Act: Inspiration

The time to de-grow and adapt is now

December 16, 2022

A short rejoinder inspired by numerous responses to Negative Feedback.

Type in “percent transportation on renewables in the US” into Google and this is the top figure in the search results: 17% in 2020. (Note: I’m using the US because there are easily obtainable data and because the US is a driving force on the entire rest of the world.) This 17% is not for electric or fuel cell cars; this is biodiesel and ethanol. This figure comes from an organization that probably slants their numbers toward renewables, to make it look like we’re doing more than we actually are, which is why biodiesel and ethanol are deemed appropriate substitutions for petroleum even though biodiesel and ethanol are still complex carbon chains that we burn to release energy. In other words, there are still emissions from biodiesel and ethanol. Moreover, both are completely dependent on petroleum for production and transport, and, correct me if I’m wrong, but there aren’t many engines that can burn just ethanol. You need to add it to gasoline. (I think there are some engines that can do just biodiesel, but I’m not entirely sure about that.)

So, the percentage of our transportation sector running on non-emissions fuel (never mind non-emissions manufacturing) is very small. Much less than 17%. And the percentage of our transportation sector that must somehow be made emissions free if we’re going to continue to have a transportation sector?… Is over 80%, probably approaching 100%. Put another way, somewhere between 80% to 100% of all the vehicles in this country will need to be retired and replaced with vehicles that run on non-emitting fuels — by 2050 to be compliant with California’s Clean Cars standards (which is also adopted in 13 other states, including mine). We have made some progress, but “some progress” isn’t likely to add up to wholesale replacement in a couple decades.

You can repeat this little research project for any aspect of the changes that we know must be made to our systems. (Never mind the black swans…) Numbers will be broadly similar. To a first approximation, nearly everything that we know must be replaced has not been. We still have to do everything. Does anyone believe that much of this is going to happen?

The next question is: can it happen? Type “how much copper is necessary to electrify home heating in the US?”. When I did that, this report was near the top of the search results list. This study finds that we have the technology to transition all building energy needs to electricity. It also concludes that very little transitioning has actually happened and that the trend to electrification has plateaued. The authors blame the high cost of infrastructure changes, the availability of grid service, public regulation and options for subsidies or financing, and many other factors.

They do not mention this problem: we’re facing a copper shortage.

We’ve only barely begun to electrify our buildings despite the technological potential. At the same time, our supply of copper to make that change in infrastructure is dwindling, making these changes more costly at best, but likely just not possible because that much copper doesn’t exist at any cost.

Again, you can repeat this simple research project for any number of essential materials. I’ve been sitting here typing in all the important industrial minerals I can think of for half an hour. The prognosis for all of them is dour. We’re already running out of all kinds of affordably obtainable resources — and we’ve barely begun to make any changes to our systems or infrastructures. In other words, we are out of juice before we’ve put even a big toe over the start line.

Does anyone think this transition is possible?

I’m a geologist. I know many people who intimately know the state of our material world. Not one independent, and therefore trustworthy, geoscientist believes that we have the resources to simply turn our systems renewable (or otherwise magically less extractive and polluting). Not one. Nobody I know believes that we will ever have a transportation network or building heating or a food system that is not utterly dependent on fossil hydrocarbons. And yet not one believes that we’re not past the peak supply of said hydrocarbons. In other words, they all say that we are running out, that we will never grow the supply, and that there is no replacement of any kind in sight. As fossil fuel energy underpins every part of every system in our culture, this means we will never grow the economy — and we don’t have enough stuff to get off of these fossil fuels. Among the people who know the most about our physical world, there are none who believe it is possible to make a transition — because we haven’t the resources and because our systems are already in contraction and because we have everything left to transition.

To a first order approximation, geologists are depressed…

All this is to say that we don’t have any choices about de-growth anymore. We are in overshoot and we are already experiencing contraction. Our choices are now as follows: try to force the system to keep going and face ever-increasing costs and ever-decreasing supplies followed by a terrible crash when the hole in the center finally gives way… or… we can try to adapt to less of everything and none of a great many things. Adaption may still lead to crashing, but it won’t be as huge and there is a greater probability of some places discovering the keys to surviving a crash before it happens. At worst, adaption is planning for a crash; it is recognizing that a crash could happen. Adaption means a crash won’t take everybody in a given community completely by surprise. Forcing the system is just setting ourselves up for the worst possible pain when the inevitable happens. Because we won’t see it until it is on top of us.

Some argue that this is where we are now. I don’t happen to believe that… but I do believe that we’re too damn close to be messing around with useless ideas at this very late stage. If we wanted to transition our existing systems to be less polluting and extractive, we should have started that when I was in grade school. If we had wanted to make new systems, then arguably we shouldn’t have wasted our one-time fossil-fuel energy bonanza on the systems we built. One-time means one time. We probably never had the energy resources to build more than what we’ve built… and we don’t get another shot. So we may be in the crash or we may be putting our toes over that line, but either way we aren’t going to be making another high-energy-use culture. It is time to down-size. Everything. Now.

So since we have no choice, we might as well get on with adaptation, the first stage of which is to create and strengthen local communities. Because transportation is likely going to be the first crash… it is already crashing… Localizing means that you see that all true biophysical needs are met locally and a large percentage of wants are available within smallish regions. Plan on most transport being done by muscle power — augmented by true zero-emissions vehicles like bicycles and carts. The distance that muscles can move stuff is the supply radius — and the demand radius. Only small things that aren’t essential and that are probably going to be rather costly come from outside that radius. This is the first rule of adaptation.

By all means, work together. But if you can’t find a community of sensible people where you are and you can’t move (and sadly, we might be in a trough on the housing front, too expensive to manage a move in this system for nearly all people, but the system has not yet crashed, which when it comes will make much more space available — for now we’re sort of stuck), then you need to be working on a plan to meet your own needs by yourself. Nobody else — not governments, not business, not nobody — is going to do this for you. You need to adapt yourself now. Eventually, others are going to see the light and join you, but you can’t plan on that. If it doesn’t exist now, it’s not going to exist in time to make a difference — for any and all “it”. Now is already almost too late. So don’t be waiting on anything to make these changes. Do it now.

There are many other things you will need to do. And there are many things wrapped up in each step of adapting to meet needs in your community. So I would say the second priority is to make lists. Figure out what need means for yourself and your region. Figure out what is available and what is not. Keep records. You will absolutely need to shorten the transport lines, but from there the next steps are place-driven and need to be determined by you in your place.

Some things to consider are water supply, waste and sewage removal and composting, food production, housing and heating and cooling, clothing and household goods, education, art and music, tool making and other crafts, community cohesion and traditions. You need to make your own list and then pare down what is superfluous. (Because we always think in terms of excess these days, your list will be pared down…).

One thing to remember: we’re not going to experience the crash as instantaneous. It’s not going to feel like a crash. It’s going to feel like a lot of small changes that we become acclimated to so gradually and subtly we may not even be aware of them. For example, though a very recent change, bare shelves have already become normalized. Some things are no longer ubiquitous. Some things are no longer available at all. We can all point to the exact moment when this began, but we are now used to it. Already. And it wasn’t an earth-shattering change for any of us, even though it is a system-shattering change for all of us together. So be aware of these things. Watch for the signs. And if it seems like crashing is becoming more intrusive, then adjust your plans. (This means you probably ought to have lots of plans on hand, ready to be implemented, so you can pivot when needed.)

What you should not be doing is waiting for someone else to do something. All the someones in positions to do somethings seem to be comfortably deluded by the mirage of infinite resources. There are no plans to de-grow, even though de-growth is obviously and inevitably happening everywhere. There aren’t even plans to slow growth. We are being led by idiots. It’s past time to admit that they’re not helping us and get on with our lives without them.

No geologists see a future that looks like the present but running on renewables. No search results give any indication that de-growth is not already underway. No evidence anywhere supports the idea that we can do all these things that we haven’t yet done. So screw it. Get on with your own lives… or, in the very near future, you won’t be getting on with anything.

©Elizabeth Anker 2022


Teaser photo credit: Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Eliza Daley

Eliza Daley is a fiction. She is the part of me that is confident and wise, knowledgable and skilled. She is the voice that wants to be heard in this old woman who more often prefers her solitary and silent hearth. She has all my experience — as mother, musician, geologist and logician; book-seller, business-woman, and home-maker; baker, gardener, and chief bottle-washer; historian, anthropologist, philosopher, and over it all, writer. But she has not lived, is not encumbered with all the mess and emotion, and therefore she has a wonderfully fresh perspective on my life. I rather like knowing her. I do think you will as well.

Tags: building resilient communities, degrowth, economic crash, powering down