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Carbon Shift

How Peak Oil and the Climate Crisis Will Change Canada (and Our Lives)

by (author) Thomas Homer-Dixon

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Apr 2010
Energy, Energy Industries, Environmental Science
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2010
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"We are now so abusing the Earth that it may rise and move back to the hot state it was in fifty-five million years ago, and if it does, most of us, and our descendants, will die."
-James Lovelock, leading climate expert and author of The Revenge of Gaia

"I don't see why people are so worried about global warming destroying the planet - peak oil will take care of that."
-Matthew Simmons, energy investment banker and author of Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy

The twin crises of climate change and peaking oil production are converging on us. If they are not to cook the planet and topple our civilization, we will need informed and decisive policies, clear-sighted innovation, and a lucid understanding of what is at stake. We will need to know where we stand, and which direction we should start out in. These are the questions Carbon Shift addresses.

Thomas Homer-Dixon, author of The Ingenuity Gap and The Upside of Down, argues that the two problems are really one: a carbon problem. We depend on carbon energy to fuel our complex economies and societies, and at the same time this very carbon is fatally contaminating our atmosphere. To solve one of these problems will require solving the other at the same time. In other words, we still have a chance to tackle two monumental challenges with one innovative solution: clean, low-carbon energy.

Carbon Shift brings together six of Canada's world-class experts to explore the question of where we stand now, and where we might be headed. It explores the economics, the geology, the politics, and the science of the predicament we find ourselves in. And it gives each expert the chance to address what they think are the most important facets of the complex problem before us.

There are no experts in Canada better positioned to explain the world that awaits us just beyond the horizon, and no better guide to that future than this collection of their thoughts. Densely packed with information, but accessibly written and powerfully timely, Carbon Shift will be an indispensable handbook to the difficult choices that lie ahead.

David Hughes is a former senior geoscientist with the Geological Survey of Canada

David Keith is Canada Research Chair in Energy and the Environment, University of Calgary

Jeff Rubin is Chief Economist, Chief Strategist and Managing Director, CIBC World Markets

Mark Jaccard is professor of environmental economics in the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

William Marsden is an investigative reporter and author of Stupid to the Last Drop: How Alberta Is Bringing Environmental Armageddon to Canada (And Doesn't Seem to Care)

Jeffrey Simpson is a Globe and Mail national columnist and author, with Mark Jaccard, of Hot Air: Meeting Canada's Climate Change Challenge

With a foreword by Ronald Wright, author of A Short History of Progress and What is America?

About the author

Contributor Notes

Thomas Homer-Dixon was born in Victoria, B.C., and holds a Ph.D. in political science from MIT. He is currently the Chair of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo. His first book, The Ingenuity Gap won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction.

Excerpt: Carbon Shift: How Peak Oil and the Climate Crisis Will Change Canada (and Our Lives) (by (author) Thomas Homer-Dixon)

Civilizations are built on knowledge, population – and energy. They thrive only when a good balance is struck between these three, a balance dependent (like that of a bicycle) on motion, which is to say on growth. Human successes are always taken from the past or borrowed from the future: sooner or later the bike runs out of road. The first humans evolved by devouring the great wild beasts that once roamed all parts of the Earth. When they exhausted this primordial energy hoard at the end of the last ice age, they starved; and the humble survivors – our ancestors – became more and more dependent on plants.

Over time, early civilizations arose with the development of systematic agriculture. Through crop breeding, animal husbandry, deforestation and irrigation, they concentrated the energy of soil and seeds into the muscle power of domesticated animals and equally domesticated human beings. Towns, cities, governments and priesthoods rose like pyramids on a broadening agrarian base. Despite booms and busts along the way, humanity grew at an ever-increasing rate, especially after the crops of the Americas (such as maize and potatoes) spread around the world. By some two hundred years ago, human beings had reached the maximum number who could feed themselves by muscle power and pre-industrial machinery. That number was about one billion.

What has allowed us to soar nearly sevenfold since then was not any breakthrough in new food: all our crops are ancient; we have raised yields by tinkering, but we have developed no new staples from scratch since prehistoric times. The breakthrough was in energy – in finding new ways to use the vast stocks of fossil carbon that Nature had buried under the planet’s skin long before the first mammal crawled upon it.

We tend to think of the looming energy crisis in terms of cars, factories, heating and air conditioning, but the first thing to keep in mind is that fossil fuels are feeding us. We all know that coal and oil drive the tractors, trains, trucks, ships and freezers that grow, store and move food from farm to city, nation to nation. But how many are aware that we have literally been eating oil and gas for more than a hundred years? Fossil carbon is a prime ingredient of the artificial fertilizers that have sidestepped the decline of natural fertility each time a crop is taken off a field. A two-century carbon binge has allowed mankind to fill its planet way beyond the natural carrying capacity for feckless, reckless, self-indulgent apes. If we run out of carbon or fail to find good substitutes, we are back to dung and muscle power. Billions will die.

An absolute shortage of fossil energy is still a long way off. But the amount that can be easily, cheaply and above all safely exploited is indeed running low. Because of carbon dioxide’s effect on climate, an abundance of carbon fuel – especially in its dirtier forms such as coal and tar sand – is far more dangerous than a dearth. Long before fossil fuel gets truly scarce, its consumption will overthrow the predictable weather patterns on which all farming has relied for the past ten thousand years. In short, the industrial carbon economy has turned out to be what I call a “progress trap” – a seductive and seemingly benign development which, upon reaching a certain scale, becomes a dead end.

Even if abundant sources of clean energy were to come on stream tomorrow, we would still face problems of overpopulation, overconsumption, soil erosion and the most unequal distribution of wealth and health in history. But, as the essays in this important book explore and document in different ways, a “carbon shift” – a swift transition to much cleaner energy – is our only hope of escaping the dire consequences of our runaway success.

Editorial Reviews

"Homer-Dixon clearly sets the scene. He correctly argues that cheap oil has undermined our economic models, and business as usual is no longer an option."
–Andrew Nikiforuk, The Globe and Mail

"And that's why the brief collection of essays in Carbon Shift really matters. Edited by Thomas Homer-Dixon, an intellectual straight shooter, the book offers six distinct point of views about Canada's troublesome twins: climate change and peak oil and their central role in Canada's discordant future."
–Andrew Nikiforuk, The Globe and Mail

"This book works because it's a set of essays by six people from different backgrounds: two oil experts, two economists, and two from newspapers. Oil has a lot of angles (if a liquid can have angles), and it's a relief to see someone making an attempt to bring this variety."
–Tom Spears, The Ottawa Citizen

Other titles by Thomas Homer-Dixon