Jorg Friedrichs: The future is not what it used to be. climate change and energy scarcity

Preface. This book ranges across many topics and I’ve only included a few bits and pieces.  Friedrichs discusses what to do, recovery, denial, migration, historically how Japan, North Korea, and Cuba reacted to sudden energy decline and based on their politics and economics, how other nations may react.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Jorg Friedrichs. 2013. The Future Is Not What It Used to Be. Climate Change and Energy Scarcity. The MIT Press.

Established energy experts have for a long time retained the veneer of disinterested technocratic competence, with the peak oil community constituting a vocal counterculture.

Mainstream climate scientists, by contrast, have openly embraced a transformational political role and sounded the alarm regarding global warming, with climate skeptics deploring the politicization of science as illegitimate. In energy science the alarmists remain the “cranks,” whereas in climate science they have occupied the mainstream position.

Today, our backbone energy resource is oil. A century ago, it was coal. Even further back, it used to be labor.


I hypothesize a decline of global oil production by 2–5% per year for a couple of decades, after a few years on a bumpy plateau. In line with most of the peak oil literature, I further hypothesize that no adequate alternate resource and technology will be available to replace oil as the energy backbone of industrial society.

An event comparable to peak oil has never happened at the global level.

The fundamental question is why is so little being done about climate change and energy scarcity?

Tackling such problems is hindered because people tend to greatly undervalue future events and distant strangers. The more remote somebody or something is from us, the less we care.  John Maynard Keynes famously cautioned that the long run is “a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead”. Long-term considerations are futile because our life happens now, not some distant future. Therefore we shouldn’t worry about the future and instead focus on the events of the day, which accurately describes the routine behavior of citizens, economic stakeholders, and even politicians who are notoriously concerned about (re)election.

Then there is the problem that the pursuit of particular interests often thwarts collectively desirable outcomes.  Even if we all agree that something needs to be done, most of us may not be ready to do it.

Finally there is denial: people frequently treat real problems as if they were non-issues. Denial has a rational core because it minimizes pain, but it often leads to tragic outcomes. Denial is not irrational. When in denial, people follow what they think to be in their best interest by minimizing real or perceived harm, thereby maximizing well-being. Acknowledging a problem may lead to considerable psychological and social cost: negative emotions such as fear, shame, and helplessness; cognitive dissonance; loss of identity, or loss of friends; embarrassment; and social conflict about the attribution of blame and responsibility. Many people are predisposed to minimize such psychosocial cost with denial rather than facing up to their problems. This may be short-sighted, but it isn’t irrational.  Denial is based on a self-interested rationale of pain avoidance and harm minimization.  Also, deep down, people know that climate change and energy scarcity are existential predicaments that can’t be solved, so denial is a good way to treat these problems as non-issues.

It is unrealistic to assume that human ingenuity is an unlimited resource. A more realistic view is that, at the end of the day, even ingenuity is subject to the law of diminishing returns, with the lowest hanging fruit picked first. If this is so, then technical innovation is bound to become more and more challenging because of diminishing returns to investment in research and development  (Strumsky, Lobo, and Tainter 2010; cf. Tainter 1988; Homer-Dixon 2006).  Today, technical ingenuity requires escalating amounts of money and time.

Climate Change

As with rising temperature, there is a hopeful but naive view holding that a global increase in precipitation should improve secure access to water. Unfortunately, once again this is not the case. While it is true that climate change will increase the total amount of fresh water available to human societies and natural ecosystems, on the local and regional level precipitation patterns will become significantly more unequal and erratic. Rainfall is expected to increase in areas that are already humid, such as moist tropics and high latitudes like Siberia and northern Canada. In relatively dry mid-latitudes such as the Mediterranean, as well as semi-arid low latitudes such as southern Africa, by contrast, precipitation levels are expected to decrease. In humid mid-latitudes, such as the northern part of Europe, the climate is expected to become drier in summer and wetter in winter, leading to a higher risk of undesirable summer droughts and winter floods. On balance, the number of people living in areas suffering from water stresses is likely to increase.

Few people on this planet will be exempt from more frequent and more intense droughts, floods, heat waves, and perhaps even cold spells.

There are considerable uncertainties related to the large ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica. In principle it would take thousands of years for these to melt, but the pace of sea level rise will dramatically increase should they “slide” into the ocean.

Contrary to the rosy scenarios depicted by some, even the Far North will suffer from more weather extremes, rising sea levels, and the risk of radical discontinuities. Polar agriculture is extremely susceptible to soil erosion. Although the effects may be positive in some locations on some occasions—for example, in Siberia in a year without either flood or drought—they will be negative in most places most of the time.

Peak Oil

These people claim that, regardless of climate change, the world is about to face disruptive energy scarcities on the supply side, due to the imminent peak of virtually any non-renewable energy resource from oil to gas, and from coal to uranium.

They propound four reasons why crude oil production cannot stay for long on this plateau, and why the world supply of liquid fuels will soon enter a rapid decline. First, there is a runaway decline in output from existing oil fields. Second, unconventional oil and alternate liquid fuels are already struggling to compensate for the decline. Third, energy return on energy investment (EROI) is declining. Fourth, there is not enough oil “yet to be found” and “yet to be developed.

What to Do

Voluntary simplification is usually not an option, as the current level of complexity is needed to cope with existing problems. Therefore, involuntary collapse is often the only way for the fragments to enter a new equilibrium at a significantly lower level of social and political complexity.

Alas, community solutions cannot work without considerable solidarity and social cohesion. This is precisely what is lacking in rich industrial countries, where social capital has been undermined by the effects of economic affluence and mass consumerism (Putnam 2000). Under such circumstances, the deliberate investment in community solutions can only be a fringe phenomenon. A genuine communal revival is not likely to happen unless and until it is forced by systemic collapse (Greer 2008; Kuecker and Hall 2011). With due respect to environmentally conscious individuals, it may take a dreadful period of “dark ages” to force the fragments of industrial society to find a new sustainable equilibrium (Chew 2007, 2008). Moreover, with due respect to well-meaning communitarians and local activists, modern civic achievements such as multiculturalism and gender equality may be lost when industrial civilization is replaced by land-based neo-traditionalist lifestyles.


If we assume a large-scale collapse, then a recovery will certainly be difficult. For example, it would be hard to resume advanced mining operations after a serious deterioration of the industrial base. It would also be difficult to reactivate networked infrastructure, including advanced information technology, once their industrial underpinnings are gone.


In the long run, however, there is also significant good news for people living in poor countries: they should be able to preserve more of their way of life than people living in rich industrial societies. If we imagine a systemic demise of world industrial civilization, people in poor countries may often be in a better position to recover from mayhem than individuals living in rich countries. The reason is that the solidarity and social cohesion of many communities in poor countries is tighter, which makes them more resilient compared to individuals from wealthy consumer societies.

After the American Civil War, Dixieland was deprived of slaves as the backbone resource of the “Southern” way of life. Without prior knowledge, one would probably expect this to be a clear-cut case of a smooth transition. After all, Southerners only had to look to the northern part of the United States for investment and innovative technologies. Nevertheless, the modernization of Dixieland took a century if not more. Insofar as similar upgrades do not seem to be available in the event of peak oil, there is no reason to be particularly optimistic about a smooth transition to a post-oil (or even post-carbon) society.


When facing serious problems, ancient civilizations were sometimes able to become more sophisticated. Another strategy available to them was to increase their resource base by occupying and exploiting new land at their periphery. When everything else failed, one result was a great migration. People from marginal communities would exploit the relative weakness of the apex civilization, while people from the apex civilization would leave their areas of origin in search of better habitats. Similar kinds of migration are likely to remain a typical response to climatic stresses (Piguet, Pécoud, and De Guchteneire 2011). But whereas the survivors from the collapse of ancient civilizations, such as the Mayans in the ninth century, could effectively disperse into the wilderness, habitat tracking is not going to be an adaptive systemic response in a world crowded by seven to nine billion people (Weiss and Bradley 2001, 610).



Ever since the 1970s scholars have explored world models to understand the global dynamics of resource depletion and scarcity (Meadows 1972; Council on Environmental Quality and U.S. Department of State 1980, Meadows 2004).

This is valid but for two reasons can’t work for our present purposes. One is that formal models tell us little about the social and political consequences of disruptive energy scarcity. Most focus on physical flows and/or economic processes, but the passage from there to the socio political sphere is difficult.

Another problem is that the assumptions underlying the models are starkly contested. Some models are based on general equilibrium theory (IMF 2011; Waisman 2012), while others rest on ecological economics (Ayres 2009). Some take a linear view of technological progress (IEA 2010b, 2012b), while critics emphasize the non-linearities and tipping points (Korowicz 2010). Some models concentrate on material flows (Meadows 2004), while others take the financial economy into account (Turner 2011). The relatively simple yet powerful model developed by Jaromir Benes and colleagues (2012) is probably as good as it gets, but still leaves many crucial questions open as the authors readily acknowledge. The result is that virtually any vision of the future is supported by some formal model. To avoid such indeterminacy, my analysis rests on a historically and empirically more grounded strategy by examining specific cases when socioeconomic and political systems have actually experienced disruptive energy scarcity.

Lessons from the past.  Predatory Militarism: Japan, 1918–1945


In September 1945, defeated Japan was so fuel-starved that it was difficult to find an ambulance with sufficient fuel to transport Premier Tojo to a hospital after his attempted suicide. Pine roots had been dug out from mountainsides all over the country in a desperate attempt to find a resinous substitute to fossil fuel. Much of the Japanese air force and navy had been sacrificed in kamikaze raids, at least in part because there was not sufficient petrol to refuel planes and ships to return from their sorties and keep fighting (Yergin 1991).

Ultimately, Japanese fuel starvation was the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Originally, it had been the fear of military and economic strangulation by an oil embargo that led Japan to radicalize its strategy of imperial expansion and to fatefully engage in full-blown predatory militarism. This in turn led precisely to the fuel starvation that Japanese planners were dreading so much.

Ever since the late 19th century, a modernizing Japan had been committed to military conquest in order to compete against overextended European empires. The strategy was to emulate countries like Britain and France in their effort to achieve prosperity, power, and glory by the acquisition of overseas territories. In the absence of adequate power projection capabilities, Japan’s strategy was concentrated on East Asia where it won a war against China, conquering Korea and Taiwan (1895), and another war against Russia consolidating its territorial claim on Korea and expanding its influence into Manchuria (1905). Japan’s participation in World War I further expanded its overseas territories to encompass former German possessions.

The main lesson the Japanese military took home from World War I was that a country cut off from access to raw materials was bound to lose in a military contest due to a trade embargo. In their view, Germany had lost the war because it did not muster the necessary industrial base or access to foreign markets to achieve wartime autarky. To be prepared for a similar war, resource-poor Japan would have to control access to strategic resources. Only a self-sufficient economic bloc in East Asia would sufficiently prop up Japanese industrial capacity to secure the desired status of a great power. From this perspective, the US-sponsored Open Door policy of free trade in the Pacific was not in Japan’s interest.

While Japan could stockpile considerable amounts of petroleum and other strategic resources, such stockpiles would not be sufficient in the event of a protracted war to be fought without foreign oil imports. Since the United States was the dominant producer of petroleum at the time, Japan was heavily dependent on American deliveries. Japan was importing 90% of its petroleum consumption, of which 75–80% was shipped in from California. For the critically important gasoline, the dependence was even higher.

With that in mind, it is easy to understand (certainly not to condone) what happened when Tokyo felt threatened by the specter of a US trade embargo: the limited Japanese onslaught in East Asia degenerated into what was to become the relentless Pacific War. The only alternative to importing oil from the United States was looting it from Borneo and Sumatra in the East Indies.

Totalitarian Retrenchment: North Korea, 1990s

During the 1990s the totalitarian regime of North Korea, formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, retrenched in order to preserve elite privileges.

In 1990, estimated per capita energy use was twice as large in North Korea as in China and more than half that of Japan. Life expectancy was high, and over 60% of the population was urban. Their industry, which was based on coal and steel, was as wasteful as in any other Soviet country. In line with the national ideology of self-reliance (juche), up until the 1980s the regime had heavily invested in coal mines and hydropower to satisfy the country’s enormous energy needs. Furthermore, Pyongyang had developed a toxic “modern” industrial agriculture to feed the highly urbanized North Korean population. Farming was based on irrigation, mechanization, electrification, and the prodigal use of chemicals.

The North Korean economy was geared toward domestic consumption and did not produce any competitive export staple, except for some advanced weapon systems. The country was thus running a permanent trade deficit, and its economy was not in a position to generate the revenues necessary to substitute for the subsidized energy inputs that were being delivered by external protectors.

The situation came to a head in 1991 when post-soviet Russia stopped subsidized exports of oil and other vital goods to North Korea.  Two years later, Russian exports to North Korea were down by 90%. This had dramatic effects. While the North Korean regime reserved most remaining fuel for the military, the rest of the industry nearly collapsed and agricultural production languished around subsistence level.

The North Korean Great Famine is a paradigm example of how the shortage of a backbone energy resource such as oil can have momentous systemic ripple effects. To begin with, agricultural machinery depended on oil. Without fuel, tractors and other machines were not running. The next problem was transportation. Fuel was needed to transport fertilizer and other inputs to farms, and agricultural products to urban consumers. Fuel was also needed to ship coal from mines to fertilizer plants, where coal was converted into soil nutrients. Fuel was further needed to get coal to power stations for electricity generation. As a consequence, electricity was yet another problem.

Without sufficient electricity, irrigation pumping and electrical railways became intermittent. The intermittency of electrical railways further affected transportation. Without reliable trains, it became even more difficult to bring coal to fertilizer plants or power stations, to transport fertilizer to farms, and to get agricultural products to urban consumers. Thus, interlocking energy shortages, combined with shortages of industrial inputs and a general decline in infrastructure, produced a dramatic decline in production, and thus an almost hopeless situation.

While the entire economy was damaged, the consequences were most dramatic in agriculture and resulted in plummeting food production, considerable loss of arable land, and a rapid depletion of soil fertility. Restoring soil fertility would have required large amounts of lime, which could not be transported without fuel. The regime sent more urban workers and school children to the fields, but this did not compensate for the losses. In a desperate attempt to replace agricultural machinery, most animals for meat consumption were culled and draft oxen slowly became more numerous. But, unlike tractors, working animals compete with humans for food. The energy crisis also compelled many poor people to rely on biomass for cooking and heating. Unlike fossil fuel, however, the extraction of biomass reduces soil fertility, which in turn aggravated the agricultural crisis. As a result of these and other interlocking vicious circles, the production of rice and maize fell by almost 50% between 1991 and 1998. The public food distribution system crumbled. Since distributed food rations were the most important form of payment to workers, this led to a further decline of industrial activity.

Since North Korea’s industrial agriculture cannot be restored without a viable energy regime, even today there is still a protracted food crisis with an ever-present risk of further starvation. Because the problem is structural, international food deliveries cannot solve it.


When taking into account the fact that heavily subsidized oil deliveries from China to North Korea lasted until 1993, the Cuban supply shock was even more abrupt and dramatic. Subsidized energy supplies from the Soviet Bloc declined between 1989 and 1993 at a whopping 71%. The crisis entirely devastated the Cuban economy. Machines lay idle in the absence of fuel and spare parts. Public and private transportation were in shambles, with people walking and cycling long distances or riding on modified vans called “camel buses.” Workers had difficulty getting to their jobs. Factories and households all over the island were struck by rampant and unpredictable electrical power outages. As in North Korea, the most painful effects were felt in the food sector. From a daily chore under real communism, the procurement of food became a real source of anxiety to consumers. The nutritional intake of the average Cuban, especially protein and fat, fell considerably below the level of basic human needs. Consumers resorted to chopped-up grapefruit peel as a surrogate for beef, and some people started breeding chickens in their flats or raising livestock on their balconies.

The immediate reaction of the Cuban regime was predictable: mobilize the masses for food production, and revitalize the state sector. Townsfolk were sent to the countryside for farm labor, but after more than 40 years of real communism there was little revolutionary fervor left in the population. Also, the state sector was too sclerotic to be converted from sugar and coffee to potatoes and beans. Despite world market prices for sugar below production costs, state farms continued to produce sugarcane.

The next response of the Cuban regime was cautious liberalization and reform. To begin with, the regime moved from toleration to the controlled legalization of certain black-market and informal-sector activities. To attract hard currency, the country was cautiously opened to Western tourists. The US dollar was legalized as a parallel currency. Control over numerous state farms was partly devolved to the employees and management. All of this contributed to a burgeoning informal and semi-informal sector, which quickly took on its own dynamic and significantly contributed to the provisioning of the Cuban population.

This strategy was not only more flexible and pragmatic but also considerably more humane than the approach taken by Havana’s communist counterpart in Pyongyang. Overall, the regime in Havana enlisted the Cuban population in an aggressive import substitution program.

The policy was a tall order for a country that continued to suffer from the historical trade embargo imposed by its most obvious economic partner, the United States. As a consequence, tractors had to be substituted with oxen, and fertilizer with manure, in order to revitalize agricultural production and feed the population. At any rate, the real miracle was performed by the Cuban people. Against all odds, ordinary people managed to get by due to the remarkable cohesion of Cuban society at the level of local communities and neighborhoods.

Although Cuba is highly urbanized, the typical barrio is an urban village. Cuba’s multigenerational family households are tightly embedded in neighborhood life. The typical household is shared by an extended family including aunts, uncles, and cousins. One-person households are very rare. Most families have lived in the same home for generations. The occupational structure tends to be mixed, with some members of a household working in the official sector, others in the informal economy, and yet others dedicated to reproduction and care. People cultivate close relationships with friends and relatives inside and outside their barrio.

One should not idealize this. In the early 1990s, families were stuck in their homes because the regime had frozen the property structure after the revolution. Thus, people were cramped into narrow spaces because they had no other choice. The regime had invested in community cohesion not so much to create social glue, but rather to sustain political control. Moreover, communitarian neighborhood life is not just cozy. It is also rife with gossip and strife.

Be that as it may, what ultimately matters is that most Cubans could rely on their families, friends, and neighbors. In a survey, 86% of people from vulnerable neighborhoods in Havana declared that they could count on support from relatives, 97% from friends, and 89% from neighbors. This local solidarity, or social capital, helped ordinary Cubans to make ends meet during the Special Period. As one inhabitant of a vulnerable neighborhood put it, the crisis brought people closer together because it forced them to rely on one another.

In the countryside, there were deliberate efforts to link people with the land. Labor organization on state farms was shifted from collectivist “brigades” to the territorial organization of workforce by ranches (granjas) and farms (fincas), which were further subdivided into dairies (vaquerías) and plots (lotes). State farms and agricultural cooperatives were expected to provide their own food, both for canteens and for private consumption. Some factories had workers cultivate land to cater to their food needs. Elsewhere, workers were encouraged to have their own small plots where they could produce food for their families. Thus, localities in the Cuban countryside became increasingly self-sufficient. Traditional knowledge was another decisive factor in feeding the population. Although most land had been collectivized after the revolution of 1959, about 4% of Cuban farmers had kept their land. Another 11% was organized in private cooperatives.

The survival of traditional family farms and private cooperatives alongside industrial agriculture turned out to be an important asset. Independent farms were more resilient to the crisis than state farms because they operated with less fuel and agrochemical inputs. Cuba’s surviving family farmers kept alive important traditional knowledge that could now be recovered.

Other formerly independent farmers had moved to towns and cities, where they provided valuable know-how for urban agriculture. Urban agriculture was a local self-help movement, facilitated by the availability of traditional knowledge in combination with technologies of organic gardening and the Cuban-specific rustic ingenuity. Idle stretches of land between concrete blocks or in urban peripheries were turned into makeshift organic gardens. Vacant or abandoned plots in close vicinity to people’s homes were transformed into plantation sites. People used whatever urban wastelands they could occupy to grow vegetables and other foodstuffs.

The movement was purposefully augmented by the regime, but the real action was at the grassroots level. By the mid-1990s, there were hundreds of registered horticultural clubs in Havana alone. An urban cultivator from Havana explained: “When the Special Period started, horticultural clubs were organized by farmers themselves. . . . Special emphasis was made to involve the whole family in these activities. . . . We wanted also to develop more collaboration and mutual help among ourselves; we exchanged seeds, varieties, and experiences. We achieved a sense and spirit of mutual help, solidarity, and we learned about agricultural production”.

Again, one should not idealize this. Environmentalists have exalted urban farming during the Special Period as a social experiment, or even as an alternative model of organic agriculture In reality, Cuba’s detour into low-input agriculture was obviously driven not so much by ecological consciousness as by dire necessity. From the second half of the 1990s, when the economic situation improved and agrochemical inputs became more available again, many reforms were aborted, and Cuba started drifting back to industrial farming. This was helped by subsidized oil deliveries from Venezuela. At the same time, foreign investment enabled Cuba to cover about half of its oil and gas consumption from domestic sources. Nevertheless, it is highly encouraging to note that, during the early and mid-1990s, Cubans managed for a few years to mitigate an extremely disruptive energy scarcity by their remarkable community ethos. The comparison with North Korea shows that this was not a minor achievement.

Peak Oil Trajectories


This obviously does not imply that responses to a terminal decline of world oil production would follow exactly the same lines as the national reactions to oil supply disruptions described in my case studies. Japan in the 1930s, as well as North Korea and Cuba in the 1990s, were unique places. It clearly makes a difference that today all oil-importing countries are tightly integrated in global market structures. Another difference is that, while even a gradual decline of world oil supply would be extremely disruptive for oil importing countries, the onset of mounting energy scarcity after peak oil would be somewhat less abrupt than it was in the cases of North Korea and Cuba.

Countries prone to military solutions may follow a Japanese-style strategy of predatory militarism. Countries with a recent authoritarian tradition may follow a North Korean path of totalitarian retrenchment. Countries with a strong community ethos may be able to embark on Cuban-style socioeconomic adaptation.

It is of course possible to imagine additional reactive patterns, such as the mobilization of national sentiment by populist regimes. Even so, the trajectories identified can help us to derive plausible hypotheses on how different parts of the world would be likely to react to disruptive energy scarcity after peak oil.

Given its unrivaled military capabilities, the United States is the most obvious candidate for a Japanese-style strategy of predatory militarism. Simply put, the United States may be tempted to use its unique power-projection capacity to secure privileged access to oil. It has happened sometimes in the past, and may happen more often in the future, that US decision makers find military coercion more effective than trade. Increased domestic production of unconventional oil in the United States and Canada may obviate the drive for predatory militarism, but this is premised on the continuation of the current boom of shale oil and tar sands.


The People’s Republic of China (PRC) may be tempted to use its military muscle to secure access to oil and gas in Central Asia and, possibly, in the South China Sea. Elsewhere, the PRC would be unlikely to use a predatory strategy because, for the foreseeable future, its maritime forces and air power are no match for the United States.

Countries like India and Israel have even more limited military capabilities, but may nevertheless be tempted to engage in geopolitical operations in their regional neighborhood to secure access to vital energy resources.

A North Korean-style solution of totalitarian retrenchment that screws the population to preserve elite privileges is most likely to occur in countries with a strong authoritarian tradition. In consolidated democracies, totalitarian retrenchment is much harder to imagine. Nevertheless, the history of 20th-century Europe shows that even liberal democracies can and do sometimes degenerate into tyranny. It is difficult to predict to what point even in consolidated liberal democracies the political culture could deteriorate in a protracted and serious crisis. Political elites in less consolidated democracies might experience fewer constraints and scruples right from the start. For example, elites in the second-wave democracies of Latin America may have lesser qualms than their counterparts in Western Europe about screwing their own populace to preserve their privileges.

Compared to predatory militarism and totalitarian retrenchment, Cuban-style socioeconomic adaptation is normatively more desirable. At the local level, people in many developing countries may be able to mitigate the effects of disruptive energy scarcity by reverting to community-based values and a subsistence lifestyle. Such a regression would be comparatively easy for people in societies where individualism, industrialism, and mass consumerism have not yet struck deep roots.

By contrast, socioeconomic adaptation would be far more difficult for people in Western societies where individualism, industrialism, and mass consumerism have held sway for such a long time that a smooth regression is hard to imagine.

And yet, survival in many presently industrial Western societies may ultimately depend on the mobilization of support from local communities and a subsistence-based lifestyle (Hopkins 2008; Murphy 2008; Orlov 2008; Holmgren 2009; Rubin 2009; De Young and Princen 2012).

In abstract terms, this leaves us with three causal propositions, or hypotheses.

Hypothesis 1 The greater a country’s military potential and the stronger the perception that force is more effective than the free market to protect access to vital resources, the more likely there will be a strategy of predatory militarism.

Hypothesis 2 The shorter the time and the less a country or society has practiced humanism, pluralism, and liberal democracy, the more likely its elites will be willing and able to impose a policy of totalitarian retrenchment.

Hypothesis 3 The shorter the time and the less a country or society has been exposed to individualism, industrialism, and mass consumerism, the more likely a regression to community-based values and a subsistence lifestyle.

In the transition, large private Western oil companies such as Exxon and Shell would lose further ground to the state-controlled companies of oil-exporting countries such as Saudi Aramco or Nigeria’s NNPC. As a consequence, oil-importing countries would increasingly rely on state-controlled companies such as China’s CNPC. Both in the realm of power politics and the “marketplace of ideas,” the ability of Western countries to impose liberal democracy through instruments such as development assistance and economic conditionality would further dwindle. This can be formulated as yet another causal proposition, or hypothesis.

Hypothesis 4 In the event of peak oil, there will be winners and losers. It seems reasonable to expect a redistribution of power and wealth from oil importers to oil exporters, and from private to state-controlled companies.

The Energy Transition?

The energy transition beyond oil or beyond carbon is likely to be even more challenging and protracted than past energy shifts. Rather than studying past energy upgrades, we must look at a situation where the challenge was to radically alter an entrenched socioeconomic way of life. This suggests another case study: the US South or Dixieland, after the American Civil War (1861–1865). What can be gleaned from this case is that the formation of the “new consciousness” necessary for radical social change is a slow and painful process. The socioeconomic backbone resource of the Old South was neither coal nor oil, but human slaves. Precisely because the slave economy worked, white Southerners were willing to defend it in a bloody civil war. After the end of the American Civil War, the forceful abolition of slavery plunged the Old South into a deep crisis.

Despite the introduction of representation and suffrage for former slaves, reconstruction was mostly thwarted by the recalcitrance of traditionalist Southern elites. Heavy subsidization of railroads by Republican state governments in the South did not lead to the hoped-for modernization, but rather to corruption, making a few investors rich and otherwise contributing to soaring public deficits. After the withdrawal of the last federal troops from the South, race inequality was reestablished under the banner of white supremacy.

Despite their conservative values, they were not entirely prevented by these from cautiously embracing industrial capitalism. Initially, this amounted to an uneasy compromise between cherished industrialization and dreaded modernization. On the one hand, Southern elites became obsessed with the idea that an industrializing “New South” would rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the “Old South.” On the other hand, they remained loyal to time-honored values of agrarianism and patriarchal society.

While railroads were finally built on a massive scale, often with capital from the North, industrialization in the South was initially dominated by low-wage and labor-intensive manufacturing. Most industries were dedicated to the processing of agricultural goods (e.g., in cotton mills) or natural resources (e.g., in blast furnaces). The real industrial takeoff came much later, after several generations of socioeconomic backwardness, and was spurred by the New Deal of the 1930s (electrification) and the war economy of World War II. In the mid-twentieth century, Dixieland finally developed as a growth region and came to be seen as part of the American “Sunbelt”. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 famously put an end to official race segregation in the South, although some race issues remain until the present day.

While this amounts to a decently happy ending, it took a century for the South to recover and catch up. This is remarkable because to understand how a technological and socioeconomic upgrade might look, Southerners only had to look to the North of their own country. There, industrial capitalism with its superior technologies and know-how was unfolding before their very eyes. With the right incentives in place, attracting investment and technology transfers from the North would not have been too difficult.

Dixie is a cautionary tale for those who believe that, after peak oil, there will be a smooth technological upgrade. If—even in the US South despite uniquely favorable circumstances—adaptation took a full century, then a technological upgrade will be even harder under the more challenging circumstances of disruptive energy scarcity after peak oil. This time around, the world would be struggling with an industrial downgrade, rather than an upgrade, as in the case of the US South. Developing new energy technologies is never fast and easy, and even less so in times of crisis. After peak oil, we should therefore expect extremely slow and painful processes of social and technological adjustment that may easily last for a century or more (Haberl et al. 2011).

Hypothesis 5 In the event of peak oil, we should not expect either immediate collapse or a smooth transition. People do not give up their lifestyle easily. We should expect painful adaptation processes that may last for a century or more.

Social and political effects of climate-change-induced energy scarcity

Military campaigns are highly carbon intensive and require advanced industrial capabilities, which would be rapidly dwindling among the signatories to the compact. As a consequence, it would become increasingly difficult for the signatories to stop the predatory behavior of the outsiders.

Elites may secure privileged access to the remaining allocations at the expense of the rest of the population, to the point of establishing antidemocratic political regimes (totalitarian retrenchment).

Please note that a scenario is not a prediction. A scenario is based on assumptions. As mentioned above, I follow the peak oil literature in assuming a decline of world oil production by 2–5 percent per year, after a few years on a bumpy plateau. Moreover, I assume that no adequate alternate resource and technology will be available to replace oil as the energy backbone of industrial society.

In North America, the United States combines strong dependency on foreign oil deliveries with an unrivaled capacity to project power. The current surge of shale oil may postpone this for a decade or two, but ultimately a military strategy will be tempting. To be sure, America’s liberal democracy and free-trade ideology militates against the open recourse to military coercion. The United States is going to support liberal democracy and the free market for oil as long as it is convenient. Even when the oil market comes under pressure because of tightening international supply, the United States is likely to continue to defend it for a while.

But when soaring oil prices start crippling the American economy, US leaders may find that military coercion is more effective and can be justified in terms of protecting free trade. The United States is then likely to put the blame on foreigners and pursue a geopolitical strategy of energy security to protect the free market and/or the American way of life (Klare 2004, 2008). Why keep negotiating with recalcitrant leaders such as Hugo Chavez if there is a military option? This is not to say that the military option is easy, as the Iraq War has shown. Moreover, liberal democracy in the homeland can be corroded by illiberal practices abroad. Nevertheless, military coercion is likely to gain ascendancy relative to free-market rhetoric as oil supplies dwindle. The resource-rich neighbors of the United States, Canada and Mexico, are likely to be tied more closely to the US core. In Latin America, medium-sized oil-exporting countries such as Venezuela and Ecuador may try to profiteer from soaring oil prices. If they engage in a strategy of brinkmanship and deny the United States oil on favorable terms, then their political regimes may be toppled. While this would further increase anti-American resentment in the region, political elites are likely to acquiesce, ultimately, to US hardball tactics. In fact, historical evidence suggests that Latin American elites often opportunistically collude with the United States. Eventually, resource-rich Brazil may be able to escape intervention due to its larger size and geographical distance from the United States. If Brazil manages to offer sufficient benefits to neighboring countries, a regional state complex around Brazil may eventually be possible. Otherwise, energy-poor Latin American countries would enter a serious crisis.

Western Europe would enter a particularly difficult quandary. In theory, advanced industrial countries such as Germany and France could quickly rearm. In practice, however, predatory militarism is not a credible option for them. Since Europeans have good historical reasons to dread militarism, the social consensus necessary for this strategy would not be forthcoming at the decisive initial stages of geopolitical positioning. For the same historical reasons, in most of Western Europe the path of totalitarian retrenchment does not seem to be available either. Concomitantly, Western European countries would be forced to strike opportunistic bargains with Russia and oil-exporting countries across the Mediterranean. Due to their asymmetrical nature, such deals would be inherently fragile and subject to constant renegotiation. Investment in renewable energy and innovative technologies could somewhat smooth the transition, but ultimately Europeans would hardly be able to avoid a transition to a more community-based lifestyle. Despite the present affluence of Western European societies (and, in part, precisely because of it), this would be extremely painful and last for generations.

Ordinary Western Europeans would be forced to rely on local communities for their welfare, if not their survival. For most of the indigenous population, a regression to community-based values and a subsistence lifestyle would be challenging because the habits of industrial society are deeply rooted. The problems would be compounded by the fact that immigrant groups might segregate from Europe’s multiethnic societies, potentially reinforcing religious fault lines. On the one hand, this might enhance the solidarity among members of specific social groups. On the other hand, it would almost certainly conjure up severe social conflict.

The situation in Japan would be largely comparable, although Japan is far less multiethnic and Japanese people may be more willing to accept disruptions to their taken-for-granted lifestyles. This was confirmed in 2011 when the Japanese responded in a calm and disciplined way to a tsunami followed by serious mayhem and a nuclear meltdown at the facilities in Fukushima. As in the Western European case, however, the unavoidable transition to community-based values and a subsistence lifestyle would be painful and last for generations.


The situation would be somewhat different in countries and regions that have industrialized later and/or have a more recent authoritarian tradition that can be recovered. Therefore, totalitarian retrenchment and socioeconomic adaptation are more likely and easier to imagine in the new democracies and semi-authoritarian countries of Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia than in Western Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada, or the United States.

In least developed countries (LDCs), common people with limited exposure to industrial lifestyles would be forced to rely on the cohesion of social groups for their survival. Given the high population pressure in most LDCs, however, large population segments would fall victim to famine, disease, and conflict. Particularly but not exclusively in sub-Saharan Africa, state failure and conflict over scarce resources would become endemic. Moreover, the inevitable end of the oil-based green revolution in agriculture and the demise of international aid would wreak environmental havoc and human insecurity.

The ecological situation would be aggravated by vital biomass being removed from the soil as a combustible. In most places, the unavoidable consequence would be famine, disease, and mass exodus.

The elites of oil-exporting African kleptocracies such as Nigeria, Angola, and Equatorial Guinea would certainly keep selling their oil to the highest bidder, especially when the bid is backed by sufficient military clout, and when there are no onerous obligations with regard to democratization and human rights. If the United States gives up its dysfunctional democratization agenda, it will have better access to African resources than Europe, China, or Japan. However, it is an open question how much ordinary people in African petro-states would benefit from the increased oil revenues (people in African countries that do not have rich fossil fuel reserves would almost certainly suffer more).

In Asia, Russia has enough resources to provide for its own energy needs. In geopolitical terms, it would become a more important regional player due to its abundant export capacities. China, by contrast, heavily relies on imported oil. To preserve its industrial capacity, the country might be tempted to secure access to vital resources from Central Asia by military means. Totalitarian retrenchment may also be lurking. India has more limited military clout and a less authoritarian state tradition, but may nevertheless be tempted to engage in limited geopolitical operations in its regional neighborhood. Small and resource-poor outposts of industrial civilization, such as Singapore, would struggle to survive. The oil-exporting countries of Central Asia and the Middle East would benefit more than in the past from their abundant resource endowment. Due to the effects of skyrocketing oil prices on the world market, their economies would continue to grow in relative and absolute terms. Their domestic oil consumption would be stable or even increase at a time when it would be declining in the rest of the world.  The Middle East would almost certainly replace Western Europe as the most attractive destination for Muslim migrants.

The Struggle over Knowledge

There is a puzzle. Climate change and energy scarcity are both fundamental challenges to the viability of industrial civilization. How is it possible that, in the case of climate change, the alarmists have come to represent mainstream science, whereas in the energy case they have never made much headway? To understand this puzzle, I start off by developing an analytical framework that enables us to explore the struggle over knowledge about energy scarcity and climate change. I outline three kinds of science: normal, abnormal, and post-normal. I further show that, depending on whether normal or post-normal science reigns supreme, there are different patterns of contestation.

Despite a convincing case that the risk of energy scarcity is a post-normal problem (Tainter, Allen, and Hoekstra 2006), normal science continues to reign supreme in the field of energy studies. Mainstream economics is the science of choice when it comes to making forecasts, despite the fact that more technical disciplines such as geology and engineering are more directly concerned with fuel extraction and, by implication, future energy supply. Official expertise is concentrated in a couple of authoritative national and international institutions: the International Energy Agency (IEA) and its US counterpart, the Energy Information Administration (US-EIA).

Though not very successfully, normal energy expertise is challenged by a critical counterculture of abnormal energy science that is mostly made up of concerned citizens and a small number of retired geologists sounding the alarm at runaway fuel depletion. This abnormal energy science has its own institutional infrastructure, albeit relatively dispersed. At its center, there are loose epistemic networks like the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) and its various national offshoots, as well as a number of Internet platforms such as The Oil Drum and Energy Bulletin (which moved to in January 2013). Normal Energy Expertise Energy expertise is concentrated in a small number of organizations gathering and processing data (IEA, US-EIA, BP, & Shell).  By far the most authoritative entity is the International Energy Agency (IEA), which publishes the annual World Energy Outlook, as well as a biennial report called Energy Technology Perspectives.

The United States Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (US-EIA) is somewhat less authoritative because it represents a particular government. In recent years, US-EIA has been more optimistic about future energy supply than the IEA. Despite this bias, or perhaps precisely because of it, some observers prefer to quote US-EIA rather than the IEA.

Business firms have limited epistemic authority due to their vested interests. Nevertheless, industry-oriented circles sometimes rely on their publications. Interestingly, a feature common to all energy supply reviews is that data are not directly gathered but collected from sources such as the United States Geological Survey, the OPEC Secretariat, the Oil and Gas Journal, or the World Oil magazine.


The original purpose of the IEA when it was created in 1974 was to manage a crisis response in the event of a major oil supply disruption, defined as a shortfall of oil supply of 7% or more.  But since then this hasn’t happened.  Precisely because the IEA has been inactive as a fire fighter, its staff have had to be employed in some other useful way. For that purpose, the statutes of the IEA mention a few other goals in addition to the emergency response mechanism. The most important are monitoring the oil market and reducing the dependency on imported oil. Thus, the IEA was originally mandated to evolve in two complementary ways: first, to keep track of international markets and thus provide an early warning mechanism; and second, to work on ways to reduce the unsustainable oil dependency of industrial countries. While the second task might have suggested a shift to post-normal science, things did not turn out that way. The agency has eagerly embraced the first task of monitoring international markets, which was entirely in line with normal science. However, it never really confronted the task of questioning the oil dependency of industrial society.

Since the IEA’s core mission was the strategic governance of energy scarcity as a long-term risk, the agency should have become an expert watchdog monitoring the availability of oil and facilitating a large-scale transformation away from oil. But this didn’t happen fir a number of reasons.

First, the IEA was never really meant to question the presumption that oil is abundant. By placing its faith in markets, the agency followed the policy preferences of its member states.

Second, the decline of oil prices from the mid-1980s made the task of preparing industrial society for the eventuality of disruptive energy scarcities appear less urgent and allowed the IEA to focus on standard operating procedures like gathering data, developing forecasting tools, and publishing at the end of every calendar year the iconic World Energy Outlook.


Third, the IEA is attached to the OECD, whose culture has always been a firm belief in the ability of markets to safeguard economic development.

Fourth (and closely related), for a long time the IEA has been dominated by mainstream economists. As in the OECD, most staff members are economists and/or public servants, usually with a background in economics. There have always been a few lawyers, but engineers, geologists, and other energy experts have been a small minority until recently. The longstanding ascendancy of mainstream economists has been consequential. For most economists it is simply axiomatic that, in an effectively functioning market, supply will always meet demand. Accordingly, until 2008 the standard practice of the IEA has been to extrapolate trends in energy demand, and simply to assume that future demand will be met via the market mechanism.

In the 1998 World Energy Outlook, and then again in the 2008 WEO, the IEA looked more carefully into the physical availability of energy resources. In both cases it appears that in subsequent years there was backlash from member state principals and particularly the United States. Presumably as a result of such backlash, the IEA has become more optimistic again. The latest edition of the WEO (2012a) is strikingly upbeat compared to previous iterations, despite the fact that only few fundamentals have changed.

Abnormal Energy Science

The study of energy scarcity in general and peak oil in particular is a paradigm case of the abnormal science of radical dissidents. It is civic and intellectual alarmism gone wild in the face of a serious post-normal problem, and in the absence of a willingness on the part of normal science to reconsider its tenets, extend the peer community, and thus become post-normal.


Abnormal energy science is conventionally traced back to the founding father of peak oil theory, Marion King Hubbert. Like many other oil men, this leading geoscientist was a self-made man and a maverick. Unlike most of his colleagues working for the oil industry, however, he worried about physical limits to growth.

Ever since then, the most prominent proponents of peak oil theory typically have a background in geology, engineering, or some other physical science. However, their dissident standpoint forces them to turn their back on normal science and seek an audience among outsiders, notably concerned citizens.

During the 1980s the debate was largely dormant due to low oil prices, but it was reignited in the early 1990s through a book written by geologist Colin Campbell as he neared his retirement (Campbell 1991). A few years later, Campbell (1997) published another book about oil depletion that greatly benefitted from data provided by the company Petroconsultants. The following year, he partnered with retired petroleum engineer Jean Laherrère to publish an article in Scientific American (Campbell and Laherrère 1998), which is often cited as the beginning of the contemporary peak oil debate.  The notion of peak oil was further popularized in a book by retired oil geologist Kenneth Deffeyes (2001).

Forty years after Hubbert’s original analysis (1956), and despite the fact that the oil shocks of the 1970s were rapidly fading from memory with prices heading toward record lows, authors such as Campbell and Laherrère were trying, from their retirement, to awaken the world to what they saw as the defining challenge of the twenty-first century. Needless to say they were mostly ignored and sometimes opposed by their mainstream colleagues, with particularly fierce criticism and even ridicule coming from economists and industry figures unwilling to accept the idea of oil depletion (Adelman 1995, 2004; Odell 2004; Maugeri 2006, 2012; Clarke 2007).


Although public interest in oil depletion was initially limited to the “lunatic fringe,” physics professor Kjell Aleklett at the University of Uppsala in Sweden organized a conference in 2002 and used it to shepherd Campbell and the other members of the fractious peak oil community into ASPO, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (Campbell 2011; Bentley 2011). Despite the lack of funding, this independent and loose collection of individuals, mostly retired geologists and academics from a broad range of fields, has since played an important role as an institutional platform, convening annual congresses on peak oil and coordinating various national chapters.

This became possible because, from about 2003, increasing oil prices and the surge of Web 2.0 brought an explosion of peak oil citizen science. The takeoff was further catalyzed by Richard Heinberg’s influential and popular book The Party’s Over (Heinberg 2003), as well as the peak of North Sea oil and gas and the outbreak of the Iraq War, which was often described as a war for oil.

The isolationist radicalism of the peak oil counterculture was particularly evident in the blogosphere, where sites such as Energy Bulletin (from 2003), (from 2004), and The Oil Drum (from 2005) took off rapidly and gained additional speed in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina shocked the United States, taking offline a significant portion of oil production and refining capacity.

As the founder of Energy Bulletin recalls: The issue of energy depletion had very little representation on the web . . . in 2003 when I began work on Energy Bulletin. The most prominent site about peak oil was Jay Hanson’s with its animations of grotesquely obese Americans overlaid with dead bodies and famine. . . . It was collapse porn. . . . Engaging with the issue felt like stepping into an alternative reality, and quite a lonely one! . . . I chose the rather generic name Energy Bulletin, and neutral color scheme to suggest a certain amount of “neutrality,” and perhaps to obscure the fact that myself and my colleagues were working on it in our spare time from our bedrooms and secretly from our workplaces, and had no formal qualifications in the areas of either journalism or energy.


At the more scholarly blog The Oil Drum, the association of the peak oil community with abnormal science is equally apparent. The site was founded by Kyle Saunders, professor in political science at Colorado State University, and David Summers, professor of mining engineering at the University of Missouri-Rolla. Both initially wrote under pseudonyms. Stories of academics losing tenure-track positions because of a blog were legendary in the blogosphere, which is why “Prof. Goose,” aka Kyle Saunders, would not risk revealing his name until getting tenure (McKenna 2007, 224).

All peak oilers share at least three views in common: that oil is a finite resource, that it is essential to industrial civilization, and that its production peak is fairly imminent.

Another remarkable common feature is that most on- and offline forums discussing peak oil are strongly male dominated. A 2009 readership survey carried out at The Oil Drum found that more than 90% of respondents were male. At the 2011 ASPO conference in Brussels, 82% were male (of 217 people). It is worth noting that the community activists in the Transition town movement is more equally women and men.

There are three main peak oil camps:

The first emphasizes the limits to growth and sees oil depletion as just one limitation alongside environmental sinks reaching their capacities, ecosystems being exploited, and the depletion of other finite resources. Rather than a problem in and of itself, peak oil is a symptom of a wider malady facing growth-based complex societies.  In this view, culture is sleepwalking toward the end of growth and peak oilers are rooting for cultural change.

The second sees peak oil as a liquid fuels problem, especially in the U.S. where it was promoted by the Hirsch Report commissioned by the Department of Energy.  Hirsch describes peak oil as an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically and the economic social and political costs unprecedented. Mitigation must be attempted at least 10 to 20 years in advance of peaking. This viewpoint presents peak oil as a tremendous challenge, but if timely action is taken the problem need not be fundamental.


The third group is best described as “doomers” with many happily labeling themselves that way. In their view peak oil represents a desperate problem without any hope of significant mitigation, and it will inevitably lead to a partial of not total collapse of civilization as we know it.

Why bother to try to change the minds of those in denial?

Here is my personal response: the best thing a moral individual can do is to try to live “in the truth.” Life is tragic and often there are no solutions. Not every disease can be cured. Insofar as climate change and energy scarcity are part of the human predicament, even the most accurate diagnosis is unlikely to suggest a cure. Yet my mission as a scholar is to get to the bottom of things regardless of whether or not there is a solution. My task as a scholar is not to save the planet. It is plain old fashioned intellectual honesty.

My attitude will sound weary to those believing that problems like climate change and energy scarcity can and must be dealt with either through politics or local activism. It will sound outrageous to those setting their hope in a cornucopian can-do attitude and believing that aspirational statements and positive thinking can revolutionize what is politically feasible.


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2 Responses to Jorg Friedrichs: The future is not what it used to be. climate change and energy scarcity

  1. George Bellios says:

    1.typo: “save the plant”
    2. What do you make of the high portion of males in the peak oil community?

    • energyskeptic says:

      Thanks for the typo alert. I don’t know why women are so absent, they’re just as smart as men. Within my own personal social network, most of the people I know read very few books at all, mainly news stories. Most women I know only read fiction. When I started out in information systems in 1980, 5 out of 6 staff were men. Maybe the largest numbers of peak oilers come from fossil fuel extraction related fields, ecology and other similar academic fields (also dominated by men), and in general, male-dominated fields. It’s a mystery to me. Or women express their interest differently – I have several female relatives that joined Transition towns but you’ll never see them posting online about this stuff.