The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

A Way Forward

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It’s hard to get someplace if you don’t know where you’re going.

Sometimes I think that part of the reason that so many people are doing so little about global warming is that we don’t have a clear idea of what the post-petroleum world will be like. We know what the climate-change apocalypse might look like, but the alternatives seem vague, blank, or even scary.

Of course, the future is impossible to predict for certain, but some clear thinking might make our options seem a bit more manageable.

A World without Fossil Fuel

I have said before that we need to stop using fossil fuel. In this, the Climate Action Network (CAN) agrees with me. As the old saying goes, if you find yourself at the bottom of a hole, the first step is to stop digging.

I will even go a step farther; it is time for an end to the Age of Cheap Energy. That is, while we certainly have a lot of alternatives to fossil fuel, we should not look for another source of energy as abundant and as cheap (in the short-term). Renewables may or may not have that much potential. Cold fusion and other such possibilities may or may not be real. But if we did discover some new source of abundant energy and used it, we’d end up back in another version of the same fix we are now.

Anthropogenic climate change is one symptom of biosphere-scale entropy. Mass extinction is another. Human activity has removed more energy from the system than it can afford and it is destabilizing. An ecosystem, an organism, or any other complex system will do exactly the same thing—become simpler and less stable–if its energy balance goes negative. It doesn’t matter why or how the energy is lost, the result is the same. And it’s a result we really don’t want.

Of course, if enough people read this blog, somebody is probably going to accuse me of “wanting to bring us back to the stone age.” Or, with more historical accuracy, back to the 1700’s.

We don’t have to worry about this. The cultural and scientific progress of the past two hundred years is not going to vanish just because fossil fuel does. We won’t forget about antibiotics, reinstate chattel slavery, or spend the rest of eternity limited only to ideas and technologies that existed prior to 1800.

We will learn to live within a different set of limitations and we will use our brilliance as a species to live well.

Thinking about Specifics

We’re looking at a world with less energy. We will still have cars and trucks and so forth. Engines will burn ethanol or biodiesel, or run on electricity generated by sun, wind, and water. But running such engines will likely be expensive, something not done lightly. Two-week vacations to the other side of the country will become a luxury of the super-rich. The high cost of transportation will make exotic foods and many other goods unprofitable. Society and commerce will be, once again, mostly local or regional.

We can look at this as an inconvenience, and indeed it probably will be, but there will also be advantages. We could see our communities grow stronger, our local businesses grow more diverse and more successful. National and transnational corporations will not be quite so powerful. And yet we need not fear the shadow-side of localism. We won’t be culturally isolated, because we will still have the internet in some form.

Obviously, petroleum-derived products such as plastics will get hard to come by, except for what we can make from recycled plastic. Asphalt is a petroleum product. Cement is not, but it has a very high carbon footprint anyway. We’ll see less of both. Cities of the future might look very different. Metal might get more expensive, too, since processing it requires a lot of heat and that energy must come from somewhere and can no longer come from either coal or the vast quantities of wood burned to make charcoal for metalwork in the past. From this challenge might rise an unexpected benefit; the end of planned obsolescence. You’ll be able to buy electronic devices that last twenty years.

I do not know how much energy we’ll have or exactly how much energy each technology or activity needs. Even if I did, this kind of prognostication is rarely precisely accurate. But we’re probably looking at doing some prioritizing. We’ll give up some luxuries and conveniences so we can have enough energy for the really important things. Imagine a farmer taking crops to market by ox-cart–and while she’s in town, she stops at the clinic for a routine check-up of her artificial lungs.

What Are Our Alternatives?

The issue is that keeping the world we have isn’t an option. We can have some version of climate change apocalypse, or we can have something else. We need to start imagining what that something else is and how we can get there from here.


Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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