Thanks to bright green technologies, we can continuously grow the level of consumption on planet Earth and deliver a bloated North American lifestyle to all without inviting climate catastrophe or a general breakdown of natural ecosystems that support all living things.
That’s the big bold lie that politicians are telling themselves this week at yet another climate conference. Greta Thunberg calls such dissembling just so much “blah, blah, blah.”
As I’ll share in this piece, a number of brilliant energy critics from Vaclav Smil to William Rees have done the figuring, acknowledged the physical limits of things, and told us the truth. A truth that is not as uncomfortable as you might think.
It is this. We must contract the global economy, restructure technological society and restore what’s left of natural ecosystems if we want to live and breathe.
Others escalate the destruction of the land. The majority of so-called renewables require extensive mining of scarce rare earth minerals and fossil fuels for their construction and maintenance. And that means devastated communities and mountains of toxic waste. Others, such as a hydrogen-fuelled future hoax, have been repeatedly pulled out of the ideas closet and abandoned, because an energy sink can never become a viable energy source.
Why, then, do so many members of our political, academic and media classes insist on telling us that unproven technologies will refloat the globe’s sinking Titanic?
The reason is simple. Big green lies allow the political class to avoid talking about a radical restructuring of the technological society and an end to economic growth.
Powering down is not powering off
For years the energy ecologist Vaclav Smil has argued that our civilization needs to power down, practice conservation and set limits on how much stuff it consumes.
A sensible society, he argues, would have taxed the hell out of big cars, big homes and frequent travellers decades ago, but there is a shortage of common sense and yes, it has something to do with supply chains.
Smil, a no bullshit guy, has repeatedly asked: What’s wrong with returning to the level of energy spending experienced in the 1950s and 1960s?
“I could design you the global system today without any horrible loss of standard of living all around the world,” he recently told David-Wallace Wells.
“Consuming 30, 40, 50 per cent less of everything that we are consuming, be it water, or steel, or energy. But we are not willing to go down that route. Technically, it doesn’t require any new inventions, nothing, and it will actually save us money in many ways.”
But people and politicians want more and not less. “They want to have their SUVs, and they want to have their raspberries in January. That’s the problem,” said Smil. They also don’t realize if we don’t manage a descent in energy spending, we will face a collapse of civilization.
Smil is not alone in regarding climate change as a symptom of greater ecological problems. The physicist Tom Murphy, the ecologist Bill Rees and the energy critic Nate Hagens (a former investment banker) have all warned that only significant reductions in energy spending and a contraction of the global economy can forestall a ghastly future.
Rejecting the technosphere
Unfortunately, today’s leaders refuse to enable the conversation we need to have. That is because they reflect our society’s dominant technological bias. Most of us are now inmates of what a group of British geologists call the technosphere, or what the social critic Jacques Ellul described as “la technique” long ago.
It is a parasitic growth on the biosphere (the living world) that consumes fossil fuels to drive economic and human growth. All of that growth requires increasing levels of technological complexity that seeks to control every aspect of human life. But the cheap energy to power this complexity is now dwindling and creating a crisis the system can not register, let alone acknowledge.
The inanimate technosphere consists of mines, ports, cities, roads, trucks, containers and all the technology — from computers to AI — needed to manage this byzantine operation. Corporate pioneers of the technosphere such as Facebook are now inviting us to join virtual worlds where we can perhaps experience virtual emissions along with the virtual destruction of the biosphere in comfort and splendour.
The physical presence of the technosphere is now greater than that of any previous colonizing force or empire. Its mass represents 30 trillion tonnes. That’s 50 kilograms of humanmade steel, concrete and plastic for every square metre of the Earth’s surface. Unlike the biosphere, the technosphere manufactures endless volumes of waste including plastic, carbon, cell phones and uneaten food (40 per cent waste) and lithium batteries.
The technosphere is self-augmenting and self-directing. Its primary purpose is to replace the natural world with artificial environments supported by high-energy inputs. Propelled by a cult of exponential growth, the technosphere respects no physical or ecological limits. Every inmate of the technosphere is taught to expect that every social, spiritual, political and ecological problem will have a technical solution.
But if the solution to any problem, say rising carbon dioxide emissions or wildlife extinction, requires economic contraction, an end to growth or a restoration of the biosphere, the technosphere will summarily reject it with blah, blah, blah.
The preservation of the technosphere at any cost explains why our politicians champion energy dead ends such as carbon capture, utilization and storage; direct air capture; dematerialization and hydrogen power.
What the world needs to hear
Instead, here is what our leaders should be saying:
We are eight billion people competing for finite resources and consuming energy at unprecedented levels. Economic growth is destroying the Earth and the atmosphere. It has degraded our humanity, and divorced us from the values of our ancestors.
Growth is a ponzi scheme. Increased prosperity depends on making more people because more people consume more goods.
If we don’t prioritize the health of the planet over our short-term economic interests the oceans will sicken with acid, the forests will die, and the fisheries will disappear. Nature will reduce our numbers if we do not scale down out appetites and ambitions.
The technospshere threatens our physical and spiritual existence. It must be scaled back and reoriented to serve people. Now it actively mines data from people while altering our brain functions to serve the growth of the technosphere.
We have exploited the richest of our fossil fuels, and renewables can’t offer the same energy density and quality. That is why energy conservation is the only way forward. Our energy use must consistently drop by three or four per cent a year over the next decade.
And it can be done. About 62 per cent of the energy flowing through civilization is now wasted and ends up in our atmosphere — our landfill for CO2.
This enormous waste gives us lots of room to cut and prune and scale back. An economic contraction, or what Gaia theorist James Lovelock calls a “sustainable retreat,” will dramatically reduce emissions and forestall a collapse.
It will result in more localized production and much less global trade and travel.
Almost all products will cost more but last longer. The era of buying cheap clothes and gadgets that end up in a landfill within a year of their purchase must end. No other civilization has ever bought food and thrown 40 per cent into the garbage and survived to tell the tale.
Yes, reducing fossil fuel spending means communities will have to rely on human muscle and community energy to get many things done. Agriculture will have to revert towards a human and animal enterprise instead of an industrial mining machine. Small farms may employ a third of the population.
Ignore those alarmists that say contraction means you and I must live in cold caves. An economic retreat does not mean returning to the Dark Ages. As Hagens has observed, a 30-per-cent GDP drop in the United States would bring that nation back to a 1990s level of energy spending. A 50 per cent drop in GDP would bring the U.S. back to a 1973 level. Were those times so bad?
Every community, every nation, should be open to radical reimagining, by asking: What works in this place? Everyone should be contributing their insights and experience towards preparing a human-scale economic model, a conservation plan for natural resources, and possibly even different political structures.
Don’t wait for the timid leaders
It is better to have those conversations now than later. Most citizens are already far ahead of their politicians on this front.
If we don’t consciously act now, other forces from famine to relentless political conflict will determine our lives.
A society that consumes less energy and stuff could rehumanize society and heal the biosphere, writes Rees in a recent paper:
“More human labour will mean more physically active lives in closer contact with each other and nature, which can restore our shattered sense of well-being and connection to the land,” the ecologist adds.
“Similarly, a waning focus on material progress will allow for emphasis to shift to progress of the mind and spirit — largely untapped frontiers at present with unlimited potential.”
In other words, to contract our economy would expand our humanity. Put that way, scaling down from a bigness to a smaller world may not just be the only solution, but an uplifting one.