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Today Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CI–Theory Is Great, In Theory: More On Our ‘Renewable’ Energy Future

Today Contemplation: Collapse Cometh CI

February 13, 2023 (original posting date)

Monte Alban, Mexico (1988). Photo by author.

Theory Is Great, In Theory: More On Our ‘Renewable’ Energy Future

Quite often I get involved in online discussions with others about our predicament(s). Most of the time these are quite friendly in nature and a sharing of ideas and questions.

On occasion these turn into disagreements. And sometimes, unfortunately, these turn quite confrontational with me having to disengage from the dialogue due to the vitriol thrown at me — apparently I am not only anti-humanistic but a Big Oil shill, a climate change denier, and a fucking idiot/liberal/conservative/progressive/Malthusian, etc..

Once the ad hominem attacks begin, I usually just state we will have to agree to disagree and discontinue the interaction. I know people don’t want their beliefs challenged, they want them confirmed so if the interaction has gone sideways there’s little point to continue it. Few if any people change their beliefs due to a well-reasoned or evidence-based argument that runs counter to their own thoughts.

This said, most of the disagreements are civil and the issue stems from a divergence in whether we can ‘solve’ the problem/predicament we are focusing upon. I’ve found that the vast majority continue to believe that we can address the topic we’re discussing via some complex technology — usually non-renewable, renewable energy-harvesting technologies such as those that harness wind or sunshine to produce electricity (aka ‘renewables’).

While at one time during my fall into the rabbit’s hole of Peak Oil and all the related issues, I held out ‘hope’ for humanity and our planet. Nowadays, more often than not, I am tending towards there being no way out of the conundrum we walking, talking apes have led ourselves into. Neither time nor resources are on our side it would seem. Salvation, as it were, has been lost to the sands of time.

Here is one recent example with a fellow member of a Degrowth group I am a member of stemming from an article of The Honest Sorcerer’s that I posted to the group.

LK: “Politics” is just a name for technology of resource allocation on a societal scale.

We’re currently using the 18th century technology based on exponential growth (investments are made to obtain money to make more investments), it’s called “capitalism”.

Degrowth is another technology of resource allocation, and the one we need, because exponential growth on a finite planet is not possible.

(Having said that, we still need to combine degrowth with all kinds of low-emissions energy sources like renewables and nuclear, and we need to work on extending the life of existing low-carbon energy sources for as long as possible)

My response:: While I agree that degrowth (and radical at that) is needed, the alternative energy-harvesting technologies to fossil fuels you suggest we need to pursue require huge carbon inputs for their construction (and in perpetuity), continue to contribute to the destruction of our biosphere via the massive mineral mining and processing necessary, and only serve as an attempt to sustain the unsustainable so end up making our fundament predicament of ecological overshoot even worse. We need to be pursuing a low-/no-tech future with one hell of a lot fewer people. It is increasingly looking like it will have to be Nature that takes us there…

LK: The science is quite clear, low carbon energy sources have much, much lower carbon intensity of energy generation over their lifetimes, and lifetime extension to optimise for energy production instead of returns on investment decreases that carbon intensity even further. And fossil fuels have an enormous mining impact.

This is the third line of defense of fossil fuel companies: first they were straight-out lying about climate change, then they were lying about whether climate change is caused by humans, now they are lying about relative impacts of fossil fuel vs low carbon technologies, and it apparently works.

Low-tech future doesn’t work, it’s just a lie fossil companies are telling us to keep burning fossil fuels. We’re a tool-using social species and we need tools to get out of the shit we got into by using tools.

We will have to agree to disagree.

First, it seems you are assuming a support for fossil fuels in my comment that is not present. One does not have to be in any way supportive of the continuation of our extraction and use of them to see that alternatives are in every way — upstream and downstream — still quite dependent upon them. In fact, if you look at the largest investors in support of ‘alternatives’, you will discover it is the large energy businesses (aka Big Oil). Why would that be? Perhaps because they know that fossil fuels are required in huge quantities for them.

Second, the view that only carbon emissions are important blinds people to all the other complexities concerning our predicament of ecological overshoot. Biodiversity loss, mostly because of land system changes brought on by human expansion, appears to be much more significant. A concerted push to adopt non-renewable, renewable energy-harvesting technologies will ensure continued destruction of our biosphere.

The current refrain seems to be “Complex technologies and human ingenuity will save us from our predicament of ecological overshoot and its various symptoms (e.g., biodiversity loss) because they’ve worked up to this point in our history”…except inductive reasoning/logic does not always work. Continual observations by the turkey of the farmer have provided nothing but overwhelming evidence and positive reinforcement that the farmer is a beneficent and thoughtful caregiver; right up until the day before Thanksgiving and the trip behind the barn to the killing cone.

You should look at the work of energy researcher Alice Friedemann and geologist Simon Michaux to understand better the limitations of the ‘solution’ referred to as our ‘energy transition’.

But you are correct that a low-tech future doesn’t work. It doesn’t work to support our unsustainable living arrangements but more importantly the power and wealth structures of the status quo…that is why the ruling caste is pushing ‘renewables’: to maintain/expand their share of a quickly-shrinking economic pie. And this is ultimately why we will pursue these complex technologies despite the impossibility of what their cheerleaders promise. The profiteers of our world stand to make one hell of a lot of money before it all goes to hell in a handbasket.

These images/memes perhaps sum my perspective up:

LK: There’s one thing that kills people pretty rapidly and effectively and that is the lack of energy.

You can either support low-carbon energy sources or you can support fossil fuels or you can support widespread energy poverty that kills a fuckton of people, and those will be mainly poor people in the Global South.

Degrowth is not anarcho-primitivism, it’s not about the remnants of humanity huddling in cold and without hospitals and sewage networks, it’s about building sustainable future around equitable use of energy for everyone.

But we need low-carbon energy, because climate change drives biodiversity loss, water crises (because rising oceans make a lot of areas lose their access to potable water) and other nasty third-order effects.

My response: Again, we’ll have to agree to disagree. Pre/history shows us overwhelmingly that the utopian future you imagine is not possible on a finite planet with 8 billion (and growing). It is denial/bargaining in the face of biogeophysical realities and limits. Ecological overshoot for homo sapiens will be, I am almost certain, dealt with by Nature, not us — particularly given all the claims/liens on future energy/resources in the form of quadrillions of dollars of debt/credit that currently exist and have been created to sustain our current arrangements with zero concern for the future from which the resources have been stolen.

LK: There’s a lot of research by degrowth theoreticians that demonstrates that we’re perfectly technologically capable of supporting 8 billion people on a finite planet, leaving 50% of it to wild nature. It just would be a different life than the US “cardboard houses in suburbia with 2,5 cars per family and 2+ hours of commuting daily, eating beef and flying regularly”.

It would require end of capitalism, though, which is why capitalists are promoting narratives of “we’re doomed, there’s nothing we can do, all alternatives are bad, I guess we’ll have to die off in the future, but so far, we’re bringing in record annual profits”.

My response: Theory is great, in theory. Reality is something quite different. Every complex society to date has perished/collapsed/declined — most before ‘capitalism’ ever existed. To believe we will do otherwise is, well, just denial/bargaining built upon a lot of assumptions and hope. We would be better to plan for a future much, much different than the one you paint. But, again, I think Nature is going to take care of this predicament for us.

After mostly finishing this contemplation I came across Gail Tverberg’s latest that provides some great insight into why the complex technologies many are arguing will help solve our energy dilemma will not.

There are plenty of similar arguments out there if one so chooses to discover them and the overwhelming evidence that ‘renewables’ are not in any way going to do much except: add to the drawdown of finite resources; contribute to the continuous overloading of planetary sinks; provide more profits for the industrialists, financiers, and well-connected elite; and, sustain the misguided belief system that all is well for the most part, and human ingenuity and our technological prowess can solve any problem that stands in the way of some utopian future where we all (billions and billions of us) live in harmony with nature. Transcending the biological and physical constraints of existence upon a finite planet is well within our reach…if only you believe.

See especially:

If you’ve made it to the end of this contemplation and have got something out of my writing, please consider ordering the trilogy of my ‘fictional’ novel series, Olduvai (PDF files; only $9.99 Canadian), via my website — the ‘profits’ of which help me to keep my internet presence alive and first book available in print (and is available via various online retailers). Encouraging others to read my work is also much appreciated.

Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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