Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Lean times ahead: Preparing for a resource-constrained future

Summary - Society soon will face significant biophysical limits to growth. Natural resource availability will slowly tighten and then begin a long drawn-out descent while expenditures rise to address the damage caused by past resource consumption. It is difficult to know when this scenario will begin to unfold but it clearly constitutes an entirely new behavioral context, one that the behavioral and social sciences least attend to. Since it is likely that no single response will fix things everywhere, for all people or for all time, it will be vital to conduct many social experiments. Indeed, a culture of small experiments should be fostered which, at the individual and small group level, can be described as behavioral entrepreneurship. It will be useful to both package behavioral insights in a way that is both practitioner-friendly and grounded in biophysical trends and to propose a few key questions that need empirical attention.
Sometime this century, the era of cheap, abundant and ever increasing energy will end, and Western industrial civilization will begin a long, slow descent toward a resource-limited future characterized by simplicity and frugality. Behavioral scientists should begin now to prepare the public for this resource descent, which is defined as a tightening of the availability of energy and natural resources accompanied by a persistent step-wise downshift to a new, reduced-consumption normal.

By the end of the century, day-to-day activities will need to consume nearly an order of magnitude less energy and materials than currently used. Frankly, it may not be possible for members of industrial societies to maintain anything close to a contemporary life pattern while also living within this new biophysical context. However, although the resource-limited future will be more austere, it may be possible, if preparations are made early enough, for people to live well while they live within ecological limits. In fact, the coming downshift may provide an opportunity for people to re-connect with nature and other people in ways that provide deep and durable well-being.

Although recently (at the time of this posting in late 2017) prices at the gasoline pump have dropped significantly in many parts of the developed countries and the production of oil and natural gas has remained on an undulating plateau, these are short-term trends when viewed from the perspective of a many-decades-long descent in net resource availability. The planet’s carbon stores have always been finite and continuous growth in the use of these resources is unsustainable. And though fossil fuels will likely be extracted from the Earth’s crust for centuries to come, the amount available to run modern techno-industrial society over any given time period will slowly decline.

The global production rate of liquid fossil fuels soon may begin -- or is already beginning -- a drawn-out leveling and then a slow descent, with other fuels and materials soon to follow the same pattern. Then industrial civilization, having already scoured the planet of new sources, will experience biophysical limits as a steady headwind against which it must labor. Biophysical limits involve the ability of nature – including the Earth’s ecosystems and its geological formations -- to provide resources and services to humanity. As less energy is available for all kinds of uses, including technological innovation, the opportunity to develop alternative energy sources to replace fossil fuels may slip away. As that window closes, technology will undoubtedly help ease a societal transition but will not eliminate the need for one. Daily life in industrial nations will repeatedly downshift into more austere forms as people are forced to consume less of just about everything. Climate disruption and geopolitical instability will likely complicate the situation. A reduced-consumption existence may become commonplace not because conservation behavior will have been voluntarily chosen by the public or cleverly initiated by behavioral scientists but because there simply will be no other choice. Having ignored many opportunities for voluntary simplicity, industrial society may now face involuntary simplicity.

This is not at all what the popular folk mythology of resource apocalypse predicts. It lacks Hollywood’s sudden and catastrophic collapse motif and its hero/anti-hero story line. The change will likely emerge very slowly, over many decades and throughout all of our individual lives – a personal, persistent, sometimes punctuated, step-wise downshift to a new normal.

The slowness of the transition is what makes this scenario psychologically difficult to accept. It will be perceived as much easier to simply hope that things will eventually return to normal. Thus, the first challenge is one of motivating people to act in advance of circumstance that force behavior change.

The job for behavioral scientists will be to help people cope with the realization that everyday life may soon differ substantially from conventional expectations and to help them envision an alternative to their current relationship with resources. Behavioral scientists and community practitioners can help by pre-familiarizing people with the coming transition in ways that are not frightening or overwhelming. They should also encourage many small, social experiments in simple living, -- what might be called behavioral entrepreneurship, exemplified by the growing ecovillage and transition town movements -- which will serve as models for those who initially resist the coming changes.

The goal would be to share stories that not only honestly portray life under a prolonged resource descent, but to do so in ways that cause people to crave the experience enough to seek it now.

Read an earlier full paper on this topic at: De Young, R. (2014) Some behavioral aspects of energy descent, Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1255.

Raymond De Young
School for Environment and Sustainability
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Earlier version archived: June 13, 2016 at: http://hdl.handle.net/2027.42/109261