film growth peak oil transition towns

There’s no tomorrow

The Post Carbon Institute has been responsible for a couple of great viral videos recently. Who killed economic growth? is a pithy introduction to post growth arguments, and 300 years fossil fuels in 300 seconds has now been watched over a million times on Youtube. Perhaps emboldened by the success of the latter, PCI has gone for something more ambitious, and has partnered with Incubate Pictures to create a 35 minute cartoon with the cheerful title There’s no Tomorrow.

Good things about it – it’s pretty comprehensive in its account of resource depletion and what it means for the economy, and there are some nice visual explanations. It’s not too long either, and it’s being made available as broadly as possible. The film is available online, and can be downloaded at Incubate Pictures.

The downsides? It’s gloomy. As the title suggests, there’s not much light at the end of this tunnel. And it’s inspired by 1950s capitalist propaganda cartoons, which in my entirely subjective opinion is rather tired (I mentioned 50s cartoons just last week in my top ten social documentary cliches). Perhaps the style would have worked better if they hadn’t played it quite so straight, injected a little more wit and irony, but then the subject matter doesn’t really warrant that. But as I say, entirely subjective.

That aside, this is a useful resource, doubly so for being copyright free. “It would be odd to make a film that critiques the money economy and then try to profit from it” says film-maker Dermot O’Connor in a sentiment that echoes my own blogging philosophy. You can screen the film in your community, and “if you want to charge for admission, go ahead” says O’Connor.

17 comments

  1. Very watchable. I don’t think the 50s propaganda animation style was too large a distraction (though I take your point about its overuse).

    My complaints were more about content than style.

    First, let me say that I really like the main game here. I’m on board with the need for post-growth economics and the impossibility of continuing our present assumptions very far into the future. But I did have a few quibbles.

    The claim about food that fossil fuel based fertilisers enabled the production of more food than would be possible with organic farming alone is true if the comparison is made to pre-WWI organic (by default) farming. But fertiliser is far from the only advance in food production since WWI and there are a number of studies that argue that organic systems can produce higher (and more nutritional) yields per unit of land than the best of contemporary industrial agriculture, though with significantly higher labour input (and so price). I guess it depends which is more important, low labour costs, high yields per unit of land, or low environmental impact – basically you can pick any two of that list to reach the conclusions of broke, starving or the degradation of the biosphere. I know which one I’d pick… 😉

    Obviously, in a documentary of this length which is aiming to cover so many issues, simplifications are needed. But some of them irked me since they could have been easily rectified. For instance, carrying capacity is not a static number; overshoot can reduce carrying capacity. It is also very much tied to assumptions about standards of living.

    Very US-centric. It’s so common in materials like this that it is easy to overlook, but it’s still a pain.

    The whole doubling bacteria and chess board illustrations do serve to highlight the power of exponential growth, but they push the problem decades into the future and can even obscure the key issues of flow rates. If a “minute” of the global economy is 23 years, then reaching peak oil (or half of any resource use – soil depletion, for instance) suggests we still have 23 years before we “run out” of room. But unlike bacteria, we actually face all kinds of barriers to growth (the barrel, illustration, which I first saw in Agriculture classes as a 13 year old and found intuitively compelling back then), and many of them become apparent well before we reach an utter limit. Peak oil is a good example: half the resource might be used, yet the flow rate of future supply is really the presenting issue, not simply running out one day. In short, I think the bacteria example (much beloved of those who wish to critique growth ideology) has to be used with much care lest it confuse more than illuminate.

    The Jevon’s paradox is no so straightforward as they present. Climate Progress had some very interesting posts on this a while back, which I don’t have time to look for right not. The discussion also conflated efficiency and conservation, which are not the same thing.

    But the biggest issue I had with the film was its steadfast refusal to mention climate. Apart from a single graph amongst illustrating the profusion of hockey sticks (named: climate – great floods), and (by implication) passing references to rising CH4 and N20, this whole issue was skipped, without even the brief level of attention given to, say, water stress or soil depletion. I can think of three explanations:
    a) The post-carbon institute is run by climate deniers. Unlikely, since under “issues” on their website, the first one mentioned is climate.
    b) They think that peak oil with “solve” climate change by removing the source of the problem. False. There is still plenty of fossil fuels (conventional and unconventional) to be burned, especially coal, and they even reference the really nightmare scenarios of widespread use of CTF (coal to fuel). Even if the energy from coal may be nearing its peak, this doesn’t correlate with the carbon emissions associated with coal, which will continue to grow as less energy dense forms are burned. We have plenty enough rope with which to hang ourselves here (again, happy to supply numbers, though don’t have time just now to grab them).
    c) They think climate change is too distracting, that their video will not be taken seriously in the US if they include mention of climate. Given that the main beef is to oppose growth-based economics, then this would be a somewhat odd position to take. It’s not like they don’t already look lunatic fringe to most of the kind of crowd who find discussion of climate unpalatable.

    So why skip peak oil’s big brother, with effects that are arguably more dire and long-lasting that a declining supply of oil, and which must be considered in any attempt to respond to oil shortages? The most obvious, and currently pursued, path when at or near peak oil is to substitute other fossil fuels (presently, non-conventionals, but CTF is also getting more attention). This is the worst of both worlds – an unsustainable response to peak oil that exacerbates climate change, with planetary effects lasting tens of thousands of years.

    Climate has to be part of the picture.

    1. Thanks for your insightful critique Byron, you’ve watched this more attentively than I have!

      Yes, I noticed the absence of climate change. I think many people who are big on peak oil miss it, because it gets so much attention relative to peak oil. It’s an unspoken assumption that we already ‘get’ climate change, but as the Transition Town movement has shown, you can’t assume the solutions for one work for the other. After all, tar sands are touted as a solution to peak oil.

      I wonder how much c) is a factor. I’ve noticed politicians, Obama especially, making increasing mention of energy security and fewer references to climate change. I can see why, given how divisive it appears to be, but that’s never going to be a good enough reason to ignore it.

      And yes, US-centric, which means no mention of social justice issues or the challenge of development for the poorest in a context of resource decline – perhaps the most important issue out of all of this big mess.

      1. Yes, I’m pretty sure Obama’s strategy is deliberate, based on messaging advice that says to emphasise the positive.

        My thesis is arguing for the emotional and spiritual (see below) necessity of some serious grappling with the negative. Otherwise, our responses will be modifications of the same behaviours and assumptions that got us into the pickle where we are now.

        1. PS This is why I appreciate the work of groups like the PCI, which help people to see the bigger picture (or some of it) on the depth of our predicament in order to open up the space for questions that are not being asked, like “is more resource growth in developed economies really a good thing?”. Of course, we need to go even further than this and ask about the heart – what assumptions and convictions and desires have led us to think that certain social and personal practices constitute a flourishing life when in fact they are leading to our destruction? How can we come to embrace desires, beliefs and practices that are more life-giving?

          1. The question has become, (perhaps temporarily), how do we get the world to think more about the heart of the matter. I think we can only try to bring it to the forefront of every matter at every opportunity. I also think that whilst we may understand between ourselves, it would be damaging to refer to it as spiritual. This is seen by too many as ‘another’ matter, when in fact, spiritual or otherwise, it is of paramount pragmatic importance to one and all. The problem is that most find it difficult to understand that it is of importance to us all, why it has relevance, how and what must be done to achieve it.

            Obviously most have limits to how much they will consider others, but apart from natural disasters, we have globally brought ourselves much trouble by many racing ahead of each other without due regard to those left behind. When this is done large scale, we inevitably get those with masses more than they can ever need or use, those with enough to satisfy their future needs, those who keep wanting more to make them feel safe enough for the future, and those who will never have enough even to the point of dying for basic daily needs. Parts of the world are only now becoming in a position to do join the race to get ahead. For what? The type of acquisitions which have divided and divided to the state just mentioned. Why? In search of happiness. Have we ever achieved it this way? No.

            So, can we ever stop the problem before it stops us or do we continue to do badly instead of better till the sun finally sets? We’d have to trust that it is better to share what we have achieved before we get too far ahead of others. Which persons or countries will be brave enough? Those at the top lead the way for good or bad. Perhaps more and more of us need to say so more often, in the hope that it will be more acknowledged rather than to be admired and encouraged? Growth has its own limits but the sadness brought by ignoring the consequences of our actions does not.

          2. Hallo again, I have already replied to this but just wanted to add: Did you know that March 17 in Manchester, The World Development are trying to discuss this: An economy for the 99%.

  2. Byron says climate has to be part of the picture. (I don’t think it’s generally neglected by the PCI, is it?). There are many other issues that are part of the picture that do not get enough recognition.
    I was asking myself the related question of how can they tell us that more growth is the answer, when it is blatantly evident that growth has led us here? I answered with this -Growth per se is not necessarily evil of course, it is how we use it that creates the ‘hidden’ problems which surface much later. The Post Carbon Institute’s video states the four essentials that must be done FAST. But, who is going to get it done FAST on the SCALE NECESSARY – our governments, social pressure, individual effort, even combined individuals?
    We can look for ways to cope and ‘keep going’ which will help some (no doubt not all who are in the same boat), but assuming this does keeps us going (since necessity is the mother if invention), I have to ask ‘where’? Back later on the same road? Education, science, wealth etc., they can all be used for good and bad, but who is going to stop the same poor footsteps being taken again, which take us to gross problems, and all under the cover of ‘progress’, ‘development’, ‘growth’. The only answer I can find is only IF we ever come to recognise true ‘enlightnment’ – the real brotherhood of mankind and how to make it work satisfactorily. You may scoff, (if inded you do), but do you know better, or are you one who does not even think it relevant, like those original go-getters; and look what we got? It is surely a circular problem unless we become further enlightened about brotherhood, not temporoary economic policies, wealth etc., and how to get to even further away from looking at ourselves. Any polite responses?

    1. You’re right, ultimately its about ourselves and our common humanity, whatever we choose to call it. The change we need to see is an internal one before its an external one, and that’s a spiritual thing. At the heart of it are those eternal questions – who are we? What are we for? How do we live? To whom am I accountable?

      1. I’m glad to hear your recognition. When people chat on about these ‘lesser’ issues I’m left thinking the ‘heart’ of the matter is being totally obliterated. Being the heart, the other organs fail if it is not healthy, so it MUST be made the priority, but sadly, I do not think it is at all. The attention is given too much to the subsequent issues and nowhere near enough to the cause. Is it necessarily a ‘spiritual’ thing? – that puts off many. Even if we never have sufficient consciences pulling together on earth, can we not, even now, gather sufficient insight to recognise that squabbling & fighting for the greatest possible share, endangers us all. Sharing decently (which of course we are well away from), actually puts a limit on our rapid destruction and although even this has the potential to go beyond proper balanced respect for the earth, ‘the hand that feedeth’, at least. there are then more who are aware of the actual need to cut back and that should hopefully be a much bigger force than everyone shouting for more. Too idealistic? Whatever, surely more recognition can only serve an excellent purpose in working towards the heart/root of the matter?

        1. It is ‘spiritual’ at least in the sense that the ‘spirit’ is another way of speaking about the ‘heart’ of the matter.

          I think what we might agree on (whatever the language we use to express it) is that these matters raise very pressing questions about what it means to be human. Much of our political and public discourse assumes a set of answers to these questions which are either not very coherent or fairly shallow.

          1. Yes, that’s how I would use the word ‘spiritual’ too. Much of the time we’re offered technical or political. Without a change of heart, those are only going to get us so far.

  3. The question has become, (perhaps temporarily), how do we get the world to think more about the heart of the matter. I think we can only try to bring it to the forefront of every matter at every opportunity. I also think that whilst we may understand between ourselves, it would be damaging to refer to it as spiritual. This is seen by too many as ‘another’ matter, when in fact, spiritual or otherwise, it is of paramount pragmatic importance to one and all. The problem is that most find it difficult to understand that it is of importance to us all, why it has relevance, how and what must be done to achieve it.

    Obviously most have limits to how much they will consider others, but apart from natural disasters, we have globally brought ourselves much trouble by many racing ahead of each other without due regard to those left behind. When this is done large scale, we inevitably get those with masses more than they can ever need or use, those with enough to satisfy their future needs, those who keep wanting more to make them feel safe enough for the future, and those who will never have enough even to the point of dying for basic daily needs. Parts of the world are only now becoming in a position to do join the race to get ahead. For what? The type of acquisitions which have divided and divided to the state just mentioned. Why? In search of happiness. Have we ever achieved it this way? No.

    So, can we ever stop the problem before it stops us or do we continue to do badly instead of better till the sun finally sets? We’d have to trust that it is better to share what we have achieved before we get too far ahead of others. Which persons or countries will be brave enough? Those at the top lead the way for good or bad. Perhaps more and more of us need to say so more often, in the hope that it will be more acknowledged rather than to be admired and encouraged? Growth has its own limits but the sadness brought by ignoring the consequences of our actions does not.

    (Very sorry, I seem to have placed this out of sequence, so I’ve copied it here -perhaps I’ll soon get the hang of it!)

  4. We need videos and discussions that attempt to tell the big story well but stick to the facts . The panic element , for many of us who work in the area , is alien.. I like the facts feature of the video, but resist too much ” how we respond ” and ” what’s going to happen if we don’t” ( we must not limit human nature even though we know it to have limits) . see my blog on a balanced economy . http://ecomia.blogspot.com -rememeber its a dream with more reality here http://politicaceleste.blogspot.com
    We all would be much more credible if we asked questions and sought the truth , To be effective and not as temporary as most of this political angst will be, we must support a stronger division of labor on this. The “maladaptive ” tendency ( identified in Telecoms’s towards 2000report) is VERY evident in the info age ; (Solve the problem on paper or screen, but not next door)
    We sometimes oughta ” mind our own business ” as we were encouraged to do in a age less exposed to media moral judgements . Do our little bit better ?

    There is enough bird bath deep rubbish talked on water conservation and soil sequestration ( my speciality) in the last few years to keep me busy for years . The same is true of energy issues with groups STILL running off to ” do this and that “. Energy management myths now need a specific crap filter right now as misguided investment in photovoltaics has shown . Film tackles this issue http://quickfiz.blogspot.com a bit, which is a really welcome!

    .
    ON COERCION (taxes , laws and tariffs)As one who has fought more court battles than I care to remember -MOST political parties would lose the battle in the first round ! The CLEAR failure of all political parties incl greens to do this properly ( professionally ) means they clearly risk their political futures . The people will not support plans that do not work , or that still require a new bureau to sort them out or that keep producing rules and incentives that send ONLY half baked signals.
    The human nature thing too is critical here . the reason our world has largely chosen coercion is because it has rejected the hidden forces for good that make our societies as good as they have been .( think Churchill here) A Technological worship age thinks wrongly that new is better -it isn’t always !

    The working model for the West is not Don Quixote or Emperor Julia ( Australia) but the humble surgeon, the hotel owner and nurseworking on a lonely road near Jericho . To not build on that is to build on a landslide – as many are !

    Outsiders to my concerns need to remember that environment discussions have often become so politically correct that the truth hasn’t even got a place.
    Readers may think they have an audience . The only audience that matters is the unknown numbers of silent people who may be respond to just ONE person who calls for “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” – think Mandella and the child’s comment on the Emperors clothes .

    12 minutes ago · Like

  5. modeldoddle – ‘it has rejected the hidden forces for good’ – Questions: These days who makes the hidden forces known? Who hides them? Can they reject that which they cannot see? Is it possible to repair when so few see so little, so late?

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