Renewables are not

06/13/2013

With each new greenwash of the day, marketing and media outlets persuade us that technology can continue to fuel our excesses. My optimistic colleagues ask, “Did you read about that XYZ study, that ABC product or that 123 silver-bullet energy source?” Meanwhile we’re witnessing the breakdown of our society on a daily basis. Cascading ecological crises should cause us all some sleepless nights. Yet our politicians are silent and our economic leaders dare not address the serious threats to our species and the planet. We continue doing what we’ve always done. 

The sickness within our ecosphere has many symptoms: climate instability, groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, chemical contamination, toxics in our bodies, dead zones and acidification in our oceans, and unprecedented rates of extinction with a resulting, steady loss of biodiversity. We have a strong addiction to oil and all that it powers. At the tailend of the fossil fuel era, we’re enabling ever-more extreme energy extraction with fracking, deep-water drilling, mountaintop removal and ecocide by bitumen. There will be no solutions to our problems so long as we insist on maintaining our high-energy industrialize lives.

By completely reframing our views, we might be able to see through the illusions that bombard us daily. There really are no tweaks or reforms that will change the fundamental incompatibility of capitalism with democracy and ecological sustainability. We must ultimately abandon the centralized, standardized, complex systems and institutions that define us. Life as we know it must and will come to an end. No cars, no iPhones, no Internet. Are we willing and able to stop deluding ourselves?

Our biggest collective illusion is that we can shift our globalized, industrial, extractive economy to dependence on “renewable” or “clean” energy. Although the sun’s radiation and surface winds can be said to be renewable, solar PV cells and modern wind turbines are definitely not. Our high-tech world is a house of cards that cannot be sustained by sun and wind alone. No one can precisely predict the timing, sequence and results of intensified resource competition and ecological degradation, but we are clearly choosing ecocide when we treat our one biosphere as both a resource for corporate profits and a place where we can dump our waste, toxics and shame.

Throughout the industrial era, humans have exploited concentrated energy, liquidating these planetary assets for profit and power. Those fossils have fueled our technological innovation at an astonishing rate.  But we are beginning to sputter on reduced supply. We have arrived at finite numbers. Technological fundamentalism—an unquestioning belief that more technology is the answer and that unintended consequences can be remedied with ever more technology and ever more complexity—is a failing religion.

But normal now means a light switch, a gas pump and plastic money. Seemingly limitless energy powers all aspects of our lives. With ever-increasing complexities, demand for energy increases exponentially. Oil spills, nuclear accidents, clear cutting, strip-mining, hydro-ecocide, fracked gas, wind turbines and solar farms all have enormous upfront energy and environmental costs. None are free, none are clean, none are renewable. Installed solar PV systems have limited operational lives and require labor and fossil fuel energy in their creation. The mining and manufacture of solar cells releases greenhouse gases much more damaging than carbon dioxide. Today’s wind turbines are products of today’s oil-based industries, requiring new roads to windy hilltops or oil-powered ships for the offshore electricity generation. 

It’s not that we are tapping the wrong, dirty energy sources or that we are wasteful and inefficient: we are overpowered in our lives and we are overpowering nature. Growth in wealth and population resulted from the harnessing of ever-greater quantities of fossil energy. As that supply is being exhausted and energy costs of extraction are going up, the rate of energy return on energy investment is plummeting.  

Politicians protect existing systems of power, CEO’s maximize profits and the majority of us simply avoid the questions. As we struggle for justice and sustainability, we cannot succumb to our fears. We might resist jumping into one “solution” after the other, as we are so acculturated to do. As the climate spins out of control and the money gap between rich and poor widens, it might be time to allow the uncertainty of the moment to expand our consciousness and enlarge our possibilities.

Anxiety is a rational response and sharing of our anguish can help. Grieving over the coming losses is necessary for us to face them. Peak Oil Blues and Heart and Soul groups within the Transition Movement give needed community support for discussing and considering the possibilities. Acknowledging our fears is not a sign of weakness, but of courage. Instead of repressing thoughts and emotions about impending economic collapse, maybe we could embrace them. Why not integrate the full context of what scientists, in all disciplines, are telling us? By acknowledging inevitable future shocks, we might become somewhat better prepared. 

Bernie Stephan, an Inverness resident, is the Radical Realtor at Eco Realty and co-host of KWMR’s Post Carbon Radio.