By Richard E. Garner, Jr
A couple of days ago I was drying my clothes in the natural gas powered clothes dryer I have in the mobile home where I live, and I had to marvel at the fact that after the dryer had stopped and I was taking my clothes out of the dryer, by the time I got to some of my socks in the back of the dryer, after I had taken out some of my t-shirts and other clothes and folded them and put them away by the time I got to them, they were already starting to get a little bit damp again. I remembered what my mother had told me many times when she was alive about the importance of getting my clothes out of the dryer as soon as it stops running. I got to thinking about energy in the universe and our human use of it and the subject of this blog post which is about the idea of a carbon-free economy, some of the problems we might have in making the transition to it, and why the idea itself has shortcomings as a main or sole program of action for solving the world environmental crisis as a whole and securing the future for humankind and life on Earth.
The idea of a carbon free economy has arisen in recent years in response to the growing, extremely serious threat of climate change. The climate change we are talking about is the increase in the global average temperature of the atmosphere that has been taking place in the recent past. This increased global average temperature is the result of the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere because of human activities. These activities include the massive burning of fossil fuels, coal, oil, and natural gas over the past several centuries, intensive livestock farming, the use of synthetic fertilizers to produce food for our growing human population, and industrial activities and their consequences.
The hope behind the idea of a carbon free economy is that if we can if we can dramatically reduce our use of fossil fuels to power almost everything that we do, we will be able to bring this increase in the global average temperature to a halt and avoid an level of climate change that will make human life on Earth almost, if not completely impossible.
To bring our greenhouse gas emissions to zero, or close to zero, we have been relying on the expansion of the use of renewable energy, or so-called clean energy. Renewable energy includes different ways of making use of the energy in sunlight falling on the Earth, wind energy,
geothermal energy, and other ways of making use of flows of energy that occur in nature, without human intervention
There have been reports that the amount of energy production capacity from renewable sources at the global level is already at one third of total capacity. So, having a goal of 100 per cent of total human uses of energy in the shortest possible time frame doesn’t seem unrealistic ( Joshua S. Hill “Renewable Energy Now Accounts For A Third Of All Global Power Capacity” https://www.cleantechnica.com/2019/04/03/renewable-energy-accounts-for-a-third-of-all-global -power-capacity .)
However, there are problems with the idea of a carbon free economy in the way we have been thinking about it. The primary cause of climate change, the burning of fossil fuels, is not the sole major cause of negative impacts on the biosphere from human activities. In the first place, burning fossil fuels by utility power plants or in residential or commercial buildings or to power our cars or airplanes is not the only kind of use made of these commodities torn from the Earth by human beings. We use fossil fuels, especially oil, to make all kinds of different things that the modern world depends on, like many different kinds of plastics, not just the kind that end up in the ocean. There is plastic in our clothing, in our shoes, our cars, our homes and other buildings. For medical care. For all kinds of packaging. We swim in an ocean of plastic even on the land. Are we ready to go back to clothing made only from cotton, or wool, or linen? What about the types of plastic where a return to the older materials will not be feasible?
Even with the uses of fossil fuels where we burn them have their problems where a simple substitution of renewable energy for a use of fossil fuels is either going to be impractical or it is just not going to be the same. Consider transportation. Consider fossil fuel based commercial air travel. Our American and global human civilizations make an extensive use of fossil fuels to move all kinds of people around the world every day. Why? Are we sane? It takes a tremendous amount of energy to move a pound or a kilogram of mass through the air than over the ground even at a relatively low altitude or low rate of speed. Some of the advocates for a carbon free economy seem to think that we will be able to power this activity with biofuels from growing crops. There are various problems with this including the diversion of land for wildlife to grow the biofuels or the diversion of food crops to being used for a non-food purpose in a world with a growing human population. Also, there is the use of water. And are we going to use fossil fuels to make the nitrogen fertilizer to grow the crops for the biofuels? How are we possibly going to produce enough biofuels to continue this kind of activity on this massive a scale? I don’t see how.
Negative impacts on the biosphere will continue to grow from continuing human population growth and economic growth. And as long as we have these phenomena the ground will continue to shift under our feet as we pursue a carbon free economy. With literally billions more people we will need many more solar panels or wind plants put up somewhere with everything that will entail. And we don’t seem to be thinking about what a mammoth undertaking it will be to make the transition.
At a minimum, no matter what type of energy powers our society, or what kind of society we have, we human beings will always need to eat food. At this point in time most human beings are alive because of the use of a process called the Haber-Bosch process. This is a process for
making nitrogen fertilizer for use in agriculture that involves the burning of natural gas at very high temperatures. There is research underway on various substitutes for this process. However, we already have a very large human population. Current world population is over 7.6 billion and may be as high as 10 billion by the year 2050 ( See https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/world-population-prospects-2017.html .)
A complete transition away from this process in a short time will be risky and involve many unknowns.
In addition to the Haber-Bosch process, we are dependent on other fossil fuel-based products for modern agriculture, including chemical insecticides made using oil, and chemical weed killers, also made using oil. The whole centralized food production, marketing and distribution system uses tremendous amounts of energy and involves tremendous amounts of energy waste. Changing this system so that it runs entirely on renewable energy is something that I hope will possible. But it will not be easy.
I have not mentioned the degree to which another aspect of modern agriculture, the raising of livestock for meat and dairy products, also produces greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. The raising of cattle for beef produces an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, methane. The extent of meat eating in the economically developed world, and now around the world because of the globalized economy, is unprecedented in human history. Again, it will not be easy to educate enough people to eat less meat or none to a sufficient extent to make enough of a difference in time to slow down our march towards unacceptable climate change and the production of other negative impacts on the biosphere.
Organic agriculture, which is the production of food without the fossil fuel based tools of fertilizers using the Haber-Bosch process or oil based insecticides and weed killers and with strict attention to maintaining the health and fertility of the soil which fossil fuel based agriculture tends to destroy is no panacea or easy substitute in world with a growing human population. There is a yield gap between organic and conventional agriculture for different crops and in different regions and in different contexts. There are various estimated of how bad it is in these different contexts. Some estimates range up to 20 per cent. Again, this will not be easily overcome.
Stepping away from agriculture to the urban environment, we encounter other problems in making the transition to a carbon -free economy and protecting the biosphere from the harm caused by human activities. In order to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from the use of fossil fuels for transportation, more dense patterns of housing development are being proposed. This will involve building up rather than out, with more high-rise apartment buildings and condominiums rather than single family homes. And more of this dense housing development will be close enough to public transit to walk. This will protect at least part of the environment in the short term. There will be less urban sprawl. However, this will not eliminate the impact of continuing population growth and economic growth on the environment. Every-thing that people living in a high-rise condominium want and think that they need will have an impact on the environment in its production, marketing and distribution. And the more people that are involved the greater the impact will be.
I don’t want to give the impression that I am against the idea of a carbon-free economy or the desperate, frantic movement to try to make this happen. I am against the exclusive emphasis on climate change as our only major environmental threat to the human future and the future of life on Earth. There are other major threats to the environment from human activities that cry out for attention that deserve to be considered of equal moral gravity. The ongoing Sixth Mass Extinction of other species of life is one of them. The huge amount of population growth that has already taken place in the last one hundred years and the spread of the energy intensive and resource intensive way of life that began here in the United States and in Europe and has been spread around the world through the globalized economy is behind this problem. Continuing human population growth and economic growth will keep it going and may lead to the ultimate tragedy, the complete stripping of Earth’s remaining biodiversity, and possibly our own extinction as well.
We may be able to achieve a 100 per cent carbon free economy. However, this will not by itself save humankind and it will not by itself save life on Earth. In addition to pursuing a carbon free economy as soon as possible, there are other things we need to do.
- We need to bring population growth to the very center of American politics in a way that has never been done before. We need to do this in such a way that the reality of pervasive racism in our society does not control or disrupt or suppress the substance of the discussion. And we also need to do it in a such a way that false perceptions of racism or simple misunderstandings do not suppress the substance of the discussion or our effective intellectual, moral or political engagement with the problem. This can be done in a way that values the life of every human on the planet but is also dispassionate about the impacts of phenomena such as a large volume of immigration into any nation-state, whether legal or undocumented on the environment within that nation-state and the lives of the people, citizens and immigrants already living there as well as the large impacts on the fate of humankind and life on Earth.
- We need to develop a non-coercive national population policy that will seek to bring US population growth to a complete halt and eventually seek to bring about a gradual, slow decline in population over an extended period of time. This policy will have to involve significant reductions in legal as well as undocumented immigration.
- We need to imagine and build a society that does not require continuing economic growth.
- We need to imagine and build a fundamentally different kind of society with a different conception of the nature of the good life.
I forgot to connect my story of drying my socks with most of what I have said here about a carbon free economy. Natural gas-powered clothes dryers at least have the virtue of the use of energy being as close as possible to the point of end use. Electric clothes dryers will involve transmission line losses and other waste and impacts on the environment, even if the centralized source of energy is renewable.
A really superior technology was my mother’s old fashioned clothes line, from many years ago.
What happens to the socks after the dryer is turned off tells you a lot about our human relationship to the universe. Once the heat is turned off, some of the water molecules that were driven out go back into the socks. Nature does not care what we do. And it does not care what any of us think. About anything. Nature will endlessly adapt to what we do or don’t do. But the effects of some of these adaptations on human beings will not be pleasant.
Thank you for your time and interest in visiting and reading this blog. Hopefully you read at least this one post all the way through. I hope I made you think even if you do not agree. Leave a comment or question if you wish. If you think what I have written here deserves your support please tell your friends about this blog and if you are in a position to do so, please go to my GoFundMe page and make a donation at
Some Possible Topics for Future Posts:
Before the Final Curtain Rings Down: Why We Need a New Political Party to Effectively Engage the World Environmental Crisis and Improve American Democracy
The International Empire of Business Corporations, Democracy and the Fate of Life on Earth
Starting the World Over Again – What the New Political Party Should Be Like and What Its Goals Should Be
The US Presidential Race, Our Political System, and Our Crisis of Survival and Meaning
Power, Freedom and the Economic Process
The Globalized Economy, Its Impacts on Democracy and Its Threat to Life on Earth
Beyond Socialism and Capitalism
Economic Society and the Good Society
The Unity of Humankind and the Unity of Life on Earth
Into the Universe: the Wonder of Being
Copyright 2019 Richard E. Garner, Jr