Free Public Talk in Melbourne’s City Square

Greetings all, and happy new year,

I’m giving a talk on peak oil and consumerism in Melbourne’s City Square this Tuesday 10 January, at 7pm. The talk will go for around 40 mins followed by about 40 mins discussion. For those of you in Melbourne, it would be great to see some of down there if you can make it.  I’ve posted an overview below and will publish the paper in a few days time.

These public lectures, which began late last year, are the initiative of Michael Green, a freelance journalist in Melbourne whose work constantly sharpens the cutting edge of environmental writing in Australia. His website is an enlightening place to regularly spend a few hours. The talks are being organised by Melbourne Free University in association with Occupy Melbourne, and I’m very grateful for the invitation to speak.


Abstract: Western-style consumer lifestyles are highly resource and energy intensive. This paper examines the energy intensity of these consumer lifestyles and considers whether such lifestyles could be sustained in a future with declining energy supplies and much higher energy prices. The rise of consumer societies since the industrial revolution has only been possible due to the abundant supply of cheap fossil fuels – most notably, oil – and the persistence of consumer societies depend upon continued supply, for reasons that will be explained. But recently there has been growing concern that the world is reaching, or has already reached, its peak in oil production, despite demand for oil still expected to grow considerably. Put more directly, many analysts believe that demand for oil is very soon expected to outstrip supply, with a recent study by the US military reporting that, globally, spare productive capacity could entirely dry up by 2012 and by 2015 demand for oil could outstrip supply by almost 10 million barrels per day. What this means – even allowing for some uncertainty in timing and extent – is that the world is soon to face a world where economic and geopolitical competition escalates over access to increasingly scarce oil supplies. One consequence of this (a consequence already playing out) is that oil will get more expensive. Since oil is the ultimate foundation of industrial economies, when it gets more expensive, all commodities get more expensive, and this dynamic will have pervasive implications on the globalised economy and the high consumption lifestyles that fully depend on that economy.

This paper reviews the current energy supply situation and considers the fate of consumer lifestyles in the context of an imminent stagnation and eventual decline in oil supplies. The primary purpose of this paper is to outline why the global consumer class should at once begin preparing itself for a significant downscaling of the highly energy and resource intensive lifestyles that are widely celebrated today. Such downscaling is desirable for environmental and social justice reasons, but the present focus will be on how oil supply may soon enforce such downscaling, whether it is desirable or not.  While this externally imposed downscaling of lifestyles will be a great and unpleasant cultural shock for all those who do not anticipate it, this paper concludes by considering whether members of the global consumer class could actually benefit from voluntarily embracing a ‘simpler life’ of reduced energy and resource consumption. Although energy supply issues have the very real potential to cause unprecedented human suffering, it will be argued that, if handled wisely, the forced transition away from energy-intensive consumer lifestyles (whether due to peak oil, climate change, or broader resource constraints) could actually lead humanity down a more meaningful, just, and sustainable path, such that we should want to choose this path even if it were not to be forced upon us in coming decades. But it is important to understand that we must leave consumer lifestyles before they leave us, for if we wait for them to be taken from us by force of circumstances, the transition beyond them will not be a blessing but a curse.


3 Responses to “Free Public Talk in Melbourne’s City Square”

  1. Johnny Rutherford says:

    Hi Samuel,

    Well done on spreading the sustainabilty message a bit more; wish I could be there, but in Canberra unfortunately.

    I just want express a reservation with the above blurb – without, of course, having read your paper.

    It seems to me (do correct me if I am wrong) that you are advocating a ‘downshifting’ approach to solving today’s ecological/social crisis. But to my mind this is far from sufficient. To understand why it is worth quoting Trainer’s words (from the book you reviewed)at some length:

    ‘Of course reduction in amount of work and consuming an individual does is crucial…but this is a minor element in what is required, can’t make much difference on its own, and will not lead to the big structural changes required. Down-shifting within the structures capitalist-consumer society enforces on us cannot involve anywhere near the reduction in consumption, resource use, carbon emissions, or footprint….Hamilton does not consider the fact that while a few can downshift if many do this the economy will collapse. It cannot tolerate significant reductions in production and consumption. Before all could downshift we would have to not only scrap the growth economy but design one that functioned on a smale fraction of GDP…So what is at stake is far more than lifestyle change. The most important task is too help more and more people understand then need for a transition to The Simpler Way’ (or Economy B as Trainer also calls it).

    Just food for thought. Keep up your awesome work mate.

  2. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi John, thanks for your message. I agree entirely with your point. Living simply is not enough, on its own, as I have written elsewhere. Like you, I sympathise with Ted Trainer’s position very much. Our problems are primarily systemic. But peak oil is going to have lifestyle implications, and that was my limited focus in this paper. You will see in footnote 63 of the paper that I state this point explicitly.

    Furthermore, although ‘living more simply’ is not sufficient on its own, it is pretty obvious that lifestyles of reduced consumption within developed nations are a necessary part of any transition to a just and sustainable world.

  3. Johnny Rutherford says:

    Hi Sam,

    Thanks for your reply. Have read your paper; one of the best on peak-oil I have read.

    I thought you might be interested in a critical, but thought provoking, article by Takis Fotopoulos of the Inclusive Democracy Network, on the same issue. I think Takis underestimates the importance of peak oil for the future of industrial society but, to my mind, he makes some valid political points. His other stuff (all at the website) is well worth reading as well…


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