Tipping points, non-renewables and a postcapitalist future

Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR) published this article on postcapitalism last year, but it’s worth looking at again in light of ever more data showing that we are running out of planet, or at least running out of the non-renewable resources needed to continue growing the classic capitalist economy: Time to end the multigenerational Ponzi scheme

the promise of capitalism was always that of class mobility—the idea that a working-class family could bootstrap their children into the middle class. With the right policies, over time, the whole world could do the same. There’s a problem with this, though. For everyone on Earth to live at Western levels of consumption, we would need two or three Earths. Looking at it this way, capitalism has become a kind of multigenerational Ponzi scheme, in which future generations are left holding the empty bag.

You could say we are that moment now. Half of the world’s people live on less than $2 a day, and yet the depletion of resources and environmental degradation mean they can never hope to rise to the level of affluent Westerners, who consume about 30 times as much in resources as they do. So this is now a false promise. The poorest three billion on Earth are being cheated if we pretend that the promise is still possible.

KSR joins the dots between climate change mitigation/environmental sustainability and social justice issues, points out that the solutions to these problems are intimately intertwined, and flags subsidising moves to carbon-negative technologies and carbon-neutral economies as an urgent first step. Read the whole thing.

As pointed out succinctly on Gristmill’s How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic and in more detail in this newer article, since fossil fuels are non-renewable and we have probably already passed Peak Oil and getting near to passing Peak Coal: we are going to have to have a post-carbon economy in the not too distant future anyway, so why not start implementing it now?

Human exploitation of fossil fuels allowed unprecedented technological and economic growth. The problem is that endless growth is not humanity’s situation normal, and as fossil fuels grow scarcer, it cannot be sustained.

The ability of humanity to grow and adapt, while extraordinary, is ultimately bounded by the amount of available, accessible energy. There is in fact a physical planet with finite resources. Merrily getting richer and assuming we’ll always be able to adapt to changes in global climate is to place unlimited faith in human ingenuity to overcome resource constraints. It is to imbue it with a kind of mystical significance.

If events like Russian fires, Pakistani floods, British Columbian pine-beetle infestations, Australian droughts, and Gulf hurricanes à la Katrina become steadily more common and severe, we’re likely to discover that it’s difficult to just up and redo a century’s worth of built infrastructure. For one thing, it takes an enormous amount of energy to retrofit and climate-proof our buildings, bridges, airports, sewage systems, and the rest. Yet there’s good reason to think that oil supply has or will soon peak and that coal may not be far behind. What will fuel our wholesale reindustrialization?

Mainstream economics views the last century’s growth of human population, power, and reach as the new normal — the default state of affairs. It is from that limited perspective that there is an “environmentalist’s paradox.” The world is degrading but we’re getting richer! From another perspective, however, we’re Wile E. Coyote riding that Acme rocket out over the canyon. What do you mean he’s in danger? He’s still going up!

Fossil fuel consumption carries both immediate gains and deferred losses. The gains are real, but are getting harder to extract, and the losses are coming due. It’s simply not possible to keep on going as we have been. (eta) There are other planetary boundaries to growth as well, and we are perilously close to the tipping points of the 10 major life-sustaining biophysical systems i.e. human-authored changes are pushing those life-sustaining systems away from the boundaries of the basic environmental conditions in which we evolved. Once we no longer have the cheap and abundant energy available from fossil fuels, how will we protect ourselves from a much more hostile environment?

Moving away from carbon now will cushion both the economic crunch that is inevitable with ever rarer fossil fuels and provide us with the possibility of mitigating an increasingly hostile climate, or at least having alternative energy available to power the technology we will need to protect ourselves and our food in the future.

Categories: economics, environment, ethics & philosophy, Science, social justice

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