The Planet Formerly Known as the Planet of the Humans

posted in: The Quickening | 3

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.

(Image courtesy of Horacio_Fernandez)
(Image courtesy of Horacio_Fernandez)

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).

Will the wind turbines of today be the unfathomable monoliths of tomorrow? (Photo by Andy Dingley)
Will the wind turbines of today be the unfathomable monoliths of tomorrow? (Photo by Andy Dingley)

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.

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3 Responses

  1. Hi Eric, I am sorry you have thrown your support behind the shoddy documentary ‘Planet of the Humans’ which is designed to try and smear renewables. The journalism is shoddy, using data over 10 years old, with no discussion with an actual renewable energy expert. Given your long association with the Worldwatch Institute, which supported factual research that showed the importance of renewable energy, your praise of this doco fails to meet the standards that Worldwatch aimed for. Hence I write in defense of renewables as a key part of sustainability:

    1) I am an environmental scientist and writer, and while I have researched renewables for many years I don’t consider myself an ‘expert’ on them. Hence why I take note of what experts on renewable energy say. It is notable however that the ‘Planet of the Humans’ doco failed to do this, using old and outdated data. I suggest you look at the work of AProf Mark Diesendorf of UNSW who is an expert on renewables (see https://reneweconomy.com.au/how-rapidly-can-we-transition-to-100-renewable-electricity-51407/). I have also closely followed the work of energy expert Mark Jacobson (e.g. https://www.pnas.org/content/114/26/E5021 ). I note also the work of T.W. Brown et al (see https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364032118303307 ). All of these mount a logical and factually compelling case why renewable energy is both necessary and feasible.
    2) Some of the comments made about this doco suggest that supporting renewables means supporting massive further (and endless) energy growth. No way. I don’t recall seeing many renewable energy experts argue this. I believe we need (at least) an immediate halving of world energy use via energy conservation, which then stays constant or declines as population declines via non-coercive means (if society can overcome the taboo about this issue, see https://doi.org/10.1007/s41207-019-0139-4 ).
    3) I presume that most of the people reading the Gaianism blog believe in the climate crisis? That demands a quick cessation in the use of fossil fuels. For those who attack renewables, what do they think will happen? They are either happy to stay with fossil fuels (i.e. in denial of the climate crisis) or they support a massive increase in the equally problematic nuclear fission (or the mirage of nuclear fusion). Reading between the lines I suspect many supporters of this doco are in fact nuclear advocates (clutching at any straw to try and resurrect their dying fantasy). However, renewables are both cheaper and much cleaner than nuclear, and can be put in place much faster (see https://www.routledge.com/Demystifying-Sustainability-Towards-Real-Solutions-1st-Edition/Washington/p/book/9781138812697 ). Some like to claim that renewables could never respond to society’s energy needs. However they can certainly supply current usage, albeit no energy source can supply an endless growth in energy use. They also certainly can be increased in scale much faster than nuclear power. Already the majority of the respective annual electricity consumptions of Denmark, Scotland and South Australia is generated by wind and/or solar (see https://reneweconomy.com.au/debunking-michael-moores-myth-about-life-cycle-energy-needs-of-wind-and-solar-97798/ ).
    4) People should rightly be suspicious of ‘techno-fixes’ but renewables are not one of them.. Nuclear fission and the mirage of nuclear fusion are techno-fixes, as is carbon capture and storage, and geo-engineering (see https://www.routledge.com/Demystifying-Sustainability-Towards-Real-Solutions-1st-Edition/Washington/p/book/9781138812697). Renewable energy is actually an appropriate technology for our times.
    5) EROI. Energy Return on Investment (EROI) is often mistakenly used to argue that renewables are unworkable. This topic is bedeviled by varying definitions and also ideologically-driven arguments. Many note that fossil fuel systems are down to and EROI 10:1 now, and many researchers argue renewables are better, being in the range of 10-20:1 (e.g. see https://www.cell.com/one-earth/fulltext/S2590-3322(19)30220-9?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS2590332219302209%3Fshowall%3Dtrue ). Misleading claims about EROI have in fact just been answered by Prof Diesendorf (https://reneweconomy.com.au/debunking-michael-moores-myth-about-life-cycle-energy-needs-of-wind-and-solar-97798/ ). One thing we can say for certain, the EROI of fossil fuels is getting worse while the EROI for renewables is getting better all the time. I suspect that EROI is often being used by those who are ideologically against renewables (and many are I suspect nuclear advocates).
    6) Some continue to claim one must use fossil fuels to produce renewables. This is clearly wrong, you need to use energy for their production, this doesn’t have to be from fossil sources, it can be from renewables.
    7) Collapse. Several comments from environmental scholars argue that society is going to collapse anyway. This may well be so, but attacking renewables just makes this just that much more certain. We need to transition to a steady state economy and this also needs to solve the climate crisis – and hence be powered by renewables. We would all (I hope) rather transition to a sustainable future rather than assist collapse? Renewables are one key way to do that.

    Dr Haydn Washington, environmental scientist and writer

    • Erik Assadourian

      I don’t think I disagree with any of your points Haydn (well, maybe other than #6, the law of infinite regression–where did the energy come from to make those renewables making renewables?). But the impact of renewables (from mining, energy usage to create, etc. shouldn’t be ignored either). And I note clearly that renewables are part of the solution–specifically, as we degrow rapidly. But if degrowth is not part of the equation renewables become an “and.” Fossil fuel energy and solar. I certainly want no more nuclear built. Or fossil fuel infrastructure. In my magic world of make believe (assuming I wasn’t lynched within minutes), fossil fuels would be heavily taxed, there’d be a government organized transition to a much lower energy throughput with a plan to make that small amount of energy renewable (how small–not sure, that’d need data but I’d guess a tenth of what we use now, maybe a twentieth–so other low-consuming countries can grow their energy a bit?).

      Interesting you didn’t comment on the other point. I feel like that’s the root of this. If 350.org really wanted to get to 350 ppm CO2 levels then they’d be advocating for smaller populations and degrowth. Yes, they would probably respond, ‘most urgently we need to deal with the fossil fuel industry’ but the way they frame their message is all about that and replacing that energy with renewables. It is dishonest (to either themselves, aka delusional) or to the public–and when the public finally understands the reductions in energy necessary, they’re going to feel betrayed and angry. It’s like not telling a terminally ill patient he’s going to die and then suddenly in his last moments, the doctors tell him. What a moment squandered. He could have used that time better, made his peace, etc.

      Whether the images are old or not, the main point is nothing new or controversial: renewables is just a part of the solution, not a magical bandaid. (But yes, using old images fuels the climate denial community and that is a problem I should have addressed.) But I do make clear (and link to some of the reviews) that highlight he’s exaggerated. And your comment and links will certainly help with that too.

      Thanks,

      Erik

  2. Tom Read

    Greetings Erik,

    Your essay on this film seems fair and reasonable to me — I don’t sense that you’re somehow endorsing the film. That the film’s two main points “are worth discussing” seems quite true to me, whether you agree or disagree with the filmmakers. I value the discussion and am grateful to you for furthering it in a thoughtful way.

    As for living with renewable energy, I’ve lived “off-grid” on the coast of BC, Canada, for 20 years, but I know that my solar array, micro-hydro turbine and back-up propane generator are all products of a global economy that can’t last. So the “off-grid” concept is really an illusion, and someday my systems will fail for good when I can’t get replacement parts.

    Thanks for listening,

    –Tom

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