Saturday, April 9, 2011

Enough is Enough (or is it?)

Human society is based on the stories we tell ourselves. They don't have to be true, just true enough to keep us feeling confident that we have not lost our way. We are in a strange situation now. The stories we have been telling ourselves for a hundred years, three or four generations(!) are wrong. Not just wrong, but dangerous to the future of our civilization.

The story is spoken in a variety of ways: We can have perpetual economic growth; we need and can have ever-increasing amounts of energy; there are no limits; innovation will solve all our problems (and not cause any new ones); any resources we run short of we can substitute with other things; we really don't need other lifeforms on the planet except for those we like to eat; the planet has an endless capacity to handle our wastes.

Side stories: We need high-tech, high-fossil-fuel agricultural techniques in order to feed the ever-growing human population. We need increased population to help take care of the elderly. Consumption is the most important part of our economy.

Well, get a grip on yourself. Every single one of these statements is wrong. It's a hundred years of self-delusion based upon finding an incredible 500-million year legacy of sunshine, nicely distilled into portable fuels. We have now run through half of that legacy; 250 million years of sunshine energy in one huge orgy of consumption. (Peak Oil is an agreed-upon fact from all sides of the political spectrum; the only difference of opinion now is whether it was in 2005, or is a decade or two ahead of us.)

We can't have perpetual economic growth on a finite planet. If you seriously think about this for a little while, it will become perfectly obvious. There's only one Earth that we live on. It's big, but not infinite.

We can't have ever-increasing amounts of energy. And it doesn't matter if we **NEED** them or not, they just aren't there. It really doesn't matter if you draw a graph showing the world's need for energy heading up and to the right at an ever-increasing clip. Can't happen. Nohow.

Yes, there are limits. Everything we see in life shows us limits, down to how many pancakes we can eat; how many hours we can stay awake; how fast we can run. How many codfish we can catch. How many cattle can graze one field before the vegetation is gone.

Innovation will not solve all our problems. For every gift we get from innovation, we get a grab-bag of problems. Consider the automobile. Automobiles need fuel, they need roads, they spit out pollution, they run over people, they allow people to live far from their work or shopping. They need loads of money to support with purchase, fuel, repairs, etc.

We are running out of every physical resource. Uranium, coal, copper, rare earths, phosphorus, fresh water, and on and on. But the most basic of these is cheap energy. There's energy out there, but it isn't cheap any more. Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI) is the key concept to master. If it takes a gallon of petroleum to create a gallon of ethanol, what's the point? (Careful research shows that the actual rate of return from corn-based ethanol is only about 1.3:1, which is pretty much of a wash considering that ethanol has less energy per gallon than gasoline. It's just a way to make some people richer, and some other people hungry.)

We need a reasonably-intact ecosystem on this planet. We depend on the planet for every bite of food that we eat, either from the soil or the oceans. We depend on the planet for the air we breathe, for the water we need. We depend on the planet and myriad other lifeforms to soak up and detoxify the waste from our consumption. Yes, we can eat, breathe, drink water, have shelter and clothing, but we don't need closets bursting with cheap t-shirts.

Conventional agriculture is too wasteful to continue. Before long, conventional agriculture with its huge use of fossil fuels will be far too expensive. We'll have to go back to sane and rational farming techniques, with more people working the land, fewer chemicals, more skill, less debt, more local food, less food importations. Strawberries in winter? If you live in California, maybe....

We need fewer people on the planet, to make room for the rest of its inhabitants. In the kindest way, we need to gradually downsize the human population, which shot up on exactly the same trajectory as the use of fossil fuels. If we don't handle this in the kindest way, by having fewer children, the Four Horsemen will take care of this matter for us. Famine, War, Disease and Pestilence will do it, as they have so many times in the past.

Economic wealth does not come from spending. There's a reason why they call it "real estate". Land is real. Resources in the land or grown on the land are real. Value added by human skill and work is one level removed from real assets. Value added by financial manipulations...., oh wait, there is no value added by that.

We need to relearn the older stories. The important things of life: love, family, community, learning, wonder, strength of purpose, health, happiness. The beautiful planet. You can add to this list. We need to internalize the concept of Enough. The last hundred years have been about more, more, more, more, more. Strangely, if what you want is More, there is never Enough. Once you have the basics that you need, more money and more stuff does not make you happier.

I am planning a few more posts, talking more about Enough and what it might mean for our daily lives. It's really not that scary, once you get over that first big hurdle of finding that the economic story of More can't possibly be true.