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Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XLVIII–We Are Not Prepared For Shutting Down the Fossil Fuel Industry

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh XLVIII

Monte Alban, Mexico (1988) Photo by author

We Are Not Prepared For Shutting Down the Fossil Fuel Industry

To be or not to be, that is the question…

Prince Hamlet’s well-known soliloquy in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet is apropos to a question I have been pondering: should we shut down immediately the world’s fossil fuel industries, as a seemingly increasing number of individuals and groups are advocating, or not?

Why have I been thinking about this? Mostly because I would argue it is suicide for our global, industrialised society and its vast array of complexities that the overwhelming majority of humans have come to depend upon, especially if it is without well-considered alternatives to support the loss of such an immense energy source.

In fact, without the energy provided by fossil fuels there would be no ‘transition’ to a ‘cleaner’ world that these same cheerleaders of fossil fuel’s immediate death suggest is ‘just around the corner’ — certainly, not a smooth and non-chaotic one. Without fossil fuels our various complexities that sustain us would collapse in short order and a massive die-off would occur[1]. Of this I have little doubt[2].

As far as a post-carbon transition based upon well-considered alternatives, I’m not speaking of so-called ‘green/clean’ energy substitutes for our fossil fuel-powered world in order to continue keeping on keeping on with our high energy-reliant complexities in some idealistic seamless shift. There is far too much evidence that that narrative is a lie and is being pushed by those that stand to profit from it and by well-intentioned but misguided others who believe the propaganda that such a shift is feasible and must be pursued with all haste[3]. Alternative energy-harvesting and -producing technologies are so dependent upon the fossil fuel platform that they cannot be constructed or sustained without significant fossil fuel inputs — to say little of the continued and significant environmental/ecological destruction necessary in both the upstream and downstream processes needed in their construction, maintenance, and after-life disposal/reclamation, and the lack of actual physical resources to build out a replacement for fossil fuels.

I’m speaking of a concerted ‘degrowth’ agenda that may need to be extremely radical in its undertaking if we are to minimise the most negative impacts of our ecological overshoot and perhaps ensure more of us are to make it out the other side of the ecological bottleneck we have created for our species (and many others)[4]. I have my own ideas about what this should and should not look like.

The very first order of business needs to be a discontinuation of the pursuit of the infinite growth chalice. This includes population growth but especially refers to economic growth, particularly for the so-called ‘advanced’ economies that are responsible for the lion’s share of resource use and abuse[5]. Without this our fundamental predicament of ecological overshoot simply grows in severity, leading to a more monumental collapse.

Given that the ruling class in particular but certainly a sizable portion of the citizens of advanced economies benefit immensely from the status quo systems and their continuation, I’m doubtful in the extreme that they would willingly admit and contemplate such a shift. As I expounded upon in my last contemplation, our ‘leaders’ are not in this for the masses as they pretend to be; they are in this for power and/or wealth[6]. As such, we will continue to be exposed to narratives that growth is not only beneficial for everyone but necessary to counteract the obvious dilemmas we are experiencing (but are, in fact, directly caused by our growth). Don’t, whatever you do, believe your lying eyes as the reality of resource shortages bite; continue to believe in human ingenuity and our technological prowess. Ignore the machinations going on behind that curtain over there.

Frankly, there are some difficult if not impossible decisions to be made that will and do challenge virtually everything the vast majority of us hold as near and dear to our hearts and our perception of what it means to be human; especially for those that live in ‘advanced’ economies where the transition necessarily puts everything on the table for discussion as to whether it can or should be maintained. Everything.

Many if not most of the cherished ideals that have been developed during a period of monumental surplus energy due to fossil fuel’s energy density, transportability, relative ease of extraction, and quantities are likely to be lost as our energy contraction speeds up. It may be exceedingly difficult if not impossible to maintain our ‘humanity’ in the face of this. Black Swan events, which is what this is going to be for the vast majority of people, have by far the largest impact on societies when they occur[7].

One of my ‘hopes’ as it were as we stumble into an unknown and unknowable future is that the dangerous complexities we have created (e.g., nuclear power plants, biosafety labs, chemical production and storage facilities) are dismantled and their dangers safely ‘contained/neutralised’ before we lose the energy capacity and related resources necessary to do this. I see zero progress currently on this front; in fact, there are increased demands to do the exact opposite.

And then there’s the whole economic-energy nexus where our monetary/financial systems are predicated upon credit/debt growth that is for all intents and purposes a potential claim on future energy and related resource use and its exponential growth[8]. If that energy is not there (and it’s not in a finite world), the entire Ponzi-like structure of these human-contrived systems collapses completely; and some argue this has actually already started and has been ‘papered’ over by manipulations that include accounting shenanigans and narrative control.

It is the glaring impediments (and the growing denial of these[9]) to the dreams of a ‘sustainable’ and ‘green/clean’ transition that increasingly lead me to conclude that we are totally and completely fubar. There is no saving our complexities that support our current ways. Does this necessitate losing ‘hope’? Well, hope as I’ve come to realise is a wish for something to happen over which we really have zero agency.

So, what do you have agency over? I would argue primarily one’s own actions, particularly at the local, community level[10].

Relocalising as much as possible now is paramount but especially in terms of potable water procurement, food production, and regional shelter needs. To do this an awful lot of learning and work needs to be accomplished, quickly. There is no time to waste when exponential factors are at play and a Seneca cliff of energy contraction just ahead[11].

Starting your journey to self-sufficiency yesterday would have been prudent but starting today is better than tomorrow. Do what you can, even if it seems minimal. Plants a few pots of beans or tomatoes. Read a book on composting or seed saving. Find some like-minded neighbours and begin a community garden.

I’ve been busy prepping our raised beds for the seedlings we started indoors a few weeks ago. One of our greenhouses is almost cleaned up and ready to host a few dozen grow bags for our potatoes (discovered they do better in a greenhouse than the mostly shaded backyard areas I’ve tried in previous years). Some seeds of cool-weather plants are already in — lettuce, kale, sugar peas. Half of our compliment of twenty, 200 litre rain barrels are hooked up[12]. The two-compartment, concrete-block compost bin I built last summer has been extended higher and better pest screening added[13]. Almost all the fruit trees have been pruned. Mature compost has begun to be added to the various rows of raspberry and blackberry canes. Been sidelined today because of a mid-April snowstorm but another few dozen chores await, especially the replacement of rotting garden ties, that were used a decade ago to create foundations for our three greenhouses and form terraces on our side hill, with concrete blocks.

I close by repeating what I argued in my last post: “don’t depend upon your government/ruling class for salvation from the coming collapse of current complexities. Such ‘faith’ is significantly misplaced and will be deeply disappointing if not disastrous for those that maintain it. It is personal, familial, and community resilience and preparedness that will ease the decline; pursue this rather than believing you have significant agency via the ballot box and who might hold the reins of sociopolitical power.”

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[1] There are some that argue this is exactly what we should do to ensure the survival of other species and not worry too much about humans. That is not me; at least not yet.

[2] Do not mistake this perspective of mine as one of supporting the expansion of fossil fuel extraction or our myriad of systemic complexities (especially technological) that have ‘evolved’ as a result of the growth brought about by this extraction. It is what it is and we need to consider it in its historical context and the dependencies it has led to. Given I believe that our fundamental predicament is ecological overshoot brought about by our increasing use of technologies, especially those that allowed us to extract ever-increasing amounts of fossil energy, I am all for curtailing such use; but it needs to be done thoughtfully and with targeted precision as our energy use contracts significantly.

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

[4] An ecological/population bottleneck is where a significant majority of a species dies off due to a significant shift in environmental conditions. See William Catton Jr.’s Bottleneck: Humanity Impending Impasse.

[5] My current region has been on the forefront of both these growth frontiers within Ontario, Canada and as a result I have witnessed seemingly unending expansion of suburban residential housing at the expense of very limited arable land. The local politicians parrot the narrative that such growth is only beneficial and any seemingly negative consequences (most of which are dismissed/ignored) can be fully and completely mitigated. Apparently the supply chains that supply most of our food needs are guaranteed…forever and always, Amen.

[6] This may not be so for very small, local governments (and I mean very small, where ‘leaders’ socialise regularly with their constituents as neighbour, friend, or acquaintance) but it is increasingly so as governments get larger and the ‘leadership’ is removed from ‘normal’ societal participation and interactions, tending to fraternise within very closed peer groups that have little in common with the ‘average’ citizen.

[7] See Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

[8] And we’re not talking small numbers here. We are looking at hundreds of trillions of U.S. dollars in global debt. See: https://blogs.imf.org/2021/12/15/global-debt-reaches-a-record-226-trillion/. This doesn’t even account for unfunded liabilities (e.g., pension plans) that would put the ‘true’ level multiple times higher.

[9] Refer to Erik Micheal’s Problems, Predicaments, and Technology site for more on this.

[10] To be honest, I am finding this difficult as well due to the widespread belief that growth only has beneficial aspects and a local town council that pushes this narrative at every opportunity.

[11] See: https://peakoil.com/generalideas/the-seneca-cliff-how-the-concept-evolved.

[12] We live on a hill with a basement walkout so I’ve utilised the grade to connect 15 of our rain barrels with each higher one feeding into the next lower one, and because of our very cold winters I unhook them all and flip them over every fall to prevent damage to the hoses and taps

[13] Damned chipmunks chewed through the metal insect screening I had wrapped around the outside and began pulling un-composted matter into the yard — concrete blocks are on their sides so the openings allow air into the pile to help with the decomposition of organic matter.

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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