True Sustainability — Part 1

For how long this life is sustainable?

One of the most frequent question I hear in the media (regarding our future) is “How do we became sustainable?”. Unfortunately the topic is shrouded with an exceptional amount of magical thinking backed by political ideology and willful blindness on the very nature of sustainability. A prime example of this is an ad I’ve seen recently on how to be sustainable: a bearded man put his clothes into a supposedly energy efficient washing machine while other actors in the spot used many other supposedly energy efficient machines and lived a clean, no-stress and certainly very comfortable life. Sustainably.

“There are no right answers to wrong questions”

Put in a different way: if renewable energy (plus AI) is the solution, then what was the question…? My guess is that our wise leaders asked the following: “How do we maintain our comfortable life combined with eternal growth in the face of our pollution problem (global warming)?” My take on the question though is rather different, far outside the common wisdom presented in the mainstream media: “We have an energy problem and — as an inevitable side effect — we have polluted damaged and heated up the entire planet. How do we get back to living within our means?”

Energy is everything

Take a look around the room you are in: look at the desk, the chair, the lamp. What were the materials used? Wood? Metal? Plastics? Do you know how these materials are manufactured? How did these pieces of furniture got there? By truck? Now think about the last time you visited your hairdresser. Bring up the memory of the electric shave, the hair dryer, the temperature of the saloon, the flow of warm water over you hair…

Mineral depletion on a finite planet

Mine “production” (extraction) and material demand for a successful transition to renewables from the IEA report (linked above)
Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Evolution_minerai_cuivre.svg

Recycling

What about recycling you might ask. Two things. First, you can only recycle what you already have. Expanding the electricity network, building electric cars (using much more copper than traditional ones) will come on as extra above our daily consumption of the red metal.

Back to energy — the master resource

This all takes us back to the question of energy. Maintaining current production levels of copper (or any other mineral) will require an exponentially increasing amount of energy — not to mention pursuing our goal towards renewables… Remember, we want to do this starting today — yet we still get 85% of our energy from fossil fuels, another mineral resource.

Summing it up

As I have demonstrated here we are facing a serious sustainability crisis. One part due to the pollution it causes (especially CO2). But most pressingly we will soon have a ‘peak everything’ problem — no matter what we do. It means that — as it looks like today — we will have neither the materials nor the energy to complete the transition to renewable energy. Remember all this renewable build out activity has to come on top of everything else. Expect no democratic leader to say: “I will close this car manufacturing plant, and send everyone home, so that the solar panel factory has more raw materials and energy.” Even if this would happen rare earth metals, nickel, copper lithium and many more would still be a bottleneck: the entire electricity industry would be fighting tooth and nail for these metals.

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