Without the brave and the willing, and without real engagement with the depth and scale of the problem, we’re left with proposed solutions that will not save our planet. These alternate proposals break down into three basic categories.
1. Tilters, so named because they’re tilting at windmills. These technofixers would leave industrialization and corporate capitalism in place, replacing fossil fuels with wind, solar, geothermal, and other so-called renewables. Lester Brown and Al Gore are two prime examples. They see that institutional change is necessary, which is true, but that change is identified as industrial culture switching to renewables as it continues to devour the earth.
2. Descenders. In his book The Long Descent, John Michael Greer argues that the oil economy will slow to a halt over a few generations. For Descenders, there is nothing much to fear and certainly nothing to be done beyond personal and local community preparation for energy descent. Cataclysmic climate change and ecosystem collapse are eerily absent from the future, and fighting back, of course, is never mentioned.
3. Lifers. They acknowledge resource depletion, energy descent, the destructive nature of industrial civilization, and the looming catastrophe of global warming, yet institutional change is foreclosed, and fighting back is discouraged if it’s even considered. They urge personal lifestyle change and the concept of “lifeboats” as the only possible solution.
The problem with the Tilters is that they leave industrialization, capitalism, and, ultimately, civilization in place. All of these are disasters for the planet and for human rights. The Tilters urge us to accept that we are all equally responsible for the destruction of the planet.
Civilization is the destruction of the living world, and industrialization is an acceleration of that process. By harnessing the energy available in fossil fuels, both the speed and the scale of the devastation are dramatically increased.2 It took the inhabitants of Easter Island a few hundred years to destroy their 63 square miles of forest using stone axes. A chainsaw can do that in a few weeks. Capitalism adds another accelerant: wealth. To be clear, when we say capitalism we aren’t talking about all market economies. We’re talking about the specific economies organized for the accumulation of private wealth. It may surprise readers to learn that this idea is quite new in the history of human affairs. As Ted Trainer points out,
In almost all previous societies economic activity was determined mostly, and usually entirely, by social rules and procedures, not by the market. What a person produced, what he or she was paid, the price of the object, hours of work and who the work was done for, were all decided mainly by custom and tradition.… Most production and distribution were not determined by what would be most profitable, but rather by rules set by tradition, the church or organisations such as guilds. These nonmarket procedures set “fair prices.” Labor, land, and capital were not sold. They were exchanged but the arrangements made were determined by social roles and not by bargaining in the market for the highest bidder. “Moral” considerations governed production and distribution.… It is therefore quite mistaken to assume that humans have always been motivated primarily by profit or have always had a market economy, or that such an economy is the natural, or the only way to organize economic affairs. In fact, virtually all previous societies … had exactly the opposite economic philosophy to ours.3
Chapter 3, “Liberals and Radicals,” gave a brief history of how the merchant-barons arranged the US Constitution to support the accumulation of wealth, especially by the enforcement of contracts. The Constitution empowered the rising merchant class against both traditional constraints on accumulation and community protection of the commons, like forests and rivers. Those commons have been dismantled systematically and turned into private wealth. In the county where I live, the last run of salmon—a species that has been feeding forests for forty million years—is a whisper on its way to being a memory: only 500 returned last year, not enough for genetic diversity, and only a fading promise of nourishment for the 350-foot-tall redwoods. The timber companies are allowed to destroy salmon runs because the law declares the trees their property instead of our collective community.
Before the seventeenth century money lending for interest was immoral, it was expected that prices would be “just,” personal gain and hoarding were discouraged, work was for the “well-being of the soul” and to produce things for direct local use was not to make profit. Throughout most of history, food, clothing and shelter and other basic resources were produced for use value and were distributed within tribes and groups on a reciprocal basis. The motive of individual gain from economic activities was generally absent; the very idea of profit, let alone interest, was either inconceivable or banned.4
There is no lack of critiques of capitalism or ideas about economic systems that would provide for human needs and human rights. But in brief, here are the main problems with capitalism.
Capitalism is based on endless growth. In our economic system, those who have capital invest it to make a profit. The problem, as Trainer points out, “is that as they make profits their capital grows and it is not possible for them to invest all profitably unless an increase in the value of producing and consuming takes place.”5 The economy must grow, or the system crashes. But our planet is finite. We cannot consume more of everything—trees, fish, soil—each year and have anything left.
Capitalist investment does not provide for human needs like food, housing, or health care; it goes where the investors might make a profit. What the rich want is what will be produced; what the poor need, well, the poor had better die and decrease the surplus population, as English literature’s most famous capitalist said. Globally, one-fifth of the world’s people get the lion’s share of the resources, including fossil fuels, food, and even land.
Capitalism destroys democracy and human rights. Any arrangement where a tiny fraction of the population consumes most of the resources will require violence. People are not willingly separated from their sustenance. That violence is woven into every Walmart T-shirt, from the rivers drained dead for cotton to the farmers driven to suicide as corporations destroy their livelihoods to the farmer’s children with no options but emigration to the nearest slum where a sweatshop is the best option for survival. A friend of mine is a professor whose students work at clothing stores like Old Navy. The students regularly find notes hidden in the jeans made in Asia: “Please help us.”
In rich countries as well as poor, the power of concentrated wealth will distort and destroy democratic processes. Wealth can buy the laws, the courts, the government that it wants: the rest of us have essentially no access. With the commons privatized and local economies destroyed, people have no choice but to “bargain” with those corporations for their livelihoods. Only a free market fundamentalist could believe the results from such unequal bargainers could be fair.
This is what the Tilters fail to apprehend: leaving capitalism in place will never produce a just and sustainable world. A growth-based economic system will continue to turn living beings into dead consumer goods, local self-sufficient economies into corporate colonies of serfs, and democracies into commodities. Why would we want this system to continue? Yet the Tilters do.
Ted Trainer is worth quoting at length. He writes as an “apology to green people,”
A sustainable and just society cannot be a consumer society, it cannot be driven by market forces, it must have relatively little international trade and no economic growth at all, it must be made up mostly of small local economies, and its driving values cannot be competition and acquisitiveness. Whether or not we’re likely to achieve such a transition is not crucial here … The point is that when our “limits to growth” situation is understood, a sustainable and just society cannot be conceived in any other terms. Discussion of these themes is of the utmost importance, but few if any green agencies ever even mention them.
The “tech-fix optimists,” who are to be found in plague proportions in the renewable energy field, are open to the same criticism.… Despite the indisputably desirable technologies all these people are developing, they are working for the devil. If it is the case that a sustainable and just world cannot be achieved without transition from a consumer society to a Simpler Way of some kind, then this transition is being thwarted by those who reinforce the faith that technical advances will eliminate any need to even think about such a transition.6
Lester Brown has a plan, currently updated to version 4.0.7 He clearly recognizes that the planet is in severe distress. He is equally clear that overconsumption is driving the destruction. He is also frank in confronting overpopulation, which is often a very contentious issue for progressives. But he is attempting to save the thing which must be stopped: civilization itself.
Brown’s Plan B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization involves four components: reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2020; stabilizing the human population at eight billion; eliminating poverty; and repairing the planet’s natural communities, “including its soils, aquifers, forests, grasslands, and fisheries.”8
What is salutary in his plan is his understanding that the problems we face are systematic and interrelated. He writes, “We are not … likely to stabilize population unless we can also eradicate poverty. Conversely, we cannot restore the earth’s natural systems without stabilizing population and climate, and we’re not likely to stabilize climate unless we also stabilize population. Nor can we eradicate poverty without restoring the earth’s natural systems.”9
The problem with Plan B is that it leaves the overlapping accelerants of capitalism, industrialization, and civilization in place. This is the core fallacy of the Tilters, even when they acknowledge that something might be wrong with market forces. Writes Brown, “We rely heavily on the market because it is in some ways such an incredible institution. It allocates resources with an efficiency that no central planning body can match, and it easily balances supply and demand.”10 Allocates resources to whom? To the people who can buy them. And what capitalism calls “resources” other people consider their communities and, indeed, their lives. As Brown admits, “The market does not respect the carrying capacity of natural systems. For example, if the fishery is being continuously overfished, the catch eventually will begin to shrink and prices will rise, encouraging even more investment in fishing trawlers. The inevitable result is a precipitous decline in the catch and the collapse of the fishery.”11
But the solution of the Tilters is not to dismantle the power schemes of capitalism, industrialization, or civilization. Their solution involves substituting renewables for fossil fuels, using incentives and penalties to try to make the market shift toward renewables. A carbon tax and cap and trade proposals are the favorites. In cap and trade, a regulatory body sets a limit on the allowable amount of a specific activity and then permits are auctioned off to the highest bidder. In general terms the problem is the usual capitalist pyramid: the people with the most money will get to buy the permits. If governments agree that only a set amount of carbon can be released each year, why do the rich get to use that carbon? Why isn’t that set amount of carbon distributed equally to every human being?
In real life, cap and trade programs have proved unworkable at best, and damaging at worst. According to environmental lawyers Laurie Williams and Allan Zabel, the problems are legion.12 They state bluntly, “We do not think a reliably accurate system can be put in place for enough sources of emissions and offsets within the necessary time frame.” In Europe, fraudulent underreporting has helped render the Kyoto treaty ineffective. Indeed, cap and trade creates another source of wealth—carbon—that has, as usual, been shifted upward. The European carbon market has only “enriched polluting industries and their consultants, while producing minimal decreases in their emissions.”13
The idea behind both cap and trade and a carbon tax is to make the market respond away from fossil fuels and toward (presumably cheaper) renewables, but it leaves capitalism in place. It assumes that both industrial civilization and capitalism are good arrangements of human affairs, that these arrangements can be redeemed by a simple switch to renewables, and that such a substitution is possible. We have already discussed why industrialization and capitalism are based on domination and destruction. But the issue of renewables is worth a critical look.
Renewables are the Promised Land for progressives, where megawatts will flow like milk and honey. They can power everything—the consumer goods, the suburbs, the agriculture—and leave us with a viable atmosphere. All we have to do is direct the market to invest in some combination of solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass energy, and we can have our planet and eat it, too.
But reality is a harsh corrective, especially when people have staked both their emotional well-being and their future on hopes with no substance. The Tilters are scientific millenarianists: a new day will dawn on our solar panels as long as we purify our personal lives and all believe.
But no amount of belief will change the math and physics. Wind energy, for instance, is the “centerpiece” of Brown’s Plan B, version 4.0. He asserts that “harnessing one fifth of the earth’s available wind energy would provide seven times as much electricity as the world currently uses.”14 He proposes building 3,000 gigawatts worth of windfarms, which would provide roughly 40 percent of world demand. These are the sorts of statements that lull the alarmed back to sleep. There are serious problems with wind energy that Brown and other Tilters ignore, and they ignore them at the peril of the planet.
As Ted Trainer makes clear, “Even in good wind areas, wind will not be able to provide more than a rather small fraction of electricity demand.”15 The first major problem is variability. Yes, the potential harvest might be larger than demand in some places. But the vast majority of that potential is useless because the wind is an intermittent force. Wind farms produce a “spiky” output, meaning an all or nothing generation pattern. If the winds are up and the turbines are spinning at capacity, the grid will be overloaded. Most of the power will need to be kept out of the grid to keep the system from frying. Why not turn off the fossil fuel plants and use the wind input? Because it takes twelve to twenty-four hours to get those powered up or down. If the excess electricity generation could be stored, the problem would be mitigated, but electricity is essentially impossible to store. The inherent variability problem means that in order to produce the amount of energy that industrial societies are used to, fossil fuel generating capacity has to be almost equal to the wind capacity. Without that backup, using only wind, “peak [wind] capacity would have to be something like twenty times average demand. The number of windmills needed would be impossibly large.”16
This has been borne out by experiences in Europe, where variability means that a threshold as low as 5 percent from wind power causes “significant integration difficulties into the grid.”17 Denmark is often referenced as a positive example, as problems aren’t reached until wind output reaches 18 percent. This happy number falls apart on examination, as most of the output is exported. The rest is dumped. In fact, only 4 percent can be taken in by the Danish grid. The two reasons Denmark can export the excess are because its neighbors aren’t using wind power, and hence have a little more allowance, and because Denmark is small compared to those neighbors and so generates a small amount of power overall.
Most damning, one researcher believes that wind power would result in more fossil fuel usage than if windmills hadn’t been built. Explains Trainer, “This is because the most efficient gas plants (combined cycle gas turbines) must be run at a constant output but the plants capable of varying their output to follow wind changes quickly are much less efficient. In addition frequent variation reduces the life of gas turbines.”18
Some Tilters have a crush on hydrogen as a storage method. But even under the best circumstances, only about 25 percent of the energy going into the fuel cell comes out. It’s a very poor storage mechanism. Take the twenty times average demand quoted above, and multiply that by three to get the number of windmills needed. It’s not possible. With all apologies to Bob Dylan, the answer is not blowin’ in the wind.
Solar energy fares little better. Brown again proselytizes for techno-millenarianism with statements like, “There are enough solar thermal resources in the US Southwest to satisfy current US electricity needs nearly four times over.”19 We need not fear for the future, only place our faith in the technological priesthood. But upon deeper investigation, the miracles promised by solar power fall apart like parlor tricks. As with wind, storage and integration make solar generation more useful as a backup energy source then as a prime source. Solar thermal energy costs more than 7.5 times as much as a coal-fired plant.20 Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels could cost thirteen times as much.21 Winter presents an insurmountable problem, leading some, including Brown, to suggest North Africa as the best site for Europe’s electricity. One pithy bumper sticker asks, “How did our oil get under their sand?” The renewables version might ask, “How did our sunlight fall on their land?” This only works morally if, like Brown, you still advocate neoliberal globalization: poor countries should attract capital from the rich, and integrate themselves into global markets by selling whatever “resources” they can. The new world of renewables will look exactly like the old in terms of exploitation.
But even putting aside the basic issue of justice, the physics renders the scheme unworkable, as it involves enormously long transmission lines, which would include a stretch under the Mediterranean Sea. For Europe, with its more northern location, the presence of both clouds and winter mean that solar power cannot begin to replace fossil fuel levels of energy consumption. In the US, the situation is similar in that the best sites are in the less populated Southwest. To get that power to the population centers would require storage and long lines, with their “parasitic losses, energy costs, transmission losses and the cost of a backup system.”22 Solar thermal has the advantage of energy storage (oil, molten sand, or crushed rock). Right now, the storage can last up to twelve hours. But data shows that cloud cover can last for days even at the best sites, requiring backup capacity. PV systems have the same variability and storage problems as wind. They are also costly. Trainer’s figures show that PV systems, including both household and industrial generators, can take anywhere from 150 to 294 years to pay back costs. He runs through the numbers on a household system and concludes that “if the electricity generated was sold at the same price as coal-fired electricity it would take 452 years to pay these costs.”23 As he states, “These long dollar payback periods indicate the magnitude of the increases in electricity price that would have to be accepted in an economy based solely on renewals.”24 Trainer examines a PV solar option for a 1,000 megawatt PV plant meeting twenty-four-hour demands. Figured for a good location, and assuming hydrogen storage, it could cost as much as thirty-four times that of coal.25 At a certain point, the cost of energy would lead to the collapse of the industrial economy. The authors of this book have no problem with that outcome. But the Tilters rallying behind renewables are trying their hardest to hold off that exact possibility.
These costs, of course, are all based on the still-cheap energy provided by fossil fuels. Windmills, PV panels, the grid itself are all manufactured using that cheap energy. When fossil fuel costs begin to rise, such highly manufactured items will simply cease to be feasible: sic transit gloria renewables. The elements used in some key technologies—gallium, indium, and tellurium—simply don’t exist in the quantities that would be necessary for PVs to supply any meaningful amount of world electricity consumption. The basic ingredients for renewables are the same materials that are ubiquitous in industrial products, like cement and aluminum. No one is going to make cement in any quantity without the easy energy of fossil fuels: cement is so energy intensive that each pound of it releases a pound of carbon into the atmosphere.
And aluminum? The mining itself is a destructive and toxic nightmare from which riparian communities will not awaken in anything but geologic time. And like cement, production of aluminum and steel is saturated in embodied energy. These are not ingredients with which we can build a sustainable way of life. Their extraction leaves broken rivers behind them; their refining demands the heat of hell; and their intended usage is for more of the same, the continued consumption of the planet.
That I have to address biofuels at all tells me that mainstream environmentalists are dwellers in the land of fantasy, a fantasy built on entitlement to 3,000 pounds of personal steel.
Corn ethanol may not, in fact, provide any net energy. If it does, it’s a tiny amount. More important, every acre of corn used for ethanol requires that a corresponding acre somewhere else must be cleared to make up for the food lost. The only “somewhere else” left is the tropics. A team at Princeton University did the math: biofuels based on land clearing in the tropics “dramatically” increased greenhouse gas emissions.26 A study in Science put the number of the “biofuel carbon debt” at thirty-seven. Understand: converting both grasslands and rain forest to corn, soy, or palm oil for biofuels results in carbon emissions thirty-seven times greater than the reduction in greenhouse gases afforded by switching from fossil fuels to biofuels.27 As Trainer puts it, “The limits to liquid fuel production have not primarily to do with the energy return ratio for producing fuels from biomass. They have to do with quantity, i. e., the areas of land available and the associated yields.”28 There is no more land, and, frankly, if there was, the plants and animals who lived there would vastly prefer their lives and communities to a monocrop of switchgrass. Perennials fare no better in the end than annuals: the continual harvesting of all cellulotic material—assumed in biofuel calculations—will degrade the land very quickly.
Again, there is that basic ignorance of how life actually works, knowledge that is endemic to agricultural societies. Soil is alive, profoundly so. It is not an inert material for humans to use or manipulate, and treating it as such has brought us to the end of the world. Because soil is alive, it needs to eat. Continuously removing the plant material means the soil starves. With starved soil, the plants in turn will have nothing to eat. Providing nitrogen from fossil fuels will temporarily let plants grow, but both the mineral content of the soil and the body of the soil itself will still be degrading.
Those fertilizers are, of course, part of the fossil fuel drawdown as well as the greenhouse buildup. A Nobel Prize winner, Paul Crutzen, found that the nitrous oxide emissions from the petrochemical fertilizers necessary for corn and rapeseed nixes any carbon savings.29 Biofuels are just another agricultural assault against the planet.
The road to hell is paved with fossil fuels. And there is no energy source that can provide for the continuation of industrial culture. The Tilters have got to face the truth. Sun, rivers, wind, and trees can provide us with a home. They cannot provide for a personal empire of energy, not beyond a few generations, and the last generation is already here.
The Tilters have more proposals, but these are vampire ideas that turn to moral dust under daylight. We can keep our cars, they promise, as long as they are electric. It turns out that such cars can take up to five times as much energy to produce as a regular car. For a Prius, the figure to note is 142 percent more energy over the life of the car. In fact, hybrids consume more energy than an SUV. According to Richard Newman, the energy cost per mile over the lifetime of a Prius is 1.4 times the energy cost of the average car in the US.30 Lester Brown suggests energy-saving appliances that can “talk” to the grid. And how much extra energy is embodied in the complicated circuitry? Meanwhile, we know how much energy is embodied in a cold cellar or springhouse, in food produced daily and locally: none. But no one dares suggest a different way of life, one that lays down the weapons of civilization, the sword and the plowshare both.