Our Greatest Common Factor

If we only have one thing in common, it's that we all need a planet that can support life.

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Two scenarios: ‘Lemmings’ vs. ‘Ex-Junkies’

Experts all over the world have analysed vast amounts of data to try and create as plausible global resource consumption scenarios  as possible (for example here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here… and the list goes on). Some results may be biased as a result of economical or political interests, others perhaps less. As scientific raw data analysis goes, I have nothing valuable to add. Instead I’d like to present some viewpoints to help interpret these scenarios, and perhaps come up with new realizations about our situation.

End of the World as We Know It, and We Feel Fine…

What we know for sure, is that fossil fuels will wear out sooner or later, or to be more precise, the overall eROeI (energy Returned On energy Invested) of the remaining deposits will eventually become so low that it won’t simply make sense to collect them as an energy source anymore. This is not a matter of opinion, it’s just basic arithmetics. The only (barely) relevant question here is, how wide is the Hubbert bell curve for each individual fossil energy source; in other words, whether the inevitable series of crashes is so far in the future, we don’t have to do anything about it yet. In my opinion, this logic is about just as unsustainable as our way of life. Still, I’m afraid we could have more acute problems in our hands  it just may be that we’ll be facing the notorious Peak Oil all too late for our own good.

A realization that even many authoritative studies seem to have missing, or at least don’t bother to stress, is that abundant energy sources and a thick ozone layer are by no means the only natural resources we need. In a sense, every concrete element that’s needed to keep up the abstraction of our society, is a natural resource: breathable air, drinkable water, bearable climate, cultivable soil, healthy and nontoxic edible flora and fauna, and so on and so forth. And the evidence seems to be building up, that more and more of these resources are being compromised by the current form of the perpetual motion machine that is our society. This popularized presentation by the Post Carbon Institute called ‘There’s No Tomorrow’ is a good starting point for further learning.

So, instead of just Peak Oil, it seems more relevant keywords could be the carrying capacity of an ecosystem and overshoot, that, according to Wikipedia,

occurs when a population exceeds the long term carrying capacity of its environment. The consequence of overshoot is called a crash or die-off.

Gloomy, admittedly, but not as far-fetched as one might hope. This year, Earth Overshoot Day was on August 22, which means we used 12 months worth of Earth’s renewable resources in less than 8 months (plus of course all the carbon fuels, that take approximately 60 to 600 million years to renew). More information, and a ‘fun’ interactive overshoot meter can be found on this footprintnetwork’s website.

One relatively new sign of this overshoot is Arctic methane release, which has been speculated over by scientist for decades, but that has only just begun to break through to mainstream media coverage. Methane is 20 to 30 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, and it might be escaping into the atmosphere as the arctic ice and permafrost keeps on melting. Whether the threat is seen as moderate or absolutely critical, depends on intepretation, but the potential is there.

The most astonishing thing about all this is our economical system’s collective and categorical denial about these threats. Fashionable words like sustainability and ecology are repeated over and over, but mostly they’re still used simply as selling points for products created inside the current economical system, instead of primary goals that would allow for criticising and, eventually enhancing the system itself. The excuses vary, but a popular one is that we don’t have enough proof. Again, the logic of this notion is something out of this world.

Let’s stop and think about it for a second.

Imagine you’re heading to a shopping mall with your kids and grandkids (if you have them, or if you think you’re going to sometime in the future) to buy a bigger plasma TV. The police comes to talk to you and says that the mall is being evacuated because there’s a considerable risk of a hidden bomb in there. You estimate the risk is about 50/50 − so, would you take your kids and grandkids, and head for the electronics section for your new TV set anyway?

The answer is a bellowed ‘YES!’, at least according to the current consensus of our culture.

As individuals, almost all of us are naturally capable of this kind of basic risk analysis. We estimate the probability of the threat, and then compare probable consequences of neglecting the threat against the consequences of overstating the threat. My hunch is, most of us would not enter the mall (except perhaps if you’ve used to living in a warzone or other dangerous area).

Something weird happens, though, when we enter the level of society, and causalities that are not immediately perceivable (although, to be honest, not all that complex either). We suddendly lose this basic ability to estimate threats, an ability that has secured the survival of our species for millions of years. In other words, we start, collectively, acting against our own survival. Intuitively, this doesn’t seem to make sense — but the funny thing about nature is, it always makes sense,  although sometimes not in the way we would hope.

So, maybe this is just a sign that it’s our time to fade out and give space for the next species in this ongoing experiment for survival, somewhat like dinosaurs did. Maybe we simply had a slight ‘adjustment flaw’, just a bit too much of technical skills and too little empathy; it got us this far — not bad, all and all — but won’t save us from ourselves. Or, maybe a massive drop in human population is indeed essential to secure the survival of at least a few of us. In a sense, there’s no need to worry: nature never ‘fails’, it just adapts. The downside from our point of view is, nature obviously has no stance whatsoever on individual suffering — otherwise, would we really have parasites like this?

So, unless we’re especially fond of horrible, massive, human suffering, the only path for us is to try to fight our instinctive behavior, rise above our mundane routines, and put our collective effort into planning a future society that could perhaps be able save us.

You’ve read this far, so there’s a chance you already understand we’re all passengers on a metaphorical Titanic — now’s the time to choose, whether you want to join the orchestra and keep on playing till the bitter end, or if you want to try and survive. No hard feelings, either way — it’s all human — but if you chose the latter, we should probably begin. But how? Who will show the way?

Lemmings and junkies. Obviously!

How Can Lemmings and Heroin Addicts Help Save the World?

We started with a bunch of future scenarios. In the end, only two are really relevant, though. Let’s call them:

‘Lemmings’ and ‘Ex-Junkies’

As you might have guessed already, this method is not scientific, nor is it supposed to be. Instead, I hope, it will be at least a bit thought-provoking.

First, we need a relatively credible long-term chart of our growth. Primary energy consumption is quite a good meter —  it also correlates at least roughly with other relevant variables: population, economic growth, CO2 emissions, etc., so I think it’s pretty justifiable to view this as an indicator of our growth in general. Here’s a good one, so let’s borrow it. Thanks to Gail Tverberg, Vaclav Smil and British Petroleum! Then, let’s add our scenarios:

'Lemmings' vs. 'Ex-Junkies'

Will we share lemmings’ fate, or will we be able to muster up the courage to enter rehab before it’s too late?

Let’s view the worst case scenario, or ‘Lemmings’ first. The most important thing we can learn from lemmings, is that the aforementioned concepts of ‘carrying capacity’, ‘overshoot’ and ‘die-off’ are very much real, and they portray circumstances that are at least allegorical, if not identical to ours. See this short article Mass Murder on the Tundra, for example. The projection you see here was pretty much drawn by placing the lemming population density chart on top of the energy chart and scaling it so that it fit the approximate tangent of the growth since the beginning of the industrial era. Depending on what you think Earth’s actual carrying capacity is, and how much overshoot it can handle, you’re free to imagine the curve wider or smaller. The bottom line is, if we skip the usual explanation (which is pretty much the sentence ‘we’ll think of something’ wrapped in layers of scifi-fantasy) this is very likely to happen sooner or later, if we insist on continuing on the path of ‘limitless’ growth.

The question is, does our ability to make rational decisions exceed that of lemmings’?

No, that was not irony. I’m sorry for having to say this, but in all honesty, this is the question we have to ask ourselves.

Does our ability to make rational decisions exceed that of lemmings’?

So far, we don’t have much proof that it does. We can only hope for the best, and try our best.

The second scenario, ‘Ex-Junkies’ isn’t too lofty either, but nevertheless might be best option we have. I believe the best experts on how to survive the next century, could in fact be ex-addicts. After all, junkies is what we are — again, this is not just a figure of speech: we really do have a severe psychological addiction for the fossil fuel lifestyle. And just as heroin addicts, we first need to realise this habit is going to kill us if we don’t act, and then go to rehab as soon as possible. Whereas the ‘Lemmings’ scenario compares to overdosing or perhaps going ‘cold turkey’, there’s another solution that’s far less risky and more sustainable: replacement therapy. Heroin addicts use methadone or Subutex, our medication would be renewable energy sources, and to be realistic, nuclear energy. It’s by no means the optimal energy source, but the thing is we need to get off carbon fuels very quickly, and to be practical, that probably means we can’t turn our back to nuclear power quite yet.

Another important lesson humanity can learn from drug addicts, is about the two ‘schools’ of rehab. Quoting this rehab info page:

Maintenance and coming off (‘detox’)

Once established on a regular dose, most people stay on buprenorphine for a long period of time or even long-term. This is called maintenance and helps you to keep off street drugs. Some people gradually reduce the dose and come off it. This is called detoxification, or ‘detox’. However, it usually takes several months, and sometimes years, before most people are ready to consider ‘detox’. It is often safer to stay on buprenorphine then to ‘detox’ before you are ready.

We’ll have to admit to ourselves, we will always be addicts, and just as drug addicts, we have to make a firm decision not to relapse again. A society’s version of this is of course strict laws that control the use of fossil fuels. It’s also good to understand, we’ll probably never ‘detox’ completely, and that’s not that bad. At least we’d be able to live a relatively normal life instead of an addict’s desperate search for the next fix.

The ‘Ex-Junkies’ projection was estimated by taking a chart about the decline of heroin usage after starting replacement therapy, found on this page about Subutex, and placing it to continue seamlessly from the fossil fuels curve. The renewables curve was then drawn intuitively on top of the fossils one, to represent a relatively plausible scenario.