For millions of years us, humans, were part of Nature. We were born in the wild, lived in the wild, died in the wild. We ate what we found, drank the waters of rivers and streams, breathed air purified by trees. Just like any other mammalian species on Earth. The false belief, that we’ve somehow moved above and beyond that thanks to our ingenuity is just a fantasy. Or rather: pure unadulterated hogwash. We still eat plants and animals feeding on grass and seeds. We still drink the waters of rivers and streams. We still breathe air purified by trees. The only difference is, that today there is a massive blob of buildings, roads, machines, mines and supermarkets — now weighing more than all things living — placed between us and Nature.
All technology did, in its narrowest technical sense, is that it has enabled us to extract raw materials, clear-cut forests, harvest fish and food beyond all sustainable levels. Sustainability in its original sense means: an ability for something to go on unabated forever (or at least long enough not to matter). All I’m writing about on this blog since its inception, is that nothing — not a single thing — we do and call ‘civilization’ today can go on for much too long, let alone forever.
Extracting resources (especially by mining) destroys ecosystems, takes a lot of energy and precious fresh water, poisons rivers and the soil, and ultimately depletes the very resource it is going after. It is a self-destructing and thus a self-limiting activity. Mining is by definition unsustainable. Now, the problem is, that everything we call civilization today from buildings to roads, from agriculture to distributing food, from machines to electricity starts with extracting resources from the ground. No exceptions.
Recycling and the popular myth we call the “circular economy” are both pseudonyms to an inherently imperfect and wasteful process. There is no 100%, perfect recycling. Sorry, that is physically impossible. Some portion of our material resources, no matter how careful we husband them will always be left behind as mixed waste. No technology is perfect, and as the little losses add up over time, ‘endless’ recycling eventually would lead to the depletion of our stock of materials in a few centuries if not decades. Yes, the word you are searching for in your head to characterize recycling or the circular economy is that both are unsustainable.
That which is unsustainable will not be sustained. And that which cannot be sustained will eventually stop.
I want you to think long and hard about the statements above and the two paragraphs preceding them. Really. Now, after thinking it through, can you sincerely call any modern technology sustainable? Solar panels? Nuclear power plants? Or electric vehicles? Any exceptions? How can we call “renewable energy” renewable then, when all its devices (panels, turbines, electric gear etc.) are made from non-renewable materials…?
Let’s face it: there is nothing renewable about “renewable energy”. It is just another futile exercise in turning finite stocks of minerals into stuff powering the mining of yet another batch of finite materials… Until we turn everything into toxic waste and there is nothing left for us to mine or recycle. “Renewable energy” is an unsustainable, self-defeating proposition — just like burning fossil fuels. It is a mere ‘buy me some time’ exercise; another kick-in the can… into the Abyss.
The illusion of abundance provided by finite stocks of fossil fuels and minerals has made us ignorant about what true sustainability is, but as soon growth in extraction grinds to a screeching halt then slowly reverses in the coming decade, we will immediately wake up to its realities. Towards the middle of this century (depending on how fast we “progress”) everything we do today, from large scale agriculture to manufacturing and cities — the very essence of the word: civilization — will start to dwindle and fade away. Yes, if you are middle aged or younger that means: still in your lifetime. A massive climate change and a mass extinction we have unleashed as part of the process will just further complicate all this.
In theory, upon realizing all this, we could rein back our energy use, ‘de-grow’ the economy, teach farming skills to large masses of the population, breed draft animals and equip every household with low tech gear aiding them during a transition back to a more simpler life. Yes, that could include solar panels, but not in order to feed massive amounts of power back to the grid, but as part of a small scale DC (direct current) home grid. Equipped with acid batteries and DC equipment such a low tech network could provide refrigeration and basic services like running a washing machine or a small water pump circulating water between a solar heater and a hot water tank.
But we won’t do any of this. Not at scale for sure. ‘That would be an attack on our personal freedom!’ So, we will keep denying en masse that our predicament even exists until it becomes way too late to start adapting to its consequences. A rapid and uncontrollable “simplification” now thus seems to be inevitable as a mad scramble for energy and rapidly depleting resources fully unfolds in front of our eyes. Depending on how fast modern civilization keeps crumbling away (yes, it’s already falling, so don’t be surprised should you find yourself under the rubble one day), the few survivors might even find themselves in relative abundance again. There will be a lot of fine material to build homes, low tech equipment and much more from. They might even see an Ecotechnic future emerging from the ruins of modernity, with all its clever heat engines, hydroponic farms, walkable (and certainly more livable) cities and all the rest.
Presuming there will be a living ecosystem to inhabit, they could even enjoy a pleasant life. As stated above, however, the recycling and repurposing of materials left behind by industrial civilization cannot go on forever. Not even for a radically smaller and ecologically minded society. (Oh, and forget about mining: all the easy to get stuff will be long gone by then. What will be left would require immense fleets of fossil fueled machines to extract and smelt — not something any of our descendants will have after the fall of modernity.) So, one day even this relative abundance will give way to scarcities again, leading to another round of collapse.
After a few rinse and repeat cycles, in a matter of centuries or a millennia later, we will be back to hunting, gathering and small scale subsistence farming again, with very little technology left for us to use. We might have houses built from wood, adobe or similar truly renewable materials, as well as tools made from bones, leather and the like, but very few (if any) metal objects, or machines more complex than a watermill. If you want to imagine the future many millennia from now, forget Star Trek. Instead, imagine a neolithic village, like this:
I’m sorry to say: it simply cannot happen any other way. We cannot recreate neither rich mineral reserves, nor fossil fuels which has enabled this unprecedented bonanza in the past couple of centuries. Neither can we discover a third hemisphere — there is none. (If, after all this, you still believe that fusion or whatever wonder-technology of the day will save us, then I urge you to start filing patents on how to reproduce those from twigs, grass and cow manure.) Folks, there is no energy without minerals and there are no minerals without energy. Once these two inputs are gone, there is no way getting them back. Even us, humans, cannot trick entropy — only ourselves.
We cannot restore Nature, or stick all that pollution and CO2 under the ground either. Yes, Earth will most probably heal herself, just like it did after the cosmic impact putting an end to the age of dinosaurs. But don’t bet on it that it will happen any time sooner than a several hundred thousand years. So, familiarize yourself with how people lived centuries ago and be prepared to see our distant past becoming our future. Visit open air museums showcasing how people lived a long long time ago. Imagine how would you adopt to a radically different life. Becoming mentally prepared and fully cognizant about our predicament is already half the work.
In the meantime enjoy all what this civilization can offer, live your life to its fullest, and while being aware of its evanescence, keep also in mind what Tom Murphy on his fine blog ‘Do the Math’ likes to say:
“we are not civilization: humanity is a bigger and more versatile concept than the current mode we’ve stumbled onto (become trapped within)”
Or, as Wes Jackson would put it: think of modern humans as ‘a species out of context’. Civilized is not the way we were meant to live. We were born to live wild, free and happy, collecting nuts and berries, not promotions and Bitcoins. Once modernity is gone due to the simple reasons stated above — no hard feelings, it’s just physics and geology after all — we will become truly sustainable. Again. We will learn how to live off the land, on the land. Or perish. As simple as that.
Until next time,