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Running Out of Gas (Podcast Episode #26)

Things Go Better with Degrowth

What if we told you the coming climate catastrophe MAY not turn out to be as bad as we all thought? I’m not sure I’m ready to buy that, but one of our guests on this episode tells us just that. IPCC worst-case scenarios seem to forget peak oil. Limited fossil fuel supplies on the planet could be a factor. But don’t break out the champagne; we still have enough fossil fuels to screw things up pretty badly. See what you think!

Our two guests for this episode:

Dr. James Ward, a sustainability science and ecological engineering researcher and educator from the University of South Australia.

Professor Paul Sutton from the Department of Geography & the Environment at the University of Denver.

We recorded this conversation just a week before Ward and Sutton were scheduled to present at the Global Scenarios Forum in Denver, March 11-13, 2019. They planned to present data and suggestions that the IPCC has up to this point not considered the full range of possible economic scenarios in evaluating various outcomes. The forum will inform scenarios used by the International Panel on Climate Change.

James Ward’s research indicates there is likely not enough recoverable coal, oil and natural gas to drive the worst-case climate change scenarios.

Paul Sutton is using nighttime satellite imagery to map and estimate human population distribution, energy consumption, economic activity, urban extent, CO2 emissions, and ecological footprints. He also teaches population geography and ecological economics.

Our conversation covered limits to growth, climate change, peak oil, and economic growth. Is the future “all about growth?” Climate change is just one part of a bigger picture need for us to shift away from our expansionist mindset. An economy that’s “already transgressing planetary boundaries” cannot be expected to “multiply by a factor of ten,” we’re told. Ward tells his classes that “growth is viewed as inevitable, possible, and desirable, and it’s none of those things.”

We have a good discussion of “the decoupling delusion” (believing we can divorce economic growth from resource depletion and negative environmental impacts). Just switching our growth-obsessed society to renewable energy won’t ensure the survival of our civilization.

Paul shares about the Grand Challenge Impact 2025 urban sustainability group he’s a part of, and how difficult it is for scientists and other sustainability advocates to wrap their heads around the idea that our population needs to contract.


– Which countries are today using more than their share of biocapacity, and which are not?

– James talks about the 3 D’s: denial, despair and delusion.

– Fantasies of the future. A pod metropolis on Mars? (Listening to PODcasts, no doubt.)

– Sutton: Killing all the bees will create jobs and grow GDP and tax revenue. “The idiot lights on the economists’ dashboard are jobs, GDP, tax revenue.”

– Al Bartlett’s explanation of exponential growth

– Ward: “We’ve got one planet here; we’ve got to get it right.”

– Running out of Soylent Green

Ultimately, we arrive at the conclusion that we need a cultural change. We need to figure out how to “thrive and enjoy a future that’s not based on growing.”


The Influence of Constrained Fossil Fuel Emissions Scenarios on Climate and Water Resource Projections

Soylent Green Trailer

Global Footprint Network

The Decoupling Delusion: Rethinking Growth and Sustainability

Wellbeing Economy Alliance

Doughnut Economics

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Comments (5)

  • Avatar

    Jeff W.


    Really solid episode — great score Dave.

    Regarding Australia’s current ecological surplus, I didn’t hear any mention of the steady migration southward of Australia’s wheat belt[1] and its ramifications for that surplus given the huge percent — roughly 67% — grains plus corn and soy occupy in the human diet.

    Regarding peak fossil fuels, while I’m still hopeful that it puts the brakes on global warming, I think many following the Peak Oil story a decade ago underestimated the capacity of cheap money, aka debt, and a regressive regulatory environment that priorities fossil fuel extraction on actual recoverable fossil fuel resources. But fossil fuel depletion it is a long-term reality and I think help make the argument for transitioning away from fossil capitalism [2] and all its accompaniments.



  • Avatar

    Heinz Dechelard


    Outstanding podcast Dave, James and Paul. All of it very relevant. I’d like to comment on the very real and dangerous idea of the Hero-preneur. A mate of mine, Chris (his real name) recently attended a Future Thinking course in Brisbane, and at the end of the course the convener asked the group to split into those who were optimistic about the future and those who were pessimistic about the future. Chris found himself with three other people in the pessimist group and about 30 people were in the optimist camp. When the convener asked the optimists why they were optimistic one person said, “Because Jesus will save us” (this was Queensland after all), another said that someone like Elon Musk will save us, and a third said that Artificial Intelligence will save us. At this point Chris interrupted and said that these responses were why he was pessimistic, because Jesus, Elon Musk or the best Artificial Intelligence in the universe would most likely tell us that we need to change our behaviour and none of you optimists are prepared to change your behaviour to solve the multiple problems we face.
    I’ve told this story to many people and when I get to the end they just look at the ground in an embarrassed way and say nothing. I can only assume that they too realise that the solution is behaviour change but they just aren’t prepared to do it, even if it means giving their kids the same quality of life and opportunities that we have had. One friend told me after some thought that before he heard this story he was on the optimist side but is now firmly in the pessimist camp. Of course behaviour change doesn’t just mean recycling, composting and turning the lights out. It must also include who you vote for because there are some damaging processes at work that the individual can only affect through the ballot box.

    Keep up the great work. I look forward to my monthly does of Growth Busters podcast.

    Hamilton, Victoria, Australia


    • Avatar

      Dave Gardner


      Great story, Heinz. I’ll share this on a future podcast!


  • Avatar

    Heinz Dechelard


    PS. For those who would like to read The Long Descent by John Michael Greer, as mentioned by Dr Paul Sutton, you can find a pdf in the link below. It appears that hard copies are out of print.



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