Our problem now is that we have built a complex economy that depends on oil and other fuels. We can see that we will have less oil in the future. The question is, “What we should do, in planning for a change in the world?”
Our natural reaction is to try to build add-ons to our current system that we hope might make the system work longer. I am afraid these will be mostly ill-advised, because the system is more complex than we understand, and well-meant changes may have adverse impacts.
What we really need is a new system that will work for the long-term. But such a system is so far away from us now, it is hard to even think about how it would work, and how we would get from our current system to the new system.
Our Current System
Our current system is a complex one that has evolved over a period of years. It is built upon a complex financial system, international trade, and many high-tech goods. Most people in the US live in homes that are heated and cooled to comfortable temperatures year-around and have access to a private passenger automobile, things that people in years’ past would have never dreamed possible.
The problem I see with our current system is that it is not likely to be very resilient. The current system depends on huge energy inputs. We can already see stresses as these are reduced.
Changes which don’t seem too big to us, and which seem to be helpful, could very well disturb the system. For example, conserving electricity would seem like a step in the right direction, but even this little step is likely to affect the finances of utilities, and is likely to make the construction of new, more efficient electric generation less feasible. When we make one change to try to make things better, we may in fact be making changes that make the system as a whole work less well.
There may be some specific changes that can be helpful, but it is difficult to know in advance what these are. In my view, these changes are likely to be the ones that require least government intervention, because they “make sense” without subsidies. For example, adding some geothermal electric generation in a location where geothermal is available, or making some natural gas vehicles if there seems to be a temporary oversupply of natural gas may make sense.
The big problem I see with our current system is that over the long-term (and perhaps not-so-long-term), it can’t continue to work, because the fossil fuels on which it depends are being depleted. Nearly all of the things (wind-generated electricity, solar PV, electric vehicles, fuels from algae) we are thinking about now are simply add-ons to the current system. Once the current system stops working, the additions will be of little benefit. Even something that looks resilient, like solar PV, stops working once there are no more light bulbs available for it to light up, and once back-up batteries are no longer available.
What we need: A new resilient system, that doesn’t depend on fossil fuels
We clearly will eventually need a new plan, but we haven’t even given a thought to what it might be. It is relatively easy to come up with a proposed component of the plan, but even this may not work out in practice.
For example, one can develop a plan for growing crops in an area that requires soil amendments to be brought in from some distance. Even though these amendments are “organic,” the fact that they must be transported some distance is likely to make the system not sustainable, without substantial fuel inputs.
As another example, I saw a plan developed by graduate students showing how we might build sustainable 1,600 square foot homes out of local materials. I would have a number of questions: How much labor will it require to build (and frequently rebuild) such homes? Will this be too much for a new poorer society? Will it be possible to heat such a large home, or should we be aiming for smaller homes?
We do have examples of societies that “worked” in the past, with virtually no fossil fuel inputs. In fact, if we look around the globe, some of these might be quite recent. It seems to me that we need to be studying some of these in more detail, to see if we can figure out what might work going forward. For example, quite a few of these used animal power, both for plowing fields and for transporting goods. If we were to start adding more animal power, what would this imply for land use? How did past societies deal with the need for shelter for themselves and their animals? How did they handle making clothing, and manufacturing household goods?
Societies don’t just spring to life. They evolve. That is a big reason our current situation is so difficult. We are trying to model the future based what we have now, but our current model is very much tied to our current fossil fuel use. It is hard to imagine that our system will work for the long term.
Instead, it seems to me we would do better to model the future on what we had at some time in the past, because at least this would give us an idea of what combination of home sizes, use of animals, size of farms, and even political structure worked in the past. I doubt people today would find this approach very acceptable, though, since so many things have changed–for example, modern medicine and the Internet, and it will be hard to give these up.
So what do we do? Just keep adding on to our current system, and hope that somehow we can keep it together a while longer? Or start working on a new, sustainable system for the long term?
If we do work on a new, sustainable system, how can we get our minds to even think in terms of what life might be like, essentially without fossil fuels? Is modeling based on the past (with perhaps a few additions to reflect the current situation) really our only alternative? Or is it possible to build a ” higher” sustainable system, using mostly local inputs, even though at this point, we don’t have a good model of what this might be?