There are a lot of voices in the climate and sustainability discussion. I’ve been thinking about where in the spectrum I fall, and why. Who are the people I’m trying to convince? What camp do opponents imagine I’m in? Even amongst those of us who agree that the energy and climate problem is enormous, there’s disagreement about whether change in our daily lives is necessary, desirable, or acceptable.
Below is a list of people I’ve personally been influenced by. Everyone here agrees that the current system has to change, that the magnitude of the required change is large, and that the direction of the change is unequivocally away from fossil energy sources. Where we differ is on what part of the system needs to change, and why. In particular, there seems to be a range of positions taken on the issue of social change. The Pessimists think that no technical solution comes close to being adequate, that large social changes are thus obligatory, and that they will be interpreted negatively by most people. The Optimists think that the best solutions include both technical and social components, and that the required social changes are relatively modest, and not necessarily negative at all. Some Optimists advocate for social change overtly, while others imply that purely technical options look implausible without it. The Cornucopians discount the need for social change, and are thus left with the technical task of supplying virtually unlimited carbon-free energy.
- Derrick Jensen sits at the dark end of the dark greens. He thinks that collapse is not only inevitable, but desirable, and that we should hasten it, dismantling what he sees as an unredeemable civilization, violently if need be, so that the world can re-wild itself. I appreciate some of his eloquent statements of the magnitude of the problem, like the allegorical story in the graphic novel As the World Burns that asks what we would do if aliens came to earth with the intent to melt the ice caps and abscond with our material resources. To people a century in the future, we are indistinguishable from those extraterrestrials. To the rest of the non-human Earthlings, we are already indistinguishable. I appreciate his valuation of the wild, of the other Earthlings. In the fullness of time, I’d like to see large parts of the world made wild again as well. I appreciate his reminder that violence is an option, and that the other side has no qualms about using it today, against indigenous populations, poor workers, political dissidents, and the natural world generally. I disagree that collapse is necessary or desirable, and I really don’t relish the thought of a descent into violent revolution of any kind. Finishing the job that way would be a horrific exercise. At the same time, how effective would Martin Luther King have been without Malcom X waiting in the wings?
- James Howard Kunstler also believes that collapse is inevitable, though not desirable, and his preferred mechanism is Peak Oil, as described in The Long Emergency. One day, he says, oil prices will become both high and volatile, making it impossible to continue running civilization as we know it, potentially throwing us back into some kind of violent 19th century post industrial dystopia. I wish I could agree with him on Peak Oil, that somehow we would be forced, in the near future, to have a day of reckoning in our addiction to liquid hydrocarbons. Unfortunately, I disagree on two counts. First, there appears to be an enormous amount of “unconventional” oil available. I think it would be insane to burn it all, but we’re some crazy apes. Second, even if we were to run out of oil, I think Kunstler drastically underestimates our adaptability under duress. At the same time, I love Kunstler’s blistering critique of suburbia and the strip mall wasteland that America has become. I also appreciate his focus on good human-scale urbanism as a huge piece of the solution to the unsustainability of our current society — in this he’s a rare voice, especially on the dark green end of the spectrum. Sadly, I think we’re going to have to choose to create good cities voluntarily, rather than being obligated to do so.
- Alex Steffen I first found through his TED talks, Worldchanging.com and the associated Worldchanging book. More recently he penned the short crowdfunded eBook Carbon Zero. I think he was the first voice I came across that was very explicitly pro-urban, and aggressively optimistic. He sees cities as the unifying platform of human civilization — the place where our emissions happen, and our economies reside, home to more than half of our species, and rising. The systems that we implement within our conurbations structurally determine a lot of our impacts on the natural world — how much and what kinds of materials we use. Good cities drastically reduce the material resources required to live a high quality life. What you need is nearby, and can be much more easily shared. He also sees cities as natural governmental units. They contain the people you actually have to live with. Cities are large enough to make a difference, but small enough to be manageable as targets of political and infrastructural reformation. You just need to be able to envision a different kind of city than the ones we’ve chosen to build in North America, a kind of city very similar to the ones Danish architect and urban planner Jan Gehl has been working on building for decades. He calls them Cities for People — cities as consciously created habitat for human beings. The sustainable nature of these cities is only one of several benefits he espouses. They’re also safer, healthier, and more enjoyable to live in. Chuck Mahron of Strong Towns likes to point out an additional benefit of human-scale cities from the conservative end of the spectrum — they are also much cheaper to build and maintain.
- Kim Stanley Robinson has written some novels that are unusually well grounded in scientific reality. He’s probably best known for Red, Green, and Blue Mars, and maybe also for his books about climate change in the near future. I don’t know how many people would consider him a prominent voice on issues of sustainability. More than anything else, I think I got from him the idea that society is radically, almost infinitely adaptable, and that the things that actually make us happy are not today a priority. We have a particular set of norms and rules and expectations today, but they have changed dramatically and have also been consciously shaped over time, and they will continue to change, sometimes quickly. Unfortunately that flexibility is difficult to wield. In contrast the material world, and our manipulations of it, are reliably adaptable via technology, but only to a finite degree.
- Saul Griffith is an MIT educated physicist and engineer, serial entrepreneur and MacArthur fellow living in the Mission District of San Francisco. In 2009 he gave a talk at the Long Now entitled Climate Change Recalculated. It did a great job of getting across the overall magnitude of the climate challenge, by linking the available renewable energy flows, and their respective scales, to the ways in which energy is ultimately used in all of our lives — food, stuff, transportation, electricity, heating and cooling, etc. All these different pieces of our existence can be considered in power equivalents — how many watts does it take to provide you with a glass of wine or a hot shower every night? How many watts can we reasonably harvest from the sun and wind? How much space does that take? He got me thinking about the Swiss 2000 Watt Society project. He also made it clear just how crazy a lot of the sustainability discussions we have are. That they are, by and large, not of the right scale, and are sometimes off by orders of magnitude. His preferred solution is to explore just how good a life is available at 2000 watts — the average annual power consumption per capita world wide today. It seems clear that with good design and relatively modest changes to our social norms, a very good life can be had at very low levels of consumption, if we implement dramatic efficiency, use heirloom design for all our physical artifacts instead of treating them as disposable, eat much less meat, and do much less fast, long-distance travel. A lot of people I’ve watched this talk with come away thinking “We’re fucked.”, but for me it was actually optimistic, with the underlying message being that the problem is solvable, if we want to solve it, and that the day to day differences between a sustainable civilization and a catastrophically unsustainable one are actually fairly subtle. We don’t need to go back to being hunter gatherers or homesteaders to make this work.
- David JC MacKay is another physicist, this time from Cambridge. He’s the chief science adviser to the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change. He wrote a very accessible book called Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air, (which I looked at here) which walks readers through a series of order-of-magnitude calculations, exploring our potential carbon-free energy supplies, the ways in which we use energy today, and the necessary scale of the renewable energy systems we’re talking about, if we want to simply swap them in for our existing fossil energy systems. He dances around the issue of lifestyle, and whether our expectations are really compatible with a stable climate. Mostly he’s looking at the situation of the UK, which is much smaller and more densely populated than the US, and also uses about half as much energy per capita. For many rich nations, switching to renewable energy at current energy consumption levels is hard to make work, given space constraints and the relatively diffuse nature of renewable energy flows. For developing nations, even relatively modest increases in power consumption often run up against this same limit. His exhortation at the end of the book is for people to start saying yes to something — it can’t be no to wind farms and solar panels, no to coal, gas, and nuclear and no to lifestyle changes. You have to pick at least one of the options out there and say yes, or we will keep doing what we’re doing, which is saying yes to climate change.
- Vaclav Smil has been studying large material resource systems for a long time, including our energy system. His book Energy at the Crossroads, (which I reviewed in two parts) looks at a lot of the same issues that Saul Griffith talked about — especially the question of how much energy it really takes to lead a modern, high quality life, and what it is exactly that we consider defines a high quality life. If you think that a high quality life is defined by things like long life expectancy, low child mortality, high literacy rates and education levels, the availability of healthy food, access to clean water and transparent, democratic governance systems… then it turns out that you don’t get much additional quality of life for additional energy consumption beyond about 3500 watts today. Smil thinks a transition away from carbon based power is possible, necessary, and desirable, but is pessimistic about our willingness to do it by choice, and about the timescale upon which it can be accomplished. He has a whole book, Energy Transitions (see this talk at UBC on YouTube) about the history of our movements from one type of energy system to another, and the many decades those moves have taken. I think he believes that rapid decarbonization would be hypothetically possible, if we had a WWII scale global mobilization toward that end, but that such a mobilization is nowhere in evidence today, and so is unlikely to materialize in time to avoid really significant climate consequences.
- Amory Lovins, one of the founders of the Rocky Mountain Institute, has been a constant voice in favor of energy and material efficiency for more than 30 years. He focuses a lot on the power of integrative design processes, in which systemic changes are considered rather than incremental changes in various system components, sometimes leading to drastic reductions in energy requirements (see the series of lectures he gave at Stanford a few years ago for an overview: Buildings, Industry, Transportation, Implementation, Implications). However, Lovins and RMI are explicitly unwilling to advocate for any kind of lifestyle change, which leads me to label him a uniquely efficiency-based cornucopian. I think this is an interesting deviation from the organization’s normal focus on integrative design. Cities are systemic collections of machines, just as much as individual buildings are. But where larger ducts, appropriate window shading, tighter building envelopes, heat recovering ventilators and insulating windows — components of low energy buildings — have little effect on the end user’s experience of daily life, advocating for low-energy urbanism does. This means RMI can’t advocate for some of the biggest, cheapest potential energy efficiency measures available. More multi-family housing, including smaller dwelling units with more shared walls, cities that are designed primarily around human powered transportation and mass transit, access through proximity rather than transportation, efficient resource and infrastructure sharing enabled by proximity and information technology. I feel like Alex Steffen and Jan Gehl are advocating for the kind of systemic, integrative re-design of our urban systems that I would have expected from RMI, if they weren’t so averse to suggesting people change their ways.
- Nate Lewis probably gave me my first introduction to the scale of the energy/climate problem, at Caltech, with his Global Energy Perspectives talk. He works on novel ways of harnessing solar power, either for the production of chemical fuels (artificial photosynthesis) or for the direct production of electricity. He expects global energy demand to continue growing, and sees as-of-yet unavailable solar fuels as the most plausible solution. He either thinks advocating for changes in lifestyle is undesirable or unrealistic; I can’t tell which. To me he sounds like a solar cornucopian.
- Stewart Brand founded the Whole Earth Catalog in the late 1960s, and more recently started the Long Now Foundation, dedicated to getting civilization to think much more long term. He’s an urbanist, and a technophile, and seems to think that the entire developing world is entitled to our level of consumption — or at least that they will pursue it doggedly as a desirable end. He doesn’t seem to be willing to advocate for changes in lifestyle, even though he’s an unusually open minded guy. These positions in combination have led him to support widespread deployment of GMOs, especially the open source varieties pushed by researchers like Pamela Ronald, novel forms of nuclear energy like the TerraPower traveling wave breeder reactor Bill Gates is working on, and even large-scale geoengineering as a potential backup plan, as suggested by Ken Caldiera at Stanford. I appreciate the existence of this end of the spectrum in much the same way that I appreciate Derrick Jensen’s apocalyptic collapsitarian position. I don’t think these measures are necessary, or likely to represent the best available options, but they’re certainly available, and if we don’t pursue intermediary solutions that are a mix of technological and social changes, it’s not hard to imagine that this is the direction we end up headed in.
My personal position is very close to that of Alex Steffen and Saul Griffith. I think the problem is very large — that our civilization is grotesquely unsustainable. But I also think there are scalable low-risk solutions available today, if we are willing to accept limits on our material consumption, and modest changes in the way we live our daily lives. These limits do not require us to make sacrifices in the pursuit of a sustainable and equitable global society, because quality of life is not the same as quantity of stuff. The quality of our lives can increase, even as our impact decreases dramatically. Nevertheless, social change is politically challenging.
When I talk to Cornucopians, they seem to assume I’m a Pessimist, because I’m willing to advocate for social change, which they feel is either necessarily negative or implausible. When I talk to Pessimists, they seem to assume I’m a Cornucopian, because I’m not advocating for drastic revolutionary change, and I don’t accept that failure and collapse is inevitable. I feel like I’ve taken a position that other people don’t believe exists.
The Optimist position, as I see it, isn’t so much to say that the cornucopian solution is utterly impossible. Rather, it’s to point out that it doesn’t represent a good value proposition — modest social and structural changes can hugely reduce the amount of energy we need, while allowing us to live high quality lives, making supplying it to billions of people for centuries much easier, and largely doable with presently available technology and a low risk of unintended consequences.
The Optimist position also acknowledges that we have to have a concept of “enough” eventually when it comes to material resources. If you’re a Cornucopian unwilling to say that the current North American average power consumption of 10,000 watts excessive, when scaled up to everyone on the planet, then is there some future level at which you’ll change your mind? How about 20,000 watts, or 100,000 watts? If so, then why not consider the possibility that some of us have already gone beyond what can reasonably be considered “enough”, and explore what kinds of wealth are available today within various material constraints. Constraints are actually good for innovation, and historically most of the real improvements in our standards of living have come not from increased quantity of consumption, but from a greater understanding of the subtlety and complexity of the world around us. And the potential for better understanding is one resource that’s unlikely to run out any time soon.