The Future’s Going to Be Renewable
Energy is the economy, and this is especially true when it comes to fossil fuels — despite the fact that they are responsible for overheating this pale blue orb we call home. All the claims to the contrary, “renewables” are nowhere near taking over their role, nuclear is set on a path towards decline, fusion remains to be a pipe dream, while electrification in general has a serious math problem. Like it or not, this iteration of a global civilization, not unlike its predecessors, is based entirely on a set of finite resources and Nature’s limited ability to absorb its pollutants and keeping up with its demands… But what does the future has in store for us?
Let’s face it: this industrial civilization is toast. It is running out of energy, materials, and a habitable ecosystem — all at once. As resources decline then deplete, we will condemn each other arguing whose fault it was, starting wars over other nation’s wealth, while blame it all on propaganda. Is this the end of it? Is this the end of times, the great apocalypse?
I would say: no. Civilizations rise and fall, and industrial civilization is no exception to this rule. Like our predecessors, we have discovered an abundant energy resource, grew in population and complexity exponentially as a result, and when that resource finally could not keep up with our demand we would collapse. Don’t fret: this is completely normal, but it won’t look anything like you have seen in the movies.
Here, however, the story bifurcates. I wrote two versions of future events from two different viewpoints: one focusing on the technical aspects and historical relevance of the coming decades (this essay), and one concentrating on the geopolitical implications of running out of resources in general, and oil in particular. I decided to post the latter on my other channel exclusively, to keep this discussion free from political considerations. Feel free to read it there, but don’t be surprised if what your read is not 100% in sync with what you see on TV.
The future will be renewable, no matter what. Not because we will magically find the energy and resources to pull up as many “renewables” as we deem necessary, but because we will have no other choice. We will keep churning out solar panels, wind mills, electric vehicles, alongside with new coal fired power plants and oil rigs, as long as we have the resources.
Then, as oil embarks on its long decline, hand in hand with copper and other minerals we now use as substitutes, we will simply produce less and less net energy, and as a result: less and less stuff. Yes, there will be war, economic disaster, even famine, but that’s not the point. These catastrophic side effects will arise at a different time in different locations. Heck, it’s already here in many places. Sri Lanka. Lebanon. Many African and Central American countries.
Collapse is here, it’s just unevenly distributed and takes much longer to unfold than what you would expect.
From a historic point of view, an ancient civilization’s disappearance in 50–150 years looks like an instant apocalypse. Yet, fifty years is one hell of a long ride when you have to live through it. Let’s pick 2020 as a starting point, when things started to went exponentially awry. Add fifty years, and you are in 2070 — I would be 89 years old then, presuming that I will live that long. What does the future might have in store for us till we get there?
First, population will decline. Presuming we neither go nuclear, nor does abrupt climate change and an ecological collapse wipe us all out, our numbers will go down gradually: hand in hand with the resources which kept so many of us alive at the same time. The most consuming parts of the world (Europe, China and perhaps the US as well) are already in population decline. There is a birth crisis already long in the making, perhaps not entirely independent from falling sperm counts (due to chemical pollution, like PFAS). By 2050 the population of the technologically most advanced regions would be halved already, just because of this and other socio-economic factors, including the rapid ageing of societies. This would take away a large portion of the pressure already.
The exponential function cuts both ways: just as a mere 2.8% growth in population would result in a doubling under 25 years, the same goes for the other direction. For the sake of simplicity, this 2.8% translates into 1028 deaths for every 1000 babies born in any given year. Again, this is all entirely possible under normal circumstances: you don’t need a plague, famine or war to experience such a decline. Economic hardship combined with falling fertility and ageing will do the trick. Add wars and local famines, and this result is all but guaranteed.
Another 25 years down the road (in 2073, after two halvings), world population would fall to 2 billion from 8 billion today. A population collapse from a future historian’s perspective (taking 50 years to complete), but an awfully long decline from a human standpoint. If this trend were to continue, we would quickly end up just under a billion people by the end of the century.
A peaceful and natural population decline would actually help alleviate many of our “problems” down the road as civilizational collapse widens. As resources — including phosphate rock and natural gas, two key ingredients in fertilizer production — start declining, our food growing abilities will go in decline as well. A similar fall in metals production (due to depletion of rich deposits and a decline in fossil fuel production) would also be less severe for a population a quarter of today’s numbers.
With that said, the reuse and repurpose of old equipment will reach unprecedented heights. Lot’s of abandoned machines, cars, manufacturing equipment and derelict buildings will live a second life as donors for low-tech solutions. Car generators will serve as make-shift wind turbines, charging old lead-acid batteries serving as storage of electricity for lighting during the long ours of regular blackouts. Water taps from abandoned homes will be refurbished and sold as (almost) new. Plane glass from office buildings will find their ways to homes after being cut to size and re-framed. Wires will be stripped from the walls, alongside metal beams and other structural elements.
Luckier parts of the world (e.g.: Scandinavia) will remain high tech centers of knowledge and science, maintained by their access to abundant power from hydro-electric dams. Gasoline cars will still be available (for those who could afford gasoline at least). With the death of many industries and a collapse in global trade though these will most likely be older but well maintained models, kept alive with used parts from other — less lucky — cars.
Fast forward a couple of more decades, closer to end of this turbulent century, and we would see less and less reused parts, and more and more truly renewable solutions. Wind and watermills would pop-up again, made from wood and some sturdy parts still available for reuse. The flow of metal from mining would be reduced to a mere trickle, due to the lack of diesel to power those excavators and dumpers hauling a thousand tons of rock just obtain a few hundred kilograms of metal… A common practice today, which will simply become impossible to continue without fossil fuels, or electricity provided by whatever means (for which the options will be drastically reduced by then). Blacksmiths will have millions of tons of high quality steel to work with though.
If the 21st century gave birth to the last of a hundred (exceptional) years of high tech / high energy era, then the 22nd will see a world made by hand — once again.
And after then? Well, it’s even harder to tell, but we could easily have a second renaissance, building on the vast body of knowledge gathered in the fossil fuel era. New cultures, new civilizations would arise in line with what’s technically available without fossil fuels and large amounts of metals. We could see all sorts of clever machines requiring minimal mineral inputs to build, cities, farmlands, schools and centers for science and worship alike. The future is rife with possibilities, we ‘just’ need to get there without wiping out ourselves.
Until next time,