Going it alone is hard

Doomers like Mike want us all to believe, along with them, that we will all soon have to grow our own food. (Clap your hands 3 times and say “I do believe in doom, I do, I do!“)  His latest post demonstrates how hard it is to do this on your own. This is self-evident. It’s not easy, or more of us would be taking off to live our own version of the “Good Life”. But here’s the thing. While the threats to our way of life are real, so are many of the solutions. And while we don’t see too many of them appearing now, that’s mainly because there are other, cheaper ways of getting by. For now. As things start to become more difficult, we’ll start to deploy the solutions. Exponentially.

Yes the challenges are real. Climate change is real, and topsoil around the world is washing away, and the population is growing (for now). I get that. But here’s the thing. Economies, and societies as a whole, adapt. We are social creatures and now live in one of the most complex and socially interconnected civilisations ever. Information can spread instantaneously across the planet. We trade food around the world. New food markets are appearing in deserts, with scientists growing fresh food in greenhouses running on a clever mix of  solar power, seawater and the desert! We can support the farmers that do the right thing, or are approaching the right thing, by working hard at our jobs and paying them for that food. It’s our food. We helped growing it by creating the market for it. By buying it. Growing food is hard, so let’s help the experts come up with better, more sustainable ways of growing food by being ready to pay a little more for it – if it comes to that.

And while we have to leave the fossil fuels behind, there are (sadly from a climate point of view) still ample supplies left to transition us to a clean, green, nuclear-waste burning machine. It doesn’t have to happen overnight, the way doomers often assert. From a climate point of view, it does have to happen soon. And then we’ll have the very high ERoEI of nuclear power charging whatever transport solutions we adopt (whether hydrogen, boron, EV’s, trains, trams, and trolley buses). How fast can we do it? Look at history. France went from 8% nuclear to 70% nuclear in 10 years! That’s a fast change to clean electricity in a very short amount of time.

But not only that, clean electricity can charge electric cars (or boron or hydrogen). 70% of Americans could drive electric cars and recharge at night on existing off-peak capacity! The capacity is already there: they’re just not using it. The car fleet turns over about every 16 years. Once we start the next big thing , natural attrition can probably out-race peak oil.  There could even be a mix of clean fuels like boron, EV’s, or hydrogen, just as we have a mix of dirty fuels today like petroleum, diesel, and gas. It all depends on how the technologies scale and the costs shake down. I’m hoping we build better cities, so we can use the best technology of all: our shoes! Walking more would help us lose weight and create a closer sense of community. Walkable cities build a little daily exercise into your lifestyle.

Growing your own food is hard. It takes a lot of experience. So why do it? I can’t help think that many doomers are justifying their mid-life crisis treechange. They’re not actively promoting sustainable solutions for our entire civilisation, just for themselves. Maybe their village, if the locals are lucky. And that’s just sad. Many doomers dwell in their own little world where they are the star of “Day of the Triffids” or the “Walking Dead”. They see those of us staying in the big cities as ‘sheeple’, sheep-people blindly following societal norms and consumerist expectations, unaware of the dangers ahead. Well, newsflash. Some of us are aware, and choose to promote an alternative vision of the world that includes everyone making it. And this can already be done with technologies we already have today, and who knows what other fantastic innovations will arrive tomorrow.

I admire people living a simple life in a permaculture village. There is a lot to like; with a great sense of community, a low impact lifestyle; and more free time. They have a lot to teach modern consumer culture about the real value of the slow life and low consumption living. But it’s not the permaculture lifestyle that I dislike. It’s the suicidal doomer memes that drive me mad. It’s why some of them say they are doing it. They steal hope, and drain activist energy. It’s unnecessary. We have the technology to make it, and despite our best efforts to the contrary, probably will. Or we can nuke ourselves back to the stone age. The choice is ours. That’s the point. Collapse is not inevitable, no matter how carefully the doomers dress it up with intellectual sounding arguments. We have the tools, and can slowly tame this industrial beast we’ve created. Despite all the bad news on my summary page, there is hope. I just want to share some around.

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6 Responses to Going it alone is hard

  1. I became familiar with the concept of Peak Oil on 21. august 2013. Since then I expreienced one of my worst depressions of my lifetime as I began researching obsessively this subject (I mean literally obsessively because I have OCD – altough not so serious like some other people, so I’m still able to work, take care of my family, etc.) I came to the conclusion that PO is real and is not the only seroius threat, there are soil erosion, overfishing, overpopulation, potential peak of many other stuff in the XXI. century like phosphorous, gas, uranium, drinkwater and so on… and of course, Climate Change. For the first time, I started to read deniers like Bjorn Lomborg to reassure myself, but it wasn’t very convincing for me. However, after the worst depressed weeks and months I become more and more convinced that humanity is absolutely able – technically – to handle these problems. Even it is certainly true that these
    problems may occur in the same timeframe making the situation more severe, it is also true that one solution can handle many problem at the same time (for example electric cars – owned by carsharing companies, not individuals and electrified mass transportation – powered with decentralised renewable energy or nuclear decreases CO2 emissions and fossil fuel usage, while vegetarianism, local organic farming and permaculture may help reduce fertilizer and fossil fuel usage, and the fight against soil erosion and so on…) I’m no way a techno optimist who thinks that technology can solve everything and we can continue the wasteful consumerism of the western world forever – the cultural values also need to be changed very soon, and I think that It is still possibile. I see a great opportunity in both nuclear (especially IV. generation and thorium-fueled reactors) and renewables (other than biomass) – I simply think oil is too precious to burn -we need it for medicines, plastics and so on… I like your blog and your thinking about doomers – they steal hope, and drain activist energy. Raising awereness is OK, but scareing people to depression is not… Well it’s not impossibile that their predictions come true one day – especially if the mechanism of denial goes on and on – but no one can predict the future, even the most intelligent doomers with the most compelling arguments cannot. Sorry for my bad english.

    • Eclipse Now says:

      Hi Twenty, I hear you! I’ve been there. Basically, you’re talking about the whole global LTG mess (Limits to Growth), and there are many other concerns as well. I agree there could be some rough times ahead, but we just *don’t* know the future. We could co-operate and have a colony mining some metal-rich asteroid in 20 years, or a colony on Mars: or we could nuke ourselves back to the stone age. For a while. But I’m even thinking, these days, that we’d eventually recover from that! Just spread the positive memes and solutions, and try to lighten up about it. I remember speaking from some very dark places, but it doesn’t help. People just dismiss you. So now I save it for friends, and occasionally drop calmer, more rational sounding things into the conversation. “Yeah, oil will run out one day, but that’s a long way away. The real problem is when the *cheap* stuff leaves us, and that’s happening today as China and India want more oil, but we just can’t pump it fast enough. So we’ll try boron etc. But we do need to get started, soon.” Or even better, lend people a DVD or send them a movie link. Then give them some hope! 🙂 Nice to meet you, and you’re English is fine.

  2. rapideffect says:

    Let’s say your right and nuclear can solve the fossil fuel issue. How does it solve the other limits we are facing?

    Your eight R’s would require a great amount of resources to put in place and more to maintain them.

    Rail – Turning the current oil based transport system into an electricity transport system would take massive amounts of fossil fuels and how would you convince people to give up their personal cars? Could you retro fit 100’s of millions of cars to run on electricity?

    Rezone – How would you use New Urbanism Principles to make Tokyo/New York/London sustainable?

    Recycle – Changing one thing into another uses energy, how is this sustainable?

    Reinvent – Renewable resources like wood become non-renewable when used faster than they are replaced, a few billion people using wood to build housing is just as unsustainable as any other resource.

    Replenish – Permaculture may help to bring some of the topsoil back, but can it feed 7 billion people?

    Repair – How do you repair an ecosystem when vital organisms are extinct and are continuing to go extinct, in large due to humans large cities and pollution.

    Reduce – population growth (Should be stop population growth and degrow the population) Stabilising the population is not enough, there are too many humans on the planet taking up too much space which is needed for other species to survive.

    Your solutions may prolong our civilization, but cannot make it sustainable. You cannot be more or less sustainable, you are either sustainable or not. The one thing that makes all of modern civilization problems worse is our massive population.
    There are two solutions to our civilization: Degrowth or Collapse.

  3. Eclipse Now says:

    Hi Rapid,
    yes there are a *lot* of challenges, but cheap energy is the core of the solution. For instance, metals ores a running low, right? But with enough energy we can recycle all the metals we’ve mined, and move to even *bigger* mining machinery that can gather even finer ore grades. We can mine the bottom of the ocean for 6000 years of metal at current rates, and by then we’d have so much metal to recycle I don’t know how much we’d need to mine. By then there would be space colony’s, and just one decent asteroid has 30 times the metal humanity has EVER mined, and all the water and uranium particles we need to run the colony, grow food on the colony, water the colony, and create jet-fuel to blast metal back to earth to PAY for the colony! Got to pay them bills, hey? 😉

    Rail and New Urbanism are my preferable long term solutions. But there are other ‘stepping stone’ fuels we can use to give us the time to get there. Did you know James Hansen thinks one viable option might be to burn metal instead of oil? Sounds mad, doesn’t it?

    Now that nukes + EV’s and boron (and maybe hydrogen & synfuels) are running the world, we have a lot more time to learn how to do other things.

    BTW = the plasma burner RECYCLES ATOMS! It can *produce* energy, but I think it’s products are too important to waste on burning for electricity when we can instead use them to replace oil in the petrochemical industry. Then where will the energy come from to power the recycler? Why, nuclear waste of course! That’s recycling in and of itself, the ultimate permaculture statement ‘waste = food’ was never so true as with nuclear power.

    But recycling is not about energy production (even though possible) but replacing oil in petrochemicals.

    As I say on my recycle page: “1. Recycle everything!

    We now have the technology to recycle EVERYTHING in your local tip. Imagine all the disgusting things in your local council land fill. Rotting food and pizza boxes, a teenager’s worn down joggers, bits of hose and rubber, soggy old mattresses, disposable nappies, lawn clippings, maybe some old asbestos and toxic chemicals in old paint tins, and ten million bits of uncategorizable plastic junk from broken sunglasses and worn out toothbrushes to bits of bottles, lids, pegs and other miscellaneous clutter.

    To recycle all that would take some kind of molecular sorter, right? Like something off Star Trek? Well, we have that technology now, and it is slowly becoming cheap enough to use. It’s called the Plasma arc burner and it can recycle *everything* into all kinds of useful products. Household waste can be recycled into fibrous materials like insulation fluff, fibreglass, and even faux wood panelling and roof tiles. In other words, household waste can be turned into much of your next house”

    Wood is only one solution. I’ve been meaning to update that page, but if we have enough energy, all sorts of high tech and low tech material becomes available. Materials for building are *not* a problem. With enough energy, we can green the deserts. Have you watched ABC’s Catalyst (5 minutes) on seawater greenhouses? Solar power + seawater + desert = food! See ‘Regreen the desert’ page.

    REDUCE: your opinion is noted, but please read my page. I provide some examples where IPAT could be turned around. Instead of more people being the problem, we divide the impact of A & T by producing things the right way. 9 billion people might not have the same impact as 7 billion now if we’re not burning any fossil fuels! And that’s just *one* example of the many things we’re learning to do right.

    In fact, you’ve convinced me that point 7 on my REDUCE page needs a re-write. It’s a bit clunky and confusing. I need to chop it down a bit and get it under control. Cheers for the reminder.

    “There are two solutions to our civilization: Degrowth or Collapse.”

    I see some potential for exponential acceleration out into the solar system, or we could nuke ourselves back to the Stone Age. There are a million shades of grey between your absolutes of ‘Degrowth or Collapse’, and quite a few more optimistic scenarios that could unfold way above those two bleak options. But it’s going to require HARD WORK, and not sitting around on our permaculture village survivalist compound like Doomsday Preppers congratulating ourselves on how clever we are.

    • rapideffect says:

      “We can mine the bottom of the ocean for 6000 years of metal at current rates”
      And what would be the result of removing these metals from the oceans?

      “Did you know James Hansen thinks one viable option might be to burn metal instead of oil? Sounds mad, doesn’t it?”

      How is metal anywhere near as energy dense as oil?

      “BTW = the plasma burner RECYCLES ATOMS! It can *produce* energy, but I think it’s products are too important to waste on burning for electricity when we can instead use them to replace oil in the petrochemical industry. Then where will the energy come from to power the recycler? Why, nuclear waste of course!”

      So is there enough energy to build new nuclear reactors that can burn waste from the 400 or so current reactors, and can this waste energy replace all other forms of power generation from fossil fuels? (Plus decommission current reactors)

      “With enough energy, we can green the deserts. Have you watched ABC’s Catalyst (5 minutes) on seawater greenhouses? Solar power + seawater + desert = food!”

      Deserts contain many forms of life and are part of the natural ecosystem, building over them for one species of animal (humans) is just as wrong as building cities/roads/etc over other habitats. Humans already take up far too much space, destroying other animals habitats and sending them to extinction. (Yes I watched the catalyst seawater greenhouses when it aired on tv).

      “9 billion people might not have the same impact as 7 billion now if we’re not burning any fossil fuels!”

      Possible, but our impact is still too great. Every human needs a certain amount of land to produce food/water/shelter/etc, even without using fossil fuels.

      “There are a million shades of grey between your absolutes of ‘Degrowth or Collapse’, and quite a few more optimistic scenarios that could unfold way above those two bleak options.”

      Now one can predict the future with 100% accuracy, and therefore my two solutions are not absolute. How is more humans better than less when you take into account there impact on other species. Humans cannot artificially do what nature does for us for free, but we continue to destroy these systems that give us the ability to live.
      Global civilization is unsustainable and your solutions do not make it sustainable. Some of the ideas you suggest may help to continue business as usual for a while longer, but is this desirable considering the damage it causes to the biosphere?
      Degrowth is not a bleak solution, it’s an optimistic solution. Business as usual and continual growth of the population and economy is the bleak option.
      Our world leaders could not come together and find any real solutions to climate change, so how as a global civilization is humanity going to implement your solutions?

  4. Eclipse Now says:

    Hi RapidEffect,
    you’re asking all the right questions that a someone thinking about long term, deep sustainability should be asking. There may be some side-effects from some of these solutions, but we can deal with those as well.
    OCEAN FLOOR: ecologists are now considering ‘rewilding’ schemes to move endangered species to new locations. Heaps of Ivory Coast elephants were moved recently because their habitat was threatened. Koalas in Australia have been moved from urban areas to a new patch of turf. It’s going to have to happen more as climate change kicks in. We’ve turned this planet into a park, and now we have to maintain it. There’s nothing truly ‘wild’ left, so we have to protect what we can.
    Sadly, that’s the reality. But it gives us certain skills. For example, if harvesting metals from black smokers on the sea floor, the volcanic vents that spew out all kinds of concentrated metals, how many have unique extremophiles on them? What toxins might leach into the local ecosystem? Well, from what I’ve read, they’re already fairly toxic environments with the volcanic activity and all. The experts are evaluating this. Maybe there will be some areas we protect, and others we mine. 6000 years is a long time, and a lot of metal, and the ocean makes up 75% of the planet’s surface.
    BORON: to get a snapshot of boron, check James Hansen’s summary here.

    DESERTS: I agree that deserts have unique ecosystems. Unfortunately, aren’t we responsible for doubling or tripling the size of deserts on earth? In many cases this would be re-greening deserts *we* created. For a long time at least. In the meantime, it would take pressure off rainforests and other important wildlife areas that are on the edge of being bulldozed for croplands.
    ECOSYSTEM-SERVICES: See my summary page. I agree! Let’s increase our national parks and protect ecosystem services, let’s build sustainable energy, let’s develop better city plans, let’s develop better agriculture all to minimise our impact on vital ecosystem services and prevent those services dying in a climate change catastrophe.
    CONTINUAL GROWTH? Where on my blog did I suggest I was supporting *continual* growth?
    POLITICAL DEADLOCK: Politicians are not scientists, and are simply confused about the priority of clean energy sources and the priority of nuclear power. But James Hansen’s Science Council for Global Initiatives is working hard to change this. After all, just a few years ago I was anti-nuclear. Barry Brook changed all that, and he’s on the SCGI.

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