5 min read

What/If: Solutions to Collapse and Climate Change

What/If: Solutions to Collapse and Climate Change

In short: there ain't any. But while we don't have solutions, we do have answers to these issues that could help ease our pain.

Last week we discussed the basic factors that, put together, create an existential threat to our way of life. You may have been thinking "Well, what if we did X, or Y?" at various points along the way. And those are probably good questions, depending on what X or Y was. So let's look at a few of those variables.

Energy Solutions

The obvious solution to the fossil fuel crisis is renewable energy, right? All energy on the planet comes from the sun at the end of the metaphorical day, so why not just...go to the source? For starters, we've got the problem already discussed a few posts back; in order to create a grid completely independent of fossil fuels, you have to use fossil fuel. The planet currently gets about 28% of its electricity from renewable sources. That's not too shabby in a vacuum, but most of the work necessary to create a renewable grid is going to get done using fossil fuels. Have you ever driven down the interstate out west? If you've done it as much as I have, you're likely to see a disassembled wind turbine, or parts thereof; they are huge. It would take a caravan of Teslas just to truck one arm down the block. Then you'd have to make sure you charged and recharged said Teslas at a station that's getting its energy from a renewable resource, etc., etc. There simply is going to be fossil fuels in the mix to create the grid with any speed and scale, and that means that we're still emitting greenhouse gases. The various particular materials needed for a renewable grid, like quartz, all must be mined. A literally dirty job likely to be completed with, you guessed it, fossil fuels.

In addition, storing renewable energy is an extremely important part of the game. If you're like me, you hate the republican talking point that the wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine–yeah, my dude, we know. But it matters. The sun provides more than enough energy for us, but harvesting and storing that bountiful energy is a real technical hurdle. Lithium-ion battery storage is our current primary solution, and it's expensive, dirty, and America will probably topple a South American government to make sure we get all the lithium we need once we (if we) go renewable. And since these materials themselves aren't renewable (quartz, lithium, etc.), we're going to extract them into scarcity just as we did oil and coal. All this, underscore, is just the grid. Just the electricity supplying fixed objects. We haven't even talked about how our extant grid isn't ready to deal with a sudden influx of electric vehicles.

We have to go back to our Collapse Mathematics 101 textbook again. Barring a revolution in energy storage tech, even if we succeeded in replacing our current electrical grid with one powered entirely by renewables, we're still up against scarcity, still up against the finite nature of materials on the planet. And let's say there is a coming revolution in storage tech–let's say we have fully harnessed the power of the sun and overcome the problems of scarcity in energy. That does not remove a very real ceiling on our society:


A perfect–let's say a magically, utterly perfect–renewable energy grid exists. We have all the electrical energy we could ever want to power everything we need. With free energy, we can desalinate all the drinking water we could ever drink, which is awesome, because before magic, desalination was prohibitively energy-intensive. We have all the combines and tractors and lights and whatever needed to harvest all the food we possibly could. But that's the problem, right there–we haven't changed the ceiling on food. In fact, even though we're not burning fossil fuels for energy, we'd still be using them to increase the productivity of our crops. Alternatively, we could not use them for fertilizer, in which case we've lowered the ceiling on our heads rather suddenly.

But this is about potential solutions, right? So what if we all went vegan? And while we're at it what if we never, ever, wasted any food again, right? Let's go whole hog on this. Nearly half of all food in America is thrown away–an unequivocal crying shame, just a ludicrous figure that we truly ought to feel miserable about. Combine that with the 75% reduction in land used if we all went vegan and, hold on, crunching the numbers here...no, we still don't have infinite land on which to grow food for an ever-increasing number of people.

The same response haunts every potential solution. Could perennial grains help prevent runoff and limit fertilizer and water inputs? Totally. Could we all eat a protein-dense brick of pureed insects? I suppose. But if we wanted to continue to live better, more resource-rich lives with more, equitably-fed people on the planet, we would still eventually hit the ceiling. Stopping food waste, growing more efficiently, consuming less–these are all good and valiant ideas. There is no argument about that. And I don't dunk on them to say we shouldn't do them because we absolutely should. But they don't change the nature of life on Earth.

Climate Change

Come on, you could write this one yourself, couldn't you? Pretend every internal combustion engine on the planet is the Wu-Tang Clan and don't fuck with it. But that won't happen, will it?

Magical Thinking

What we're up against here, if climate change doesn't crush us first, is truly banal. It's simple math. Our needs are potentially infinite while our planet is finite. Thanos' Dilemma. There is no magic bullet, no gauntlet, that will change the nature of this fundamental problem. If we expanded into space we would, eventually, run out of space to colonize. If we all learned how to photosynthesize we would, eventually, run out of ground upon which to sun ourselves.

All cultural and technological advancements we might make don't matter much when we're talking about infinity. When we allow for exponential expansion, which is pretty much the track we're on, infinity trounces finity pretty quickly. But, and it's a big but, what if we pumped the brakes? What if everyone on Earth did what they could, governments did what they could? Then suddenly things matter. They truly matter. While nothing stops the collapse train in its tracks, buying ourselves time is a really valuable possibility, and all these non-solution solutions do exactly that. Planting a garden is an infinitesimally small thing when we're talking about the whole planet, but it matters. If you could delay hitting that apocalyptic ceiling by an hour, wouldn't you? Wouldn't you hit that button and spend an hour appreciating what we had? And the changes we're talking about, combined, aren't just a matter of hours. If we all got our heads on straight (truly magical thinking, I know) and decided to take action we could avert the worst of climate change and coast to a bumpy deflation rather than a collapse. To be clear, these would still be bad times. But they wouldn't be–it's such a tired word by now–apocalyptic.

So, thinking about these things, talking about them, implementing little changes in your life and your family's lives, they matter. And not just in the context of your own survival and happiness. They can add up, even a little, and they can inspire. I'm not here to tell you that individual action is going to avert danger, but in this context, with us? it can make that danger surmountable.