The end of fire #2

From the great Richard Heinberg via

My recent co-author (and go-to energy guru) David Fridley reminded me the other day that nearly everything we use represents a little fire somewhere—usually several of them. Your smart phone? Little fires drove the machines that extracted the raw minerals. Bigger fires smelted the metals. Little fires fueled the vehicles that transported all the parts, sometimes for thousands of miles. More little fires heated, cooled, and powered the various warehouses and assembly plants involved. Pick any object: unless it’s a tree or other feature of the natural environment, a fire is implicated. The same is typically true for services—keeping us warm, cool, and provisioned with food, health care, and education. We even need fires to make solar panels and wind turbines (for example: 3,000-degree-Fahrenheit furnace fires that run 24/7 are used to make pure silicon wafers for photovoltaic panels). Granted, over its lifetime a PV panel will entail less fire than a coal or natural gas power plant producing the same amount of electricity. But if we wanted to make a hell of a lot of PV panels right away in order to replace all our coal or gas power plants, enormous short-term fires would have to be stoked.

The bind we’re in is this: it is the economy—made up of all those billions of fires—that is causing climate change. Reconfiguring the economy so that it doesn’t cause climate change is currently almost completely a matter of theory, and, even if it is practically possible, represents a job of unprecedented scope and scale that would require nearly unheard-of political solidarity and almost incalculably massive investment and sacrifice (those “affordable energy transition” studies notwithstanding).

Meanwhile, most people are directly dependent on the economy for their survival. Thus, economic contraction or collapse (resulting either from climate change, or from efforts to avert climate change by radically reducing energy use, or from depletion of resources like oil, or even from some entirely foreseeable socioeconomic calamity like a massive debt default or terminal political dysfunction caused by increasing levels of inequality) would itself be traumatic. And for many people (certainly not all!), economic trauma might come sooner and be more direct and devastating than trauma from rising seas, droughts, floods, wildfires, and the other anticipated consequences of global warming.

So, of course, most people are cautious. They hesitate to go along with bold climate “solutions”—which might only somewhat blunt the climate crisis even if they were fully implemented—even though, by not taking climate action, they are further ensuring economic collapse by a different route. Although the house is on fire, very few people are willing to contemplate the kinds of bold programs that would be needed to douse the deadly conflagration. And meanwhile there are so many distractions to amuse, confound, and enrage us!—including political intrigue, seductive new technologies, and entertainment options up the wazoo.

This is the very definition of a wicked problem. I wish I had a nice solution…..

The only sure solution is to start putting out fires—which, in terms of our metaphor, would mean shrinking the economy. That further translates to reducing the number of people on the planet (gradually—no genocide!) as well as the per capita rate of consumption (efforts along these lines would concentrate on the high-consuming countries). Our goal would be a sustainable and equitable level of consumption for all. But the constituency for doing that is tiny. And doing it without unleashing utter economic bedlam would require rethinking everything about how the economy currently works.

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