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.