Problem or Predicament? why a miracle won’t save us
I’ve been conversing with people about responding to our global crises at a personal level as a first step.
My argument is that we need to prepare for a descent in the complexity of our society, in other words
intentionally navigate the decline and collapse of our civilization.
This means preparing for social, environmental, and economic instability. But most of us are hesitant.
Humans have recently grown exponentially1World Population over the last 2,000 years, just like an economic bubble before a crash2Bitcoin bubble. The habitat destruction, climate change, and over-consumption of resources, that our industrial civilization needs and was built up on, has unleashed the sixth mass extinction.
What makes us think that we can continue more of the same, in so-called “renewable” forms, and not keep driving all the other animals and plants extinct?
Do we really think that what’s causing the sixth mass extinction won’t take us?
The bubble is going to pop, it has to. You can’t cheat the laws of nature.
If we truly want to transform our civilization (which I think is quite unlikely to happen in time), we must look into the abyss. Then we can really act accordingly.
The problem is that it is very hard to see this possibility as likely. Even the ones that understand the probable consequences of our converging crises.
Why is it so hard?
Because of hope.
Many think that we just need to make more people aware of the problem (reach a critical mass) and then we
(mainly governments and elites) can invest in so-called solutions (unfeasible technology).
Let’s see why that’s a pipe dream.
The reason for this is that we are facing a predicament not a problem, and the difference is enormous.
In mathematics, a problem by definition has a solution. On the other hand a predicament is “a difficult, perplexing, or trying situation”.
What would a 10 year old tell you if you ask them how to solve global warming, peak energy, and overpopulation?
Simple, stop burning fossil fuels and stop population growth…
But the question that people in power ask is: how can we solve global warming while getting re-elected, and maintaining a growing economy and the status quo?
And they don’t even address overpopulation and peak energy as an intricate aspect of the global warming challenge.
Let’s see the facts of our crises through a simplified lens:
- Our population is too much for the world, and it continues to grow.
- We need food, and we will need more because of our growing population.
- Our food requires a lot of land and oil (directly and indirectly for machinery, distribution, fertilizers, irrigation etc.)
- We need to achieve zero emissions in the next decade or so (because of the catastrophic
consequences of runaway global warming).
- Zero emissions means that civilization must clean as much air as it pollutes.
- Our civilization and economy is based on fossil fuels and infinite expansion…
- It would take decades to steer them away from that, and…
- It would require massive amounts of energy, time, and money investments to create new infrastructure and machines or adapt our current ones to pollute less, and…
- Ironically, the mobilization required for a transition would cause massive pollution because solar panels, windmills, and electric trucks aren’t made of thin air.
- Fossil fuels are increasingly harder to get (decades ago we started with free flowing wells and now we have fracking, off-shore drilling, and tar sands).
So how are we going to transition to a zero emissions civilization when we’re running out of cheap fuel, and almost everything we do involves some kind of CO2 emissions?
What will save us?
A miracle, or at least that’s what people think will save us.
The miracle is that we’ll find a way to hack the problem with technology that doesn’t exist yet.
The usual solutions to global warming are to partially block the sun (geoengineering), to catch greenhouse gas emissions from the air and store them underground, and to stop CO2 from reaching the air by storing in in the machines that created them.
The first solution most likely has dangerous, unknown side effects that only make the problem worst, and it doesn’t really address the cause. It’s a dirty band-aid for a gunshot. The argument is that it will give us more time.
The second solution seems like a good idea at first sight, but think about how much power the machines will need to cycle through the atmosphere. Where would that energy come from? How many machines we would need to build?
The last solution means that we would have to find a way to adapt all our civilization with carbon capture devices, and that would not address other indirect emissions, like habitat destruction, agriculture. And it still leaves us with current amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Faster than usual
I’ve noticed a trend lately in research about climate change. Global warming seems to be affecting us faster than usual. Many scientists think that the concerning, UN’s report on climate change (IPCC), is very conservative, and that the effects may be closer than they appear.
What about population?
Controlling our population is very feasible, although society won’t gladly welcome population control.
So let’s say that we do all of it: we stop population growth, we dim the sun to buy us time, we make many machines that clean the air, and we “plug” every single exhaust.
Who is going to pay for that?
How are 180+ nations going to agree when they can’t solve much simpler, no nonsense problems like famine or nuclear weapons?
Are citizens going to pay for the transition?
Wouldn’t that bring a lot of austerity to every single nation?
Are the billionaires, the politicians, the corporations, the investors, the upper and middle classes willing to greatly reduce their consumption, and start growing their own food, carpooling, cycling, and undergo voluntary simplicity or “poverty”?
What’s my point anyways?
My point is that no matter what happens,
BIG change is coming.
One way or another our population, and our material and energy consumption is going to be dramatically reduced.
We can choose to do it voluntarily or we can let nature show us who’s boss.
It makes sense to be proactive and voluntarily change to a simpler self-sufficient lifestyle: collapse now and avoid the rush.
But there’s a caveat.
Nothing guarantees that we will be effective at tackling our current crisis. Most likely, collapse is coming, and it’s going to be hard. Now matter how resilient our communities are, a full collapse of civilization would be devastating for billions.
So what is the predicament again?
We need a rapid transition to a smaller, clean, low-energy civilization and economy.
The challenge is that we don’t have the resources, time, carbon budget, or collective will to do that in an orderly fashion.
Which means that we will must likely procrastinate, (in part thanks to the lobbying of industry) until the consequences of our converging crises make it impossible to get out of the situation. Leading to economic collapse, agricultural failure, draught, social unrest, war, and massive “natural” disasters.
No matter which direction we take as a species, we’ll have to deal with massive changes in the next years.
Another way to explain it:
The Titanic is in perfect trajectory to hit an iceberg, it has been for the past 50 years.
We are in the bar arguing how we could build water pumps, and even create ways to patch a potential hole in the hull if the ship ever collided with an iceberg.
99% of the officers reach consensus that the ship has 10 years to change course and avoid crashing with the iceberg.
They know it’s a very short time-frame and they start to get anxious. The crew with binoculars says that it’s probably closer.
They call the captain, but he is not answering.
He is talking with his rich friends.
The people on the captain’s deck know about the iceberg, but don’t want him to change course because that might require a complete overhaul of the ship, and many people in charge would probably have to step down and let more competent people navigate. That would also force everyone to move to the economy class.
The crew doesn’t insist too too much, the captain could fire them at any time.
The majority of the passengers are too busy to notice the iceberg. Some have seen it, but they are a very very small fraction.
Surely someone on the captain’s deck will have a change of heart and steer the ship in time.
But the ship is actually accelerating, and some life jackets and lifeboats start falling to the sea.
Now, you either sound the alarm, put on a life jacket, and jump in a lifeboat, or you try to force/convince the captain to steer away the ship.
A person from the crew tells you that ships have too much inertia and too many vested interests to steer quickly and that the window of opportunity is closing fast. Other people say that there are not enough life jackets and boats for everyone if the ship were to sink; even worse, it would require a complete overhaul of the ship to steer away.
Some children start to call for everyone’s attention, they are frightened.
Your friend tells you that everyone is in this together and if we crash almost everyone will die.
Someone points out that you are in the middle of the Atlantic and even if you managed to get in a lifeboat, you might not survive. And what are you going to do about the people that don’t have a lifeboat or lifejacket?
But then you remember that when you bought your tickets the salesman told you that the Titanic is unsinkable.
You relax, you are in first class anyway, closer to the lifeboats.
A few people plan to start building water pumps and lifeboats. And some start putting on lifejackets and getting in the lifeboats.
Your friend tells you that the ship could hit the glacier.
There’s no reason to prepare or to be alarmed, the captain and his decision maker friends will surely find a way to steer away the ship.
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