Editors note: DGR supports TheREAL Green New Deal Project, which is “setting forth a realistic alternative to the commonly accepted narrative about renewable energy and sustainability. That narrative – for which the Green New Deal has become emblematic – leads us to believe that the renewable energy future will look just like the fossil fueled present, but simply electrified and “decarbonized.” We’re pushing back against this dangerous myth. ”
Consistent with the biophysical evidence, REALgnd acknowledges the following. . .
- the fallacy of human exceptionalism. H. sapiens is an evolved biological species that is part of nature and therefore subject to the same natural laws and limitations as other living things, particularly the laws pertaining to energy use and material conservation.
- that, like all other species, H. sapiens has a natural propensity to expand into all accessible habitat and consume all available resources. However, in the case of humans, “available” is constantly being redefined by technology.
- that, in the absence of rational controls, humans will use any source of abundant cheap energy to (over)exploit ecosystems.
- that the human enterprise (people and their economies) is an embedded subsystem of the ecosphere and that decoupling it from Nature is not even theoretically possible.
- that modern techno-industrial society is an unsustainable blip in the history of human civilization, made possible only by a one-off inheritance of fossil fuels (FF), which will either run out soon (i.e., they will become too financially and energetically costly to extract and use) or which we must choose to stop using: 1) in preparation for their eventual depletion, 2) to avoid the continued ecological impacts of their extraction, transportation, and processing, and 3) to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
Consider that one barrel of oil is the energy equivalent of about 10 years of human labor.
To supply the average American with his/her economic goods and services requires6,806 kg of petroleum (~50 barrels) per year. Which means that the average American has about 500 “energy slaves” – mostly fossil fuels – working for him/her around the clock (one energy slave = the energy output of one person).
- that so-called renewable energy technologies (namely solar, high-tech wind, large-scale hydropower, and nuclear) are not renewable. They rely on 1) techno-industrial processes that are not possible without FFs, 2) a dwindling supply of non-renewable metals and minerals, 3) ecological destruction and pollution, 4) and terrible working conditions in the mining industry, much of which are offshored to the Global South. At the end of their short lives (ranging from 15 to 50 years, depending on the technology), they have to be decommissioned and transported – using FFs – to waste sites, only for the entire process to start all over again.
- that calls for “net zero” carbon emissions 1) rely on unproven technologies that can only be manufactured through FF-based, techno-industrial processes, 2) entail significant ecological damage (the injection of toxic substances into the ground), and 3) belie the need to abolish FF use for the above reasons.
- that human society is in overshoot, meaning that humanity has exceeded the regenerative capacity of ecosystems and become parasitic on the ecosphere. Any species that maintains itself through the continual depletion of the biophysical basis of its own existence is inherently unsustainable.
Consider that there are only about 12 billion hectares of ecologically productive land and water on Earth. For 7.6 billion people, this is about 1.6 global average hectares (gha) of biocapacity per capita. However, humanity is currently consuming about 2.8 gha per capita – 75% more biocapacity than is available given the size of our current population (5). In other words, humans currently use the equivalent of 1.75 Earth’s worth of resources and assimilative capacity each year. Species can exist in a state of overshoot only temporarily and at a great cost to the ability of ecosystems to provide life support services in perpetuity.
The one-Earth lifestyle of 1.6 gha per capita for 7.6 billion people mentioned above equates to the current lifestyle intensity of countries such as Myanmar, Ecuador, Mali, and Nicaragua. By contrast, in 2017, it took over 8 gha to support the average North American lifestyle – meaning Americans and Canadians have overshot their equal share of global biocapacity by a factor of 400%.
- that climate change is only one of many symptoms of overshoot. Thus, carbon is only one indicator or metric to consider.
- that a state of ecological overshoot does not resemble, and greatly constrains, what is possible in a steady state at or below the carrying capacity.
- that (un)sustainability is a collective problem requiring collective solutions and unprecedented international cooperation.
- that if humanity does not plan a controlled descent from its state of overshoot, then chaotic, painful collapse is unavoidable.
- that gross income and wealth inequality is a major barrier to sustainability. Socially just, one-Earth living requires mechanisms for fair income redistribution and otherwise sharing the benefits of eco-economic activity.
- that life after fossil fuels will look very much like life before fossil fuels.
Consistent with these biophysical and social realities, our goal is to assist the global community to:
- accept that short-term, self-interested economic behavior at the individual and national levels has become maladaptive at the long-term, global level.
- formally acknowledge the absurdity of perpetual material growth and accumulation (the hallmarks of capitalism) on a finite planet.
- commit to devising and implementing policies consistent with a one-Earth civilization, characterized first by a controlled contraction of the human enterprise and a re-configuration of its material infrastructure, with the end goal of an ecologically stable, economically secure steady state society whose citizens live more or less equitably within the biophysical means of Nature.
- develop and implement a global fertility strategy to reduce the human population to the billion or so people that a non-fossil energy future can likely support in material comfort on this already much damaged Earth.
- identify which types of energy are actually renewable, or largely dependent upon, renewable resources, and what this will mean for the re-design of society’s infrastructure.
- begin the planning necessary to eliminate fossil energy by 1) rationing and allocating the remaining carbon budget to essential uses, de-commissioning unsustainable fossil-based infrastructure, and re-building critical renewable-based infrastructure and supply chains, and 2) reducing material consumption consistent with Global Footprint Network estimates of ∼75 % overshoot.
- understand that life after the luxury of fossil fuels holds many gems and should not be feared.
An absence of material luxury need not equate to an absence of a good, comfortable lifestyle.
Lacking the energetic slaves of fossil fuels will involve more physically active lives in closer contact with each other and Nature, both of which will improve our overall well-being and restore our shattered sense of connection.
Emphasis can shift from material progress to progress on the mind and spirit, which are unlimited.
1. Ecological Economics for Humanity’s Plague Phase (Rees 2020)
2. The World Bank, Energy Use (kg of oil equivalent per capita) in United States
3. Global Footprint Network, Global Biocapacity
4. Global Footprint Network, Global Biocapacity Per Capita
5. Global Footprint Network, Global Ecological Footprint Per Capita
6. Global Footprint Network, Ecological Footprint by Country
7. Global Footprint Network, Ecological Footprint of North America
8. Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, Remaining Carbon Budget
Published with kind permission from REALgnd.