The Only Solution to Climate Change is Culture Change
Modern Global Society is Predicated on Growth, which is incompatible with long-term sustainability.
One of the most common points I hear about climate change from people on both the left and the right is that we would be better off focusing on growing our economy, then using our extra wealth to tackle climate change, rather than dealing with the issue now. Initially this answer surprised me: more fossil fuel emissions now will somehow help us emit less in the future? I’m not sure this answer comes from a place of logic. Rather, growth is just our society’s default answer to almost every problem.
Almost everything in our society is predicated on continuous growth. Social security and pensions require growth in the financial system and/or the workforce to maintain their funding. Venture capitalists and shareholders require growth to recoup their investments. Academia requires growth in the university system and the scientific apparatus to provide jobs for the exponential numbers of PhD students it churns out. Growth and progress are non-optional: the very foundational mythos of both the United States and Western culture requires it.
There’s a lot of good things about growth. A growing economy can provide more for everyone without engaging in zero-sum dynamics. Growth feels good: it’s encoded in our DNA. Plus it “inflates” away debt, meaning we can borrow freely from a richer future, knowing that we can more easily pay it back then.
There’s just one problem. We live on a finite planet. In a finite solar system. In a finite galaxy. In a universe where the laws of physics means it will only be possible for us to access a certain percentage of its resources.
The Absurdity of Exponential Growth
Dr. Tom Murphy has a great blog post about how absurb our growth paradigm is for a society that plans to stick around for a long time. A lot of the misunderstanding comes down to misunderstanding the exponential function. In exponential growth, the “interest” that is gained in every growth step is added back to the principle for the next growth step, leading to very large increases very quickly. For example, if you had $1000 that grew 1% a year, you would have $1010 after the first year of growth. The second year you would have $1020.10: the absolute growth rate increased by $0.10. Over the short term this can seem insignificant, but over the long term this exponential growth makes a huge difference. To get from $1000 to $2000 at 1% growth you would need 70 years, a linear 10 dollars a year requires 100 years. To get to $4000, 140 years is required compared to the 400 required for linear growth. To reach a million? 700 years for the exponential function, but a whopping 99,000 years for the linear function.
Human societies have been managing to grow at about 2.9% a year, with this growth tied tightly to population growth and energy use. From an energy use angle at this growth rate, even if we somehow managed to cover the earth in solar panels, build a Dyson sphere… around every sun in the galaxy, this only gives us 1000 more years of physically possible growth. Even in the case of the more “reasonable scenarios” where we don’t colonize the galaxy or even the solar system, waste heat from our increasing energy use would cook the oceans in a mere four hundred years.
But what about Decoupling?
Energy-use and GDP have tracked each other pretty closely for most of history. However, starting around 1970 in “developed” economies, energy use began to decouple from the increase in GDP. Energy use per-capita stagnated, but GDP continued to decline. The explanations give by economists for this decoupling are varied but center along two main causes: increased energy efficiency and increased consumption of “services” and low carbon goods. While efficiency gains certainly have happened, most notably in things like car mileage, they cannot continue forever. Certain MPG numbers are impossible for cars or planes to hit because of the laws of physics. The same is true of many other processes, from food generation, mining or manufacturing. Substitution with low-carbon goods and services is also limited. There’s only so many e-books and museum each member of the population can buy.
There’s a third explanation as well: increasing levels of debt. I don’t fully understand finance, so my explanation of this may be off, but as I understand it, since the oil crisis in the 1970s, we have financed our “economic growth” by borrowing from other countries and the future. I’m not 100% sure how this balances out energy-wise, as you can’t borrow energy from the future, but it may encourage speculation on things like tight-oil or tar sands that otherwise would be considered poor energy sources.
So while decoupling may work for a little while as we become more efficient, watch more anime and take out another mortgage on the house, its not a long term solution either. You can’t grow the amount of books, debt or efficiency forever, especially if you don’t increase energy consumption or population at all.
It all Comes Back to Energy
So to grow the economy, we need to grow our energy use. This is challenging for two reasons.
First: our current primary energy source, fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) is both an incredible source of energy and incredible source of pollution. A single barrel of oil contains the embodied energy of dead Jurassic sea creatures equivalent to 5 years of hard human labor. It’s also relatively light and liquid at room temperature, making it an easy fuel to transport and burn where needed. Natural Gas, and especially Coal are not quite as good, but these sources still beat renewables at everything other than electricity generation, which only makes up 20% of our primary energy use.
Why can’t we just continue to grow our fossil fuel usage to grow our economy? Two problems: they are a finite resource and they are the primary drivers of climate change.
Although the fracking boom in the United States has temporarily masked this, conventional oil production peaked in 2008, with a total global oil production peak 11 years later in 2019. Coal and gas have not peaked yet, but they have similar “normal” curves of discovery and production. Abiotic oil is a myth, and no matter how you slice it, we will run out of oil, coal and natural gas eventually. All additional growth will accomplish is to hasten the coming of that day, and increase the downward slope of degrowth on the other side.
Fossil fuel use also directly correlates with the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. This so-called “greenhouse gas” warms the planet up by preventing thermal radiation from the temperature differential between earth and space from escaping. Additional CO2 in the atmosphere also dissolves in the ocean, acidify it and causing mass dieoffs that will destroy the marine food chain.
Although there’s a lot of debate on how much of climate change is caused by human activity, some simple mathematics will show you that our emissions more than account for the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. Since we know how much CO2 is generated by burning each molecule of methane, coal or oil, and roughly how much was burned since the industrial revolution, we can directly calculate how much CO2 we’ve put into the atmosphere each year.
And the results match exactly the CO2 measurements that have been take at Hawaii every year. Credit to Tom Murphy for the original math, although I repeated it myself.
The association between CO2 and thermal insulation is also well-established. If you put two-and-two together, the end result is anthropogenic climate change.
And climate change is only the largest pollution issue surrounding fossil fuel use. As fracking and oil spills have shown, the use of these fuels can also produce more visible types of environmental devastation.
What About Renewables?
So we can’t grow any more with fossil fuels without running into the twin problems of depletion and climate change. What about so called “renewable” electricity: wind, solar, hydropower, etc. While some renewable options are more useful than others, there are a host of problems that will make it difficult for any combination of these sources to take the slack from fossil fuels, and almost impossible to allow our continued growth. Lets go through them one-by-one.
Fission: It’s unclear to me why this is lumped in with renewables, as fissile uranium supplies would provide only 5% of the energy of our remaining fossil fuel supplies. Friends have recently criticized Germany for shutting down its nuclear plants. I don’t think this is a move born out of fear for the technology, but cost. With uranium depleting along the same curves as fossil fuels, nuclear energy looks uneconomical. Breeder reactors are possible, but produce weapons grade plutonium and are thus a no-no, and thorium reactors do not work either.
Fusion: The golden-bullet, deuterium(an isotope of carbon common on earth) fusion seems unlikely to ever work on earth because of the extremely high temperatures and pressures required. Current efforts to get fusion to work rely on tritium, which is expensive to make. And it’s still “40 years away”.
Hydropower: Hydropower is an ancient and great source of energy. However, its growth potential is limited because we’ve already dammed all the best rivers. Dam creation also currently requires fossil fuels for all that concrete.
Wind Power: Another ancient source of energy, windmills are similar to hydropower in terms of their strengths and weaknesses with the additional problem of being intermittent. Global energy potential for wind turbines is estimated to be as low as 1 TW, which is only ~5% of current global energy demand. Windmills also have their own environmental problems and require fossil fuels for the concrete in their bases, the plastic in their arms and slowly depleting rare-earth metals for the rotor magnets.
Solar: Out of all the renewable technologies, I am most optimistic about solar. At a 20% sunlight conversion efficiency, solar panels seem to be one technology that could provide for our current energy needs in a reasonable land area: 0.4% of the earths land area is needed to provide for our current energy use (although even solar cannot keep up with the requirements for exponential growth). Panels have a great EROI of around 11–12, which is better than current estimates for fracking. Carbon emissions for solar power are orders of magnitude lower than for fossil fuels and other types of energy.
Yet for some reason people love to dunk on solar. People like John Michael Greer, Alice Friedman and most famously Planet of the Humans claim that solar relies on rare earth metals and fossil-fuel manufacturing to be produced. This is patently false. Most panels only require silicon, aluminum and copper for the wiring, all fairly common elements in the earth’s crust. Rare earth metals are used to make more efficient panels but are not a requirement. And while fossil fuels are used in the manufacturing process, solar furnaces can reach temperatures of 3,500 C, plenty hot to melt steel and aluminum.
Solar, and other sources of electrical power generation do have issues however. They are intermittent, meaning 24/7 manufacturing, internet and lighting energy requirements are going to be difficult to satisfy without expensive battery tech. And transportation and manufacturing systems that are currently reliant on liquid fuels will have to electrified, which will not be easy. Things like air-travel and private cars may become a thing of the past.
So if Solar is so Good, why a Culture Shift?
Even if we successfully 100% electrify our transportation and manufacturing industries and become reliant on sustainable solar power to run our world, continued growth will be impossible. Well before the physical limits imposed by waste heat boiling our oceans, a 3% growth in consumption of real goods a year will quickly deplete our top soils, our ore deposits, our reserves of fresh water and fish and this worlds wild spaces. The 0.4% percent of the world’s land surface that would be necessary for solar panels is already what we cover with roads and buildings, which has destroyed some of our best farmland and richest biodiversity. A rapid transition such a world would also not be possible to do while still maintaining our growth trajectory: replacing our fossil fuel infrastructure with renewables will entail just as much destruction as creation. Isn’t there an easier way to do this? To make do with less?
A Philosophy of Degrowth
If you seek tranquility, do less. Or do what’s essential — what the logos of a social being requires, and to the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less better.
Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, is this necessary?
But we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as well. To eliminate the unnecessary actions that follow. — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations IV:27
Growing up in the privileged northern suburbs of Chicago taught me that beyond a certain point, extra money does not make you happy. The millionaires and billionaires that were my neighbors and schoolmates had the same problems as everyone else: the same ennuis and cravings. The extra money did not make those things go away: in fact it amplified them: the cars always had to be bigger, the vacations more exotic to keep pace with the hedonic treadmill. None of those things ever made any of them happy.
It’s not a coincidence that all the world’s major religions recommend poverty and simplicity as the road to heaven.
So why not stop trying to keep up with Jones’? Why not slash your energy usage, your travel and conspicuous consumption? Especially when these things don’t even make you happy. Solar photovoltaic is an amazing technology, but it does not have all the amazing properties of coal, oil and natural gas. Our world will be different when these resource run out, and your life will follow suit, even if it has to drag you kicking and screaming into the future.
What have I done
Part of the problem with the climate movement is its hypocrisy. Politicians and activists jet around the world to make “pledges” on other peoples carbon emissions while eating burgers and foie grae. This seems like a non-starter for someone concerned about depletion and climate change, so I’ve tried to change my life to reflect this fact. My energy footprint is around 30 kWh a day, a third of the American average, but still about 10–15 kWh higher than the global average. For details on how to calculate your footprint see Peter Kalmus’s book here.
The biggest way that I’ve reduced fuel usage is by not owning a car/living within walking distance of everything I need to access on a daily basis. Although I still sometimes carpool with friends to hikes or Costco, these are highly efficient uses of energy, meaning my total energy use from driving is probably around only 5 kWh/day or less. If I owned my own car I would have more detailed stats.
Flying makes up nearly double the driving emissions at 6000 miles or 8kWh. This was worse than I thought, leading me to try and cut down on my flying in late 2021/early 2022.
I have been vegan since the summer of 2019, primarily for animal rights, but also to reduce my impact on the environment. By their very nature as primary consumers, animals require more energy input than plants, and so thus are a greater drain on the worlds resources. Some animals could theoretically be raised on marginal land, but this would entail meat consumption at much lower levels. However, even a vegan diet is fairly energetically intense: every calorie of food requires roughly 11 calories of energy in the form of Haber-Bosch Ammonia fertilizer, refrigeration and transport. This puts me at about 6 kWh/day for food still, which I could reduce further by buying organic, shopping at the farmers market (which I do) and growing some of my own food (which I do).
“Stuff” makes up a small component of the footprint, an rough estimate of $1=1kWH, means that I only spent a few kWh on consumerism last year.
Finally gas and electricity make up the final 10 kWh/day. I live with two roommates which helps spread out heating and cooling costs. In terms of actual appliances, the dryer is most energy intensive. This can be mitigated by spinning your clothes for extra long to dry them out in the washing machine.
Although I still have a long way to go on my degrowth journey, so far its been a lot of fun, and has exposed much of the crazy growth-centered brainwashing that our society subjects us to. I’m still unsure about many of the precise numbers and risks that surround these things (especially solar), so if you have input, or your own journey to share, a comment below would be much appreciated.