Guest post: Earth is going to have the final say

Originally a comment by Your Name’s not Bruce? on How can Manchin.

…like everyone else, he is unable to imagine a life different than the one we live.

Well, if we just wait a little, we won’t have to imagine at all: it will be here.

I tell people the economy is man-made, the ecology is not. The ecology is more complex by orders of magnitude than the economy, and we understand it far less. Which one should we be thinking about changing?

Very well put. Our global economy is a pale, weak imitation of the exchange of energy, information, and elements that happens in nature, which we have been inerfering with and disrupting to our shame, and at our peril. Yes, a company going out of business is nothing compared to species going extinct. The former is like a car running out of gas; the latter more like multiple organ failure.

Economist Dani Rodrik’s political trilemma is illustrative of the choices we are faced with. According to Rodrik, democracy, national sovereignty, and global economic integration each have conflicts between them, and while you can combine any two of these three you can’t have all three simultaneously and in full.

What about a stable, functioning biosphere? Without one of those, the other three items aren’t worth a bucket of warm spit.

From what I’ve read on renewable energy, the U.S. can replace up to 80% of its current fossil fuel use via solar and wind and biomass fuels, while other measures like improving dwelling energy efficiency and building more densely can help with the rest.

The more I read, the more that 80% figure sounds like a fantasy. The amount of fossil fuels that would be expended to “replace” that 80% would be enormous, vitiating the supposed “cleanliness” of these energy sources. Certainly increasing efficiency is good, but actual reductions in energy use are what’s required.

Yes, it will cost a lot of money but as the kids these days put it, I’m happy to pay it forward.

Problem is the true cost of the “improvements” proposed is not monetary. If money were the only problem, we’d be laughing. Solar panels and batteries are technologies that depend upon mining rare earth metals, which results in massive ecological damage to wherever they are extracted; the ores then rely on extremely toxic refinement and processing, which is dangerous to whatever locality these steps are taken. Both of these steps need huge amounts of (fossil fuel) energy for the machinery and processes involved. On top of that are the inputs required for transport, installation, maintenance, as well as replacement and disposal at the end of these items’ service lives. Almost all of this chain is toxic and destructive. Yet it is called “green.” The monetary cost is trivial in comparison. There’s plenty of room for profit, too. For too many, that’s the important part. All that toxicity and habitat destruction are “externalities” that can be written off, ignored and forgotten. Until they come back and bite our heads off.

Here’s a simple proposition: when the economic system comes into conflict with the ecological one, it is the economic one that must give way.

You’d think this would be foundational to any and all economic theories and practices. The fact that it is not shows you that economics is not dealing with reality.

This is what no one wants to hear, so we continue to think up simple solutions to complex problems, simple solutions that promise to leave everything essentially as it is, no lifestyle changes necessary.

If we do not solve our end of these problems ourselves, they will be solved for us, with a comprehensiveness and ferocity which will be terrible to behold, let alone experience first hand. We have yet to see the totality of Nature’s “market corrections.” If we are very lucky, we never will.

The simple truth is, we can’t solve this problem while there are 7 billion people in the world. Every solution we come up with will “hurt the poor” …

Democracies seem to be not very good at selling bad news. Who will be first to declare that economic growth is bad? How do you get elected calling for wartime levels of sacrifice in a war where the enemy is the electorate’s lifestyle? What party looking for votes is going to promote a “No Children” Policy? Nobody is going to run on a platform that clearly outlines the actual problems we face, or solutions that will actually work. Those solutions would require degrees of self-sacrifice, self-denial, and surrender of accustomed comforts and privileges that nobody has ever had to deal with willingly. As things get worse, protecting natural refugia that will be needed as loci of healing, regeneration and restoration will be harder and harder as humans become more desperate (and as some continue the cycle of despoilation which has been, up to now, so profitable for them). Earth is going to have the final say, but nobody is courting its vote, or pandering to the non-human inhabitants of any country.

What we need to do requires actual change, sacrifice and, in Western countries at least, a sharp reduction in our standard of living. Yet a non-trivial percentage of the populations of over-developed countries don’t believe there is any crisis at all. We’re having trouble convincing some people to get free shots and wear masks during a pandemic. How the fuck do we save the world? Unfortunately, I can’t see solutions that don’t involve draconian enforcement.

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