“Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it!” Matthew 7:13-14
If the way out of the climate crisis is our vision of what a “green” energy transition looks like, then I am not interested in seeing it come to fruition. Moving our energy systems from oil and gas to solar and wind does not address the fundamental problem poisoning our relationship with Earth, humanity’s need to exploit the natural world around us to our own ends. Oil and gas extraction is environmentally devastating. Mining to support “renewable” energy sources is no different. Solar panels and windmills need the metals and raw aggregates that can only come from the bowels of the Earth. In fact, the depressingly small energy density of these power sources means that huge tracts of the planet would have to be set aside for energy production.
This process is already happening. The rolling plains of West Texas are filling up with packs of angular, white windmills that break the once empty horizon. Solar farms are springing up in the deserts of the world, breaking the rhythms of ecosystems unlucky enough to fall below them. Roughly 40% of America’s corn crop is grown to make ethanol which is used as an additive in our gasoline, at the expense of ridiculous amounts of nutrient pollution and topsoil run off. And where is the steady energy generation from any of these options? Storage isn’t there yet, what is to replace it? Continual natural gas burning?
Notwithstanding the immediate aesthetic and broader environmental effects of these sources of energy, they are not in any sense genuinely “renewable”. Sure, the direct source of the energy is renewable on long timescales. The sun won’t be going away anytime soon which means that winds too will be around for long time. But what of the machines we use to harness their energy? When solar panels go out of commission, where do the toxic substances needed to capture the sun’s energy go? When windmills go out of commission how will we dispose of them, who will take them? They will end up being dumped like the rest of our industrial goods, with major, negative effects on ecosystem toxicity and land use. How much carbon must be emitted to make this transition a reality, and is it worth it? Do we risk ourselves deeper into the climate hole? These technologies are not an easy fix.
If we were serious about making an environmentally conscious energy transition we would take nuclear energy far more seriously than we do now. Yes, it creates radioactive waste. Yes, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima are examples of reactors overloading and spreading radioactive wastes in surrounding areas. But the fact is, that nuclear energy is the most energy dense, carbon neutral, fuel source we currently have available. It is also the safest energy source we have by far. Radioactive waste takes up far less space than the effluents of other energy sources and we know of ways to run nuclear systems safely. It is a mature technology that provides consistent energy, not yoked to the vicissitudes of Earth’s climate system. We could reduce the areas used for energy production to the absolute minimum if we went all in on this technology and allowed more innovation in the space. We could let huge tracts of the planet, that might have otherwise been used as fields for wind and solar, go wild and leave space for the biosphere to create itself. Yet the dream of many in the climate space is to have hillsides defaced with photovoltaic cells and coastlines marred by windmills.
Indeed the focus on climate change to the exclusion of the other ways we devastate the environment is tragically misguided. It falls into the same human (Western?) passion for naive reductionism that got us into this mess in the first place. Over-optimization for the minimization of one variable inevitably exposes the rest of the system to increasing levels of fragility. The obsession with carbon emissions ignores the inevitable second and third order consequences of switching to a “green” economy. The current economy is definitely devastating for the environment but I am skeptical that the green economy of the future will be any better. We will still want physical things, and these products are made from earthly materials. The very fact that we need to build up the infrastructure to make this switch will entail large amounts of carbon emissions and increasing exploitation of the Earth.
This is not to mention the other, perhaps more pressing, crises facing us. What of the stupendous rates of topsoil degeneration? Or the tipping point that ocean acidification could push marine ecosystems to, what ecological consequences would this bring? The obsession with focusing on one variable at the expense of thinking in a systematic way about interacting feedback loops is a failure of imagination, and potentially a fatal one.
Extraction is extraction, no matter whether the energy we produce from it is carbon neutral or not. The Earth is one ball flying through the vacuum of space, and we are resource limited. This limitation may not manifest itself in the next hundred years (as unlikely as that is), or even thousands of years, but if we really want to play the long game we need to reckon with this inescapable fact. There is only so much to exploit. Ecosystems can only take so much. Mountainsides do not regenerate themselves. Collapsed ecosystems can’t be regenerated. Climate systems can’t be reset. We can optimize for efficiency all we want, but depletion ends in collapse.
Increasing the efficiency with which we extract natural resources might in the immediate term, but the winnowing fork is still out there. On long time scales, and perhaps shorter than we may think, everything is taken and lost. Being careful about removals merely delays the inevitable. Decreasing the flow of water out of a basin makes it recede much more slowly, but without additional inputs nothing will remain.
There is another option though, and that is to acknowledge the fact that we have a truly everlasting and regenerative energy system at hand. The system is the Biosphere, and were born from it. We can take the great achievements and knowledge gained from our foray into industrial society and apply it to a new socio-economic paradigm. We can provide stressors that increase the biodiversity of the nature around us, and feed off the plenty it provides as many Indigenous communities have done in the past. Riding the rhythms of life as it rises and falls would force us into a more flexible mindset, where we need to think about the potential minor and large scale collapse as a matter of course.
Humans once lived in dynamic balance with the natural world we live in. In fact, we did not even consider ourselves separate from the ecosystems we were embedded in. Look at the cave paintings from around the world and tell me we didn’t recognize the importance of the life around us. What says that we can’t appreciate this way of living once again? The only truly “sustainable” energy source on Earth is that which is cycled endlessly by life itself. A truly antifragile economic transition would rely on the biogeochemical cycles nature has evolved throughout the long history of life on this planet. Zimov’s manifesto highlights how top predators can guide the development of prey species under their patronage in ways that contribute to the infinite game of life. Could we not do this for the planet once again? Our modern industrial agriculture system certainly uses the energy of the biosphere, but in an artificial, contrived, and ultimately destructive manner. Maybe a new nomadic pastoralism is needed? What would it mean for industrial society to shift to a collaborative approach to understanding and interacting with nature? How do we take the technologies we have created and re-integrate our selves with the planet? The game is changing and we’ll have to update our understanding of our position in the world to make it through the coming ecological filter.