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"We have no idea what to do next."
May 5, 2011 7:19 AM   Subscribe

"All of us in the environment movement, in other words – whether we propose accomodation, radical downsizing or collapse – are lost." Is human civilization hitting the sustainability wall? If so, the environmental movement seems blocked about what to do about it, broods George Monbiot. Nobody likes a "steady state economy", and the worse things get, the harder that option is to achieve. Plus green contradictions might vitiate effective action: "the same worldview tells us that we must reduce emissions, defend our landscapes and resist both the state and big business. The four objectives are at odds."

Interestingly, Monbiot also thinks we have too much fuel. Not enough to keep us going forever, but enough to keep humanity from taking big steps to anticipate the eventual peak. Which is bad: "Collapse will come one day, but not before we have pulled everything else down with us." Innovations are coming too late. Is this right? If so, what's the plan? Make better stories? "None of us yet has a convincing account of how humanity can get out of this mess. None of our chosen solutions break the atomising, planet-wrecking project."
posted by doctornemo (137 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting. I'm not as pessimistic, though. I think that, you know, kids who grow up hearing about the environment are going to be more likely to worry about it as they grow up. Are kids still being told about it, though? I mean back when I was a kid there was captain planet so it may just be an issue of cohort replacement.
posted by delmoi at 7:31 AM on May 5, 2011


I was going to say this strikes me as the kind of intellectual thought that often exists in a bubble divorced from the much dumber realities of what goes on in development but actually those Monbiot pieces are pretty good
posted by the mad poster! at 7:31 AM on May 5, 2011


No civilization can survive without valuing rational thought and science. If it wasn't ecology to bring us down, it would be energy depletion, aliens, nuclear war, whatever. We can only last as long as no species-wide problem whatsoever shows up.

Most people will still be fighting about gays, god or weed when the last light goes out.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 7:32 AM on May 5, 2011 [16 favorites]


A convincing narrative I heard at (I believe) Greenbuild about five years ago was convenience. We simply don't have the capacity as humans to be actively engaged in every aspect of our lives. We buy products, walk to the store, brush our teeth on autopilot. Perhaps we make an initial decision based on research, but we then must turn our attention elsewhere.

The result is that as an aggregate, change comes because the new way of doing things is more convenient. In my opinion, too many narratives of sustainability either ignore this fact, or almost too gleefully anticipate human disasters which make our inattention to climate matters more inconvenient than dealing with them directly.

Likely that is why I grasp at a combination of regulatory action and technology to help guide us through this. Properly implemented, a regulatory body can take the time and attention on an ongoing basis to at least remove the realm of the worst decisions, as well as address the tragedy of the commons. Technology has been continually moving towards increased convenience of sustainable decisions for some time. Imagine if electronics energy consumption had scaled with processing power over the last thirty years, and then see where we actually are, an amazing step of progress.
posted by meinvt at 7:33 AM on May 5, 2011 [13 favorites]


From the article: Those promoting windfarms downplay the landscape impacts.

If we are confronted with the difference between watching the sunset over a landscape dotted with wind turbines versus watching the sunset over an irradiated landscape in which no persons may inhabit, nor vegetables may be grown nor livestock may be raised (as in, say, the areas around Chernobyl or Fukushima), the I think pretty much everyone would agree that the windmills are the better option. As long as everyone is informed and educated by entities other than capitalist interests who seek to continue the very profitable business of nuclear power.

Put another way, "landscape impacts" ain't nuthin' compared to "thyroid cancer".
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:35 AM on May 5, 2011 [12 favorites]


I wish someone would put together an online puzzle like the NYT Times did with You Fix the Budget to give all the current power needs, all the possible sources, and the costs and total availability of each source - it might actually help clarify the range of realistic options (i.e. wind and solar alone can't do it).
posted by twsf at 7:35 AM on May 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


Oops. "the I think" = "then I think".
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:36 AM on May 5, 2011


Interesting. I'm not as pessimistic, though. I think that, you know, kids who grow up hearing about the environment are going to be more likely to worry about it as they grow up. Are kids still being told about it, though?

I somehow suspect that the quality of conversation about the environment at least in terms of the U.S. had really dropped in the previous decade. I mean, when Al Gore was picked as a vice-presidential candidate he was a known environmentalist

That said I think even as kids they bring huge issues to our attention like global warming, renewable energy alternatives, greenhouse effect, water usage and I wish they paid more attention to things where people had a bit more agency like like designing and choosing sustainable products
posted by the mad poster! at 7:38 AM on May 5, 2011


Convenience? I generally find public transit more convenient than the huge hassle of keeping a car. It is very difficult to get people to understand how that is. Trust me, it's absolutely true! Of course, it requires available public transportation.

Landscapes? As had been said on Metafilter and elsewhere, windmills are beautiful. Fields of modern turbines are amazing. Yes, it's different than before! Guess what? Everything is different now, than it was, before. That's why we call it "before".
posted by Goofyy at 7:40 AM on May 5, 2011 [10 favorites]


This article makes a very strong argument, and I do think that the future of the human race is very much in doubt. However I don't worry about it that much because I don't think that I personally am going to live long enough to see the collapse. However, if I were to prescribe a treatment for this problem, it would require the following steps:
1. World government (not just the UN debating society). Only a true world government can give global solutions to global problems.
2. Serious global population control. The human population of the world is already more than the amount of people who can be comfortably supported by the world's resources, and while I am not advocating mass murder, I do believe that people should serious have fewer children, so that the world's population can be more appropriate in the future.
3. Global standards for environmentally sound industry and agriculture, minimum wages, trade agreements, currency, and other basic economic factors.
4. A phasing out of the burning of fossil fuels. Petroleum should be reserved for the petrochemical industry.

While that is not a complete list, I do think that with those items in place, it would be possible to create an environmentally sustainable world. Of course, I don't expect any of these things to happen. The human race is just not that well organized. As CautionToThe Wind noted above, we will still be fighting over gays, god, or weed (and other unnecessary conflicts) when the lights go out.
posted by grizzled at 7:44 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


The problem, Flapjax, is that the choice between radioactive vistas and windfarm vistas may be too optimistic--it may the choice between having both radioactive vistas and vistas interrupted by miles and miles of massive wind towers, and simply not existing at all. I think that's what Monbiot may be getting at. There may be no pretty acceptable options, even.
posted by Zalzidrax at 7:44 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


People always think they can move elsewhere because that's what hunter-gatherers do.

Nobody wants to hear it. Not just about SUVs and McMansions, but about re-directing systems of evaluation. More is always better. Not just profits but increase in profits. You have a God-given "right" to have as many kids as you please.

And if you say otherwise, well, you're a genocidal lunatic and someone raises the specter of eugenics — defenestration of rational thought at that point. We're in a life raft a couple hundred miles from shore and, in the dead of night, that one guy used up half our fresh water washing his feet. How dare we suggest conservation then, it wouldn't be fair. Showers for everyone!

Time for the Big Shrug, because I think our species is too collectively stupid to survive at much past the level of scratching around in the dirt and having villages with a lot of sick, dead kids buried out back.
posted by adipocere at 7:45 AM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Those of us who support renewables find ourselves in a difficult position: demanding the industrialisation of the countryside,

You're several hundred years too late to complain about that. The lazy English failure to distinguish between agriculture and nature lets us believe that our heavily managed landscape is somehow an unchangeable essence. Nature didn't intend endless fields of rapeseed or hundreds of km of drainage dykes, we have them and more, because otherwise our civilization would be impossible.
posted by Jehan at 7:47 AM on May 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


...it may the choice between having both radioactive vistas and vistas interrupted by miles and miles of massive wind towers, and simply not existing at all. I think that's what Monbiot may be getting at. There may be no pretty acceptable options, even.

Hmm... well, if that's what he means, he should just come out and say it. Although the whole essay is kind of a big question mark, so we probably shouldn't expect anything so clear, I reckon.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:48 AM on May 5, 2011


> Time for the Big Shrug, because I think our species is too collectively stupid to survive at
> much past the level of scratching around in the dirt and having villages with a lot of sick,
> dead kids buried out back.

Not so much stupid, I think, as with intelligence almost infinitesimally subdivided into billions of teeny-tiny units and, lacking ESP, each very largely isolated even from its nearest neighbors and totally isolated from the rest. It's like hoping all the bacteria on an elephant's skin will get together and collectively make rational, fair, and democratic decisions about where they should steer their elephant.
posted by jfuller at 7:55 AM on May 5, 2011 [7 favorites]


No civilization can survive without valuing rational thought and science.

Except for all the civilizations that grew up before science was invented, apparently?
posted by Electrius at 7:57 AM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


"It's the Demographics, stupid"--Tommy Malthus
posted by Postroad at 8:01 AM on May 5, 2011


The human population of the world is already more than the amount of people who can be comfortably supported by the world's resources

This is kind of seems like the elephant in the room with most sustainability discussions, and this article doesn't really touch on it. How can sustainability be a real possibility when there are too many people even if resources are used the most efficient way possible?

I am curious what others think about this idea, it really doesn't seem to get the attention it deserves.
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 8:01 AM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Except for all the civilizations that grew up before science was invented, apparently?

Yeah, but, look! They're all dead! Hyuk hyuk!

yeah, OK, I'm just being silly now. But this guy Monbiot, I gotta say, he's bringing it out. Cause I don't trust him anymore.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:01 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Nobody wants to hear it. Not just about SUVs and McMansions, but about re-directing systems of evaluation. More is always better. Not just profits but increase in profits. You have a God-given "right" to have as many kids as you please.

On a tangent -- there's a small environmental movement amongst Christians I've heard about, which has managed to use Scripture to make their case. There's a passage in the Bible where God charges mankind with being "Stewards" of the Earth, and they're playing that up.

I say that if it gets people on board with conservation, more power to them.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:01 AM on May 5, 2011


Except for all the civilizations that grew up before science was invented, apparently?
posted by Electrius at 4:57 PM on May 5 [+] [!]


Dude, even ants map their environment. There is no civilization before science.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 8:03 AM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


You're several hundred years too late to complain about that. The lazy English failure to distinguish between agriculture and nature lets us believe that our heavily managed landscape is somehow an unchangeable essence.

Exactly. Certainly nowhere in Europe is "natural" landscape. All those nice hedgerows in the English countryside are un-natural, but then England hasn't had an untouched landscape since recorded history began. We should be honest and utilitarian and admit that we like the English countryside for aesthetic reasons (perfectly legit) rather than pretending that a scattering of woods that have been coppiced for centuries and open land that has been managed for agriculture and game for millennia is untouched.
posted by atrazine at 8:06 AM on May 5, 2011


> How can sustainability be a real possibility when there are too many people even if
> resources are used the most efficient way possible?

Also, spare me from a world in which all the resources are used in the most efficient way possible. What a godawful factory farm that would be.
posted by jfuller at 8:07 AM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is kind of seems like the elephant in the room with most sustainability discussions, and this article doesn't really touch on it. How can sustainability be a real possibility when there are too many people even if resources are used the most efficient way possible?

Borders, sadly. Although atmospheric and radioactive pollution will ignore borders, people can be contained. It's an horrific thought, but I don't expect the countries with adequate supplies of food and water (and whatever else) will be able to do much if things become tight for others.
posted by Jehan at 8:10 AM on May 5, 2011


So it is first class or no class?
posted by CautionToTheWind at 8:10 AM on May 5, 2011


> I don't expect the countries with adequate supplies of food and water (and whatever else)
> will be able to do much if things become tight for others.

If North Korea is any omen, bullseye.
posted by jfuller at 8:17 AM on May 5, 2011


Certainly nowhere in Europe is "natural" landscape. All those nice hedgerows in the English countryside are un-natural, but then England hasn't had an untouched landscape since recorded history began.

Neither has the US -- humans moved in as the iceage retreated, and have been intensively managing the landscape ever since, albeit in very different ways than the UK or Europe.
posted by Forktine at 8:20 AM on May 5, 2011


So it is first class or no class?

The folks with lifeboats aren't extending their oars to help you in, no.
posted by Jehan at 8:22 AM on May 5, 2011


Here's the issue - we can feed, clothe and shelter everyone if we manage things well. The problem is getting people to agree on a top-down management plan for the entire species.

We can grow enough food, cotton and tress for houses, medicine, diet and clothing. We can provide enough power to keep everyone warm. But we need to have the will to plan. To say 'no' to people. We don't have that right now.

Like it or not, the entire species needs to be on the same page here and I don't see that happening without some pretty significant violence, which might be of sufficient severity to make the point moot. We need a rational, reasonable global plan that turns our cities and towns into more efficient hives that allow us to do what we want to do personally without wrecking the place for everyone else. I feel like too many people are fighting for the right to trash the place, use more than their reasonable share and exploit other people. We can't keep doing this and maintain our technological and social progress.

I don't think we're going to have an Easter Island moment, but a crash of some kind will happen if we don't do something about out resource usage.
posted by Fuka at 8:24 AM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


twsf, have you seen Fate of the World? Interesting game.
posted by doctornemo at 8:25 AM on May 5, 2011


Certainly nowhere in Europe is "natural" landscape.

Well, to be scrupulously accurate, the Białowieża Forest in Poland and Belarus is. Not completely untouched, but pretty damn near.

However, it's just one sliver of something that used to cover the whole continent, so hey.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:25 AM on May 5, 2011


Certainly nowhere in Europe is "natural" landscape.

The Białowieża Forest, maybe.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 8:26 AM on May 5, 2011


The four objectives are not at odds
posted by ReWayne at 8:27 AM on May 5, 2011


If we are confronted with the difference between watching the sunset over a landscape dotted with wind turbines versus watching the sunset over an irradiated landscape in which no persons may inhabit, nor vegetables may be grown nor livestock may be raised (as in, say, the areas around Chernobyl or Fukushima), the I think pretty much everyone would agree that the windmills are the better option.

I'm on my phone, so it's difficult to quickly gather the links I want, but you might want to YouTube up some vids of "wind turbine" + "shadow flicker" or "strobe effect". There is definitely a radius around a turbine in which you do nit want to live --- they can be very loud. (Personally, I don't think they're bad looking from a distance.)

One may say, well, so what? What's a little noise pollution compared to the air pollution or radiation you get living near a fossil fuel or nuke plant? While it's true that any particular turbine may cause fewer eternalizes than a traditional power plant, you don't want one in your backyard. But lots and lots and lots if them have to go in somebody's back yard for this to work, because you need thousands of turbines to replace one traditional power plant. They will take up a far from trivial amount of space....or if they don't, if you site them far from where people live (which is .....in nature reserves? Deserts?) their power lines will.

I guess all i'm saying is, there are costs to wind that go far beyond mere aesthetics. (there are, of course, costs to everything.) also that everybody should be forced to play simcity 3000 for several hours before debating energy use issues.
posted by Diablevert at 8:28 AM on May 5, 2011


Our stock of counterexamples has been woefully overexploited.
posted by DaDaDaDave at 8:29 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


George Moonibot has wasted his entire life worrying about doom and gloom. Must be terrible to live with that level of anxiety. I guess it sells his books and pays his bills.
posted by humanfont at 8:30 AM on May 5, 2011


Say more, ReWayne? I'd love to hear ways out of Monbiot's take.
posted by doctornemo at 8:30 AM on May 5, 2011


> The four objectives are not at odds

Not completely, no. A human population collapse would just about cover them all.
posted by jfuller at 8:33 AM on May 5, 2011


John Michael Greer just put up a blog post in this same vein. Summary:

The collective decision has already been made (like 30+ years ago): we are going to keep relying on and using fossil fuels until we run out it becomes uneconomical to do so despite the consequences.

That doesn't mean we're completely fucked though. We don't know exactly what those consequences will be. And we still have individual agency, and plenty of incentive to put it to use.

Like the first to get into the lifeboats on a (albeit slowly) sinking ship, we know that the ocean is an unforgiving environment for such a small craft and that it will be cold, windy and we might not even make it if we are too far from land. But we also know that it's a better plan than sitting in the galley bar having ourselves a merry time insisting that the ship couldn't possibly sink, reacting only when the water soaks our feet and the lifeboats are all long gone.
posted by symbollocks at 8:34 AM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Forktine :Neither has the US -- humans moved in as the iceage retreated, and have been intensively managing the landscape ever since, albeit in very different ways than the UK or Europe.

Though true, you somewhat twist the reality of the situation somewhat. Yes, humans have had a presence in North America (at least) since the last ice age ended; But in the Northern US and most of Canada, you have vast tracts of something as close to "virgin" forest as exists on this planet.

I would also point out that the "industrialisation of the countryside" required to support renewables already exists; Mountain ridges good for wind turbines also make great spots for radio towers, and 50+ years before that, fire towers. The roads already exist, the power corridors may need a major upgrade but already exists, we just need to bring in the wind turbines.

As for hydro, river-hydro counts as all but dead, and tidal hydro tends to require tides, which requires oceans, which almost without exception means "offshore in densely populated areas" (ie, no wilderness to damage there).

Solar installations work best in the middle of the frickin' desert. 'Nuff said.


We definitely need to take care not to lose sight of the real goal in shifting to renewables; But flapjax at midnite has it spot-on, a wind turbine causes a hell of a lot less damage than a coal plant.
posted by pla at 8:36 AM on May 5, 2011


The problem seems to be essentially that there are limited enough resources that the whole world can't possibly enjoy the same standard of living that the first world enjoys without a major technological leap forward.

Thus we have some individuals that seem to feel that spending money on technology thereby buying ourselves out of the problem is the solution. The feeling is that we are just around the corner from a post-scarcity economy in which basic human wants and needs (food, energy, housing) are plentiful and easy to provide.

Another viewpoint is that we need to slow our economic development to the point where the economy neither grows nor contracts. Of course that ignores the fact that the vast majority of the developing world wants the sort of cool toys we have in the first world. If they all consume resources at a USA/Western Europe pace we are in for some problems.

There is also the thought that as long as the US and other first world nations maintain their comparative edge over the developing world we can in effect weather the challenges much better than developing economies. The US has plenty of room, Western Europe can spend a huge amount on flood prevention, problems that effect Bangladesh and SE Asia and Africa are those countries problems.

Honestly I'm not sure what the right strategy is moving forward, hoping for a technological revolution that gets us out of a jam seems to the work of science fiction, hoping for a steady state economy seems to be ignoring human foibles and the screw you I've got mine seems to be unnecessarily heartless and cruel.

If I had to be wager a bet I figure we'll go down the third path for 50 years or so and eventually the technology will get us out of the pit we've dug for ourselves. It will be interesting to see if we can avoid resource wars escalating into global nuclear holocaust.
posted by vuron at 8:37 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Negligent, hyper-polluting, monopolistic businesses have put us where we are with impunity or with government backing (see Chevron in Ecuador). How is resisting and dismantling this apparatus at odds with reducing emissions and defending our landscapes?
posted by ReWayne at 8:38 AM on May 5, 2011


Solutions here seem to fall into two camps.

First, innovation on two fronts, "a combination of regulatory action and technology" (meinvt)

Second, HG Wells-level planetary organization, along the lines of world government doing population control, standards, and reserving fossil fuels (grizzled), population control (Antidisestablishmentarianist) or "a top-down management plan for the entire species" (fuka).
posted by doctornemo at 8:40 AM on May 5, 2011


And if you say otherwise, well, you're a genocidal lunatic and someone raises the specter of eugenics — defenestration of rational thought at that point.

...

Time for the Big Shrug, because I think our species is too collectively stupid to survive at much past the level of scratching around in the dirt


Indeed, only the irrational could doubt your good intentions.

It would help me at least if mefi's population control fascists could put a little more space between their goal of reduced population and their utter contempt and disgust for their fellow man.
posted by Wood at 8:41 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I wish the next 50 years were made into a movie that premiered tomorrow.
posted by 3FLryan at 8:41 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


A human population collapse would just about cover them all.

I know its currently in vogue to predict apocalypses and 2012's and such, but I refuse the defeatist attitude of "the only way to solve our problems is if everything and everyone is wiped off the planet" as an easy way out. Just like people who deny we have a problem or people who are overly-optimistic about a miracle technological solution are taking the easy way out.
posted by ReWayne at 8:43 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


vuron, your dark vision reminds me of Jehan's note about borders. More industrialized/ technologically advanced nations will increasingly hold on to what they can. Like the Shell Oil "scramble" scenario.

I share your skepticism about tech and organization, which is one reason I posted this thread in the first place.
posted by doctornemo at 8:43 AM on May 5, 2011


I wish the next 50 years were made into a movie that premiered tomorrow.

Coming soon to a theatre near enough you to not require use of fossil fuels1 And projected by a solar powered projector, in a theatre air-conditioned by wind power!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:45 AM on May 5, 2011


Here's the issue - we can feed, clothe and shelter everyone if we manage things well. The problem is getting people to agree on a top-down management plan for the entire species.

Certainly nowhere in Europe is "natural" landscape.

Discussions of sustainability always revolve around reduction of harm. Human activity is inherently damaging, and the best we can hope is to perhaps reduce our rate of harm to below the biosphere's rate of recovery.

What if we were to take another view: through sustained work we can actually make the planet more habitable. When taking a train through the alps I noticed the slopes and valleys were covered with little walls made of piled limestone. Some of these walls were new. Some of them were overgrown, some were no longer visible. I was informed that farmers had been making these for centuries. Without them the steep Karst hillsides would be as barren as the moon. Because of them farming was possible, and forests had overtaken what was once the colonized farmland.

The planet is full of wasteland waiting to be recovered. We could build solar farms and greenhouses in the deserts. At the edges we could build and expand oases. We could harvest the plastic from the pacific gyre and convert it back to fuel, or recycle it into artificial islands on which people can live.

In short we have plenty of people with no place to live and nothing to do, plenty of dead lands to be restored, and plenty of concentrated wealth passing idly through a small circle of hands. So rather than wondering how we can apply on the brakes, professional environmentalists should try to plan and sell habitat-expansion projects.
posted by clarknova at 8:47 AM on May 5, 2011 [9 favorites]


Thanks for the quick reply, ReWayne. I don't know if you had the chance to read either of th Monbiot articles I linked to, but he offers one answer to your excellent question ("How is resisting and dismantling this apparatus at odds with reducing emissions and defending our landscapes?"). Namely, either humanity deindustrializes rapidly and at a massive scale (which looks both unpopular or unlikely) or we need to build up infrastructure for alternative energy sources (which hits landscapes, and emissions for the medium term).
posted by doctornemo at 8:47 AM on May 5, 2011


Oh, a utopia! I was kind of hoping for Fallout. Oh well, utopia is comfortable, I guess.
posted by 3FLryan at 8:47 AM on May 5, 2011


Thanks for the hopeful view, clarknova. It recalls pla's observation about relatively unpopulated lands in North America. Do you think recycling can work as an organizing meme these days?
posted by doctornemo at 8:54 AM on May 5, 2011


The collective decision has already been made (like 30+ years ago): we are going to keep relying on and using fossil fuels until we run out it becomes uneconomical to do so despite the consequences.

But a collective decision hasn't been made; there is no "collective" mechanism for major decisions about society. There is an ineffective, corrupt mechanism for decisions about small, immediate but nebulous issues - should we raise taxes? should we ban the gays? - but even that doesn't actually bring about the desired action, as you can see by comparing what most people want in terms of social services and taxes and Guantanamo and so on with what politicians actually do.

What's more, this business of "world government could save us all" requires some mechanism for creating a world government that isn't just the US oligarchy writ large. How precisely could we possibly, possibly get a world government that can represent the needs of, say, the vast peasant and indigenous populations in South America? Individual South American countries can only manage this when there are huge popular movements that can fight off both the local oligarchy and the US.

If we were able to get a powerful world government, it would almost certainly be composed of the same rapacious elites who got us into this mess in the first place. At best, we'd have environmental fascism, where all of the regular people lived tightly controlled lives working "for the good of the planet" while the elites continued on in the same old comfortable lives.

The anarcho-primitivist take on this - which seems plausible but horrible - is that there simply isn't a way to create an accountable representative regulatory state, that a state powerful enough to limit corporations and institute strict environmental policy would never have the will to do those things. So the best we can hope for is collapse and significant die-off quickly enough that the planet is still somewhat habitable for humans. The more honest among anarcho-primitivists admit that this means that anyone socially, economically or medically vulnerable would die in the inevitable war/chaos/starvation/lack-of-medical-care, and that this means poor and brown people, mostly. Derrick Jensen, whose work I do not like, has some kind of godawful medical condition and has at least had the honesty to say that the future he predicts means that people in his situation will die.

I'm predicting fascism, myself - just enough regulation and development to keep the top 5% in comfort, strip-mining the planet as much as possible, more military and more policing as the rest of us lose our comforts, and the wily adaptability of capitalism being used to keep things cozy for the top few. Capitalism is a great system, provided that you don't mind the human cost.
posted by Frowner at 9:07 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


jfuller : Also, spare me from a world in which all the resources are used in the most efficient way possible. What a godawful factory farm that would be.

I have nothing against wasting resources you can afford to waste. Where I live, we have abundant potable surface water, haven't depleted our aquifers, and I don't feel the least bit bad about taking nice long showers.

That said, I think we need to make it never the default to waste resources. You should always have to do so entirely conscious of your decision and its impact. Simple example, electric lighting: If you work as an artist (of visual-oriented media) and absolutely need high-quality interior lighting, go ahead and spark up those 500W halogens; if you just want to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night without tripping over the dog, though, do you really need anything more than a 7W compact fluorescent?



Wood : It would help me at least if mefi's population control fascists could put a little more space between their goal of reduced population and their utter contempt and disgust for their fellow man.

Aww, but why separate two good things? Do you take your Oreos apart? Remove the filling from a peanut-butter cup? Insist Mom not make apple pie on the 4th of July to take to the ballgame??? ;)
posted by pla at 9:11 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the hopeful view, clarknova. It recalls pla's observation about relatively unpopulated lands in North America. Do you think recycling can work as an organizing meme these days?

Well you just don't use the old buzzwords. The idea should be to market to capital. In the 90s we sold the tech bubble to the rich and proved that we could reinvigorate the economy with nothing more than a promise. In the 2000's we sold them the housing bubble and proved we could build a lot of unwanted crap. So we see they have the money, and they can be convinced to part with it if the scam is right. So they can be scammed into something real. Or sold honestly if they're a Soros, a Buffet, or a Gates. Just call it "reclamation development", "ease harvesting", or something other than what's considered failed. There are plenty of marketers for hire, and while not fabulously wealthy, many environmental NGOs have good money.
posted by clarknova at 9:12 AM on May 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


> I have nothing against wasting resources you can afford to waste.

I didn't say, or mean, wasting anything. Unless you count leaving it the fuck alone and not exploiting it efficiently for the benefit of seven billion people as "wasting." I don't.
posted by jfuller at 9:18 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


So apparently contempt and disgust are off the table. Then what attitude do you suggest toward the people who've been ridiculing environmentalism for the last two decades, choosing to believe that global warming is a liberal conspiracy invented by Al Gore (his second greatest achievement after the internet, har har), driving their Hummers 60 miles a day while living in 4,000 square foot houses... and now express offended bafflement, shock and amazement when 20 inches of rain falls out of the sky in a week and floods their housing development? I know these people have internet. I know they have libraries. I know they can access all the information that I can. So at some point I simply have to acknowledge that I can give my life evangelizing for the cause of saving the planet, or I can just say: OK, your call, guys. Do what you want. Because it's not really about saving the planet, is it? The planet will survive. It's about saving the people. It's about saving their children. If they don't care what kind of planet their children inherit, who am I to get in their way?
Note: Not really my actual views. It's just been a rough fucking week.
posted by crackingdes at 9:22 AM on May 5, 2011 [10 favorites]


The only thing that will change minds is epic disaster.

It's funny how much of the dialogue is about using green energy to maintain our current lifestyles. I guess it's hard to admit that suburbs, modern food production, and mass-scale transport are fundamentally unsustainable. Our love of them makes any other system unimaginable, apparently.

For that reason, I believe there's nothing that can be done to stop the system from collapsing. There may be a lot of oil left, but when the energy required to tap it approaches or exceeds the energy it yields, the brakes will come on pretty hard. And that point is not far away. That'll get us before greenhouse gases do.
posted by gonna get a dog at 9:22 AM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Will epic disaster really change minds? Did the recent gulf oil spill change minds? Or was that not epic? Are we talking, like, millions of people up and dying?

Just curious.
posted by 3FLryan at 9:25 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Our love of them makes any other system unimaginable, apparently.

As a very popular philosopher likes to point out, "The widespread belief in coming apocalypses shows that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism."
posted by clarknova at 9:27 AM on May 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


Will epic disaster really change minds? Did the recent gulf oil spill change minds? Or was that not epic? Are we talking, like, millions of people up and dying?

No specific predictions, but I have a feeling you'll know it when you see it.
posted by gonna get a dog at 9:30 AM on May 5, 2011


Will epic disaster really change minds? Did the recent gulf oil spill change minds? Or was that not epic? Are we talking, like, millions of people up and dying?

It changed minds, but it didn't dethrone vested interests. An enormous amount of money had to be pumped into a s very small group of idiots to get a very slim minority of the public to tentatively re-accept offshore drilling. Then a very large media system had to be employed to convince a larger minority that it was an acceptable topic of debate. That disappointment & betrayal you're feeling? The one about the promising leader and his promise of change? Great crowds are feeling it with you.
posted by clarknova at 9:33 AM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


I doubt it's the belief in apocalypses so much as the inundation of apocalyptic ideas since the beginning of recorded human history. We are so entertained by apocalyptic scenarios in our religions and popular media, we have come to expect destruction. The news gets boring if too many days go by without new footage of complete devastation. Not to fear, there is a new Hollywood blockbuster opening this weekend.
posted by perhapses at 9:33 AM on May 5, 2011


You can't have epic destruction before you have epic construction.
posted by gonna get a dog at 9:38 AM on May 5, 2011


While I tend to view the technology (post-scarcity here we come) and organizational (united federation of nations) solutions with a good deal of skepticism I don't necessarily agree that we are looking at a future made of post-apocalyptic deserts.

I understand the appeal of the Malthusian doomsday scenario where we overpopulate to the point where we create a widescale ecological collapse. However I'm not sure that we won't get to a point where population growth begins to slow down. Already we have seen that as per capita wealth increases population growth decreases. Much of the developed world is actually entering into negative population growth.

The question seems to be essentially can the developing world get to the point where the majority of their population achieves first world per capita income so that they will experience the same decline in birthrate? Furthermore can they achieve that goal without encroaching on the unspoiled habitats remaining on Earth?

I think food production can increase to the point where we can still feed the world. It might mean that we eat primarily soy and mycoprotein but there are a ton of efficiencies that can be achieved in our agricultural system. Hell even the majority of the world adopting strictly vegetarian diets would result in significant improvements. The problem is that increases in wealth tend to lead to increased demand for animal protein. Raising animal protein is incredibly inefficient.

Potable water is another major concern and will likely be the flashpoint for upcoming conflicts throughout much of the developing world. Desalinization can help to a degree but my understanding is that it's still a technology in it's infancy and the cost of producing potable water from the ocean is still extremely high in terms of energy costs.

And of course the fossil fuel economy is a big bugaboo, there are alternatives to fossil fuels but unfortunately the cost and portability of those solutions mean that they are relatively unappealing as long as we continue to have petrochemicals to exploit. As the relative cost for exploiting existing resources and developing new ones increases I think we will see increased use of alternative energy sources, I just hope that the cost for alternative fuels can be reduced to the point where they are competitive with coal.

Regulation is definitely going to be the key moving forward. We have to make sure that regulatory bodies incorporate the negative externalities associated with fossil fuels into the price of power generation. Otherwise oil sands and coal will continue to seem like good economic alternatives for continued economic growth and development.

Of course other things could also be done that would begin to reduce demand on a macro-level. Stuff like the home mortgage interest deduction is a big driving force for continued urban sprawl, if we change our tax incentives from accomodating growth in single family homes in the suburbs and exurbs to pushing development in high density developments we could substantially reduce our future energy demands.

I think expecting a technological genie or a world governance genie to save us is deluded but I do think that steps can be made on a local, regional and national level that can buy us more breathing room even if we can't get global buy-in.
posted by vuron at 9:39 AM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]




We know how to reduce the birthrate: industrialise, educate women and give them birth control. We've done that almost everywhere, and the global population looks like maxing out and starting to decline in this next century.

So can we survive the peak? Well, we have about five billion cows on the go, and a cow must eat about as much as a human, so we know roughly we can feed the maximum human population, right? (Cows generally eat corn, not grass) Add in pigs, other livestock, and people eating too much - come on, there's lots of capacity there.

There's lots of coal, and lots of sunlight, which we're getting better at harvesting, and nuclear for a century or so to tide us over the gaps.

Don't get me wrong, millions of people will die - as they have died, and they are dying now. But the species is just fine, and we will get through peak population. This is callous, and cruel, but I think - in the scheme of things - I'm right. Barring (big assumptions) global/nuclear war or the collapse of post-Enlightenment, industrial, scientific civilisation into theocracy, of course.
posted by alasdair at 9:51 AM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Feelings of disappointment and betrayal would require some positive expectation, which I certainly did not have. I am dispassionately musing on the ridiculousness of expecting / hoping for positive change. Then again, when it comes to human interaction, everything is ridiculous and absurd. Unintended consequences rule the day, for better and worse.
posted by 3FLryan at 9:52 AM on May 5, 2011


"there's a small environmental movement amongst Christians I've heard about, which has managed to use Scripture to make their case. There's a passage in the Bible where God charges mankind with being "Stewards" of the Earth"

Small? It's in the catechism of the Catholic Church and the Pope has issued encyclicals to that effect. Most mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S. have similar statements in their official teachings. Ellen Davis is a Protestant (Episcopal, I think?) theologian who's written several very accessible books and articles, some of them popular press, on the Christian commandment to environmentalism. "Christianity demands environmentalism" at the majority official teaching, even if it doesn't always penetrate that far into the pews yet. But it's a pretty big movement.

Not that I've yet convinced my priest to preach against SUVs from the pulpit (I'm working on him), but I know plenty of priests and ministers who have!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:53 AM on May 5, 2011


We know how to reduce the birthrate: industrialise, educate women and give them birth control.

Yeah, that.
posted by clarknova at 9:59 AM on May 5, 2011


We don't need to reduce the birth rate or any of that conservation stuff.

We need ENERGY to feed the technology which can enable us to produce more food than we ever need and take care of the other issues related to not having enough energy.

Energy comes from the sun and the best place to collect it is in geosynchronous orbit.

The technology required is about 30 - 40 years old.

What we lack is the WILL to actually solve our problems.
posted by mikelieman at 10:00 AM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


> George Moonibot has wasted his entire life worrying about doom and gloom. Must be terrible to live with that level of anxiety.

Not much of a refutation there. Are you claiming that he's factually wrong (and if so, it'd be nice if you had a reason why) or are you simply claiming that he's right but we shouldn't worry about it?

If he's right, rational people might think it's worth getting alarmed about, don't you think?

Certainly, much of what he has predicted over his life has come to pass. Do you have such a good track record?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:07 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


> We don't need to reduce the birth rate or any of that conservation stuff.

"that conservation stuff"

> We need ENERGY to feed the technology which can enable us to produce more food than we ever need and take care of the other issues related to not having enough energy.

How will more energy "take care of the other issues"? Can you give a real-world example of this?

Ever seen pictures of industrialized China recently? We did that to ourselves because of people who think, like you, "we don't need any of that conservation stuff" - and this was while energy was still plentiful.

Actually, I simply don't think you read the article at all, as you don't seem to refer to it or have been informed any way by his reasoned arguments. I think you just showed up and emitted some stock argument you have stored and then left.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:12 AM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


@meinvt: "A convincing narrative I heard at (I believe) Greenbuild about five years ago was convenience. We simply don't have the capacity as humans to be actively engaged in every aspect of our lives. We buy products, walk to the store, brush our teeth on autopilot. Perhaps we make an initial decision based on research, but we then must turn our attention elsewhere. The result is that as an aggregate, change comes because the new way of doing things is more convenient. In my opinion, too many narratives of sustainability either ignore this fact ..."

This is just a tiny example, but this is a debate my husband and I have almost constantly. We were the first in our neighborhood to put in an environmentally friendly native-plant and low-water-intervention yard, and we both want other people to follow suit. People ask us about it a lot because it's pretty and different. When my husband tries to convince people, he jumps right into how we're destroying the planet and we won't be here in 50 years if people keep using gasoline-chugging lawnmowers on petrochemical fertilized lawns and anyone who survives will have cancer. It's a real upper.

I start in with, "Yeah, we spend so much less TIME on it than a conventional lawn, and you would not believe how low the water bills are! I mean, we spend a weekend in the early spring cutting down last year's dead plants and putting them out for the city compost truck, but that's really about it; we don't really have to do any weeding once the planting has been established because weeds can't beat out the native plants, we don't have to water at all even in a drought, and it all basically takes care of itself. And kids LOVE it -- when I was little, I liked exploring the bushes so much more than playing on the lawn, and we have those gorgeous playing fields at the park right up the street when we want to play ball ... the rest of the time they can go on adventures in grass taller than they are. And we get SO many birds and butterflies; this flower -- isn't it gorgeous? -- draws monarch butterflies like crazy and there's more of it every year because it seeds itself."

Guess who gets more converts to organic and native gardening. People aren't convinced by vague arguments about the doom of the human race. They're convinced because it will save them time and money, provide aesthetic appeal and recreation. And we still have some "traditional" parts of the garden (spring bulbs, a veggie garden, etc.), so it's not "all-or-nothing" and it's not so overwhelming. And I talk about how we have time to devote to the veggie garden in the summer because we're not mowing all the time. Etc.

Similarly our local environmental types are having good luck redirecting public opinion on garbage pickup by pointing out that trash pickup is more expensive for the city (have to pay to get rid of the trash) while recycling provides at least a small revenue stream, as does city composting/yard waste -- so we shouldn't charge per-unit for composting or recycling (we charged for recycling until last year; composting still has a very small by-the-bag fee); we should charge by-the-bag for garbage instead. It makes economic sense since recycling and composting save the city considerable money, and thoughtless people who just throw everything in the trash cost the city money. Telling people "Do your recycling!" is like "eat your vegetables!" but "Your neighbors who don't recycle are costing YOU money in tax dollars; shouldn't they have to pay their share when they're unnecessarily creating extra cost?" is a message that gets people invested in the issue.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:22 AM on May 5, 2011 [10 favorites]


> I refuse the defeatist attitude of "the only way to solve our problems is if everything and
> everyone is wiped off the planet" as an easy way out.'

A population collapse isn't always as radical as that, and there's often a decent-sized relict population left over afterward. Most likely the best outcome of the ones that are realistically possible is that enough areas will experience a long term, relatively gentle population decline due to sub-replacement fertility (viz., Europe, Russia, South Korea, Japan) that really apocalyptic population collapse doesn't happen. I'll throw in the additional hope that the wealthier areas where sub-replacement fertility is already the case will, when the lack of young workers starts to bite, become a lot more open to immigration from areas of high fertility where apocalyptic scenarios are most likely.
posted by jfuller at 10:26 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


What issue would you like an analysis of?

Food? With energy, fertilizer is made using Nitrogen and Oxygen. With energy, you can produce as much food as you'd need to feed the population.
posted by mikelieman at 10:26 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Extending my comment, EVERY PROBLEM is solved when you have an unlimited supply of energy. China *does not have* an unlimited supply of energy.

We *could* have an unlimited supply of energy. All we need to do is build the infrastructure.

When we have all the electricty we need, without burning coal, we don't have pollution from burniing coal.
posted by mikelieman at 10:30 AM on May 5, 2011


What issue would you like an analysis of?

I'd like a demonstration of how putting satellites in geosynchronous orbit can (1) provide enough energy return on investment to sate the entire planet's projected appetite for energy in a couple of decades, and (2) how this could be ramped up in time to be ready before demand far, far exceeds supply (i.e., probably within twenty years).
posted by IjonTichy at 10:30 AM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Fewer people would make this problem a non-problem, unfortunately we have no real way of making that happen in the time frame of resource depletion.

I'll just be content knowing that something will be able to grow and thrive and evolve over the millenia in the polluted wasteland of suburbia when we're all gone.
posted by Slackermagee at 10:32 AM on May 5, 2011


EVERY PROBLEM is solved when you have an unlimited supply of energy.

Even if we accept that this statement is true, it's also meaningless, since an unlimited supply of energy is not even theoretically possible.
posted by IjonTichy at 10:34 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


>Nobody likes a "steady state economy"<

That’s a pretty big statement. And false.
posted by bongo_x at 10:34 AM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


EVERY PROBLEM is solved when you have an unlimited supply of energy.

There's also the question of the density of energy storage. Even if you have an unlimited supply of energy, your plane still isn't going to run on batteries.
posted by IjonTichy at 10:38 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'll vote that windmills are beautiful too. If you don't think so, well then beautify them. As a compromise, we could put big ass windmills directly over small towns, making them self-sufficent, and import the power for cities from sea based wind farms and countries with deserts.

We should reduce the world birthrate by improving the opportunities for women in poor countries, including micro-loans restricted to women, paying for the education of women, etc., as well as simply promoting birth control. In case, we may also need to educate women about the greater potential of children who've their whole family's resources behind them, i.e. one-child advocacy.

We might also consider modifying U.S. and E.U. immigration law to encourage a low birthrate abroad. An easy change might be permitting far more female than male student visas. more controversial one might be denying "economic asylum" cases for people with siblings or more than one child, especially many siblings or multiple children.
posted by jeffburdges at 10:42 AM on May 5, 2011


Guess who gets more converts to organic and native gardening. People aren't convinced by vague arguments about the doom of the human race. They're convinced because it will save them time and money, provide aesthetic appeal and recreation. And we still have some "traditional" parts of the garden (spring bulbs, a veggie garden, etc.), so it's not "all-or-nothing" and it's not so overwhelming. And I talk about how we have time to devote to the veggie garden in the summer because we're not mowing all the time. Etc.

I'm jumping up and down and pointing at this.

I honestly have no idea why the environmental movement hasn't been using the "it's also cheaper for the individual overall" argument more often. When the "Live Earth" concert was on, my roommate and I were watching it off and on throughout the day -- and we were amused to realize, after hearing all the "tips" about energy conservation people could adopt to "save the planet," that we were doing just about all of them -- but we were doing them to "save ourselves money".

It's similar to why I am a sort of locavore by default now, when it comes to produce - I signed up for a CSA and frequent my farmer's market. Not because of any kind of "environmental impact" reason, though -- it's because local produce tastes amaaaaaaaazing.

Big-picture, altruistic talk doesn't always work, because it makes people feel a little guilty if they don't immediately jump on board. But if someone broke it down and said "okay, let me show you how much money you'd save overall if you bought a big jug of vinegar and baking soda and used that to make up all your cleaning products rather than getting all sorts of different stuff," then the argument turns into, "wow, I can be a smart shopper! I'm getting away with something! Keen!"

There are ways that a more environmentally conscious lifestyle work for you in the selfish, spoiled short term as well.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:43 AM on May 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


> When we have all the electricty we need, without burning coal, we don't have pollution from burniing coal.

Right, we have the other problems we get from whatever mythic unlimited energy source you are imagining.

I suggest you look, again, at those pictures I posted - because most of those disaster scenes had nothing whatsoever to do with energy generation.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:46 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I really don't know where to begin my replies. If building solar collectors in the desert is good, building them where the sun shines 24 hours a day is twice as good, and that doesn't even factor in the atmospheric attenuation. I'm sure there are some numbers available from physics types which break it down into a watt/meter^2 terms, but a brief search wasn't fruitful.

Keep in mind that every problem which has been brought up is a secondary issue, and that the root-cause is the energy shortage.

Solve that, and everything else falls into place. We can produce all they hydrogen we need. We can produce all the biodiesel we need. It's raining energy, and we're too dumb to make buckets.
posted by mikelieman at 10:47 AM on May 5, 2011


building them where the sun shines 24 hours a day is twice as good

Um. 24 hours a day? Would we be shooting these satellites into the sun, or what?
posted by IjonTichy at 10:51 AM on May 5, 2011


It's not about energy generation causing the pollution necessarily. It's that breaking down the pollution and cleaning it up takes energy, and if we don't have enough to do it, then it doesn't get done.
posted by mikelieman at 10:54 AM on May 5, 2011


Um. 24 hours a day? Would we be shooting these satellites into the sun, or what?

A constellation in Geosynchronous orbit ( Built using American Union Labor! ) provides service non-stop.

Once the construction teams finish the first one, they move on and build another, and another, and another.

Yup, it's a jobs program too!
posted by mikelieman at 10:55 AM on May 5, 2011


Right, we have the other problems we get from whatever mythic unlimited energy source you are imagining.


It's called "The Sun". While myth has been created to explain it, there's nothing mythical about the 1360 W m⁻² it puts out in earth orbit...
posted by mikelieman at 10:58 AM on May 5, 2011


There is a happy medium between 'horrible apocalypse that ends with people living naked in mud huts' and 'fascist dystopia.' It involves us selecting managers and managerial policies that create pockets of sustainability without ridiculous hardship or degradation of lifestyle growth. This is actually possible if we have the will. Persons living in those pockets or benefiting from their existence need to submit to those policies.

It is important that we realize that the people who do not follow the agreed-upon rules must be told 'no,' and if they continue to refuse, especially the so-called 'elites,' there must be an agreed-upon punishment.

Finally, we must also agree that we must be willing to exercise an absolutely final punishment to those persons and agencies who conspire to damage our living space. We must kill those elites who continually create toxic environments. Without this, we will be stuck in this loop (of pollute-regulate-grow complacent) forever. Agencies like BP and Union Carbide must be disbanded and their stock made worthless. All persons and agencies who have invested in the polluters and despoilers must be made to share in that loss, otherwise there is no disincentive to defecating in the well.

You may feel that this is a 'fascist dystopia' or 'totalitarian' but frankly, this just means that you cannot get past your own selfishness and see that it could fit seamlessly with our current lifestyle. We already have the surplus manpower to implement sustainable practices.

At some point we must decide to manage our planet in a rational, aggressive way until such time that we have gone past scarcity (if such a time exists).
posted by Fuka at 10:58 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


As someone who has done limited xeriscaping in our yard it can be really difficult to withstand the subtle peer pressure to conform to the standard yard template in many communities. Your yard might be beautiful and your water consumption incredibly low but many people will admire it and then go right back to their Saint Augustine/Bermuda/Fescue lawns and Boxwood shrubs cut in geometric shapes because that simply what's "traditional". Even in areas were water rationing is common people will continue to bring in grasses and shitty traditional shrubs.

That's not even getting into the unfortunate tendency for many new communities to have HOA that prevent the home owner from deviating from the standard water guzzling yard pattern.

Until the resources necessary to maintain a water loving yard become more costly for the average American I just don't see a major shift toward "green" yards outside of the most environmentally conscious locales.
posted by vuron at 10:58 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


A constellation in Geosynchronous orbit ( Built using American Union Labor! ) provides service non-stop.

...how could that be? It's still orbiting the earth--from what I understand geosynchronous just means that it maintains its position above a certain point on the earth. It's still going to be in the earth's shadow ~8 hours a day.
posted by IjonTichy at 10:59 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thank you for different non-gloomy take, alasdair . It's refreshing, and good to work through in my mind.

Naturally, I have questions and caveats.
1) The bad effects of your transition process might derail its success. For example, climate change leading to bad politics or infrastructure destruction.
2) Nuclear seems like a long-term bet. It's going to take a long time, and a lot of money, to build up plants to pick up fossil fuel slack; that's assuming we (species) decided to do it, which we're not, pretty much, at present.
3) We're going through water very quickly. Can that higher, capped population survive on what we have?
4) Enough coal: cf Monbiot's point about this being a disabling factor for alternative energy adoption. Will we be able to make long-term plans with medium-term costs when the short-term looks so cozy?
posted by doctornemo at 11:00 AM on May 5, 2011


> I really don't know where to begin my replies.

You could start by, you know, replying directly to the criticisms of others. For example, you might respond to the critique that a large portion of the pollution we currently generate has nothing to do with energy production, or that the things that are running out right now like rare earths can't be replaced just by burning energy.

> We can produce all the hydrogen we need.

Hydrogen is not a good fuel. It's not particularly energy dense and spectacularly explosive, as well as being a gas at room temperature. The low energy density and gaseous form means that there have to be a gazillion pressurized/chilled hydrogen tankers going across your roads, and the explosive thing means that a pretty large chunk of the accidents they get into will be disasters (by comparison, gas tankers get into a lot of accidents but very rarely explode).

Biofuels are also not good - they take more energy to produce than they emit. They make a lot of sense in terms of "best use of waste we already have" but in terms of growing biofuel to replace oil, it's a non-starter.

If you're referring to solar power satellites, I'll all for them, but the cost of creating them is huge and it involves technology that doesn't even exist yet (main issue - how to get the power to Earth?) Even its proponents admit it will cost as much to build them as it cost to build the interstate highway system...

I used to be in SF fandom two or three decades ago and everyone talked like this. Fusion was just around the corner, solar power was going to save us from ourselves, by 2000 we'd live in a paradise of abundance. As you can see, none of this happened. Now I'm much more realistic...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:01 AM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Food? With energy, fertilizer is made using Nitrogen and Oxygen. With energy, you can produce as much food as you'd need to feed the population.

According to the only available data I can find, industrial processes fix more nitrogen than the entire terrestrial biosphere already. Therefore, the solution to food shortages is to find new space-age sources of energy to fix even more nitrogen, so we can afford to wash even more of it into the sea.

It only makes sense. Anyone arguing that there might be negative consequences is just an Unserious Hairshirt Doomsayer Negative Nancy.
posted by [citation needed] at 11:02 AM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


bongo_x, in response to my summary "nobody likes a "steady state economy" you wrote "That’s a pretty big statement. And false." Can you expand a bit? I can see how some people would like such an economy, but not many. I think that's Monbiot's take.
posted by doctornemo at 11:04 AM on May 5, 2011


"You could start by, you know, replying directly to the criticisms of others. For example, you might respond to the critique that a large portion of the pollution we currently generate has nothing to do with energy production"

That is true. But with the energy from solar power satellites, we can clean up the pollution.

Run the dirty river into a distillation plant. Condense the vapor back into pure water, reclaim the chemicals for future use....

Once we have regular service to GEO, mining "Rare Earths" is trivial. There's tons in any piece of rock out there...

"How to get the power to earth" has been solved for 30 years. And now it's doable with 50% DC-DC conversion efficiency.

Solar Power WILL STILL save us from ourselves. If Reagan had started, we wouldn't be in this mess right now, and who know, your prediction for 2000 might have come true.

The longer we delay, the more it costs us.
posted by mikelieman at 11:07 AM on May 5, 2011


mikelieman , lupus raised the two questions I wanted to ask you. First, how to get power to Earth? (If you mean microwaves, assuming it's done safely, how to convince people to accept it) Second, how to pay for it when some of the leading nations are hit hard by recession?
posted by doctornemo at 11:09 AM on May 5, 2011


I don't know how you convince people to accept it. Point out that it's Wireless N at 5.8GHz and it's phase locked to a pilot beam from the groundstation? I'm sure that consent can be manufactured if there's enough money at stake.

How do we pay for it? How did we manage to pay for 2 ( maybe 3) wars? This is an infrastructure investment with a payoff which is hard to quantify because it changes EVERYTHING so much that it depends on where you point it. To begin with, it's a National Security issue, since energy dependence is making us make ( what I consider ) to be poor choices to support the status quo.

How much money do you save in not having to treat childhood asthma because inner city particulate level drop because we don't burn diesel for trucks and busses?

How much money do you save because your foreign policy doesn't involve giving people billions of dollars, but instead give them a discounted rate on energy from our satellites?
posted by mikelieman at 11:15 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


For the people who are saying that every problem has a solution in unlimited power, I can see that ending with either massive dystopian hab-block towers or the Combine Fertilization Dampening Field.
posted by Slackermagee at 11:18 AM on May 5, 2011


"We can't afford this in a recession!" is a stupid refrain and I am sick of hearing it. When private demand can't keep people employed and our infrastructure is crumbling, that's when we need government to step in and start putting people to work by allocating resources to things we know we need, that the private sector needs to function, but the private sector has failed to allocate resources to. Forget solar in space, let's just start with solar thermal + molten salt storage in the southwest to replace existing coal baseload.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 11:20 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


The problems with geosynchronous power generation aren't as trivial as you make them out mikelieman.

Even if we had cheap lifting capacity to geosynchronous orbits (which we currently don't) and the ability to manufacture large solar arrays in space (also somewhat dubious) and the issues with beaming microwave power back to terrestrial site solved you have the core issue of what is the cost per megawatt?

Yes there is a ton of potential power out in space but our ability to harvest it in a economically doable way seems more than a little sci-fi. Unless there is an economic incentive to get into the space based power generation business it would instead require large-scale public investment at a much greater scale than say building the National Highway system in the 50s.

From where I stand I don't see a massive groundswell of support for investing huge sums of money into space based power. And when you are talking about a public good (which in essence this would be) you need significant buy-in from the electorate as well as from elites (government, business and scientific). At current I only see some buy in from scientific elites (generally the futurists) and only lip service from any other sector of the population.

So while the theory is sound until you either make space based power competitive with fossil fuel consumption or get massive buy in from the electorate to subsidize it I don't see it being a viable solution.

Same with just about any other really cool tech solution such as fusion, geothermal, etc. Until/Unless the real world economic costs of fossil fuel consumption become higher than the adoption costs of alternative technologies I just don't see a massive adoption of them outside of limited projects, and I really don't see developing economies (India, China, Brazil) eschewing fossil fuels for the sake of averting a potential environmental collapse.
posted by vuron at 11:20 AM on May 5, 2011


Citation needed has hinted at the deeper problems at our current agricultural infrastructure. Unfortunately, our entire farming practice of fertilization and monocroppping is exploitative and damaging and is steadily destroying both land and sea. Fixing the energy crisis without fixing food production is just swapping one problem for another, and if we run out of dirt and everything in the ocean dies it doesn't matter how much fuel we have left.
posted by mek at 11:21 AM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yes there is a ton of potential power out in space but our ability to harvest it in a economically doable way seems more than a little sci-fi.

More or less "sci-fi" than the touchscreen smartphone with ubiquitous internet access you have in your pocket?
posted by mikelieman at 11:23 AM on May 5, 2011


More or less "sci-fi" than the touchscreen smartphone with ubiquitous internet access you have in your pocket?

"Space elevator" is about a century more sci-fi than "slightly tinier computer".
posted by IjonTichy at 11:25 AM on May 5, 2011


I'll vote that windmills are beautiful too. If you don't think so, well then beautify them. As a compromise, we could put big ass windmills directly over small towns, making them self-sufficent, and import the power for cities from sea based wind farms and countries with deserts.

That's fine as far as individual windmills go, but I'm not so sure that "beautify them" works with the millions of windmills in fields streching for hundreds of miles that will be necessary to make them useful as part of an all-renewable-energy future. I think that pdf book about renewable energy speculated that, just for the US, you're talking about a windfarm the size of the state of California.

I also generally find the suggestions to fill the desert with solar panels and the seas with windfarms/tidal generators to be a bit handwavey, as if those wouldn't constitute significant ecological destruction in themselves, just of ecosystems that are seen as less desirable than others.
posted by Copronymus at 11:31 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


We're going through water very quickly. Can that higher, capped population survive on what we have?


Ok, I'm going to do what I've always wanted to do and raise my hand on this one.

Isn't water a renewable resource? In that, we have plenty of it and it is constantly recycled through the water cycle, but our water problems stem from getting it where we need it to go in a potable fashion?

It just bugs me to hear we "use up" water. The air remains full of water vapor, and the oceans and clouds continue to exist. Our stupidity lies in polluting it/draining it from aquifers so that it goes back to being water vapor somewhere else or is toxic, or ends up in the ocean full of salt. But it's still there. No?
posted by emjaybee at 11:36 AM on May 5, 2011


I also generally find the suggestions to fill the desert with solar panels and the seas with windfarms/tidal generators to be a bit handwavey, as if those wouldn't constitute significant ecological destruction in themselves, just of ecosystems that are seen as less desirable than others.

Well, we should just keep burning coal then, if you're worried of running out of deserts!
posted by [citation needed] at 11:39 AM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


> That is true. But with the energy from solar power satellites, we can clean up the pollution.
>
> Run the dirty river into a distillation plant. Condense the vapor back into pure water, reclaim the chemicals for future use....

Aside from the fact that that would give you a clean, dead river, I really think you should look at some real world cases.

I had trouble getting real world volume data for rivers, but I did manage to get the flow of one river, the world's largest... the Amazon, at 4.2 million cubic feet per second, or about 2.5 trillion liters/s.

It takes around 400 joules/milliliter to take water at "room temperature" and boil it, which means that power to apply your boiling treatment to the Amazon flowing past one spot only would be very roughly 50 terawatts, 50 quadrillion watts - several times the entire world's power output as of today. And that's assuming perfect efficiency (although it's possible to get very high efficiencies in tasks like "boiling water". :-D)

Admittedly, the Amazon is a huge river (and not horribly polluted these days, perhaps we could save it till later) - but there are a LOT of very large rivers that are polluted.

Forgetting about that, do you have any idea how much such an immense project would completely transform the environment around any such plant for hundreds of miles? Just the waste heat and water vapour would completely change the ecosystem forever.


So basically, you're proposing a project that would consume many, many times the entire world's output based on a technology that hasn't so far generated even a single watt of energy on the Earth's surface. I have to assume you're a young person, am I correct?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:39 AM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Indeed, with the end of the Space Shuttle program we can't even get our astronauts to the Space Station without using Russian Soyuz rockets.

I'm just not convinced that we have the desire to develop and launch anything more than a few small orbital power satellites much less the density necessary to replace current fossil fuel consumption.

I'm not saying it's not a good long term goal but it just doesn't seem economically viable outside of niche energy production. And if you can honestly see any major world power making the investment necessary to make them viable I'd be interested in reading your sources.
posted by vuron at 11:41 AM on May 5, 2011


> But [the water]'s still there. No?

Unfortunately, there's a key point you're missing.

Right now, humanity gets much (most?) of their drinking water from underground aquifers, which, while vast, are still a tiny fraction of the Earth's total water.

While they are naturally replenished by natural processes, these take a long time, so the result is that we're draining these aquifers pretty fast.

The main result will be of course that we'll drain these aquifers pretty fast, foul the rest, and then a big chunk of the human race will fairly suddenly have to find some other way to get drinking water. It won't be pretty.

But there are secondary knock-on effects that happen when we remove all that water from below our feet, the main one being land subsidence - which sometimes mean "my house just fell into a sinkhole".
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 11:45 AM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


But it's still there. No?

If you harvest 20 trees/year, but the forest only grows 10 new trees/year, it doesn't matter that wood is a renewable resource. Which brings me to...

> I understand the appeal of the Malthusian doomsday scenario where we overpopulate to the point where we create a widescale ecological collapse. However I'm not sure that we won't get to a point where population growth begins to slow down. Already we have seen that as per capita wealth increases population growth decreases. Much of the developed world is actually entering into negative population growth.

The problem is that we have already overshot the sustainable population for a developed world style of living, based on the fact that we're already using non-renewable resources faster than we should (overfishing is the poster-child) AND we're completely dependent on fossil fuels to feed everyone.


> I wish someone would put together an online puzzle like the NYT Times did with You Fix the Budget to give all the current power needs

2050 pathway. Which brings me to...

> I think that pdf book about renewable energy speculated that, just for the US, you're talking about a windfarm the size of the state of California.

...my perennial reccommendation.
posted by Bangaioh at 11:48 AM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have to assume you're a young person, am I correct?

I'm 44. Maybe I'm optimistic about this stuff because I remember that we decided that we wanted to go to the moon, and in about 8 years, WENT TO THE MOON.
posted by mikelieman at 11:48 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Isn't water a renewable resource? In that, we have plenty of it and it is constantly recycled through the water cycle, but our water problems stem from getting it where we need it to go in a potable fashion?

The problem is fresh water, there's obviously plenty of salt water to go around. It should be easy enough to ensure people have drinking water, right? And yet water management is a real problem, to the extent that UNICEF estimates that 884 million people do not have access to safe drinking water. This is one of those things that we can fix right this instant if we had the will and the capital, because we know enough about water capture, storage, filtration etc to easily implement low-energy solutions. Instead we tend to prefer aquifer dependence and high-energy industrial solutions which are unsustainable.
posted by mek at 11:50 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Judging by this thread, so far Monbiot is winning.
posted by jfuller at 11:51 AM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, we should just keep burning coal then, if you're worried of running out of deserts!

Absolutely not what I'm saying. I whole-heartedly support using nuclear energy as a base combined with substantial use of renewable energy sources. However, if we decide that the best solution is, in fact, to cover the world's deserts with solar panels, we should at least acknowledge that we're doing so at a cost to ourselves, the environment, and the plants and animals whose habitat we'd be destroying. It's a perfectly valid choice to make, but it's not a choice that's free of any costs or negatives.
posted by Copronymus at 11:53 AM on May 5, 2011


The other problem with draining aquifers at the rate that we are currently draining them is that it can lead to soil salinization as over irrigation can result in an influx of salty water into the now depleted aquifer. These salts can then accumulate in the water table leading to degradation of previously arable land.

Australia is one of many locales that is experiencing largescale degradation of arable lands because of excessive irrigation. Because Australia is so dry for the most part the rates of water consumption for agricultural and industrial functions typically vastly exceeds the replenishment rates of the ground water aquifers.

The great plain region of North America is another area in which the ground water aquifers are being exploited at an unsustainable level.

Desalinization is a possible solution but desalinization is extremely expensive and seems unlikely to support the level of agricultural production that is currently possible via aquifer exploitation.

Water is definitely going to be a major flashpoint in the future. While we are surrounded by water the percentage of it that is drinkable and usable for agricultural reasons is pretty low.
posted by vuron at 12:00 PM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Our lives will always be about give and take, in any possible incarnation. Total conservation is not and should not be the goal, nor should be keeping ecosystems intact and undisturbed (way too late for that). We have to build relationships to ecosystems that are regenerative rather than exploitative. Radical, maybe; impossible, no. It has to be possible, it's how we came to exist in the first place.
posted by mek at 12:02 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


lupus_yonderboy : So basically, you're proposing a project that would consume many, many times the entire world's output based on a technology that hasn't so far generated even a single watt of energy on the Earth's surface.

"Can" doesn't mean "should". He already responded to you, so I won't put words in his mouth, but I took that as a sort of extreme worst-case example of what we could do given near-limitless energy.

More practically, we could just wait-out the existing pollution (nature does a damn fine job of getting rid of it, if we stop adding more) and use a much more realistic amount of energy running desalination plants to produce potable water in the short term. We could theoretically get rid of atmospheric CO2 by converting it into oxygen and motor-fuel (pure octane or cetane); Or, more realistically, we could all drive electric vehicles and wait for the atmosphere to recover naturally once we stop adding more CO2 than it can sink.

Effectively limitless (let's not quibble about the meaning of "infinite" in this context, it just insults both sides of the discussion) energy really does mean we can solve virtually any technological problem (and a lot of social ones go away as well if we remove their underlying physical causes). That doesn't mean we should distill the Amazon. Just that we could, if the benefit would outweigh the side effects you accurately point out.
posted by pla at 12:29 PM on May 5, 2011


mikelieman: sorry, I regretted writing that (about your age) as soon as I pressed send.

> I'm 44 [...] I remember that we decided that we wanted to go to the moon, and in about 8 years, WENT TO THE MOON.

The moon landing is a perfect example. Just reaching the moon turned out to be a feat that America was able to go full out and achieve - but thirty years later we still don't have people living anywhere off Earth except a handful on a very expensive, completely un-self-sustaining space station.

Now, you can say, "Oh, we lost our nerve" or some such, but there are a ton of other countries wanting to exploit space too.

The simple fact is that it's much much more difficult to colonize space than it is to visit it a few times.

Or take an example from my field, computer programming. There's a rule of thumb that it takes nine times as long to write a complete commercial program as it takes to write a fully-featured demo.

When you first start doing it, it seems absurd. Here's my demo, it does nearly everything we need, how long can it take to make this into a finished program? The answer is that the devil is in the details - that the "few" bugs you have and the "few" features you haven't done are always the hardest, and that you'll expose new serious bugs and new serious broken or missing features the moment you actually consider it a production program.

And that's just in computer programming - where theoretically it's "all free" (and in fact, in some languages and systems the time from demo to production can be a lot less).

Now, think of "going to the moon" as the demo and "scheduled moon flights" as the product (i.e. people going on business trips into space). There the ratio isn't "nine," it's "nine thousand" or "nine million".

These aren't hard numbers simply because when you actually try to plan out the resources that you'd consume to have, say, just 1% of 1% of today's "flights" be "space flights" (i.e. with a destination out of the atmosphere) you realize that you'd simply have to remake our entire culture with that one focus, and the costs are incalculable.

Now, it turns out that I have been a big fan of solar power satellites for decades and believe that they would be the best possible solution to power generation. I personally think that America is nuts to piss away the money that they should be using to do just this on killing little tinpot dictators and if they invested their money on this and a hundred other technological things we could be a very rich world in fifty years...

BUT we would still have to conserve. There is only so much physical stuff to go around. The world gets more and more crowded every day. The problems of pollution absolutely cannot be fixed by pumping unlimited energy at them. We are living in a limited world and we have exponential growth of our consumption. The reason Dr. Malthus hasn't gotten us yet is that up until recently, the size of the world was effectively infinite compared to human scales, so we could basically take what we liked from it, and each new technology allowed us to make an order of magnitude leap over the previous.

Well, our technology is now growing mature and we can't keep making these exponential leaps and we simply don't have room, physical or otherwise, to make mistakes.

We have to conserve now, and we have to start redirecting our resources from random aggression into saving our asses with respect to energy and natural resources or there will be a collapse.

In fact, there will have to be a collapse anyway, I believe - the question is that will it be the sort of collapse where we'll still preserve technology like microchips or not?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:37 PM on May 5, 2011 [14 favorites]


finally some fucking wisdom instead of handwavey "we can just discover dilithium and create a matter replicator" crap. Great comment, lupus.
posted by entropicamericana at 12:45 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Thanks, doctornemo, I hadn't seen Fate of the World - although I was thinking of something simple and free and widely available (i.e. on the NYT web site) to help foster realistic conversation about this topic...
posted by twsf at 12:59 PM on May 5, 2011


Sure, "limitless" energy would solve a lot of things, and it isn't impossible.

You need one other technology breakthrough of at least comparable size to "limitless" energy and that would be "perfect" chemistry - in some sense the ultimate aim of nanotechnology.

If you could build femto-factories that processed individual molecules as desired then what couldn't you do? And there seems no theoretical reason that this couldn't be done - it might be impractical to achieve but we know that "nature" has achieved such machines so why should we?

Without being able to clean up after yourself effectively, having the energy just means you'll foul yourself to death even faster than we are doing now, if you're making more chemistry and throwing it away after one use. I often picture a future with fouled, stunted primitives using broken AOL disks for weapons...

So sure. I read my science fiction, if you had all this technology then you could do these things. Your unlimited energy would let you build your perfect chemistry and make whatever you needed cleanly - even the issue of waste heat energy could be perfectly solved by making huge radiators.

If! If we get to that point. But we don't even know if these things are achievable. It might well be that we discover physical limitations that prevent us from getting these result - but it might even be the case that humans never devote enough of their resources to these problems and then their society collapses, or even that we do try but aren't in the final event smart enough to pull it off!

Now, the argument I get is that we have managed to pull it off every time so far - but that's hardly convincing. I've had friends who were drug users who used exactly the same argument - it worked for them for a while, for years in some cases, but in each case it eventually caught up with them. How many Green Revolutions can we have?

So maybe we can make it. Maybe. Maybe isn't enough. We need to stop our exponential growth of consumption to give us enough time to work on these things, or to come to a soft landing if we can't solve them.

Humans have grown exponentially over time so the last few generations are the first where humans are reaching the limits of the planet. For example, there are no "lost valleys" any more - sure, there are some places that no one has really looked at, lots of surprises yet to come, lots of lost temples still sleeping in the jungles, but there was a time not so long ago before satellites when people literally had no idea what might be in the middle of Asia or Africa. We've lit up our nights in whole continents, changed the world's sunsets with our dust, our plastic waste litters the surface of every ocean.

We're finally hitting the limits of the planet in every direction. This exponential growth can't continue. One generation, two generations, we'll be bumping our noses into hard limits everywhere.

That's not a long time, but we can't count on the magical solar power satellite fairy to power our cars and the nanotechnology elves to clean up our waste before then. We have to stop wasting our limited resources and concentrate them on solving these very difficult technological issues, stop pissing away resources on paranoid amounts of weapons (which are also strongly polluting, the US military has been claimed to be the world's single largest polluter), stop taking our complex, irreplaceable petrochemicals and turning them into disposable consumer goods and quickly, into garbage, or even worse, simply burning them to get around or keep our homes warm.

But people aren't going to change their habits much until they bang their noses into it. It is the way of the world...

So let's hope that people either suddenly learn a great deal of wisdom, or failing that, that any collapse is as soon as possible so we still have some resources left for a second try.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 1:29 PM on May 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


Graze Anatomy: The Blueprint For An Agricultural Revolution. A rather long, extremely interesting, and ridiculously-titled article on conventional farming practices vs. perennial grazing and how the latter can provide a sustainable carbon sink. Joel Salatin, an advocate of these practices, on MeFi previously. I think it's awesome that we can have environmentalism AND a better burger. Who's stopping it? Why the goddamn corn lobby, of course. Blech.
posted by mek at 1:59 PM on May 5, 2011


although I was thinking of something simple and free and widely available (i.e. on the NYT web site) to help foster realistic conversation about this topic...

twsf, have you checked 2050 pathway? It's for the UK and a tad slow but otherwise it seems to be what you're looking for, if I interpreted you correctly.
posted by Bangaioh at 1:59 PM on May 5, 2011


This is kind of seems like the elephant in the room with most sustainability discussions, and this article doesn't really touch on it. How can sustainability be a real possibility when there are too many people even if resources are used the most efficient way possible?

I am curious what others think about this idea, it really doesn't seem to get the attention it deserves.

You're looking for Hardin's The Tragedy of the Commons.
posted by ersatz at 6:22 PM on May 5, 2011


50 million people starved to death in China during Mao's "great leap forward" thanks to collectivisation and "rational" central planning. Today China's much larger population is far better fed thanks to the introduction of free market economics. Haiti is struggling to escape the devastation of the earthquake because it was poor and badly governed, Japan is shrugging off the effects of the tsumani because it is rich and developed with a strong civil society. The developing world, particularly muslim majority countries, have high birth rates, while modern western democracies have birth rates below replacement level due to individual prosperity and women's rights. Countries such as the USA have strict environmental legislation and massive national parks, the Soviet Union destroyed the Aral sea, dumped hot nuclear submarines in the Baltic, burned brown coal as fast as it could tear it out of the ground and threw up shoddy nuclear power plants like Macdonalds.

The effective solutions to the problems outlined in this thread are the opposite of those being generally advocated. If you care about the rational use of resources, the avoidance of starvation, reducing the population, improving environmental standards or increasing resilience in the face of disaster then the world needs to adopt the solutions which have proved so successful in the west - free markets, democracy and individual liberty. We all love to believe we live in the 'end times' because it makes us seem important, in reality we're not facing imminent collapse. Though we laugh at religious zealots preaching imminent armageddon here, environmental or economic prophets of doom are lauded for their sagacity, despite the track record of all three types of prediction having the same dismal record of success.
posted by joannemullen at 2:38 AM on May 6, 2011


joannemullen, you're arguing against a strawman. All these western nations you're holding up as examples of good environmental are heavily regulated and/or extremely litigious. Giving a handful of companies monopolistic rights over oil extraction while their agents turn whole countries into puppet governments (Shell in Nigeria) is so far from 'free market' economics it's laughable
posted by the mad poster! at 3:17 AM on May 6, 2011 [4 favorites]


from what I understand geosynchronous just means that it maintains its position above a certain point on the earth. It's still going to be in the earth's shadow ~8 hours a day.

Thanks to this thread for prompting me to fill in that highly important gap in my knowledge of satellite-based solar power, I had no idea how long they'd be in the shade. Not 8 hours: "the geostationary orbit is usually outside the cone of the earth's shadow. That is, until around the times of the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (the beginning of spring and fall). At these times, geostationary satellites enter their eclipse season, when they can spend as much as 70 minutes of every day in shadow."

My guess is that paving a large chunk of desert with some kind of sunlight -> heat -> steam -> turbine -> electrolysis -> hydrogen system would be a whole lot more cost-effective and convenient. Which of course is not particularly convenient if it's possible at all.

Assuming it is possible, it would certainly not mean unlimited energy. Relying on that kind of stuff would mean energy much more expensive and scarce than what we have now. Fossil fuels are dirt cheap by comparison. It's not suddenly going to be easy to extract CO2 and water vapour from the air to make jet fuel. Might as well postulate cheap low-tech home "cold fusion" kits for everyone.
posted by sfenders at 3:38 AM on May 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


emjaybee, thanks for raising your hand about water. I honestly didn't have a cogent answer, so I'm glad lupus_yonderboy, vuron, and mek schooled us both.

Cool thing to explore, Bangaioh. I'm with twsf, always looking for good Web sims.

jfuller, Monbiot still seems to lead this thread hands down. Maybe we really are at an inflection point.
posted by doctornemo at 5:50 AM on May 6, 2011


Metafilter: finally some fucking wisdom
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:20 AM on May 6, 2011


I think that putting more emphasis on locally producing energy, with a national grid as a back up for urban users would help focus people's minds on energy conservation. Regulations for new builds should insist on taking into account any local environmental considerations, such as ground source heating and cooling, availability of sunlight, wind and rainfall and the effects of local buildings on these. Water usage, insulation and energy conservation should also figure as important considerations in conjunction with designing the space for human use in general.

The big issue as far as energy use is concerned is industrial. Producing energy locally would be the ideal, as transmitting any distance is wasteful. Industrial level manufacturing requires energy on an industrial level. Unless we get the man made photosynthesis thing sorted.

Food production should move in the direction of perennials, much healthier for the soil and more sustainable.

Maybe some kind of kibbutz like conscription for young people might help inculcate environmental awareness and community responsibility alongside a sea change in societal outlook. Some people can choose to work on the maglev trains and potential energy collecting bicycles while others focus on animal husbandry and crop cultivation. Then they can all get together in the evenings and have orgies or go on Facebook or what ever it is that young people do these days.

I find lupus_yonderboy's posts more entertaining if I imagine them being read by Tom Swirly ; ) *waves*
posted by asok at 8:35 AM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


You and Your Slaves:
a healthy individual can pump out enough juice to light a 100-watt bulb or (360,000 joules) an hour. With weekends and holidays off and a sensible eight-hour day, Hughes figures that it might takes one person 8.6 years on a bicycle (or treadmill) to produce the energy now stored in one barrel of oil.

Given that the average Canadian now consumes 24.7 barrels of oil a year with scarcely a blink of the eye, every citizen employs about 204 virtual slaves.

by 2009, each member of the average human family crowded their household with 93.8 slaves thanks to the combined work of oil, gas and coal. (Add wood, hydro and nuclear energy and another 17.6 diligent slaves must fit in the door.)
posted by Bangaioh at 9:23 AM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well clearly this whole problem could be easily solved by judicious application of monorails.
posted by ephemerae at 11:33 AM on May 9, 2011


I hear those things are awfully loud...
posted by entropicamericana at 12:32 PM on May 9, 2011


Anyone heard anything from George lately concerning the ever-worsening scenario at Fukushima?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:51 AM on May 29, 2011


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