How Not To Save the World
Writing a series of posts about the crux of the energy transition does come with a serious dose of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, I have a burning sensation to write about my findings I came across researching the topic. Yet, on the other hand, who am I to pour cold water on people’s green enthusiasm, and perhaps their only hope in a livable future? What am I doing here?
Let’s be clear right up front: I earn nothing with writing about this topic. I have nothing to do with the fossil fuels industry or banks either. I’m doing this as a hobby, dedicating 20–40 hours a week to it: doing research, keeping up with the top news and blogs related to the topic. I’m an engineer by profession and a generalist with a wide range of interests from biology to history, psychology, physics and economics.
I’m also someone who has got really fed up with the amount of magical thinking sold to him. I’m a Realist with a severe bullshit allergy. My blog, the Honest Sorcerer, thus serves as an outlet valve: all I’m doing here is releasing some of the pressure from my brain. What you can read here is my personal conclusion on the trajectory of this civilization. I want to say these things out loud. And perhaps I’m not alone. You, dear Reader, might have similar feelings, and there is nothing wrong with that. Something is really amiss with this society.
With that said, I’m inventing nothing new here. I’m collecting and retelling stories that were written by much smarter people than me. All I’m writing about on this blog can be researched on the internet: feel free to google any statement I’ve made. In fact, I encourage you to do your own research.
On the other hand, I’m also a human being. And I’m afraid. I mean really afraid to see people willfully deluding themselves, regardless of faith, religion, political stance, hierarchical or social status, all sides. I see people wearing blinders in each group. Fossil fuel addicts tried to deny then downplay climate change for years. Now they play a “delay and fail” game with non-existent, unscalable, uneconomic solutions (carbon capture and storage). Green growth people place all their hopes in powering a fossil fuel-based economy on intermittent, diffuse and resource-intensive “renewables”. But there is one thing in common: both groups happily forget the scientific fact that mineral resources (be it oil or metals) are finite and are already well into the process of economic depletion.
We live in a rapidly deteriorating world. And what are we doing about it? Ask each other: What gives you hope? As if this word would mean anything. As it could put an end to a series of uncomfortable thoughts. No. Reality doesn’t give the slightest shit what gives us hope. The Earth system, and the human ecosystem in it, is much much more complex than any one of us could imagine… Let alone steer it one way or another. All we can do is play our role in this grand theatre play. Yet, it remains the prevailing myth of our time that we can change the world if we so wish. All we need is hope and faith in technology. To tackle climate change. To end poverty. To bring well being and abundance to all people in the world.
Our civilization was founded on a myth, a belief. A belief in human agency. A belief that humanity is still in its infancy. A belief in eternal human progress and growth — while disregarding physical realities. As Alan Watts wrote, though:
“…all belief is fervent hope, and thus a cover-up for doubt and uncertainty”
…and the future is rife with uncertainty. There are so many moving parts. Who could tell what is going to happen exactly and when? I can’t. All I have is a rough feeling of where we are going and a certain sense of where we aren’t. I came to conclude in recent years that the world is about experience radical change — call it simplification. It’s not going to be a single event, though, rather a long process lasting many decades to come, something which will bottom out in a century or so. But it’s already underway. I cannot help but notice: this is how collapse looks from the inside.
Politicians, pundits and CEO’s try to sell us that it’s not happening. That it’s just a bump on the road. Everything will be fine. We will tackle the pandemic and fight climate change at the same time. We have the tools. All we need is the will. If you’re 100% sure about this, perhaps my blog is not for you. If you — on the other hand — have at least a tiny hunch that something is amiss with this grand narrative, then I encourage you to keep on reading. I won’t be able to give you hope, however. That is not one of my strengths. All I’m offering is a narrative on where we might be heading, and most importantly: why.
Comparing our situation to the Titanic is all too common these days how we hit (or may hit) that iceberg and how we are shuffling chairs on the deck. After delving into the topics of soil erosion, mineral resource and aquifer depletion, dying oceans, disappearing insects and other species, thermodynamics, complexity theory, ecology, net energy, limits to growth, economics, diminishing returns, Jevons-paradox, pollution, climate chaos, political upheaval, inequality, debts, globalization, disaster capitalism, lack of free will, cultural programming, psychology of denial, shifting baselines, the myth of progress and the logical fallacy of changing a system from within, I came to see the situation rather differently. Just try and search the internet or your local library for any of these topics I’ve listed above — and you will soon discover that this civilization is past redemption beyond any hope of salvation.
This ship didn’t have enough fuel to reach the other coast in the first place. The air has become fouled by exhaust fumes. People are killing each other. Water was already leaking into the hull at an unsustainable rate — well before our ship has hit that iceberg. Yes, she has hit it already, and now she is sinking. But she was dropping well before that moment and had zero chance of reaching the other shore anyway.
Yet, this is fine. I was a human being; I will not live forever. This civilization will not either. It will crumble and end up in ruins— paradoxically, the harder to we try to save it, the faster it will go down. There is a saying in ecology: if something is unsustainable, it won’t be sustained. It is as simple as that.
It will not be the end of the world. However, far from it. It will be a new beginning of something radically different. Ironically, all your hopes of tackling climate change, ending pollution, ending colonialism and levelling inequality will come true. Just not the way most of us imagine it today. First of all, it won’t be made by choice for the majority. Some lucky few will be offered an alternative. For the rest of us, these changes will be forced upon us. There will be death and suffering. As Indi wrote it recently:
The truth is that the gods demand sacrifice. The sooner we make it the sooner they’ll be appeased, but humans are lazy and comfortable and we just won’t do it until the last minute.
If we had listened to the Limits to Growth study 50 years ago… We might have saved this civilization by reducing consumption by half (compared to the 1970’s level!) and by stopping population growth. None of this has happened. Material consumption quadrupled, and our population has doubled since then. Now an almost impossible sacrifice is required by comparison. Of course, it would be the right thing to do, but back to reality: it’s not gonna happen.
Incrementalism won’t cut it either so late in the game. It will just exacerbate the problem by pushing out the shelf life of the business as usual as possible. Knowing capitalism’s relentless drive to save itself from oblivion, this will still take decades. Governments and corporations will be holding on to the status quo as long as resources hold, burning as much oil as they can economically pump out of the ground, then — as the saying goes — every nation and man for himself.
This world will not end in a large pop. Instead, it will be a very long slurp so long that you will think that it will never end. Were it not for the immense suffering it will bring, you would say that it is boring. Maybe you won’t see the end of it — not because of your premature demise, but because it will take so long. On the other hand, maybe your grandchildren will see it.
Forget “saving” the world. It is well past its shelf life and has started to rot. Instead, prepare for uncertainty, learn practical skills and teach them to your children. Save and bring along whom you can. Build resiliency. Build lifeboats. The ship is sinking, and more and more of us will find ourselves in the cold waters. Help people survive. Help them preserve their sanity. They will need it. It’s going to be a long ride.
Until next time,