We consider ourselves as a society which has developed an agricultural system, a settled, sustainable system, more advanced and sophisticated than the hunter gatherers of a thousand years ago. However, in the world of energy and minerals, we still hunt and we still gather.
However, no known species has ever prospered by this. Species live in a balance, taking limited resources from their environment to create a sustainable ecosystem. Increasing the draw on the environment inevitably leads to overpopulation and an unsustainable population inevitably leading to collapse or even extinction.
Hunter gathering societies of old often knew about the limited impact they must have. Many cultures, from the aborigines to the American Indians have known that to draw too much from the environment will lead to destruction. But ever since civilization has developed, and we have felt we control our own system, through agriculture, we have left behind this notion. And so, civilization after civilization has collapsed from over indulgence in the resources that the world provides, mainly wood, which helped bring down the Romans and the Easter islanders .
In many areas we have arguably become fairly self-sufficient, as has always been the aim. In agriculture, we have developed the technology and the means to have minimal reliance on taking resources out of the environment, although this is rarely practiced. Instead we draw extensively on fossil fuels and mined minerals.
But in energy we remain the hunters, not the farmers. At times of energy stress, societies have realised the danger of declining resources and have put in huge effort to bolster supplies or even develop a sustainable source. See the growth of passive solar in Greece, or the rise of research in Solar Power during the oil crisis in the US. But it has always ended, either because the challenge was too great, or new resources were found.
So we continue to hunt and gather. Remaining a primitive society, an unsustainable society. And we’ve struck gold. In the past 100 years we have learnt how to find, gather and use incredibly powerful fuels in oil, gas and coal. And we’ve only just found these. 100 years is a fraction of a second in our story, so we can rely on hundreds of years of this prosperous time. We have the technology to make sure we are supplied with these valuable fuels for far beyond any timescale we commonly think about: our children or even grand children’s future, or more likely, the next five years of government.
So why worry? There is no impending doom. People argue that maybe we’ll run out of oil, but we can turn coal into oil, and people argue it will get too expensive to extract, but our economy is built to adapt to changing prices. So how can we hope to become a developed society? A society reliant solely on ourselves, and built on the foundation of sustaining future generations?
We could hope that new, renewable and sustainable technology may become cheap enough to be a competitive alternative. So perhaps we should just wait. We have plenty of supply. If we just keep funding research into these technologies, then by the time oil has become so expensive that it is having a detrimental impact on our lives, we’ll be ready for the transition.
The problem is climate change. We’re not just hunting, taking resources from the environment, but polluting it at the same time. And this requires urgent action. But where’s the motive for me? Perhaps there isn’t one.
That is, unless we subscribe to the idea that we are one people, on one planet, collectively striving to make sure that every child born has an equal or better  life than their parents.
This post was inspired by the intro to the documentary film Here Comes the Sun, which can be seen here.