In the gut of the world espresso machine

Philippe Bihouix

Only the most obtuse of enviro-sceptics still deny the risk of environmental collapse that haunts our societies. From the current climate change to the sixth mass extinction, via the extinction of fossil fuels and metals, widespread pollution and the destruction of arable land (by erosion and artificialization), all lights are now flashing red.

Positive retroaction and acceleration

Worse still, these risk factors interact with each other with systemic logic, in powerful cycles of positive retroaction. The energy shortage will lead to that of metals, whilst the availability of certain metals may limit the development of renewable energies for example; agricultural practices exhaust the land and provoke the clearing of the last old growth forests; climate change will lead to the accelerated erosion of biodiversity and the freefall of agricultural production in certain areas, and so on and so forth.

In the space of one or two generations, we will have to confront all of these factors concomitantly, and that is precisely the problem: how can we face all these challenges simultaneously, when one alone would suffice to mobilise all our energy?

We ought not to idealise the period that preceded ours in the anthropocene. Environmental damage, most of it irreversible was widespread. Excessive hunting at the end of the Palaeolithic and Neolithic period led to a veritable ecocide (who remembers the Cyprus dwarf hippopotamus?). The Mediterranean hardwood forests eventually disappeared under the axes of the powerful, from those of Solomon and Xerxes (a wooden boat to cross the Bosphorus!), to those of burgeoning nationalisms (naval battles between Athens and Sparta, or between Rome and Carthage). During this period the fragile arable lands were exhausted, transforming a large part of North Africa, one of the wheat belts of antiquity, into a sterile region. Later, our ancestors were not to be left behind, and the forests of Western Europe paid their dues in clearing, dues to the birth of industry, to the needs of timber for construction (300 oaks to make a warship). The forests of France are almost entirely artificial.

The differences with our own situation are nonetheless significant. The scale is incomparable (a population multiplied by 4, individual energy consumption multiplied by 7, to cite only the case of energy in the last hundred years) and the runaway effect undeniable. Taking into account past growth, we expect to extract more metals from the earth’s crust in one generation than in all of prior human history. The entry to our towns bears witness to this; we developed 1% of our land (equivalent to one French territorial department) in the space of 10 years, and then another 1% in just 7 years!

Who still believes in the discourse of sustainable development, which stemmed from the Brundtland report of 1987, and which is now so fudged, deformed, diverted and exhausted? We have never produced so much, consumed and thrown away so much – and so fast. Bees are taking refuge in our towns, preferring the soot of diesel motors to the innovative molecules of our chemical industry. Our rubbish bins are ever more full (or when they get lighter, it’s their noxiousness that increases) and the recycling rates struggle to progress.

Some take the opportunity to criticise “emerging” countries, China above all. After all, why shouldn’t a fifth of the world’s population shamelessly continue to consume 86% of its resources? But let’s not forget that the development of the consumption of resources in China is fuelled by its role as the “factory of the world”.

Technological illusions

Faced with these challenges, technological utopia is struggling. The idea that “we’ve always found a solution” remains the impassable horizon. “Everything’s fine so far” says the man who jumped off the roof when he reaches halfway down – of course; it’s the landing that’s the hard part. We’ve always found a solution: Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine and Thomas Savery’s pump system arrived just in time to save Europe from Peak Wood in the second half of the 17th century, enabling the exploitation of coal below the water table, and bringing humanity into an era of thermo-industrial civilisation.

Another well-known example, at the end of the 19th century, kerosene emerged as the replacement for whale oil in lamps, just as the brothers of Moby Dick were breathing their last breath. At the same time, other techniques such as steamboats and harpoon canons allowed for the near decimation of fin whales and sperm whales following the quasi-extinction of the right whales.

However, contrary to popular representation of necessarily linear technological progress, oil did not replace coal; coal consumption has never waned (outside of temporary crises) and with 3 billion toe – tonnes of oil equivalent – it remains the second most important source of energy after petroleum (4 billion toe). Petroleum was not intended to respond to a shortage of coal, but rather the sudden tripling of US oil production in one night of 1901, following the drilling of an eruptive well at Spindletop, meant it was suddenly necessary to find new usages for it. One of these was the new T model Ford in 1908.

This time however, the equations, and the physical limits are likely to be more resistant.

It is undeniable that we can and should develop renewable energies. But we cannot imagine that they will be able to replace fossil fuels and allow us to maintain the extravagant status quo. Yes, a few hundred kilometres squared in the Sahara could provide the world’s electricity (and indeed the world’s energy with just 7 times that surface), but that represents 1500 years of world production of solar panels (a quantity which would need to be reproduced every 40 years at least due to the limited lifespan of the panels)! Beyond the industrial challenge, what would this mean in terms of the consumption of metals and synthetic materials, how many products that are derived from petrol and difficult to recycle? Who will do the sweeping after each kilometre long sandstorm?  More seriously the generalisation of combined renewable energies still needs thinking through, and won’t easily satisfy certain usages. The questions of transportation and storage, and thus of the ability to adapt production to extremely variable demand, have not been satisfactorily answered, and require unrealistically large amounts of metals. Let it be clear that there is not enough lithium or cobalt on earth to equip a fleet of several hundred million cars, and not enough platinum for an equivalent fleet of hydrogen cars.

Of course, recycling must be increased, and we must move towards a “circular economy”. We even refer to “industrial ecosystems”, a formidable oxymoron which demonstrates yet again our ability for diversion and the semantic violence of the system. Unfortunately however, recycling has its limits, and the circular economy is a utopia – if only because of the second law of thermodynamics. But above all, the complexity of products, of their components and materials (thousands of different metal alloys, mixes of plastics and additives, composite materials and so forth), prevents us from easily identifying, separating and recuperating the raw materials.

In addition, there is a wide range of uses (metals used as pigments in ink and paint, fertilisers, additives in glass and plastic, pesticides etc.) for which recycling is extremely complicated (zinc from galvanisation, tin from soldering). This goes to absurd levels: what will our descendents say of a society that extracted silver from mines to use, in nanometric form, in socks as “anti-odour technology”?

Ultimately the technologies we hope will save us will only accelerate the systems, to the limits of the absurd. “Green technologies” are generally based on metals that are even rarer, thus contributing to the complexity of the products, and to the difficulty in recycling them. In basing the fight against climate change on all-powerful technology, we are using increasingly complex steel alloys in cars, for example, in order to gain a little weight and a few grams of CO2 per kilometre. Yet simply by limiting the power of the motors and reducing their maximum speed to 90 km/h these emissions could be reduced by 30-40%!  To say nothing of riding a bicycle…

Slowing down and going local

If we want to prevent future generations from inheriting an unliveable environment, or a return to the iron age – lets be optimistic, the iron age rather than the stone age, because the earth’s crust is composed of 5% iron and 8% aluminium! – we have to drastically reduce pollution and the “net” consumption of non-renewable raw materials, i.e. the quantity that we extract each year from the ground. Because recycling is limited (with each “cycle” of consumption we lose part of the resources and generate waste), the solution lies in slowing down each cycle, that is by significantly increasing the lifespan of products.

We must look towards objects that are reparable, reusable, modular, and easier to recycle at the end of their lifespan; use only parsimoniously the rarest resources, and banish disposable objects unless they are entirely composed of renewable resources. This requires a 180° turn; against planned obsolescence, product differentiation – which is against the needs of standardisation – the devaluing of manual professions, the all-disposable rationale, the replacement of service and hospitality professions by machines stuffed with electronics, and thus rare metals.

The solution of the “productive service system” – with the example of professional photocopiers and printers (which still aren’t exempt from fairly rapid technical obsolescence) trotted out ad nauseum – is very likely a possibility, at least for means of locomotion, large electrical appliances or electronics for the general public, for example. It will have limits however, given that it’s difficult to imagine renting one’s razor, one’s shoes or one’s furniture.

In addition, it is necessary to relocalise large sections of our economy. Naturally, certain productions and activities will remain offshore (even if only certain mining or agricultural productions). This is not about interrupting trade but instead focusing it simply on what cannot be produced locally; to a certain extent moving closer to the trade of former centuries.

Relocalisation is necessary and desirable for reasons of energy efficiency (decreasing the transport requirements) and also for societal reasons (returning a sense of meaning to working and living in society at the level of the village, the town or the region). But it is also indispensible from a social and an environmental perspective: we must learn to manage the famous “negative externalities” at a local level.

At the end of the line, the consumer has little knowledge of the consequences of the production of objects, even when he or she has the best intentions. I bought a mobile phone in France and in so doing contributed to the exploitation of miners in Congo, the destruction of old growth forests in Papua, the wealth of Russian oligarchs, and the pollution of the water tables in China. Then, 12 to 18 months later, I added it to the pile of my electronic wastes in Ghana or elsewhere.
The world has become akin to an immense espresso maker, where the empty coffee capsule disappears into the bowels of the machine. It’s the Filipino maid who will discretely empty the reservoir and take out the trash….

The distance between our acts of consumption and their environmental and social consequences in terms of production stem of course from the abundance of oil, and the low costs of transport. Certain technological evolutions have also contributed, such as the use of electricity as a source of energy since the end of the 19th century. Edison allowed us to heat and light our homes without the odour and the traces of coal, oil or gas. Yet the pollution is nevertheless there – coal power stations remain by far the first source of electricity and heat in the world – but it is delocalised, to the fringes of urban fabric. Electric or hydrogen cars belong to the same myth – that this is “clean” energy, odourless, and non-polluting. Naturally this is false because for these cars to run, electricity or hydrogen must first be produced and even if this energy was easily available, these vehicles must be built, batteries and tyres consumed and so on and so forth. All of these stages generate waste that is, at least in part, unmanageable.

Finally, relocalisation would mean increasing the resilience of the system; increasing its ability to resist the economic and social disruptions which will be numerous. This resistance is almost non-existent today such is the interdependence and unwieldiness of the industrial and financial systems. Major businesses set up subsystems built over the whole planet, with the raw materials from dozens of different countries.

Tremendous opportunities for transition

It is clear that the positive feedback loops between the different risk factors constitute an unprecedented threat. But they also represent a significant leverage point, because we can choose to reverse the process: declining consumption and increased recycling will mechanically decrease the need for raw materials, and consequently the need for energy;  changing agricultural practices, such as organic farming and permaculture will reduce the need for inputs and thus for energy; the reduction of transport requirements will make space available for other activities, decreasing pressure on agricultural and natural spaces. Naturally, many other tools in this process are waiting to be discovered and constructed.

Changing our economic model, which is indispensible for avoiding environmental collapse, is also extremely desirable from a social perspective. “Growth means Jobs” has been the slogan of so-called experts, the media and the powerful. Orwell could have coined it along with his famous oxymorons – War is Peace and Freedom is Slavery. This growth, that of hypermarket distribution, the food processing industry and intensive agriculture, the growth of systematic mechanisation, of maximum concentration of production to obtain economies of scale and of territorial trade-offs in real time – this growth destroys more jobs than it creates.

Worse still is that the competition of everyone against everyone prevents us from redistributing work equitably, and the race to consumption prevents us from benefitting from gains in productivity in the form of leisure time. Competition between territories – in the form of financial, social and environmental dumping – renders any kind of Keynesian revival strategy obsolete; any increase in purchase power is transformed into extra-territorial consumption of products that are generally now made elsewhere.

On the other hand, the return to a form of consumption that is local and founded on objects that can be repaired, relies on economic circuits that are embedded locally which creates numerous jobs – in local commerce and artisans for example. Of course this transition will have to be accompanied by a forceful revalorisation of manual professions, given that the marketing manager has more social recognition and status today than the garbage man or the cobbler. Yet from a utilitarian perspective it is the latter two who produce something that has real value in society.

Working on this transition means also giving hope, and a life project, to people and particularly young people. Born after Tchernobyl (the discovery of the fragility of power) and Thatcher (There is no alternative), young people are mithridatised with the social and environmental headlines in which one catastrophe follows another : Monday phthalates, Tuesday GM foods, Wednesday rising sea levels, Thursday acid rain, Friday the disappearance of Bluefin tuna (fish on Fridays). What use is finishing high school before the end of the world?

Enough fatalism! Transition is necessary, but it is above all possible. We have the technical, financial, social and organisational means to achieve it. Our planet is tired, but it has seen other troubles before this, and we may still be surprised by its powers of recuperation – as soon as we begin to reverse the current trends. It is up to us to take control of our destiny.

Auteur: Philippe Bihouix

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In the gut of the world espresso machine