Monday, November 24, 2014

The next 300 years

Here's an optimistic version in a book I'm buying, "The Collapse of Western Civilization."  300 years from now a scholar looks back at what happened.

I learned about that book and more in this great blog…especially the comments section, and especially deep into the comments section where my perennial favorites Bruce Wilder (who should write books…as someone in this blog says...but since he blogs I read his writing) and Sandwichman get going back and forth along with a newer guy I like a lot, ZM, and others.  It's very much like the book above, but with Bruce showing how the collapse of civilizations went on back through history as well, and this new one fits right in, except for being global.

Here's Bruce talking about what I've thought similar things about many times…that we will not get out act together with regards to a renewable energy substitution program before it's too late.  He ends on the optimistic note that 300 years (or whenever) the survivors will get their act together, and plan a better kind of society even amidst the fossil fuel mass extinction event.  I share his entire view here…except that the part about the survivors is still very optimistic, and it may be more than 300 years before humans escape the collapse of global fossil fueled civilization reaches orderly planning, and the actual conditions for that may still be horrific compared to the world bequeathed us, which deserves mention at this point.

As you say, the most urgent issue is, do we use our remaining carbon budget and “cheap” fossil fuel production capacity to construct a renewable energy generation capacity (and I would emphasize an economical energy consumption infrastructure to match)? 
I think humans will not. Somethings will get built, but too little, too late. And, as things get rougher, the first instinct of collective panic will be austerity. More of the world will be cut off from access to resources, as elites substitute intensified administrative extraction to offset declining energy surpluses. Desperate and expedient measures will increase the pollution generated, will increase the critical depletion of fresh water and other vital resources.
Anything we do now that makes long-run sense will require short-term pain, which will fall disportionately on rentiers with a stake in existing systems. The preservationist impulse will inspire denial and forlorn hope. And, the pressure on incomes from declining industrial production and agricultural output will just make it harder to divert resources to investing in a viable future. 
It won’t be an “irrational” response. The ROI won’t be there, on a downward slope for the whole economy.
It is a kind of a race condition. The kick-in-the-ass catastrophe that would motivate getting control of the situation happens too late, after the capacity to respond has already been damaged and handicapped to much to permit a response of adequate magnitude.
I can imagine truly frightening catastrophes inspiring some truly horrifying and desperate expedients — wars and epidemics and mind-bogglingly ill-advised geo-engineering schemes — before orderly and well-planned re-structuring.

This is just one point of many interesting ones made in the long dialog.  ZM is hopeful that a "war time mobilization" of resources may be applied to building the renewable energy and sustainable transportation systems we will need for a sustainable world, and before the super-catastrophes.

A "war time mobilization" is a command economy in large part, but intended to have limited duration, and need not be anything like totalitarian.  With a command economy, you might have many worries, but ROI need not be one of them.

In our neoliberal world, ROI is a sacred Monolith, that we must keep building more of each quarter, even if it means ruining the basis of our existence.

Easter Island came to mind when I read the story about Google abandoning it's renewable energy transformation project.  Google's energy scientists were telling the story in a blog published by IEEE.  (BTW, I'm a member of IEEE myself, but am astounded by the large numbers of outspoken denialists, concern trolls, and the "forlorn hopeful" Bruce alludes to above among the ranks in IEEE, if not necessarily the publications, and quasi-denialism was in full force in the comment section.)  Forlorn hopes such as that substitution will save us, the market will get it right (even though common goods aren't included), and so on.  Well Google's scientists were taking up another (not new) forlorn hope: that some currently unforeseen technology will save us.  For the time being, the ROI isn't there, so Google isn't going to transform our energy future until that unforeseen technology arises.

They didn't actually use the term ROI, but it was clear that was what they meant, and what their analysis was about.  They didn't discuss any physical limitations.  I believe the science that says that we can meet the needs of every human on earth now quite easily with renewable energy.  The ultimate supply is comparatively endless, the only problem is capturing a tiny bit of it, which can be done using little more land, or even less, than we currently do.  We even still have the surplus useable carbon energy to make the transition, if we start right now.  We easily have the human power, the materials, minerals, etc., though with some special minerals there might well be and probably will easily be substations.  Substitutions like that are likely not a problem, and have already been seen in the past few years as we have already seen in renewable energy technologies.

The problem is, it can't be done right now mostly because of who owns the present.  Just as Bruce says so eloquently.

Eventually that will change, in one way or another, and either with only a minor extinction event, or a very big one.

We are Easter Island.

Easter Island Monoliths.

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