The following is an excerpt (and rough draft) of a chapter I’m working on about sustainability. I have a limit of 2000-4000 words. As usual I’m trying to cram as much as possible into that limit. Much of this rehashes (and in some cases pillages) other writing I’ve done on the blog, but hopefully the synthesis brings out something new. I will be posting excerpts here for feedback and your reading pleasure as they are finished. My working title is “Why Recycling Doesn’t Matter”.
If agriculture had been the only discovery that attempted to “free” us from nature, we as a species would have quickly run into the same problem as any other species which overruns its ecosystem. We would have destroyed the very things upon which we depend. More likely, we would have been forced to find a balance between the agriculture required to support settled human populations and the needs of the ecosystem to maintain wild game, domesticated livestock, topsoil and fertility.
What made it possible to temporarily overcome the limitations of ecosystems once more was the discovery of abundant hydrocarbons in the form of fossil fuels. This discovery mad possible innovations which powered automobiles and factories. Today the fingerprints of oil are everywhere. If a product has plastic in it, it is dependent on oil. The electricity that power our light bulbs and devices as well as what drives our vehicles, transports our products and mows our lawn are dependent on oil. Oil permeates our modern life. The process to create petroleum takes millions of years, yet our consumption of fossil fuels continues at a rate well beyond any possibility for renewal. The use of fossil fuels as the primary source of energy which makes our current global civilization possible is the very definition of unsustainable.
The typical response to the problem of oil as a finite resource is that some technological innovation or new energy source will allow us to continue life as we know it. The critical question when considering new technologies and energy sources is to ask what the net energy output of these technologies is. If it takes more energy to extract new sources of petroleum or some other energy source, then that is a net loss of energy and therefore not sustainable by definition. The oil extracted from Alberta tar sands, natural gas deposits found in shale and extracted through hydraulic fracturing as well as ethanol and biofuels made from crops are all examples of alternatives that take more energy to produce than they create.
Many look to what are called “renewable” energy sources to solve our energy problems. The sun, wind, waves and geothermal heat produce energy every day with no inputs from human beings. The theory goes that if we can capture enough of this “free” energy then we will be able to fuel our current lifestyle forever. These solutions do not always account for all of the inputs and maintenance required to build the technologies that capture these renewable energy sources. What are the parts for solar panels and wind turbines made from? If the extraction of materials, maintenance and replacement of solar panels or wind turbines requires more than the energy that these technologies produce, then we are continuing to operate at a net energy loss. Perhaps renewable energy technology will be able to provide us with a certain level of sustainable energy, but probably not at the current rates of consumption.
Because of the incredible technological leaps made possible by the discovery of hydrocarbons, many people continue to believe that new technological discoveries will make it possible for us to continue on the same trajectory by simply substituting new sources of energy. The idea that we will find new sources of energy comparable to the energy density of hyrdocarbons is not a matter of science, but one of faith. It is certainly possible that we will make a discovery that will allow us to continue our current patterns of massive energy consumption. However, given what we know about the nature of energy and the laws of physics it seems unlikely. Furthermore, the question persists, “How long can we continue down that path?”
Unfortunately a lot of energy and resources are also spent promoting solutions such as recycling as the answer to our environmental problems. There are several problems with this. First, putting primary emphasis on recycling as something everyone can and should do to save the environment often has the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of leading to more sustainable lifestyles and criticism of the systems that create such waste of resources and energy, the small act of recycling assuages our guilt and allows us to ignore our own complicity in the larger systems that continue to pollute and degrade our environment. This doesn’t mean we should stop recycling, but we should recognize what it actually accomplishes and what it doesn’t. There are also major questions about the net benefit of recycling. While it is true that recycling takes less energy than producing products from new materials, this does not address the problem of the energy required for us to continue the rate of consumption demanded by the growth economy. This leads us to the final myth that continues to perpetuate our unsustainable practices.