Carbon Shift

Ed. by Thomas Homer-Dixon with Nick Garrison

At the beginning of the twenty-first century there are two related challenges facing human civilization. One is an energy or economic challenge: As the global economy continues to grow and consume more energy, will we feel the pinch as we start to run out of our staple non-renewable fossil fuels? The other is environmental: How can we safely continue to burn these traditional fuels given the effect they have on the planet’s climate? These twin crises share a common nexus: the “carbon problem.” It is carbon-based fossil fuels that are running out, and carbon dioxide discharged into the atmosphere that drives climate change. Hence the need to find a new, cleaner energy source for a “carbon shift.”

The six essays presented here by various experts in the field don’t seek to solve this double bind, and are in fact short on specific solutions. Instead, the goal of the book is to see the issues involved “through the eyes of those who think about them rigorously.” The results are informative and the discussion stimulating, but the overall effect is mixed because those who think about these subjects rigorously are not at all in agreement. In the first essay, for example, David Keith argues that climate change is the greater threat to our civilization, with plenty of energy resources to keep us going for centuries. Next up, J. David Hughes flips this around and says that energy is the more urgent problem because in fact we are running out of cheap hydrocarbons. Keith sees coal-to-liquids technology as one solution to the problem; Hughes dismisses the same process as “a complete non-starter.” Hughes places a lot of emphasis on an analysis of declining Energy Return on Investment (EROI), but in the next essay, by Mark Jaccard, this calculation is challenged by using a different economic model. It’s hard to imagine working together on solutions when there is so little consensus about the exact nature of the problem.

As Keith has it, the twin carbon crises are characterized by states of high uncertainty and high inertia – the former represented by the mixed messages Carbon Shift delivers, and the latter exemplified by the dismal political response outlined in the final essay by Jeffrey Simpson. Able editors Thomas Homer-Dixon and Nick Garrison obviously don’t want to end on such a note, and attempt to provide some coherence to the different points of view as well as suggest a very general plan for action in their Conclusion. But while a case for radical change is made, the authors also admit that “logic alone isn’t going to cause us to act.” Things are going to have to get worse before they start getting better.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, April 2009.