One day, hundreds or maybe a thousand years into the future, when a new civilization rises from our civilization’s ashes and rediscovers sea travel, explorers may come across a stand of half decomposed off-shore wind turbines. Maybe even hundreds of them. Some just bases, some half broken poles, perhaps even one or two with a blade still rocking back and forth in the wind.
And they’ll wonder what kind of monuments these were. To gods? To the ancestors? To Gaia? Still holding onto the mythical stories of the great collapse—when the oceans boiled until they rose up and washed away cities and entire lands—the explorers may even conclude that these monoliths were attempts to appease the raging ocean’s wrath.
Ultimately, these ruins may seem as strange to them as the Moai statues seemed to the explorers who stumbled upon Easter Island. There they found a similarly inexplicable phenomenon. Hundreds of huge heads, having been built long ago, and yet no civilization capable of building them. The Rapa Nui people neither had the capacity, the numbers, nor the resources to build and resposition huge boulders around the island. But someone did it—even if the who, when, and why was unclear.
I used to make this comparison often to end talks I gave on State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability. Would we end up like the Rapa Nui, consuming resources to produce ritual and status goods to the point we destroy the very basis of our civilization?* Or would we make the bold cultural changes necessary to avert collapse?
This comparison came back to me as I watched Planet of the Humans this past week, a documentary that several friends recommended. I admit it took a while to get through—it started slow and contained some errors and exaggerations—but finishing it, its two main points (neither of which are new) are definitely worth discussing.
First, renewable energy is not the solution. To many that may come as a surprise, though to some that is already well understood. And of course, that is not to say that renewable energy isn’t part of the solution. But we cannot keep growing our economy, our population, and our per capita consumption levels and expect anything but collapse (even if run on renewables). Using 1.75 planets of biocapacity a year—a number that grows both due to more people being born each year and due to marketers, businesses, and governments working hard to get people to buy more stuff—we will eventually trigger tipping points in Earth’s systems that will make civilization collapse (most likely runaway climate change, though there are other contenders/complements as our current pandemic reveals).
Rather, what is necessary is a complete cultural shift away from consumerism and growth. There will need to be active social marketing to normalize low-consumption lifestyles and smaller families—not just in developing countries but particularly in overconsuming countries like the United States. A 2018 report showed just how massive this reduction in per capita consumption needs to be if we are to have even a chance of stabilizing the climate. In Finland, for example, by 2030, per capita consumption will need to shrink 69 percent, and by 2050, 87 percent. But even India, not a large consumer by comparison, will have to reduce consumption by 43 percent by 2050. (Not sure why the United States wasn’t included in the mix, but if Finland is at 87 percent by 2050, the hyper-consuming USA is probably in the mid- to high-90s.)
This is all made worse by the fact that growing renewable energy depends on fossil energy (and the ravishing of many other resources and landscapes), a point the film makes viscerally, though, with solar and wind, it underestimates the amount of energy gained from that conversion as this critique makes clear. And equally concerning, to make the conversion to renewables, we need to use fossil fuels right now—at the exact time when we should be lowering our usage—what is known as “the energy trap” (Here’s more on that—see especially pages 80-81). That means to shift to renewables, we would need to significantly restrict fossil fuel availability for personal consumption for years or even decades to come, which we are not doing.
Renewable energy, therefore, is part of the solution for a radically scaled down civilization—both in terms of population and consumption. However, it cannot magically enable us to keep living as we are or worse, keep growing. That way madness lies.
Second, mainstream environmental groups are unable to honestly address how radical the changes are we need. This, too, is not a new critique. I explored this in State of the World 2013, and leaned heavily on a great book, Green Inc., written in 2008. Many groups work directly with corporations: to get access to resources, to help influence how they produce, to multiply their effectiveness. Not surprisingly, that limits what they can say or do. But worse, even those groups that don’t depend on corporations feel limited in how radical they can be. If the Sierra Club spoke honestly that we need to reduce consumption by three-quarters in the next ten years in the US and have fewer children, their membership would be the first thing to contract. Few Americans want to hear that their way of life is killing the planet (even if many know deep down that it is) and that the only solution is to abandon this consumer culture altogether.
Even 350.org, attacked throughout this film, has significant limitations. The group frequently promotes the transition to renewables and pretends (often by omission) that we can keep the American way of life intact if built around renewables and electric cars. But we can’t. The whole system that we live in is unsustainable to the core, and sadly (to us who live in and benefit from it), has to end. And that’s a frightening prospect that just the very fringes of the movement are willing to grapple with.
One other critique leveled at Planet of the Humans was that it didn’t offer many solutions. Frankly, that isn’t easy. The real solution is beyond even the scale of our current lockdown. The active promotion of smaller families is needed, using education, social marketing, government incentives/disincentives, and religious institutions’ moral leadership. We need a New Deal-scale effort to relocalize food systems, and local ecosystems, creating millions of jobs for new small-scale farmers and conservationists. Yes, they’ll earn little, but with reinvestment in public goods (paid for through carbon taxes and 90% tax rates on the superrich)—including buses and bike lanes, cleaner tap water, and better libraries, schools, and healthcare—perhaps being “poor” won’t be so bad. But I’m pretty sure people aren’t willing to make that trade, at least not while marketers are spending half a trillion dollars a year promoting the opposite vision.
So, as I used to end my Transforming Cultures talks with, those who understand what needs to be done need to do what they can, sowing the seeds of new cultures based on sustainability. Maybe these efforts will surprise us and spark a shift to a new sustainability culture. But even if they don’t (and they probably won’t) at least when the collapse comes, these seeds will be ready to sprout up in the cultural clearings that have formed.
*While partly driven by invasive species (rats), a large part of the Rapa Nui’s downfall was the denuding of their forests in order to transport these huge statues around the island. Without large trees, they could not build canoes and thus lost access to a major source of food.