Response to Monbiot on peak oil vs. climate change

Paul Mobbs mobbsey at
Fri Jul 6 21:05:01 BST 2012

Hi all,

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 it there's no point proceeding along that line of 
thought. You can't answer a question if the question itself is not 

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 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 the 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 

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 "decarbonised" 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 an 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 the 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 

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 in 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 change 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 

Peace 'n love 'n' home made hummus,



"We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government,
nor are we for this party nor against the other but we are
for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom,
that these may be exalted in our nation, and that goodness,
righteousness, meekness, temperance, peace and unity with
God, and with one another, that these things may abound."
(Edward Burrough, 1659 - from 'Quaker Faith and Practice')

Paul's book, "Energy Beyond Oil", is out now!
For details see

Read my 'essay' weblog, "Ecolonomics", at:

Paul Mobbs, Mobbs' Environmental Investigations
3 Grosvenor Road, Banbury OX16 5HN, England
tel./fax (+44/0)1295 261864
email - mobbsey at
website -
public key -

-------------- next part --------------
A non-text attachment was scrubbed...
Name: not available
Type: application/x-ygp-stripped
Size: 123 bytes
Desc: This is a digitally signed message part.
URL: <>

More information about the Diggers350 mailing list