This is a follow-on from the “how to cook a planet post” but before launching into territory not covered there in a new post about economic connections, I want to re-state a few things, because they might not have been sufficiently clear in the original. As a physics major myself, I knew immediately that the author was playing “what if” games for dramatic effect, to hammer home a single but mightily important point, but that may not have been so clear to everyone. Well, two points actually. Here’s what they are;
- The point was not to predict the future, or even to try. It was simply to show that there are hard physical limits to physical growth. The method used was to focus solely on the thermodynamic implications of energy-usage growth. The conclusions were absurd as predictions, obviously we’re not going to have boiling-water temperatures as the global average, or if we do we won’t be here to fret about it.
The point was simply to explain that continuing energy growth along the lines of what we have become accustomed to would give that result if it were possible. The absurd (though thermodynamically valid) end-points were for dramatic effect, to cut to the chase, as it were.
- Keep in mind please, the dramatic temperature rises referred to were from thermodynamic evaluation only. Just the continued use of energy at about a 2.3% annual rate of growth produces them, and we start climbing above (the much smaller) biospheric tolerances quite soon. And that’s just considering the simple thermodynamic heat loading: nothing about greenhouse gases from anywhere – industry, melting tundra, wherever; nothing about weather pattern changes induced in the hydro-cycles; nothing about effects of even small temperature changes on agriculture. Just the heat from energy usage itself. Obviously all those other things are real too, albeit difficult to quantify, and will only accelerate the problem.
- Also please keep in mind the other enormously important take-away from the preceding post; we cannot continue energy usage growth regardless of how that energy is generated. In the world of politics and economics, the fantasy world, we hear all the time about how the problem is emissions, and how “clean” energy is the “solution”. Politicians especially like to talk about this promise, as if it were an actual solution. Not so. Even reducing emissions to zero does no more than extend the time window. This is not an argument against reducing emissions, there are many compelling reasons to pursue exactly that, but it does not now, nor will it ever, mean that we can continue to use progressively more energy here on Earth.
We simply cannot.
OK, so that’s where we are. It’s worth saying those two things one more time, just for grins.
1. Energy usage growth must stop, and it will stop. The only question is whether it stops as a result of our choices or by force of circumstances. The former will undoubtedly be supremely difficult; the latter completely and unmanageably chaotic. There are no other pathways.
2. Changing energy sources from the present predominantly fossil fuels to some other source does nothing to alter the basic fact in #1. Some options might buy more time by reason of producing less pollution, but that’s it. Even generating power off-planet doesn’t alter the situation much, if the power is consumed on-planet.
The actual, non-negotiable reality is that if we are to survive as a species we have to figure out how to live on a fixed energy diet here on Earth.
Yes, we can debate about how much time we have to convert modernity to that reality, and how perhaps to buy ourselves more time to operate in. We can argue about how that conversion might be undertaken, too, but we cannot argue about the reality itself.
This is something that should be stated and re-stated in every science class in every school in the country. It is something that should be on the lips of every politician.
It’s a game-changing reality, which undoubtedly is one of the big reasons that it’s not in every school and on all political lips. We don’t want to have to change the game, that’s a lot of work and will create the most bewildering problems of technological application and economic incentives – something our present political/economic institutions are simply incapable of dealing with.
The day must come, as a starting point if nothing else, when any politician, or anyone at all, gets on their hind legs to say that “cleanly” generated power (nuclear fission/fusion, magic wand, whatever) will allow us to “grow” for 1000 years, or any variation of that twaddle, they are laughed out of the room.
We have a long way to go just to get to that simple place. This is our home planet, and it’s time for us to understand what that means. We did not arrive here from elsewhere, we are one of Earth’s fruits, one of it’s many unique modes of expression. That’s an amazing situation ripe with unimaginable promise, but that promise comes with some simple rules, and we’ve just been visiting one of them.
There are those who will regard even this modest kind of rule as an intolerable and adversarial restriction on the magnificence of the human imagination, spirit and future. I don’t buy that at all, it’s no such thing. That attitude is in itself no more than childish spoonbanging, a tantrum over the fact that the potatoes are touching the beans, and not one bit more important or limiting. We can go to Mars and beyond if that’s what we want to do, but let’s be sure it’s because we want to, not because we have to as a result of trashing our home planet for the lack of some simple arithmetic.
There are also those who shun this kind of thinking as “doom and gloom”, and it’s even been suggested to me here that it’s a wonder I can get out of bed in the morning. This is childish too, the equivalent of not wanting to hang your legs over the edge of the bed because the monsters underneath will bite you in the ankle. These realities are not depressing because they are not limitations on the human spirit at all. They may prove to be limitations on some established economic habits and bean counting tricks, but that too is no more of a problem than the touching vegetables. Just move ‘em.
Time to grow up.
Next up, soon I hope, will be a look at the relationship between energy growth and economic growth. If the former must cease, what happens to the latter?