Energy underpins everything, from biological food webs to the human civilizations embedded within them.
As we embark on the transition away from fossil fuels, it's crucial to understand just how much energy can be supplied from renewables alone.
Renewables simply can't deliver the same quantity and versatility of energy as fossil fuels, but how much energy can they generate, and what will that mean for what the new world will look like?
REALgnd is a U.S.-based non-profit think tank setting out to:
HOW WE'RE DIFFERENT
We recognize that:
The climate crisis is just one symptom of our underlying overshoot crisis.
Climate change, biodiversity loss, mass extinction, resource scarcity, ecosystem degradation - all are symptoms of one underlying problem: ecological overshoot. Too many people, consuming and polluting too much – enabled by a one-off inheritance of abundant fossil energy – has resulted in a vast overreach of the planet’s carrying capacity.
The laser focus on climate change neglects this systemic nature of the bigger problem. It would have us believe we can isolate and treat individual symptoms with technological fixes while ignoring the cancer causing them in the first place. The only way to address the climate crisis is through a frontal assault on overshoot, which calls for a dramatic contraction of the human enterprise.
"Net zero" is a smoke screen.
Net zero says that we should reduce CO2 emissions as much as possible, and where we “can’t” (in sectors like aviation and manufacturing), we can remove CO2 from the atmosphere either through engineered or natural means. Engineered means primarily include carbon capture and storage and direct air capture. Natural means include afforestation, reforestation, and soil sequestration.
The problem with net zero is that it:
Relies on unproven technologies that can only be manufactured through fossil fuel-based, techno-industrial processes.
Relies on the injection of toxic substances into the ground.
Belies the point that ecosystem restoration is needed to heal our planet and its life support systems, not just sequester carbon.
Belies the need to abolish fossil fuels 1) in preparation for their eventual depletion since they’ll soon become too financially and energetically costly to extract and use, 2) to avoid the continued ecological impacts of extracting, transporting, and processing them, and 3) to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
“Decoupling” is impossible.
Decoupling says that we can have economic and material growth that doesn’t negatively impact the environment so long as that growth relies on “green” energy and technology. This techno-optimist, human exceptionalist view of the world forgets, or denies, that humans are part of the natural world and therefore subject to the same natural laws and limitations as other living beings. The human enterprise is an embedded subsystem of the ecosphere – decoupling it from Nature isn’t even theoretically possible.
So-called renewable energy technologies aren't renewable.
Solar, high-tech wind, large-scale hydropower, and nuclear all rely on fossil fuels at every step of their life cycle. Their construction relies on a dwindling supply of non-renewable metals and minerals, on ecological destruction and pollution, and terrible working conditions in the mining industry, much of which are offshored to the Global South. At the end of their short lives, faux renewables have to be decommissioned and transported (using fossil fuels) to waste sites, only for the entire process to start all over again.
Life after fossil fuels will look much like life before fossil fuels.
If we have any hope of averting catastrophic collapse, we have to come to terms with this basic reality and abandon our faith in modern high technology and material growth.
With this in mind, we're assisting the global community to:
Plan for the phase-out and elimination of fossil fuels and the re-design of society consistent with one-Earth living.
We need to allocate the remaining carbon budget to 1) essential uses, 2) de-commissioning unsustainable fossil-based infrastructure, and 3) establishing genuinely renewable-based infrastructure and supply chains. This, on top of shrinking the global population to the one billion or so people that a non-fossil energy future can likely support on this already much damaged Earth.
Understand which sources of energy are actually renewable.
A renewable future will likely be based on wood/biomass and simple mechanical generation, with a greater degree of ecological sophistication than today. Which, given the state of our degraded and destroyed forests, reinforces the urgent need to embark on massive ecosystem restoration and population reduction.
Understand that life after the luxury of fossil fuels holds many gems and shouldn’t be feared.
Absent the energetic slaves of fossil fuels, we’ll lead more physically active lives in closer contact with each other and Nature, restoring our shattered sense of well-being and connection. Though we won’t enjoy the outrageous material luxury of today, it will still be possible to live in comfort. And, as our focus on material progress wanes, emphasis can shift to progress of the mind and spirit, which are unlimited.
See a complete list of our starting premises and goals.
COMMITMENT TO THE TRUTH
REALgnd is unprecedented not just in scale and breadth, but in facing head-on subject matter that is typically considered taboo, uncomfortable, or outside the scope of energy and sustainability. A commitment to systems thinking and a genuine concern for the Earth and all its inhabitants requires nothing less than a full, honest look at the truth. We'll address:
To borrow from a shaman's description of the hard realities of their work, approaching the task before us with new age ideas of light and love will be shredded in moments. The love that motivates us must be a deep, resounding love for all aspects of life. It must require an intimate relationship with the dark, the uncomfortable, the messy. And it must require an understanding of limits and the paradoxical truth that freedom arises out of constraint.
DEMANDING THE IMPOSSIBLE
We are not naive about the predicament in which humanity finds itself. The extent of civilizational complexity and decay, the level of corruption, the lack of widespread understanding about where we are and what we face after fossil fuels, the limited amount of time left in which to act, and the sheer scale and magnitude of action required, all collude to present obstacles so formidable that a managed contraction of the human enterprise seems highly improbable.
As Lawrence Lessig has said about our crisis of democracy, “I’m actually not convinced that there is a happy story to tell here. But…we have to try. Regardless of what we think is possible, we have to act as if success is possible and give this fight everything we can. We must commit every ounce of energy to the battle.”
We share that sentiment and believe in the moral imperative of fighting for what is right, regardless of the odds of success or the seeming impossibility of the task before us.
Change the story about our unsustainability crisis from one of technology-based false hopes to one of clear-eyed ecological realism.
Develop a concrete, actionable plan for the energy transformation.