Peak globalization

The upside to higher energy prices and catastrophic climate change: Trade de-liberalization

Published November 24, 2009 5:47PM (EST)

Wishful thinking or apocalyptic doom forecasting? Fred Curtis, an economist at Drew University, has put together a mashup of peak oil, global warming, and patterns in global trade liberalization and arrived at the principle of "Peak Globalization." (Found via Globalisation and the Environment.) A double whammy of higher energy costs and extreme climate events will disrupt global transportation patterns, reversing the historical trend towards greater and greater levels of global trade and forcing a process of "relocalization" -- "The major implication is that supply chains will become shorter for most products and that production of goods will be relocated closer to where they are consumed, although this will happen neither quickly nor easily."

And there's nothing we can do about it.

Based on melting arctic ice and other evidence, it is clear that global warming has begun and existing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will lead to further temperature increases. The timing of the global peak of oil production is less certain, although there is a growing view that maximum production will occur within the next decade. Global climate change and the global peak of oil production will undermine the economic logic and profitability of long-distance, global supply chains of imports and exports. They will lead to a condition of peak globalization, after which the volume of goods traded internationally (measured by ton-miles of freight) will decline. While policies designed to reduce oil depletion and greenhouse gas emissions may work to delay the onset of peak globalization, it is the conclusion of this paper that they will be unable to prevent it.

Curtis doesn't come out and say so directly, but given the fact that his paper appeared in the journal "Ecological Economics" and ecological economists, as a rule, tend to take a dim view of globalization and its assorted capitalist depredations against the environment, one assumes that he's not all that unhappy about the prospect of relocalization. When Curtis writes that "The economic logic of the comparative advantage of global supply chains will be overcome by both increasing transportation costs and interruptions and delays in the transit of freight," he doesn't sound too broken up about it.

But there are some fairly mighty assumptions in his opening paragraph, not least being the imminence of peak oil, the certainty of catastrophic climate change, and human inability to do anything meaningful about either or both of these threats. Additionally, Curtis sees climate change and peak oil working in concert -- but they could just as easily work at cross-purposes.

For example, we've already seen rising oil prices contribute to a global recession, which, in large parts of the world, has led to drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The economic impact of peak oil, in that sense, may actually postpone, or delay global warming.

There's also an implied presupposition that technological innovation has, for all intents and purposes, stopped. As energy prices climb, not only won't we find new, renewable cost-effective sources of energy, but we also won't devise more efficient ways to use what we've got -- freighters and airplanes that consume less fuel, for example. Curtis believes that "Offsetting technologies and policies are very unlikely to be implemented in sufficient magnitude or with sufficient promptness to counter peak globalization."

He could be right. The hitherto unstoppable advance of the Industrial Revolution could be reaching its high point right now. Curtis doesn't prove this will happen in his paper so much as he lays out the "pathways" that could lead us there. But whether wrong or right, the fascinating thing is that the answer to the question could well be provided during our lifetimes.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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