I was reminded viscerally of an excellent essay in Richard Heinberg's exceptional book Peak Everything, called "Bridging Peak Oil and Climate Change Activism" in which he points out, essentially, that where these two intertwined and equally important fields of study should be like conjoined twins- inseparable and interdependent- they are in fact acting like competitive teenage siblings, each certain that it is more important than the other, and each vying for all the attention and love, instead of working together.
"We do have another choice. Renewable energy sources are coming into their own. Both solar and wind will soon produce power at costs that are competitive with fossil fuels; indications are that twice as many solar installations were erected worldwide last year as compared to 2009. The reductions in cost and the improvements in efficiency of photovoltaic cells over the past decade appear to be following an exponential curve that resembles a less dramatic but still startling version of what happened with computer chips over the past 50 years.This is such a heartbreaking thing to read because it shows that even one of the most passionate and noted climate change advocates has deep misunderstandings about the nature of available resources on our planet.
Enhanced geothermal energy is potentially a nearly limitless source of competitive electricity. Increased energy efficiency is already saving businesses money and reducing emissions significantly. New generations of biomass energy — ones that do not rely on food crops, unlike the mistaken strategy of making ethanol from corn — are extremely promising. Sustainable forestry and agriculture both make economic as well as environmental sense. And all of these options would spread even more rapidly if we stopped subsidizing Big Oil and Coal and put a price on carbon that reflected the true cost of fossil energy — either through the much-maligned cap-and-trade approach, or through a revenue-neutral tax swap."
I'm not saying that energy efficient light bulbs and reusable grocery bags aren't the bees knees, but that is NOT going to cut it.
What I'm getting at here is something that's been pointed out by almost every peak oil/mineral advocate and should be utterly self evident to anyone wanting to restructure our energy consumption: We simply don't have enough stuff to create and maintain a new energy infrastructure. Both solar panels and wind turbines require rare earth minerals that are already in short supply. It's a nice idea, but it will never ever happen. The only way to reduce pollution is to reduce consumption.
Only a steep population decline (voluntary or not), an abandoning of all the products and services we love and cherish (TV, cars, computers, indoor heating and cooling, grocery stores, cheap clothes, etc), or a global economic disaster (what James Howard Kunstler refers to aptly as The Long Emergency) will drastically reduce our resource use... until of course those resources become so expensive that it becomes unreasonably inefficient to extract what's left of them.
While some theorize that we still have "time" to change, and some say it's too late- I personally think that it doesn't matter. Even if we did have time to change our ghastly habits, we won't.
Call me a sour Susan but it seems laughable to think that we'll all voluntarily switch off our a/cs and stop going to the mall to eat Sbarros Pizza and buy plastic jewelry and sweatshop jeans. Unless we simply can't afford to do those things, or they're wrenched from our cold, dead fingers, we will keep doing it till it kills us. We're addicted- like- SERIOUSLY addicted, and we're going to mainline that shit until we're dead in some squat in Hell's Kitchen with needles sticking out from our arms.
IMHO, of course, but this is all beside the point-
The misapprehension that we can continue on as we are if we all just recycle a little more and invest more in natural and renewable energies has become so deeply embedded in the environmental movement because no one has the balls to say (or possibly the knowledge that) "It takes a carbon based infrastructure to build and maintain a "renewable resource" infrastructure, and we have neither the resources, the political will, nor the social awareness to undertake such a massive shift."
When Bush sr. (then co opted by Dick Cheny and GWB) said
"The American way of life is not negotiable"- I don't think he was just being a snarky republican. I've seen "Think Green" stickers on more minivans than I can shake a stick at. We just don't GET it.
I watched a terrible commercial recently for Tom's of Maine where Sheryl Crow postures thoughtfully with her guitar and says deep shit like (I'm paraphrasing here)
"I have a philosophy that it's not about doing everything, it's about doing what you can" - This is dangerous thinking, but it's what most of us indulge in.
It's easy to try and hoist the moral burden of pollution and climate change off of our shoulders by buying organic- being environmentally aware is depressing, and it becomes a perfect storm of overwhelming horrors when you calculate in peak oil, and the looming economic collapse- I don't blame people for not facing the truth; but while climate change is a vague sort of
"We'll let our kids/grand kids deal with it in 60 years" thing, peak oil is happening NOW. We are ON the "Bumpy Plateau" where we are producing at maximum- and as demand continues to rise, so too do prices, which decreases demand, and then prices drop- but not back to where they started, because now the oil that we have left is more expensive to extract- but the prices drop enough so that demand rises, then prices go up again- but this time a little higher-
This is a game we simply can NOT play forever. Oil prices will never drop down to a buck a gallon ever again, no matter how much we subsidize.
It becomes less of a moral issue and more of a practical one. As much as the techno-fixers and optimists among us would love to build a nation of solar panels and wind turbines and geothermal plants- of high speed rails and hydrogen powered cars and organic farms.... it's simply not viable. Not only will it not happen for political reasons- it CAN'T happen. We do not posses enough raw materials to restructure our world to a more environmentally friendly one...... but then again, we can't keep going the way we're going either- Again- we are going to run into the wall of infinite demand VS a finite world.
We are going to have to (probably involuntarily) learn to live within our means- and in a world with 7 billion people facing a drastically changing climate- that is not going to happen the way we would like it to. I want to be positive about this, to see it as an opportunity for the human race to de-globalize and live a more peaceful agrarian lifestyle, but I don't think it's going to happen the way that the optimists predict- not because we are not capable of a gentle transition, but because nobody, not the oil execs all the way to Al Gore, will admit that we are living on borrowed resources even now.
The idea that we can/ will go on as before with just a few minor concessions is just the kind of magical thinking that is going to totally cripple our preparedness for the reality that is hurtling towards us.
We could soften the blow- or rather- advocates, writers, and activists could (because policymakers, government, and corporations won't and it's a joke to think we could influence their behavior) by simply making the public aware that they're about to run short or food, fuel, and plastic- so conserve and re purpose as much as you can- buy hand tools, learn to garden or knit or fix shit and you'll be in a much better position to protect the interests of yourself and those you love from the inevitable shift towards a post carbon life. The new American subsistence existence.
We're like Wiley Coyote walking over a cliff- still walking, we haven't looked down yet- but when we do- oh baby. We'll fall hard and fast.
I hope I'm wrong, I really do, but I think it's pretty indicative that I'm not when even people like Al Gore- who are in a real position to smack some sense into the common man are instead gently tapping his shoulder and saying
"Excuse me please, I hate to be a bother, but..."