Columbia Resilience

Overshoot and Degrowth

In the last post, What is Overshoot? I related John Michael Greer’s story of the meadow mice in overshoot.  For humans, the equivalent of the grain truck overturning has been the discovery of ancient hydrocarbons – burnable fossils, first coal and then oil and gas.  As Nate Hagens often reminds us in his podcasts, one barrel of oil can provide the equivalent of 4.5 years of human labor. Since 1859, fossil fuel use has grown to such an extent that our entire civilization is powered by it and utterly dependent upon it.  And this use has accelerated at an exponential pace.  Half of the fossil fuels that have been burned since their discovery have been burned in the last 30 years.  This presents at least two problems for the future.  

The first problem is that oil and gas are finite mineral resources and will in time cease to be available to power cars, trucks, cargo ships, airplanes, lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and so on, and also to make fertilizers, antihistamines, glue, medical equipment, hearing aids, heart valves, petroleum jelly, toothbrushes, and toothpaste, to name only a few items.  This graphic from the U.S. Department of Energy enumerates some of the 6,000 or so products currently made from oil and gas. We don’t have non-fossil fuel substitutes for these items on a scale anywhere near their current prevalence in modern society.  

The second problem is that burning fossil hydrocarbons to power a global economy has negative consequences. Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like A 21-st Century Economist, has created an image which shows nine categories of planetary degradation stemming from the burning of fossil fuels: climate change, ocean acidification, chemical pollution, nitrogen and phosphorus loading, freshwater withdrawals, land conversion, biodiversity loss, air pollution, and ozone layer depletion.  

To hear Kate Raworth explain the concept of the doughnut in more detail, here is a link to her conversation with Nate Hagens in a recent podcast, episode 77.

Many people believe that the obvious way to address these issues is by switching to so-called “renewable” energy sources, ones like solar and wind that don’t produce power by burning hydrocarbons and emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  Here again, this approach presents a number of problems.  In the first place, renewables produce electricity, and at the moment only about 20% of energy use world-wide is electrical energy. Heavy industrial infrastructure, such as transport trucks, cargo ships, mining equipment, jet airplanes, as well as most manufacturing processes, are powered by gas and by various derivatives of oil.  There is discussion about how to convert some of these processes to electric, but nothing scalable for the time frame we need.  And of course, the point has already been made that so many of the articles we use in our daily life are made FROM fossil fuels BY MEANS OF fossil fuels.  As has been said elsewhere, you can charge a cell phone with electricity but you can’t make a cell phone with electricity.

In addition, regarding wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries for electric vehicles, the processes for manufacturing them are themselves powered with fossil fuels.  In order to build a “100% renewable” electric energy infrastructure (leaving aside for the moment what to do about the 80% of our energy use that isn’t electricity), we would have to burn so much fossil fuel that we would literally create a carbon emissions “pulse” – a massive increase in emissions at a time when every authority is telling us we must do the opposite.   Moreover, solar panels and windmill blades have an “industry standard” of 25-30 years of useable life, meaning that they must be replaced at the end of that time.  Simon Michaux, of the Geological Survey of Finland, estimates that there are not even enough rare minerals worldwide to build out a renewable electric energy system for the current global economy, much less one that will have doubled in size in 30 years (if GDP continues to rise at the requisite 3% a year).  The Unsustainable Green Transition | Simon Michaux

And there are even more troubling aspects to the idea of creating a “renewable” electric energy infrastructure.  The acquisition of those rare minerals requires extensive mining, often under horrifying conditions.  This Democracy Now episode describes the circumstances under which cobalt is mined in the Congo.  And another way to get at the needed minerals, an idea which is rapidly gaining traction with multinational corporations who want to build electric cars and wind farms, is to mine the ocean floor.   

At some point, we must conclude that our global economy cannot continue to grow. You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. This concept is expressed in a number of ways – by calling for a “post-growth economy,” or “steady-state economy,” or by the concept which has been endorsed by Columbia Resilience, Degrowth.  

Degrowth is defined as “a voluntary and planned reduction in the use of energy and resources, leading to redefining our needs and choosing ‘frugal abundance.’”  “One advantage humans have over other species is that we understand overshoot dynamics and can plan how we adjust.  This is what the degrowth movement is attempting to do.”  The Transition Town network, of which Columbia Resilience is a part, was started almost 20 years ago to encourage communities to relocalize in the face of climate change, resource depletion, and economic instability. Relocalization at that point meant building the capability to produce locally what CAN be produced locally.  In the context of degrowth, it also means beginning to learn how to do without what CANNOT be produced locally.