Conservation now passe

I have written for other forums brief essays on the future of humanity in the light of what we know about life, human evolution (including evolutionary psychology) and the human situation in the 21st century. A list of all the essays is at the foot of the page.

An article on peak oil by regular Guardian Op-Ed writer George Monbiot published on 15 December 2008 was syndicated in a number of other newspapers over the following week.

I’ll focus on one aspect of the article to make a palaeo point.

In part this is what George Monbiot wrote:

“For the first time, the International Energy Agency has produced a date for peak oil. And it's not reassuring.

“...the oil analyst Robert L. Hirsch ... went on to explain ... [that] Even a worldwide emergency response "10 years before world oil peaking", he wrote, would leave "a liquid fuels shortfall roughly a decade after the time that oil would have peaked."“... [IEA economist] Birol says we need a "global energy revolution" to avoid an oil crunch, including (disastrously for the environment) a massive global drive to exploit unconventional oils, such as the Canadian tar sands...

“So what do we do? We could take to the hills, or we could hope and pray that Hirsch is wrong about the 20-year lead time, and begin a global crash programme today of fuel efficiency and electrification.”

I read the above on the same day that I heard Paul Hawken on ABC Radio National (5:10 am) telling us that "Energy use can be reduced by 90% in developed countries, and the remaining 10% can be substituted with renewable energy." Transcript here:

He has described in his books how this could be achieved.

Those of us old enough to recall the 1960s and 1970s will remember that "conservation" used to be fashionable. Bill Lines wrote in his book "Patriots" about the transition away from thinking in terms of "conservation", but failed to explore fully the implications of his insight. [3]

Monbiot above demonstrates that he too has made the transition.

If we were confronted with an energy crisis in the 1970s (and there was a [politically-induced] oil crisis then), we would have thought about wearing a jumper (as Jimmy Carter did) and gloves in winter, traveling less and generally living with a smaller energy footprint. We would not have indulged in such childish fantasies as electric cars, nuclear-powered aircraft etc. to preserve our one big fantasy.

Now the talk is all about "alternative energy" so we can retain our energy-intensive lifestyles at all costs. George Bush declared that the US was addicted to oil. In fact the developed world is addicted to high energy lifestyles and we see them as synonymous with civilization. [1]

The world's human population has risen from one billion at about the time it began using fossil fuels to 6.8 billion now. The maintenance of most of the additional population has been made possible through our draw down of fossil fuels to produce energy. This fact is why we are addicted to high energy consumption. We talk about it as if we merely aimed to keep on motoring, flying overseas for annual holidays and 'consumption' - the endless conversion of natural resources into garbage. But, serious though these issues are, it is the survival of the majority of the human population on this planet that's at stake. This puts our failure to confront peak oil in the shade. It is a taboo topic and we can expect it to remain so for many years, with those people who dare to raise it treated with the obloquy directed at witches in the middle ages and Islamic terrorists today.

We have transformed our whole world from its Pleistocene pristine state [2] into a largely prosthetic one designed to serve the present generation of just one of its species.


1. As I see it, switching to alternative sources of energy is another ploy to keep growth (with all its destructive concomitants) moving along without disruption, guilt or thought. We'll have cleaner air, but we'll have electric cars on every road, human population growth continuing, aquifer depletion (name your own greatest environmental problem - alternative energy will provide an alternative means for that "problem" to continue [with a clean, clear individual/business/government conscience - we will make what our politicians call a "tough decision" and delude ourselves that we have made a choice that is clearly in the direction of a biosensitive society]). Only a few cranks like me will be out on a limb, pointing out that the emperor has no clothes and criticized by those who regard our position as ungrateful and politically/economically/socially naive and unrealistic, no matter how biologically real it is. Alternative energy is an alternative way of progressing towards overshoot. It is not a way to avoid overshoot.

Think back to the 1970s, before we were seduced by microchips and plastic (which - directly and indirectly - made the use of energy far easier and far more permeating as a part of daily comforts). In the 1970s we thought seriously about conservation. Conservation (in its broad, non-anthropocentric sense) is central to biosensitivity. But conservation is passe today and defensively dismissed as mere "tree hugging". The poignant plea of Dmitry Orlov “Are we going to continue destroying the planet, just to be somewhat more comfortable for a little while?” has been answered in the affirmative in the 1980s and ever since - by our actions and in our deep minds.    Back to text

2. To refer to a "Pleistocene pristine state" is not to romanticize the past in the traditional way. The Pleistocene was a dynamic era with ice ages, species dying out - humans almost suffered this fate with a population bottleneck of 15,000 coinciding with the Toba eruption 70,000 ya - and far less physical comfort than people in the upper strata of the wealthier nations experience today. But the Pleistocene was an era with a far healthier biosphere and sustainability was not an issue.    Back to text

3. In "Patriots" Bill Lines discusses the links between "conservation" and "conservatism" and I believe there is a huge potential for conservatives to bring environmental issues to the forefront of their policies. The political left is irredeemably anthropocentric [4] when there is a conflict between culture and nature. Socialism is, at root, cornucopian with respect to the environment. Conservatism is not - it's about harmony (between people and between people and the environment) and respecting the natural order which has demonstrated itself capable of providing stability and security and meeting spiritual needs over time. Conservatism readily accepts austerity and can just as easily reject consumerism and 'development' because of their disruptiveness and novelty. The "natural order" for traditional conservatives includes both social institutions like the family, long-standing social hierarchy (this means they have no central place for equality and are suspicious of big business and the power of money) and churches and also nature. Conservatism is ideologically compatible with biosensitivity; Socialism is not. That's not to say that all socialists are cornucopians and that none of those who see themselves as conservative in outlook are. The neo-cons and the selfish middle class consumerists are far from the conservative tradition. The question is whether the 'broad church' of conservatives can afford to offend the empire-building opportunists and the selfish middle-class now among them and bring tradition and nature to the fore. Probably not.   Back to text

4.  The Earth isn't about keeping steady states of ecosystems. That's your genes wanting to keep an environment they are adapted to, nothing more than pure selfishness. Your anthropocentric political agenda, if you will.

List of the essays on the future of humanity:

Essay 1: Human = reindeer
Essay 2: Hope
Essay 3: I=PAT Environmental impact = Population x Affluence x Technology
Essay 4: Evolutionary psychology and climate change
Essay 5: Conservation - the passing of the word and the idea (this page)
Essay 6: The 2008 economic crisis and evolutionary psychology
Essay 7: The purpose of life and evolutionary psychology

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Page up-dated 3 June 2009