One of the greatest disservices governmental leaders and mainstream media institutions deliver is the unwillingness, or perhaps inability, to face the truth about the depth of change that is necessary to meet the crises before us. Very few are willing to state the truth that the current design of Western civilizations and economies is simply incompatible with a healthy, vibrant, fully-livable planet.
Nearly all world leaders continue to put forward incremental policy steps they claim are addressing climate change and other ecological damage, but are in fact perpetuating the current, fundamentally unsustainable paradigm. The clearest example of this is the Biden Administration’s efforts to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources as a strategy for reducing climate change emissions while promoting growth, expansion, and rampant consumerism. First, the Biden policies are running into barriers because, in the current geopolitical configuration, China is by far the world leader in producing renewable energy products and China and the U.S. aren’t playing very nicely right now. For the world’s two biggest producers of greenhouse gases, the climate change issue has become enmeshed in military and economic rivalries. That’s one aspect of the flawed design.
Scrambling to play catch up the U.S. federal government is fast tracking permitting for clean energy projects including the massive mining operations that are essential to clean energy products. This rapid escalation in mining is pushing more and more species toward extinction at an accelerated rate.
One such “critical minerals” project involves expediting the review and approval of a manganese and zinc mine in southern Arizona. Local environmental groups are opposing this due to concerns about vulnerable and endangered species in the Patagonia Mountains, which is in a region that scientists have identified as one of the most vulnerable and critical for survival of species like the jaguar, ocelot and Pima pineapple cactus.
A recent study by a leading conservation research organization discovered grim findings about the trends in species loss in the U.S. In general, the study found that 40% of wild animal species and 34% of plant species are at risk of extinction, while 41% of ecosystems are on the brink of collapse. Everything from crustaceans to cacti are on the list. Here is a very good article in Reuters on this topic.
While a changing climate does impact wild species, a far larger and much more immediate threat is conversion of wild lands and habitat for human use. I refuse to call all such conversion “development” although that is the term used in our current paradigm. As pointed out in an article by Resilience.org, America’s biodiversity crisis is currently being driven by land conversion equal to somewhere around 6,100 sq. kilometers per year. In 2019, Princeton University produced a report analyzing how much land would be needed to build enough renewable energy facilities for the lower 48 states to reach net-zero emissions of climate change pollution by 2050. There was a large variation in possibilities based on varying scenarios including whether nuclear would be part of the mix, etc., but the middle of the road figure is somewhere around 550,000 sq. kilometers. That is not a typo – the middle-case scenario would require an additional 550,000 sq. kilometers! That would be approximately 25,000 sq. kilometers of land conversion every year for the next twenty-seven years just for renewable energy projects.
The U.S. is already hemorrhaging species with the loss of 6,100 sq. kilometers per year. It is hard to imagine the catastrophic effect of a 400 percent increase in habitat destruction for renewable energy projects alone.
The difficult truth is our current paradigm is based on extraction and consumption levels that simply cannot be maintained. There is no way to continue the current level of consumption of materials and energy (fossil or renewable) and prevent cascading ecological collapse.
As someone who has been a lifelong environmental advocate and educator I understand the desire to avoid pointing out that our normal ways of life are causing extreme harm and must be changed. It is tremendously daunting knowledge and can easily tip people toward attitudes of despair or avoidance. However, if we don’t face the actual problem we will likely create additional unintended problems from actions we do take tinkering around the edges.
Let me be clear, I am most definitely a supporter of renewable energy. I’ve spent a good chunk of my career advocating for and designing policies around renewable energy advancement. However, renewables alone are not going to solve even the climate change issue, let alone the overall ecological degradation crisis.
We need to be honest that what is called for in this time is nothing less than a deep redesign of Western civilization and the global economy. Rather than shut down over that prospect, we could rally around it as the greatest opportunity of our generations.
As I regularly report on there is already growing momentum toward creating an ecological civilization, and much already underway toward saner, healthier economic models including the Wellbeing Economy, the Post Growth Economy, Regenerative Economy, and Circular Economy. Elements of a new paradigm are already here though we rarely hear about them through mainstream media.
Though most/all world leaders are missing the mark for what’s actually needed in this time, The United Nations, under current leadership, continues to give me hope. Although this body does not have governance power, it does have a powerful voice. Over the past several years the U.N. has begun issuing calls for profound redesign of systems. Recently, it released a report showing a pathway for an 80% reduction in plastic pollution by the year 2040.
The report lays out key elements of the market transformation necessary to radically curb plastic pollution. These include rethinking and redesigning products, far greater utilization of durable, reusable products and packaging, investing in recycling systems, and reorienting and diversifying markets. In essence the UN has outlined a map for how to move from a linear plastics system (create, use, throw-away, become pollution) to a circular plastics system (create, use, reuse, recycle into new products, manage all waste).
Importantly, the analysis shows that while up-front costs to redesign this system would be significant, the investment costs of the systems change are in fact less than the current investment trajectory, which includes substantial costs for mitigating environmental damage and human health impacts. In addition, according to the report, these adjustments could lead to an additional 700,000 jobs, particularly for low-income nations. Changes may cost more upfront, but they would be less costly compared to business-as-usual operations and could lead to $1.27 trillion in savings plus $3.25 trillion savings from avoided externalities.
This study was done in preparation for the upcoming plastics treaty talks, which were initiated when 193 countries agreed to participate in a legally binding treaty to curb plastic pollution worldwide. You don’t hear much about this in the if-it-bleeds-it-leads mainstream media but this is real news. It’s also the kind of whole system redesign thinking and analysis so critically needed at this time.
Here are a few pieces I’d thrown out as priorities in the energy system redesign:
· In buildings and industrial processes the greatest push should be maximizing energy efficiency at every turn.
· For solar the emphasis should be on rooftops rather than new massive utility scale solar farms. The latter are usually more profitable but they chew up habitat. Governments should implement truly aggressive and generous programs to make it widely affordable for residents and businesses to install rooftop solar systems, particularly in areas where the power can be fed back into the transmission grid.
· Intensive recovery and recycling of metals and minerals should be a top priority and actually treated as a targeted, subsidized industry. Massive amounts of e-waste, including the rare minerals needed for batteries and renewables are being thrown away. On a finite, and already degraded planet the only mining that really makes any sense is the mining of landfills and waste zones.
· Transportation is a gnarly challenge. A few ideas:
o Redesign and reverse incentives and subsidies that currently make it cheaper to buy a loaf of bread that’s been shipped from across the country than one produced at the local bakery. These perverse incentives apply to myriad products.
o Electrification of the vehicle fleet is certainly one part of the solution to a massively complex challenge, but again, with current technology, scaling the electric vehicle fleet means expanding and accelerating mining, which is one of the most environmentally destructive activities. Along with expansion of EVs we need aggressive development of mass transit options as well to support people in accessing re-localized economies that enable people to obtain goods and services without driving miles to do so.
o Massively reduce non-essential, highly polluting transport activities such as cruise ships and gargantuan cargo ships that are hauling crap we don’t really need. I know this is likely to ruffle feathers, but truth is truth. The documentation of damage caused to whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and countless other marine species is mountainous. Is our “lifestyle” worth all of their lives?
o As for aviation transport, pretty much the same as above. There is progress being made on biofuels, but that is just one piece of the total damage caused by this massively consumptive, waste-generating sector.
o Oh yeah, and stop letting egomaniacal billionaires blast their rocket ships off in nature preserves.
o In the end, this is really going to require a shift in values at the personal and collective levels. That can of worms will be the topic of a future post.
Yep, it’s big, and it’s deep. And we are the ones who are here at this time to face it. That is extraordinary, and, seems to me, certainly worth leaning into. Human civilizations have faced major evolutions and devolutions throughout history and we doing so now. We are in the birth canal of a whole new way of being. It’s time to push.
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And just today, some news related to the system redesign I write about above. -- France bans short flights that can be made by train instead. https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20230523-french-short-haul-flight-ban-comes-into-force
The insights on renewable energy are very valuable.