Of Heroes and Dragons
in which a planet-sized blindspot gets revealed
You were warned
The following read might incite serious levels of cognitive dissonance and result in anger, disbelief and an irresistible urge to trash the author. Unfortunately I cannot take responsibility for your actions, so proceed at your own risk from here on.
During my journey, discovering the predicament of our civilization, I’ve met quite a few different views and perspectives on how we should proceed from where we are as a global community. I listened to countless stories on how technology, or the ‘inevitable’ awakening of a ‘collective human consciousness’ will ‘solve’ every ‘problem’ we have and how we only need the money or simply the ‘will’ to save ourselves. However, there was always a fly in that magic ointment.
I had to realize that in order to promote and to keep on believing in the continuation of this high tech civilization, one has to embark on a mental journey into fantasy land, populated with heroes and cruel dragons.
(Hey, I warned you, it’s still not too late to stop reading!)
A problem dissected
Every fantastic story, no matter how unrealistic it is, always has an element of truth to it, but there is also a typical pattern of thinking required to wholeheartedly believe in them.
It usually starts with accepting a small subset of predicaments (discussed on these pages), but only by mentally reducing them into a ‘problem’ with a ‘solution’ — which they are definitely not. The next step requires dismissing the rest of the predicaments altogether — either because of a lack of knowledge or care — or, as I often warn my readers, because of rampant magical thinking; believing that as a boon to implementing the ‘master plan’ these ‘problems’ would be sorted out automatically.
These are truly planet-sized blind spots, but more on them later. Putting these aside, step three becomes obvious: now, that we have a simple problem with a simple solution, which will solve all other issues reduced to similarly simple problems with comparably simple solutions automatically, all we need to do is to promote our idea and fight the infidels who dare to oppose it. (Which they do of course, because of selfish and evil reasons — what else?)
The solarpunk future is a case in point. In a nutshell, its proponents believe that modern civilization can be continued indefinitely (or even better: transcended) by the widespread adoption of solar panels and the electrification of just about everything. Using this boon of unprecedented flow of energy we could then restore Nature to its full glory and even recharge Earth’s depleted battery. (Well, according to their beliefs at least, contrary to actual evidence of what we have ‘achieved’ with the previous boost in energy supply.) Much to all solarpunks’ credit though they identify several key issues correctly. For example that burning fossil fuels contribute greatly to the overheating of our planet, or that these fuels are fast depleting and thus need to be replaced with a new energy source.
Instead of going deeper into the topic however — and trying to understand the complexity of various energy systems with their very much real technical difficulties, or the intricate web of interrelations between different forms of energy and the mineral resources they depend upon, not to mention how the loss of high quality resources leaves us with ever poorer options — magical thinking kicks in: luring proponents to presume that these are mere ‘technicalities’ to be solved by someone, somewhere. I do not blame them though: the lure of eternal growth stemmed from human exceptionalism is so great, while the prospect of losing this civilization is so terrifying, that it is really hard to do otherwise. Everybody wants to be the hero of their story and be on the good side of history. It’s human.
The list of predicaments one has to deny on the other hand is truly staggering. Remember, these predicaments have no solutions, just outcomes — accepting that such things can even exist in our can-do world requires a miracle on its own.
I’m talking about predicaments, presented as ‘technicalities’ like the fossil fuels needed in every single step of a solar panel’s lifecycle. Fuels which will leave us much sooner than most of us could imagine, and much faster than any nation could replace them, let alone be able to retool the entire economy to work without them. This ‘problem’ alone would prevent the widespread adoption of any magic technology or self-reproducing solar farms for that matter (if these were technically possible at all). We have simply kicked the can too far down the road and now we face a mountain of those cans casting their long shadow far into the future.
Another such ‘technicality’ comes from dismissing the simple fact that all these magic technologies (renewable, nuclear fusion and alike) are built from non-renewable, one time mineral resources, many of which we are simply unable or simply do not care to recycle. Thus turning the entire project into a futile attempt to kick the can down the road just a few more decades further, until the necessary resources run out leaving nothing but pollution, destroyed ecosystems and tons of unusable dead technology for future generations to deal with. For a lively example look no further than our current set of nuclear reactors.
I know, we could argue all day how things ought to be: how the remaining fossil fuel stocks should be dedicated to make a switch possible. Nevertheless as long as governments, companies and economic advisors around the world keep denying that the immediate predicament of peak oil even exists or apply magical thinking on an industrial scale, and as long as the electorate want nothing more than growth and business as usual again, this is how things actually are.
My goal here is not to provide ammunition to an endless war of beliefs, but to point out — at least to those who are interested — why the solarpunk future is actually not happening. Why we see an increase in pollution and various shortages instead: from energy to food, and from oil to the very metals needed to build those solar panels — all contributing to the ongoing collapse of this civilization. How we have used up the best (cheapest, easiest to access) resources to build this complex civilization and how we struggle to keep things together as all of these inputs become ever more harder to access.
It is only a question of when the system will crash under this immense pressure. The cracks are now all over the place.
With that said, those who want to believe, that a solar powered high tech future is still possible, will continue to do so. There will be no shortage of all sorts of stories on how the predicaments outlined above do not even exist, or how they can be solved easily and how we backward pessimists hinder progress and need to be censored.
Well, all I can say is: cognitive dissonance is a vicious beast to slay…
Seen from the much larger context of human overshoot, however, all this petty infighting over technical arguments seems extremely silly though. Not seeing the mother of all predicaments, the ecological disaster we are in, or even worse: denying its existence and its immediate grave implications, manifesting in mass extinctions, loss of fertile soil, and ultimately the loss of this planet’s capacity to cater for 8 billion of us, is the biggest mistake one can make when trying to predict the trajectory of this civilization.
We have become so self-centered, so focused on our rights, our resources, our planet, our everything, that we have completely forgot about the ever shrinking populace of plants and animals we share this pale blue dot with. Among them many sentient beings, who could not give the slightest fuck weather we cut down their forest with solar powered Eco-friendly chainsaws or diesel powered bulldozers…
…and cut down their forest we will, as we run out of arable lands due to soil degradation, desertification, sea level rise, and the loss of artificial fertilizers made entirely possible by soon to be depleting natural gas and phosphate rock reserves.
Our lack of foresight and inability to comprehend this never ceases to amaze me. Only when the food web (supporting this many of us) collapses will we realize that we cannot eat smart phones, solar panels, wind turbines and nuclear reactors. Only then, it will be too late.
If you still think that any civilization has a chance on a dying planet — think again. The predicaments of fossil fuel dependence and general resource depletion outlined above apply to all technologies — indoor farming included. It is time to realize that we have terribly overshot Earth’s carrying capacity with the help of technology, and perpetuating its use, no matter how green we label it, would only make things worse — not better.
The only way forward for us as a species is to reign in our power and ambitions, starting with shrinking our outsized impact on the planet and figure out a way how to stop raping her. But before that can happen we have to deal with magical thinking covering planet-sized blindspots, and get real with regard to our possibilities and future prospects.
Until next time,