We’re letting a serious crisis go to waste

“Never let a serious crisis go to waste.” A lot of people have come up with the basic notion, but White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was one of the most recent famous persons to invoke the basically valid idea; i.e. when there is a crisis, there is willingness to try different things, even radically different – things that would just be dismissed under business-as-usual circumstances. Thus in crisis, there are seeds of opportunities that should not be wasted.

And yet, that’s exactly what the world is doing right now – letting a serious crisis go to waste. The crisis, of course, is the Global Financial Crisis that the world is just beginning the long recovery from. The opportunity stems from its impacts. There are many, but let’s highlight just one: thanks to slumping demand, there was/is a lot of idling factory capacity that could have been put to good use – for example, retooling the idle car assembly lines to produce wind turbines instead. Was any of that done? No.

None of the spare industrial capacity that the world suddenly had was put to good use – and that is a tragedy. You may ask why it is a tragedy; after all, reduced production at least means reduced pollution. It’s a tragedy because it was likely the last time the human society, thanks to the economic slump, had significant quantities of surplus energy to expend on something. As the global economy picks up, all spare capacity will soon be consumed.

With Peak Oil likely having already been passed, there will no longer be such substantial energy surpluses in the future. And when the actual shortages begin, all existing resources will have been committed to meet existing needs – and there will be no energy left on easing the transition to more sustainable energy sources; whatever energy will then be spent on those will not only be expensive, but will come at the cost of existing needs, further exasperating the crisis.

It would have been much better that the world had the energy crisis before the financial crisis; now with the GFC most countries are under budget pressures as it is, and the mounting debts leave little room for necessary investments as well as lower capacity to deal with the inevitable energy crisis. Yet even so, there was an opportunity to kick-start the fatally delayed response to the energy crisis – an opportunity which looks like will be entirely squandered.

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