Citizen Action Monitor

The wrong question is: How can we keep our current lifestyles if we get off fossil fuels?

The right question is: How can we adapt our lifestyles when our ambitions are checked by planetary limits? —

No 2729 Posted by fw, May 10, 2021—

Tom Murphy

This book may be distressing for some: a body-slam to hope. The message can be more than some are ready to take in, or of an unacceptable flavor. I myself first approached this subject—when assigned to teach a general-education course on energy and the environment—with great enthusiasm, intending to sort out to my own satisfaction how I thought our gleaming future would migrate to renewable energy…. I have found adventure and delight in challenging myself to live a lower–energy lifestyle, and know from personal experience that dialing down demand does not have to be a crushing defeat for the human race. Our ambitions might suffer, but our spirits need not. …This book takes an approach that deliberately asks the wrong question, chapter after chapter: how can we keep going in a manner resembling the present form in the face of declining fossil fuel resources and/or a commitment to wean ourselves from fossil fuels as a mitigation strategy for climate change?Thus, pretending that the goal is to … carry on business as usual, after a tidy substitution of energy, turns out to be misguided. The real question becomes one of adapting to a new landscape: one in which our ambitions are checked by planetary limits. … Contrary to what the tone of the book might suggest, I am a fundamentally optimistic person, which has fueled a lifetime of pursuing tough challenges and succeeding at (some of) them. Indeed, my irrational hope is that a textbook like this may help get people thinking proactively about changing the course of humanity.” Tom Murphy, Epilogue

Tom Murphy is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. Murphy’s keen interest in energy topics began with his teaching a course on energy and the environment for non-science majors at UCSD. Following his natural instincts to educate, Murphy is eager to get people thinking about the quantitatively convincing case that our pursuit of an ever-bigger scale of life faces gigantic challenges and carries significant risks.

Below, with my added subheadings, text highlighting, and with footnote numbers but not the footnotes, is my slightly abridged repost of the Epilogue from Murphy’s recent 481-page treatise, Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet: Assessing and Adapting to Planetary Limits. Briefly, Murphy’s treatise addresses the formidable questions confronting us. Attending to planetary limits demands that we get a correct assessment of our situation. Humanity is staring at its inevitable removal from the planet. We must not risk failure by placing our hope on a faulty assessment of the challenge ahead. We are pushing planetary boundaries for the first time. It’s time to face the facts — We must rely on nuts-and-bolts details, not on general faith in human abilities. As things are, we have no credible global plan that addresses global problems. Let’s be smart: heed the warning signs; alter course; re-imagine the future; and design a new adventure. He concludes his Epilogue by offering us upbeat thoughts on a transformative way forward.

To read Murphy’s complete Epilogue, including his footnotes, click on the following linked title.

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EpilogueEnergy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet: Assessing and Adapting to Planetary Limits, Tom Murphy, eScholarship, 2021 (Epilogue pp350 – 353)

“This book may be distressing for some: a body-slam to hope.”

This book may be distressing for some: a body-slam to hope. The message can be more than some are ready to take in, or of an unacceptable flavor. I myself first approached this subject—when assigned to teach a general-education course on energy and the environment—with great enthusiasm, intending to sort out to my own satisfaction how I thought our gleaming future would migrate to renewable energy.

Solar power has a tremendous quantitative advantage over the alternatives

As I “ran the numbers” on various sources, I came to appreciate the tremendous quantitative advantage that solar power has over the alternatives. Being a hands–on person, I started cobbling together various off-grid photovoltaic systems, learning the practical ins and outs of stand-alone solar power [1] coupled with storage as a crucial means to mitigate intermittency of the solar resource.

Fossil-free transportation with a plug-in hybrid and electric-assist bike – that’s progress

My wife and I also bought a plug-in hybrid vehicle in 2013 to learn the pros and cons [2] of electric cars, while preserving the ability to do occasional longer trips on gasoline. My commute to work is via an electric-assist bicycle charged by my off-grid solar system for a fossil-free transportation option. [3]

Dialing down to lower-energy lifestyle does not have to be a crushing defeat for humanity

I have found adventure and delight in challenging myself to live a lower–energy lifestyle, and know from personal experience that dialing down demand does not have to be a crushing defeat for the human race. Our ambitions [4] might suffer, but our spirits need not.

Deliberately asking the wrong question: how do we wean ourselves from fossil fuels?

This book takes an approach that deliberately asks the wrong question, chapter after chapter: how can we keep going in a manner resembling the present form in the face of declining fossil fuel resources and/or a commitment to wean ourselves from fossil fuels as a mitigation strategy for climate change?

None of the abundant alternative energy resources easily replace liquid fuels for transportation

This approach manifested itself as: can we get 18 TW of power [5] from this or that alternative resource? In most cases, the answer was no. Solar is the glaring exception. Also, nuclear breeders— bringing a tangle of tough problems—and the perpetually intractable nuclear fusion could offer long term provision of electricity. But none of the abundant resources easily replace liquid fuels for transportation, and effective utilization of the abundant yet intermittent solar resource depends critically on storage capabilities.

The real question becomes one of adapting to our planetary limits

Thus, pretending that the goal is to keep 18 TW and carry on—business as usual—after a tidy substitution of energy turns out to be misguided. The real question becomes one of adapting to a new landscape: one in which our ambitions are checked by planetary limits.

If energy became unlimited, consider the consequences for our finite planet

Indeed, if energy became essentially unlimited by some technology, I shudder to think what it would mean for the rest of the planet. [6] An age-old saying goes: With great power comes great responsibility. Humans have achieved great power, but have not yet demonstrated a respectable degree of responsibility in prioritizing the protection of plants, animals, and ecosystems.

Attending to planetary limits demands that we get a correct assessment of our situation

Should attention to planetary limits turn out to be a crucial element in the assessment of our situation, then we owe it to ourselves to get it straight. Imagine that you are running across a rooftop and have to make a quick decision about whether to jump a large gap between buildings. [7] Would you appreciate a lightning-quick analysis of physics concluding that a successful jump is impossible? Certainly, such insight would be valuable, permitting the formation of an alternate plan, and saving yourself from the unfortunate fate of misplaced faith in your jumping abilities or in some fanciful notion of gravity’s weak grip over the chasm. [8]

Humanity is staring at an inevitable removal from the planet

Humanity is staring at a leap unlike anything history has prepared us to face, having accelerated ourselves to previously unimaginable speeds by the grace of fossil fuels, but now confronting their inevitable removal from the menu.

We must not risk failure by placing our hope on a faulty assessment of the challenge ahead

The past offers little guidance on how to navigate such a situation, so we need to do our level best to soberly assess the challenges and recognize what is and what is not within the realm of practical expectations. I would love to be wrong about the numerous concerns raised in the book, but the asymmetric risk of trying the leap and failing could lead to a devastation that frightens me. Please, let us not risk it all on unfounded hopes or magical thinking. [9]

We are pushing planetary boundaries for the first time – It’s time to face the facts —

Now consider the quality and nature of common counter-arguments to the core message in this book. Humans are smart, innovative, and will figure out something. People 200 years ago could not have possibly predicted our capabilities today, so we are likewise ill-equipped to predict how amazing the future will be. I get the appeal. I really do. But does that mean we get to dismiss the difficulties exposed by careful analysis? Can we ignore the fact that we are pushing planetary boundaries for the first time ever? I would argue that this time really is different. [11] The facts are inescapable:

    • The world has never before been strained with 8 billion people. [12]
    • Fossil fuels bear tremendous responsibility for our recent climb.
    • Fossil fuels are a one-time resource—an inheritance—that will not continue propelling the future, and nature does not guarantee a superior substitute.
    • Wild spaces on the planet are rapidly diminishing as development spreads and resources are culled. Permanent extinction of species accompanies pollution and habitat loss.
    • Climate change and habitat destruction threaten a mass extinction and environmental disruption whose full consequences are unpredictable.
    • Modern human constructs [13] have not stood the test of time, and are unlikely to do so given that they have not been founded on principles of sustainable harmony within planetary limits.

We must rely on nuts-and-bolts details, not on general faith in human abilities

Any convincing counter-argument about why we need not take this seemingly perilous position seriously would itself need to be serious— relying less on general faith in human abilities and more on nuts- and-bolts details:

    • How are we going to supply energy needs without fossil fuels?
    • It isn’t good enough to say “solar and wind,” without specifying how we deal with the glaring mismatch between demand and intermittent energy availability.
    • What would we use to provide sufficient storage? Do we have the materials and means to make enough battery capacity?
    • What is our strategy for battery upkeep and replacement?
    • How will we afford the new scheme and its prohibitive up-front costs?
    • What about agriculture: how do we permanently fix soil degradation; aquifer depletion?
    • How do we halt deforestation, habitat loss, and resulting permanent extinctions?
    • What is the specific global governance plan to protect planetary resources and deal with the consequences of climate change?
    • How do we structure economies to be complacent and functional without a foundation in growth?

As things are, we have no credible global plan that addresses global problems

As it is, we have no credible global plan [14] to deal with these foundational global problems. We owe it to ourselves to do a better job than imagine that the future may work out just fine. [15] We need to face the challenges, put pencil to paper, and craft a plan that could work—even if it involves some compromise or sacrifice. Let us not forget that we do not have the authority to conjure any reality we might dream: we have no choice but to adapt to the physical world as we find it.

Let’s be smart: heed the warning signs; alter course; re-imagine the future; design a new adventure

Returning to the analogy of receiving quantitative analysis on a contemplated leap across a chasm—having indicated serious shortcomings in the notion of maintaining current luxuries—please think twice about trying to carry our resource-heavy ways into the future in heroic fashion. Ignominious failure, not glory, may lie there. But this does not mean the human endeavor has been all for naught, and that we should just sit down and cry about dashed dreams. [16] Let’s be smart about this: heed the warning signs; alter course; re-imagine the future; design a new adventure.

Murphy offers us upbeat thoughts on a transformative way forward

Contrary to what the tone of the book might suggest, I am a fundamentally optimistic person, which has fueled a lifetime of pursuing tough challenges and succeeding at (some of) them. [17] Indeed, my irrational hope is that a textbook like this may help get people thinking proactively about changing the course of humanity. In that spirit of wild-eyed optimism, I leave you with the following upbeat-adjacent thoughts about the world into which we may endeavor to gracefully adapt:

    • Crisis is opportunity: we have a chance to transform the human relationship with this planet.
    • Imagine the relief in shedding an old narrative of growth and faulty ambitions that only seems to be creating increasingly intractable problems—instead side-stepping to make a fresh start under a whole new conception of humanity’s future. It’s liberating!
    • People alive today get to witness and shape what may turn out to be the most pivotal moment in human history, as we confront the realities of planetary limits.
    • Committed pursuit of steady-state principles could set up rewarding lives for countless generations.
    • Nature is truly amazing, and making it a larger part of our world [18] could be very rewarding.
    • We, as individuals, are privileged to witness and celebrate the much grander phenomenon of life in this universe: let’s be humble participants and value this role over some misguided, ill-considered, hubristic, and perhaps juvenile attempt at dominance.
    • We have learned so much about how the universe works, and have the opportunity for greater insights still if we can find a glide-path to a long-term sustainable existence. We have built much of value that bears preservation. Posterity [19] relies on a successful embrace of a new vision.
    • We may yet learn to value nature above ourselves, to the enduring benefit of us all.

That would be a fine way to end the book, so pause for a moment to take in that last point. Think about what you would want to communicate. For me, the final point above might suggest something along the lines of: Treat nature at least as well as we treat ourselves.

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