When I was in Los Angeles last month, I visited La Brea Tar Pits (yes, which translates to The Tar Tar Pits). As the tour guide described, the tar pits were neither filled with tar nor pits. The goop that came out—and which was still all over the park (in some places covered unceremoniously by a lone orange traffic cone)—was actually asphalt and formed thin puddles, just deep enough for animals to get stuck in, like an ancient form of fly paper.
Where the asphalt bubbled up (through deep fissures in the rock), what ensued was a mess. An animal would get trapped and slowly dehydrate and die. And during that long agony, predators and scavengers would be attracted. They would then try to eat the trapped animal and get stuck themselves, in nature’s equivalent of a bad comedy film (sans soundtrack).
The museum actually provided a great video reenactment, where a mammoth has gotten stuck and dies and a saber-tooth tiger jumps from the shore onto its body (avoiding the tar) to eat it. But blood and rot are slippery and the tiger takes a tumble and gets stuck too. Dire wolves come next and they get stuck as well. In fact, so many get predators got stuck in the LA Asphalt Puddles that the museum has literally hundreds of dire wolf skulls in its collection—unusual as the vast majority of fossils are herbivorous species and thus are the typical finds.
Trapped beings toil and trouble/Gases burn and tar pits bubble. (Notice the bubbles? Image by Erik Assadourian)
While all that’s interesting, why am I sharing this?
Well, the tragically comic chain of deaths that these asphalt puddles triggered feels very much like the renewable energy transition to me. The proper solution to climate change is to steer clear of the fossil fuels pits—not by seeking out a new way to sustain our consumer economy but to shift cultural directions and consume dramatically less. In some contexts that looks like economic (and population) degrowth, in other places such as in certain coastal areas and Phoenix (where houses without air conditioning have become “air fryers” in the current heat wave), that means sustainable retreat.
It does not mean mining the hell out of the planet, digging new pits, to build a new renewable infrastructure so we can keep driving cars (run on electricity instead of petrol), paving the land for roads (yup, with asphalt1), and building ever more houses, factory farms, and Amazon fulfillment centers.2
But the mammoth rotting in the asphalt puddle is just too tempting. That’s a lot of meat, all in one tidy, easy to obtain package. “I won’t slip,” thinks the tiger. Look at these pads and claws. I was made for this. So thinks Technological Man as well. We can run our computers on silicon and wind, and provide people with countless consumer goods and entertainment and profit in the process. And now with AI we’ll figure out ways to make everything more efficient and circular. So it’s ok to rip up more of the Earth to build more lithium and other “critical mineral” mines.3 Yes, it will take fossil fuels to do all that but once we make the transition, we’ll be able to make future renewables with earlier generations of renewables, solving all problems forever.4
Perhaps, as with other animals, humans are not smart enough to avoid such mammoth temptation, especially when driven by hunger—though in our case the hunger for more not enough. Of course, we should be able to innovate around the traps. But that screams hubris. Sometimes there are limits that can’t or shouldn’t be innovated around. Sometimes we need to give Gaia her due share instead of claiming everything for ourselves.5
It’s dire straits for these dire wolves. (Image of tar pit and signage by Erik Assadourian)
The Path Dependence Trap
Ultimately, what this all hints at is our own looming tar pit: Path Dependence. By building out technologies and an infrastructure that runs on electricity and fossil fuels, we’re now locked onto that path. By designing a financial system that requires growth to pay back ever increasing loans and investments, we now need to keep growing the economy indefinitely. Thus we need that mammoth. The good news is that we have expendable humans that we can sacrifice to get it. If they get stuck, well, we’ll get you out (wink, wink) or at least provide for your next of kin (also wink, wink). But in reality, we consume miners and laborers like the tar pit did dire wolves, and ignore the bigger warning signs of the bubbling asphalt and horrific stench.
Is it possible to escape this trap? And does escaping it simply mean avoiding it? Realistically, we’re already standing on the mammoth, covered in blood and offal and barely holding onto our grip as it is. But there is still value in the wiser elders telling the young hotheaded hunters who have yet to dive in that they should hunt elsewhere and leave these beings to Gaia (backed up by telling tales of lost ancestors and myths of greedy animal brethren who will forever haunt these foul places). Will that (and the equivalent of Gaian teachings, ecocentric films, and ecoactivism) keep people from the proverbial tar pits? Probably not, but it may keep some out, and enough that eventually, there will be a critical mass to cultivate tribal taboos around entering any future tar pits.
Definitely Lacking Wisdom
Methane monitor on a nearby building. (Image by Erik Assadourian)
Just to hammer the point home, I’ll finish with a story the museum guide shared about human ingenuity. Along with asphalt, methane and other gases rise up from deep within the Earth, as patrons can see from the little bubbles that appear in the pits. You’d think people wouldn’t build here, but of course they did. And in the 1980s, a Ross Dress for Less blew up just a few blocks from the museum, when a worker punched in to start the day (sparking an explosion). Amazingly no one was killed (at least that’s what the guide said) and smart humans installed methane monitors in all nearby buildings.
The city, after all, was built (i.e. path dependence), and this area couldn’t be undeveloped, or made into parks. It was easier and cheaper to just install methane monitors and hope for the best. That applies for earthquake zones, coastlines, flood plains, warming areas, and all sorts of businesses and technologies as well. While there are stories in history where cultures have radically changed when faced with environmental change,6 that takes humility and flexibility (of mindsets and infrastructure), both of which the dominant consumer culture is sorely lacking.
The infamous Ross Dress for Less. Looks fine now—all thanks to a capitalist economy that rebuilt rather than relocating this important institution. (Photo by Erik Assadourian)
1) Fun Fact One: Originally the asphalt at La Brea was simply collected and sold to make roads (along with natural gas). However, there were so many bones found in the asphalt that purchasers actually requested less bones please. Then someone found a large fang (from a saber-tooth tiger) and La Brea shifted from selling fossil fuels to selling fossils.
2) And ever bigger houses as well as second and third homes for those with the money and desire for them, even as there are both many areas with good housing infrastructure that are underpopulated and people who have no homes. In other words, inequity is a large component of the problem as well.
3) Even if as the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted this past week, half of companies determined that their minerals (including tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold) may be coming from conflict areas.
4) I literally read that in a report yesterday. No mention, of course, that if you’re using renewables to make renewables you need even more renewables (unless you ration other electricity needs). This is wishful thinking at best, at worst, it falls into the category of perpetual motion machines.
5) Fun Fact Two: The museum had very few fossils of nocturnal species. Why? Because as the night cools so does the asphalt, making it navigable. So yes, this metaphor breaks down as there are lots of ways smart humans could have avoided the Tar Pit Trap, but some traps are less avoidable than others.
6) I remember reading that the ancient Japanese were coastal but then fled inland due to rising seas, suggesting a radical shift in culture and food production strategies. Sadly, I do not remember the source (any help would be appreciated). As I searched, I did find that more recent Japanese ancestors created tsunami stones to remind future generations to not build too close to the coast. Turns out that didn’t work either!
Warning! Do not build any homes beyond this point. (Tsunami Stones from T.KISHIMOTO via Wikimedia Commons).