It is obvious, the Laws of Physics say, that growth of our population, economy and energy use cannot continue without limit. This should be non-controversial. But it's not.
These facts do not reside comfortably within the political spectrum. In fact, the problems posed by physics and chemistry regarding our effect upon the planet tell us that our political and economic systems, as currently constituted, are unable to respond in any kind of timely or sufficient manner. In fact, proposing timely and effective solutions is considered electoral suicide
Like, for example, that number "350" - as in 350.org - which C02 concentrations can't exceed if, as James Hansen says, "humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted." Since we are at 392 right now it is clear that no more Carbon can be burned by us any more. Period. And, even then, we might still be stuck with a radically altered planet.
So stop burning coal, oil, natural gas. Stop our obsession with economic growth. These ideas are deeply unpopular. Pessimistic. Chicken Little.
When the first President, George Washington, placed his hand upon the Bible, he stood less than a single day's journey by horseback from raw, untamed wilderness. There were 4 million Americans in a union of 13 States. Today we are 60 times as many in a union of 50 States. We have lighted the world with our inventions, gone to the aid of mankind wherever in the world there was a cry for help, journeyed to the Moon and safely returned… we, the present-day Americans, are not given to looking backward. In this blessed land, there is always a better tomorrow… we believed then and now there are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams. (From St. Ronald’s 2nd Inaugural Address)This grand, optimistic vision is, I’m afraid, the preferred political opiate. We take this drug at our own peril. And we do take it. In vast, saccharine quantities. It turns us into bloated consumption units in a corporate world.
Before St. Ronald's optimistic landslide, Jimmy Carter, reflecting the environmental thinking of the time that, for example, produced the landmark Limits to Growth
said this to the nation
Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly.Talk about Chicken Little! What a downer. And that cardigan!?!
It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century.
We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren.
We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us...
I am sure each of you will find something you don't like about the specifics of our proposal. It will demand that we make sacrifices and changes in our lives. To some degree, the sacrifices will be painful -- but so is any meaningful sacrifice. It will lead to some higher costs, and to some greater inconveniences for everyone
The election of St. Ronald was, I think, a turning point in the history of our civilization. The Mother of All Missed Opportunities. Marketers and ad people generally concede that Ronnie's "Morning in America" marketing campaign was one of the most effective campaigns there has ever been.
Doom and gloom scientists, like Rachel Carson (in 1962), had been warning us for some time
The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road – the “one less traveled by” – offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earthWe all know what happened with that. Ronnie took us down the wildly popular, landslide election-winning, easy road where such words as "sacrifice" or "greater inconveniences" would be banished from our discourse.
Now, more than 40 years later, we realize these Chicken Little, Doom and Gloomers were right. Like Barry Commoner in 1971, in The Closing Circle
the present course of environmental degradation, if unchecked, threatens the survival of civilized man… One can try to guess at the point of no return – the time at which major ecological degradation might become irreparable. In my own judgment, a reasonable estimate for industrialized areas of the world might be from twenty to fifty years, but it is only a guess.Anything that grows at x% per year is growing exponentially. In this passage from Do the Math Tom Murphy cites statistics from the U.S. Energy Information Agency that show, starting in1650 (1650 !!), US energy use (from differing sources - wood, coal, oil, etc.) has grown at a remarkably steady rate of 2.9% per year. Since he is a scientist he lowers this number for his discussion to 2.3% per year to even out the math to a factor of 10 increase every 100 years. (This makes his estimates more conservative – the direction any good scientist would go.)
No matter what the technology, a sustained 2.3% energy growth rate would require us to produce as much energy as the entire sun within 1400 years. A word of warning: that power plant is going to run a little warm. Thermodynamics require that if we generated sun-comparable power on Earth, the surface of the Earth—being smaller than that of the sun—would have to be hotter than the surface of the sun! … continued growth in energy use becomes physically impossible within conceivable timeframes…once we appreciate that physical growth must one day cease (or reverse), we can come to realize that all economic growth must similarly end.The point of these math games is to illustrate the absurdity of the generally accepted political and economic "wisdom" that whatever enhances economic growth is "good" and whatever harms economic growth is "bad." The idea of finding a way to create a sustainable economic retreat - OK recession - is so, so scary to those in political power that they can't even allow the merest breath of such a thing to enter their considerations. But look at this from the Global Carbon Project:
The abrupt decline in fossil fuel emissions by 1.3% in 2009 was indisputably the result of the global financial crisis (GFC). However, the effect was short lived as the growth rate climbed to 5.9% in 2010, the highest annual growth rate since 2003.So, for fun, let's say emissions growth continued at 5.9% for the next 68 years. This doesn't lead to a direct 5.9% growth of atmospheric C02 ppm since there is an existing, dynamic carbon cycle that was functioning quite well before we started crapping on it. So, C02 goes into "sinks" - like the ocean and into soil on the land. Therefore about 45% of our emissions end up going into the atmosphere as C02 ppm. But the story is more complicated than that because the "natural sinks" - like the oceans - are also being dramatically affected and contain their own nasty feedback affects as they acidify and warm. So this percentage will increase as we increasingly damage the natural sinks.
So our fun math exercise continues. Discounting that 5.9% by a little more than half, gives us a 2.65% increase for 68 years. That's 2328 ppm C02 by the year 2100. This, of course, is an extreme case. But this kind of growth in emissions did actually happen - for all of 2010 - and everyone was happy about it because the economy was finally growing again. And if economic growth is the only consideration, such extreme cases are what our political and economic leaders hope for.
The disconnect between what chemistry and physics tell us needs to be done and what our economic and political leaders are able and/or willing to deliver is huge. It seems like an impenetrable box. Who could win a campaign on the platform of a sustainable economic retreat?
Instead we get various creative repackagings of St. Ronald’s “no limits to growth and human progress.” No politician dares oppose growth. No one will admit the fact that the standard economic model of constant exponential growth is a prescription for collective suicide.
So we get this truth from a participant at Doha:
It is not the process [that is dysfunctional]. The process is fine. If you look now at the past 20 years, what has delivered more climate action? This process has delivered more than anything else .... Countries come here and this process tries to find what common political will exists and it captures it. But if the political will is low, then what it can capture is what exists."Basic physics and mathematics tell us that sustained, long term growth of x% per year of any physical process – manufacturing, mining, energy generation, etc. – is physically impossible in a limited system. Like the planet earth. (For those of you who watched too much Star Trek and envisage an unlimited expansion into space I would refer you to Why Not Space).
- Wael Hmaidan, from Climate Action Network International
There must be a controlled and substantial economic retreat. It’s either that or an uncontrolled general environmental collapse. Those are our choices. Any other half measures are nothing but politically expedient ways of putting lipstick on an exponentially growing pig and riding it to Venus.
I know there are many who believe we can have our economic growth and a population of upwards of 10 billion - unheard of for any large mammal - and still live in comfort on a habitable planet if we only recycle more or reduce our carbon footprint or vote for better politicians. Those who believe that are welcome to hold those opinions.
I disagree. I believe physics, chemistry and math indicate that there must be much more radical and revolutionary changes than our present political system can deliver. These radical and revolutionary changes will happen either voluntarily by a massive exercise of collective will or by much less pleasant involuntary means. The voluntary revolution must begin on a local community level. It must begin now.