Nate Hagens gave me permission to share this essay he wrote for the leadership of the climate and environmental movements. His objectives were:
“To persuade, or at least interest, some in the climate/environmental community to shift their programs and priorities away from planning for a BAU low-carbon future towards preparing for a lower consumption future, which includes but doesn’t have a focus on renewable energy or BAU consumption levels. If those who care about the environment don’t integrate this into their thinking, they risk becoming largely irrelevant in the coming years.”
The essay articulates what I have been feeling for quite some time. Namely that most of the people in the climate and environmental movements, including people trying to live a more sustainable life, while very well intentioned, do not understand what we must do to improve the situation. In fact, most of the currently proposed environmental strategies either will not help, or will do as much or more damage than the fossil fuel infrastructure they seek to displace.
I do disagree with Nate on one point in that I think the climate change threat is more imminent although I think we agree on the seriousness of the risk.
I’ve read a lot of material by a lot of authors on our predicament. I place this essay at the top of my must read list for anyone seeking understanding and wondering what they should do.
Please read it. Then read it again.
“There is No Green without Lean”
Nate Hagens 1/07/2012 (updates Feb 2014)
This essay is an expansion of some of my emails on this topic on an energy listserv. It has one main objective:
To persuade, or at least interest, some in the climate/environmental community to shift their programs and priorities away from planning for a BAU low-carbon future towards preparing for a lower consumption future, which includes but doesn’t have a focus on renewable energy or BAU consumption levels. If those who care about the environment don’t integrate this into their thinking, they risk becoming largely irrelevant in the coming years.
It is clear to most that risks abound for human and non-human organisms in today’s world. Black or white, rich or poor, conservative or liberal, most people today who are paying any attention to events have a deep sense that something is wrong. On the societal front we have a growing lower and middle class – 30 % of Americans – if they lost their jobs – have less than $1000 in total savings. Not to mention 2 billion people survive on less than $2 per day. Since 2007, 90% of Americans have less take home pay as well as have higher costs for most basic goods. Each year since 1965 we have grown our debt more than we have grown our GDP – i.e. we continue to borrow from the future in order to consume today. Less seen but perhaps more important, on the environmental front, scientists project that the 6th mass extinction is underway with species disappearing 10-100x faster than the background extinction rate. Among the culprits for such steep losses in the natural world are climate change, habitat loss, pollution, ocean acidification and overfishing. Thus, irrespective of ones view on whether climate change is 50% or 99% anthropogenic, or whether it poses a critically urgent, or more moderate risk to our future, it is abundantly clear that one solitary species – us – is making an outsized negative impact on the rest of earths denizens. Furthermore, our implicitly desired trajectory – one of continued growth – has reached social, financial and material limits. How to marry these risks and in what order are pretty important questions.
This essay suggests that environmentalists can be the vanguard in the coming paradigm shift away from continued growth. As early adopters they have the ability to influence and motivate other demographics of society towards a more benign future – both for us and for other species. But given our energy and financial constraints, the end of a growth based economy is no w no longer an environmental ‘choice’ but is likely both inevitable, and rapidly arriving. The reduction of fossil fuel usage will happen on its own due to depletion and unaffordability. Whether this decline is enough to mitigate CO2 linked environmental impacts or whether it creates its own new environmental problems is a question in urgent need of unpacking.
The environmental movement is comprised of many different constituencies, from deep ecologists to smart gridders. Some, like 350.org, plan to avert civilization-destroying climate impacts by institutionally divesting from oil and gas company stocks and bonds and removing fossil fuel subsidies so that renewable energy has a green light to move us to a low-carbon economy. Other prominent environmentalists are so concerned about runaway climate change they are advocating an almost immediate cessation of fossil fuel burning -a list of environmental signatories note a 50 month deadline where continued use of carbon based fuels will cause us to cross the threshold of unavoidable 2 C temperature rise (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/oct/01/50-months-tackle-climate- change?intcmp=239). Environmental icon (and former Dean of Yale School of Forestry) Gus Speth advocates mass non-violent protests and himself was arrested in a demonstration against the Keystone Pipeline (http://grist.org/climate-energy/gus-speth-ultimate-insider-goes-radical/). All these folks are well intentioned and I understand their frustration with changing our system, but in my opinion, singling out Exxon and Chevron for our environmental problems is like blaming Hitler’s gall bladder for the holocaust. It channels a nascent spirit of societal change towards an ultimately hollow goal. The bulk of this essay outlines the reasons I feel this way. They involve the role of energy in society, the role of biology in human behavior and the role of debt in our economies of pulling resources forward in time. – When combined they suggest the inability of global society to continue growing, with or without fossil fuels – right now. I conclude with a plea to both raise and widen the bar on this discussion among environmental leaders – that we need to work towards a lower consumption future instead of a lower carbon future, because it is coming very quickly irrespective of our policies and wishes, and because a planned trajectory to a lower consumption future might plausibly avoid some of the nasty discontinuities which can be expected to derail a simple carbon-based rationale and strategy.
Before I get to a list of facts, let me list some of my beliefs so that you understand where I’m coming from. I am pro-human, pro-biosphere and a card-carrying long range earth environmentalist. I care about the present (and the future) natural world beyond my own use and enjoyment of it, and am willing to make sacrifices in my own life in order to preserve it. I do not believe that humans are either the point or the purpose of the planet, but do have visions of 500 million hominids living in (relative) ecological balance a thousand, or ten thousand years or a hundred thousand years from now.
I think we are deep in source/sink overshoot as well as on an accelerating trajectory towards cultural anhedonia – an inability to feel pleasure from normal things due to a generation of exposure to higher and higher neural unexpected rewards.
I believe that OECD growth, as measured by real GDP, is peaking, and 10 years from now GDP will be lucky to be 85% of what it is now (in real terms). This is especially true for the United States, Europe and Japan – but the developing countries, even with a higher output elasticity for using an equivalent amount of primary energy, are not far behind.
I am not an apologist for the fossil fuel industry. I think Rex Tillerson of Exxon is various shades of arrogant, greedy and selfish. But so too are many auto executives, bankers, doctors, lawyers, clothing retailers, electricians, and chefs. Fossil fuel companies are the crack dealers. And it is powerful crack. Ultimately it’s up to us to change our habits and addictions before we hit rock bottom, not them. I believe it is high time we start blaming the ideas, and not the people.
Finally, though I’m a scientist, I am not trained in the numerous fields relevant to climate science; ( i.e. atmospheric science, climatology, geology, solar physics, etc). I know enough scientists (and humans) on both sides of the debate, to suspect that feedbacks are likely underappreciated on both sides: the global warming activists probably underplay the impact of negative feedbacks (debt, economic depression) on climate just as the ‘skeptics’ probably underplay the impact of positive feedbacks on climate (e.g. methane, permafrost etc.) For me it is enough to know that we humans are seriously impacting the planet and to adhere to the precautionary principle. Furthermore, ocean acidification (due to higher CO2) is uncontroversial, and by itself amounts to a disastrous upending of the human-evolved world, and on a close time scale. In this essay I assume the carbon budget numbers put forth by scientists like Hansen and activists like McKibben are accurate.
Here are some aspects of ‘the human ecosystem circa 2012’ that are oft overlooked by environmental leaders and strategists. It is my hope they become less overlooked and integrated into institutional programs and policies.
ENERGY AS MAGIC
Our modern society is setting a money price on magic. Essentially the free net energy from fossil fuels is a gift out of Aladdin’s lamp. (and a subtle curse, as such granted wishes often are). Setting a price on magic has been a conceptual error of economics, conflating the magic with the wizard in economic theories. As a plastic feedstock, oil is nearly priceless compared to alternatives. As a fuel, it is irreplaceable – a civilization without it would not have jet airlines. And it has decoupled “labor” values from being pinned to the real world, making the economy instead an ad hoc distribution system for magic’s largesse. We have the “magic” economy and a “human” economy, all mixed up at present… but the magic is inexorably going away.
Economic theory assumes that energy is just like any other input into our production function. A barrel of oil at $100 provides the same amount of value to our economy as a $100 bottle of wine or a $100 pair of shoes. But the potential energy in that barrel of oil equates to 5.7 mi llion BTUs, or in terms of work, 1700 kWh. At 0.6 kWh per workday per human (average), this works out to over 10 years of manual labor – –or around $500,000 in America that is replaced. This oil, and other fossil fuels can explain the majority of what economists term ‘productivity’, far surpassing the output elasticity of capital, creativity and especially labor, (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544211 005445) and we have already long ago found the cheapest, highest quality reserves. This means that energy is dramatically undervalued in our economies (and, importantly, labor is equally overvalued). This massive energy subsidy has allowed some combination of higher wages, higher profits, cheaper products, and/or more people*. So when Obama said ‘you didn’t build that company’, he was right (at least partially) but for the wrong reason. A large part of our wealth is due to our use of magic formed in another era.
*(80% of the nitrogen in our bodies and 50% of the protein is directly from natural gas via fertilizers and food thanks to the Haber-bosch process. People alive 2 centuries ago were made from sunlight, we instead are (largely) made from fossil hydrocarbons.) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haber_process#cite_note-Howarth_2008-21
Many in environmental circles consider fossil fuel subsidies a key obstacle to a low carbon future. There are many estimates of subsidy #s out there. The highest reasonable estimate for big 5 (public companies as opposed to nationals) is about $50 billion. http://priceofoil.org/fossil-fuel- subsidies/ (Both Obama and Romney referred to $2.5 billion subsidies to FF companies in the last debate). Oil Change International has shown an estimate of $750 billion in subsidies for fossil fuel companies – but of this $650 billion is subsidizing consumption for poor people. http://priceofoil.org/fossil-fuel-subsidies/international/ So let’s assume the highest estimate – $100 billion of subsidies (750 minus 650) in a world economy of $50 trillion. The amount of ‘subsidy’ that fossil fuels themselves give the rest of world economy –in their replacement of human labo, wages, profits and myriad other plastics/products etc. – is orders of magnitude greater than the governments give fossil fuel companies. The average cost to produce a barrel of oil is ~$50 (and rising) – it sells for $100. Fossil fuel companies produce ~32 billion barrels of oil per year. Let’s assume 1/3 of the $100 billion in subsidies goes towards oil (basically 1/3 of FF consumption is oil –rest is gas and coal) =$33 billion. So using highest estimates we are subsidizing oil companies $1 per barrel, they are making $50 per barrel (with oil at $100), and in turn the oil is subsidizing society hundreds of thousands of times that amount. Said differently, nature and time created a dense liquid fuel that is indistinguishable from magic on any human time scale. To speak in terms of a society/government subsidizing oil companies makes no sense – it is a rounding error – irrelevant.
RENEWABLES ARE FOSSIL FUEL EXTENDERS, NOT REPLACERS
Those who recognized early on that fossil fuels would become more expensive in energy and environmental terms – the “depletion scout team” if you will – had a natural knee jerk reaction of “we can replace them!!”. But when we look at our future it is not sufficient to say ‘does a technology work’ or ‘is it competitive with existing technologies?’ ~at our current juncture it needs to be asked, ‘given our energy, economic, environmental constraints, does XXX plus other measures allow us to keep the system growing”? Because otherwise we first have to deal with an unwind of institutions and expectations that will quickly -at least in the 5-10 year term – cause energy to not be the limiting factor – which then initiates a cascade of other problems which are not being planned for. In the case of solar, the answer to these question is ‘no’. Industrial solar – if you consider full system including battery – is down to ~15c per kWh – a huge improvement, due in large part to lower input costs from risk-heavy China -but still needs to be cut in half to be competitive. Environmentalists point to Germany as a shining example of a low-carbon economy – but to combat intermittence and potential shortfalls when the sun isn’t shining they are building 15 new coal plants!! Renewables are fossil fuel extenders, not replacers (at least if a globalized, industrialized, high consumption lifestyle is the model). But the key overlooked point is that….. ‘being competitive’ is no longer a sufficient goal. Neither fossil fuels nor renewables, at today’s prices can continue a growth based economy (from these levels). And if we are to grow from lower levels in the future, there needs to be planning on how that happens, something that won’t likely come from market signals.
(I realize it would take a tome-length document to persuade renewable energy proponents that this is true. Below are some links that give some general insight into the problem – again it’s not that solar and wind, etc. can’t help individuals, regions, nations or even our collective future – but not when touted as the primary answer to our debt/energy situation problems)
DIVESTITURE IS REALLY A WEALTH TRANSFER UNLESS ACCOMPANIED BY ABSTINENCE
To call on pension funds, churches and individuals to ‘divest’ from fossil fuel companies shares to ‘hit them where it hurts’ is …. naïve. (unless the sole purpose is to build a movement, in which case one has to ask, ‘what does success look like’?) First of all, if pension funds and churches sell all their stock in Exxon and Shell, and people still drive cars, take flights, and eat food based on current shipping/packaging model, then fossil fuel company profits will be just as high! The financial response will be that hedge funds will just buy those shares cheaper and the price will quickly go right back to where it was. So the plan of ‘divestiture’ is really just a wealth transfer from churches and pension funds to hedge funds!! If we truly want to divest from fossil fuel companies we would need to REALLY hit them where it hurts, which is to use less -significantly less – this is difficult for most people and impossible for (an industrial) society. There is in the neighborhood of $100 trillion in existing capital equipment that requires liquid fuel to run, and rust doesn’t sleep. (Note: divestment has the potential to significantly help the university/church etc that divests, as money in FF stocks and bonds can be put to other – local and regional uses much better aligned with the institutions goals – this is potentially a big deal – but what divestment will not do is reduce global emissions.) ((Note2: 77% of global oil production is by national oil companies – i.e. owned by governments and not by a publicly traded company))
HUMAN BEHAVIOR #1 – WE CARE MORE ABOUT THE PRESENT THAN THE FUTURE
To change people’s minds about behavior you have to either make the case really scary, or the time-to-impact really short because of peoples evolved tendency to focus on the present (and cultures impact on causing discount rates to be even steeper). For most Americans, ‘the future’ is this weekend. Climate change is real (as are myriad other environmental exte rnalities), but if people are losing jobs and have to worry about feeding their kids, concern about the natural world will take a back seat to more mundane realities. In evolutionary terms, we are not that advanced from Easter Islanders. Crucial: if we are optimizing for avoiding climate change and ocean acidification it only matters if fossil carbon is left in the ground for the next thousand years… essentially forever from our point of view. Period. That’s the challenge, and it’s one the “enlightenment” activists are scared of because it’s actually damn difficult (or impossible). Such a plan, from a 2012 starting point will cause pain, and possibly front-load dieback of humans. That reality is far from what is being put out by environmentalists. (Of course one can understand why).
HUMAN BEHAVIOR #2 – MAXIMUM POWER PRINCIPLE
Nature abhors a gradient. Life requires one. Possessing gradients, and throttling them to create islands of low entropy while global entropy rises, is the very essence of life. Those organisms that are most effective in accessing and degrading energy have had evolutionary advantage. This includes human societies. For us to voluntarily give up or reduce access to the highest quality fuels goes against our evolutionary grain for ‘more’ or ‘progress’. Reducing consumption via top- down authority is possible (think dictator Tokogawa Japan) but extremely unlikely. Our modern history is one of doing everything in our power to keep continued global access to high EROI fuels possible.
Declining energy productivity (lower aggregate EROI), instead of causing a belt tightening in the 1970s, caused us to go to debt to continue high levels of consumption. That led to lower and lower debt productivity (less and less GDP per additional $ of debt), to the point that central banks had to take over the model. In the US, our economy ex-government stopped growing in China, Russia, Brazil etc are following the exact same model (plummeting debt productivity). So we added government debt to offset declining private growth. Once debt productivity goes below zero (as it is currently in US and probably in many european countries), we are simply transmuting wealth into income – and the timeline of being able to continue that strategy becomes very short, irrespective of oil prices. Then we went to Quantitative Easing to further support consumption. (in the past few years central banks have subsidized our consumptive lifestyle to tune of $14 trillion+ http://tinyurl.com/8shtnee (What is the carbon footprint of QE??). QE and other illusions cause extraction to continue apace by obscuring EROEI effects/’signals temporarily. And now new QE3 is impacting ‘inflation expectations’. (After Qe1, Qe2 and QE3, stocks went up 36%, 24% and 2% while food prices went up 7% 21% and 19% and energy prices went up 30%, 37% and 19%.
In this context, money is a claim on energy and resources, and debt is a claim on future money. It was OK to create money out of thin air when we lived on ‘an empty planet’, as the principle and interest could be paid back with open territories and cheap fuel. On a full planet (and one in debt) more credit becomes a lodestone. Our wealth is directly proportional to the amount of net energy per unit time we access and use. So when we experience growth fueled by debt, we are merely pulling future net energy forward in time. (How much would global oil production have declined if central banks and governments had not poured 14+ trillion into economies since 2008 thus supporting oil prices?)
So in effect, what governments are doing now is facilitating an increase in gross energy, while keeping net energy constant (or declining) all the while growing more and more claims of what people THINK they have access to in the future. We are satisfying our evolutionary drive to access more energy but a growing % of this ‘money as claim on energy’ is devoid of real calories but preventing the natural societal decline in parallel with EROEI decline by obscuring the signals and building to a more abrupt crash in the future. As (cheap) energy is the foundation of our current socioeconomic system, attacking the energy companies won’t succeed, it can’t; fossil carbon will be demanded even by the climate activists and their children UNLESS they have accepted a lower-consumption lifestyle.
HUMAN BEHAVIOR #3 – DOPAMINE/STATUS/NOVELTY TREADMILL
Our current society is on a well-worn hedonic treadmill. Whether we use carbon based or renewable fuels does not address the conspicuous consumption carrots and the aspirations of billions in the developing world. We compete for status and the competition is resource (and carbon) intensive. The problem is not so much the consumption by the billionaires but the fact that everyone aspires to be like them – ergo our ‘goals’ have become a social trap. From the perspective of neuroscience, “the wanting” is a much more powerful behavioral driver than “the having”. http://www.theoildrum.com/node/7901 Until we address this problem in a world where supermarkets have an average of 88,000 items, going ‘low carbon’ will not accomplish much as we pull in other limiting inputs from elsewhere in the environment.
NET ENERGY, NOT GROSS, IS WHAT WE CAN BUDGET AND SPEND (AND BURN)
The 2,795 gigatons that 350.org says are ‘available to burn’ does not take into account net energy and the cost in natural resource terms to extract the fuels, nor the overindebted nature of OECD. It is likely that fossil fuel depletion ~and unaffordability for growth based global system~will limit the atmospheric CO2 concentration at levels much lower than the ones derived from SRES and normally presented in the anthropogenic climate change debate. There are certainly more than the 565 gigatons left that would keep us under 2 degrees C warming – but 2795 will just not possibly be extracted on a business as usual growth trajectory. Net and gross very important here. (Since 2002, oil production costs have been going up 17% a year, while inflation has only been 2%( http://ftalphaville.ft.com/2012/05/02/983171/marginal-oil-production-costs-are- heading-towards-100barrel/) – estimates for average break even in 2014 is $115 per barrel (http://ftalphaville.ft.com/2012/10/19/1220571/oil-production-costs-in-goldmans-flatter-world/) talk about declining EROI). HOWEVER, even under a significantly smaller global economy – say 50% of current GDP, humans could find ways to set stuff on fire as they get desperate and stupid – e.g. coal mine fires in china, may only be ~1% of CO2 now, but could burn for hundreds of years once lit, and this may happen more often in coming century… halfassedness, fires, flaring etc can pollute as effectively as industry. We can hope that the 5:1+ EROI fuel is not all consumed, but it could be burned even in a dystopian slave economy with a dirty EROI of 3:1 and luxury for a small class of elite.
END OF GROWTH WILL TRUMP END OF CARBON – BY A LONGSHOT
By far the largest challenge that the public and politicians will see in the next 5-7 years will be an economic one. Personally, I think 7 years from now the best case (if there are no major disruptions) is a 10% drop in global GDP. Worst case will be…. worse. This trajectory originated from resource/energy constraints but is now largely due to credit constraints. Since 2007 quarterly growth (adjusted for defaults) is 94% correlated with aggregate credit growth. Once credit stops, growth stops – at this stage, global throughput (measured by real, not nominal GDP) is highly likely to have peaked, and we revert to actual EROI status abruptly. As soon as this is recognized, attention to climate change (unless the world temps are accelerating dramatically in some sort of methane burp scenario), will be relegated to back burner. Key point: climate change activists are tacitly assuming BAU, using strategies which are not able to deal with hiatus or to significant change in the underlying dynamics of how their message is received and treated. Perhaps this is why they are ‘succeeding’ in a BAU framework, with a flawed message.
END OF GROWTH KEYNESIANISM
Solar and wind have large ‘energy durations’, i.e. the weighted average of their energy output is further away from the present than traditional fuel investments (think oil and nat gas). http://www.theoildrum.com/node/7147 That makes the costs -and investment decision hurdles – of renewable energy very dependent on discount rates, which in a market economy are highly correlated to market interest rates. The government response to the financial crisis since 2007 – indeed the only response they could make in size, was to buy up and/or guarantee sovereign debt – without such support by ECB, BOJ, FED, etc. rates would have skyrocketed and killed our economies because investors wouldn’t have the stomach for lower credit rating prospects without government support. Paradoxically this ends up making renewables look much better than they otherwise would (e.g in purely biophysical, EROI analysis), because interest rates (discount rates) are artificially suppressed. If rates went to pure capitalist levels (w/out government intervention), the gap in average cost between renewable and nat gas/oil/coal generation would expand sharply and much of the solar production would collapse (and a fair amount of oil/gas/coal too. 30 year rates in Germany are just over 2%. http://www.bloomberg.com/markets/rates-bonds/government-bonds/germany/ Same with other major countries – and these artificially low rates impact peripheral country discount rates as well.
In a globally interconnected system that is facing the end of growth, having government (in this case via lower interest rates) steer consumption towards ways that are better for environment/society is probably a very good thing. But all sorts of urgent ‘peak oil keynesianism’ projects can be pursued that are more consistent with a smaller, more local/regional/lower consumption future, which are not even on the drawing board. The subtle problem here, is that to artificially promote renewables, but within the context of an economy which still measures success by GDP and higher consumption is diverting substantial resources away from what urgently needs to be planned for – mitigation of systemic and societal risks due to end of growth. Ironically, in a society reaching limits due to insufficient cheap energy, energy will likely not be the limiting variable for the first decade or so after end of growth – as financial claims on real assets are significantly more overextended ~and will outpace~ oil depletion rates. Ergo we don’t face a shortage of energy, but longage of expectations. Near shoring, supply chain relocalization, grass roots civilian conservation core, community action (as opposed to community support), all kinds of social/civic program opportunities abound that should have higher priority than scaling renewables (given the context).
The music on financial musical chairs will abruptly stop in not too distant future. Scaling wind, solar and other renewables – in very long term – is a profoundly important idea – we ultimately need to live off of solar flows and not our fossil bank account – but in near and intermediate term we have plenty of energy, just not enough to grow, and our ‘knee jerk reaction’, to expand gross energy while net energy is declining, in my opinion, will end up being a large misallocation of resources (and in this case, I would say the misallocation of “people” resources – those who recognize we need change and are willing to do something about it- are probably as important as the financial/capital allocations)
UNWIND OF GLOBALIZATION POSES LARGE UNRECOGNIZED RISKS
One of the largest risks that goes mostly unrecognized in ecologically minded circles is globalization and its potential unwind due to liquid fuel shortages or more likely – currency/debt problems. A large part of our living standards are from decades of suppressing import substitution policies and continual offshoring to cheapest location for all sorts of trade goods. The result is a brittle, complex system of micro-components and supply chains – which if it breaks down sharply (as opposed to a gradual move over 10-15 years which would be healthy) creates a bigger risk to the environment/climate/biodiversity than any business as usual trajectory (low odds, but possible). Compared to even 30 years ago, no country is self-sufficient on basic goods, even those who are energy independent. The impact from climate in our future is huge, but distant. The impact from unwind of globalization is very large, and on our doorstep. Both need addressing.
WALKING THE WALK
To a sensitive topic – of the ‘climate activists/scientists’ I know – (and I know 4 people personally who were on IPCC), most have several kids, eat meat, drive cars, raise dogs and cats, and take vacations to faraway places. Their offices where they do the science advocating limiting CO2 emissions are not remotely energy efficient and there is little to no attempt to reduce consumption. They passionately believe in a low carbon future and a better future for their children but are ignorant of ~or are purposefully ignoring~ the implications (Bill McKibben is a notable exception to this, as he has walked the walk for a long time – e.g. there are some).
We are (in aggregate) living at a 10 on a lifestyle scale of 1-10. We spend a lot of time, effort and jawboning on how to avert a decline to 9.5. But if we knew a decline to 6 was possible, a decline to 3 was not out of the question, and a decline to 8 was pretty much baked in the cake, would we change our priorities? Especially if the “8” was better for the environment and healthier/less frenetic for us? Perception is reality. To the deluded, a well-grounded optimism looks a lot like pessimism. There are currently many many unexamined assumptions among the campaigners for the world. The difference between my view, and the standard ‘let’s mitigate climate change’ narrative, is that we are playing the game of musical chairs instead. In a world of declining growth, might I be the one in 10 that doesn’t find a chair this year (read: job, pension, security, and in some cases, food?) or the one in 9 next year?
In the end this is what it is all about – we are headed for a lower growth world – the time to ‘choose’ degrowth as an option is past – now we will experience it no matter what. We need serious resources (monetary and human) diverted away from low-carbon future towards exploring/preparing for a low consumption future – and they are linked. There can be no green without lean. Key risk: in the case of an abrupt transition that alters the playing field enviro’s could become very unpopular unless the strident message changes. Greens will not be seen as saviors, they will be pariahs to the populace, and I fear such a transition is already being set up.
Ultimately, CO2 and methane have emerged as the greatest threat to currently evolved large life, but this may take a thousand years to play out (acidification faster), and is now being set irrevocably in motion. But the next 50-100 years will probably see all kinds of frenetic human activity and other limits being reached unrelated to heating – and the next 10 years will be about the evaporation of humans abstract claims on future energy/resources (money).
Bill McKibben is a friend of mine and I hold him in high regard. His book ‘The End of Nature’ (written when I ate bags of Cheetos watching Gilligans Island reruns), was one of the books that motivated me to leave Wall Street and study ecology at 40 years old. But in the end, his 350.org doesn’t aim high enough. I am willing to get arrested or worse for the cause of improving the future/averting environmental disaster – but getting arrested to protest a pipeline that if not built in USA will still send the CO2 producing fuel to China to the same atmosphere and oceans (except it won’t, because BAU is in its death throes, only supported by vast ‘temporary’ government/central bank measures), is too nominal of a goal. And yet, humans like villains – and blaming fossil fuel companies for our woes will probably raise more money/influence than the true villains – our own consumption/addiction. If the vocal climate crowd is right and we need to stop burning fossil fuels altogether before we trigger an environmental apocalypse, then divesting from fossil fuel stocks and bonds is like shooting an elephant with a spitwad – as we would need to divest from capitalism and democracy in the process. The problem with movements based on illogical reasoning is if they succeed, then ‘what’s next’ will be non -linear, and if they fail they become one trick ponies, and the millions strong passionate for change go home without knowing what happened.
The climate narrative currently pulls from the psyches of many different demographics of people that recognize that something is wrong, that we are impacting the world in profound ways and that a new paradigm is needed. But this narrative runs parallel to a consumer narrative, which is why many companies sign on to it – green can (so the current zeitgeist would have you believe) be profitable and like an evolving religion, it tacks on memes from other movements: egalitarian process, the 1%, the future will be better, etc. In reality it can’t ~it can reallocate and make some people/firms/industries profitable but if aggregate net energy is in decline, pursuing low carbon energy will make things worse, not better. And, just as the republican right can’t (or won’t) grasp the environmental implications of our current societal trajectory, environmentalists are unlikely to adopt the themes in this essay.
Yes we need scientists and advocates to catalog our environmental source/sink balance sheet but the most important thing we need now is large cadres of people who work in various environmental fields to shift their efforts from what a low carbon future looks like to what a low- consumption future looks like –not because we are going to choose such, but because it is upon us and it urgently – as in years, not decades, needs a psychological vision and a physical plan. Most will not embrace a long-term vision and plan for our species, but it may be attainable by a reasonable minority.
For those of you that think about the future as more than yourself or your own consumption. For those who feel sadness and empathy when they see a poached elephant carcass, or a bleached coral reef, or a malnourished child, or a clearcut forest, the next 10-15 years are going to pose a series of enormous challenges. But before we can address these larger questions ~ how do we live more in tune with our evolved behavioral drivers, how do we live more off of solar flows and less off of detritus from the carboniferous period etc., ~ we will have to steer the human response to the end of the perpetual growth era. Of the hundreds of thousands of well-intended, bright, pro-social energy/environmental/climate demographic, we urgently need to calve off a large amount of people/resources to work on a lower consumption future instead of a lower carbon future. Yes we will eventually go lower carbon (we must), but our institutions, populations, policies are not remotely prepared for lower consumption, which is right around the corner.
The stakes are very, very high. And time is very, very short.