Commentary  Running out of time to change course

A case for adapting to sustainable, small-scale living

We need to accept some things. We are running out of resources: water, oil, space, and the time to change the way we use them. First I’ll say where we’re headed, then where we could go.

The crash is inevitable. The established order – corporate capitalism – will never allow our society to make the necessary changes. A transformation is fundamentally opposed to their interests: the world is ruled by money, money is driven by energy, and energy is driven by oil. Those with money made it from oil (one way or another) and they continue to profit from the petroleum addiction – the change we need will never be top-down. We must step up.

As easy oil runs out it will become more expensive: a Wikileaks cable revealed that the largest oil reserve in the world is overstated by nearly 40 per cent. The days when a barrel of oil trading at one-third the price of water are ending. The globalized economy will flounder and fail: shipping consumer goods across oceans will cost too much, and even after cutting wages and benefits, prices will begin to deter consumers – then depression will strike.

It is the small southern countries that will suffer greatest. Populations that have ballooned on fossil-fuelled agriculture will burst and the trauma caused will scar these regions for generations to come. Established populist movements will help, but there just won’t be enough to go around. Civil strife will be rampant. Migrations will move away from the hot deserts and encroaching coasts. The Middle East, Australia, and much of Africa will boil. Starving humans will devour everything, biodiversity will plummet, and as it does ecosystems will fail – feeding back in to the crisis as the food web unravels.

Most governments will fail. Democracy will vanish: it is too ungainly. Small countries and communities may escape. States will survive by stripping humans of their dignity and squeezing them into the slots necessary to run their machines. Small, participatory communities may survive by learning to cohabit and live in balance with their ecosystems.

Here lies our hope. Self-sufficient societies live within their boundaries – it is outsourcing that causes cancerous growth. Localization also makes technical sense: engines turn only 40 per cent of their fuel to electricity, the rest is lost to heat – which accounts for over 50 per cent of what we use that electricity for! If we generate that power on-site, then the waste heat isn’t wasted at all. Nearly anything can provide us with the energy we need: the sun, our feces, crop stalks, grass, algae, the wind, or one of those plastic-bag whirlpools (the size of Texas!) that collect in our oceans. We have plenty of options, if we stop waiting for capitalism to do what it won’t and start building alternatives ourselves.

Life will be better. Contributing directly to your own self-sustaining community is extremely gratifying. We won’t need drugs (prescription or otherwise) to pretend to be happy. School will no longer be a system to build uniformity, but rather one that grows dynamically with the needs and desires of you and your loved ones.

We can even keep the internet – the most amazing invention of humanity to date – and this can be the basis for a new and revolutionary form of government: direct participatory democracy. I am referring to the time-honoured creation of the ancient Greeks, not this frustrating lobby-fest pig-circus that we call representation today. Politicians would fuse with the media to serve as the mediator in debate and to clarify the issues, but they would hold no more voting power than anyone else.

A world democracy could grow from coordinated and cooperative grassroots activist movements that would defend everyone’s human (and non-human) rights and allow them to represent their own interests fully. Police would be made obsolete and violence would vanish along with repression, while psychosis would be recognized and dealt with by communities before it escalated. Another world is possible!

But it probably won’t come about. Money does continue to hold a lot of power in our world, and those with money also hold a lot of guns. Still, look at any population curve from biology and you can see where we stand – our numbers are booming, and soon they will bust. Luckily, among all the strife and suffering, the corporate-crony governments will no longer be able to control the entire world. Spaces will open where those with the will and the preparation can begin to rebuild refreshingly functional societies. If I survive the crash, I hope to find one – and I hope that you do too.

Alex Briggs is a U2 Mechanical Engineering student. Write him at