Why the Green Future We Want Can’t Happen

Short answer: physics.

Long answer…

I watched a movie the other day called Snowpiercer. It’s a joint Korean-American dystopian film based on an 80’s French graphic novel, and tells the story of life aboard a massive high-speed train after a botched attempt to fix climate change ushers in a sudden and catastrophic ice age. The train itself is powered by some kind of perpetual motion/zero point energy engine that hurls it in it’s desolate, 365-day journey around the Earth. It’s an entirely closed ecosystem: death by exposure for those who attempt to leave is swiftly guaranteed.

The people who live aboard the train are highly stratified. Those in the rear cars live in cramped, squalid conditions, while the people living near the front of the train are permitted to enjoy all manner of hedonistic luxuries and roomy accommodations. In the middle, separating them, is the prison and barracks for security.

The movie tells the story of an attempted uprising of the lower classes as they make their way towards the front so that demands (I’m not sure of what sort, to be honest) can be made of the mythical architect and steward of the sacred engine, who is in charge of maintaining perfect homeostasis aboard. Spoiler alert: We discover that the train, now 17 years old, requires small children to do the work of parts that have failed, explaining the abductions we see earlier in the film. And in a twist reminiscent to Animal Farm, the leader of the rebellion is told he had been chosen to succeed the aging engine-keeper in his role at the front, but it’s all a wash anyways as the train gets derailed at the last minute, killing everyone on board except for a pair of kids we’re supposed to accept has a chance at surviving the frozen wasteland simply because they happened to see a polar bear.

The train, as you have already gathered, is a metaphor for the entirety of the (industrialized) planet and its inhabitants a literal encapsulation of the (industrialized) human race. It’s where we are now: a conglomeration of the most highly stratified societies that human history has ever seen, powered by the miracle of the sacred engine we call fossil fuels.

The villains of the film give us explanation after explanation on the importance of strict hierarchy and its role in maintaining the rigid balance that keeps humanity alive aboard the confines of the train. We begin the story with the implicit understanding that the uprising is good and just, but by the end, we’re not so sure. The children we see at work under the floorboards of the engine-keeper’s sparse suite, or going willfully into the belly of the engine itself to maintain humanity’s life support, make the audience hesitate. Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? Of course, then, the whole thing is blown wide open, quite literally, and the laws governing the precarity of life aboard the train-as-ark cease to exist as everything is destroyed and the wild world opens up to humanity for the first time in 17 years.

Of course, those two surviving children never make it to Adam and Eve-hood: it’s pretty clear that they would die of exposure as soon as the sun went down because they had never, up until that point, even set foot on solid ground let alone possessed wilderness survival skills that would permit them to find food and shelter in a landscape closely resembling winter in the high Himalayas.

Snowpiercer is an interesting commentary on the closed ecosystem of “starship Earth”. But just as telling, to me, is the unintended meta commentary that the structure of the story itself provides. Namely that, to the progressive mind, a broken society is always a thought problem rather than a physics problem.

And this here is how I see most of us approaching our current predicament. Which is why we are largely doomed to failure.

Unlike physics, crises of thought and ideas are serviceable. They can be fixed. They can be argued into prominence or irrelevance. Loopholes can always be found, and ways around or through or to the top of them inevitably present themselves in time. While usually a final, desperate bid, the train can always be derailed.

Crises of physics don’t work this way. And for (hopefully) obvious reasons.

What we can do when presented with a physics problem, especially those on such a massive scale as climate change and resource overshoot, is pretend that it’s actually a crisis of ideas. In this way we can continue to not change much of anything about ourselves, while justifying endless talk and speculation about what we might do.

But at the end of the day, the train, and everyone in it, is subject to the laws of physics.

The Snowpiercer is, as I said, a two-fold metaphor: for both the limits that society artificially places on us as individuals, and the very real limits that the planet itself maintains without fail. The green progress movement believes that humanity can build and live aboard the proverbial train, suspended above and away from the earth on its track, continuously moving towards an ever-brighter future.

The problems with this are many. Like the train, our society is currently overbuilt given the raw materials, available labor, money, and oil that is available to maintain it, let alone replace any of it. This is why the Snowpiercer begins to rely on child labor to keep running – people are the only real “renewable resource” that can actually be made on-board with a net positive (though very low) EROEI. We might compare the perpetual motion engine to real-life technology like solar panels, wind turbines, and other devices touted as being renewable. If the engine cannot renew itself, if it cannot be used to make more parts to service it with, then it requires energy inputs outside of the system to maintain and is not truly perpetual. This is the nature of entropy, one of those pesky in-built limits to physics. The green progressive would simply suggest that we built a new, better train every time entropy catches up. The realist will eventually be forced to counter, with what?

The devil is most certainly in the details, and the laws of thermodynamics is one of those little details that makes plans for a renewable energy future full of the same kind of economic prosperity, technological progress, and modern comfort that we have now impossible. The fact is that what we have built cannot be powered by any other means than oil. Food, travel, entertainment, medicine, business, manufacturing – these sectors will shrink along with our carbon footprints, and the current technological momentum we have that might have potentially given us something more efficient than solar panels or ethanol is halting faster than we can imagine. The sacred engine is slowing.

Nothing is capable of self-renewal a la the mythological phoenix, rising from its ashes. All energy transactions result in loss: if a man is to carry a gallon of water to the top of a mountain, it’s costs more than that initial gallon of water to slake his thirst along the way. Nothing is in and of itself, nothing exists apart from its externalities. Organic cotton may be more sustainable than Tencel only because organic cotton can be grown, produced, spun, and woven with manual labor alone. Tencel on the other hand, while held to high environmental standards in a single snapshot of today, cannot sustain itself indefinitely. Eventually, the toxic solvents used to tease out the cellulose need to be replenished. The waste water can only be recycled so much (and recycling takes energy) before the remaining caustic sludge needs somewhere to go. The high-tech machines used in those processes will eventually break down and need to be repaired or replaced. Are the factories where those parts are manufactured also sustainable? When their machines break down, are the factories that built their parts sustainable? The entire system relies on inputs from externalized energy.

The myth of green progress is predicated on the hope that there is something else out there, some vast wilderness full of promise we might go when we blow up the train. The days of massive civic works projects are long behind us, or didn’t you know? US infrastructure has a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers. 80 years ago we built an interstate highway system that was only designed to last 60 years, and now local governments struggle to divert funds to repair even a single bridge. Money and labor is stretched thin, while our expectations remain higher than ever before. We have come to rely on stone soup, even as we use up the last stones. This is what happens when a physics problem gets treated like a thought problem.

Of course, this is only a problem for us. Even in Snowpiercer, life for the planet continued on while humans were busy waging their tiny wars aboard a high-speed train. Something survived somewhere, even if it were just those niche creatures that eke out their lives far away from the sun. The derailed train, burnt and broken, would lay there on the mountainside for some time, oozing its inorganic toxins, but eventually it would all be reclaimed by the earth. The track itself would eventually cease to be. The artificial ice age would pass, the mountains would shift and grumble, and all record of man would be nothing but a memory of a memory. Life would go on.

Actually, life itself is a physics problem. Or to go a bit deeper, physics is a physics problem. Everything in the universe is faced with the choice to grow or die, where growth is just the scenic route to death anyways.

But it’s what we do with death that the thought problems really get exciting.

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Kings of the Hills; or, A Weekend at the Lake

A little thought piece I wrote for my religious blog. I feel it would fit here too.

Nobody can say that I don’t like to hear stories and perspectives from folks of all walks of life, that I don’t manage to get something out of being with varied company. I’ve shared table with island-owning millionaires and the once homeless, with Woodstock-era crystal healers and cattle ranchers, with Elon Muskian techno-optimists and flat earthers. I’ve broken bread with murderers, pacifists, philanthropists, misanthropists, poets, contractors, foodies, farmers, and the guy who played the punk on the bus in Star Trek: The Voyage Home. (Kirk Thatcher makes for one hell of a dinner guest!)

I understand people. I don’t always like what I understand about them, and rarely do in fact, but I still go out of my way to understand. It helps me put pieces together in the endless puzzle of Where We Find Ourselves Now, and as I fit more things of that one into place, the more pieces are revealed to me about Where We’ve Tread and Where We Might Go. In this way I am able to turn over new stones in my practice, and, perhaps, catch fleeting glimpses of how my ancestors might have seen both the world and each other.

I spent the weekend at a lake in the Shuswap region, at a very small and very exclusive RV resort. My husband’s uncle maintains the grounds and helps the owners with handyman work in exchange for a free spot, and so we went with him as we were planning on visiting Kamloops for an errand anyways.

It was lovely. No, it was decidedly better than lovely. The lake was pristine, and harder to get to than its more-frequented neighbor: 45 minutes on an active logging road is quite the deterrent for casual tourists looking for a bit of water to make a mess of with beer in hand and boat deck underfoot.

I quickly noticed a few things about the other vacationers present, however, and none of them surprising. They generally fell into two types: those with so much recreational gadgetry that they spent their entire weekend maintaining it all, and those with such stunted creativity that they dedicated their waking hours to being shit-faced drunk, their feet hardly leaving their RV deck.

My husband and I went on several walks back up the road. We listened to the creek, marveled at the moss and the fungi and the flowers. We took off our shoes and smiled at the springiness of the woodland floor beneath our feet. As our path turned from the burbling water, the pressing silence of the forest turned our skin to gooseflesh and we spoke in hushed, excited voices of our awe of such a place. I collected birch bark for making a certain sort of pen the Nick Neddo way, stones for hopefully grinding into paint pigment, a piece of cedar that should make a nice bullroarer. I pried a massive fungus off a fallen pine tree to bring home in the hopes that it was medicinal. (I’ll check my foraging books tomorrow once I identify the species of tree it was munching on.) We returned, cracked open a few beers, and took refuge as a thundering squall rolled in and hammered us with rain. Praise be to the Old Man and his mountain-splitting Axe – I don’t get to witness him at his holy task along the inlet at home.

During one of our walks, I noticed a capped mushroom growing off the side of the road and paused to get a good look at it, and that’s when husband noticed a single golden Christmas ornament hanging from the tree just a few feet further in. It struck him as an uncanny coincidence, at which I smiled and said that there are few coincidences in the forest. The trees have a way of suggesting things.

Later, I took off in his uncle’s quad to do a little ripping around, but mostly I was hunting for roadkill, the fur I wanted for making more paintbrushes. What I thought had been a small carcass the day before was nowhere to be found, but turning on a small trail led me to a clearing some yards away that was all but carpeted in tufts of fur. I said words of thanks and picked up several neat hanks of hair, held together by moisture from the earlier rains. I wondered about the fur, so neatly pulled as it was from some hide, but without any sign of bones or blood or struggle. Some of it formed a trail, even, but it led me nowhere. The image of white and gray tufts of fur scattered on the ground like flower petals or breadcrumbs through a thick, mossy forest is a potent one, though. I went back out the next morning to leave one final gift in thanks for the spirits’ sheer generosity.

Coming back from the walks was disappointing. We’d round the bend, cross the cattle-guard, and be greeted by the fleet of glossy plastic RV trailers. The sound of someone leaf-blowing the dust from their deck furniture looking so fresh from the Pottery Barn catalog that you could still smell the Chinese plastic off-gassing into the storm-washed air – and then going back inside. Our host insisted that we help ourselves to another can of Kokanee and whatever else he had in the trailer, most of which turned out to be pepperoni sticks and bags of Walmart chips. My stomach needed a probiotic after all the bleached bread and gum-stabilized salad dressing on top of all that. Not that there was salad to be had; the only vegetables in the place was the relish tray. Eventually I could no longer handle the reconstituted consistency of the Kraft bacon ranch and I chose instead to eat the raw broccoli florets by themselves. Crunch crunch. Later, more beer and Walmart lasagna.

The uncle was a good host in every way he knew how to be, and I can respect that. But the man, like most men of his type, are rather quite incomplete human beings. And incomplete things turned out into the world usually cause damage.

The trip out and back cost 8 gallons of gasoline and the lives of 3 birds. The uncle insisted on burning most of the trash we made, including the plastic, and my husband, not keen on getting cancer again, quietly began diverting our plastic waste from the fire pit to our cooler so that we could dispose of it later.

Wonder was not a language the uncle knew. Emotions weren’t, either, and I learned that he was a man of few questions. As far as I could tell, he already knew everything he could want or need to know, and all that there was left to do in life was to be coldly competent at as many things as possible while avoiding at all costs that irritating period between hazarding and mastery. Before we left his wife joked about his intolerance for playing even card games. Poker is stupid, but drunkenly destroying your snowmobile out on the trail isn’t.

I’ve encountered his type before, a sort of king of the hill: confident only when he already has the upper hand, strong only when he’s safe within a fortress of possessions, and wise provided that no one ever asks him for advice.

Is this really the legacy of our North American cowboy masculinity? The driving need to hold everything in disdain, clinging to that habituated (and mindless) imperative of “freedom”, even if it means nothing more than being able to cut a tree down in your suburban front yard with the shriek of your finest Husqvarna as if to say I am man, hear my engine roar?

This special sort of stunted humanity could only have happened in a post-Industrial revolution, post-Enlightenment, and post-European exodus world. The pieces came neatly enough together: conceit and domination replaced awe and humility, labor performed by hydrocarbon fuel became confused with human labor even as it was being replaced by it, and the animal panic of living in overcrowded Londons and Munichs and Amsterdams, passed down from generation to generation, was eased by the New World’s false promise of unadulterated, unregulated space.

Never has a people prided themselves on being so ahistorical and placeless, following nothing more than their whims and ideologies of social aesthetic. It doesn’t matter where I come from, I have a boat and an RV and Razor and a truck to haul it all. I can come and go as I please. Who needs to be from anywhere, when you can go anywhere? What does place matter if the cut tree falls just the same in California as it does in Alberta? If the rock breaks just the same? If the road goes and the people bleed?

I’ve thought several times over the past few weeks about how I am an immigrant, a religious practitioner, an artist, both colonial and colonized, and part of a diaspora… not just once, but many times removed. My blood once came from Germany, from the islands of the North Sea, from deep in the deserts of Mexico. I carry with me the genes of family who saw the rise of revolutions and the heaving of borders. I am at least one-eighth Indigenous, though likely closer to one-quarter, and not all in one place. I make sure to stick my roots down into whatever soil I find myself standing on, strive to be vernacular wherever I am. I go out and introduce myself to the spirits.

My husband’s uncle is a dying breed, and his generation is perhaps the last of a long line of broken men bravely leading their broken families on into the comfort and complacency of a plastic-padded life, even as the foundering walls of this sick society close in around them. He’s worked damn hard in his career, of that I’ve no doubt, but the subtle, spiteful hedonism underpinning the entire structure of his life is no just and earned reward for 22 years of service to his industry. And while the role that the million-year-old liquid sunlight has played in making his boat and Husqvarna and heated steering wheel possible will never be apparent to him, future generations will be able to piece his wyrd together (out of necessity) and see where it all went wrong.

If the luxury RV park isn’t eventually ruined in a forest fire due to the steady onward march of arid climes, then it will surely be abandoned to squatters in a few more decades’ time once the cost of fuel becomes even too much for the lawyer and the trust fund children to bear. The kings of the hills will be caught with their pants thoroughly down, surrounded by their Midas’ gold. In 30 years, people will wonder where their parents were when BC was burning – it will be my generation, old and bitter, who will have to shrug and say, “They went up to the lake.”

One of the other site owners at the resort introduced himself to my husband and I before we packed up. He was young, maybe late 30s, and trained air traffic controllers at Vancouver International for a living. The awkward small talk seemed to simply be there to provide a safe buffer for what he’d really intended to say to us as outsiders to their little community of rural wealth: “Don’t tell anyone about this place.”

We laughed politely, but after he was gone our thoughts turned as deep and wide as the water before us. I already knew I had a lot to say about Adams Lake. If only he knew what those words would be.

via Kings of the Hills; or, A Weekend at the Lake