The Race of Doom

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorAug 12, 2011 8:23 PM


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There is a profile of the world's smartest and richest Malthusian in this Sunday's NYT magazine that carries a headline he surely finds galling:

Can Jeremy Grantham Profit from Ecological Mayhem?

If you know anything about Grantham, then you know he wants to save the environment and civilization from ecological mayhem. As I wrote in this post at Climate Central, after his quarterly newsletter was published in May,

Grantham's portrayal of a world that will soon be forced to deal with the trifecta of resource scarcity, climate change and population growth, is not unlike the scenarios sketched out by the likes of the environmental thinker Lester Brown and geographer Jared Diamond.

The NYT profile of him reads like a story of a weary prophet who is disappointed but not surprised that his warnings aren't being heeded. And while Grantham is resigned to the future ecological mayhem that he believes society will endure, he is not giving up hope that he can help head it off. Personally, I find Grantham to be a compelling voice on peak oil and climate and environmental concerns (which should not be taken to mean I'm in full agreement with him). He also grasps some of the real-world obstacles to political action. For example, here he is on why the U.S. Congressional climate bill got torpedoed:

Grantham put his own influence and money behind the climate-change bill passed by the House in 2009. "But even $100 million wouldn't have gotten it through the Senate," he said. "The recession more or less ruled it out. It pushed anything having to do with the environment down 10 points, across the board. Unemployment and interest in environmental issues move inversely."

The next passage reveals that Grantham, unlike some purists in the climate concerned community, is open to a different game plan:

Having missed a once-in-a-generation legislative opportunity to address climate change, American environmentalists are looking for new strategies. Grantham believes that the best approach may be to recast global warming, which depresses crop yields and worsens soil erosion, as a factor contributing to resource depletion. "People are naturally much more responsive to finite resources than they are to climate change," he said. "Global warming is bad news. Finite resources is investment advice."

This jibes with the findings of a new study, whose lead author, Matthew Nisbet, summarized here. He wrote that

a broad cross section of Americans may be ready to engage in dialogue about ways to manage the risks associated with peak petroleum.

For a quick primer on the risks associated with peak oil, let's go to Dry Dipstick:

Overall the long-term prognosis is grim for the future of "cheap" oil, and the world must expect to get along without what has been our critical energy source in expanding the world's economy for more than half a century. The sooner the world's governments prepare for that eventuality and a transition to alternative energy sources the better, but the signs have hardly been encouraging up to now, with both the oil industry and its client nation-states keeping their fingers crossed and continuing "business as usual."

As I have often pointed out on this blog, there is a doomsday strain to much of the current peak oil/climate change commentary. One of the more recent examples is this essay by former NYT correspondent Chris Hedges. It's largely a jeremiad against corporate globalism, which in Hedges' view, is driving humanity over a cliff:

The deadly convergence of environmental and economic catastrophe is not coincidental. Corporations turn everything, from human beings to the natural world, into commodities they ruthlessly exploit until exhaustion or death. The race of doom is now between environmental collapse and global economic collapse. Which will get us first? Or will they get us at the same time?

Grantham, for his part, isn't predicting the downfall of capitalism. But in the NYT piece, he seems equally certain that the future will be ugly:

I have no doubt we're going to have a bad hundred years. We have the resources to gracefully handle the transition, but we won't. We apparently can't.

I hope we prove him wrong. I'm sure he does too.

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