Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Rabbit Hole in the Desert

In a pair of recent posts, "Galactic Scale Energy" and "Can Economic Growth Last?," physicist Tom Murphy asserts that, on a finite planet, unconstrained growth, whether it be growth in energy use or economics, is a doomed proposition. Because it comes from the standpoint of physics, his thinking is not subject to the fuzzy thinking of politics or imaginary sciences like economics, it is rooted in precisely what can be done and for how long before the realities of our physical world destroy our fanciful dreams.

With that in mind, follow me down the rabbit hole as I examine the plain as day facts that will inevitably inform our futures. First, we know with dead certainty that the route we are now taking is suicidal, given Tom's analysis. There are really only two questions: Do we fight this insanity with every option available, or do we wait for it to sort itself out?

Each of these can be broken down into smaller subsets. The first requires one to agree as to what we are fighting for. Ideally, we would be fighting for the most sustainable outcome. If we are merely substituting slow growth, and hence planetary destruction, then we are obviously still on the unwanted path. So, given entropy and the gradual dissipation of all metals upon which industrial civilization is based, it would seem that following a path of "sustainable" industrial civilization is a non-starter. The next lower level of "civilization" would be pre-industrial agricultural civilization. As Jared Diamond has shown, this level of civilization is as damaging as industrial civilization, with the dubious distinction of taking longer to destroy its environs. Look at the Middle East; where forests once grew, we see desert. Listen to Plato, who laments that the forests of Greece were disappearing rapidly due to population growth. Do we want to turn every corner of the earth into desert? That leaves pre-agricultural "civilization." I reluctantly use that term because, like Jensen, I adhere to the definition of civilization as an entity that must import resources to survive. Pre-agricultural societies did not import resources. They lived in the environment.

So, we need to return to a pre-agricultural society. Is it possible? Well, should we fail to try, the only question is will there be any of the human species left to return to that level of existence. In other words, we essentially can let things play out from whatever starting point we choose.

We can let it play out from here and simply not try, and that will lead to spectacular human tragedy in the form of privation, starvation, war, disease, and planetary destruction.

We could consciously go back to an agricultural civilization and slowly suck the life out of the planet, creating deserts as we go, going through famine after famine, until we are again herding goats in a hardpan desert beneath a scorching sun.

Or, we could consciously shoot for a pre-agricultural society based on planetary and other species' needs using what little cheap energy we have left to build and train that society based on local conditions and projected climate change patterns, with an eye toward maximum adaptability, redundancy, and fairness. This route by no means suggests that we are out to save everyone. That will not be possible. It means that we are out to save the biome known as planet earth where many thousands and millions of species are at our mercy.

We will end up at a point where all the extraction based technology is gone. That is certain. The only question is, "do we want to do this the easy way, or the hard way?"

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