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There's Only One Real Option for Averting Economic and Ecological Ruin -- So Why Aren't We Talking About It?

The world will face limits to energy production in the decades ahead regardless of the energy pathway chosen by policy makers.

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Humanity is at a crossroads. Since the Industrial Revolution, cheap and abundant energy has fueled constant economic growth. The only real discussion among the managerial elite was how to grow the economy—whether in planned or unplanned ways, whether with sensitivity to the natural world or without.

Now the discussion must center on how to contract. So far, that discussion is radioactive—no one wants to touch it. It’s hard to imagine a more suicidal strategy for a politician than to base his or her election campaign on the promise of economic contraction. Denial runs deep, but sooner or later reality will expose the delusion that endless growth is possible on a finite planet.

Sooner or later we must make conservation the centerpiece of economic and energy policy. The term “conservation” implies efficiency—building cars and appliances that use less energy while delivering the same services. But it also means cutting out nonessential uses of energy. Rather than continuing to increase economic demand by stimulating human wants, we must begin to think about how to meet basic human needs with minimum consumption of resources, while discouraging extravagance.

If we move toward renewable and intermittent energy sources, a larger portion of society’s effort will have to be spent on processes of energy capture. Energy production will require more land and a greater proportion of society’s total labor and investment. We will need more food producers, but fewer managers and salespeople. We will be less mobile, and each of us will own fewer manufactured products—though of higher quality—which we will reuse and repair as long as possible before replacing them.

The transition to a more durable and resilient but lower-energy economy will go much better if we plan it. Wherever it is possible for households and communities to pre-adapt, and wherever clever people are able to show innovative ways of meeting human needs with a minimum of consumption, there will be advantages to be enjoyed and shared. 

Much of the current public discussion about our energy future tends to turn on the questions of which alternative energy sources to pursue and how to scale them up. But it is even more important to broadly reconsider how we use energy. We must strategize to meet basic human needs while using much less energy in all forms. Since this will require major societal effort sustained over decades, it is important to start implementation of conservation strategies well before actual energy shortages appear. 

With regard to our food system, it is essential to understand that lower energy inputs will result in the need for increased labor. Thus the energy transition could represent economic opportunity for millions of young farmers. Agricultural production must be adapted to substantially reduced applications of nitrogen fertilizer and chemical pesticides and herbicides since these will grow increasingly expensive as their fossil fuel feedstocks rise in price. And higher transport energy costs mean that food systems must be substantially relocalized.

Transport systems must be adapted to a regime of generally lowered mobility and increased energy efficiency. This would most likely require widespread reliance on walking and bicycling, with remaining motorized transport facilitated by car-share and ride-share programs. Electric vehicles and rail-based public transport systems should be favored, and new highway construction halted. 

Reduced overall mobility will require substantial changes in urban design practice and land use policies. Neighborhoods within cities must become more self-contained, and cities must be reintegrated with adjacent productive rural areas. Buildings—including tens of millions of homes in the United States alone—must be retrofitted with insulation to minimize the need for heating and cooling energy. New buildings must require net zero energy input. Incentives for installing residential solar hot water systems, and using solar cookers and clotheslines, should be effective and widespread. 

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