In the late 18th century humans found the keys to the fossil fuel cookie jar and have been “picnicking” ever since.
Energy, in the form of fossil fuels, has served as the basis for developing the planetary resources and the growth of the global economy until it has become apparent that the use of these fuels is a major factor in pollution and global warming.
In a technology driven society, there is always an anticipated “solution.” In this case, it is the shift from fossil fuels to unlimited, “free,” solar and wind electricity. Unfortunately, analysis clearly shows that even with the shift to renewables, critical raw materials are needed just for building and replacing aging renewables along with the continued functioning of the current economy. These minerals are limited on a finite planet and are also located in the planetary South, in fragile and politically problematic countries.
With their heads still buried in the energy cookie jar, now filled with solar and wind, there is the faith that science and technology will find a path to transcend the limits of planetary materials. This thinking works well in the models of economists who have simplified their analysis by ignoring externalities of which fresh water, land and planetary biological ecosystems are examples.
“Magical” thinking works well for those cloistered in think tanks but fails when one attempts to take theory to practice. We see this in the pitched battle to control these material planetary resources. In the meantime, through clever financialization we are borrowing these resources from our children’s future to fuel the increasing demands of today’s economy. The switch to renewables in a growth-driven economy may prove to be a pyrrhic victory.
In our personal lives we satisfy our needs by financing, borrowing from the future. At times finance gets us into economic trouble. On the planet with limited resources, there are no agencies that can repair failed material “credit,” or that can recover non-renewable mineral resources. Laws of science, thermodynamics, alert us of the limits of such recovery whether for the original use or alternatives.
While we are spending our physical legacy there are governments who are realigning their economies to respond by focusing on planetary wellbeing by including that which is deliberately excluded from standard measure of the economy, the iconic GDP. The consumption of natural resources is measured by a country’s global footprint. Developed countries such as the U.S. have a footprint that is three times the planetary average.
Wind, water, and squirrels do not recognize political boundaries. Environmental impacts can’t be contained within such borders. Minnesota with its Boundary Waters and other protected areas understands that pollution costs or loss of natural resources need consideration. We see this in the current controversy in mining. The rising voices of the indigenous communities in Minnesota and globally are being heard. The voices of the exploited populations with the natural resources in the global South are demanding a place at the table. The planetary ecosystems are being exploited along with the mineral resources. The shift to solar and wind are a palliative blinding us to the larger issues of a finite planet or, at best, delaying solutions to the larger planetary issues. Already, resource analyses are showing that mineral constraints will change the optimistic forecast for electrical vehicles, on which there is an emergent hope for those whose heads are still buried in the, now, renewable energy cookie jar.
Until our current system shifts from a material consumptive economy to one of a planetary wellbeing economics, future generations will only find the fossilized footprints of today’s inhabitants in a museum of the future along with those of previous ages.
Dr. Tom P. Abeles is a retired professor of environmental sciences with international consulting experience in renewable energy, sustainability and foresight policy.