No one will ever invite me to give a commencement address. I’m a nobody from nowhere, after all. But I’ve got nieces and nephews, step children and step grandchildren that I care about, so what follows below is what I would tell them, if only they could hear.
This way of life that you know will end in your lifetimes. Industrial civilization will collapse. That is a fact. Cars, electricity, central heating – it’s all going to end. There are three forces driving this: climate change, peak oil and overshoot.
Climate change is real. You can feel it, see it. The weird weather we’re experiencing today is from emissions 20 years ago. Since then, emissions have only increased. Every scientist I’ve seen or read has been astounded at how fast the ice caps are melting, how fast the ocean is dying.
Now the debate has become if we’re at the tipping point…beyond which, nothing we can do will stop runaway, catastrophic, slate wiping climate change. Some think we are at that point now. Others aren’t sure. We’ve known for decades that burning fossil fuels result in climate change. Our response to that has been to consume ever more, use more destructive methods to extract more and more and more. Seven billion people on the planet…we need more.
Which brings me to overshoot.
Earth has a carrying capacity. How many people can the earth support from generation to generation to generation; that is, in a truly sustainable manner? People smarter than me have come up with numbers that vary, but they are between 350 million people to 1 billion people. We are already in overshoot.
To feed that many people requires food grown in an utterly unsustainable manner. It requires oil. It requires pesticides (which require oil). It requires cruelty in the form of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding organizations). There are huge risks we’re taking with our food supply, and loss of topsoil is only one of them.
Which brings me to peak oil.
Extracting oil from the earth has been – to date – relatively inexpensive (especially considering externalized costs, but that’s another topic). Pretty much everyone agrees that we’re in peak oil now. That means it’s going to get more and more expensive to get the oil which powers our homes, our country, our economy and our planet.
The tar sands and fracking are proof. These incredibly destructive methods are only adding more carbon to the air, with the side benefit of polluting the water supply. Yet, we seem willing to pursue these because we love electricity more than we love life.
If you’re willing to concede that I might actually be correct in my assessment, next you’re going to be thinking: well, what can I do about that? And I have some ideas for you.
Your first option is the one most everyone takes and that it to try to ignore the facts. Deny what’s coming. If you go that route, you’ll have lots of company. The upside is that you might have another 5-10 years of not much disruption to your daily life, so it’ll be easy to forget. The downside is, that whatever is the final straw, the crash is going to be violent, messy and prolonged.
Your second option is to wonder how you might survive a collapse (and whether you want to). I really do hope that some survive and learn from the past.
On a practical level, my best advice is to learn some skills that will be useful in a post petroleum world. Knowing how to build shelters, grow food, treat illness and wounds, purify water, hunt and trap would all come in handy. Learn to sew and preserve food, learn to can. Have a community around you. There is a hell of a lot to learn and it’s actually really fun.
A third option is to start fighting back. To try to stop civilization in its tracks to prevent further degradation of the planet. No clean water is a slate wiper. People can only live a short time with no water. My best tip to you is Derrick Jensen. Endgame Vol 1 and 2. Then, read Deep Green Resistance.
So this is what I would say to an address of young people. And I would conclude by saying, I’m sorry. I’m sorry we’re leaving you with this. We could have done something (and some of us tried) but we failed. I wish you the best of luck.