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Raymond De Young
School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS)
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

October 24, 2020

Sometime this century, the era of cheap and abundant energy will end, and Western industrial civilization will likely begin a long, slow descent toward a resource-limited future characterized by involuntary simplicity. Behavioral scientists should begin now to prepare the public for this energy descent, which he defines as a tightening of energy supplies accompanied by a persistent step-wise downshift to a new, reduced-consumption normal.

By the end of the century, day-to-day activities will need to consume nearly an order of magnitude less energy and materials than currently used. Frankly, it may not be possible for members of Western societies to maintain anything close to a contemporary life pattern while also living within this new biophysical context. Though the resource-limited future will be more austere, it will be possible for people to live well while they live within ecological limits. In fact, the coming downshift may provide an opportunity for people to re-connect with nature and other people in ways that provide durable well-being.

Though prices at the gasoline pump have dropped below $3 a gallon in many parts of this country and domestic production of oil and natural gas is booming, these are short-term trends when viewed from the perspective of a many-decades-long transition. The planet’s carbon stores have always been finite and continuous growth in the use of these resources is unsustainable. And though fossil fuels will likely be extracted from the Earth’s crust for years to come, the amount available to society over any given time period will slowly decline.

The global production rate of liquid fossil fuels soon may begin -- or is already beginning -- a drawn-out leveling and then a slow descent, with other fuels and materials soon to follow the same pattern. Then industrial civilization, having already scoured the planet of new sources, will experience biophysical limits as a steady headwind against which it must labor. Biophysical limits involve the ability of nature -– including the Earth’s ecosystems and its geological formations -- to provide resources and services to humanity. As less energy is available for all kinds of uses, including technological innovation, the opportunity to develop alternative energy sources to replace fossil fuels may slip away. As that window closes, technology may help ease a societal transition but will not eliminate the need for one.

Daily life in Western industrial nations will repeatedly downshift into simpler forms as people are forced to consume less of just about everything, he said. Climate disruption and geopolitical instability will likely complicate the situation. A reduced-consumption existence may become commonplace not because conservation behavior was voluntarily chosen by the public or cleverly initiated by behavioral scientists but because there will be no other choice. Having ignored many opportunities for voluntary simplicity, industrial society may now face involuntary simplicity.

This is not at all what the popular folk mythology of resource apocalypse predicts. It lacks Hollywood’s sudden and catastrophic collapse motif. The change is more likely to emerge slowly over many decades – a persistent step-wise downshift to a new normal.

The job for behavioral scientists will be to help people cope with the realization that everyday life may soon differ substantially from conventional expectations and to help them envision an alternative to their current relationship with resources. Behavioral scientists and community practitioners can help by pre-familiarizing people with the coming transition in ways that are not frightening or overwhelming. They can also encourage small, social experiments in simple living, -- what might be called behavioral entrepreneurship, such as the growing ecovillage and transition town movements -- which will serve as models for those who initially resist the coming changes.

The goal would be to share stories that not only honestly portray life under a prolonged and involuntary energy descent, but do so in a way that people crave the experience enough to seek it now.

Read the complete paper in Frontiers in Psychology at:

Document version: October 16, 2020 17:51
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