The problems and principles of energy descent
“How did you get there, Roo?” asked Piglet.
“On Tigger’s back! And Tiggers can’t climb downwards, because their tails get in the way, only upwards, and Tigger forgot about that when we started, and he’s only just remembered. So we’ve got to stay here for ever and ever — unless we go higher. What did you say, Tigger? Oh, Tigger says if we go higher we shan’t be able to see Piglet’s house so well, so we’re going to stop here.”
— A.A. Milne, “The House At Pooh Corner”
My kids were out climbing trees yesterday, supervised by Eric and our visiting friend and my honorary brother, “Uncle” Jesse. Isaiah really wanted to climb up to a particular spot, but couldn’t get there on little four-year-old legs. Jesse helped him up part of the way, and then told him he had to do it himself or be content with where he could get to. Jesse observed, “I wanted to give him a boost, but only up to a place he could get back down from himself.”
I was struck by what a useful metaphor and perhaps even principle was embodied in that casual statement. I was also reminded, perhaps because I’ve now read Winnie the Pooh to my children approximately 1,000 times, of the classic representation of what happens when you climb up and can’t climb down. If you can forgive the cuteness, it does seem apt.
Let us imagine ourselves climbing up a rather steep and precarious tree, boosted up by fossil energies into a place we simply could never get to without them. The problems we are facing right now all originate in our fundamental inability to voluntarily set limits — that is, at no point did most of us even recognize the basic necessity of stopping at a point at which we could get down on our own, without our petrocarbon helpers. So right now we look like Tiggers high in the trees — we can climb up, but we can’t climb down. Is the problem our fear or that our tails (our structural addictions to energy) get in the way? It can be hard to tell. But what is not terribly hard to tell is that one way or another, we have to come down — and probably quite rapidly. The goal is to avoid a painful “thud” upon descent.
Why do we have to come down? Well, there are two compelling reasons. The first is this: We can’t keep burning fossil fuels, period. And we have very little time to make our choices. The evidence for this has been building up steadily over the last two years, but the paper that James Hansen presented a few weeks ago pretty much put the final nail in the coffin — the old targets for carbon reduction are far too high, and we are going to essentially have to reduce industrial emissions to near zero, and very soon. As Bill McKibben argues in his recent essay “Civilization’s Last Chance” in the L.A. Times:
Here’s the thing. Hansen didn’t just say that if we didn’t act, there was trouble coming. He didn’t just say that if we didn’t yet know what was best for us, we’d certainly be better off below 350 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
His phrase was: “if we wish to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed.” A planet with billions of people living near those oh-so-floodable coastlines. A planet with ever-more vulnerable forests. (A beetle, encouraged by warmer temperatures, has already managed to kill 10 times more trees than in any previous infestation across the northern reaches of Canada this year. This means far more carbon heading for the atmosphere and apparently dooms Canada’s efforts to comply with the Kyoto protocol, which was already in doubt because of its decision to start producing oil for the U.S. from Alberta’s tar sands.)
We’re the ones who kicked the warming off; now the planet is starting to take over the job. Melt all that Arctic ice, for instance, and suddenly the nice white shield that reflected 80 percent of incoming solar radiation back into space has turned to blue water that absorbs 80% of the sun’s heat. Such feedbacks are beyond history, though not in the sense that Francis Fukuyama had in mind.
And we have, at best, a few years to short-circuit them — to reverse course. Here’s the Indian scientist and economist Rajendra Pachauri, who accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year (and, by the way, got his job when the Bush administration, at the behest of Exxon Mobil, forced out his predecessor): “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”
Even McKibben acknowledges that we may be too late — that we may have already condemned our children to a planet radically different than the one we live on now — and not different in a good way. He observes the simple truth that we don’t have a choice but to struggle now for the best possible outcome, because a whole lot is at stake. McKibben is working on precisely this objective with Project 350, and I have hopes that the members of my baby, the Riot for Austerity, will eventually work with them, raising the profile of the “you don’t have to wait — you can live in now” contingent.
There’s another reason we have to get down from the tree: the simple fact that we are increasingly being priced out of energy markets. The combination of the dollar’s fall, the growing depression and a growing deflation means that energy is being rationed by price — and more and more of us are in danger of experiencing real shortages of energy for meeting basic needs. Whether those shortages of food, energy, or other resources arise from absolute shortages or simply because of inequity and our price rationing system doesn’t really matter. The simple fact is that we must either find useful ways to climb down rapidly or simply pitch out of our tree as rising costs make the crisis acute.
There is a great deal of talk about the potential of this renewable technology or another, about how if we just do this and this and this, we can get carbon emissions down, or help people adapt. Generally speaking, these plans fail to take into account several factors. That doesn’t make them impossible, it simply reduces their likelihood of success. They are:
- The sheer scope of the problem. This is partly denial and partly the fact that the science has changed so rapidly. Eight months ago, the major narrative was still 550 or 450 ppm would suffice for carbon reduction.
Achieving those levels was extraordinarily difficult, but easy compared to achieving 350 ppm — and as Hansen notes, it may be necessary to drop the levels further. Most thinkers still haven’t caught up to the sheer depth of change needed — which would involve pretty much zero industrial emissions, according to U-Victoria researchers. Zero — that is, none. That’s the number that stabilized the climate in their research.
Then there’s peak oil — for years, we were told that the declines would be a slow and stately 2 percent or so. Then came Jeffrey Brown’s useful Export Land Model which showed that no, the declines are far steeper. And, of course, energy costs are playing out in arenas that people didn’t expect, and in ways no one quite predicted, spiking food prices, for example.
- The scope of all the problems put together. Nearly everyone doing this work is completely out of their fields on some level (certainly not excluding yours truly). Climate scientists are usually not petroleum geologists, and vice versa. Neither are usually economists (which is often to the good, but has its downside), and thus expert on how global economic crisis is likely to impact what we can expect to do. Nor are economists, climate scientists, or geologists usually ethicists, or experts in issues of justice, or political scientists.
It would not be inaccurate to say that no one fully understands what I like to call the “Crisis Ourobouros,” that is, the disaster that is always swallowing its own tail. And because no one fully understands it, and most people are experts only in one area, it is very hard to come to a clear analysis, say, of how a growing credit crisis and reduction in capital lending for massive projects and rises in energy prices will constrain a future build out. The feedback loops don’t just exist within climate change and peak oil, but in the whole of our present situation.
Although James Hansen and Richard Heinberg respectively have done compelling analyses of how climate change and peak oil are likely to impact one another, they have barely begun to look at the giant iceberg of what faces us. Thus, we still have conversations about hybrid cars and light bulbs, when we need to eliminate almost all private transport and slash home energy use.
- How urgent things are. The fact that the Arctic ice may disappear 75 years before IPCC projections, or that the long feared hypothetical methane burp is probably already occurring should give us a clue, but until recently it hasn’t. Although Hansen and Carbon Equity have led the way on this, there has been a widespread perception that we have until 2050 as more conservative IPCC estimates suggest. We don’t.
And we don’t in several ways. Not only do radical emission cuts have to be made now, we are running up against other constraints. As capital tightens, the economy struggles and our infrastructure frays, we may well have a very limited period in which we can build renewable energy capacity, or reinsulate homes. It is possible that I am overestimating the shortness of our window — but it is also certain that underestimating is safer for us than overestimating it.
We may simply have to do some serious triage, recognizing that each of our pet build-out strategies may never come to fruition. The emphasis, then, has to be on strategies that return to us even if they are halted by fossil fuel supply constraints, loss of capital or other crisis. That is, we have to do things that will help us even if we can’t do everything.
- The costs of the solutions. Most build-out analyses don’t contain a full, fair analysis of their climate implications, a gaping hole in analysis that must be filled. That is, a build out that gets our emissions way down in the long term but does so with an carbon that enables more loss of methane from the permafrost and ultimately doubles carbon equivalents is an unacceptable choice.
The odds are very good that most truly world-scale build-out strategies will simply turn out to be far too carbon intensive to keep up anything like our present life. For example, my own back-of-the-envelope calculations on one proposed strategy to keep the energy flowing in suggests that we might put an additional 100 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere doing a build out for a massive desert solar program.
Any strategies must include their carbon costs — and assume that those costs occur on top of at least partially functioning economy and its carbon costs, since otherwise, capitalization simply won’t occur.
It may be that we have simply waited too long to have a meaningful renewable build out. It is almost certainly true that we have waited too long to have one that will be ready to smoothly take our old lifestyle from our new one. Instead, we face several decades of a drastically altered lifestyle while we cut our usage in anticipation of someday being able to use a bit more, when our build out is complete.
The other cost that hasn’t been fully calculated is the economic one. Overwhelmingly we are told that green solutions will be good for the economy. This is the most errant nonsense of our times — and most analyses in that regard are based on far lower emissions cuts than are even remotely acceptable. Stabilizing emissions will involve among other things, huge cuts in consumer spending, because there is no way to make a perfectly green VCR, flat screen, or foot massager. They still use resources — lots of them. The truth is that consumer spending alone would probably be enough to tip us into major recession, and since we’re already heading that way, the word “depression” is probably appropriate. Whatever we are going to do, we are going to have to do fast, with little money, little credit and careful calculations of emissions costs. This is not happy news, but it is no less correct for being unpleasant.
- The sheer cowardice of most of us. The blunt truth is that we are very close to being past the point at which anything will do us any good at all. And my own sense is that because we’re so close to the verge, many people would rather we imagine ourselves to be well past it, so that they are not required to make the hefty sacrifices. And most people cringe from the notion of telling an energy-addicted populace that the solutions we have to come up with rapidly probably involve a great deal of hardship, economic suffering and a host of other bad things. How much easier to argue that we can refine a little on our present situation and essentially have what we have had?
There are some people with the courage to tell the truth, however almost none of them are elected to office (it is virtually impossible to elect someone who tells hard truths), and those who do tend to be tarred with the brush of apocalyptic fantasists. It is generally easier to talk about technical possibilities than to deal with the real possibility that even technically possible solutions may fail for lack of money, energy, political will or for their potential to crash carbon limits. This cowardice may, in the end, be our final undoing.
And it will hurt us not only because of the enormous political difficulties (greater, even than the technical ones) of addressing peak energy or climate change, but also because our fear of mentioning self-sacrifice or deindustrialization makes the political opposition to this situation more acute. The simple fact is that we are taking precisely the wrong course as we de-emphasize self sacrifice — and everything we do to reinforce the idea that people will have essentially the same lifestyle that they have reinforces their inevitable sense of betrayal.
What could work — with great difficulty — is for us to enlist our fellows in a great project of courage and self-sacrifice. People climb mountains, run marathons, march off to be killed at war, and engage in all sorts of grand, painful and difficult challenges because doing so expresses their sense of honor, their courage, their patriotism, their love for others. As long as we fear to call upon one another to sacrifice, as long as we sell the narrative that an essentially similar life is possible, as long as we deny the costs, we will give up the greatest tool we have: the passionate energy of those who are doing what must be done for a better future.
So what tools have we left in this time of great exigency and crisis? What are our options to get out of the tree? How do we get the tails out of the way, and overcome the enormous fear we have when the boosting power is taken away?
To my mind, there are a few relevant principles that are needed to get us to go in the true direction we need to go.
- In the absence of a full and fair peer-reviewed literature that clearly delineates a best course in a technological sense, the presumption must be towards more conservative estimates. As Hansen notes, we may actually have to get to 300 ppm. That means that the emphasis should be on not making emissions or “negawatts” on a very large scale, on quick reductions rather than slow ones, on widely accessible solutions rather than expensive ones. The goal must be the dramatic reduction of industrial emissions quite quickly. The precautionary principle must be put into play routinely in any large scale planning for the future.
- Renewable energies will be built, but they must be built at a pace that doesn’t put the climate over the edge, and that allows for the fact that future generations may want to use a bit of fossil energy too.
That is, we cannot blow any limits doing this — our build-out will almost certainly have to be gradual, and probably comparatively slow until the total density of renewables is great enough to power regeneratively — that is, until/if we have enough renewable energies to actually power the construction of more renewables — not in theory, but in reality. In the very short term, this means massive constriction of access to energy, while hopefully, the future of energy for our children is somewhat brighter. This will be unpopular and difficult, but it is necessary.
- Human and animal powered technologies can and should fill in the gaps. With 6.6 billion people and growing, human power is the most abundant and underused energy resource on the planet. For systems, such as agriculture and local transport, that can be easily human powered, and in fact, improve in efficiency when human powered (small scale polyculture produces 2-10 times more agricultural output than an equivalent amount of industrially farmed land; a bicycle is by all measures the most efficient means of travel), human power ought to be the default mechanism.
This will, of course, require a massive restructuring of the economy — paying people well to grow food, and badly to make cheap plastic crap or defend the manufacturers of such crap in court, in complete opposition to everything we’ve set into place. Thus, this will not be easy.
- All solutions should, as mentioned above, work even if the project cannot be finished or scaled as desired. That is, we need to triage and emphasize projects that are feasible in the current situation within its timescale and other limits, that also get us part way there, even if we can’t go the whole distance. Currently, we have few mechanisms to prioritize, but we need to think hard about what matters most to our quality of life.
- All solutions must work on a world scale. China and India will not accept a lower standard of living than we have. Neither will Russia. No narrative that includes the underlying idea that we’re going to keep using more energy than most other people can possibly address climate change, period. If we’re going to have fridges, they will. If we’re going to have private cars, they will. Now, it is perfectly possible that China and India and Russia won’t follow our lead, or rather, that they will continue to follow our lead and won’t follow our final change of heart. But there is no hope whatsoever that anyone, in any nation, will ever accept the idea “Oh, we’ll just use more, and you can bear the consequence — you won’t mind, will you?” They mind. So any solution we have has to involve equitable use, period. Otherwise, other nations will attempt to achieve what we have, or they will immigrate to our countries and use what we have had. That way leads to a worldwide game of apocalyptic chicken.
So when we figure out our plans for the future, they need to look rather like “a fair share,” as little as most of us are accustomed to that thinking.
- Finally, we are going to have to rethink how high in the tree we can and should be. That is, in many cases, the energy we’ve used hasn’t gotten us nearly as much as we think it has — not in happiness, not in our declining real wealth, not in security. What it has done is get us treed, and give us tails that get in the way of getting out. It has placed us in an enormously vulnerable situation — one that may well cause enormously more misery than doing without the energies in the first place would have. That vulnerability is economic, political, moral, and physical; we now risk a devastating fall. So any future analysis of how the world should look must also take into account the real question of where in the branches we want to stay. It should be low enough that, have we waited too long and courted disaster too badly, any further falls will be merely inconvenient, and not disastrous.
As Milne puts it,
“I thought,” said Piglet earnestly, “that if Eeyore stood at the bottom of the tree, and if Pooh stood on Eeyore’s back, and if I stood on Pooh’s shoulders –“
“And if Eeyore’s back snapped suddenly, then we could all laugh. Ha ha! Amusing in a quiet way,” said Eeyore, “but not really helpful.”
“Well,” said Piglet meekly, “I thought –“
“Would it break your back, Eeyore?” asked Pooh, very much surprised.
“That’s what would be so interesting, Pooh. Not being quite sure till afterwards.”
Since the blunt and painful truth is that we are simply not sure whether we have placed the final straw on the camel’s back, whether we have waited too long with both climate change and peak oil to avert the worst consequences, we must work from a radically different set of principles, and with awareness that what we have done so far is not adequate to the task at hand. We must simultaneously work to avert disaster and prepare for our own failure. As Eeyore notes, that is what will be so very interesting.
Originally posted at www.sharonastyk.com.