Environmentalism, and thinking about our future in general has become a victim if false dichotomies (1). These deeply dividing questions are mere distractions however, steering attention away from the underlying predicaments our societies are unwilling to address.
Let’s take the following example…
Fossil fuels — or — Renewables?
A true classic. Notice how this one tries to reduce the complex question of climate change, and in a broader sense humanity’s impact on a massively complex ecosystem called Earth to the simple question of how shall we produce electricity. (Feel free to replace ‘renewables’ with green hydrogen, fusion, tidal wave energy, nuclear, etc. at this point.) If there were a contest to win the title of being the textbook example of a red herring fallacy (2) — this one would surely be among the finalists.
In the real world electricity generation is a mere quarter of our total energy use, while the rest (high heat, transportation, chemical processes and many more) are almost exclusively coming from, or powered by fossil fuels. Not least the entire supply chain of renewables: from mining, through smelting, manufacturing, installation and maintenance. Paradoxical it may sound, but fossil fuels are essential to renewables.
While in theory some of the processes can be electrified, most of them cannot, or the proposed solutions simply do not scale — not even on paper. We are planning to shift completely away from fossil fuels (or turn their emissions ‘net zero’) in a couple of decades, while the globe’s infrastructure took one and a half century, and the best of our resources to build. There is no second chance for us here. Industrialization is a one-way street which only goes as far as resources last. Then the road turns into gravel, and when the suitable stone runs out: into dust. Not something many of us would willingly ponder these days.
The real dilemma, which cannot be answered in the framework of this fake choice is this: why the heck do we need so much energy in the first place? Why don’t we scale down our activities instead (especially in the Global North) and switch to a local, low-power, low-tech economy instead?
As long economic growth, corporate profits and planetary domination is the goal though, I guess this question remains unanswered. In our current industrial-economic framework the only ‘choice’ we are left with is this: we either consume fossil fuels and overheat the planet, or consume renewables and pollute land and water alike on the poorer side of the globe — whether we are aware of that fact or not.
Opting out is really not convincing, or dare I say not possible for the masses. Everybody depends on this system, and unless it is forced to adopt to a world of less energy and resources it will resist change. People will rather come up with various conspiracy theories on how the elites are robbing their wealth than to accept rationing and widespread degrowth.
Here is the biggest twist of fate however: whether we want to accept it or not, the question of renewables vs fossil fuels was already decided. Millions of years ago — when rich deposits of coal, oil, copper, silicon, lithium and the rest of Earth’s valuable minerals were formed. Humans in their infinite wisdom harvested the most energy dense, easy to reach deposits first, which has naturally led to growth unseen in prior history. What remains now is very energy intensive to get — hence the price increase in everything from coal to copper, an essential ingredient to all ‘renewables’. Knowing that none of these mineral resources being truly renewable, like wood or hay, the only question remains to be answered is how fast we run out of them… And then what…?
Eternal Growth and Prosperity — or — Instant Death and Apocalypse?
This where we get down to the evergreen question. The end of the world is nigh… lest you do the ‘right thing’. Whether that ‘thing’ is believing in a given deity or ‘renewables’ depends on the age in question. One thing seems to be certain: there is no alternative.
As we have seen above there is another way, in fact millions of other ways, to handle what’s coming. Low tech solutions, permaculture, community farming, local currencies, worker coops — the list goes on. None of them require complex supply chains reaching across continents, nor the plundering of Earth’s last remaining resources. In fact, quite the contrary. Does this sound like apocalypse to you?
Knowing how successful we were in procrastinating (to devise a more sustainable way of living) as a society, first we do have to go through a rather tight bottleneck though. Call it TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It), The Great Unraveling or Collapse of Industrial Civilization, chances are rather slim that we can continue this fanciful lifestyle on the Global North for very long — with or without solar panels and wind turbines.
It is worth noting however that no matter how you call the end of high energy modernity, it won’t happen overnight. Nor would it be possible to trace it back to one single reason we failed to address… (‘Because of those evil [fill in the blank] people’ — of course.) Reality is not another installment of the Mad Max series with heroes, heroines and an evil villain.
The end of this civilization is not an event, but a process with multiple root causes… and by the way it is already in the making for decades now.
From a historical perspective it fits neatly into the pattern of rise and fall of all civilizations. Most importantly however complex adaptive systems — like the globalized world economy — takes a lot of time to unravel and to be replaced with something else. I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for ‘the event’ (be it climate or economic in origin) to shake people up. Reality is much more like death by a thousand — sometimes very painful — cuts.
From a historical perspective we were here before — many times. Civilizations rose and fall. One thing is different this time though. There is nowhere left for us to go now. We have messed up the entire planet, starting with its thermostat, then killed of half of its ecosystems. Now we are in the process of running out of cheap, easy to get resources to continue with our overblown lifestyles… and run the risk of not being able to feed everyone. We have consumed Earth, and left pollution and death in our wake.
Thus the real dilemma here is not whether we collapse or not, but how do we steer back from overshoot: the over-consumption of resources and destruction of habitats. If the story unfolds as usual (which is the case with questions being to complex to discuss in the framework of false dichotomies )— chances are that the topic of or overshoot will not be discussed at all until its too late. And it’s already running pretty late.
That’s the problem.
Until the next time,
(1) A false dilemma based on a premise that erroneously limits what options are available.
(2) Something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important question.