Think of the Industrial Revolution as the start of carbonifeous capitalism. — Dr. Ian Stewart
Many a contemporary scientist has commented that they started talking about climate change 20-30 years ago and figured once they educated people, they could go back to their respective fields of research. That never happened. They learned that knowledge does not necessarily lead to action, because humans are not motivated by logic but emotions. So it seems that the key is to make us more deeply aware of what is happening in the world, to motivate us to change for selfish motives as well as a concern for future generations. Learning from the past is a good place to start.
I love history. It allows you to look at the big picture, make connections with past events, and learn about repeating patterns. One of the pleasures of learning is having a ‘light bulb’ moment where you suddenly understand something on a more fundamental level. If you explain it to someone else, it can sound lame and obvious. But personal experience is what makes us grow and change. So today I am indulging in telling you about some of my ‘eureka’ moments even though I am saying nothing new.
First would be the obvious statement by Ronald Wright near the end of his excellent book, A Short History of Progress:
Things are moving so fast that inaction itself is one of the biggest mistakes. The 10,000-year experiment of the settled life will stand or fall by what we do, or don’t do, now. The reform that is needed is not anti-capitalist, anti-American, or even deep environmentalist; it is simply the transition from short-term to long-term thinking.
It just clicked for me when Wright laid out the big picture – living within our means requires us to think and plan further into the future. Relying on unsustainable energy sources won’t work; we all know that logically, but often refuse to accept it emotionally.
A second, connected moment happened later that same day. I have been watching an excellent BBC documentary series entitled ‘How Earth Made Us’ (hosted by Dr. Ian Stewart). In the episode on fire, Dr. Stewart talks about our relationship with energy. Humans have moved from burning firewood to charcoal (modifying wood so that it burns hotter) to coal, to oil. He comments that the world’s first energy crisis was at the end of the 16th century when Europe had cut down 90% of ancient forests; the price of charcoal in European cities and in Asia soared and shortages ensued. “In many societies” says Dr. Stewart, “the demand for energy had reached the limits of what photosynthesis could provide.” Sound familiar? Go back 400 years and we learn about energy shortages based on human demand oustripping supply. Trees are considered a renewable resource but don’t grow fast enough for immediate delivery. So then we used coal — trees that fell 300 million years ago, were covered by shallow seas, then compressed (in the ‘Carboniferous’ era). In order to pump water out of coal shafts that we dug, the steam engine was developed. Next came the discovery of oil, the most energy-intensive resource humans have used on a widespread basis.
So for me the light bulb moment was realizing that once humans went from taking trees in their current form (cutting them down for firewood) to taking trees/animals in ancient carbon forms (coal and oil), we expanded dangerously outside of sustainable limits. We have used increasingly intensive energy sources for 400 years… but what comes next? It’s been so long since we’ve lived within our means in terms of energy, we often assume something else will come along, as it has in the past. Nuclear also uses non-renewable uranium, and so-called renewable sources such as solar, wind and tidal all rely on fossil fuels to manufacture, transport, and maintain them (that was another rather obvious ‘eureka’ moment for me last year). Any way you look at it, we have to start thinking seriously about energy descent on both a personal and societal level. As Rob Hopkins says, “the cavalry is not coming”.
There are days when it’s hard to face the uncomfortable, difficult realities and think about what is coming. I’ve got it pretty easy and while many of us want to be less busy and have less stress, having less energy to fuel our lives is going to change the nature of what we are busy doing. My hope is that with Permaculture principles (work smarter, not harder and working with nature, not against it), and with community connections, the transition will have rewards and surprises we cannot yet predict, so let’s think of ways that could become a reality!