Much of modern science is focused on the effort to understand those impacts. To me, it is astonishing that our economic and political elites ignore those issues. That can perhaps be understood by examining two different world views.
The War of the Paradigms. The prospect of more gas and oil from shale intensifies a fundamental division about the nature of economic growth.
There are two conflicting growth paradigms in modern societies today. The first is the capitalist paradigm: the faith in endless growth that came out of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. The second and newer paradigm is the finite Earth paradigm: the recognition that growth cannot go on forever on a finite planet, and the dawning realization of the damage we are doing to ourselves and the systems that support us. It began as a surmise and is now buttressed by the evidence around us. It springs from a sense of community and a recognition of our shared fate, which is totally alien to the individualism that supports the capitalist paradigm.
Believers in the capitalist growth paradigm see the additional gas and oil supplies as a shot in the arm, a way to inject some additional resources into the system to keep it growing. That will be a disaster because it will encourage the world’s “leaders” to continue to pursue growth as the way out of our mounting world problems, in the face of the evidence that growth is already intensifying those problems.
The perpetual growth paradigm is a philosophical impossibility on a finite Earth.
The finite Earth paradigm is, I think, irrefutable. It is documented daily by the discoveries of science and by the changes we are witnessing in resources and living systems. I have written about this conflict of world views before, and will return to it.17 For the moment, however, the issue is which paradigm we choose.
The perpetual growth paradigm is still dominant among Establishments everywhere in the industrial world. It is reflected in their faith in renewed growth as a solution to our mounting problems. Every economic summit calls for growth. Our Secretary of the Treasury can hardly open his mouth without calling for it. I wonder whether people steeped in the illusions of perpetual growth and continually rising prosperity can cast off the illusions and face a return to a much leaner reality. The growth is disintegrating, but the illusions persist. Greed and self-interest make the perpetual growth paradigm appealing. It requires an awareness of the changes we are inflicting on the Earth to embrace the finite Earth paradigm, and a strong sense of community to act on it, and neither characteristic seems to mark modern political life.
This is the backdrop against which we must decide what to do about the advent of shale gas and oil. Shall we simply use it to prop up the system for a little longer? Or can we somehow use it to prepare for the next stage of history?
The Finite Earth Paradigm. Let us hope that nations worldwide will move toward acceptance of the finite Earth paradigm and will begin to adjust to its limits. That process is consciously or unconsciously underway in many societies, judging by their fertility levels. Some developing country leaders believe in that paradigm, but the governments of most industrial nations – including the United States – do not. If we come to realize the limits, more energy will provide more time to make the adjustments to the new and leaner world.
Such adjustments require specific, effective measures to bring human demands back into balance with the Earth’s capacity to meet them. This would embrace a range of specific measures such as agricultural reforms and reversing the destruction of forests.