What We Have to Do to Secure a Rosy Future

by Tom Murphy

So far on Do the Math, I’ve put out a lot of negative energy — whatever that means. Topics have often focused on what we can’t do, or at least on the failings or difficulties of various ambitious plans. We can’t expect indefinite growth — whether in energy, population, or even growth of the economic variety. It is not obvious how we maintain our current standard of living once fossil fuels begin their inexorable decline this century. And as I’ve argued before, achieving a steady-state future implies approximate equity among the peoples of the Earth, so that maintaining today’s global energy consumption translates to living at one-fifth the power currently enjoyed in the U.S.

In this post, I offer a rosy vision for what I think we could accomplish in the near term to maximize our chances of coming out shiny and happy on the tail end of the fossil fuel saga. I’m no visionary, and this exercise represents a stretch for a physicist. But at least I can sketch a low-risk, physically viable route to the future. I can—in part—vouch for its physical viability based on my own dramatic reductions in energy footprint. I cannot vouch for the realism of the overall scheme. It’s a dream and a hope—a fool’s hope, really—and very, very far from a prediction or a blueprint. I’ve closed all the exits to get your attention. Now we’ll start looking at ways to nose out of our box in a safe and satisfying way.

The Chief Problems

To recapitulate, the principal challenges we face in confronting our transition from fossil fuels while living on a finite planet are (with links to earlier posts):
The growth paradigm must end. A finite world with finite resources will not continue to support growth. Fossil fuels enabled a growth explosion, but those days are closing out. Even futuristic energy sources cook us in mere centuries on a continued growth trajectory. Folks who think the solution is to expand into space can step off the train now, since my primary interest is in addressing this century’s problems. Adios, space-migos.
Conventional oil production will soon begin terminal decline. Our most important energy currency will no longer keep up with demand. This will quite possibly be accompanied by instability and loss of confidence in long-term growth, bringing damaging economic consequences.
Alternatives do not stack up to the practical perks of fossil fuels. We will not simply migrate to the new sources without discomfort (in part, higher or even unaffordable costs).
Transportation is hard. Most alternatives allow direct production of heat and/or electricity, but few result in liquid fuels to perpetuate our mobile economy. Electric vehicles offer expensive work-arounds for some parts of the transportation sector, but not without sacrificed capabilities.
The Energy Trap exacts a toll on a late realization that we really should take energy resource shortages seriously. Given the tendency of societies to react to crises, rather than anticipate them, we will likely find ourselves wishing we had started decades before the crisis—preparing for a transition of unprecedented scale.
Complexity cannot be ignored. Before we actually get off our duffs to address a decline in liquid fuels, economies may already be reeling from energy shortfall, and may not be in a position to carry out an expensive, large-scale build-out of a new energy infrastructure. This is exacerbated by the likely situation that we will not collectively agree on the route forward, and market omniscience will be similarly confused by volatility and the inability of a high-unemployment society to afford the more expensive alternatives.
Many people point to the global population boom as the fundamental problem that must be addressed. I have not covered this directly in Do the Math, except in the context of evaluating exactly what sustainability means. I see the population explosion as a predictable reflection of surplus energy, which revolutionized agriculture and promoted more mouths in the world. On the flip side, energy scarcity translates to ugly population pressures via reduced food production and possibly hoarding.

Be Positive, Dude!

There I go again. I promised to offer a rosier picture of the future, rather than keep pounding the problematic side. But what I am going to propose may not sit well with the average citizen, so it is important to remind everyone what we are up against: a host of interrelated problems that are not easily waved off. I like the characterization that what we face here is a predicament, rather than a problem. Problems call for solutions. Predicaments must settle for responses. Our predicament is that we rode the fossil fuel bonanza to the highest possible heights, without a plan for what to do when the inheritance tapers off. Surely we mustn’t entertain the notion of getting a job when the inheritance wanes!

So imagine a world where we responded to these challenges: not by technology fixes, but by altering our expectations and behaviors.

If we elect to abandon growth as a central tenet of our existence, we would immediately veer from our collision course. We would still likely need to reduce our physical throughput of natural resources and services, but adopting a steady state economic platform would be a vital first step.

At the same time, we would be wise to take deliberate steps to arrest population growth—for instance by consciously deciding not to have kids, recognizing that the world of the future may not share the prosperity and stability of today. Maybe it doesn’t seem fair that we should cede part of the core nature of being human. Perhaps it helps to consider that we didn’t choose to come along just in time for the biggest transition humanity has faced, but oh well—here we all are. Are our brains big enough to offset our primal directive? Many Americans huff at the suggestion that we need alter our own population trajectory, when it is the developing world that hosts dangerously high birth rates. Yet a newborn American will use 100 times as much energy as an infant born to a poor village, leveraging the resource burden squarely back on home soil.

Continuing our adjustments, if we suddenly made choices that resulted in half as much transportation, we would just as suddenly put off concerns over oil decline at the level of a few percent per year. Much of our transportation is discretionary or can be consolidated (pooled) without ruinous consequences.

If we tended to focus more on needs vs. wants, we could eliminate unnecessary and resource-wasting consumerism. Ideally, the things we buy would last decades, and would be built to support repair rather than disposal. No more planned obsolescence.

If we did not demand as much electricity and heat at home and at work, we could more easily tolerate the relative shortcomings of alternative energy sources, while taking our foot off the fossil fuel gas-pedal. It is generally far short of debilitating to reduce home energy use by a factor of two or more (I’ve done a factor of 3–4, and could easily do more). It’s not what we’re used to, but no matter what choices we make, we’re going to be dealing with new challenges we’re not used to. I, for one, want to be in control of my adaptations.

If we changed our diet expectations, so that meat is a treat reserved for special occasions, or as an accent in our dishes rather than a main course, we would dramatically ease pressure on our lands, water resources, and the energy required to support our food industry. Many people in the world live this way already, without shriveling up.

By voluntarily adopting substantial reductions in energy in the manner described above, we free up significant amounts of energy to dedicate toward building an alternative energy infrastructure of solar, wind, etc.—thereby evading the jaws of the Energy Trap. It’s only a trap if energy shortages are imposed by failure of the supply to meet demand. But if demand melts away faster by voluntary means, we’re fine.

The secret for the raccoon to get out of the nail-in-hole trap described in Where the Red Fern Grows is to first let go of the shiny trinket inside. Unrelenting demand is our enemy here, and completely under our own control.  Want phenomenal gas mileage?  Slow the truck down.  The velocity-squared term in drag/energy matters.  There’s a gas pedal.  We have control.
What’s Rosy about this Picture?

Maybe this “future” doesn’t sound all that great to the average reader. But consider it in this light. If we step off the growth train and simultaneously reduce our material demands, we won’t have to work quite as hard to keep life on an even keel. The competitive urge for a business to grow disappears, so that employees would spend less time slaving for the boss in the name of profit, and more time enjoying friends and family. In this world, people are interested in satisfying their needs rather than their wants, and people already know what they need, so there is no need to advertise in order to create demand for a product. The economy settles down into a system where needs are met by normal (more often local) market forces, but the ambition to grow for the sake of growth (and shareholder dividends, etc.) is gone.  The 99% take the driver’s seat.

As part of the rubric for achieving a steady state economy (see Herman Daly’s ten-step plan), labor is not taxed, but resource extraction and disposal carries a stiff charge. Incentives shift to providing quality goods that will last a lifetime, since buying new items will invoke the resource charge, and it is simultaneously costly to dispose of the old. Repair returns as an industry, since labor is cheaper than new materials. The satisfaction that accompanies quality and craftsmanship return, in lieu of mass production.

More people would occupy their time with the art of living well. They would farm their yards (rather than mow grass?) and feel more intimately connected with the land. The world would become less abstract and more rooted in intrinsically meaningful activities (investment, marketing, office work, etc. occupy less attention).

Rather than isolating ourselves in self-sufficient castles, we would work together more often to complement each others’ talents, resources, or tools. The emergent sense of community may make us happier people and more resilient during tough spells. We would more often see neighbors gathering for community projects, potlucks, and inevitably more games of horseshoes and croquet.

In many ways, what I describe is a return to a simpler time. But with some key differences. We have made important advances in science, medicine, and technology that we treasure and would work hard to maintain and improve. The future I imagine does not give up on all our pursuits—just the ones aimed at growth and commanding a high resource throughput. Those activities centered on developing knowledge, and understanding what it means to be human, would thrive.

Yeah, Right

I know. What I describe may cut against human nature. What business owner would not want to expand territory, income, power, etc.? What about the people who would not welcome a simpler lifestyle? What about the folks who already live in a manner somewhat like what I describe and would actually prefer a more go-go lifestyle? Politically, what competitive party would adopt no growth (or negative growth) as a primary platform? Okay, the Green Party has done so, and hats-off to a courageous stance—attracting 0.2% of registered voters in the U.S. (although implementing instant runoff voting would unmask more true supporters). Business interest—which finances both political and advertising campaigns—would be hard-set against this folding-the-tents approach. There are all kinds of reasons why this future path has little chance of deliberate adoption.

Yet, from a physical point of view, I feel very strongly that we should ease pressure on the system and free up resources to make a more viable, sustainable, long term plan. That’s the first necessary condition to meet: a future compatible with physical and resource constraints. I know from personal experience that it’s possible to cut energy use substantially and still be a scientist doing real research. Whether this is possible to maintain on a societal scale, I am not able to say.

One key point about reducing demand is that it becomes far easier to accomplish a transition to alternative energy if we ratchet down the target level. Many posts that exposed shortcomings of wind, battery storage at a national or personal level, etc. were predicated on maintaining our current scale. Reduce the scale by a goodly factor and suddenly an alternative energy future is vastly more feasible.  I am not going to be specific about a technology prescription that accompanies this future, but decentralized resources fit most naturally.  So solar and wind do well (and other backyard-compatible approaches, as described in the alternative matrix).  Self-sufficiency—at least at a community level—is most attractive to me in this “vision.”

But if a physically viable future is fundamentally incompatible with human nature, we may be fated to boom and bust cycles. To say this is to proclaim that humans are incapable of achieving the feat called “sustainability”—a disappointing shame, if true. We’ve seen civilizations boom and bust repeatedly through history, but the civilizations were always somewhat isolated, preventing the busts from being global. This time, more is at stake in a bust. Frustratingly, I know there is a way for us to do better. I hope we find ourselves to be capable of taming our expectations and desires and moving in a smart direction.

A Values Shift

So if we want to guarantee our ability to cope with physical constraints, we increase our chances of success if we change our values first. Today, we admire the individual who rises to the top of the corporate ladder—owning mansions and yachts and a business empire. What if our values shifted so that we considered such extravagance to be immoral? Today, we esteem the premier status of the frequent flyer racking up 100,000 miles each year. What if we considered this level of travel inexcusable? No red carpet for you! You must board the plane through a gauntlet of passengers swatting at you with boarding passes! Presently, we feel that eating meat at every meal means we’ve earned a desired status in the world. But what if it was considered indulgent to do so, unless you or your immediate community raised the livestock yourselves. Today, driving solo at freeway speeds is seen as an inalienable right and a reflection of our freedom. What if the prevailing attitude was that such activities on a routine basis were wasteful and selfish? Rearing families of two children is currently considered to be a responsible, replacement practice. If replacement is ultimately understood to be too taxing, we may come to value numbers like zero or one more than we do two. Consider the leisure activities of jet skiing, motorcycling, or snowmobiling and compare to kayaking, mountain-biking or cross-country skiing. Now imagine that the former activities are not considered to be responsible ways to enjoy yourself in nature.

Sure, some people have similar sets of values already today. We have names for such people. Surely I’m not suggesting that a world filled with “those people” would be a better place? Well, if the only way to assure that we do not overshoot and collapse is by adopting less obtrusive behaviors, then I would rather those behaviors stem from within as part of a values system than be imposed on us by some authority—even if said authority has our best interests at heart. The latter situation is unstable, albeit often effective.

Along the same vein, I initially wrote this post as a set of rules that, if adopted, may put us on a sustainable path. Then I realized that if I were a reader confronted with a list of rules for how I should modify my behaviors, I would likely chafe at being told what I should do, and dismiss the “rules.” It’s much better to set out the goals and the rationale, and let people invent for themselves ways in which they can meet those goals if they decide that the rationale is desirable. In this way, the responses become personal ones, bringing with them a vested interest in seeing them succeed. In posts to follow, I will outline some of the adjustments I have made that may serve to seed ideas for others: suggesting rather than bossing. I recognize that I’m falling into the classic mind-trap: if everyone would just behave like me, the world would be a fine place.

Worth a Try?

If we alter our values and behaviors, only later to develop technologies and solutions that obviate the need to maintain such a lifestyle, then fine: get on with the new ways—to the extent that the proposals are sound. A population sharing the new value set will be better able to judge the sustainable nature of some new direction (fusion, or what have you). Perhaps the very act of easing off the pressures on society are the thing that frees us up to find better ways or technologies. And as long as I’m dreaming—more time devoted to living well may also mean a better-educated, better-read, critically-thinking society; less obsessed with maintaining a frantic pace of life.  Taking the growth imperative out of life will shift focus to content rather than profit. News will be about substance and informed debate rather than about entertainment for bucks. We could build on the better angels of our nature, rather than appealing to base instincts like greed.

And in the end, what would be the downside of slowing down for a bit? The natural world will obviously thank us. We may be more fulfilled as humans because we are operating in a community-oriented mode harnessing traits of the tribal crucible in which we evolved. As long as we do not lose valuable knowledge/lessons in the process (as we risk doing in a collapse scenario), what is the harm?

When the World Trade Towers were attacked on September 11, 2001, I was at a technical conference on Maui. Air travel stopped for the next several days, silencing the skies. Only then was I aware of the absence of the drone that had been a companion of normal life. I felt stuck, and no one knew what might happen next. But pretty soon, people realized there was nothing to be done, and lived in the moment. I spent a lot of time breathing through a snorkel. The pace instantly slowed, and this brought with it a few perks.

A Conservative Road

The picture of the world I paint here is unfamiliar, and quite frankly, unlikely. But my motivation is to devise a strategy that is not a game of chicken between growth and finite resources. I advocate swerving away — the sooner the better: what have I got to prove? Otherwise we are destined to lose the fight with nature. My suggestions may not represent an optimal response, but the benefit is that it’s an approach to life that I believe is far more likely to succeed than is the current path of trying to maintain business as usual. In that sense, the plan is a conservative one. Pulling back on the throttle gives us the opportunity to take stock, collectively assess what a viable future looks like, and plot some sensible course. It’s a plea to use our big brains rather than enslaving ourselves to a trajectory out of our control.

As pointed out in the post on sustainability, while I focus most of my attention on energy as a tangible physical concept, our challenges extend far beyond energy into long-term maintenance of fisheries, forests, soil, fresh water, climate stability, and other vital natural services that we may not yet appreciate.

When we reflect on the fact that we are at a special place in history approaching the peak rate of our one-time fossil fuel inheritance, it is hard to swallow overconfident statements about how our amazing ingenuity will propel us into a spectacular high-tech future beyond our dreams. The narrative is an attractive one, I’ll admit. The fact that we cannot plot an assured map along this route even for the rest of this century could either tell us that we lack faith, lack foresight, lack imagination, or that perhaps we should call for a timeout and regroup. I’m gonna vote for the timeout. But enough of us need to heed the call to make it effective. Future posts will explore specific ways in which we might collectively give our future a better chance at a fulfilling life.

A Better Future; More or Less

I’ll leave with a montage to illustrate why the slower world I describe may in fact be more fulfilling than the current scheme: emphasizing the good of one and the bad of another. One could naturally make up an inverse set. If you’re looking for utopia, you’ve come to the wrong shop — sorry.
Expect More:

Reading; story-telling; gardening; connection with nature; community; fishing; whittling; lemonade; sitting on the front porch; cross-breezes; seasonal adjustment; blankets; wool socks; sweaters; connection to sunrise/sunset; local governance; mom & pop stores; crafts; goats and chickens; bicycles; train rides; pies cooling on the sill; music; singing and playing musical instruments; rain catchment; canning; craftsmanship; repair; durable goods.

Expect Less:

Waiting for airplanes; commuting; abstract/meaningless jobs; Wal-Mart; fast food; strip malls; four-car families; climate change; dominance of banks; capital gains; disposable junk; junk mail; species extinction; minibar charges; traffic jams; identity theft; freeway noise; advertisements; consumerism; faddish gizmos; cheap plastic crap; outsourcing; industrial effluent; credit card debt.

Tom Murphy is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. He currently leads a project to test General Relativity by bouncing laser pulses off of the reflectors left on the Moon by the Apollo astronauts. Murphy is eager to get people thinking about the quantitatively convincing case that our pursuit of an ever-bigger scale of life faces gigantic challenges and carries significant risks. His blog is called “Do the Math.”

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