Switching to renewables isn’t enough to save us. We must slow down—and change our values.

Illustration by Abayomi Louard-Moore

Illustration by Abayomi Louard-Moore

The Keys to the Future

by Jerry Silberman

Editor’s note: This is Part Four of a series that concludes this month.

In the last three columns we have outlined the dynamics of energy use in our society. We know that the release of huge quantities of solar energy stored in carbon compounds (what we usually refer to as fossil fuels) in a very short time (geologically speaking) has overwhelmed the global ecosystem’s ability to neutralize the effects. It’s triggering a spiral of global warming, and we do not yet know the extent of the consequences.

But we do know some of them. Ice shelves are melting and seas are rising. Temperatures are rising and global weather patterns are changing. Human health is deteriorating as water and air become contaminated. And we are entering into a period of accelerated extinction events that will itself have unforeseen and possibly dire consequences for our own species.

This should be enough for us to jettison our reliance on the finite resources of fossilized fuels, even before the increased cost of exploiting them shuts the mines and wells down for good. But we carry on.

The population and technology explosion of the past three centuries was enabled by the fossil fuel bonus. We had plenty of warnings over the most recent century that we should develop the knowledge and technology to preserve some of these gains after fossil fuels are no longer available. Yet we have, as a society, taken precious few steps in that direction. 

We choose to ignore that renewable technologies that have begun to be competitive in the last few years, including solar and wind, rely significantly on the fossil fuel bonus. Many of us also choose to believe the current high-tech lifestyles of countries such as the U.S., France, Germany, Japan and the like are sustainable—and can be extended to the rest of the planet—if we only convert to these “renewable” electricity sources, employ some basic conservation and efficiency techniques and make a few other minor changes and adjustments. 

This appeal is also intended to allay the concerns about inequity, largely on behalf of those enjoying the privileges of the fossil-fuel-era bonus. There is only one problem: It’s completely impossible in the real world. It ignores the critical principle of return on energy invested, which tells us that we are working at an energy deficit.

Aside from the math that we’re ignoring, it’s interesting to note that the fossil fuel bonus has not made humanity any happier. Significant evidence shows that people are much less happy than before the fossil fuel subsidy sped up our lives and disconnected us from both the work that actually enables us to live and the people who should be our support community. 

I believe that if we can dial back the addiction to fossil-fueled speed, we would be much happier, and probably healthier. 

But here we are, embedded in a system designed for and valuing above all else perpetual growth, profit and consumption. These values became dominant only very recently in human history and are best exemplified by the industry literally driving the U.S. economy for nearly a century—the automobile.

There is little in our poisoned air, fractured communities, delusions of individual power and control, and incredibly wasteful land use patterns that is not connected with these machines. Yet our visions of the future rarely question their continued presence, or our entitlement to instant, extensive, machine-powered mobility. 

We rarely see any analysis of the extent of the negative impact of the automobile on our society as a whole. Nor do most people realize that 100 years into the automobile age we spend more money, more time and more resources getting to work and traveling to accomplish basic life tasks than at any time in history.

How do we revamp the value structure of a whole society? An intellectual understanding of the problem will not change behavior. Only building real alternatives can do that, and that requires collective power, united communities insisting that resources be redirected to provide alternatives. Taking serious steps to limit automobiles in the city so that fast, frequent, affordable public transit could meet the needs of those who can’t rely on their feet and bicycles is one example of building an alternative.  

Declaring that agriculture is the highest and best use of land, protecting existing urban gardens and farms and promoting more in currently unused spaces (including large tracts in many of our parks) is another.  

Taxing energy and resource use progressively (or adjusting the rate structure in the case of our municipal gas works and water department) beyond an established per capita standard for individuals and businesses—an incentive that always works—is another part of it. 

There is no technological silver bullet. There will be changes, and we need to think big. The real solutions are neither practical nor realistic within the value frame of those who hold power in society today. It’s time to start looking for our keys where we lost them, not under the (temporary) circle of bright light provided by the fossil fuel bonus of our very recent history.

Jerry Silberman is a retired union organizer who now devotes his time to negotiating a resilient future for all of us.