An inhabitant of two different worlds

Knowing what’s coming and yet forced to inhabit a world that insists it could last forever is schizoid feeling to say the least. I’m not talking about climate change here, which most people are already aware of, but the radical and forced transformation of our lives as we step on the slippery slopes of the Hubbert-curve (i.e. gradually decreasing oil and thus overall energy “production” due to our inability of expanding fossil fuel infrastructure further and being forced to give up oil-fields one-by-one caused by depletion and/or extraction becoming uneconomic both in monetary and energetic terms).

Yet, trucks are still running. Buildings are still rising out of the ground. Roads get repaired and new ones built. Everybody is busy living their lives: taking kids to school, running late on an appointment — nothing seems to change. Life have sped up, that’s all. OK, one has to ignore the rising poverty and inequality, but if one lives in a well-to-do neighborhood, he or she can easily conclude: “Nothing is collapsing — at least, not for me!” Talking heads in the media repeat the same lines like “the economy has grown by x%”, but mostly talk about wholly irrelevant things like who won the FIFA world cup and which celebrity married whom. As if this truly mattered and this parade could go on forever… “nothing to see here, move on folks!”

Many people feel that something is wrong and that the climate disaster is really upon on us, yet it is only less than 1 out of 10 who thinks we need broader economic changes (to what extent is unclear from the survey). It is just this tiny minority who (probably) understands that this whole setup — with or without climate chaos — is totally unsustainable and will end up ruins. Inevitably. The rest is either in full scale denial or shivers in terror about our future.

Economic changes are coming however, whether people believe they are needed or not. Oil extraction is becoming ever more energy intensive and unprofitable as we move down the food chain to lower and lower grades containing more sulfur and requiring ever more drilling, heating (with steam or hot water), sand, fracking fluid etc. Destroying both the environment and the energy return over the energy invested.

I’m not saying oil is good. Far from it — sometimes I wish we have never found it — but by now it has become the single most important substance in our civilization. And when it declines this civilization will go hand in hand with it. Together with the rest of our technologies highly dependent on high heat operations and a stable flow of electricity; including solar panel and wind turbine manufacturing. Humanity has lured itself into a trap: we either keep on drilling and pumping driving up global temperatures and making ourselves bankrupt due to ever-increasing costs, or let this party wind down and go bankrupt voluntarily.

Don’t let yourselves to be fooled by renewables, they are not going to save us. Their current capacity has to increase 50–100 fold (!) to meet current energy demand (not only electricity, which is a mere 20% of our total energy use)… Not to mention that these are intermittent and unreliable energy sources — unable to provide the net energy returns and the stability of supply required by our current manufacturing processes. Storage or converting electricity to hydrogen ties up even more capacity and requires even more mining, smelting and manufacturing. Recycling is also not an option when you build out a new infrastructure from scratch (later maybe, but I find it unlikely). Even common metals — needed in enormous quantities for renewables — like copper and nickel are approaching their own peak production and will descend just like oil.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the limits to growth have arrived.

Compared to this, climate change seems to be a trivial issue… It is not, of course, but not because of the „lack of political will to install more renewables”, but rather because of our civilization’s addiction to non-renewable resources. The two problems are evil twins — of which only one is visible. Under the current industrial paradigm with it’s ever increasing consumption and growth mandate, this is an unresolvable paradox. We are trying to eat our cake (the planet’s finite resources) and have it too (saving the same resources for future generations) — without the pollution and global warming of course. That is impossible, sorry. Some has started to see that we might not have the necessary resources on land to build out a new energy infrastructure (not to mention sustaining it!) and if we tried, we would destroy the last remaining natural habitats in the process. However, instead of coming to the obvious conclusion — that we should voluntarily de-grow the human enterprise, instead of destroying Earth by burning more fossil fuels or by mining for even more rare metals — the alternative proposal is to dig up the ocean floor for the needed resources. Human ingenuity at its best.

It makes me wonder how is it possible to turn a blind eye to such an obvious contradiction. Even the current level of consumption is way above sustainable levels and led to the destruction of almost all pristine natural habitats and the depletion of basically all mineral resources (yes, even sand is starting to be in short supply)… Let alone building out an entirely new energy infrastructure. This level of consumption (material and energy) is nowhere near sustainable without fossil energy (and soon not even with it).

This is tough to swallow — but we have no choice. The only sensible option left at this point is to perform a managed retreat. Were Homo sapiens truly what it’s name implies: wise men, we would be discussing options on how to scale back industrial activity to the bare necessities in the coming decades — not how to “green” it. We would need to trade automobiles for bikes or walking and not wasting our efforts on electrification. Massive re-training programs on regenerative farming, repairing/repurposing existing equipment and on how to build local grids and local economies would be necessary. Provided by the government for free to all its citizens. All research funding should be directed at developing appropriate (low energy – low tech) methods to provide food, shelter and clean water for all — after oil is gone there will be no fertilizers and heavy machinery. Then a plan would be needed on how to break up big agribusinesses and corporations to return their assets to everyday people and how to get rid of large banks in favor of small community financing and local currencies. The list goes on… This would not had to happen overnight, we would still have 2–3 decades to fully accomplish it.

However, good old denial coupled with magical thinking prevents this from happening. No one wants to believe this, and why would they? The economy is still growing! Bouncing back from the pandemic like a rubber ball! Still nearly everyone wants to have a bigger house, a bigger car, a bigger life – just greener — and not walking to a farm on foot to feed the chickens. It’s no wonder that none of the questioners I have seen so far about climate change measures the acceptance of the resource depletion issue and the role it plays in mitigation or the energy transition away from fossil fuels.

Where is this denial coming from? Maybe from financial reasons? Most — especially the managerial class — got used to the annual increase in salary, the bonus, and hefty returns on investment (be it on the stock market or real estate). So much so, that it has became totally unimaginable for them that this can all go south — really soon… and no one on this planet will be able to stop it. A famous Upton Sinclair quote comes to my mind here:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Feel free to replace man with woman, salary with marriage, happiness, life… Almost everyone in the developed world is incentivized to keep this party rolling, or kept in wage slavery to do the work no matter he or she likes it or not.

Or maybe this denial comes from our current civilization’s death-phobia? People have became so afraid of dying that they constantly look for solace in group cohesion and culture. “If I must die — which I hope I won’t — at least my culture lives on” — our instincts tell us. Nurturing a thought that our entire culture could go down, and will (have to) be replaced with something else invokes denial in its mightiest form. When confronted with this question, most people freeze for a second, then shrug and continue to live their lives as usual. Sometimes, when really bad news hit, they stop and think for a while, then move on to the next subject. “What is for dinner, honey?” And that is perfectly fine: don’t expect this to happen any other way. The human animal is wired for everyday survival: the current system exploits this feature to the max and never fails to direct our attention to everyday problems and death (wars, terrorism, murder, the pandemic)… Knowing all this is a heavy burden — a wicked curse even. Cassandra was damned to utter true prophecies, but never to be believed. Now it’s clear why. Once you wake up to reality, there is no going back to sleep — so its perfectly normal to try and shrug these topics off to keep a sane and functioning mind. Denial is an effective self-defense.

There is a fly in the soup however, denial — no matter how well reasoned it is — doesn’t work on reality. Oil will keep on depleting. The net energy return on alternative sources keeps remaining well below the requirements of a complex industrial society. The climate keeps on destabilizing and warming. These are the facts. And it doesn’t matter if Joe Sixpack or the President keeps on denying them. The facts and data I present on this blog are authored by knowledgeable people in their fields of expertise and are hard, but not impossible to challenge. Yet, I encourage you to try and poke a hole in them… Ask your questions… Set up your hypothesis and test it… See if you can find data which disproves it. Most probably you will end up with more questions than you have started with. And that is the goal: don’t believe me, or prof. X — find it out for yourself. To quote Ursula K. le Guin:

“The only questions that really matter are the ones you ask yourself”

Be warned though, once you dig deep enough and start questioning the core tenets of this civilization chances are, that you will end up where I and many authors I highly respect have: this one is over soon. There are simply too many things amiss, and even if we were able to fix one issue (which I find highly unlikely) there are dozens more. All of our problems are mere symptoms of a much greater predicament of humanity: that through technological innovations fully dependent on finite resources humanity has temporary overshot the carrying capacity of the planet. We are consuming and polluting more than Earth could take with the “help” of oil, but once natural reserves are depleted the human enterprise must shrink back to sustainable levels — well below the original carrying capacity of the planet — thanks to our destructive practices. Proposing any new technology to use yet another finite resource to keep this overshoot-party going would be both insane and ignorant at the same time. As Ronald Wright put it brilliantly in his book A Short History of Progress:

“Letting apes run the laboratory was fun for a while, but in the end a bad idea.”

Does that mean, that I want to “drag you down with me”? Nope. Far from it. What I want, is that you come along with eyes wide open to reality. I want you to be ready to stand on your feet and to walk away from this way of life when (and not if) it becomes necessary. I want you and your community to be successful. I want us to be successful. Homo sapiens is about to be faced with an enormous challenge. Either by choice, or by force humanity will step on the long road back to true sustainability. Only when this happens has Nature a chance to recover and — as part of this process — humanity to find it’s place in the world.

An end to a civilization is not an end to the world however. It just an end to a way of thinking about us, the planet and our role in the ecosystem. Don’t be afraid to question the current tenets of faith: the ideas and beliefs one needs to leave behind, to move towards a new truly sustainable world. I encourage you to use critical thinking and dare to tip the sacred cows of this civilization. I want you to see that these core beliefs are as intangible and impermanent as any other idea in earlier history.

As they say, the only thing constant is change.

Until the next time,

B

A critique of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation.