People just want to go on doing what they're doing. They want business as usual. They say, “Oh yes, there's going to be a problem up ahead,” but they don't want to change anything. — James Lovelock
Today’s rising inflation, as I explained in the first half of this two-part essay, is tied directly to the rising cost of oil, gas and coal, which account for 79 per cent of all energy spending. Yes, fossil fuels still drive the global economy despite ubiquitous headlines on the progress of a green energy transition that promises endless “clean” growth.
We are now trapped in what I have called “the poverty of two narratives” that pits the business-as-usual crowd against the green transitionists. This supposed debate avoids unpleasant realities such as rising global consumption and growing rates of energy use in a finite world. Moreover, both groups believe unlimited economic growth is the only answer to our multiplying emergencies.
Neither side recognizes that today’s inflation is but a harbinger of the unravelling of our complex, interdependent, globalized economy as fossil fuels become more expensive and in key ways irreplaceable by so-called renewables. Neither side wants to upset the people who fundamentally “don’t want to change anything” as British scientist James Lovelock observes.
Everyone recognizes the business-as-usual crowd. They celebrate the endless spending of fossil fuels as an economic miracle and political right with no catastrophic ecological consequences let alone any moral quandaries.
Investigative reporter Amy Westervelt documented that the messaging of this death cult has found a new impetus in response to inflation and Putin’s war. Business-as-usual elites now clamour that “American fossil fuel production ensures freedom and national security, high gas prices are caused by climate policy and the solution is more drilling, and climate change is something only liberal ‘woke’ elites care about."
Amid all this bluster we rarely hear talk about reality. About 20 years ago a real energy transition actually occurred. That’s when the petroleum industry started, by geological necessity, to extract extreme and costly resources such as fracked oil, bitumen and deep-sea oil. As a consequence energy price volatility began to rock the globalization project. Extreme resources make ugly ecological footprints, require mountains of cash and deliver fewer energy returns.
Techno-greens fostering denial
Meanwhile the green technocrats offer an equally distorted narrative about the state of things. They get climate change, but pretend a transition to renewables can be achieved without a massive investment of fossil fuels (try making a solar panel or windmill without oil) and the brutal mining of rare earth minerals. They even pretend that inflation, which makes every renewable more expensive, is not a barrier.
They also ignore that it took 160 years to build the current energy system at a time when petroleum and minerals were abundant and cheap. Now they propose to “electrify the Titantic” as ecologist William Ophuls puts it, at a time of expensive fossil fuels, indebted financial systems and mineral shortages.
The techno-greens also pretend that civilization can substitute fossil fuels, which are densely packed with energy, with renewables, which are less energy dense — and do so without subsequent reductions in demand or changes in behaviour.
Power density can’t be taken for granted. It measures how much a particular form of energy can flow from a given unit area. Art Berman recently explained what a shift from high density to low density energy sources means. In basic English, “it takes two coal workers, 169 solar workers and 1,100 wind workers to equal the work of one natural gas worker.”
Low density energy not only requires more materials but occupies a larger physical space on the land. It also delivers smaller energy returns. If a forest spends more energy growing fewer leaves to conduct photosynthesis, it must either shrink or collapse.
An in-depth 2021 study by Simon Michaux at the Geological Survey of Finland illustrated this inconvenient reality. It calculated that to replace a single coal-fired powered plant of average size producing seven terawatt-hours per year of energy would require the construction of 213 average sized solar farms or 87 wind turbine array facilities. Renewables just have to work harder.
The global economy currently operates 46,423 power stations running on all types of energy, but mostly fossil fuels noted Michaux. To green the sector up and still keep the lights on will require the construction of 221,594 new power plants within the next 30 years.
Michaux offered this sobering comment: “The goal of industrial-scale transition away from fossil fuels into non-fossil fuel systems is a much larger task than current thinking allows for. To achieve this objective, among other things, an unprecedented demand for minerals will be required.” He also does not think “things will go as planned.”
No civilization, of course, has moved from high energy sources to lower ones without encountering big problems. Although “renewable energy promoters claim that we can replace our current energy needs without fossil fuels,” adds Berman, the truth is this: “The triumph of technology may allow that but it will do little to end the ongoing ecosystem disaster.”
The energy ecologist Vaclav Smil recently looked at the promise of electric vehicles as a triumphant renewable solution.
This promise does not correspond with reality either. Even if the global fleet of internal combustion vehicles (about 1.5 billion) were to stop growing, “decarbonizing 50 per cent of it by 2030 would require that we manufacture about 600 million new electric passenger vehicles in nine years — that’s about 66 million a year, more than the total global production of all cars in 2019. In addition, the electricity to run those cars would have to come from zero-carbon sources. What are the chances of that?”
In other words, the majority of infrastructure and technology needed to subtract fossil fuels from the economy hasn’t been made yet.
A third, vital narrative
There is, of course, a third narrative which no one wants to discuss. Lovelock, who is famous for postulating the Gaia hypothesis for how Earth’s systems are regulated in synch, urged in 2005 that we embrace “a sustainable retreat.”
An economic retreat means shrinking fossil fuel spending by at least one third, which means the end of economic growth. (One recent study suggested high income states probably need to cut their resource use by 70 per cent.)
So what does shrinkage look like? It means returning to standards of living prevalent in the 1960s and 1950s. It means deglobalization. It means slow living instead of fast consumption. It means walking instead of flying. It means more people growing food on smaller plots. It means relocalizing life. It means making changes most of us are not yet willing to talk about, let alone make.
In 1972, the Club of Rome issued a warning about energy, pollution and population trends on the planet. Using a fairly basic computer model, the club’s analysts, including Donella and Dennis Meadows, asked what would happen if civilization continued growing without limits. The model warned that business as usual would lead to scarcity, disruptions and failing ecosystems sometime between 2010 and 2020. As resources become harder and more expensive to extract, civilization would start digging a hole for itself. A population crash would follow declines in agricultural production sometime around 2030.
An Australian research scientist, Graham Turner, revisited the data in 2014. He found that global trends closely aligned with the Limits to Growth model so compellingly that he suggested civilization was already unravelling. Turner offered this conclusion: “This suggests, from a rational risk-based perspective, that we have squandered the past decades, and that preparing for a collapsing global system could be even more important than trying to avoid collapse.”
The pandemic exposed the fragilities of a global energy system already foundering with its overextended supply chains and ever-growing energy spending. It also rocked a system rattled by the volatility of extreme and difficult resources such as fracked oil and bitumen.
The so-called energy transition added to this volatility because renewables don’t offer the same kind of energy quality required to lubricate an economic machine animated by endless growth.
Moreover, civilization has used renewables not to reduce fossil fuel demand but to augment energy consumption. Putin’s destructive war against the Ukrainian people has disrupted global oil and gas supplies guaranteeing high oil prices for years to come. So inflation is here to stay until there is a recession, depression or a worse political reckoning. In this real world, renewables will take a beating.
So the two narratives miss the point: if our current civilization is to survive in any shape or form it needs to fundamentally rethink all energy spending, from how we harness it to what we use it for. As Michaux concludes in his number-crunching report, “replacing the existing fossil fuel powered system (oil, gas and coal), using renewable technologies, such as solar panels or wind turbines, will not be possible for the entire global human population. There is simply just not enough time, nor resources to do this by the current target set by the world’s most influential nations. What may be required, therefore, is a significant reduction of societal demand for all resources, of all kinds.”
How we make that transition to lowered demand should be the most prominent discussion in our media, classrooms and households. Why is it nearly invisible?
Years ago the great psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote a book about what happens to people in dehumanizing environments. Having survived two Nazi concentration camps, Bettelheim knew the subject well.
Near the end of The Informed Heart, he offered this prescient observation. Jews who accepted the status quo and believed in business as usual perished. Those who did not believe in business as usual left before the Germans arrived, sailed to Russia or America or joined the resistance. Many survived. “Thus in the deepest sense the walk to the gas chamber was only the last consequence of a philosophy of business as usual,” wrote Bettelheim. It was “a last step in no longer defying the death instinct, which might also be called the principle of inertia.”
Now a widespread inertia prevents us from seizing control of our fate. We must do all we can to overcome that torpor. The implications are plain. Those communities that reject business as usual and cut their energy spending and all the materialist values that go with it, just might survive the long emergency and write a different ending to this story.