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Why Trying to Save Industrial Civilization with Alternatives to Fossil Fuels Only Makes Things Worse

By Karl North | April 6, 2013

A recent Cornell report on how to convert New York state energy consumption to alternative fuels perpetuates the nonsense that in a declining economy we can convert NY or anywhere else to “clean” wind and solar energy, maybe dimming the lights a bit, and thus continue the party (industrial civilization and the US way of life) indefinitely. The report merits criticism as an example of many such plans that promote large scale conversion to alternative energy,  because it epitomizes the narrow technological lens through which we are taught to see problems that need to be viewed in a much larger systemic context. Because of its unstated reductionist assumptions, the study fails on at least three counts:

  1. Resource Consumption and Associated Pollutions. Construction of such massive projects inevitably chews through an increasingly scarce and therefore ever more expensive global pool of fossil energy and other finite materials. At one time, there existed a window of opportunity to develop energy alternatives like wind and solar on a large scale, a window that is now closed. Thirty or forty years ago when energy, copper, neodymium, etc. were relatively cheap, such a project was feasible and might have bought our way of life a temporary reprieve. No doubt attempts at such projects will continue to be made, but will founder as an economy that is going into permanent decline (due to the same resource depletion) cannot afford the costs. The costs of the attempts will be born all the same, by our children and grandchildren if they survive the man-made ecological holocaust, in the form of a world ever more depleted of raw materials and ecological services that are essential to our quality of life. So the results of such attempts will be anything but “clean” for those who inherit them.
  2. Permanent Economic Decline. The industrial phase of human history of last two centuries has been possible only because of the cheap, high quality energy of fossil fuels. The end of cheap energy is sending the mature industrial economies (and eventually every energy-intensive economy) into permanent decline. The US economy is at least as hollow and debt ridden as the collapsing economies of Greece and Spain but has used its superpower status to maintain a pretense of stability and living standard a little longer than Mediterranean Europe. This cannot last; when it falls apart all bets are off on energy conversion plans of the scale analyzed in the report.
  3. Consumption of any kind of energy at this scale is toxic. There is a fundamental flaw in the thinking that the ecosphere can handle as much “clean” energy as the amount of “dirty” energy that we presently consume. In the last 250 years humanity has been using fossil energy at levels far above what the ecosystems of the earth evolved to handle over their several billion years of existence. The fossil fuel era has been a freak accident of natural history. Energy substitutes of any kind that could approach current fossil fuel production levels will be used to prop up the industrial way of life, whose ecological footprint already overshoots earth’s carrying capacity by half. Wind and solar energy at replacement scale will continue to chew up raw materials, creating landfill garbage, destructive sinks, and sheer dissipated heat that the planet cannot cope with. The current increasingly visible climate change is only one manifestation of the problem.

Hence the goal of maintaining current levels of energy production by other means will simply perpetuate resource consumption habits and associated ecological damage and depletions that are now destroying the resource base needed for survival of our species. Why have the engineers of plans like the Cornell report not thought of that?

What Is To Be Done? Human society existed for over a million years without greatly overshooting the carrying capacity of the planet, and can adapt to a more sustainable way of life. The looming failure of the debt-reliant economy offers such an opportunity. The economy controlled by private capital that currently grips most societies manufactures the desire for massive unsustainable consumption in order to maximize private profit. As that economy goes into decline and can no longer service debt, it will collapse.

However, because it is the result of manufactured desire, much of our consumption is discretionary, not really necessities of life, although we have been taught to believe otherwise. Hence as economic decline forces us to reduce consumption, our extravagant way of life offers a breathing space where we can adjust by learning to live without non-essentials. Therein lies the opportunity to adapt to a lower energy way of life, because eventually we will have no other choice.

Richard Heinberg was right, the party is over. In the long run attempts to prolong it by any means whatsoever just make the situation worse. But those who can kick the consumption addiction can potentially adapt to the new era.

Topics: Political and Economic Organization, Social Futures, Peak Oil, Relocalization, Sustainability Assessment Tools, Systems Thinking Tools | No Comments »