Renewable Energy and Sustainable Life

I deepened my carbon footprint this week by flying to Toronto for a conference at the University of Toronto, Mississauga, on “Sustainability: Transdisciplinary Theory, Practice, and Action,” (STTPA) The topic seems crucial for understanding how we must move forward to stem the tide of planetary destabilization of climate, ecosystems, and the threat of societal collapse.

The first two sessions I attended involved producing “renewable energy” from the waste humans produce in such huge quantities. One focused on “RNG,” that is, “renewable natural gas” extracted from food waste and used to heat homes and generate electricity. The other presented research on attitudes of consumers toward “waste diversion” from landfills and incineration and the “food waste profiles” of Canadian households. They got me thinking about the ambiguities built into the concepts of “renewable” and “sustainable.”

The End of the Era of Industrial Agriculture

The lifespan of industrial agriculture as we have known it is likely to end in the next couple of decades. Neither the forced growth of monoculture by fossil-fueled fertilizers and pesticides nor the depleted soils killed and eroded by such methods can last much longer, especially in the context of an increasingly unstable climate.

Massive industrial-crop failures are on the way. Forty percent of food production in industrial societies ends up as waste. Under those conditions, the massive waste has to go somewhere, whether bloated landfills, giant incinerators, or processed to produce gas to fuel boilers for home heating, engines for cars or trucks, or electricity generation.

Because industrial-agriculture is not sustainable, the extraction of “natural gas,” which is essentially methane, is not really “renewable” nor sustainable. These are slippery ideas, because their meaning depends on the situation to which they are applied. You could argue that as long as the food-waste flow continues, then methane extracted from that waste is “renewable.” But in fact, such strategies are stop-gap measures. They do not contribute to a sustainable economy or a stable society.

Not all Renewables are Sustainable

Ultimately, and soon, the only sustainable path for human economies is one that harmonizes with the ecosystems upon which we depend. That is simply because, despite the industrial-consumer myth of separation from Nature, we are part of Nature. Human survival depends on the continued stability of the ecosystems in which we live. Regardless of our urban or suburban, or even rural residence, we cannot escape the fact that we live within the Earth System that afforded us relatively stable climates and ecosystems for the eleven thousand years of the Holocene epoch. That stability is on its way out. Every scientific indicator leads to that conclusion.

Tomorrow, I present a paper at this conference titled, “Let’s Get Real: Societal Transformation for Ecosystem Restoration into the Anthropocene.” [I will post it on my website next week.] As the title suggests, what we need is not narrow forms of renewable energy within the framework of the industrial-consumer economy. Rather, what has become a necessity of sustainable human life on this planet is to transform the ways we relate to our Earth home and to each other.

How to Control Complex Adaptive Systems to Survive

We live in increasingly complex systems, more and more of them are of our own making, though not always of our own conscious design. There are two basic kinds, natural complex adaptive systems, such as the Earth System and its many subsystems, and human-made complex adaptive systems, such as social groups and corporations. It appears that we have been losing control of our relations with both, at an accelerating pace.

As some folks now know – perhaps not enough – we live at the end of an exceptionally stable geological epoch, the Holocene estimated to have lasted about 11,000 years. The human population exploded from just one of many species on planet Earth to the dominant force during that period. Scientists debate the exact end of the Holocene and the start of the new epoch, the Anthropocene. Yet, it is clear that humans have already altered many components of the Earth System, from atmosphere and oceans to ecosystems and even the Earth’s fragile crust.

The New Science of Systems, and Us

Science developed on the Newtonian model of a mechanistic world. We can describe many parts of the universe using that system of linear thinking, up to a point. Such description led to the ability to control or many alter parts of the material world around us. We can intervene in causal chains, such as “A causes B, which in turn causes C.” If we understand such relations, and they are not beyond the range of human action, then engineering (the application of scientific knowledge to achieve some material goal) can alter some aspect of our world.

Nevertheless, we live within complex systems the details of which reach far beyond our understanding, just because they are so complex. The interactions of their components can be self-organizing, adapting to changing conditions. By retaining the linear model of the world, we can never reach an adequate understanding of complex adaptive systems. So many positive and negative feedback loops are involved that linear models are simply not up to the task.

Now, human social organizations, from families to multinational corporations, are complex adaptive systems that evolved in relation to the particular environments.  Today, of course, we inhabit the entire Earth. Ecosystems are also complex adaptive systems, about which we have barely scratched the surface of understanding because we have always treated them from a narrow linear way of thinking.

In the past several decades, the rise of complex systems science has begun to break past the barriers of linear thinking to explore the nature of both natural and human complex adaptive systems, from ecosystems and climate systems to social networks. Unfortunately, however, we based the “great progress” of human technologies and economic systems on the linear thinking of Newtonian science. As a result, humanity has already overshot the capacity of Earth System habitats to carry the load of human industry, consumption, and waste needed to remain stable. We have thrown them out of balance.

Controlling Ourselves in the Unpredictable Anthropocene

So, now we have a very different kind of problem. We must achieve a very different kind of progress. Today we must dial back the profligate destabilization of the whole Earth System caused by the global industrial-consumer economy in order to try to regain some of the stability remaining. That is the most urgent matter because our survival depends on re-stabilizing the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the lithosphere, and the biosphere, the key subsystems of the whole Earth System.

Everyone knows now that we must reduce carbon emissions to net-zero if we are to have a chance of succeeding in stabilizing the Earth System we have so severely disrupted. But almost nobody talks about how that might be accomplished. Sure, talk of converting to renewable energy production and a variety of other technical changes abounds. The necessary changes are monumental in scale and scope. But ideas about how societies whose very structure is organized around burning fossil fuels can accomplish them without societal collapse remain beyond public discussion.

Here is the central fact – the unacknowledged two-thousand-pound gorilla in the room: In order to reduce human plunder of the Earth enough to achieve enough stability of the Earth System in the decade we have left to survive, we must reorganize societies to such an extent that we have trouble even imagining such change. We have entered what I call a New Great Transformation of the entire Earth System, by our own unconscious doing. That is also forcing a transformation of humanity’s relationship to our Earth habitat. We can only take control of the New Great Transformation by completely changing our relation to the Earth System and each other.

Some Right Things Done in All the Wrong Ways for All the Wrong Reasons

Free Trade, Fair Trade, Tariffs, Trade Wars, and all such matters reflect a complex of political-economic issues that will soon become mostly irrelevant. Yet pundits persistently pontificate on their putative principles and pitfalls – within the bubble of business-as-usual.

The problem is that all the parties disputing matters of international trade envision the future as an ideal version of the already fading present. They wallow in utopian dreams of a world that cannot be. They argue over the arrangement of secular deck chairs on the Titanic of endless-growth economics, ignoring the iceberg of Earth-systems transformation just ahead.

Utopian dreams continue in an increasingly dystopian world. “Increase our speed! The Titanic must make headlines when we reach port.” Headlines indeed! There is no port in the emerging geological era of the Anthropocene for grand-scale corporate international trade or today’s global industrial consumerism

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Fossil-fueled International Trade

International trade is a very complex system of exchange founded in conditions that no longer exist and assumptions that conflict with the new reality so widely denied or ignored. Corporate utopian dreams promote never-ending economic expansion of the global industrial-consumer economy in a finite world.

We have already exceeded natural limits. Yet economists and politicians continue to routinely deny or ignore them. They try to hold onto the only system they have ever known, as it continues to destabilize the living Earth systems from which it draws its power.

Earth Systems Transformed

The current global system of neo-liberal economic growth at any cost must grow, but it cannot. Like a cancer, it grows until it kills its host, and then must die itself. Neither the dwindling supply of raw materials nor the growing instability of climate and ecological systems can sustain the technosphere much longer. ALL forms of life on the planet, including global political-economic elites, depend on living Earth systems for survival. Yet, we have destroyed the stability of these systems. They remained constant for most of the 11,000 years of the Holocene, allowing humans to “inherit the Earth.” Yet the global industrial system has broken Earth-system stability. The Holocene is over. The Great Acceleration since World War II has rapidly destabilized the entire Earth System.

Anthropocene-GreatAccelerationSocioEconomicTrends-1750-2010From the perspective of mainstream (neoliberal) economics, Trump’s arbitrary imposition of tariffs on European allies and Chinese trading partners is rather stupid. It may very well stifle growth and foment a full on global trade war. International capital has begun to run scared. That makes sense from within the assumptions of that system, but that system becomes increasingly unstable as its foundations crumble. So, the establishment critics are right within their bubble, but wrong in the context of global, or I should say, planetary conditions. The very system within which the argument rages is unsustainable.

Trump is wrong to say that starting and winning a trade war is easy. Well, it’s not hard to start if you ignore allies and “competitors” alike. But win or lose, if international trade continues to contribute massive amounts of carbon into the already destabilizing biosphere, then neither trade alliances nor trade wars will matter.

Anthropocene Rising

Clive Hamilton put it clearly in his book, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene. The continuation of the global consumer-industrial system beyond natural limits led humanity to cause a deep rupture in the geological evolution of the entire Earth System. Our actions have now propelled the planet into a new geologic era, the Anthropocene, which has already transformed Earth’s living systems and its climate in ways that will intensify for centuries, and likely persist for thousands of years.

Going forward, life on planet Earth will change radically, regardless of the human response to human-caused Earth’s destabilization. We cannot stop the planetary forces we have set in motion. However, we can mitigate the effects of continuing down the path of destruction so many still deny.

To reduce superfluous international trade – even by Trumpist blundering into trade wars that constrict imports and exports – would significantly reduce total planetary carbon emissions. International trade is a major contributor to global warming. Only by transforming the ways humanity relates to living Earth systems – by radically reducing the disruption of ecosystems and climate – can we minimize the damage and perhaps find ways to adapt to the new harsh conditions we now face in the Anthropocene. Doing all the right things, especially for all the right reasons, will be very difficult to achieve.

So Much More than Warming: Misunderstanding Climate Change

The words we use to describe the world tend to “frame” our understandings by bracketing the range of images and meanings that make sense to us. Our reasoning builds on deep emotions. Moral reasoning also rests on an emotional sense of right and wrong and the beliefs and personal relationships we hold dear.

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Global Warming ~ Source: Wikipedia

The terms used to describe the effects of human induced emissions of large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, are a good case in point. The facts are quite simple, though their implications are very complex. We gradually changed the chemical composition of the atmosphere over the 200 years during which we accelerated the burning of fossil fuels. In doing so, we humans have caused climate patterns to change.

 

The Rise of Civilization…and Danger

So much of what humans do depends on climate conditions that remained relatively stable during “the ascent of man.” The discovery of fire, the invention of cooking, the advent of agriculture and growing populations they supported, all occurred within the Holocene, the geological epoch of stable climate during the past 11,000 years or so. Some scientists now conclude that the Holocene is over and we have entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene, a period when the activities of humans have so disrupted complex Earth systems that the changes will likely last thousands of years.

Yet we continue to frame our understanding of the changing climate conditions brought on by the industrial era in very strange ways, which stem from our emotional attachments to the past and current course of economic growth. We identify with the utopian dreams of economists who project endless growth of resource use and energy expenditures in a finite world. Such illusions directly conflict with the facts resulting from diverse scientific research findings. The current trends in resource depletion and global warming have already destabilized many of the living Earth systems that we depend upon to survive. Clive Hamilton illuminates these forces in his book, Defiant Earth. Those trends are accelerating as political ‘authorities’ around the world bicker over what reductions in carbon emissions are necessary and who is responsible to achieve them.

Utopian Dreams and Political Power

In the U.S., political debates rage on. Now we have a federal political administration, riddled with Trumpery, which denies the facts of science in order to further its aims to consolidate political power and to enrich the rich ever more. Yet, we all live on the same planet. Even though the initial damage caused by global warming has already begun to affect the most vulnerable populations, ultimately everyone is at risk, even the super-rich. Everything is moving faster than expected.

Scientists frame the processes that are changing the conditions on the planet in ways that reflect the best available data. Unfortunately, the facts challenge long held assumptions about the ability of humans to control nature. Yet, people identify with those who have achieved ‘success’ in the past, before we reached the natural limits of economic growth.

Social Illusion or Hopeful Realism

Propaganda encourages people’s emotions to align with the interests of those who bribe politicians through campaign contributions, personal “expenses,” and various lobbying strategies. As political scientists have demonstrated, most of what passes as “legislation,” consists of actions that favor the economic interests of the rich and powerful, both individuals and corporations. What the public wants or believes in pretty much does not count, except for pandering to the misunderstandings of reality that politicians encourage among their “base.”

So, what about “global warming,” or the current analgesic, “climate change”? Only when deteriorating conditions sufficiently infuse enough people with fear and anger, will direct political action, both locally nationally, take place. Will it be too late? Nobody knows. We can only find hope in realism.