We Can’t Handle The Truth About The Human Predicament
Climate change is as obvious as gravity. The only people who debate gravity have advanced degrees in theoretical physics. Almost everyone in America—regardless of training or experience—has a strong opinion about climate change for some reason.
Cognitive dissonance is part of the problem. This is what happens when two strongly held beliefs conflict.
Most Americans believe in the progress narrative—that human ingenuity, technology and hard work can overcome almost any obstacle. The idea that the effects of progress may be harming the planet, other species and future generations of humans creates psychologic conflict or cognitive dissonance. We cannot hold both beliefs at the same time so we deny the existence of one or the other—in this case, climate change.
For many, the default position is—in the unlikely event that climate change is a problem—that technology, ingenuity and hard work will find a solution. That works just fine as long as we are energy- and systems-ignorant. Once we open our eyes to the bigger picture, it becomes clear that it’s not that simple.
The progress narrative is only partly true. It leaves out the fact that most of civilization’s progress—at least as measured by economic growth or GDP (gross domestic product)—over the last few centuries is because of fossil fuels (Figure 1). The role of technology and innovation was secondary.
Oil is the economy and profits are linked to its consumption. The R-squared (r2) correlation between oil consumption and global GDP is 96% (Figure 2). That correlation is as statistically perfect as it gets in the real world.
For all of our technology and ingenuity, oil, natural gas and coal are responsible for the wealth of nations. Every barrel of oil equivalent (boe) contains about 4.5 human-years of work. That means that our civilization has more than 380 billion fossil-energy slaves working for us all of the time (Table 1).
We have added an average of 4.7 billion fossil slaves every year for the last decade in addition to the base amount of almost 340 billion 10 years ago (Figure 3).
This broader perspective shows that simply switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy is not a solution, certainly not in the time window of urgency for climate change. Nor has anyone proven that net emissions from renewable energy are substantially less than from fossil fuels once all of the embedded energy consumption in their extraction, transportation, manufacture and distribution are taken into account.
Assuming that renewable emissions are lower, there is simply not time nor resources available to scale from about 7% wind and solar to a large enough percentage of world energy consumption to make a difference. Even the most optimistic net-zero projections do not indicate that wind and solar energy will account for more than one-third of total final energy by 2050.
More importantly, climate change is not the biggest problem facing the world. It is a symptom of the much larger problem of overshoot.
Overshoot means that humans are using natural resources and polluting at rates beyond the planet’s capacity to recover. The main cause of overshoot is the extraordinary growth of human population made possible by fossil energy.
Overshoot is more difficult to dispute than climate change—the destruction of rainforests, the extinction of other species, the pollution of land, river and seas, the acidification of the oceans, and loss of fisheries and coral reefs. These are not part of any natural process and human activity is clearly responsible.
Technology, unfortunately, is no more a solution to climate change, overshoot or the human predicament that it was the primary cause for human prosperity.
Carbon emissions and the overshooting of planetary boundaries are unlikely to decrease as long as energy consumption, world GDP and population continue to increase (Figure 4). The interrelationship of these factors with the degradation of Earth’s ecosystem means that there are no solutions without a structural change in all of these factors as a starting point.
This implies that a civilization paradigm shift is required but I think that we are psychologically incapable of acknowledging that. Even if we could notionally concede this possibility, we would immediately start rationalizing that of course technology, efficiency and human ingenuity are central to any path forward. In short order, we’d be back to carbon capture, renewable energy, circular economies and related fantasies.
We just can’t handle the truth about the human predicament.
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