"I got the blues...Won't you save me?
I got the blues...as far as I can see.
I got the blues...Won't you save me?
Seems like I'm dying, from that old, used-to-be."
I tend to be an optimist, at least by the standards of peak oil activists (which isn't very hard). By that I mean that I believe in individual action and I believe that we could overturn the system that we live within and make better choices. But I also think this is less likely than that we'll do the wrong thing, and part of it is that our brains are trying to kill us (or at least our kids). That is, we've gotten into habits of thought so destructive and so automatic that we don't even recognize their basic failures. And if we don't recognize the failures in our own heads and overturn them, we're in big trouble. One of those problems is that we can't stop looking for a quick fix.
I liked this essay by James Kunstler quite a bit, and I recommend it to you, because he has a useful grasp of essentials,
" It only made me more nervous, because this longing for "solutions," strikes me as a free-floating wish for magical rescue remedies, for techno-fixes that will allow us to make a hassle-free switch from fossil hydrocarbon power to something less likely to destroy the Earth's ecosystems (and human civilization with it). And I think such a wish is, in itself, at the root of our problem -- certainly at the bottom of our incapacity to think clearly about these things.
I said so, of course, which seemed to piss off a substantial number of my fellow festival attendees."
I, like Kunstler, think that the phrasing of the call for "solutions" as "ways to keep things mostly the way they are" is completely mistaken. Trying to keep the cars going and growth capitalism up and running is a. futile and b. destructive. Not only will we be doing the wrong thing, but we don't seem to grasp that none of these represents a real solution in any meaningful sense.
Ethanol, biodiesel, solar panels - all of these are tremendously fossil fuel intensive. We can't make a solar panel without using a whole lot of silicone and metals that are mined, smelted, crafted, assembled, sold and transported using...fossil fuels. The day that we can create a solar panel made from cradle to grave with renewable energies, I'll buy the notion that we're all going to be running around in electric cars fed by solar panels.
Now when I say that, people start arguing that it is hypothetically possible that someday we'll use bioplastics and mine metals using electrically powered machinery. And again, I point out, show me a case of having done it, having made even 5 solar panels that way, and I'll buy it. Heck, I'll write a free ad.
Because most people don't grasp that solar panels, or wind generators or ethanol aren't a magic bullet unless they represent a self-perpetuating system. Oil was nicely self perpetuating, at least for a good long time - you used oil based equipment to get oil out of the ground in a nice ration of energy returned over energy invested (EROEI) of 100-1. But we don't have the infrastructure, or the grid system, or the renewables, or the tools, or in some cases the technology to make things like solar panels or wind generators entirely out of renewables. They take fossil fuels at 20-50 different spots along the ride. When you add up all the fossil fuels involved, the EROEI of most renewables is somewhere between 1 to 1 and 20-1, probably on the low side for most of them. That means that even to match our current energy needs, we'd need 5 times as much power generated from wind as coal and 50 times as much generated from solar as natural gas. Do you begin to grasp the scale of the problem?
And these alternative energies aren't a permanent solution - it is true that a solar panel might last 20-30 years. It is also true that they might not, and that the batteries certainly won't. That grid intertie that keeps you from having batteries - that uses lots of fossil fuels quite regularly and needs quite a lot of regular maintenence and other energy inputs. And even if your windmill lasts you two decades, unless we can make them again with renewables, that means that we're just sticking the problem on our kids.
That is, let's say we do a massive build out of windmills and solar panels, enough to keep our whole society going (never mind that we could never fund it or engineer it). We use up a huge amount of our remaining fossil reserves to keep everyone comfy and in their cars, and we go into massive debt to do it. Well, five years from now, all the solar panels need new batteries. But we don't have any manufacturing plants that make batteries from solar panels. So we need to do it again, with fossil fuels, plus fix the solar panels that got broken and replace a few parts on the windmill. And all the metal, and the chemicals and the little pieces need to be made, mined, manufactured...with fossil fuels. And then five years later we have to do it again, and then a decade after that we have to do it on an even bigger scale - to replace all the worn out windmills and solar panels. And as we go along, supply constraints are increasing, and prices of fossil energies are rising. Capital costs go up, investment costs go up, and remember, since energy costs are way up, there may not be as much money around to invest.
Where is the energy and the money for all these fossil inputs going to come from in our nice, "renewable" society? In order to keep things going on renewables, we'd have to vastly *expand* our existing infrastructure - not only would we have to make enough windmills to keep the grid going, but also to run the electric cars, to power the mining equipment, to make bioplastics, and smelt aluminum, to manufacture titanium parts - all things that were done comparatively efficiently with oil and gas (because they are heat intensive) now must be done much less efficiently by electricity. So we'd have to build enough windmills not just to power things as they are, but to produce 3 times as much electricity - and rebuild the grid. This would costs trillions of dollars, tons of oil and natural gas...and in a few years, we'd have to do again.
Whenever I bring this up from people looking for techno solutions, they all tell me that eventually we'll be able to make things from renewables, of course. Hmmm...of course. That is, we're betting our kids lives on the hope that at some point renewables will become self-perpetuating, even though we have no idea how that will happen, that would require major, multiple large scale technical breakthroughs in many cases that might or might not happen, AND, we're not willing to do it now, when we have energy to burn, lots of money and no crisis - instead, we're going to bet the farm (and lives) on the fact that we'll be able to do this 20 or 30 years into a depletion crisis with much less money, much less oil, much less availability in a society that we simply don't know the shape of. That is, we're going to stick the next generation with the problem, and hope it isn't too serious. But if we can't do it now, when we have lots of energy and lots of money and all the time in the world, the chances are excellent we won't be able to do it.
"Hey kids, when you are poorer, more indebted, and energy costs are up at 250 bucks a barrel, guess what? The techno people want to offer you the chance to keep the society going. And if you can't afford it, or get the energy to do it, well...tough. You can adapt then, even though every infrastructure adaptation will cost you more and require more scarce resources. What, you wanted to use your precious legacy of remaining fossil fuels for cancer treatment drugs? Tough - we used it to build batteries so we could have windmills. Oh, but you can't have windmills or cancer drugs. But feel free to scavenge in our debris."
So what we're offering our kids is for them to take on the real burden. We, we are told need "transitional" solutions - ones that would enable poor rich us to be able to get comfy with a more sustainable life. We need our electric cars because we can't be expected to change hard - that will be much, much easier for our children. Does anyone else see a problem here? Like the wacko, immoral reversal of what parents and grandparents are supposed to do for children - we're supposed to be willing to work our behinds off and make sacrifices for the wellbeing of future generations. And what we're really saying is fuck them, I don't want it to be too hard for me. How did we get here? How did we turn into this?
Well that's been the strategy for the last 50 years, right? Let's stick the next generation with the problem and not worry our pretty little heads about whether it is sustainable. In the 1970s, when we became widely aware that the oil was going to run out, the people who were able to vote (not me, I was 5) decided to elect Ronald Reagan and go for denial, instead of starting to build renewable energy systems. So now it is my problem. And their parents, after World War II, decided to destroy the nation's agricultural system, which meant that the chemicals and the pesticides became my parent's problem, and my problem, and my kids' problems. Wow, so that's what an inheritance is!
I would suggest that the "find a short term solution solution" even if it were feasible (probably not) is morally bankrupt, ugly, inelegant and in part responsible that each generation's children seem to want less to do with their parents than the last one. The notion that there's a techno solution out there is probably wrong, but even if we could find one, Kunstler's right, would we want it? Would we want to be people who said, "Let's just put it off a little longer so that someone else has to deal?" Would we want to be the opposite of the generations who made huge personal sacrifices so their kids wouldn't have to?
The thing is, there is a solution, and like most good solutions is really, really simple, and equally elegant. Stop being rich. Seriously, that's all there is to it. Stop living like rich people. Right now you probably have a servant to wash your dishes, another to do your laundry, another to transport you to your destination. These aren't people servants (somehow we're convinced that paying other people is wrong), they are electrical or oil based. But you live like a lord in a castle. Your castle is probably huge by world standards. You probably have a whole bunch of servants. You take a lot of wealth from poorer people (ie, you buy cheap things manufactured by virtual slaves that are cheap because of that), also like lords in castles.
The answer is really simple. Get off your ass, and dump the castle, or at least move a few more people into it. Get rid of most of the servants. Start doing for yourself without using power. Stop buying anything you want and eating like a king. Live like a peasant. Wear peasant clothes. Do peasant work. Eat peasant food. Get comfortable with it.
The thing is, peasantry isn't really that bad. Peasant clothes are sturdy and comfortable - peasants don't have to wear pantyhose, get botox shots or wear a necktie much. Peasant work isn't that bad - the fact is that 11th century serfs managed to feed themselves working just over half the year - the rest of the time was spent drinking beer. Ladakhis work hard 4 months a year, and spend the rest partying. The !Kung people can meet their needs in 3 hours a day. Once you get good peasantry, it really isn't that hard. Peasant food is great - fancy restaurants in cities serve peasant food and call it "Trattoria" or "Bistro" fare.
The craving for a solution that will mean things don't *REALLY* have to change in any deep way is not just a sign that we're missing the point. Because even when confronted by the obvious and simple truth, we choose denial or simply not to give a flying fuck. I'm not always sure which one it is. I suppose if I have to choose one, I'd rather we were stupid than evil, but, as my husband once said, "no dichotomy where dualism will do!"
But I still want to believe that we can count without our fingers, figure out when things don't make sense, take our heads out of collective asses, and stop killing our children with our old-used-to-be. It might even be true.