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.