Back in 2009, discussion of the future of energy and thus of civilization as we know it tended to be theoretical. Now, however, action is being taken and statements are being made, some of them coming from the usual suspects — “left-wingers” and “artists” and “radicals,” and other such dubious folks — but others now coming from directions that would once have been unthinkable. Some are even coming — mirabile dictu! — from politicians. Here are some examples of all three kinds:
In September 2014, the international petition site Avaaz (over 41 million members) pulled together a Manhattan climate march of 400,000 people, said to be the largest climate march in history. On April 11, 2015, approximately 25,000 people congregated in Quebec City to serve notice on Canadian politicians that they want them to start taking climate change seriously. Five years ago, that number would probably have been 2,500. Just before that date, Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, announced that it was bringing in a cap-and-trade plan. The chances of that happening five years ago were nil.
In case anyone thinks that it’s only people on the so-called political left that are concerned, there are numerous straws in the wind that’s blowing from what might once have been considered the resistant right. Henry Paulson, Secretary of the Treasury under George W. Bush, has just said that there are two threats to our society that are even greater than the 2008 financial meltdown he himself helped the world navigate: environmental damage due to climate change, and the possible failure of China. (Chinese success probably means China can tackle its own carbon emissions and bring them under control; Chinese failure means it probably can’t.)
In Canada, an organization called the Ecofiscal Commission has been formed; it includes representatives from the erstwhile Reform Party (right), the Liberal Party (centrist), and the NDP (left), as well as members from the business community. Its belief is that environmental problems can be solved by business sense and common sense, working together; that a gain for the environment does not have to be a financial loss, but can be a gain. In America, the Tesla story would certainly bear this out: this electric plug-in is doing a booming business among the rich. Meanwhile, there are other changes afoot. Faith-based environmental movements such as A Rocha are gaining ground; others, such as Make Way For Monarchs, engage groups of many vocations and political stripes. The coalition of the well-intentioned and action-oriented from finance, faith, and science could prove to be a very powerful one indeed.
But will all of this, in the aggregate, be enough?
Two writers have recently contributed some theorizing about overall social and energy systems and the way they function that may be helpful to us in our slowly unfolding crisis. One is from art historian and energetic social thinker Barry Lord; it’s called Art and Energy (AAM Press). Briefly, Lord’s thesis is that the kind of art a society makes and values is joined at the hip with the kind of energy that society depends on to keep itself going. He traces the various forms of energy we have known as a species throughout our pre-history — our millennia spent in the Pleistocene — and in our recorded history — sexual energy, without which societies can’t continue; the energy of the body while hunting and foraging; wood for fire; slaves; wind and water; coal; oil; and “renewables” — and makes some cogent observations about their relationship to art and culture. In his Prologue, he says:
Everyone knows that all life requires energy. But we rarely consider how dependent art and culture are on the energy that is needed to produce, practice and sustain them. What we fail to see are the usually invisible sources of energy that make our art and culture(s) possible and bring with them fundamental values that we are all constrained to live with (whether we approve of them or not). Coal brought one set of values to all industrialized countries; oil brought a very different set… I may not approve of the culture of consumption that comes with oil… but I must use [it] if I want to do anything at all.
Those living within an energy system, says Lord, may disapprove of certain features, but they can’t question the system itself. Within the culture of slavery, which lasted at least 5,000 years, nobody wanted to be a slave, but nobody said slavery should be abolished, because what else could keep things going?
Coal, says Lord, produced a culture of production: think about those giant steel mills. Oil and gas, once they were up and running, fostered a culture of consumption. Lord cites “the widespread belief of the 1950s and early ’60s in the possibility of continuing indefinitely with unlimited abundance and economic growth, contrasted with the widespread agreement today that both that assumption and the world it predicts are unsustainable.” We’re in a transition phase, he says: the next culture will be a culture of “stewardship,” the energy driving it will be renewables, and the art it produces will be quite different from the art favored by production and consumption cultures.
What are the implications for the way we view both ourselves and the way we live? In brief: in the coal energy culture — a culture of workers and production — you are your job. “I am what I make.” In an oil and gas energy culture — a culture of consumption — you are your possessions. “I am what I buy.” But in a renewable energy culture, you are what you conserve. “I am what I save and protect.” We aren’t used to thinking like this, because we can’t see where the money will come from. But in a culture of renewables, money will not be the only measure of wealth. Well-being will factor as an economic positive, too.
The second book I’ll mention is by anthropologist, classical scholar, and social thinker Ian Morris, whose book, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, has just appeared from Princeton University Press. Like Barry Lord, Morris is interested in the link between energy-capture systems and the cultural values associated with them, though in his case it’s the moral values, not only the aesthetic ones — supposing these can be separated — that concern him. Roughly, his argument runs that each form of energy capture favors values that maximize the chance of survival for those using both that energy system and that package of moral values. Hunter-gatherers show more social egalitarianism, wealth-sharing, and more gender equality than do farmer societies, which subordinate women — men are favored, as they must do the upper-body-strength heavy lifting — tend to practice some form of slavery, and support social hierarchies, with peasants at the low end and kings, religious leaders, and army commanders at the high end. Fossil fuel societies start leveling out gender inequalities — you don’t need upper body strength to operate keyboards or push machine buttons — and also social distinctions, though they retain differences in wealth.
The second part of his argument is more pertinent to our subject, for he postulates that each form of energy capture must hit a “hard ceiling,” past which expansion is impossible; people must either die out or convert to a new system and a new set of values, often after a “great collapse” that has involved the same five factors: uncontrolled migration, state failure, food shortages, epidemic disease, and “always in the mix, though contributing in unpredictable ways–- climate change.” Thus, for hunting societies, their way of life is over once there are no longer enough large animals to sustain their numbers. For farmers, arable land is a limiting factor. The five factors of doom combine and augment one another, and people in those periods have a thoroughly miserable time of it, until new societies arise that utilize some not yet exhausted form of energy capture.
And for those who use fossil fuels as their main energy source — that would be us, now — is there also a hard ceiling? Morris says there is. We can’t keep pouring carbon into the air — nearly 40 billion tons of CO2 in 2013 alone — without the consequences being somewhere between “terrible and catastrophic.” Past collapses have been grim, he says, but the possibilities for the next big collapse are much grimmer.
We are all joined together globally in ways we have never been joined before, so if we fail, we all fail together: we have “just one chance to get it right.” This is not the way we will inevitably go, says he, though it is the way we will inevitably go unless we choose to invent and follow some less hazardous road.
But even if we sidestep the big collapse and keep on expanding at our present rate, we will become so numerous and ubiquitous and densely packed that we will transform both ourselves and our planet in ways we can’t begin to imagine. “ The twenty-first century, he says, “shows signs of producing shifts in energy capture and social organization that dwarf anything seen since the evolution of modern humans.”
Science fiction? you may say. Or you may say “speculative fiction.” For a final straw in the wind, let’s turn to what the actual writers of these kinds of stories (and films, and television series, and video games, and graphic novels) have been busying themselves with lately.
A British author called Piers Torday has just come out with a Young Adult book called The Wild Beyond. In April, he wrote a piece in The Guardian that summarizes the field, and explains the very recent term, “cli-fi:”
“Cli‐fi” is a term coined by blogger Dan Bloom to describe fiction dealing with the current and projected effects of climate change. … Cli-fi as a new genre has taken off in a big way and is now being studied by universities all over the world. But don’t make the mistake of confusing it with sci-fi. If you think stories showing the effects of climate change are still only futuristic fantasies, think again. For example, I would argue that the only truly fantastical element in my books is that the animals talk. To one boy. Other cli‐fi elements of my story that are often described as fantastical or dystopian, include the death of nearly all the animals in the world. That’s just me painting an extreme picture, right, to make a good story? I wish.
The recent 2014 WWF Living Planet Report revealed that the entire animal population of the planet had in fact halved over the last 40 years. 52% of our wildlife, gone, just like that. Whether through the effects of climate change to the growth in human population to the depredation of natural habitats, the children reading my books now might well find themselves experiencing middle‐age in a world without the biodiversity we once took for granted. A world of humans and just a few pigeons, rats and cockroaches scratching around… So, how about the futuristic vision of a planet where previously inhabited areas become too hot and dry to sustain human life? That’s standard dystopian world-building fare, surely?
Yes, except that right now, as you read this, super developed and technological California — the eighth largest economy in the world, bigger than Russia — is suffering a record breaking drought. The lowest rainfall since 1885 and enforced water restrictions of up to 25%. They can track every mouse click ever made from Palo Alto apparently, but they can’t figure out how to keep the taps running. That’s just California — never mind Africa or Australia.
Every effect of climate change in the books — from the rising sea levels of The Dark Wild to the acidic and jelly‐fish filled oceans in The Wild Beyond, is happening right now, albeit on a lesser level.
Could cli-fi be a way of educating young people about the dangers that face them, and helping them to think through the problems and divine solutions? Or will it become just another part of the “entertainment business”? Time will tell. But if Barry Lord is right, the outbreak of such fictions is in part a response to the transition now taking place — from the consumer values of oil to the stewardship values of renewables. The material world should no longer be treated as a bottomless cornucopia of use-and-toss endlessly replaceable mounds of “stuff”: supplies are limited, and must be conserved and treasured.
Can we change our energy system? Can we change it fast enough to avoid being destroyed by it? Are we clever enough to come up with some viable plans? Do we have the political will to carry out such plans? Are we capable of thinking about longer-term issues, or, like the lobster in a pot full of water that’s being brought slowly to the boil, will we fail to realize the danger we’re in until it’s too late?
Not that the lobster can do anything about it, once in the pot. But we might. We’re supposed to be smarter than lobsters. We’ve committed some very stupid acts over the course of our history, but our stupidity isn’t inevitable. Here are three smart things we’ve managed to do:
First, despite all those fallout shelters built in suburban backyards during the Cold War, we haven’t yet blown ourselves up with nuclear bombs. Second, thanks to Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book on pesticides, Silent Spring, not all the birds were killed by DDT in the fifties and sixties. And, third, we managed to stop the lethal hole in the protective ozone layer that was being caused by the chlorofluorocarbons in refrigerants and spray cans, thus keeping ourselves from being radiated to death. As we head towards the third decade of the twenty-first century, it’s hopeful to bear in mind that we don’t always act in our own worst interests.
“For everything to stay the same, everything has to change,” says a character in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s 1963 novel, The Leopard. What do we need to change to keep our world stable? How do we solve for X+Y+Z — X being our civilization’s need for energy, without which it will fall swiftly into anarchy; Y being the finite nature of the earth’s atmosphere, incapable of absorbing infinite amounts of CO2 without destroying us; and Z being our understandable wish to live full and happy lives on a healthy planet, followed by future human generations doing the same. One way of solving this equation is to devise more efficient ways of turning sunlight into electrical energy. Another way is to make oil itself — and the CO2 it emits — part of a cyclical process rather than a linear one. Oil, it seems, does not have to come out of the ground, and it doesn’t have to have pollution as its end product.
There are many smart people applying themselves to these problems, and many new technologies emerging. On my desk right now is a list of fifteen of them. Some take carbon directly out of the air and turn it into other materials, such as cement. Others capture carbon by regenerating degraded tropical rainforests — a fast and cheap method — or sequestering carbon in the soil by means of biochar, which has the added benefit of increasing soil fertility. Some use algae, which can also be used to make biofuel. One makes a carbon-sequestering asphalt. Carbon has been recycled ever since plant life emerged on earth; these technologies and enterprises are enhancing that process.
Meanwhile, courage: homo sapiens sapiens sometimes deserves his double plus for intelligence. Let’s hope we are about to start living in one of those times.