Thursday, January 21, 2010

A comment from Icarus

Icarus has left a new comment on your post "Scientists are Egomaniacal DoucheBags":

"Alas, we have arrived at the sunset of human civilization"

The more I read about it, and the better I understand the way civilisation works, the more I am coming to this conclusion too. Our entire civilisation is based on energy - overwhelmingly on the amazing property of fossil fuels, that they give us back many times more energy than we expend in acquiring them. I can propel a car full of people and luggage hundreds of miles at 70mph just by burning a few gallons of flammable liquid. When you think about it in those terms, it is quite amazing. Think of what would be involved in moving that amount that distance by manpower alone, even at a vastly slower walking pace. Fossil fuels directly or indirectly power virtually all our mechanised transport. They form the basis of many raw materials (e.g. plastics and fertilisers). They give us nearly all of the world's electricity. And they're all finite resources - oil has probably peaked (demand is going up and production down). Same goes for any other raw materials - they are all finite. We can recycle, but that takes energy, which requires more fossil fuels. We can build nuclear power plants, which work on the basis of an even higher energy density fuel than fossil fuels, but we don't have the luxury of many decades to replace fossil fuels with nuclear... and constructing them would require large amounts of energy from fossil fuels, even if there was enough raw materials and nuclear fuel for us to do that. The sun, wind and waves could potentially give us unlimited energy but only at a very low energy density, so would require vast amounts of raw materials and fossil fuels to build infrastructure and make a significant difference. Do we have the time and resources (and will) to make such a huge change? I'm very much afraid that we don't.

Then there is food - we are probably near the limit of productivity for the land which is already being farmed, and there aren't vast amounts of free fertile land to convert to farmland, even ignoring the climate consequences of doing so. At the same time, human population continues to increase (nearly 7 billion now). The productivity we have now relies hugely on fossil fuels, for fertiliser and mechanisation. How will we feed 8, 9 or 10 billion people on limited farmland, declining water resources and scarcer and more expensive fossil fuels?

Civilisation is based on energy and predicated on infinite growth, but this is clearly impossible on a finite planet, so it is inevitable that *at the very minimum* the kind of civilisation that we're used to has to end and be replaced by something sustainable. The question is, what size of human population is 'sustainable' on an already over-exploited world? It's hard to see how, with greatly diminished fossil fuels, we could grow enough food for more than 1 or 2 billion people.

And all of this, of course, is before we even consider the chaos looming from disastrous climate change.

For most of my life I've almost unconsciously assumed that life just gets better all the time, that I'll always have a job, that I'll eventually retire in comfort, that my kids will have a decent life etc. Now I'm not nearly so sure. I can't take it all for granted any more. I'm more and more convinced that it will inevitably collapse, and that it will do so soon enough to make life a lot less secure and comfortable for me and my family in the future.


  1. Thank you for leaving this thoughtful analysis. Yesterday I had to restrain myself from confronting a young man who had left his car idling in front of the post office while he mailed a package. It's amazing how people take transport and hot showers and air conditioning and plastic everything for granted. Turns out, it is actually illegal in New Jersey to idle your car for more than a few seconds, because is creates pollution, and pollution kills people. But the law is so rarely - if ever - enforced that nobody even knows it exists.

    Equally amazing though is how much people did without burning fossil fuels - pyramids and Machu Pichu and the Great Wall and European cathedrals. But I suppose those were all done on slave labor, not much of a recommendation.

    I fear we need look no further than New Orleans and Haiti to see what becomes of society when disaster strikes - and those have occurred in a time when outside help is available.

  2. Thanks Gail - I think you do a tremendous job with this high quality blog and your correspondence. I visit here most days, since seeing your interesting comments in Climate Progress.

    Intellectually, the great threats to human civilisation such as climate chaos, peak oil and overpopulation seem to be bearing down on us like a freight train, but instinctively it's hard to believe that life won't just carry on as normal. That's our problem - we're not good enough at responding to big-but-as-yet-unrealised dangers. By the time we can see and experience the consequences, and accept them as real, it may be too late.

  3. Icarus...have you thought much about the great divide between those who can viscerally understand what is to befall, and those who are oblivious? Quite perplexing!

  4. I don't feel like I *viscerally* understand it, as you say... Intellectually I can see these things coming but it doesn't seem real yet. It's too hard to accept that life isn't going to carry on pretty much the same as always.

    Have you read Plan B 4.0? Very, very sobering. The author lays out how we can avert the worst, with a massive world-war-style effort... but can you see that happening? A worldwide co-ordinated plan to save human civilisation? I can't. They couldn't even agree on a few percent cut in Copenhagen.

  5. The mere fact that you intellectually can see these things coming sets you apart from the vast majority of Americans, at least. Even those who say they are concerned about climate change haven't made the leap to imagining how it might change their own life - maybe their grandchildrens' or someone far away.

    It is hard to imagine the human race pulling together they way Plan B 4.0 envisages. Far more likely is the sort of conflict that will arise from this sort of petition, with its provisions for completely free access to any sort of weapon, from "concerned citizens of Montana": part of which demands:

    "Prohibiting entrance into the county by all employees of the federal Environmental Protection Agency., which the group says is not a Constitutional arm of the federal government. “Much of the so-called support for environmental regulations is based upon the dubious assumption that there is such a phenomenon as global warming, when, in fact, the majority of scientists globally agree that we are not experiencing global warming,” the questionnaire read."

    As I said to RPauli, who forwarded it to me, think of how fearful these people must be to refuse a representative from the EPA entry. What do you suppose they are afraid that person might see? Evidence of global warming, perhaps?


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