You’ll notice that whenever people are asked why Rome fell, you get as many answers as there are people who studied it, with each person answering you as if with some great insight that, they assure you, no one else could glean. Why is this? The easy answer is that there was no single cause of Rome’s downfall, the causes were many, and like chickens, they all came home to roost at once. The hard answer is that everyone thinks they’re special and a little above average, and therefore, so are their insights. They’re not.
Sure, you’ve heard of the financial crisis, the energy crisis, the climate crisis, the water crisis and even the ISIS crisis. Each of these crises is somewhat manageable on its own, but life’s not like that. What happens if they all go south at once? Then you get a convergence of many crises. It is this convergence of crises that overwhelms societies to cause their collapse. That’s all fine in theory, except for the fact that society is more or less a worldwide phenomena now. For example, you would be forgiven if you thought that the U.S. still had grain reserves today. It doesn’t, it sold off its grain reserves to world markets during the financial crisis of 2008. If the world goes hungry, so does the U.S.. America’s monocultures are actually more exposed to failure risks due to corporate farm practices. The small farms of the world use 25% of the land to feed 75% of the people.
In 2007, the IPCC said we got until 2015 to peak emissions. I remember the feeling of hope that statement gave me. So what did we do? Absolutely nothing! Emissions dropped slightly for a while after the 2008 financial crisis, but only because our whole system of banking almost collapsed and most manufacturing jobs were still being shipped to China. Oh yeah, we closed a lot of old coal-fired power stations and replaced them with gas-fired ones. You could still say gas-fired plants reduced emissions, but only if you completely ignored methane leaks throughout the whole system.
Then, in 2014, the IPCC said we got until 2030 to peak emissions. What changed to allow them to revise their statement of seven years earlier? Absolutely nothing! Nada, as in nada goddamned thing, except that no one wanted to admit we missed our self-imposed deadline and accept our failure as a species. Instead, some policy wonk made up a cock-&-bull story about how some day we’ll invent a new way to get energy from plants that will pull more carbon out of the air than it releases. In other words, we don’t have to do anything serious today because some day, we’ll invent a new technology to sort it all out. The acronym for this science fiction is BECCS (Bio-Energy Carbon Capture & Storage). So the fate of humanity rests on magical thinking, magical thinking is sort of like whimsy, but with a hint of boldness.
To lend a little credence to this fantasy, the policy wonks at the IPCC said we’ll need 1 billion acres of new farm land to grow these carbon sucking energy plants. One billion acres is about the size of half the United States. Humanity only has about 3.5 billion acres of arable land to grow all our food. Yet, in 2009, Scientific American says at the rate we are depleting soils around the world, humanity only has 60 years of “human agriculture” left. So where will we get all this new land? Simple, we steal it from nature. Our crop and pasture lands have already caused 80% of land species extinctions and clearing another billion acres of farm land will do nothing to remedy this loss of bio-diversity. Do you see what I mean about convergence? But, it gets much worse.
Currently 1 million humans, net, are added to earth every 4½ days. By 2050, it is expected that earth will hold 9-10 billion people. Most of that growth will be in Africa with quite a bit from Asia. Each additional person born will have a reasonable expectation of eating every day for 50 years. Some say we will have to grow 50% more food by 2050 than we grow now. Others say we will have to grow more food over the next 50 years than we grew in all of the last 10,000 years. Whatever the case may be, we will need 12 million acres of new farm land every year for 30 years to do this, but in actual fact, we are losing 24 million acres of farm land every year. We are losing soil 2X faster than we need to grow it, just to be able to feed ourselves.
The problem with all these projections is that they assume all other things being equal, which of course they never are. When was the last time you expected things to get better instead of worse? Things are now changing faster than even our best models can predict. Everyone knows this. Not only will we have to feed more people than ever while giving up one-third of our land for energy use, we have to do all this in the face of ever-increasing weather and water extremes. Droughts and deserts are growing. Groundwater sources only replenish themselves at 6% of the rate we deplete them. Again, you don’t need to be a math wizard to see this is going to a dark place.
Already, we’ve considered land use, soil loss, food loss, water loss and climate destruction, but you know it doesn’t end there. Let’s add more to our woes, after all, that’s what crises convergence is all about.
The greatest mass migration on the planet is when zooplankton rise up in the seas at night to eat phytoplankton. Both types of plankton comprise half the weight of all living creatures on earth. The next largest animal migration is on land during the Chinese New Year’s holidays, when millions upon millions of Chinese people leave the mega-cities of the South coast and travel to their local in-land villages. And believe me, if you only get a week off each year from working and living in hell, you’d better want to stay out of their way. Why does this happen? Over the last 30 years millions of rural Chinese began a permanent migration from the certain poverty of their local villages to where the jobs are in the city. This phenomena will continue worldwide well into the next few decades.
By 2050, 70% of humanity will be living in cities with some 2.4 billion more people than who live there now, but 75% of the infrastructure they will require does not yet exist. They will need water, roads, homes, electricity etc. which means our total energy use will almost certainly double just to meet the demand for the basics of life. If you noticed anything about fracking for energy it’s that it requires lots of water. So now our energy demands more water than ever in the face of certain water shortages. The production of enough neodymium to manufacture 5-megawatts of wind power produces 75 tons of acidic wastewater. Solar panels have to be continually cleaned or their efficiency drops off the charts. Do you see where I am going with this? Renewable energy is a circular logic spiral of absurdity without severe energy demand destruction. We absolutely cannot maintain our current lifestyles and successfully adopt renewable energy.
Our well being is so inextricably linked to our fossil energy dependence that we cannot even fathom how intractable a problem the peaceful reduction of emissions is for our species. But of course, that assumes all other things being equal, which they never are.
So, the next time you hear some ridiculous claim like we can get all of our electricity from renewable energy by 2050, just step back a moment and say to yourself, “Yea, I suppose we can, if everything just stays the same, but life’s not like that.”
Alice Bows-Larkin explains why rich countries have to reduce emissions 10% per year for 50 years to have a 50/50 chance to avoid 2°C. She is a very serious person saying very serious things that no one will take seriously, and I seriously mean it!
Kevin Anderson explains why BECCS is science fiction.
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