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Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XLII–Criticising ‘Renewables’ is Not a Sin

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XLII

March 1, 2022 (original posting date)

Tulum, Mexico (1986) Photo by author

Criticising ‘Renewables’ is Not a Sin

The following ‘contemplation’ follows on the heels of a discussion I began with another within a Facebook group I am a member of. The post and dialogue can be found here. Suffice it to say, I was, as has happened numerous times, criticised for a comment that challenged an argument for accelerating our shift from fossil fuels to ‘renewable’ technologies.

What follows is my response to their response to my comment that suggested we need to simplify our existence and not accelerate our pursuit of environmentally-/ecologically-destructive and complex technologies.

Let me respond to each of your paragraphs:

First, indeed humans have harnessed wind and water power for millennia but using far, far less complex and resource-intensive technologies and for far, far fewer humans so their impact on the environment has been multiple times less, and during times when numerous biophysical limits had yet to be broached or nearing such overshoot. You then create a straw man implying I am arguing to return to the ‘Stone Age’, which I did not[1]. I left open the nature of any type of ‘simplicity’ that we should be aiming for but there’s a good argument to be made that ‘simple’ windmills/waterwheels for far fewer humans than currently exist may be the only ‘sustainable’ option[2]. What I did argue is that we need to NOT seek complex technologies that continue the destruction of the planet as our ‘modern’ harnessing of wind/solar/water do; facts you have completely glossed over[3].

Second, to point out the significant issues with non-renewable renewables (NRRs), does not necessarily feed into the ‘climate change denial, fossil fuel fundamentalism’ you accuse me of[4]. This is another straw man based upon a complete lack of contextual interpretation of my comment, and continued ignorance of the environmental destructiveness issue I raise; to say little of the reality that a massive push to accelerate the processes needed to produce NRRs would require massive fossil fuel inputs (and lots of other finite resources; thus the reason they are non-renewable). I am as concerned about continued fossil fuel extraction and its impacts as I am about all the other resource extractions we continue to rely upon (and expand as diminishing returns increase in severity).

Third, I would argue we are not where we are primarily because of fossil fuels (although they have likely sped up our predicament) but because of our propensity to expand and create complex societies based upon a number of finite resources. Humanity has shown its complex societies have been ‘unsustainable’ from the very first ones, long before fossil fuels ever came into the picture — every complex society that has ever existed has eventually ‘collapsed’ due to diminishing returns on investments in complexity[5], and accelerating an adoption of NRRs fits into this perfectly; they require significantly increased inputs compared to outputs (while continuing to destroy our biosphere[6]).

Keep in mind that resource ‘wars’ far, far predate our past few decades of fighting over oil and gas (resources that, unfortunately, underpin our current massive global complexities and footprint). Fossil fuels have simply expedited our propensity to overshoot our local carrying capacity and taken it global in nature. It is this, ecological overshoot, that is our predicament; the consequences of which we increasingly appear to be unable to avoid because we’re misdiagnosing/misinterpreting it (and have been for some decades). I would argue that there is nothing that is ‘sustainable’ for close to 8 billion humans. Nothing, probably not even ‘Stone Age’ hunting-and-gathering.

By all means, let’s transition away from fossil fuels but let’s not exacerbate our predicament by chasing the wrong path that is increasingly being shown to be just as detrimental to our species and all the other ones we depend upon. If we are not talking significant degrowth and simplification, then we are just creating comforting narratives to reduce our cognitive dissonance[7].

Having said all this, however, I am convinced we will attempt the push into NRRs that you advocate as we slide down the Seneca cliff of resource/energy availability. For, after all, the ruling class[8] that controls/influences the mainstream narratives (and what most people think/believe) stand to profit handsomely from the effort for they also control/influence all the industries and financial institutions that are required to pursue such a path. The result will surely be a trajectory further into ecological overshoot and thus a more massive ‘collapse’ (which always accompanies a species overshooting its environment). Nature always bats last and we continue to deny this and end up putting ourselves in greater danger. And, unfortunately, it would seem even a lot of the most well-intentioned individuals and groups are cheerleading us along the wrong path.

[1] While I did not suggest we would return to the ‘Stone Age’ that may indeed be the endgame of our unknowable future. In fact, some of humanity may be ‘lucky’ to make it through the bottleneck we have created and actually live in a ‘Stone Age’ type way. Time will tell.

[2] What might be ‘sustainable’ depends upon a host of factors, most importantly the number of humans and the nature of their living standards. More resource-dependent living standards necessarily means far fewer humans can be supported.

[3] The industrial processes necessary to create and produce the current technologies to harness wind, water, and solar energy are highly finite resource-dependent (including fossil fuels) and require significant mining, transportation, refining, and construction processes that result in concomitant waste production; both toxic and non-toxic in nature.

[4] It seems any criticism of ‘renewables’ is immediately construed by many as being in favour of continued fossil fuel extraction and use. This seems to me to be more of an instantaneous emotional reaction than a considered interpretation of the context in which such criticism is made. Such dichotomous thinking, while a common defense mechanism, prevents one from seeing the complexities and nuances of situations and distorts perceptions.

[5] See archaeologist Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies.

[6] https://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/14/15/4508/htm?fbclid=IwAR2ISt5shfV4wpFEc8jxbQnrrxyllyvZP-xDnoHhWrjGTQRIqUNfk3hOK1g



[7] My discussion here doesn’t even begin to elaborate on all the additional ‘headwinds’ we are bumping up against besides resource limits and overloading of planetary sinks, a significant one being the massive ‘debt’ that currently exists. With debt being, more or less, a claim on future energy we are in substantially more dire straits than it appears on the surface due to significant debt obligations and the Ponzi-like nature of our financial/monetary/economic systems. Most, if not all, economic activity could find itself collapsing completely with the implosion of the debt bubbles that exist far before resource limits bring it all crashing down; to say little about the impact of geopolitical stressors.

[8] I use the term ‘ruling class’ as a catch-all for those individuals/families/groups that sit atop a complex society’s power and wealth structures; and whose prime motivation is the expansion/control of the wealth-generation/-extraction systems which they tend to control/own/influence.

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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