The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The “It Can’t Be Done Because It’s Never Been Done” Problem

This chart is going around:

This is a useful chart, in that it shows that we aren’t reducing absolute use of energy sources which increase global warming: the gains you constantly hear about, at a global level (there are country exceptions, such as Germany) are relative, not absolute and it’s absolute that matters.

But it’s a dangerous chart in the sense that it suggests that because we’ve never done something, we can’t. In the specific case it is misleading: we’ve never had any particular reason to not keeping old forms of energy, and energy revolutions are uneven: in Europe and America and Canada, biomass is used a lot less than it was in the past, but as population expands, especially in less developed countries, well, of course biomass keeps being used, especially for cooking, and as long as global population keeps increasing, even reduced per-capita energy use could easily lead to higher numbers.

But the larger issue is the “we can’t do what we’ve never done” before idea. It’s obviously untrue technologically.  Back in the 19th century many leading scientists believed powered flight was impossible, to give just one of thousands of example. But it’s also true socially: we never had universal sufferage states, for example. Older Democracies had very sharp limits on the franchise. Modern corporations are a new form of social organization though they have some similarities to older forms (primarily religious: temples and, in particular, monasteries). Double entry book-keeping had massive social effects, so did various religious innovations and so on.

“We’ve never done it so we can’t do it”, with standard excuses of “it’s just human nature” (as if human nature isn’t very plastic) is the true doomerism.

We have changed how we live, socially, culturally and technologically, over and over again and we can do it again.

If we can’t, if we are nothing but larger versions of bacteria multiplying in a petri dish, only pretending to sentient, then we are doomed and in a certain sense, deserve to be doomed.

Only if we can change and take conscious control of how we change, recognizing that most (but definitely not all) of the constraints we have put on our ability to change are cultural and created by us, can we have an expectation of a good future ahead of us.

I’m betting we can do things we’ve never done before because any other bet leads places we really don’t want to go.

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  1. bruce wilder

    What is the thing or are the things we need to do to prevent the complex of catastrophic consequences?

    I see people generally getting lost in the question.

    It doesn’t help, of course, that the public discourse is being poisoned in various ways that make it difficult to discuss or to learn about and appreciate the emerging phenomena of these catastrophic consequences. The virtue-signaling impulse on the faux left that feeds false-optimism and cynical green-washing may be worse in some ways than many of the various forms of denialism popular on “the right”.

    Ian writes, “we aren’t reducing absolute use of energy sources which increase global warming”. In a couple of ways, that framing feeds the confusion.

    It’s a minor point, but “which increase global warming” leads some to focus exclusively on the greenhouse effects that becoming forcings on global climate. Ian’s views are far more sophisticated, as regular readers will appreciate. But, it is one way an individual’s thinking can be channeled stunting the growth of shared, public understanding. And, a lot — humanity’s future — depends on better, more sophisticated shared public understanding. Which doesn’t mean, doesn’t require a new religious orthodoxy, imho. Human ambivalence can be tolerated and democratic governance can go forward through an abundance of agreeing to disagree on all sorts of attitudes and (sub )cultural imperatives and fashions. But, I digress.

    The larger point I would make about Ian’s chosen framing as I quote it above is that it distracts from the failure to constrain all energy use by humanity.

    The burden of humanity’s increasing weight pressing down on the earth’s “carrying capacity” or particularly the capacity of the earth to assimilate wastes is appropriately proxied by human energy use. All use of energy in economic production has as a consequence proportionate waste. That is physics on the most fundamental level and we need to appreciate the profound consequences of that fundamental fact before we get to various ways the clever clogs among us may find to improve matters by “mixing our poisons” (which is all that strategies of substituting one energy basis for another can accomplish). The insight that we need to restrain further contributions of fossil fuels to the global carbon cycle to prevent the rise of temperatures and the acidification of the oceans that must follow is important. But, even more importantly, imho, we need to recognize the myriad consequences of humanity’s myriad impacts on the earth’s myriad systems. And, those are proportionate to all energy use and the attendant waste. No source of energy applied to economic uses will be magically without waste. None will even have “less” waste in aggregate, just different wastes. Those differences will entail some advantages and enable strategies for making some energy-fueled activity less adverse to human interests, but in aggregate globally all energy use has waste as its consequence.

    Waste. If you like: entropy. That is, waste and error. As humans, we should not lightly dismiss error, the peculiar contribution of our “intentional” arrogant technological innovations, which are accelerating and multiplying well beyond our collective capacity to learn of consequences soon enough to respond with mitigations and prudent self-constraint and regulation. Think of what it took to recognize the terrible consequences of reducing engine knock by adding lead to gasoline or using Freon as a propellant for hairspray (a passing fashion!).

    One step toward humanity taking responsibility — becoming more than the suicidal bacteria overpopulating Petri dish earth — would be to recognize and acknowledge the critical role radical energy conservation must play in any “transition”.

    Yves Smith has made this point and I respect her analytic power more for recognizing its primacy.

    Economists label the tendency whereby every advance in technological energy efficiency results in more energy use, the Jevons Effect, after a 19th century economist. Illumination is vastly more efficient than in the days of tallow candles, whale oil lamps of Edison bulbs, but none of these technological advances results in less energy use for lighting. We could leverage the LED for vast economies in energy use while continuing to enjoy the benefits of artificial illumination, but we don’t. That is something that has to change in the culture of political economy. We will not be able to accomplish anything with carbon taxes or other methods aimed at improved allocative efficiency. Radical energy conservation will require constraint.

    Those constraints can be on a lot of economic activity of very low marginal usefulness. Like excessive salesmanship and bullshit jobs. But, we would need to change our culture and thinking to make the connections between issues like global climate change driven by fossil fuel use adding to the carbon cycle and the immiserations of, say, the American car-centric, big-box and franchise dominated suburb.

  2. Andaréapié

    I’m very grateful to see this issue raised and Bruce Wilder’s comment and the question regarding what we must do to avoid a complex of catastrophic consequences.

    I usually write or state: Overpopulation /overconsumption + capitalism + invested leadership + an increasingly exhausted, overheated, poisoned, FINITE Earth = Overshoot. I’ve arrived, right or wrong, at the conclusion that there must be a huge contraction of all human activity. Equitably or inequitably. Voluntarily(?)or involuntarily(nuclear war or collapse)

    Then I reference the work of William Catton, William Rees, Alice Friedemann, B. Sid Smith, and several others. Many have material on YouTube as well as published work. B. Sidney Smith’s essay, at his website, “All the Bunnies in the Meadow Die” , addresses this.

    My statement on Overpopulation/overconsumption etc., is so condensed and admittedly superficial that its value is questionable. There is an another level to this and I lack the chops to unpack it completely. How do you, collectively, arrive at a consensus addressing the contraction of human activity that must occur, in direct challenge to pressures from the most basic biological imperatives and our drive to achieve those imperatives and also conserve energy? Isn’t this part of the motivation to develop, refine, technology? We’ve created our own bootstraps. Isn’t this part of the problem? And how exactly do you forego those qualities that have been so terribly, destructively successful?

    Are we wise enough to forego what have been some of our greatest strengths? Are we wise enough to restrain our own cleverness?

    I truly would be grateful to be proven wrong.

  3. Flaser

    One pet-peeve I have with the blog is the insistence that Renewables and “Renewables Alone” are the way to solve the climate crisis.

    I contend this, because unlike other issues, this one has impediments in physics that pose challenges significantly greater than usually admitted. (Energy storage, material needs, capacity factor).

    If Renewables were the only way to solve our problems, then we would just need to tackle these, even if they’re hard.

    However, we already have a green energy source: Nuclear.
    Yes, it’s green (in the same ballpark by CO2 emission as Renewables or Hydro) and no, spent fuel is not an insurmountable issue.

    As far back as 2017, some folks already took the time to crunch the numbers:

    Why aren’t we building Nuclear (and Renewables)?
    Would you be astounded, if I told you Nuclear has the best safety track record of all forms of energy? Even if you *do* include Chernobyl? Did you know that the Three Miles Island and Fukushima disasters had zero and *one* radiation related fatalities? Would it surprise you that the NRC’s insistance on ALARA stifled safety innovation and has actually made the public *less* safe in the long run?

    If the above questioned piqued your interest, I suggest researching the topics, you may be surprised how the evidence based reality starkly differs from what you’re sold.

  4. Willy

    What we’ve got is like putting out a big spread of tasty snacks and alcohol and telling the guests to not partake because these things are bad for them. And the party host is the fat drunk guy.

    What would be more effective is putting out better snacks and beverages which are still both delicious and healthy. Even dumbass conservatives took to LED lighting without much fuss and bother. Disposing of recyclables and compostables was made easy when they provided the different colored cans. With wheels even! And I for one don’t see hardly any more roadside junk dumping out in my exurbia since the county dump lowered their prices.

    Preaching works about as well as telling dumbass evangelicals that they won’t be getting any of the usual material perks from church anymore. Take those things away, stuff like economic networking for mediocres, reliable playmates for toddlers, nubiles and choir boys for the predators, and get out of accountability free cards for the assholes… and it’s all just boring preaching and singing the same old dull songs.

    We need more and better renewables, systems and cultures which everybody actually wants to use.

  5. Purple Library Guy

    I’m pretty sure we’ve reduced our use of whale oil.

    I’ve seen the argument before; I don’t really think “We’ve never before done something that we never before had a reason to want to do” is a huge issue.

    I also think that, even absent the urgency, there is something about the technological nature of the current transition that is different and would inherently lead to the absolute decline of other approaches. Older forms of energy have been basically various different forms of combustion. It’s not that surprising if their advantages over each other have been kind of patchwork. But the shift is moving to an electricity-based system–renewables generate electricity, electricity does the work. The thing about this is that it’s quite integrated across different fields and domains, except maybe aviation. You do everything practical with electricity rather than combustion, and you generate the electricity with renewables. And doing things with electricity is fundamentally more efficient than doing the same things with combustion–the only thing keeping most combustion technologies going is existing infrastructure and other sort of “momentum” advantages. Meanwhile, generating electricity with renewables has become solidly cheaper than doing it any other way. Both of these advantages are continuing to grow. Renewable electricity generation is also capable of being a quite local solution, making it less likely that you’ll see more isolated areas as holdouts in the longer term. So on both the energy generation and use of energy to do work side, we’re reaching a technological point where combustion is not competitive. This shift is fundamentally different from finding a new thing to burn.

  6. Ian Welsh

    “This blog” has not said renewables are the only way and has indicated possible conditional support for nuclear if done right.

  7. sbt42

    Does anyone know if petroleum-based corporations are also pushing against nuclear power? Any evidence to back up my suspicion of this? Their influence might be one reason that the spent-fuel-disposal issue hasn’t been sustainably solved, addressed, etc.

  8. capelin

    Biomass… hmmn, round these here parts, that means stripping forests with diesel mega-harvesters.

    What’s the carbon footprint of the Ukraine war?

    Reduce is the first order of buisness in the three R’s.

    800 private jets at Davos.

    Governance is the issue (and we sure as hell never-been-done-before figured _that out on a large scale!)

    “Let’s hope humans never find a free inexhaustible source of energy. Think of what we’d do with it”.

  9. someofparts

    Well, from weekend roundup links at this very site –

    Looks like China agrees with the idea that we are capable of big changes.

  10. Purple Library Guy

    @sbt42 To the contrary, there seems to be something of a PRO-nuclear push by the petroleum lobby. As far as I can tell, they favour spending money on nuclear because they don’t think it will amount to much, and will do so slowly because nuclear has such a long construction lead time, and will do so all the more slowly because the nuclear technologies being hawked are all new and untested, meaning they will take even longer to get from the drawing board to producing plant. The “nuclear renaissance” seems, for the fossil fuel lobby, to be a play to kick the can down the road for a few more years, delaying attempts to do the simple, fast, cheap stuff which will actually phase fossil fuels out. It’s another hydrogen.

    For the actual nuclear types it’s hard to say how much they’re serious and how much they’re just hoping to pocket a whole bunch of government largesse before it all falls apart. Certainly the versions of nuclear they are pushing currently (SMRs, some of them intended to use sodium cooling or graphite-covered fuel pellets) seem REALLY stupid and I have doubts whether actually building the damn things is even the point.

  11. bruce wilder

    “I’m pretty sure we’ve reduced our use of whale oil.”

    When we ran out of whales.

    We do everything more efficiently in a purely technical sense. That’s great, but becomes irrelevant to the environmental consequences because efficiency leads inexorably to doing so much more of it, whatever it is. LEDs are way more economical in terms of resources consumed to produce a given quantity of illumination. But, in terms of total resources consume by lighting, the numbers only go up and up, because we make extravagant use of ever cheaper lighting. And, it is highly questionable whether there are genuine social benefits of never seeing the night sky’s glory or depriving nature’s creatures of darkness.

    We need to find ways to collectively steer a better course.

  12. StewartM


    @sbt42 To the contrary, there seems to be something of a PRO-nuclear push by the petroleum lobby.

    It could also be that nuclear by its very nature is going to be ‘big energy’ and thus can be controlled/owned by a handful of tycoons (i.e., the oil oligarchs become nuclear oligarchs). They don’t want solutions that can be decentralized and have broad ownership.

  13. different clue

    I remember several years ago a guest-blogger and also comment-contributor named Harper said in a comment on the Sic Semper Tyrannis blog something like . . . our economy requires vast fluxes of electricity. Can renewables ever provide that?
    Would renewables ever be more than a half-vast solution?

    I thought to myself, and still think that if our economy could learn to require half as much fluxes of electricity then our demand would move from vast to half-vast. Which would shrink the problem from vast to half-vast. And if we shrank the problem in half, from vast to half-vast, such that we made it into a half-vast problem, then perhaps the half-vast solution known as renewables might be good enough to solve a half-vast problem.

    So how do we reduce electricity use from vast to half-vast? And more generally, how do we reduce energy use from vast to half-vast? Down to where our half-vast solutions can solve the problem?

  14. Flaser

    @Ian Welsh – I recant, you indeed called for this in ’22:

    One thing I *would* more emphasize though, is the opportunity cost of neglecting nuclear in current policies, or the even more dangerous insistence of nuclear phase out.

    I’d also contest the most common argument: Nuclear does *not* have to be slow, super-expensive and riddled with cost overruns. The prime example is China where they’re building plants more or less on time, on budget at ever faster pace. (Including everything else).

    While we could argue about values based failures (e.g. new business class liberal elite vs earlier “engineer” one) or decline of industry, the role of government (mis-)regulation is undeniable. Prime example, was the NRC’s failure to grant a license to Canadian CANDU reactors. These reactors are in widespread use throughout the world, have good track record and are a mature, proven technology… the NRC dragged the issue out so long, that Canadian parties eventually pulled their license request and concluded it’s impossible to get *anything* new licensed in the US.

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