Guest blog: Paul Mobbs responds to Monbiot on peak oil vs. climate change

Paul Mobbs posted this gem on the “No Shale Gas UK” email list and we couldn’t resist asking him for permission to republish it here. Please note that sections in bold/italic are our emphasis.

You can read George Monbiot’s original article that inspired this response here.

I’ve sat patiently through the various emails between you all – mainly to take soundings of where you’re all at on this matter. In addition, over the last few days I’ve separately received four dozen or so emails all asking to “take on” Monbiot. I wasn’t going to reply because I’ve so many more pressing matters to take care of, but given the weight of demands I can’t avoid it.

I don’t see any point in “taking on” Monbiot; the points he raises, and the debate that he has initiated, are so off beam compared to the basis of the issues involved that there’s no point proceeding along that line of thought. You can’t answer a question if the question itself is not understood!!

Let’s get one thing straight – present economic difficulties are not simply to do with “oil”, but with the more general issue of “limits to growth”. That’s a complex interaction of resource production, thermodynamics, technology, and relating all of these together, economic theory. Reducing this just to an issue of oil or carbon will fail to answer why the trends we see emerging today are taking place. Instead we have to look towards a process which sees energy, resources, technology and human economics as a single system.

The problem with this whole debate is that those involved – Monbiot included – only have the vaguest understanding of how resource depletion interacts with the human economy. And in a similar way, the wider environment movement has been wholly compromised by its failure to engage with the debate over ecological limits as part of their promotion of alternative lifestyles. Unless you are prepared to adapt to the reality of what the “limits” issues portends for the human economy, you’re not going to make any progress on this matter.

Monbiot’s greatest mistake is to try and associate peak oil and climate change. They are wholly different issues. In fact, over the last few years, one of the greatest mistakes made by the environment movement generally (and Monbiot is an exemplar of this) has been to reduce all issues to one metric/indicator – carbon. This “carbonism” has distorted the nature of the debate over human development/progress, and in the process the “business as usual” fossil-fuelled supertanker has been allowed to thunder on regardless because solving carbon emissions is a fundamentally different type of problem to solving the issue of resource/energy depletion.

Carbon emissions are a secondary effect of economic activity. It is incidental to economic process, even when measures such as carbon markets are applied. Provided we’re not worried about the cost, we can use technological measures to abate emissions – and government/industry have used this as a filibuster to market a technological agenda in response and thus ignore the basic incompatibility of economic growth with the ecological limits of the Earth’s biosphere. As far as I am concerned, many in mainstream environmentalism have been complicit in that process; and have failed to provide the example and leadership necessary to initiate a debate on the true alternatives to yet more intense/complex industrialisation and globalisation.

In contrast, physical energy supply is different because it’s a prerequisite of economic growth – you can’t have economic activity without a qualitatively sufficient energy supply (yes, the “quality” of the energy is just as important as the physical scale of supply). About half of all growth is the value of new energy supply added to the economy, and another fifth is the result of energy efficiency – the traditional measures of capital and labour respectively make up a tenth and fifth of growth. As yet mainstream economic theory refuses to internalise the issue of energy quality, and the effect of falling energy/resource returns, even though this is demonstrably one of the failing aspects of our current economic model (debt is the other, and that’s an even more complex matter to explore if we’re looking at inter-generational effects).

The fact that all commodity prices have been rising along with growth for the past decade – a phenomena directly related to the human system hitting the “limits to growth” – is one of the major factors driving current economic difficulties. Arguably we’ve been hitting the “limits” since the late 70s. The difficulty in explaining that on a political stage is that we’re talking about processes which operate over decades and centuries, not over campaign cycles or political terms of office. As a result, due to the impatience of the modern political/media agenda, the political debate over limits has suffered because commentators always take too short-term a viewpoint. Monbiot’s recent conversion on nuclear and peak oil is such an example, and is at the heart of the report Monbiot cites in justification of his views – a report, not coincidentally, written by a long-term opponent of peak oil theory, working for lobby groups who promote business-as-usual solutions to ecological issues.

Likewise, because the neo-classical economists who advise governments and corporations don’t believe in the concept of “limits”, the measures they’ve adopted to try and solve the problem (e.g. quantitative easing) are not helping the problem, but merely forestall the inevitable collapse. For example, we can’t borrow money today to spur a recovery if there will be insufficient growth in the future to pay for that debt. Basically, whilst you may theoretically borrow money from your grandchildren, you can’t borrow the energy that future economic growth requires to generate that money if it doesn’t exist to be used at that future date. Perhaps more perversely, a large proportion of the economic actors who have expressed support for limits are not advocating ecological solutions to the problem, they’re cashing-in by trying to advise people how to make money out of economic catastrophe.

Carbon emissions and resource depletion are a function of economic growth. There is an absolute correlation between growth and carbon emissions. I don’t just mean that emissions and the rate of depletion fall during recessions – and thus “recessions are good for the environment”. If you look at the rate of growth in emissions over the last 50 years, the change in energy prices has a correlation to changes in carbon emissions as the price of fuel influences economic activity. That’s why carbon emissions broke with their historic trend, halving their previous growth rate, after the oil crisis of the 1970s; and why they then rebounded as energy prices fell during the 90s.

The idea that we can “decarbonise” the economy and continue just as before is fundamentally flawed. I know some of you will scream and howl at this idea, but if you look at the research on the interaction between energy and economic productivity there is no other conclusion. Due to their high energy density and relative ease of use, all fossil fuels have an economic advantage over all the alternatives. That said, as conventional oil and gas deplete, and “unconventional” sources with far lower energy returns are brought into the market, that differential is decreasing – but we won’t reach general parity with renewables for another decade or two.

Note also this has nothing to do with subsidies, or industrial power – it’s a basic physical fact that the energy density of renewables is lower than the historic value of fossil fuels. On a level playing field, renewable energy costs more and has a lower return on investment than fossil fuels.

We do have the technology to develop a predominantly renewable human economy, but the economic basis of such a system will be wholly different to that we live within today. Unless you are prepared to reform the economic process alongside changing the resource base of society, we’ll never see any realistic change because all such “ecological” viewpoints are inconsistent with the values at the heart of modern capitalism (that’s not a political point either, it’s just a fact based upon how these systems must operate). E.g., when the Mail/Telegraph trumpet that more wind power will cost more and lower growth/competitiveness, they’re right – but the issue here is not the facts about wind, it’s that the theory/expectation of continued growth, which they are measuring the performance of wind against, is itself no longer supported by the physical fundamentals of the human economy.

The present problem is not simply “peak oil”. Even if volumetric production remained constant, due to the falling level of energy return on investment of all fossil fuels the effects of rising prices and falling systemic efficiency will still disrupt the economic cycle (albeit at a slower rate than when it is tied to a simultaneous volumetric reduction). Allied to the problems with the supply of many industrial minerals, especially the minerals which are key to the latest energy and industrial process/energy technologies (e.g. rare earths, indium, gallium, etc.), what we have is a recipe for a general systems failure in the operation of the human system. And again, that’s not related to climate change, or simple lack of energy, but because of the systemic complexity of modern human society, and what happens to any complex system when it is perturbed by external factors.

The worst thing which can happen right now – even if it were possible, which is entirely doubtful – would be a “return to growth”. The idea of “green growth”, within the norms of neo-classical economics, is even more fallacious due to the differing thermodynamic factors driving that system. Instead what we have to concentrate upon is changing the political economy of the human system to internalise the issue of limits. At present, apart from a few scientists and green economists on the sidelines, no one is seriously putting that point of view – not even the Green Party. And as I perceive it from talking to people about this for the last 12 years, that’s for a very simple reason… it’s not what people, especially the political establishment, want to hear.

Rio+20 was an absolute failure. In fact what annoyed me the most was that the media kept talking about the “second” Rio conference, when in fact it was the third UNCED conference, if you include the Stockholm conference in ’72. If you contrast 1972 with 2012, the results of this years deliberations were worse than the policies sketched out in the 70s! Seriously, the environment movement is being trounced, and as I see it that’s because they have lost the intellectual and theoretical rigour that it possessed in the 70s and 80s. Rather than having a clear alternative vision, what they promote is “the same but different”. Once environmentalism became a media campaign about differing consumption options, rather than an absolute framework for evaluating the effects of consumption, it lost its ability to dictate the agenda – because its the ability to look forward and observe/anticipate trends unfolding, however unwelcome those truths might be, which gives groups political power.

Politicians have lost control of the economy because their materialist ambitions no longer fit to the extant reality of the economic process. This outcome was foreseen over 40 years ago by economists like Georgescu-Roegen and Boulding but ignored, even amongst many liberals and especially the left, for political reasons. These same principles, based around the issue of limits, were also the founding reality of the modern environment movement – but over the last 20 years the movement has lost this basic grounding in physics and economics as it has moved towards an aspirationally materialist agenda (green consumerism/sustainable consumption, etc.).

Unless you’re prepared to talk about limits to growth, and the fact that the economic theories developed over two centuries of unconstrained expansion now have no relevance to a system constrained by physical limits, then you will not solve this problem. Just as with Monbiot’s “change” on the issue of nuclear, his failure is a matter of basic theory and methodological frameworks, not of facts or data. Unfortunately people keep throwing data at each other without considering that the framework within which those facts are considered and understood has changed, and that consequently their conclusions may not be correct; and until the movement accepts that the rules governing the system have changed we’ll not make progress in advancing viable solutions.

To conclude then, Monbiot’s mistake isn’t about peak oil, or climate change, it’s a failure to internalise the physical realities of the “limits” now driving the human system. Unless you consider the interaction of energy, economics and pollution, any abstractions you draw about each of those factors individually will fail to tell you how the system as a whole is functioning. Those limits might dictate the end of “growth economics”, but they DO NOT dictate the end of “human development”. There are many ways we can address our present economic and environmental difficulties, but that cannot take place unless we accept that changing our material ambitions is a prerequisite of that process.

Let’s be clear here. The principles which drive the economy today would be wholly alien to Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill and others who first laid down the rules of the system two centuries ago. Likewise Marxism and similarly derived ideas have no validity either because they were generated during an era when there were no constraining limits. There is no “going back” to previous theories/ideologies on this issue because we face a scenario today which human society – with the exception of those ancient societies who experienced ecological overshoot (Rome, Mayans, Easter Islanders, etc.) — have never had to face before.

We have to move forward, to evaluate and understand is the role of ecological limits within the future human economic process and how this changes our advocacy of “solutions”. That debate should be at the heart of the environment movement, and the issue of limits should lead all discussions about all environmental issues – not green/sustainable consumerism and other measures which seek to reassure and pacify affluent consumers. That said, especially given the demographic skew within membership of the environment movement, we have to begin by being honest with ourselves in accepting the “limits agenda” and what it means for the make-up of our own lives.

In the final analysis, you cannot be an environmentalist unless you accept and promote the idea of limits. That was at the heart of the movement from the early 70s, and if we want to present a viable alternative to disaster capitalism then that is once again what we must develop and promote as an alternative.

Peace ‘n love ‘n’ home made hummus,


Paul’s book, “Energy Beyond Oil”, is out now!
For details see

Read his ‘essay’ weblog, “Ecolonomics”, at:

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