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Convocation: Meadows expresses caution for future

<dows, a Carleton graduate from the class of ’64, opened the term’s first convocation on Friday with a talk titled “Preparing for Life with MUCH Less Energy.” Drawing from his extensive background as a scientist observing climate change, Meadows suggested ways that communities and nations can begin adjusting to climate change, peak oil, less water, and other scarcities that are the realities of our finite world.

In focusing on the lack of progress made toward saving the Earth’s resources, Meadows’ research stressed the fact that many things will soon drastically change for us. Most notably, he highlighted how “things with low prices will quickly become more expensive.”

In particular, he stated that each person, on average, has “approximately a hundred and fifty slaves” that make possible the luxuries we enjoy in our lives. Because these slaves are “cheap and reliable,” Meadows argued, our lives are relatively comfortable. However, he said, this is rapidly changing. Soon, “these slaves will become more expensive and less reliable,” resulting in inevitable changes to our lifestyles.

More than just dealing with expensive labor, Meadows emphasized the fact that the production of low-cost petroleum “has quit growing, and will never grow again.” Rather than dwell on the effect that this decline in energy will have on our lives, however, he inspired confidence in deeming this “the prescription for change.” He emphasized that there are concrete steps that we can take to reduce emissions.

Equally important, said Meadows, is the need for globally-minded individuals to develop new habits and ask “new questions” about the energy issue. He illustrated the difficulty of the former by referring to the act of consciously crossing one’s arms with the other wrist on top: “it takes effort, time, and initially feels very uncomfortable” to develop new habits.

Meadows emphasized three major points about our energy production and use. He stated that most of the energy is actually wasted, or “rejected” energy, that is of no use to us. Second, he said that our dependence on oil is mostly for transportation purposes. Finally, he emphasized how, in addition to transportation, we benefit from energy through uses embedded in products, appliances, and space-heat.

In highlighting the fact that “all the easy oil is gone,” Meadows illustrated that our consumption of oil has greatly exceeded the discovery of new oil fields. He stated that oil “giants” – huge and valuable sources of the resource – have not been discovered since the 1970s.

Meadows didn’t stop there. He posited that everyone with an invested interest in oil has the incentive to withhold information about its limits and finite standing, thus clouding an already murky field. Furthermore, he stated that the U.S. government has applied pressure to show that oil production can still continue well into the future. Otherwise, he said, “our reliance on oil-exporting countries would be huge.”

Although the development of alternatives is growing, Meadows emphasized the need to return on investment for these new energy sources. Some alternatives – such as biofuels – have such low return on investment values that they actually produce less energy than required to start the project.

In conclusion, Meadows highlighted the importance of willingly changing our expectations regarding living standards in response to the future of declining energy. The main challenge now, he said, would be to take this knowledge and apply it in a world that is dictated by actions. Meadows cautioned against the danger of losing one’s awareness of the energy issue, because we are living in a society that is still largely unwilling to notice the crisis.

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