What won’t make it happen

Solar satellite beaming down microwave powerAn American satirist once observed that talking about the weather hasn’t led to anybody’s doing anything about it, but on the internet, a lot of people know how to do something about the climate, it seems. In the virtual land of tool-happy technophiles, however, most of the proposed solutions bring to mind the fabled man with a hammer for whom everything looks like a nail.

Now don’t misunderstand, I can totally sympathize with those who love their gadgetry, being a recovering technophile myself. I haven’t used a gadget for exactly eighteen seconds now, and my knuckles are only a little bit white.

Still, when I go looking for clues about how we as a species might successfully adapt to our twin carbon predicaments, there is little to be found but variants of a single idea: if it looks like a really big nail, just get a bigger hammer and bash harder.

There are any number of like-minded solutions being touted, each featuring a pet technology writ large — massive solar satellites, massive wind farms, massive networks of nuclear power plants, massive areas of desert states paved over with solar panels, et massively cetera.

“Massive” certainly applies to the ooh-shiny machinery so fondly on offer, but seldom mentioned are the massive amounts of capital necessary for executing any of these programs. Or, more to the point, the massive convocation of raw political power — the centralized, consensus-enabled, military-scale organizational power that would be capable of pulling off such madly-unprecedented accomplishments of civil engineering. Where is that power going to come from?

There’s not a credible shred of it in sight, of course: central government lost the will to govern decades ago, and the massive twin problems of climate change and fossil-fuel decline aren’t exactly amenable to “market solutions.”

Such grand schemes are now put forth so often and so casually — and with such obvious neglect of basic data and spreadsheet — that my own reaction has finally passed the “Dude, reeeally?” stage. Now it is just “AGH!”  Please note that this is an acronym for “Ain’t Gonna Happen.”

Not that I don’t wish it could happen. It would be lovely indeed to build a whole technosphere of machines that provide the energy to build the machines that provide the energy, as well as the machines that keep us comfy and well tended.

Even better, if this brave array of machines were able to do it all without putting a lot of awful stuff into the atmosphere, well, we wouldn’t even have to bother with the remedial geo-engineering and space-mining and even more exotic acts of techno-desperation. Truly, who could wish for more?

So it’s come to this. We’re stuck on wishing. We punted a glorified two-man submarine as far as the Moon, and somehow that confirms all the Buzz Lightyear indoctrination we got growing up, promising us a future of jet-packs, Martian vacations and physics-busting interstellar exploration. We’re buying our own BS.

We are certainly not ready to hear “Ain’t Gonna Happen.” It goes against old beliefs about who we are. We developed a Make It Happen culture early in the fossil fuel-induced Industrial Age, an era that Kenneth Clark has dubbed “Heroic Materialism.” In keeping with it, we erect statues to industrious movers and shakers, their steady gaze filled with rising skylines and leveled at a bright horizon where Destiny itself awaits — the image and likeness of the “modern man” in us.

Over the century or so that we marinated in this peculiar ethic, we came to believe that we were able to Make It Happen simply because we dared to be heroic. However, this meant ignoring the very heroic amounts of fuel it took, working furiously behind the scenes to do all the heavy lifting, so that we frail humans could take the bows for being so danged clever and visionary.

A related premise, every bit as peculiar, is that somehow we’ve accomplished our “advanced” way of life because we have become clever enough and inventive enough to make it better through the ingenious use of machines. We often congratulate ourselves on harnessing their power. But right there, we are misled by a metaphor: technology doesn’t have any physical power of its own, of course. Machines are the way we harness natural sources of energy.

Machinery itself is hardly a modern invention. Ancient Greeks and Chinese fully understood intricate arrangements of gears, cams and levers that could be put to useful tasks. Leonardo da Vinci certainly did. What these machines had in common — and what kept technology from spreading sooner — was that somebody had to turn the crank to make it go. Given the limited availability of slaves or animals to take on the crank-turning duties, interested parties would usually just go ahead and do the work themselves, without all the mechanical fanfare.

The real breakthrough of the Industrial Revolution was the trick of using fuel to turn the crank. And once we realized we could get fuel by the ton out of holes in the ground, rather than from carefully-tended forests, we unleashed armies of slave-equivalents ready to turn the crank for any and all interested parties.

With each of us now attended by platoons of uncomplaining energy-slaves, very ordinary citizens of the late industrial era can live just as comfortably — and in many respects, more lavishly — than even kings did in former times. That leaves us anxious about having a comfortable life when the serfs begin showing signs of going away.

There are a number of ways to allay the anxiety — not the least of which is recalling the fact that we were clever enough to learn the trick of using fuel to turn the crank, and even though it turned our civilization into kind of a one-trick pony, we’ve learned quite a few others in the meantime that will help us adapt ourselves to the circumstances, rather than trying for the other way around.

Here’s where we learn even more. The methods that will most surely lead to our living comfortably in an era of contraction and energy scarcity will not likely include the one that served us so well when dense, abundant sources of energy were what allowed us to Make It Happen on such a grand scale.

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