Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Solving the World's Problems

We collectively in society have a pervasive belief that big problems are someone else's to solve. When someone points out a problem to us our general reaction is to ask what they intend to do about it. I am not sure when it became that he who recognizes a problem has the responsibility to fix it. Where is the responsibility of the person(s) who created the problem in the first place? To me the first responsibility of someone who recognizes a large systemic problem that they cannot fix themselves, especially one not of their own making, is to make others aware of it so they can collectively fix it, or avoid it if it can't be fixed.

I have a confession to make. I cannot fix global warming and climate change. I cannot prevent peak oil. I can not solve resource nationalism. I cannot correct the global freshwater crisis. I cannot rebuild the planet's lost soil fertility. All of these problems are beyond my meagre talents to rectify. All of them will affect me as much as the next person so I very much want to see them corrected but I am powerless, on my own, to do anything significant about them. Does that mean, therefore, that I should just accept them (like the old quote from Anonymous suggests, "Accept the things you cannot change, have the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.") and wait for someone else to recognize them, speak about them and offer solutions? I am personally very skeptical of anyone promising solutions to large global problems. They are generally simplistic and focused on the symptoms, not the underlying cause. And I do not believe you can effectively solve any problem unless you correct the underlying cause. Fixing the symptoms without fixing the underlying cause just sets up a return visit to fix other symptoms, and then others. The symptoms may change but the problems will persist.

Why do I write about global problems without proposing solutions? The problem with proposing solutions to large problems, especially systemic global problems, is this. What is the next response when you tell someone a solution to a problem? "That's great. Now go do it and don't bother me about it anymore."

Let me illustrate. I could tell you that the underlying cause of peak oil is that we are using far too much oil and have become too dependent on it and have no other alternatives to fall back on when it can no longer satisfy our needs. The solution? Reduce our oil dependence, reduce our oil consumption through greatly improved efficiencies, develop and ramp up the alternatives for us to fall back on so we are ready as the oil supply diminishes. "Great. Now go away and do it and don't bug me." See how it works?

The solutions to our global problems are not simple. They are as complex as the intricate web of underlying causes of the problems. No one can tell you "in seventy-five words or less" how to solve peak oil, global warming or any of the other serious global problems on the horizon. If the primary requirements for any proposed solution are simplicity, brevity and the ability to be done (by someone else, of course) without affecting people's lifestyles then no workable solutions can be put on the table. Period!

Why do peak-oilers wallow in despair? Because people do want brief, simplistic solutions that will not affect their lifestyle. Well, how about this. That lifestyle is the underlying cause of peak oil, global warming, resource depletion, soil contamination, the freshwater crisis, pollution and the rest of the whole long list of global problems we are facing. This planet cannot sustain a massive population of a single parasitic species at the very top of the food chain (we 6.6 billion humans) in the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed. For starters we have to drastically change and simplify our lifestyles, stop globalization, eliminate our obsession with and dependence on the personal auto, abandon the perpetual growth economy, re-orient our consumption to satisfying needs not wants, oh, and reduce our population to one billion by the the middle of this century. But that does not fit within the criteria that acceptable solutions must satisfy - brevity, simplicity and no changes.

Because there are no solutions that can satisfy those criteria!

Of course there are solutions! But they are complex, intricate, they are going to be painful, and they are going to involve massive changes. At this late stage there is no other option. The time for simple, easy solutions was centuries ago when the contributors to the problems we have created were simple and easy. But the layers of complexity that we have added to those problems are going to require similar layers of complexity in the solutions. And governments and politicians, industry and the media continually telling people what they want to hear - that there are no problems, that life is good, that the American way of life is not negotiable, and that people living beyond their means is acceptable (nay, required) - simply serves to make the proposal of "real" solutions that much more difficult and to be viewed as that much more unacceptable.

Peak-oilers are seen as pessimists and doom-n-gloomers because they won't share in the false euphoria that permeates mainstream society. We wont sing Kumbaya and validate the cornucopean proclamations of society's cheerleaders. Most importantly, and very mistakenly, we are accused of wishing for the collapse of human society. Nothing could be further from the truth. Don't shoot the messenger.

Every peak-oiler I know hopes beyond hope to be able to head off some of the disasters they see coming by alerting unaware people to those disasters in hope they will collectively take action and make the necessary changes and sacrifices to prevent them or reduce their impact. The pessimism comes from the constant confirmation that that is unlikely to happen. People do not seem to be interested in saving themselves, their children and their grandchildren if it means giving up or changing anything. So be it! At least we try. You can't force people to unplug themselves from the matrix. All you can do is try to make them aware that they are part of it. If they like it in there and feel comfortable and secure and don't want to come out, all you can do is move on and try to save those that you can. It's very lonely and often times it seems like the easiest course of action is to just give up and re-insert the plug and rejoin the matrix. After all, your chances of survival on your own, while the matrix is still there, are very remote. Why not enjoy it while it lasts?

But enjoy what exactly? What benefits are there to be derived from blissful ignorance of the problems we have created and continue to make worse? It's a little like marching knowingly into the Auschwitz gas chambers blithely joining in the celebration of the wonderfully cleansing shower they have told us we are about to have. You know you are about to be gassed to death but you go along with the pretense and put on your best, silk bathrobe.

How do we solve all of the problems I talk about? With a universal change in attitude. We have to collectively start treating the earth and the environment like we are part of it, like we belong to it rather than it belonging to us. How we achieve that, I do not know. Maybe we need massive, penalizing luxury taxes on all non-essential goods. Maybe we need to build into every item the true environmental cost and compel both the manufacturers and users of those products to invest that money in correcting the environmental damage done by their manufacture and use. I don't know what the answers are. But I do know there are answers. I may know some of them. You may know some of them. Charlie on the next block may know some. But if we never talk about the problems, if we continue to act like they don't exist, we will never solve them.

The solution to any problem starts with the understanding and acceptance that there is a problem that needs solving. And I don't think we have collectively reached that point yet. I believe the majority of people still think everything is fine and life is great. And why wouldn't they? Every mountain of a problem is reduced by the media and politicians to a molehill and every tiny molehill of a solution is built up as a Mount Everest. Black is white, red is green and pigs fly.

I am as guilty as the next person and as much a part of the problem, perhaps more guilty because I already know the things I should be doing but am not. Others can at least plead ignorance, even if selective and voluntary. I can only plead advancing age and ill health. But we do have to fix the problems, if the human race is to have any long-term survivability as a viable species, and the time to do so is rapidly running out. Fixing the problems will not involve more of the same. We cannot continue on with human society as it is presently constituted. There must be a serious change in direction. There simply are not sufficient resources - be that oil, natural gas, coal, water, soil, a wide variety of metals and minerals, or any other resources - to continue on the way we have, especially for these past few hundred years since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

One of the most controversial and painful subjects of discussion among peak-oilers is the so-called die-off. This is the theory (strongly held belief?) that when we pass peak oil the massive global human population, which has virtually exploded since the Industrial Revolution but, most particularly, since the beginning of the oil age in which time it has more than tripled, will begin to diminish rapidly back to a level, it is believed, approximating global population before the Industrial Revolution. That population was about one billion. This theory or belief is based on an analysis of the amount of energy (most derived from oil and other fossil fuels) required to produce the food and other life essentials needed by a human population, and the close co-relation between population and energy use. (See my article in this blog, Energy as the Catalyst in the Punctuated Equilibrium of Human Population Growth).

It is reasonably estimated, for example, that in western industrialized societies it takes about ten calories of energy, again mostly from fossil fuels, to produce every calorie of food. That, to me, despite being a shocking ratio, is a very low, conservative estimate. Why? Because it does not take into account the massive amount of topsoil loss caused by so much human agriculture and the effort, time and energy that will be required to revitalize that soil to the level needed to produce the food needed by the population without modern agricultural machinery, chemicals and practices (See my article in this blog, Post-Peak Agricultural Capacity). It does not take into account the damage done to our lakes, rivers and oceans from agricultural run-off and the effort and energy it will require to recover them. It does not account for the massive depletion and toxification of the planet's underground aquifers, especially non-replenishable fossil aquifers like the Ogallala aquifer in Western U.S. (See my water articles in this blog; The Emerging Global Freshwater Crisis, Peak Water, and Mining Water), and the effort, energy and time that will be involved in bringing them back to health. It does not account for the spent and wasted energy that will be involved in crop losses in storage without modern storage techniques. In other words, it is an estimate that has little applicability to human society on the other side of peak oil where, one way or another, the food needed by the population will have to be produced without today's prodigious energy inputs.

Whatever level of population exists on the other side of peak oil, and regardless of all the other "things" that population produces and consumes and surrounds itself with, that population is going to require the same quantities of food per person as today's population. If every calorie of that food requires ten calories of energy to produce where is that energy to come from without those fossil fuels? Obviously if it is to be produced from human power, manual labour, human energy, we will not survive long as a species if we are expending ten calories of human energy for every calorie of food we produce and consume. Food production in our modern, globalized society is perhaps one of the most inefficient uses of energy we are guilty of. There is absolutely no choice but to find greater efficiencies in food production on the other side of peak oil. But we are constantly told, and very incorrectly so, that food production using fossil energy and the practices instituted with the Green Revolution are the most efficient in history. They are the most efficient in one respect only, the reduction of the amount of human labour involved in that food production. We use so much energy in food production because we have replaced human energy with machines, massive, energy-gobbling machines. We produce more food with fewer man-hours of effort than at any time in human history. But we do so, and can do, only because of the massive amount of energy fossil fuels have allowed us to exploit. The practices we use today simply are not applicable to a post-fossil-fuel world. We are going to have to relearn agriculture and food production, and we need to begin now.

1 comment:

Leon said...

In her review of Jim Kunstler's novel, A World Made by Hand,at http://carolynbaker.net/site/content/view/412/ Carolyn Baker adds yin to your yang when she asks, "[H]ow can we possibly expect to prepare ourselves to live in a post-petroleum, post-collapse world by attending only to the stockpiling of food, water, land, and skills without emotional and spiritual preparation? How can we not acquire the tools necessary for navigating the emotions of sorrow, despair, overwhelm, grief, rage, terror, and yes, clinical as it may sound, depression? What will give us meaning? What will console us? What will allow us to keep going when any sense of purpose has eluded us? And perhaps most importantly, how will we communicate with each other? How will we skillfully and compassionately speak our truth and listen deeply to each other? What specific skills in these areas do we need to learn and practice right now?"