• Ian Sutton

Happy Motoring

Updated: Nov 24, 2021



Let's continue the analysis of George Will's article to do with climate change.

In addition to the factual errors described in a previous post, the article is flawed because it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding. People of Will’s generation (he is 80 years old) were raised in a time of material plenty. His response to problems such as climate change assumes that we have sufficient physical resources to address this and many other issues.

In fact, climate change, peak oil and many of our current challenges are symptoms of resource and environmental limits. We are bumping into the laws of physics; this is not something that Will considers in this opinion piece.


This is the fourth post in a series to do with climate change and how we are to evaluate both generalists and experts.

The post The Golden Mean of Climate Change listed some of the features of a good generalist. One of those features was to do with Systems Thinking.

Climate change is not a stand-alone topic. It is merely one topic among many (others include finance, resource depletion, biosphere destruction and over-population). They are fall within the broader topic of Overshoot. This means that a credible generalist needs to have a grasp of systems thinking, and should not see problems in isolation.

In the third post in this series, A Famous Generalist, we discussed an opinion piece written by George Will and published in the Washington Post. In the article Will talks about building sea walls around Miami to protect it against rising sea level. One of the critiques of his article was that Mr. Will (or maybe the Washington Post fact checkers) had not done their homework. Miami is built on porous rock formations through which sea water can flow. Building a wall around the city will not prevent it from being flooded by rising waters.

In response, Mr. Will could argue that Miami is a special case. He was using the example of saving Miami to illustrate the broader topic of the need to adapt and to protect our infrastructure against climate-related events. In the meantime, our economies will still be able to grow.

Floods in British Columbia and climate change
We need to adapt

He appears not to grasp the magnitude of the adaptation work that he is proposing. That work will consume enormous resources. For example, as I write the Province of British Columbia in Canada is facing the prospect of having to rebuild many of the roads and railroad tracks that connect the Province to the rest of Canada. This is going to be an expensive and time-consuming effort. As the climate deteriorates, and as extreme weather events become increasingly frequent, society as a whole will be spending an increasing fraction of its resources on repairing the existing infrastructure, not on economic growth. After all, once the roads and rail tracks have been repaired there is every chance that they will be knocked out once more by the next catastrophic event.

Ten years ago, John Michael Greer explained the term 'Catabolic Collapse'.

The central idea of catabolic collapse is that human societies pretty consistently tend to produce more stuff than they can afford to maintain.
The only reliable way to solve a crisis that’s caused by rising maintenance costs is to cut those costs, and the most effective way of cutting maintenance needs is to tip some fraction of the stuff that would otherwise have to be maintained into the nearest available dumpster.

In the Golden Mean post, I suggest that a good generalist has a grasp of systems theory. For example, climate change is not a discrete problem — it is simply one facet of the broader issue of societal overshoot. It is this grasp of systems thinking that is missing from George Will’s article. He assumes that the resources for adaptability and for continued economic growth will be available. Not only is this presumption questionable, it seems probable that we will not have enough resources to maintain the infrastructure that we have already built. Systems thinking suggests that we consider the catabolic collapse phenomenon that Greer talks about.

In other words, even if we do rebuild the B.C. roads, we may find that we don’t have the resources to rebuild them a second time if and when the next atmospheric river flows over that Province. In Florida we may find that there are sufficient resources to protect cities such as Miami, but that we have to abandon other low-lying areas such as the Everglades.

George Will started his article by comparing climate change “hysteria” with Peak Oil predictions. The chart below suggests that the Peak Oil warnings may not have been wrong, but simply premature.

What he does not appear to recognize is that Peak Oil and Climate Change are related in a different manner — both are symptoms of physical limits. In one case, the limit is the amount of oil that we can take out of the ground. In the second case, we are hitting the limits as to how much CO2 we can dump into the atmosphere.

Most older people in the United States grew up in a paradigm of “Happy Motoring”. There was no shortage of problems, but there was a belief that solutions to those problems were available as long as we had the right political and economic organization. Basically, our problems were to do with people and the manner in which they were organized. We are now living in a different paradigm. We are constrained by physical limits. Our resources are depleting and our environment is filling up with our waste. The challenge that we will face is how to maintain a quality of life at a time of physical constraints.