Physics provides us with an apt comparison to the situation we find our civilization in. Newton’s first law of motion states that an object in motion will tend to stay in motion unless acted upon by an opposite force. An object’s inherent tendency to resist changes in motion is referred to as inertia. The larger the object, the harder it is to stop. Planning, like many other elements in modern civilization is slow to change. Today we are facing several pending crisis on a number of fronts. These range from local issues such as water shortages and air pollution, social issues such as a failing healthcare network and population growth, a whole host of economic issues such as excessive debt growth, budget and trade deficits and declining currency exchange rates and global issues such as climate change. Exacerbating all of those problems is our looming energy crisis. Never the less it is business as usual and the planning field is no exception. Every week, developers and business owners file new projects with project review divisions. Long-range planners continue to plan for future growth. Most, if not all, are not aware of the looming challenges and their likely implications.
After all, would a business owner invest in an expansion that needs at least 15 years to pay back its original investment, if he or she knew that the economic situation would render that impossible? Would a government agency continue to pursue a highway expansion that would cost several hundred million dollars and be able to handle three times as many vehicles by the year 2030 if they knew many vehicles would be idled for a lack of fuel? Would utilities continue to invest in natural gas fired generation units if they were aware of the extent of North American gas depletion?
You would think not, but…
Simply understanding our predicament does not make things easier. Planners are often asked to evaluate, provide input and shape projects that have a 20-30 year time frame, responding to questions like: “will this project meet the 20-year projected growth amounts” or “will this project negatively impact the anticipated traffic flow in the year 2030?” To answer those questions, project reviewers and planners must rely on some general planning assumptions. Usually those are: growth rate estimates, economic projections, and anticipated infrastructure investments. All of those are predicated on the availability of cheap sources of energy. Conventional energy projections themselves are predicated on the belief of an infinitely increasing supply, fossil fuels in the near term and some (as of yet) unspecified mix of alternative energies in the more distant future.
Changing those firmly held assumptions is an arduous task. Peak energy goes against many assumptions and even if the core arguments of depletion are accepted, the implications are seldom contemplated. A mix of optimism and ignorance usually accompanies many individuals that do grasp the concept of fossil fuel depletion. Very few planners realize the extent of the truly hard choices that need to be made. Specialization is responsible for some of this. In large counties, you will have planners responsible for transportation, agriculture, community development and so on. Each focuses on the problems and challenges in their specialty. Most do not look beyond their area and will be caught unaware by an outside problem. The planning field needs to be a lot more holistic in its approach to problem solving. Rearranging that mindset however is difficult to impossible due to the sheer size of most jurisdictions and the bureaucratic and political resistance to reorganization.
If the planning field is difficult to change, the private sector is almost impossible. Most people simply do not want to hear the message that things cannot continue as they always have. A message of growth limitation—or worse—curtailment and reduction just does not sit well. Without the presence of a bone fide crisis, resistance to change, even in the face of obvious warning signs is fierce to insurmountable. People seem to continuously assume that progress will continue to happen (as it always has) and that something will come along (again like it always has) and resolve the situation. And if there IS nothing to rescue us, fatalism among many individuals reigns supreme. The attitude that “oh, there is nothing I can do, I may as well not worry about it” is just as hard to work around as those who say, “it won’t happen.”
In the end, the combination of ignorance, denial and fatalism seems to prevent any concrete steps from being made to take steps to mitigate the impacts from our looming energy crisis. These elements of human nature in combination with the economic need to continue with business as usual gives industrialized civilization an enormous amount of inertia. It is looking increasingly likely that rectifying civilization’s flaws ahead of any crisis will not be possible. We will end up crashing into the reality of energy limitation first.