Carbon Civilization and the Energy Descent Future

Note: This is the introduction to Carbon Civilization and the Energy Descent Future by Samuel Alexander and Josh Floyd. You can find out more about the book here.

Just as the bird’s nest, the badger’s lodge and the bees’ hive require investments of energy for their construction and maintenance, so too with human settlements. Taken to the extremes of scale and intricacy, settlements in the form of cities constitute humanity’s most energy-intensive creations. In fact, cities might be viewed as meta-creations that enable the emergence and development of other expressions of human creativity, and this creativity, as with all life, depends on energy, in requisite forms and quantities, for its sustenance and development.

A hunger for energy is woven particularly deeply into the nature and condition of modern humanity. We fell the forests and mine the landscapes to construct our dwellings and build our roads. In much of the world, heating of houses and water relies on combustion of wood, gas, oil or coal. Electricity, like a god, gives us light and it powers our abundance of convenient appliances and machines.

Oil takes us where we desire to be and back again without effort.

The expansion of energy harvesting and use that allows large-scale societies to grow inevitably generates new problems that these societies must then deal with. In turn, responses to such problems typically drive further energy demand. The processes by which large-scale societies take form and evolve are both enabled and constrained by their energetic foundations.

Throughout history the over-use of energy has not been a prevailing problem—more often, the existential challenges that humans have faced can be viewed in terms of energy scarcity. Had ready access to new energy sources been available, many past societies may have overcome (or at least delayed) crises that precipitated their demise. Even so, the provision and use of energy in previous eras caused problems too. Deforestation is not a purely modern phenomenon. The harm caused by airborne particulates from burning wood and coal has a long history. As horses became a dominant mode of urban transport, their manure in the streets became a hazard. That human exploitation of energy resources should drive environmental change is not new. This is as old as the mastery of fire, and our energy use always has and always will have consequences beyond the benefits it brings.

Nevertheless, it seems that we have now entered an age in which problems that can be characterised in terms of the under-use of energy are being eclipsed by dilemmas in which over-use is central. Granted, humans enjoy vastly disparate access to energy, with Continue reading “Carbon Civilization and the Energy Descent Future”

Carl Sagan describes climate change 40 years ago

@13:00 “We are at a very dangerous moment in human history. We have weapons of mass destruction, we are in the process of inadvertently altering our climate, exhaustion of fossil fuels, all kinds of problems come with technology. We are not certain that we will survive this period of what I like to call technological adolescence.”

Great words from a smart man in public life so long ago.  And we didn’t listen.

John Kerry: Climate change will cause massive migration

“Well, imagine what happens if water dries up and you cannot produce food in northern Africa. Imagine what happens if Nigeria hits its alleged 500 million people by the middle of the century … you are going to have hordes of people in the northern part of the Mediterranean knocking on the door. I am telling you. If you don’t believe me, just go read the literature.”

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Nuclear Power Will Not Save Us From Climate Change

M.V. RamanaRobert Jensen, YES Magazine

“The underlying cause here is ‘technological fundamentalism,’ the belief that the increasing use of evermore sophisticated, high-energy, advanced technology can solve any problem, including those caused by the unintended consequences of earlier technologies. This Panglossian approach allows modelers to state the climate problem can be contained without giving up a social and political system that is founded on continued and endless economic growth.

This belief also allows for the idea that the business-as-usual approach can continue, and the solution is replacing coal, gas, and nuclear plants with solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries or other storage technologies. As supporters of the fossil fuel and nuclear industries like to point out, even these technologies have environmental and social impacts. To live sustainably on this planet—and despite what folks such as Elon Musk might promise, this is the only planet available for the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants—even these more benign technologies have to be limited in scale.

The alternative is obvious. The starting point of any serious discussion of climate change must be to recognize that it is not possible to limit global warming to either 1.5 or 2°C in any “resource- and energy-intensive scenario” where economic growth continues in the usual fashion. To put it more bluntly, one cannot resolve the climate problem under capitalism, which cannot survive without endless growth.

Arguments against capitalism are at least as old as capitalism itself. If one is honest about the implications of the latest report, climate change is providing another compelling argument for fundamental economic change.”

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Climate-heating greenhouse gases at record levels, says UN

“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5m years ago, when the temperature was 2-3C warmer and sea level was 10-20 metres higher than now,” said the WMO secretary general, Petteri Taalas.

“The science is clear. Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth. The window of opportunity for action is almost closed.”

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The Limits of Renewable Energy

Excellent research in the full report

By Philippe Gauthier:  “Due to the various constraints outlined above, it seems clear that renewables will not completely replace fossil fuels for existing energy needs. The transition will be partial, perhaps in the range of 30-50 per cent. Given that, in the meantime, the depletion of oil and gas resources will reduce the quantity of fossil fuels available, we may well have to rely on much less energy than is available to us at the current moment. This will put the nail in the coffin of economic growth as we know it.

What also seems clear is that the energy transition would be easier if we set our sights lower and agreed to dial down our level of material consumption. The idea isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. With a 30-per-cent drop in GDP, we would revert to a standard of living equivalent to that enjoyed in 1993, while a 50-per -cent drop would mean a standard of living equivalent to 1977. A 50-per-cent reduction in energy consumption would bring us back to the level prevailing in 1975, while an 80-per-cent reduction would be similar to the 1950s. This is hardly a return to the Middle Ages. Our parents and grandparents didn’t rub sticks together in caves!

What’s crucial to take away from this discussion is that there are no purely technical solutions to the problems we face. To be successful, the energy transition must also be based on a change in needs and habits. For that to happen, we need some critical distance from the dominant discourse around the energy transition, green growth and the circular economy. These concepts are not the path to salvation. On the contrary, they serve to reaffirm faith in industrial capitalism as the system with all the solutions.

The obstacles to the transition to renewable energy reveal the limits of mainstream thinking and the impossibility of never-ending growth. Technological change will not suffice. We need to rethink consumerism and growth, which is all but impossible within the current capitalist framework.

Degrowth may be a more difficult road to travel, but it is more likely to get us where we need to go without planetary climate upheaval and without exacerbating social inequality.”

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