At first glance, there should be little reason for enjoyment. The going hasn’t been easy: you place one foot, then the other, and repeat—eyes fixed upwards, steel-toothed boots piercing thin wafers of snow cover and scritching against rimy rock. But you feel born of the mountain. Out on the climb, chasing high peaks, life feels good, feels… right. With each jab of the ice axe, your brain synapses fire excitedly like pistons; with each hot breath, the bitter air feels more tame. And every moment, each progression, takes you higher.
It’s easy to ignore—and you often choose to—that the thrill of the ascent is only half the battle. In fact, it may actually be much less. Between 3/4 to 4/5 of all mountain accidents occur on the descent—which does make a bit of sense. The climb is the quest, the brain-pleasing chase; a time when energy is plenty, and belief high. But after reaping a plethora of new and wondrous thrills on the ascent, the return can usher in laxness, frustration, even ignorance of environmental conditions—all thereby jeopardizing personal well-being. If unprepared for, this is to say, descending can be a real slam-back-to-earth.
Though this is bad news for overconfident hikers, it provides a useful metaphor for a broader kind of human summiting: the peak of many of humanity’s defining 21st-century features.
Heading Up the Mountain
For the past several generations, humankind has itself been climbing far beyond many previously imposed limits to its endeavors. As outlined in our “Great Acceleration” article, the simplest way to visualize this—other than perhaps a sharply graded rock face—is through so-called hockey stick graphs. Not long ago, human “activity”—a blanket term encompassing consumption, population, production, and countless other metrics—was fairly static. For most of our tenure on Earth, up until the late 19th-century, our activity, and therefore impact, trended only slowly upwards, like the gentle slope of a mountain base.
However, as catalyzed by the fossil carbon explosion of the industrial era, human consumption and activity surrounding so-called “resources” of all types has mushroomed exponentially through the present-day. High-EROI energy sources like oil, coal, and natural gas can together be considered something like the master resource—or master “key”—unlocking these once impossible growths. They act, following our metaphor, somewhat analogous to a lead climber, one who establishes the route others piggyback on. Fossil carbons are bounties of the deep past—quite literally stores of ancient sunlight—which allow for the cornucopias of living and non-living “stuff” we collectively use, consume, discard, farm, build, destroy, and take for granted today.
But in this article, we’re less concerned with these energetic underpinnings of modern, industrial society, and more so with all that they tow on their rope behind them. In other words, as human energy use summits and descends the proverbial mountain, we’d be wise to reconcile all else that may soon meet its peak.
Hold your horses, though! Before we come to an understanding of the various peaks humanity is and will be facing—including their timings and implications—we must first dive into how and why they may have come to be.
The Underpinnings: Social and Biological
Let me ask you a question. When you hear the term “natural resources,” what comes to mind? Go ahead, take a second. The Oxford Dictionary, at least, defines it as such: “Materials or substances such as minerals, forests, water, and fertile land that occur in nature and can be used for economic gain.”
Hm. Just a second ago, did you immediately make the tie between these earthen elements—trees, water, soil—and human utility? Is it ingrained in the fabric of modern capitalist society that anything occurring outside of our sphere must be triaged into two categories: economically useful or not? Consumable or not?
Perhaps you feel this way; perhaps you don’t. Either way, as humans our ethics and practices towards the living world hold mammoth influence vis-à-vis the plethora of challenges we now face. So to deal with these complexities, let’s first go back to the basics for a moment.
We’re all consumers. For all living beings, this is a simple truth, whether converting sunlight or chewing cud. In its most fundamental sense, consumption is life; and life, then, is consumption. From the tiniest flea to the greatest blue whale, humans are but one of countless lifeforms intimately reliant on the Earth’s stores of sustenance. Think: to a red squirrel, a cache of tree nuts is surely a fortunate natural resource; to a whale, a pulsing cloud of krill is a wondrous bounty to swim upon. It’s not, then, being an active consumer or producer that causes overshoots, peaks, and crashes—it’s how humanity at-large has co-opted the naturally regulating limits of living systems in the name of so-called “limitless” growth. Between ourselves and other living beings, a chasm lies in our consumptive activity, and thus the problems that our activity causes. Earth is bestowed with innumerable treasures; the difference is in their treatment.
On our end is a story—the story of industrial growth society—we tell ourselves. However, our internal worlds of idealisms, biases, and narratives often don’t jive very well with the physical world principles which govern not only our activity and consumption, but that of all beings. A number of theories offer methods for exploring this disconnect—one which underscores the blip-like period of extreme growth we humans have reaped. The “Tragedy of the Commons,” while perhaps overstretching in its claims regarding human behavior, has held relevance over many others.
As described in Garrett Hardin’s seminal 1968 paper, this phenomenon occurs when a finite or fragile “resource” is available for personal maximization and exploitation by parties not held accountable to each other. A pertinent example—which itself is a critical peak—is global fisheries. Earth’s waters, both international and national, are perhaps the ultimate commons zone: combine difficult / ineffective regulation with illusions of infinite abundance, and global fish catches are believed to have peaked in 1996—with about 85% of fisheries currently overexploited. Similar to many commons, not only does this mean plummeting population numbers, but also lessened quality—and heightened remoteness. Because as human society has gone exponential under the throttled engine of ancient fossil carbons, consumption trends have followed quite predictable arcs: the “best” resources going first.
With roots in foraging efficiency theory, using one’s most available resources before those less available makes perfect intuitive sense. If our friend the red squirrel can expend fewer precious calories nabbing tree nuts perched on the underbrush than by digging deep into the soil, the squirrel is going to do that. Why? Because the former are less energetically remote, optimizing the net energy gained. But apply this to Earth-altering, anthropogenic activities rather than a bit of foraging, and issues come up. “Best first,” then, is a principle that industrial society has been following with reckless abandon for generations now; not simply in the realm of fossil carbon extraction—true though this is—but in the many sectors of what this once-plentiful energy is used for.
It’s quite the double whammy—exponentially increasing resource consumption paired with ever-increasing remoteness—but this self-reinforcing cycle has gone largely invisible to industrial growth society.
And why might that be? Why, collectively, are we so ill-equipped with the foresight to consider these long-term consequences—to see the mountaintop, pace ourselves, and not face catastrophe on the descent?
Well, perhaps because such foresight has just as few evolutionary precedents as digging for the least available nuts. No matter if a squirrel or a whale, a flea or a fern, living beings are generally ill-equipped with long-range thinking. Temporal considerations are largely constrained to more immediate matters of survival. And as evolved lifeforms governed by many similar brain processes, humans fall equally prey to this “time bias.” Recent exploitation of Earth’s “resource” stores has bought many of us alleviation from the arduous tasks of day-to-day survival; yet rather than use this freed time for planful action towards the long-term sustainability of our lifestyles, dominant society chugs up the mountain ignorantly, aware of only narrower boundaries.
Ecological impacts (specifically climate sensitivities) are normally categorized under the following feedbacks: transient, equilibrium, and earth system. These are complex, systemic responses that occur on a geologic time scale. However, our brains generally only perceive future effects which are immediate, transient, or anthropic.
All together, this shakes up a dangerous cocktail—placing our internal worlds in conflict with physical world principles and limits—and growth society has been sipping on it blissfully since the dawn of this “great acceleration”. We “kick the can down the road”—delaying action on inevitable crises, peaks, scarcities—because that’s what’s easiest, and most brain-pleasing during our upward climb. But having our cake and eating it too is a bit of a ridiculous proposition; especially when so many of the slices we indulge upon are nonrenewable, polluting, or exploitative.
And so we reach the peaks, themselves. Unlike a true expedition, these are on the whole no joyous summits. And ignore it though we might, societal peaking has long-since begun. There’s a certain progression to how this has taken place—and will continue to. Throughout our upward climb, energy comes first; all related production, growth, and activity follows. Or put plainly, you need energy to do stuff—thereby making it the ultimate driver of acceleration. So if any peak is perhaps the most significant in its relation to others, it is the peak of fossil carbons. Oil. Coal. Gas. These so-called “fuels” mediate, in a sense, not only other extraction peaks—acquired directly or indirectly through fossil-powered processes—but the scale of human society, as well.
Following current trends, most resource extraction peaks are certain, and able to be tracked and projected more or less concretely. But if these are quantifiable, many societal peaks are not, moreso fluid symptoms of a culture in exponential climb—and inherent descent.
In tangled webs of scarcer supplies in contest with continued demands, some peaks may not be accurately pinpointed, but assumed. Peak air travel. Peak auto production. Peak global transport and trade. Peak space exploration. Peak plastics production. Peak damming and water use. Peak rare earth metals and tech production. Peak phosphorus, inorganic fertilizer, and mass food production.
Hockey sticks tracking Verhulst-type distribution curves, all of them, running the gamut of activities by which growth society is organized. Social peaks caused by physical peaks. It’s less important to quantify their specifics than to acknowledge their tethering to entrenched exploitative processes—like climbers reliant on the same lead rope for their ascent. And it’s vital, too, to acknowledge that not all peaks are unspeakably frightening; many have quite positive short to long-term implications; with peak fossil carbons and subsequent greenhouse gas emissions will come a host of planetary benefits, for example. One thing’s decline is another’s ascent.
Each and every peak deserves further unpacking, but the last three in our above list are perhaps most directly correlated to one other: peak human beings. It’s unknown when exactly population will crest the mountaintop, but based solely off finite phosphorus / fertilizer inputs creating the potential for swaths of inarable land, a resulting decline in livestock biomass, and widespread famine, physical limits will once again run into humanity’s exponential climbs.
Simply, a finite world cannot sustain infinite growth—in what we extract, what we emit, and how we move about the Earth.
But there’s a flip side, too. Constrained to a societal narrative wherein the only possible way forward is continual growth, it makes sense to view human history linearly, a rags-to-riches progression in which the present is always “wealthier” than the past. While GDP—capitalist society’s currently accepted metric for wealth—has increased steadily in many parts of the world for decades, this growth is by and large a clever facade. Over the same time period we believe to have become “wealthier” with each uptick in producing and consuming, we have seen (and are still seeing) a litany of socio-ecological crises all coming to define a new age on Earth. The gap between haves and have-nots, ultra-rich and all others, grows ever-wider. And few seem to ask the question: are most of us even content in our collective pursuit of infinite growth? Were those periods of lower planetary impact—lower “wealth” by popular definition—really so different? Are we truly that much better off now?
Our mental baselines have shifted: the cornucopias of the past never seem as bountiful in the present—and the future must be richer still… right? In so thinking, any deviance from so-called “progress” is like the path down the mountain: a let-down, undesirable.
Beyond the Summit: Ways Forward
But maybe these cornucopia sizes are misconstrued. Well-being isn’t at all innately tied to continued growth. There never has to be a “peak happiness.” There also never has to be a crash-landing. The rapidity of change—or rapidity of climb—undergone by human society during this blip of history has caused us to conflate the recent way forward as the only way forward. Many presently ingrained societal metrics—GDP growth, fossil carbon outputs, population rate—are sure to peak and fall along their current trajectories. But here’s the good thing: it was we who gave weight to them, and we who have the power to take that weight away. Those rich internal universes of beliefs and narratives each human inhabits lend us the ability to collectively imagine new paths, and enact new ways of being towards each other, the planet, and the web of life.
Crunching along the upward hike may rightfully feel good, but the true opportunity is what lies after—the next iteration along the snow-capped range. For if descending this mountain does nothing else, it brings one closer to Earth. And in our current state of disconnects, overshoots—and, of course, peaks—we could probably use a dose of that.