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Environment

Peak Everything Prophet Downgrades Peak Oil?

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Jeremy Grantham is a fascinating dude. He is a highly successful capitalist who blames capitalism for killing the planet. If you're familiar with this "connoisseur of [market] bubbles," as the New York Timesreferred to him in a profile, it's probably due to his increasingly Malthusian outlook. In 2011, he warned that "accelerated demand" from developing countries was depleting the earth's natural resources. He declared that we "now live in a different, more constrained, world in which prices of raw materials will rise and shortages will be common." This resource depletion (peak everything!), combined with global warming, poses an existential threat to civilization, Grantham argues. Though some of his recent peak claims have been questioned by experts and ridiculed by pundits, his message has deeply resonated with greens, peak oilers, and climate activists. Two years ago, climate blogger Joe Romm wrote of Grantham:

He is one of the few leading financial figures who gets both peak oil and global warming.

Those two concerns competed for our attention during the 2000s. Now it appears that one of them has been downgraded in threat level, even by Grantham, who said this week in a Guardianinterview

Don't worry about peak oil, worry about peak temperature.

I'm not sure if he was being facetious or just emphasizing climate change as the greater and more immediate threat. In any case, Grantham says a lot of interesting things in that interview, among them his belief that China will ride "to the rescue" with its massive investment in renewable energy technology. The thinking here, I guess, is that a Chinese breakthrough in clean energy will spell the end of fossil fuels and save us from a climate disaster. But even if that comes to pass, what about Grantham's other main bugaboo: resource depletion? After all, as he wrote in his latest quarterly newsletter, there is still capitalism's growth paradigm and the aspirations of the developing world to contend with:

You don’t have to be a Ph.D. mathematician to work out that if the average Chinese and Indian were to catch up with (the theoretically moving target of) the average American, then our planet’s goose is cooked, along with most other things. Indeed, scientists calculate that if they caught up, we would need at least three planets to be fully sustainable.

Yes, the idea of the average Chinese and Indian sharing the same fruits of the planet as Grantham should give us pause. Can you imagine if everyone in the developing world got three square meals a day, an air conditioner and a flush toilet? After that, they'll be wanting a car and some recreational income to fly to Disney World. And just think how bad things would get if some of these people wanted to live like a wealthy Malthusian:

Grantham leads what he calls “a reasonable fat-cat existence” — 10-year-old Volvo station wagon, 40-year-old 12-foot Boston Whaler, a country place near the ocean.

What if even a tiny, tiny percentage of Indians or Chinese had the carbon footprint of fat-cats? Our planet would be ruined.

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