Tim Watkins has emerged as one of the most accurate and articulate communicators of our predicament.
In today’s essay Watkins clearly explains both our problem and our options.
There isn’t a hint of denial here. Well done!
To express our predicament as simply as I can, it is this:
- In order to prevent environmental collapse bringing about the death of more than six in every seven humans on the planet, we (all of us) simply have to stop using fossil carbon fuels today.
- But if we stop using the fossil carbon fuels that currently provide the world with 85 percent of its power, our highly complex and interconnected oil-dependent economy will crash; resulting in a global famine that will kill more than six in every seven humans on the planet anyway.
In the USA, meanwhile, what purports to be a debate about the environment has been largely co-opted on both sides of the growing political divide into a debate about the economics of public spending. The Democrat Party version of the green new deal is little more than a debt-based job-creation and public healthcare scheme with some windmills and solar panels providing a veneer of greenwash. The Republican Party – or at least the minority who don’t think climate change is a hoax – in contrast, seek to cut public spending and green energy subsidies in favour of carbon taxes and free market pseudo-solutions. Neither side inspires much confidence in addressing the full scope of the human impact crisis that is breaking over us.
As with any other oil-based technology, wind turbines and solar panels are subject to diminishing returns which leave green deals dead in the water. But resource depletion is an even greater problem simply because humanity consumed all of the cheap and easy fossil carbon and mineral resources in the two-decade long blowout of the post-war boom. Our problem is not just that we cannot improve the technologies we currently have, but also that we no longer have access to the resources to re-fight World War Two or to purposelessly launch humans anywhere beyond a low earth orbit.
The vain hope that by shovelling vast amounts of fiat currency at lithium ion batteries we will somehow transcend the laws of physics is a siren song that takes us even further away from even mitigating the crisis before us. Indeed, the ability of states and banks to continue to create fiat currency out of thin air is itself only possible because of the illusion that there will be sufficient additional energy and mineral resources available in future to repay the debt we are running up today. When that illusion is shattered – as it very nearly was a decade ago – the resulting stagflation will put paid to any chance of deploying a fraction of the windmills and solar panels required even to maintain the standard of living currently endured by a growing precariat in the developed states.
If we leave matters to Mother Nature – assuming no energy breakthrough arrives to save the day – then the collapse of the environment just as our critical infrastructure fails is going to result in a massive cull of the human population via some combination of war, plague and starvation. We might mitigate this, however, by embarking upon a managed de-growth that begins with a radical shrinking of our material consumption to bring us (in the developed economies) to the standard of living of sub-Saharan Africa. In the process, we will have to take some seriously unpleasant decisions in order to shrink the population back to a more sustainable level – for example, rationing healthcare to the under 50s (I’m 58 by the way) and enforcing birth controls far more draconian than China’s infamous one-child policy. I have no expectation that anyone is going to vote for this; I just put it forward as a slightly more benign alternative to sitting back and waiting for nature to put an end to most of our species.
In the end, we are going to go with Mills’ option simply because it is the only one that fits with our underlying quasi-religion of progress. If material science provides us with the hoped for technological breakthrough – most likely one that unlocks the full potential of the atom (simply because of the vast potential energy within the nucleus as opposed to that released by breaking electron bonds) – then the kind of technologies available to future humans will be about as puzzling to us as a smartphone or a GPS satellite would have been to our Neolithic ancestors. If, as is far more likely, the technological breakthrough fails to put in an appearance, then irrespective of how many windmills and solar panels we manage to erect before our resources run out, this civilisation and possibly our entire species is done.
10 thoughts on “By Tim Watkins: The Green Deal is Hopium”
Brilliant essay. I love Hopium – we should all main line it (snide comment). There is no denial at all in this essay, just the way it should be. I especially liked his comment on the “Anthropocene” not being a true geological era but a thin layer of dust similar to the comet that wiped out the dinosaurs – the irony is that we did it to ourselves.
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Thanks for continuing to bring attention to interesting people and thinking. I catch a few of the things you re-publish directly or from other sources, but have definitely have benefited from your efforts. (Not sure benefited is the right word….I might be happier in denial. )
I first thought after reading “The green deal is hopium” was to say that we are past the point of solutions, and now in the age of choices (to dilemmas.). We will have to choose our path from a list of bad options. But then this article was sent to me in the last hour. https://insideclimatenews.org/news/25022019/plastics-hub-appalachian-fracking-ethane-cracker-climate-change-health-ohio-river It demonstrates, I think, as a sort of meta-example, of how available energy and resources shape our choices, even as we know the resulting waste products will be harmful. Now I thinking, there is no real human agency, and the big choices will be made for us, one way or the other.
I think I will resolve my philosophical uncertainty with a glass of wine at dinner this evening.
Lastly, I note that a few of the folks on your blog role or list of innovative thinkers (Tverberg, Dr. Morgan, etc.) are suggesting we could be at the beginning of the end of the energy production growth, or at least changes in how much net energy that provides to the non-energy economy. We shall see. In any case, it will be interesting to see what “choices” we make when fossil fuel energy production begins its decline.
Thanks for the encouragement. There are so few people on this planet that understand what’s going on that it helps to keep me sane by finding and publishing the work of the few that are aware.
With regard to free will, I think our genes are mostly in control, and they obey the Maximum Power Principle (MPP), as any replicator competing for finite resources must. And so the people of the Ohio valley are happy to have the jobs provided by a new plastics factory and do not think about the consequences.
I think it’s clear that net energy per capita is declining with the clearest evidence being falling standards of living and rising debt levels worldwide. You are right that there are no painless choices available to us. With broader awareness we could choose a path that resulted in less suffering, but our collective denial is blocking that path.
Enjoy your wine. I’m very grateful for good food and drink these days.
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Agreed, enjoy it while you can and I’m also very grateful. Thanks for your work here Rob, I’ve learned a lot.
The BBC took a crack at things today, “how brain biases prevent climate action”:
Thanks. It’s true we have many evolved behaviors that have contributed to our overshoot and inability to acknowledge let alone do anything constructive about it.
I think denial of reality is a “super behavior” that is required to explain what I observe, and to explain some uniquely human characteristics like our belief in life after death.
But I might be wrong. Nate Hagens (many posts by him on this site) is a good person to follow if you don’t buy the denial theory.
The “Green” New Deal would just create a bunch of quasi-green new sprawl, doing nothing for nature itself. The theme, of course, is that it can solve climate change, therefor all the new scars are justified for other species’ sake. They use that excuse whenever you mention wind turbines killing birds & bats; purely hypothetical while corpses fall today.
The other big disclaimer is that future projects will be “carefully sited,” which anyone can see is a joke, given the current blight and protests over new projects. Even The Nature Conservancy tows that line with their supposed sprawl expert, Joe Kiesecker. He claims we can find ways to only build on degraded lands (or farmland) and miraculously not affect views elsewhere (or annoy more farmers). The oceans are no miracle either, e.g. Ocean City, MD’s tough fight to keep turbines 30 miles offshore.
I’m no longer voting for Democrats because of the GND, unless they get a major reality-check. Screechers like A.O.C. and B.S. (sorry for the initials Bern) need to give way to wiser moderates, though they’re mostly deniers as well.
Nice video essay on climate change hopium…
Tim Watkins compares the UK with Venezuela…
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It is hopium to believe that even unlocking the full potential of the atom will save us. The point he misses is that it is energy use itself which causes the growing impact of humanity on the planet. There would be nothing worse for the planet and hence humanity than unlimited fusion power. Homo sapiens already use an order of magnitude more energy than the rest of life combined. We simply have to bite the bullet and drastically lower energy consumption.
You are right. On the other hand it is very nice to live in a heated home with running water and electric lights, and to have access to modern dentists and optometrists. If we could get the population down to say a few hundred million people we might be able keep some of the benefits of our high energy lifestyle.