The year is 2050. Things are unimaginably better than anyone in 2022 might have predicted. Such turnarounds are not without precedent. After all, the boom time in the 1950s came on the heels of the Great Depression and a crippling world war against ominously dark forces. From the depths of those hard years, it would have been hard to foresee the glory days around the bend.
In our imagined 2050, climate change has been tamed by a spectacular suite of technological feats: fossil fuels are all but obsolete except in a few backwater places, replaced by an impressive profusion of solar panels, wind turbines, hydroelectric dams, thorium reactors, deep geothermal installations, and a nascent fusion industry on the verge of commercialization. Electric transport handles most domestic needs, while a bounty of biofuels powers air travel and long-haul shipping.
Breakthroughs in battery technology have resulted in large banks of lithium storage everywhere you look to smooth out the irregularities in renewable production. Seasonal-scale storage is around the corner, so that even places like Alaska will be able to satisfy demand year-round based on a massive energy haul from long summer days.
Freed from the constraints of obtaining energy from petro-states, countries are able to source all of their energy needs within their borders and in fact have more available energy than they did when dependent on primitive fossil fuels. Economies are thriving: global trade is more vigorous than it has ever been because energy is cheap and abundant.
Continued revolutions in computing power and device technology has us swimming in cool gadgets—putting something akin to Star Trek tri-corders in our hands, in contrast to the smart phones we fawn over today (mere walkie-talkies by comparison).
Abundant energy has transformed energy-intensive practices of food production and mining, so that everyone’s dietary and material needs are met, finally ameliorating hunger and gross inequity globally. Based on rising standards of living, birth rates are predicted to stabilize by century’s end so that we are on track to cruise toward a stable, peaceful, sated global regime.
In short, we’re total rock stars for having achieved a whole new phase of prosperity and amazingness. Martian colonies? Why not? While we’re fantasizing, let’s throw those in too! So yes, we are on our way to exporting our conquest to the stars and all is as it should be.
Part of me feels really crummy doing this to you. My motivation is not to be mean, really. Rather, I think it is incredibly important that we approach our future prospects realistically and understand fundamental planetary limits. So I’m afraid this is where I pull the rug out from under you. But see, I’m warning you and apologizing in advance rather than gleefully anticipating your bruising fall. Feel free to step off the fantasy on your own, if you have not already done so. Three. Two. One.
The first thing I will say is that I have never before tried to depict details of the dream scenario, as I did above. I found it shockingly easy to do—probably because we’re immersed in narratives of this sort. I did not have to stretch to conjure credible-sounding nuances. The words on the page were not required to check out against physical reality: I could say anything I wanted, which was liberating in an empty sort of way. I suspect many in our culture find similar joy in spinning hope of this sort, which might explain its prevelance. It’s a romance novel that practically writes itself.
But maybe I’m still being insensitive to the bruises. I get it. I went through the same thing, once implicitly imagining the future in these idyllic terms. Such visions are not limited to wild-eyed techno-optimists. Even many of the folks presently suffering existential dread about climate change would likely embrace this story as the best-case outcome that we hope can come to pass if we put our shoulders into it and advocate the right policies. Write your Senators!
Before getting into the substance of why the dream scenario is likely a prescription for “failure by fantasy,” I’ll point out that our imaginations and ambitions are disconnected from reality by the mere fact that the actual physical world is finite and limited in ways that our thoughts are not. Some react by suggesting that we harness this human virtue of unlimited creativity to shape the world to our vision. For people in this camp, I recommend a simple exercise: come up with five examples of something you can imagine, but will never be possible in this physical universe. If you find it hard to do, we’ve found the problem: stop reading and go work some things out (which likely means absorbing some key concepts in physics). The point is, our brains are capable of visualizing convincing impossibilities in a flash, which can be both a gift and a very dangerous talent.
It is far easier to outline a grand vision than it is to appreciate its myriad practical limitations and unintended consequences. It’s also more appealing. Imagine inviting two guest speakers to a classroom: a fantastical futurist weaving a story of wonder, and a finite physicist pointing out all the ways the real universe will put a damper on those lazy-minded dreams. Which will the students like more, and transmit to their friends later? I know from teaching physics students that their drooping eyes open wide when I veer into impossible domains like time travel, a journey into a black hole (and back?), faster-than-light drive, teleportation, etc. We likes the magic.
If humans are to be successful on this planet for the long term (i.e., tens of thousands of years), we need a healthy ecosystem and we need to live off natural renewable flows rather than continue to spend our finite non-renewable inheritance. We’ve exploited the low-hanging fruit already, so cannot expect mining to continue producing a bonanza of non-renewable goods into the indefinite future. Recycling is also a limited-time prospect. Even a 90% recovery rate on a material that is recycled every 10 years is down to 10% of the original stock in a few short centuries [the number of cycles is log(0.1)/log(0.9) for reaching 10% given 90% recovery]. Long-term success can’t rely on these materials. The enduring commodities are the ones that replace themselves: living matter.
Besides the fact that we have never built any alternative energy infrastructure (dams, photovoltaics, turbines, nuclear) without extensive reliance on fossil fuels, it is not clear how non-renewable materials could be coaxed to maintain a renewable energy infrastructure for the long term.
Meanwhile, plants will continue to capture and store solar energy to fuel virtually all life on this planet, including our own. The natural world is built to last, and has stood the test of time (billions of years)—unlike our grossly unsustainable flash of “modernity” that has done nothing of the sort. Depictions of a gleaming future always leave out the unattractive yet inevitable rust, decay, waste, and cost to the biosphere.
Part of the dream is to slip out of the yoke of finite, non-renewable fossil fuels and bathe in the unending abundance of renewable flows. Roughly speaking, the amount of solar energy striking Earth in one hour exceeds our annual energy appetite. The sun will continue providing this service free of charge for billions of years (before engulfing the earth in plasma). Likewise, enough deuterium exists in ocean water to power our current energy needs for billions of years via fusion—should it ever become practical. These inspirational facts suggest that we just need to round the corner: get through the present pinch point and we’ll be on easy street. Energy will be abundant and—to all intents and purposes—unlimited.
Setting aside for now the practical hurdles that make such visions easier said than done, I want to explore for a moment what success on these fronts would mean.
The question I ask is: what would we do with this energy? The easiest answer is to look at what we are doing with our current energy allowance. We might expect more of the same, just scaled up due to greater energy abundance.
We use energy to get things and build things, to heat things and cool things, to illuminate things and move things. (Energy interacts with things because it’s part of physics.) We use energy to clear forests, plant crops, mine materials, pump water out of aquifers, and provide goodies to satisfy global demand. Historically, we have consumed as much energy as we are able to utilize. More energy has translated into bigger (and more) houses, more cars, more possessions, and less of the natural world.
In other words, energy is the motive agent behind the relentless redistribution of ecological wealth into (ephemeral) human wealth. My last post on hockey stick curves provides a hint of the consequences of our unilateral assault on nature for our own short-term gain. We have now reduced wild mammal mass on the planet so dramatically that the extrapolated curve hits zero by mid-century. Now humans and our livestock are 96% of mammal mass on the planet, squeezing the remaining wild mammals into an alarmingly tiny box whose walls are still closing in fast. Deforestation (lost habitat/food) is a large part of the reason, which stands to accelerate as firewood demand tries to pick up the slack of a looming fossil fuel supply shortage as the decades wear on.
As an example, the expansion of biofuels to support air travel and shipping inevitably—as proposed in the introduction—comes at the expense of ecosystem health on a number of fronts: cleared forests, fertilizers, pesticides, soil erosion, habitat elimination, ground water depletion. Enjoy your flight.
I like an analogy I heard recently (from Dennis Meadows at 26:45 in this podcast): If a man is coming at you with the intent to do you harm, it hardly matters what technology he employs: hammer, gun, knife, mace, sword. The technology is neither the problem nor the solution. The fundamental problem is the intent of the assailant. Unless we radically change our intent on this planet, “unlimited” energy—by any technological means—only accelerates our demise. I think of it this way: if every jackass on the planet has access to cheap and abundant energy, what do you think they’ll do with it? Will they use it to restore ecosystems, or hack more of it down for their own short-term gain?
More to this Planet than Humans
To my knowledge, no species has ever been penalized for putting its own needs ahead of the needs of all other species. In fact, they would not likely have survived natural selection had they done so. Thus, it is no surprise that humans do the same thing. If more for us means less for other species, so be it (or even: all the better). The catch is that humans have reached a state of capability far in excess of any other species—largely facilitated by our ability to amplify our metabolic energy by orders-of-magnitude via the harnessing of external energy sources. So our selfishness is now deadly at an extinction-relevant scale. We are no longer playing by the rules that got us here as “fair play” members of the ecosystem.
If we do not devise an intentional method of suppressing human exceptionalism, we will foul the nest to the point of self-harm (sound familiar?) by precipitating an ecosystem collapse. In this unfortunate, unwitting undoing, we will have answered evolution’s question: how far can intelligence be pushed as a survival strategy before it is self-terminating? Or worse than self-terminating: taking numerous other innocent species down with us.
Let’s not be those people. The path forward is to put less emphasis on “smart” and “clever” (which got us into this mess), and more on “wise.” This looks like intentionally stepping off our throne as conquerors and masters of planet Earth, appreciating that we are all (all species) in this together, and all need each other to survive. Biodiversity is our greatest ally. Give the squirrels, newts, and nuthatches a voice. Ask what’s good for them, what measures they would vote for, what legal action they would take if they could. Would they vote for “solving” climate change by bestowing more energy and growth on the human race? Does the introduction to this piece leave them applauding in admiration, or diving for cover?
This Time is Unusual
It is easy to get caught up in the heady whirlwinds of modernity. We have accomplished amazing feats in these past few centuries, and our extrapolative minds envision a continued acceleration. Given that our life span overlaps only a portion of the tale, it is easy to lose the context that our boom (the Industrial Revolution and what followed) is almost entirely due to fossil fuels. This energy surge in turn powered a surge in material access and economic activity (and human population) in what is perhaps fittingly described as a fireworks show.
Besides challenging the flawed notion that technology and innovation are still accelerating, we ought to keep in mind that the modern era has been a unique period of rapid inheritance spending. We unlocked the rich cupboards of our planet and have been tearing through available resources to build as fast as practicality allowed. Our financial system is set up to reward the fastest possible growth, so it is no surprise that that’s what we got.
When entertaining a dream scenario as presented at the beginning of this post, reflect on how much the narrative is influenced by our anomalous recent history. All kinds of signals warn that this phase may soon reach its grand finale
In this context, it should be noted that the remarkable turnaround from the 1930s to the 1950s mentioned in the introduction coincided with the period of peak expansion of fossil fuel energy and resource extraction. It is no accident that the heyday of U.S. global dominance corresponded to a time when the U.S. used over 70% of the world’s oil production and over 80% of its natural gas. That special time had a physical basis that will never be repeated. It wasn’t a matter of policy. The avenues available then are closing off to us now, limiting what we might expect to accomplish going forward.
Expecting the rest of the world to follow in the footsteps of developed countries in terms of birth rates and affluence overlooks this colossal point: now-developed countries had the tremendous advantage of starting with a cornucopia of untapped resources. Those just arriving at the party are finding a picked-over scene that is more depressing than fun. The moment has passed, and the old playbook has been rendered obsolete.
Dream Becomes Nightmare
As “fun” as it was to write the introduction fantasy, part of me was terrified. Looking beyond the shiny surface to the implications for ecosystems on a finite planet already in peril brings an element of horror to each point. I have explained above how abundant energy could backfire and have alluded to the ecosystem destruction accompanying a biofuel expansion. A growing economy is terrible news for the newts. Increasing the standard of living of a growing population makes today’s ecological pressures look adorable. I think of the hockey sticks and fear what happens if they continue to soar upwards—or even just level off at today’s crippling state of accumulating ecosystem damage, for that matter. Aside from CO2, the “dream” scenario makes every hockey stick worse: population, GWP, energy, waste, extinctions, deforestation.
This is why I worry about the disproportionate attention climate change gets. While the problem is serious in its own right, and some of the suggested responses are in the “right” direction (e.g., wean ourselves off fossil fuels; finally value trees—as carbon repositories), focusing on CO2 offers symptom relief without impeding the progression of the underlying disease. Most of the hockey sticks would be just as bad even if we had no CO2 excess, in fact. Maybe climate change is like a nasty hangover: an unwelcome side effect of our civilization’s drinking habit. The quest to engineer renewable substitutes (better liquors) that don’t have this particular side effect might allow us to keep partying or even party harder, but avoids addressing the core problem and perpetuates the key forces threatening ecological collapse.
Let’s not engineer a nightmare for ourselves in the misguided attempt to realize a poorly considered dream. It starts by recognizing that the vision many hold as “the dream” is itself utterly unsustainable and thus may even accelerate failure, rather than avert it. The predicament has wide boundaries that reach deep foundations of our civilization’s structure. We only succeed by altering our mental models of how we live on this planet—not by finding “superior” substitutes for the very things that have put us in this precarious position—and thus will only dig our hole faster, better, and cheaper.
A Starting Place
I suppose it is unsporting of me to dash dreams and then just walk away without offering some form of hopeful replacement. Unfortunately, I don’t have any fully-formed vision of how to build a future that works. What I can offer is a set of principles that can guide and constrain our thinking.
Some colleagues and I worked on a set of principles that we published in a recent paper, that read:
- Humans are a part of nature, not apart from nature.
- Non-renewable materials cannot be harvested indefinitely on a finite planet.
- The ability of Earth’s ecosystems to assimilate pollution without consequences is finite.
- Energy throughput is essential to all human activities, including the economy.
- Technology is a tool for deploying, not creating energy.
- Fossil fuel combustion is the primary cause of ongoing global climate change.
- Exponential growth, whether of physical or economic form, must eventually cease.
- Today’s choices can simultaneously create problems for and deprive resources from future generations.
- Human behavior is consciously and unconsciously shaped by mental models of culture that, while mutable, impose barriers to change.
- Apparent success for a few generations during a massive draw-down of finite resources says little about chances for long-term success.
These may not be perfect (I am working on an alternate/complementary set based on recent inspirations), but perhaps sketch the beginnings of a mindset that could lead to better outcomes. If we hold these truths to be self-evident, what are the logical consequences of the set? What system could we devise that explicitly demotes us to a subordinate partner to the rest of nature, acknowledges and works within planetary limits, shuns growth models, and preserves good things for the far future?
Image: “An artist’s conception of Nikola Tesla’s system for transmitting power by radio waves.” (December 1925). Illustration by Frank R. Paul in “Radio News”. Via Wikimedia Commons.