July 22, 2011

What is "BAU"? Should we change it?

Isn't the effort to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy just Business as Usual? Shouldn't we be more ambitious about preventing growth that is destroying our environment?

I don't think so. We need to stop harming the environment.

Energy production per se doesn't harm the environment, Green House Gases do. Wind, solar, nuclear don't emit GHGs.

Industrial production per se doesn't harm the environment - careless mining and waste disposal do. Careless mining and waste disposal aren't essential to industrial production.

Economic growth doesn't harm the environment, careless expansion into wild areas does. Overfishing does. Over extraction of water does. Poaching in protected areas does. None of these are essential to economic growth.

I'm saying that

1) decoupling economic growth from environmental harm is possible;

2) decoupling is vastly preferable to deliberate reductions in overall economic activity intended solely to reduce environmental harm, and

3) decoupling is infinitely more politically possible than deliberate reductions in overall economic activity intended solely to reduce environmental harm.

Don't we want to move past simple consumerism?

Our benign management of our environment depends on our affluence and our total resources (technical, social, etc).

As countries and communities begin to be sufficiently affluent that they really "have enough", they begin to stop acting out of being scared for themselves, their families and communities, and start acting out of compassion for others, including other species.

They begin to expand the circle of "family", "tribe" and "community" to include other countries and religions, and other species.

They start to climb the Maslow hierarchy, and find fulfillment in people, life and ideas rather than consumption.

Affluence doesn't guarantee this kind of emotional/spiritual growth, but poverty certainly will prevent it.

Fear and poverty have very little silver lining.
Beware of false trade-offs. If we're in overshoot, and TEOTWAWKI is inevitable, then it's important to say so. But if "overshoot" is unrealistic, or overly simplistic, then suggesting that Peak Oil (and Peak FF, and peak other things) will cause TEOTWAWKI is only giving ammunition to those people who are desperately attempting to prevent change away from oil and FF (and other things that are counterproductive).

I would argue that "overshoot" is way too simplistic: there's no question in my mind that we've way overshot some things: the amount of CO2 we can put in the atmosphere; the habitat we can take from other species; the harvests we can take from certain natural systems, especially fish; but the idea that we're in overshoot in energy terms is highly unrealistic.

The fact is that we could replace oil and FF in general quite affordably, if we chose to.

If we only chose to...

And that choice is affected by what we say here - we need to get it right. If we say that PO will cause disaster - how can we argue with an Exxon saying the solution is purely "drill, baby, drill"?? If we say that we're about to run out of coal, how do we argue with those who suggest that we don't have to reduce our use of coal because we're going to run out fairly quickly anyway?


Anonymous said...

If we are in overshoot (and I'll argue its pretty obvious we are) then it doesn't really matter if we can decouple growth from resource usage like you are arguing.

Nick G said...

You might want to clarify what you mean by overshoot, as discussed in the Post.

Most analyses of humanity's environmental footprint, and overshoot, depend heavily on fossil fuel related factors.

Eliminate fossil fuel, and in those models we're no longer in overshoot.

Anonymous said...

These guys do a pretty good job of analyzing it quantitatively.


"Global Footprint Network’s core research calculates both the Ecological Footprint, the demand on nature, and biocapacity, the capacity to meet this demand, of more than 200 countries, territories, and regions; approximately 150 are covered consistently by the NFA source data sets and reported. The results, updated annually, as well as the calculations are shown in the National Footprint Accounts. The 2010 National Footprint Accounts use over 5,000 data points for each country, each year, derived from internationally recognized sources (see data sources, below) to determine the area required to produce the biological resources a country uses and to absorb its wastes, and to compare this with the area available. This area is reported in global hectares (global acres), hectares (acres) with world-average productivity, for each year from 1961 through 2007. A summary of results from the 2010 National Footprint Accounts, covering all countries with populations over one million, are presented in the Ecological Footprint Atlas 2010"

It is much more than just fossil fuels.

"The Ecological Footprint uses yields of primary products (from cropland, forest, grazing land and fisheries) to calculate the area necessary to support a given activity. Biocapacity is measured by calculating the amount of biologically productive land and sea area available to provide the resources a population consumes and to absorb its wastes, given current technology and management practices. Countries differ in the productivity of their ecosystems, and this is reflected in the accounts."

Nick G said...

This analysis includes "Carbon Footprint".

The world's total "Ecological Footprint of Consumption" is 2.7. The Carbon Footprint is 1.44, or 54% of the total.

The Biocapacity of the world is 1.8, so if fossil fuels were eliminated the total footprint would be reduced to below carrying capacity.

Anonymous said...

Read more carefully. Its not just fossil fuels.


"CO2 is released into the atmosphere from a variety of sources, including human activities such as burning
fossil fuels and certain land use practices; as well as natural events such as forest fires, volcanoes, and
respiration by animals and microbes."

Anonymous said...

The reason this whole argument is moot is once a population enters overshoot they pay for growth by degrading the environment and ultimately lowering the carrying capacity.

We are at that point now. You have said as much yourself. Collapsing fisheries. Climate Change. Aquifers disappearing. Peak Phosphorus. etc etc. These are all symptoms of a lowered carrying capacity of the earth.

The only solution to overshoot is to bring the population back to a sustainable level. A decreased carrying capacity means a much lower level than we have now.

I understand your argument. Much smarter people than you and I have been shouting this from the roof tops before either of us were born. Nothing was done then when there was still time/resources left to make reasonable changes.

You can wave a magic wand right now and remove all fossil fuels from the economy and the damage is already done. And humanity's momentum is to make things worse, not better.

Anonymous said...

"The Biocapacity of the world is 1.8, so if fossil fuels were eliminated the total footprint would be reduced to below carrying capacity."

That's just plain silly. The carbon has already been released into the atmosphere. Getting rid of fossil fuels (however feasible that is) won't remove that carbon from the environment.

The damage has been done.

Nick G said...

Anon, see my latest post.