I haven’t been writing for a long time because I’ve taken a 45 degree turn from where I was headed when I started this blog.
- Am I still passionate about helping society? Yes.
- Do I still think that social benefit organizations have a critical role to play? Yes.
- Am I still engaging in the non-profit world? Yes.
So what’s changed? I now “get it” that sustainability is a grave, pressing issue on which action must be taken. It’s not a “we oughta do this because it’s nice and responsible” but rather it’s “we take real action or the consequences will be ugly.” I’ll be writing in future about the changes that I’m personally making my life based on the changes that I see happening. But suffice to say I’ve had a substantial wake-up call.
Here’s how this all started for me. Last July, while looking for career inspiration, I read the book Confessions of a Radical Industrialist. It wasn’t what I expected. Yes I was very surprised to see a successful, hard driving company founder writing so passionately about sustainability and the environment. But I was even more surprised to see how it actually made sense–even in a narrow single bottom line financial way. And then when he expanded that to the bigger picture of what’s going on in the world today, it turned a light on for me. Thus I went looking for more books like this, and a funny thing happened to me on Amazon.
You know how Amazon.com has the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” feature? Somewhere in the midst of browsing there, I stumbled upon The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age. In addition to being an extremely well written and researched book, it is also the first book I’ve read about the future that actually felt grounded in something real.
Sure it’s fun to dream about flying cars and all the energy we’ll ever need via solar panels, but back here on planet earth, we’re faced with a fixed set of natural resources and frankly, physics. Thus any analysis that completely ignores the hard physical constraints on the carrying capacity of the earth is deeply flawed. So how much of the analysis of the current and future state of the world ignores the fixed “limits to growth” nature of the earth? Unfortunately almost all of them. Problem.
John Michael Greer, in books like The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World, does a very nice job of putting together a number of pieces about the situation we’re in, that have great face validity. Do I think he got everything exactly right? No, nobody does. But he has put together a critical mass of sensible–yet not often talked about–ideas to show what history tells us about what’s happened before, where things may be heading now, and what we might do about it.
This may all sound a bit crazy, but if you take a step back, it actually makes a lot of sense. You just need to ask yourself: is the earth finite or not? That’s one of the ideas behind the book Limits to Growth, an overview of a system dynamics model created by a set of MIT researchers in the ’70s. Among other things, they explored the idea that the earth only has so much of everything, and followed it through to see where it would take them. The short answer is “collapse, followed some time later by stability at a much lower level of energy spend.”
And yet if you listen to mainstream economists, politicians, and the media, you’d think that the rich world can–and should–expand at 6% a year forever. Sure, they’ll talk about ups and downs, and temporary slow-downs, and so on, but the arrow on their charts is clearly pointed up and to the right. It seems to me that eventually, something’s gotta give.
But here’s the big challenge with the “eventually” part of that: the world is a complex enough system that it’s very hard to pin down when that “something” is, and what it’ll look like. As John Michael Greer so ably points out in his books, bigger picture decline doesn’t happen clearly one day, which is announced in newspapers. Rather it happens in fits and starts, in a few select places, over time. If you look too narrowly, you’ll miss it, in fact. Although you may have a niggling feeling that life just isn’t quite as comfortable as it used to be. And you’d be right. But if you try to nail down a date for “the start of the decline” you’ll be disappointed. So let’s stop trying to predict when “the future” is going to come, and recognize that in fact it’s coming one day at a time.
So in a sentence, what the hell is going on? Basically, fossil fuels are a super concentrated form of solar energy that took many millions of years to form and because of it, we in the rich world are able to live at a level of comfort that is unprecedented in history–and that may not last a heck of a lot longer because we’ve used up about half of the oil that exists. And alternative energy? Better than nothing, but nowhere close to being as “richly nourishing” as “good old fossil fuels.” Obviously there’s a lot more to be written about that set of ideas, but in a nutshell, that’s what I see as the bigger picture.
There, I said it. Sound pretty bad, huh? Do you think I’m crazy? Have a look into the issues I’m raising and decide for yourself. (The folks at Ravenna Capital Management publish a free weekly bulletin summarizing key energy news–it’s super informative.) But the key point I want to make is this: it’s up to all of us, both individually and collectively, to decide what we want to do. Shall we ignore the bad news about resource constraints and believe that “technology will overcome?” Shall we hole up in a cabin in the woods with 1,000 cans of beans and a shotgun? Or shall we learn all we can and get prepared for whatever might come? It’s really up to all of us–me, you–to decide what actions we take.
Where to start? What I’m doing is I’m going beyond the conventional sources of information to develop for myself a point of view on what I think the bigger picture is, and what I can do about it, starting now. I invite you to do the same.
I hope we can learn from each other, and work together.