Short answer: physics.
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.