for continuous growth in the industrial age, although his essay was just one among a number of 18th and 19th Century writings that were together early harbingers of thinking that would later become codified within the fields of systems dynamics, complex systems science, and ecological economics.

The Limits to Growth

The Limits To Growth[9], a book by Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III commissioned by the Club of Rome first brought widespread attention to the ecological limits that the Earth's biophysical systems place upon economic growth in 1972. An updated version entitled Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update was published in 2004.[10] Contemporary researchers published other important works on the theme of biophysical limits to economic growth, including M. King Hubbert who first articulated the concept of peak oil with what is now known as Hubbert Peak Theory in 1974[11], and Herman Daly who pioneered steady state economics with his book of the same name in 1977.[12]

The Limits to Growth points out that if the rate of resource use is increasing, the amount of reserves cannot be calculated by simply taking the current known reserves and dividing by the current yearly usage, as is typically done to obtain a static index. The authors use the example of chromium, whose reserves in 1972 were 775 million metric tons and of which 1.85 million metric tons were mined annually. The static index is 775 / 1.85 = 418 years, but the rate of chromium consumption was growing at 2.6% annually.[13] If instead of assuming a constant rate of usage, the assumption of a constant rate of growth of 2.6% annually is made, the resource will instead last

\frac{\ln (\ln (1.0 + 0.026)\times(418 + 1))}{\ln (1.0 + 0.026)}=\text{93 years}.

In general, the formula for calculating the amount of time left for a resource with constant consumption growth is :

y=\frac{\log(1-(1-g)\times\frac{R}{C})}{\log(g)}-1

where:

y = years left;
g = 1.026 (2.6% annual consumption growth);
R = reserve;
C = (annual) consumption.

The authors list a number of similar exponential indices comparing current reserves to current reserves multiplied by a factor of five:

Years
Resource Consumption growth rate, annual Static index Exponential index 5 times reserves exponential index
Chromium 2.6% 420 95 154
Gold 4.1% 11 9 29
Iron 1.8% 240 93 173
Petroleum 3.9% 31 20 50

Static reserve estimates generally assume that the usage is constant, while exponential reserve estimates generally assume that the rate of exponential growth is constant. It should be noted that extraction rates vary among different resources. Oil reserves, for example, becomes more difficult and more expensive to extract as supplies diminish; the difficulty and cost of extracting timber, by contrast, may remain constant up until the moment the last tree is felled. Despite these differences among resources, the exponential index has often been interpreted as a prediction of the number of years until the world would "run out" of various resources, both by environmentalist groups calling for greater conservation and restrictions on use, and by skeptics criticizing the index when supplies failed to run out. For example, The Skeptical Environmentalist states: "The Limits to Growth showed us that we would have run out of oil before 1992." What The Limits to Growth actually has is the above table, which has the current reserves (that is no new sources of oil are found) for oil running out in 1992 assuming constant exponential growth.[14][15][16]

Steady State Economics

Steady state economics, sometimes also called full-world economics, is predicated on the assertion that economic growth has limits. Biophysical components of an economy such as natural resources, human populations, and stocks of human-built capital, are constrained by the laws of physics and cannot be uncoupled from ecological systems. It should be noted, however, that some non-physical components of an economy such as knowledge may have the potential grow indefinitely.[17] An economy could reach a steady state after a period of growth or after a period of downsizing or degrowth. Most normative steady state ecnomics theory aims to establish human social structure and economy at a sustainable scale that does not exceed ecological limits.[18] Economists typically use gross domestic product or GDP to measure the size of an economy in US dollars or some other monetary unit. Real GDP – that is, GDP adjusted for inflation – in a steady state economy remains reasonably stable, neither growing nor contracting from year to year. Herman Daly, one of the founders of the field of ecological economics[19] defines a steady state economy as:

...an economy with constant stocks of people and artifacts, maintained at some desired, sufficient levels by low rates of maintenance "throughput", that is, by the lowest feasible flows of matter and energy from the first stage of production to the last stage of consumption."[20]

The idea of economic throughput is explored in detail in the management philosophy known as Theory of Constraints, which draws heavily upon systems dynamics[21]. In the context of ecological economics and steady state economics, throughput applies to flows of natural capital. A key principle of ecological sustainability is that these flows cannot exceed natural capital's rate of regeneration. This is an application of the investment concept of leaving the principal sum intact in perpetuity, more commonly understood as living off of the interest that a stock of capital stock yields. In the case of natural capital, the interest is the ecological yield that can be extracted without reducing the base of natural capital itself. This is known as the sustainable yield, and is the surplus required to maintain the ecosystem services provided by natural resources at the same or increasing level over time.

Herman Daly has suggested three broad criteria for ecological sustainability:

  • Renewable resources should provide a sustainable yield (the rate of harvest should not exceed the rate of regeneration)
  • For non-renewable resources there should be equivalent development of renewable substitutes
  • Waste generation should not exceed the assimilative capacity of the environment.[22] Critics of neoclassical economics point out that the macroeconomic policies in virtually every nation have been officially structured for economic growth for decades, and the prioritization of growth over sustainability has resulted in the liquidation, or permanent drawdown, of natural capital.

Ecological Economics

World map of countries by ecological footprint

The work of Herman Daly and others, including Kenneth E. Boulding, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, Robert Costanza, founded the field of ecological economics, a transdisciplinary field of academic research that aims to address the interdependence and coevolution of human economies and natural ecosystems over time and space.[23] It is distinguished from environmental economics, which is the mainstream economic analysis of the environment, by its treatment of the economy as a subsystem of the ecosystem and its emphasis upon preserving natural capital.[24][25][26][27]

According to ecological economist Malte Faber, ecological economics is defined by its focus on nature, justice, and time. Issues of intergenerational equity, irreversibility of environmental change, uncertainty of long-term outcomes, and sustainable development guide ecological economic analysis and valuation.[28][28] Ecological economists have questioned fundamental mainstream economic approaches such as cost-benefit analysis, and the separability of economic values from scientific research, contending that economics is unavoidably normative rather than positive (empirical).[29] Positional analysis, which attempts to incorporate time and justice issues, is proposed as an alternative.[30][31]

Ecological economics includes the study of the metabolism of society, that is, the study of the flows of energy and materials that enter and exit the economic system. This subfield is also called biophysical economics, sometimes referred to also as bioeconomics, and is based on a conceptual model of the economy connected to, and sustained by, a flow of energy, materials, and ecosystem services.[32]

Ecological Footprint

Graph comparing the Ecological Footprint of different nations with their Human Development Index
Ecological footprint for different nations compared to their Human Development Index (HDI)

Metrics such as ecological footprint, carbon footprint and water footprint are measures (typically using global hectares as units) of how much natural capital a human population requires to produce and consume its goods and services, as well as to absorb its wastes, using prevailing technology. The Global Footprint Network calculates the world's ecological footprint to be the equivalent of 1.3 planets[33] meaning that human economies are consuming 30% more resources than the Earth can regenerate each year.

Localization is premised on the findings of ecological accounting which suggest that economic growth is depleting resources at a rate that cannot be maintained in perpetuity, and that such growth must therefore be constrained by ecological limits.

Premise 2: Declining availability of inexpensive energy

Since fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource, increasing demand against a finite supply must eventually result in a peak in production and consequent reduction in available supply. According to supply and demand dynamics, the price of fossil fuels will rise as they become scarcer. Fossil fuels inlclude crude oil, coal, natural gas, tar sands, oil shale and methane clathrates. Of these, the peaking of petroleum derived from crude oil, known as peak oil has been the subject of significant study.

A bell-shaped production curve, as originally suggested by M. King Hubbert in 1956.
Peak oil depletion scenarios graph which depicts cumulative published depletion studies by ASPO and other depletion analysts.

Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. The concept is based on the observed production rates of individual oil wells, and the combined production rate of a field of related oil wells. The aggregate production rate from an oil field over time usually grows exponentially until the rate peaks and then declines—sometimes rapidly—until the field is depleted. The concept of peak oil is derived from the Hubbert curve, and has been shown to be applicable to the sum of a nation’s domestic production rate, and is similarly applied to the global rate of petroleum production.

Hubbert Peaks

Peak oil is often confused with oil depletion; peak oil is the point of maximum production, while depletion refers to a period of falling reserves and supply. M. King Hubbert created and first used the models behind peak oil in 1956 to accurately predict that United States oil production would peak between 1965 and 1970.[34] His logistic model, now called Hubbert peak theory, and its variants have described with reasonable accuracy the peak and decline of production from oil wells, fields, regions, and countries,[35]

United States oil production peaked in 1970. By 2005 imports were twice the production.
EROEI of a range of energy sources according to their net energy gain.
2004 U.S. government predictions for oil production other than in OPEC and the former Soviet Union
US oil production (lower 48 crude oil only) and Hubbert's high estimate.
Mexican production peaked in 2004 and is now in decline

Decreasing supply is not the only factor that will affect the price of fossil fuels and therefore energy. The production cost of fossil fuels will continue to rise as cheap, easily accessible deposits are consumed and producers turn to less economical sources. The energy used in fossil fuel production is itself a key production cost, and as this positive feedback loop is likely to cause prices to rise exponentially over time.

EROEI

The cost of energy in the production of fossil fuels and other energy sources is described as Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) or as net energy gain. Analogous to financial return on investment (ROI), where money must be expended in order to make a financial profit, EROEI describes how much energy must be expended in order to realize an energy "profit”.[36]

The available energy "profit" described by EROEI in energy economics reflects the underlying thermodynamic reality. In a thermodynamic system, the energy that is available to be used is known as exergy, or available energy. Exergy is defined as the maximum useful work possible during a process that brings the system into equilibrium with its surroundings.[37]

Modern industrial societies and the global economy that connects them are based not only on inexpensive energy derrived from fossil fuels, but on energy sources with an EROEI ratio of 10:1 or higher.[38][39][40]

The Khazzoom–Brookes postulate, Jevons Paradox and Rebound Effects

Efficiency gains from technological advances are unlikely to halt the depletion of non-renewable resources.[41] The Khazzoom–Brookes postulate[42] states that "energy efficiency improvements that, on the broadest considerations, are economically justified at the microlevel, lead to higher levels of energy consumption at the macrolevel."[43] This idea is a more modern analysis of a phenomenon known as the Jevons Paradox. In 1865, William Stanley Jevons observed that England's consumption of coal increased considerably after James Watt introduced his improvements to the steam engine. Jevons argued that increased efficiency in the use of coal would tend to increase the demand for coal, and would not reduce the rate at which England's deposits of coal were running out.[44]

Like Jevons Paradox, the Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate is a deduction that is largely counter-intuitive as an efficiency paradox. When individuals change behavior and begin to use methods and devices that are more energy efficient, there are cases where, on a macro-economic level, energy usage actually increases. This result is known as the rebound effect (or take-back effect) and refers to the behavioral or other systemic responses to the introduction of new technologies, or other measures taken to reduce resource use. These responses tend to offset the beneficial effects of the new technology or other measures taken. Energy efficiency gains, for example, can increase energy consumption in several ways:

  • Increased energy efficiency makes the use of energy relatively cheaper, thus encouraging increased use.
  • Increased energy efficiency leads to increased economic growth, which pulls up energy use in the whole economy.
  • Increased efficiency in any one bottleneck resource multiplies the use of all the companion technologies, products and services that were being restrained by it.

Cars that use less fuel, for example, are likely to cause increases travel activities rather than a decrease in energy demand because they make travel itself cheaper.

The rebound effect is generally expressed as a ratio of the lost benefit compared to the expected environmental benefit when holding consumption constant. For example, a 5% improvement in vehicle fuel efficiency results in only a 2% drop in fuel use, there is a 60% rebound effect. The 'missing' 3% might have been consumed by driving faster or further than before.[45] The existence of the rebound effect is uncontroversial. However, debate continues as to the size and importance of the effect in real world situations. Suburban development limited by water use, for example, can be increased if the houses adopt water efficiency measures that cut their water demand in half, but this will not result in a direct doubling of development.

Localization efforts generally attempt to avoid Jevons Paradox and the Rebound Effect by focusing on reduction of demand for consumer goods (eco-sufficiency) instead of improvement of net return on investment of material, energy and land use (eco-efficiency).

Premise 3: Declining resource availability

Cheap, easily accessible oil is only one example of a limited resource whose production rate will peak. According to the Hubbert model, the production rate of most non-renewable resources will follow a roughly symmetrical bell-shaped curve based on the limits of exploitability and market pressures.[34] Various modified versions of his original logistic model are used, using more complex functions to allow for real world factors. While each version is applied to a specific domain, the central features of the Hubbert curve (that production stops rising and then declines) remain unchanged, albeit with different profiles. Examples of non-renewable resources subject to production peaks include natural gas, coal, uranium, copper, lithium, helium, phosphorus, precious metals, rare earth elements and water.

Natural gas

Natural gas discoveries by decade

According to David L. Goodstein, the worldwide rate of discovery peaked around 1960 and has been declining ever since.[46] Exxon Mobil Vice President, Harry J. Longwell places the peak of global gas discovery around 1970 and has observed a sharp decline in natural gas discovery rates since then.[47] The rate of discovery has fallen below the rate of consumption in 1980.[46] The gap has been widening ever since. Declining gas discovery rates foreshadow future production decline rates because gas production can only follow gas discoveries.

Dr. Anthony Hayward CCMI, chief executive of BP stated in October 2009 that proven natural gas reserves around the world have risen to 1.2 trillion barrels of oil equivalent, enough for 60 years' supply and that gas reserves are trending upward.[48] This is the same situation as with oil reserves, we have higher oil reserves than ever, but worldwide discoveries are declining and consumption is going up. Even if new techniques such as coalbed methane extraction yield additional discoveries of natural gas, the EROEI is likely to be lower than traditional gas sources.

Coal

Peak coal is significantly further out than peak oil, but we can observe the example of anthracite in the USA, a high grade coal whose production peaked in the 1920s. Anthracite was studied by Hubbert, and matches a curve closely.[49] Pennsylvania's coal production also matches Hubbert's curve closely, but this does not mean that coal in Pennsylvania is exhausted—far from it. If production in Pennsylvania returned at its all time high, there are reserves for 190 years.

Recent estimates suggest an peak in coal during this century: Coal: Resources and Future Production[50], published on April 5, 2007 by the Energy Watch Group (EWG) found that global coal production could peak in as few as 15 years.[51] Reporting on this Richard Heinberg also notes that the date of peak annual energetic extraction from coal will likely come earlier than the date of peak in quantity of coal (tons per year) extracted as the most energy-dense types of coal have been mined most extensively.[52] A second study, The Future of Coal by B. Kavalov and S. D. Peteves of the Institute for Energy (IFE), prepared for European Commission Joint Research Centre, reaches similar conclusions, stating that, "coal might not be so abundant, widely available and reliable as an energy source in the future."[51]

Work by David Rutledge of Caltech predicts that the total of world coal production will amount to only about 450 gigatonnes.[53] This implies that coal is running out faster than usually assumed. Moreover, as we approach and pass global peak oil and peak gas, any increase in coal production per annum to compensate for declines in oil or natural gas production are likely to drive the arrival date of peak coal forward.

Fissionable materials

In a paper in 1956, after a review of US fissionable reserves, Hubbert notes of nuclear power:

There is promise, however, provided mankind can solve its international problems and not destroy itself with nuclear weapons, and provided world population (which is now expanding at such a rate as to double in less than a century) can somehow be brought under control, that we may at last have found an energy supply adequate for our needs for at least the next few centuries of the "foreseeable future."[54]

Technologies such as the thorium fuel cycle, reprocessing and fast breeders can, in theory, considerably extend the life of uranium reserves. Roscoe Bartlett claims:

Our current throwaway nuclear cycle uses up the world reserve of low-cost uranium in about 20 years.[55]

According to Caltech physics professor David Goodstein:

... you would have to build 10,000 of the largest power plants that are feasible by engineering standards in order to replace the 10 terawatts of fossil fuel we're burning today ... that's a staggering amount and if you did that, the known reserves of uranium would last for 10 to 20 years at that burn rate. So, it's at best a bridging technology ... You can use the rest of the uranium to breed plutonium 239 then we'd have at least 100 times as much fuel to use. But that means you're making plutonium, which is an extremely dangerous thing to do in the dangerous world that we live in.[56]

Helium

Almost all helium on Earth is a result of radioactive decay of uranium and thorium. Helium is extracted by fractional distillation from natural gas, which contains up to 7% helium. The world's largest helium-rich natural gas fields are found in the United States, especially in the Hugoton and nearby gas fields in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. The extracted helium is stored underground in the National Helium Reserve near Amarillo, Texas, the self-proclaimed "Helium Capital of the World". Helium production is expected to decline along with natural gas production in these areas. According to Lee Sobotka, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and physics in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis:

When we use what has been made over the approximate 4.5 billion of years the Earth has been around, we will run out. We cannot get too significant quantities of helium from the sun — which can be viewed as a helium factory 93 million miles away — nor will we ever produce helium in anywhere near the quantities we need from Earth-bound factories. Helium could eventually be produced directly in nuclear fusion reactors and is produced indirectly in nuclear fission reactors, but the quantities produced by such sources are dwarfed by our needs.[57]

Helium is the second-lightest chemical element in the Universe, causing it to rise to the upper layers of Earth's atmosphere. Helium atoms are so light that the Earth's gravity field is simply not strong enough to trap helium in the atmosphere and it dissipates slowly into space and is lost forever.[58]

Transition Metals

The world's major copper mines.

Hubbert applied his theory to "rock containing an abnormally high concentration of a given metal"[59] and reasoned that the peak production for metals such as copper, tin, lead, zinc and others would occur in the time frame of decades and iron in the time frame of two centuries like coal. The price of copper rose 500% between 2003 and 2007[60] was by some attributed to peak copper.[61][62] Copper prices later fell, along with many other commodities and stock prices, as demand shrank from fear of a global recession.[63] Globally, economic copper resources are being depleted with the equivalent production of three world-class copper mines being consumed annually.[61] Environmental analyst Lester Brown has suggested copper might run out within 25 years based on what he considered a reasonable extrapolation of 2% growth per year.[64]Lithium availability is a concern for a fleet of Li-ion battery using cars but a paper published in 1996 estimated that world reserves are adequate for at least 50 years.[65] A similar prediction for platinum use in fuel cells notes that the metal could be easily recycled.[66]

Precious Metals

The possibility of peak gold has emerged recently [3]. Aaron Regent, President of the Canadian gold giant Barrak said that global output has been falling by roughly 1m ounces a year since the start of the decade.

The total global mine supply has dropped by 10pc as ore quality erodes, implying that the roaring bull market of the last eight years may have further to run. "There is a strong case to be made that we are already at 'peak gold'," he told The Daily Telegraph at the RBC's annual gold conference in London. "Production peaked around 2000 and it has been in decline ever since, and we forecast that decline to continue. It is increasingly difficult to find ore," he said.

Ore grades have fallen from around 12 grams per tonne in 1950 to nearer 3 grams in the US, Canada, and Australia. South Africa's output has halved since peaking in 1970. Output fell a further 14pc in South Africa in 2008 as companies were forced to dig ever deeper - at greater cost - to replace depleted reserves.

Phosphorus

Phosphorus supplies are essential to farming and depletion of reserves is estimated at somewhere from 60 to 130 years.[67] According to a recent study, the total reserves of phosphorus is estimated to approximately 3,200 MT, with a peak production at 28 MT/year in 2034.[68] Individual countries' supplies vary widely; without a recycling initiative America's supply[69] is estimated around 30 years.[70] Phosphorus supplies affect total agricultural output which in turn limits alternative fuels such as biodiesel and corn ethanol. Its increasing price and scarcety (global price of rock phosphate rose 8-fold in the 2 years to mid 2008) should change global agricultural patterns.[71] Lands, perceived as marginal because of remoteness, but with very high P content, like in the Gran Chaco[72] may get more into focus of agriculturists, while other marginal farming areas, where nutrients are a constraint, may drop below the line of profitability.

Peak water

Hubbert's original analysis did not apply to renewable resources. However, over-exploitation often results in a Hubbert peak nonetheless. A modified Hubbert curve applies to any resource that can be harvested faster than it can be replaced.[73]

For example, a reserve such as the Ogallala Aquifer can be mined at a rate that far exceeds replenishment. This turns much of the world's underground water and lakes into finite resources with peak usage debates similar to oil.[74][75] These debates usually center around agriculture and suburban water usage but generation of electricity from nuclear energy or coal and tar sands mining mentioned above is also water resource intensive.[76] The term fossil water is sometimes used to describe aquifers whose water is not being recharged.

Premise 4: Declining availability of ecosystem services

Pollination by a bumblebee, a type of ecosystem service

Humankind benefits from a multitude of resources and processes that are supplied by natural ecosystems. Collectively, these benefits are known as ecosystem services and include products like clean drinking water and processes such as the decomposition of wastes. Recognition of how ecosystems could provide more complex services to mankind date back to at least Plato (c. 400 BC) who understood that deforestation could lead to soil erosion and the drying of springs [77] And while modern scientists and environmentalists have discussed ecosystem services for decades, these services were popularized and their definitions formalized by the United Nations 2004 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a four-year study involving more than 1,300 scientists worldwide.[78] This grouped ecosystem services into four broad categories: provisioning, such as the production of food and water; regulating, such as the control of climate and disease; supporting, such as nutrient cycles and crop pollination; and cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits.

As human populations grow, so do the resource demands imposed on ecosystems and the impacts of our global footprint. Natural resources are not invulnerable and infinitely available. The environmental impacts of anthropogenic actions, which are processes or materials derived from human activities, are becoming more apparent – air and water quality are increasingly compromised, oceans are being over-fished, pests and diseases are extending beyond their historical boundaries, deforestation is eliminating flood control around human settlements. It has been reported that approximately 40-50% of Earth’s ice-free land surface has been heavily transformed or degraded by anthropogenic activities, 66% of marine fisheries are either overexploited or at their limit, atmospheric CO2 has increased more than 30% since the advent of industrialization, and nearly 25% of Earth’s bird species have gone extinct in the last two thousand years [79]. Consequently, society is coming to realize that ecosystem services are not only threatened and limited, but that the pressure to evaluate trade-offs between immediate and long-term human needs is urgent.

Hubbert's Peak and Collapse

Atlantic Cod Stocks showing abrupt collapse in 1992.

Not all non-renewable resources exhibit a slow decline after peaking. As in the aforemention example of timber, or as in the case of Atlantic Cod fisheries, exponential growth of resource extraction may be transition abruptly to Collapse_(structural) of ecosystem services.[80]

Cod of the North Sea are similarly subject to production peaks and possibly abrupt collapses.[81] At least one researcher has attempted to perform Hubbert linearization on the whaling industry, as well as charting the price of caviar with sturgeon depletion.[82]

Premise 5: Declining capacity of costless oceanic and atmospheric waste sinks

World map showing varying change to pH across different parts of different oceans
Change in sea surface pH caused by anthropogenic CO2 between the 1700s and the 1990s

Despite their immense size, the atmosphere and oceans of the Earth do not have a limitless capacity to absorb human wastes. Carbon emissions from fossil fuel use and deforestation have resulted in global warming and ocean acidification as carbon has been absorbed by the atmosphere and oceans respectively.[83] Our solid waste has contaminated the water resources and ecosystems upon which we depend, both at local levels in the case of water pollution and at a global scale in the case of the gigantic Pacific Trash Vortex. Population and economic growth will only accelerate the depletion of Earth's finite waste sinks.

The cost of pollution, once virtually negligible, will contibute to rise as atmospheric, oceanic, land and groundwater waste sinks are depleted or contaminated.

Probable Outcomes

Based on the premises outlined above, it is probable that the future will involve highly localized social organization, constrained mobility, and a decentralized settlement pattern.

  • Decentralization
  • Constrained mobility

With the decline of inexpensive energy, the cost of most forms of transportation will rise. This will in turn constrain the mobility of goods and people. Contrained mobility is in turn likely to lead to decentralization as the cost of institutional functions such as production, governance and trade rises along with the cost of transportation.

However, while everyday life may be less affluent than that of the present, well-being may be greater.[5]

Case Studies

  • Transition Towns
  • The Island in the Wind
  • Belo Horizonte
  • Return of The Erie Canal
  • Localizing Finance
  • Planful Shrinkage

The Island in the Wind

The Danish island of Samsø, home to a North Sea community of 43,000, has made a shift from fossil fuels to renewable sources in a span of less than 10 years. Samsø was previously dependent upon energy imported from the Denmark mainland, but it's energy resilience program has been so successful that renewable energy sources not only generated enough power for entire island but produce a ten percent surplus that is exported to the mainland. Samsø's primary renewable energy resource is offshore wind. Solar power, solar collectors for heating hot water, and biofuels are secondary sources. Wind turbines are purchased and owned collectively and yield annual dividends from the surplus energy they produce. Samsø's renewable energy initiatives began with an individual engineer winning a government contest and has become an well-known sustainable living success story.[84]

Belo Horizonte

People in Belo Horizonte Brazil have established food security as a right instead of a privilege. Farmers and local communities work together through programs such as "Green Baskets" to ensure that poorer citizens, and especially children, have access to local food. Seed distribution and sharing is facilitated by community centers that work in conjunction with local food producers to encourage sustainable farming practices. [85]

Return of the Erie Canal

The Erie Canal was once a vital artery of American commerce, peaking in productivity in 1955. In the 20th Century, interstate highways and the St. Lawrence Seaway threatened to render the canal obsolete, but in recent years the high cost of fuel and transportation has led to a resurgence in interest in the cancal. In the long term, rising fuel costs may make water transportation economical once again.[86]

Localizing Finance

The financial crisis of 2007-2009 with its taxpayer bailouts and subsequent profits and bonuses on Wall Street has created an opportunity for community banks and credit unions. In Texas, credit unions and small private banks are working together to draw customers away from large national banks. These local institutions garner greater trust and loyalty from customers, and as Edward Speed of the Texas Dow Employees Credit Union observers, “I can’t beat Wells Fargo and Bank of America nationally, but I can certainly beat their branch across the street.”[87]

Planful Shrinkage

Flint Michigan is an example of a once thriving American city that has had to make a downshift. When General Motors began to lay off workers and close plants in Flint in the 1980s, the city responded by trying a variety of strategies to draw in investment and continue to structure itself around economic growth. But that growth never came. Now, Flint's residents and local government leadership is beginning to view the downshift as an opportunity. “If it’s going to look abandoned, let it be clean and green,” says Dan Kildee, county Treasurer. “Create the new Flint forest—something people will choose to live near, rather than something that symbolizes failure.”[88]

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