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No Easy Answers: Facing Ecological Crises Honestly

(Mining for Cobalt)

“But we need to replace fanciful dreams of endless energy from renewables with full-cost accounting, which an increasing number of experts are taking seriously. There are destructive environmental and social consequences to constructing the infrastructure for that energy production.”

Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, which was published by the University of Notre Dame Press last month. 

Let us start with the easy part: Strategies for achieving a just and sustainable human presence on Earth must involve holding the wealthy and powerful accountable for damage done and moving toward a more equitable distribution of wealth and power.

Okay, maybe that is not so easy.

But sustainability also requires something much more difficult: a commitment to a global down-powering for affluent societies and an acceptance of limits on human population and consumption. If there is to be a decent human future—perhaps any human future at all—we have to reject the growth economy, including illusions about “green growth.”

Call it “degrowth” or “steady state economics” or “doughnut economics.” Advocates for different approaches will disagree about specifics of policy proposals, but there is growing awareness of the need to talk about limits. That starts with recognizing the necessity of transcending capitalism and the current politics designed to serve capitalists, in pursuit of an equitable distribution of wealth within planetary boundaries. Those of us living in the more affluent sectors of the world should not try to evade these moral assessments and political obligations.

If this kind of honest reckoning with history and contemporary economic-political realignment were accomplished, then what? With nearly 8 billion people and most of the world’s infrastructure built with (and dependent upon) highly dense energy, then what? If running that existing infrastructure on renewable energy is highly unlikely, then what?

It is tempting to believe that we can identify low-energy societies from the past or communities in the contemporary world with lower-energy living arrangements and then simply replicate them more widely. It is also tempting to believe that breaking the grip of concentrated wealth and power and expanding democratic decision-making will lead to sustainable societies. But such hopes are based on a misunderstanding of the problem.

Our task today is not only to learn how to live “lower on the food chain” but, rather, how to transition from the existing infrastructure and organization of contemporary societies to infrastructure and organization that is consistent with a sustainable future. And we have to do this as we live with population densities far greater than any previous phase of human history, with an eye toward dramatic reductions in population. No past or existing society or ideology provides a workable model or viable plan for this task.

In those efforts, we should learn from the low-energy societies of the past and exemplary experiments within today’s societies while we craft a new moral and ideological grounding for a down-powering society. But those good examples do not offer a program for moving from the current state of most societies (large populations, high-energy, unsustainable) to where we need to be (smaller populations, low-energy, sustainable).

There are very few examples in history of a complex society choosing to scale back. For example, the eastern portion of the Roman Empire, what came to be known as the Byzantine Empire, survived after the fall of the western portion by choosing to reduce the complexity of its society. On the ropes and facing threats from Islamic Arabs, Byzantine imperial officials backed away from a money economy and started paying soldiers in land; reduced the size of their army and merged civil and military systems; reorganized the economy around self-sufficient manors; and simplified administration across the board. On the verge of disintegration in the eighth century, the Byzantine Empire was a major power in Europe and the Near East by the 11th century, lasting until the middle of the 15th century. The Byzantine example is an exception to the patterns of history. And today, the task is far more challenging: a down-powering on a global level with the goal of fewer people living on less energy, achieved by means of democratically managed planning to minimize suffering.

No one has yet offered a program to achieve the task before us. Simply invoking previous societies that lived with less energy and lower population densities is not a program. Because planning for transition on this scale is difficult to imagine, people are quick to embrace technological optimism and imagine that we will invent our way to a just and sustainable future without harsh reckoning and dramatic realignment. This optimism slides all too easily into a technological fundamentalism that undermines people’s ability to acknowledge and face the difficult challenges. Too often, people on all sides of the political debate seek salvation in a faith-based claim that the development of more high-energy advanced technology will resolve vexing energy and resource challenges.

Innovation and renewable energy are important, and we are all for expanding research and development. But we need to replace fanciful dreams of endless energy from renewables with full-cost accounting, which an increasing number of experts are taking seriously. There are destructive environmental and social consequences to constructing the infrastructure for that energy production. As one researcher puts it, “While the sun and wind are indeed infinitely renewable, the materials needed to convert those resources into electricity—minerals like cobalt, copper, lithium, nickel, and the rare-earth elements, or REEs—are anything but.” Independent of the ecological costs of the mining, “global reserves are not large enough to supply enough metals to build the renewable non-fossil fuels industrial system or satisfy long term demand in the current system.”

Rational planning for down-powering that accepts biophysical limits is necessary. We use the term “rational” with “planning” with some hesitation, well aware that much of the planning of the industrial era that was believed to be rational—that is, based on evidence generated while working within widely accepted scientific theories—is the source of many of our most vexing problems. In retrospect, a whole lot of rational planning of the recent past looks distinctly irrational. But we see no option but to embrace a rational process, evaluating evidence without delusions of grandeur and learning from the many mistakes of the past.

Such rational planning means we cannot pretend that if we humans were freed from hierarchical social systems we would suddenly find it easy to avoid the comforts and pleasures associated with dense energy, to which people have become accustomed (in the more affluent societies) or to which they aspire (almost everywhere else). While much wasteful consumption is driven by the propaganda of the growth economy (i.e., advertising and marketing), fossil fuels and other sources of energy also make people’s lives easier in many ways that are not frivolous. There is considerable variation in people’s assessment of their needs, but capturing and using dense energy for comfort and pleasure is not a unique goal of imperialists and capitalists.

It is time to face a harsh reality: There are no solutions, if by solutions we mean ways to support anything like the existing number of people at anything like the existing level of aggregate consumption. Wishing it to be possible, simply because the alternatives are difficult to imagine—let alone achieve—does not make it possible.

Wes Jackson is president emeritus of The Land InstituteRobert Jensen is emeritus professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin.

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