by Andrew Anselmo
If you have read or seen Guy McPherson, Dmitry Orlov, John Michael Greer, James Howard Kunstler, Richard Heinberg, Chris Martenson, James Hansen; seen the film “What A Way To Go: Life At the End Of Empire”, or spoken at length with anyone else who has brought up the issues of Peak Oil, environmental degradation, rising CO2 levels, the melting of the Arctic, release of methane from the tundra and clathrates, you know the score. We are in for one helluva ride, and it most likely will be unpleasant. The range of estimated unpleasantness varies, as to the source, but all in all, the current way of life (at least for Americans, or those accustomed to the traditional American automobile-centered way of life) will change drastically in the next years and decades. We wind up with either Kunstler’s World Made By Hand, Greer’s Star’s Reach, or simply ‘lights out’, as put forth by Guy McPherson. The Popular Mechanics/Star Trek future we’ve all been told isn’t going to happen, at least certainly not for a majority of the world’s population. If you need any convincing, check Professor Albert Bartlett’s YouTube talks on the exponential function. Any system predicated on infinite growth cannot last forever.
The one solution that might, as posited by Guy and others (just might!) save some shred of humanity is an economic collapse, brought on by the collapse of industrial civilization. Luckily(!), this does seem possible; Nicolas Taleb, Jeremy Grantham, and a small but growing host of others in the financial world (as well as those above) see that the infinite growth paradigm cannot be sustained, and at some point, the music will stop, and things will get, as they say, “interesting.”
Some posit that ‘free energy’ (as mentioned in the film ‘Thrive’) will save our bacon, but as noted by Rob Hopkins in his excellent review, this doesn’t solve the underlying problem. In the film ‘Thrive’, it mentions that the lack of energy is what is an impediment to most of the world being better. I admit, I once thought energy was at the core of our problems too. But Hopkins’ review at Transition Culture correctly vilifies this, as have so many others — we’ve had free energy and we haven’t done anything good with it in the long term. The film also mentions that we really don’t have scarcity, and this is ridiculous. The film tends to ignore climate change, and the long list of peer-reviewed literature on its reality.
Thrive’s main ‘deus ex machina’ is the possibility of free energy, but this tends to put the cart before the horse. Before implementing these technologies, society would need to evolve first, and not expect free energy, anti-gravity, easy space travel, or any other technological fix (even renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind) to save us. In the end, we will still have an infinite growth paradigm, and this is the essence of what is killing us. As clever as we are, it may be that we are just a tad too clever and rapacious, and Homo sapiens may be just a evolutionary cul-de-sac, due to this very trait. Even economic collapse, which might save the world, will still leave us, with our genetic predisposition towards more growth. Our clever brains, matched with our more base instincts to consume, expand, and populate will lead us right back to where we started. This may be difficult, as our fossil fuels will be practically gone, and going back to a steady state world will be our only option — using the power of the sun and its derivatives, and human/animal labor. If we were to discover (although unlikely) ‘free energy’ in an energy constrained future, this would simply ‘kick the can down the road’, until some other resource limit would stop us.
Of course, many would want to find a way to have our life continue onwards. Hot showers, electricity, good dentistry, ease of access to information are all things that make life pleasant, at least in the physical sense. Industrial civilization has some nice perks, but it tends to destroy everything else in the process. Not such a great tradeoff.
Like a scholar going through the Talmud, my thought was to find a loophole in the phrase, “terminate industrial civilization,” so we could continue to have some of these things, without destroying the planet. Who doesn’t want hot showers and good dentistry? The phrase ‘industrial civilization’ is linked my mind (and possibly to yours) to smokestacks, neat gadgets, near-instant communication and of course, inexorable, onward and upward growth. If it was possible, however, to have some sort of technology that was highly regulated, or in steady state — could this save us? Could we exist with technology, but without growth, without expanding? This flies in the face of everything we know about the way most of us work as individuals, and as a society. One might think that we’d actually have to quite literally evolve genetically to a “homo sapiens stabilis,” a species more attuned to longer range, steady-state thinking.
The mutation that gave rise to our greedy and ever-consuming nature is the kind that pushed out steadier thought processes. So, what does this mean for us? Although there may be some outliers, it may be that genetically, as a species, we are currently incapable of holding ourselves back.
Andrew Anselmo was trained as a mechanical engineer and has worked on Wall Street in financial derivatives and in the renewable energy sector on solar and wind systems. He tries to avoid cognitive dissonance as much as possible.
McPherson’s latest essay for the Good Men Project was posted today. It’s here.