True Sustainability — Part 2
I admit that Part 1 of True Sustainability was a little grim. When I was writing about copper I myself had to realize it too that we really don’t have much time left. We have to be honest though — at least to ourselves — in order to leave the past of industrial scale destruction behind and start imagining a better future. With that said I encourage you the read Part 1 to have a solid understanding of the basics if you haven’t done so already. (Actually I have a plan to write a more detailed post on energy to cover all bases — like EROEI, bio fuels, hydrogen (fusion and “economy” as well), etc.)
Back to the topic of sustainability: this time I will talk about the future — in the range of the first 10 years from now, till the next 10.000 years because it is going to mark a major turn of events in the history of humans. Every change has a painful and a joyful part. What we can do now — so late in the game — is to acknowledge these changes, find new meanings for our lives and define radically new goals. According to my experience the most ingenious times come not at the age of abundance but rather in times of scarcity. I find it extremely rewarding to come up with solutions to problems with very limited resources — you guessed right: MacGyver was my favorite childhood hero — and the coming decades will provide ample opportunities for doing just like that.
A changing picture
Before we start MacGyvering our future, it has to be understood how the landscape of our technologies will change in the coming years when abundance slowly turns over to scarcity. Again, not in a day, not in a year but through the rest of your life and the entire lifetime of your children.
It would be easy to assume based on previous trends that everything will continue just fine and all of the above is nonsense. “The future will be similar, just better” “We will find a substitute for all materials on short supply. All we need is a right price” “Our energy / pollution problem will be solved by renewables “ — the list goes on. Some of these myths were busted in my previous writing (and by many other respected researchers in the field) others will put to rest in this essay.
Why do I say that? Look at this analysis — it was made for Europe, but there is no reason to presume that the rest of the world will fare better. In a nutshell: Europe will experience a decrease of 4–10% in oil imports during this decade, while the 2030's will see an additional drop of 10–20% compared to 2019's level of “production” (in fact extraction is a far better word). The rest — beyond 2040 — is marked by an even steeper fall. As I’ve explained in my earlier post: it should have been glaringly obvious by now that oil is a finite resource. This time though we have nothing even close to replace this high density energy source used from mining other minerals and coal to transportation and as a raw material for many products.
This will shift the picture and our perspective of sustainability quite a bit. Let’s have a quick inventory of how some of our products / technologies will be affected by this change and how they stand the acid test of decline in net energy (and the fall in energy density). Will renewables save the day?
It’s fair to say that this material (composed of cement, sand and water) is the basis of our civilization. It is used in buildings, roads, bridges, sewage piping, dams — and many more. How it’s made? First you have to mine chalk, clay and limestone (using huge dump trucks and excavators powered by diesel fuel), then grind these rocks and heat them in a kiln (a rotating metal barrel) to 1450 °C by burning coal powder or natural gas. Let’s stop here for a minute. How (where) on Earth are we going to reach these temperatures solely by renewables…? After net available oil (not gross extraction, but what remains after drilling and operating deeper and trickier wells, plus refining worse and worse grades) starts to fall cement production will decline too. No question.
Regarding the other part (sand) I have no good news either: sand with a right grain size and structure is — surprise — a finite resource too. So much so that there are now sand-mafias digging up riverbanks illegally. Besides it’s finite nature sand has another problem: it is heavy and we need a lot of it. Therefore it needs to be transported… with diesel trucks. One could ask: why don’t we substitute it with crushed rocks? The answer stands clear: it takes a lot of energy to mine, grind and transport rocks as well — and with a decline in overall energy this is not going to be feasible (it is uneconomical even today). In the end it will be the lack of surplus oil that will suspend the environmentally damaging practice of mining mountains and riverbanks then pouring them into the shapes of stadiums and other monuments.
Besides it’s unsustainability concrete is not a material with a long life. It chips away rather soon and the iron bars in it tend to rust into dust just as fast. (This process is well described in detail by Ugo Bardi in his book Before the collapse.) In the future it looks like we have to build / re-build things with much less concrete (bad news for the fans of wind turbine foundation videos).
Iron & Steel
Another key component to our current civilization is iron and steel. Re-bars in concrete, almost all of our tools, machinery, land transportation (rail, cars, trucks) high rise buildings all use this ubiquitous metal. It is important to note here that measured by weight steel is a key component also to batteries and solar panels too. Just like concrete, there is no real substitute to it: it is still cheap, widely available, recyclable strong and durable... Provided you have the energy to heat it up to its melting point of 1 538 °C — much hotter than the eruption temperature of Kīlauea lava in Hawaii (about 1 170 °C).
Back in the middle ages (and in Brazil still today!) this heat was (is) provided by charcoal from wood — with terrible consequences for woodlands (and for the rest of us). In theory hydrogen could provide us with this heat, but since its unavailable in nature and has to be produced using ever more precious energy this is going to be unlikely in any commercially meaningful scale (clean H2 production is very inefficient — it is a net energy sink). Electric resistance based heating could be an option for steel manufacturing if we had hundreds of square meters of solar panels or solar mirrors, but both of these solutions provide intermittent energy only. Few hours of cloud cover and your entire batch of steel is done for. Besides heat coal gives off carbon to and burns impurities in iron ore (both of which are essential) while hydrogen makes it brittle... Again, it is possible to develop technologies to overcome these issues — but this will certainly come at the cost of more energy in an energy deprived future. I would not bet the farm on them being developed and used on a wide scale.
Other materials (high heat manufacturing)
Similar problems will arise in glass, ceramics and agricultural fertilizer manufacturing as well as in metallurgy and chemistry — all requiring high density energy (high heat) provided by a stable source. All of our industrial infrastructure was built around a stable (and increasing) flow of energy carriers. This resulted in flow manufacturing vs batch manufacturing—meaning that if you stop the flow of energy the stuff will get clogged in the pipes or solidify in your furnace (ruining the entire setup). In other words we have to redesign and rebuild the entire heavy industry to accommodate to intermittent renewables (in parallel with building out this new energy infrastructure and the supporting batteries)… Hmm, food for thought.
What is the lesson here? Are we all going to die then? Certainly not. The ramp-down of our industrial base is not a distant possibility — it is the reality of today and the coming decades. But this does not mean that we are going to go down with it. It is going to be a slow process (measured in decades) allowing us to accommodate to these changes first slowly then faster and faster. You can all see the signs of this already happening (in the form of various shortages). Just keep your eyes wide open, and avoid the traps of magical thinking (i.e. seeing a new technology that lures you to believe “Hah, that’s it, we are saved!” — while in fact it is far from being ready to be deployed at scale).
Oil is not only an energy product but an important raw material as well. In fact it has became a primary source of our fibers (used for clothes) via plastics. Talking about the later (now ubiquitous) material: we have produced 368 million metric tons of it in 2019 alone — all manufactured from fossil hydrocarbons. An average car uses 200 kg-s of it… It is truly everywhere. What will happen to plastics under a decreasing oil extraction scenario is not hard to guess — yet it will receive its own green sugar coating for sure. On the other hand we will get rid of a major pollution source, although what has been produced so far will remain with us in the form of micro-plastics for a very long time.
Polymers are not the only “byproduct” of oil. Bitumen or asphalt (the sticky black goo on the bottom of the distillation vats) is the major component to tarmac / pavement production. No more oil — no more smooth roads then. One might argue that there are large natural lakes of the material, the largest of them containing 10 million tons of it, but in a world using 100 million tons annually these are nothing but drops in the ocean.
With this longer than planned intro we have arrived to our main theme today: how do we become MacGyvers of our time? The answer is simple: first, reduce energy use voluntarily and learn the skills necessary to live with less energy before it gets forced on you.
It is hard, I know. I do not ask you to be frugal puritans either. Use what technology is available to you and learn from its use as much as you can. Ask yourself: by buying this-or-that, can I use it to acquire knowledge which will be relevant in a post-industrial world? For example I recently bought a kamado grill: a piece of ancient technology in a sense, but its modern incarnation is unsustainable to say the least (the energy and materials required to manufacture it will be not available in the future). Still, it gives me a convenient way to learn how to cook in an ultra energy efficient way and in case of a long term black-out I can still prepare all kinds of food for my family. On the long run, when it will eventually break or fall apart and a replacement will be unavailable, I can use that knowledge to build a furnace on my own — giving up the convenience of that grill knowingly. It will be more poorly made for sure (from materials still available then) but it will be well designed based on this prior kamado experience. I’ve already learned a lot about ventilation, temperature regulation, wood/charcoal placement, different methods of smoking meat (another useful piece of knowledge if you want to eat meat after the age of refrigeration) and I’m only at the beginning of a long learning curve.
Second: try to find new uses to the immense amount of industrial stuff pushed on you (reuse, repurpose). This is going to be a long journey (longer than your life) — it will be much like downhill skiing. Done skillfully one can do it gracefully even joyfully despite the fact that there will be some rough terrain ahead. Practice makes perfect — so practice while humanity still has abundant energy.
Appropriate technology for me means using the right tools at the right time. In its original sense it is a way of using what is available at hand to “eliminate hunger and poverty”. It looks very distant but just because of that the learning curve will be much-much-much (x10¹⁰) steeper for western societies, compared to those who already have very little available in terms of energy and raw materials. Visit that website and think about it… Could you live that way? What would it take? This is where finding efficient ways of burning wood for preparing food comes to the picture.
…and now take a look around, go to a supermarket and marvel the abundance never seen by our ancestors. Fresh food from different continents, all conveniently packaged, comfortable clothes, technical miracles from music to lights and the right temperature… Remember these days and be thankful for what you’ve got: you certainly live better than most people before you (or in other parts of the world).
There is another, more holistic reason to be thankful: if my understanding of the world is correct, then this the peak of human civilization. No humans had — and based on resource depletion — will ever have this level of energy and material abundance… At least not in the upcoming 100 million years. This “feat” was achieved by using up one time resources (yes, including uranium-235 too) available only in finite quantities to us (for more on nuclear energy including Thorium wait for my essay on energy). We can even consider ourselves the luckiest generation ever: we have seen the unprecedented rise and peak of technology. We have gained immense knowledge of our universe: none of this was available before, nor will be meaningful (and thus available) in the future. Count your blessings — I’m counting mine too— and be reminded that this is all transitional: it is a mere blip in human history.
“Memento mori” — said the ancient Greeks and Romans: remember your mortality and the temporary nature of your life… and your civilization’s. Looking from this perspective this life — our life — is perfect just as it is. It fits neatly into the endless cycle of creation and destruction — it just happens so that we got to see the slow and uneven transition from creation to destruction. It is more important than ever (at least in recent history) to bear witness to these changes and fully embrace them. The sooner you let go the old world with it’s old expectations (the myth of progress as called by many) the better prepared you will become in the shape of things to come.
In the meantime enjoy what you have and what you can still do. And perhaps by thinking ahead you might take part in restarting creation too. Plant trees — as many as you can — your descendants will be grateful.
The next 10 years
First, a disclaimer: the upcoming part is by no means an exact prediction and shall not be considered as financial (or any other form of) advise in any way. This and the coming chapters are simply extrapolations of my mental model on how the world operates and thus represent an opinion. One of many possibilities. Events might happen at a different time, or not even at all. I’m sure that there will be things I haven’t seen coming — but my purpose here is not to give you accurate predictions but to open your horizon of possibilities… well beyond the commonly accepted mantra of humanity’s rise above the stars.
At the beginning of this post I referred to an analysis on decreasing oil extraction (4–10% drop by 2030 compared to 2019). According to this scenario we will see (or already have seen) a peak in energy as well as material consumption. Thus a similar fall in industrial / services / food output — as predicted 50 years ago by the Limits to Growth study — seems highly probable.
This won’t happen all at the same time worldwide though. Some regions, especially in the west will see it sooner than others. Get used to the word: stagflation: this is how economists call stagnation (“lack of growth” or “negative growth”) and inflation (used in a sense of price increase) occurring simultaneously. You will hear it often then not at all (it will be considered normal). Governments all over the world will try to manipulate GDP even further to show something remotely resembling growth then will give up on the idea and focus on the “well being” of citizens instead. This can happen in the form of UBI (universal basic income) with more pressure on the rich 0.1% to get involved by actually paying taxes in order to fund healthcare and surveillance programs (oh, sorry “promoting the safety and security” of the citizens). You don’t need a time machine to see this already happening, just look east and don’t believe that this is due to the pandemic.
It is due to the growing mismatch between the actual performance of the primary economy of goods (including food) and services vs the amount of money and monetary (paper) “wealth”. A major correction is now inevitable. This could either happen via letting inflation rampant (caused by printing too much money compared to the amount of stuff to buy) or reining in stimulus spending and raising interest rates (causing unrealistic asset prices and stock markets to crash). Both will take years though and will not happen overnight.
In any case by the end of this decade the average citizen will have much less to spend in terms of real value (i.e.: he/she would be able to buy less goods for doing the same job). This process will be further exacerbated by resource shortages… supermarket shelves will become gradually emptier. Year after year. More and more people will loose their jobs yet unemployment figures will show none of it. Food prices will increase worldwide putting an end to population growth in the coming decades.
Our infrastructure of roads, bridges, tunnels, pipes and electric grids will deteriorate further. There will be less and less “money” (in fact energy, concrete, steel, asphalt, copper etc. due to ultimately the lack of oil as we have seen above) available to repair existing roads, bridges and other networks. In some cases it will be easier to build new ones and let the rest return to dust. The major infrastructure projects in the 1960’s and 1970’s will start to show signs of age and will be more and more expensive to repair. Closures and limitation of traffic will be regular and then permanent (“cross at your own peril”). Black-outs will occur more frequently (partly due to intermittent renewables, party due to lack of preventive maintenance, then later due to various shortages — copper for e.g.…)
In the meantime the population will be constantly deluded with the promises of a “hydrogen economy”, renewables, fusion energy and stories about a lost decade (of course due to COVID, what else?), but the “30’s will be certainly better”. Tin foil hats will be on no short supply.
The next 10 to 30 years
In the 2030’s (if not sooner) saner governments will announce rationing schemes disguised in various ways, like TEQ (trade-able energy quotas) painted bright green to “save the environment” and reducing pollution. Make no mistake: these are very important goals worth pursuing. The thing which makes me go hmm, is if these were so important for governments why did they wait 60–70 years with it? To make sure that we really cross the 1.5°C mark? Check. To see if resources really start to deplete while we still have more than half of them under the ground? Check. To see if we kill half of the biosphere there will no 6th mass extinction…?
The plans for rationing were already made but kept in secret. In case of oil & gas (and other forms of energy) agriculture will get its share first — no questions asked — to prevent food shortages. After essential basic infrastructure services (water, sewage), some critical companies will get their share too. Civilians will have to line up at the very end of the queue. Long rows at the gas station will be a thing of the past though — most of the car owners cannot afford gas by now anyway (not because its price, but because there will be so little left after paying for food and housing).
MacGyvers of these times will be really busy to apply appropriate technology everywhere. This change will be scale independent: it will happen on the household level (wind turbines made from plywood and 12V generators plus the battery from the family car) as well as on municipal and country level transition engineering projects worldwide. The future will be low tech. Big time… and increasingly so. This is what we should have done in 1970… and there would be max 1 degree global warming and resources to go for another millennia... Anyway this will be a great age to be an engineer or a tinkerer. Think about what skills you would need to maintain an off the grid lifestyle and practice them. They will make you invaluable.
Pollution would certainly decrease by now. So much so, that the aerosols produced by coal burning and the industry in general — going down together with their sources — are no longer shielding us from the Sun’s rays. This will add another 1 degree of warming, in addition to the still present carbon pollution (both from natural sources — i.e. burning forests, melting permafrost — and some still operating industrial processes). This will end us up in the +3°C range by 2050.
No one talks about “net zero” the “hydrogen economy” or “fusion” by now. Maybe in the science fiction literature… hoping that prosperity will return in the far future.
The idea of world war III comes up now and then but it gets quickly forgotten: none of the remaining nation states have the raw materials and energy to fight large scale wars. Think about Germany’s preparation efforts before WWII. The amount of steel produced for tanks… Guns will be used instead in puny boarder disputes over water sources or by special “forces” (armed civilians) tasked with destroying critical infrastructure on enemy territory.
The second half of the 21st century
Globalization is a thing of the past together with nation states. The goods remaining to be shipped between population centers will be done so on rivers and on sailing ships over the seas. Air travel is gone. Cars and trucks are gone too. Roads are starting to be reduced to gravel by erosion except for the latest highways. For the first time in the past 100 or so years you will be able to hear the sounds of nature without someone using a chainsaw or hundreds of cars murr-murring in the background.
It will be hot though — especially in the tropics. People will leave these areas and try to make a living up north. As a result population will fall steadily — no one wants to procreate in a time when one has no stable income or a house… There will be a lot of material left behind in these ‘too hot to live’ areas — caravans will visit these sites in the cooler (less hot) part of the year to scavenge what’s left and bring them back up north for recycling or re-purposing.
Pollution from human sources will continue to decrease to almost 0 while temperature stabilizes between 3 and 4°C by the end of the century. Hopefully the methane dragon remains asleep, but the cascade of climate tipping points will ensure that the hot weather is here to stay for many millennia to come.
The 22nd century
Large population centers (mega-cities) were kept alive by a huge influx of energy, food and products while a lot of care was taken to remove the waste. With the sunset of the industrial age in the 21st century they have become de-populated — most of the people are now living in rural settings in simple shacks made from scavenged materials from the cities. Large scale agriculture is now gone leaving room for regenerative farming practices in a small farm environment. This age is the dream of the environmentalist movement: everything is local, recycled and powered by the sun and wind.
Some well maintained hydro-electric plants are still producing electricity for local use (for example in Norway). In these areas the remnants of our civilization will be safeguarded like sacred knowledge of the past. For the rest of the world these safe havens of technology will look miracles — like libraries of ancient times. Here you might still find a computer: under glass and fully in-operational. The parts all went south by now and without the stable manufacturing supply chains of the IT industry they are now irreplaceable (it takes 3 weeks and a lot of energy, rare materials and water to produce microchips — under very stable and clean conditions). Knowledge was printed on acid-free paper a long time ago and kept in a safe place.
The rest of the 3rd millennia
Everything is recycled — but there is a small price to pay at each round. Some of the material will be lost due oxidation or degeneration or by someone accidentally dropping it to the sea. In the beginning of the millennia more than half of the raw materials were lost within a century: cars, skyscrapers, huge diesel ships made of metal were all left to rust. There was no other solution. Lacking the energy to keep this enormous amount of material in circulation, let alone recycling them, they have become part of the environment: totally overgrown and collapsing under the weight of plants and animals. What was scavenged is still in circulation, so there is no need to mine new raw materials. The problem is, that if there were a need to do so, the low quality ores left by the people of the 20th and 21st century are now impossible to process with the technology and low available energy of the 30th century.
There are new city states rising and falling, kingdoms coming and going depending solely on the available surplus energy provided by grains — just like at the end of the 1st millennia. The only difference this time is that these new “empires” are now more dispersed along the northern shores of Asia and America. The ice free Arctic Ocean provide great means of transportation between them and the small villages up in the rivers in Alaska and Siberia. The only problem is, that soil is very bad up north, providing very little of the aforementioned surplus grains.
Ten thousand years from now
Almost all of the materials recycled from the industrial age are now gone. Calculating with only a 0.1% loss at each round of recycling there is only 0.005% (0.999¹⁰⁰⁰⁰) left of the scavenged material from the beginning of the 3rd millennia. Maybe enough for a few spears or a knife. Without mining as a fallback option people turn to wood, clay, rocks and bones for resources. The age of wood has come again. Little villages with wooden houses and small gardens around them spot the landscape. Population has fallen to a mere fraction of today’s level allowing people to fish and hunt the recovering wildlife just like many thousand years ago. We have became sustainable. Finally.
How does this image compare to your previous expectations? Where is Spock from Vulcan? Maybe he is too busy tending his garden… But that’s OK. I don’t need Star Trek to be happy. As long as I’m surrounded by loved ones, have a home — no matter how humble it is — and have enough to eat I’m happy. I live in an immense material abundance yet find it joyful to think about a more simpler future. Yes it will be challenging — even more so when you have relatives who are still clinging to this abundance and not willing to let it go — yet we will have time. The coming decades will teach all of us a lesson what is true sustainability and what is a mere transitional step towards it.
Think about it.