What I’m trying to do, however badly, in the previous comments is to figure out what are some of the more important eco-social systems in play in decarbonisation, and the ways they interact. It is impossible to specify all such factors in advance, so these are limited, and could be discarded. The main point is to avoid reduction of reality to the two blocks of ‘society’ and ‘ecology’ although I’m limited in my ability to do this because of lack of ecological knowledge.
When I use the term ‘eco-social systems’ I’m deliberately placing ecologies first. Humans do not exist without ecologies, while ecologies can and have existed without humans.
The eco-social systems selected out here, are:
- Planetary boundaries, and the limits of ecological functioning or resilience.
This is obviously based in eco-physical functioning. The ecosystem itself can be considered to be a system of energy release/generation and transformation.
I’m suggesting Labour is part of the directed energy system, but no longer should count as the major and only significant part of that system, as in Marxism or classical economics for example, due to the bulk of directed energy coming from other than human sources.
It is useful to explore the dynamics of the limits and stresses of the energy system, and its transformation. For example, we have the possibility that renewables could simply become an addition to the continued use of fossil fuels, unless we have a specific programme to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The Waste/pollution system
I think it is useful to specify a conceptual difference between ‘waste’ and ‘pollution’ (waste is re-processable by the economy or eco-system, and pollution is not), because the ecological feedbacks, and eco-social consequences are different. It suggests how eco-social activity can overpower ecological resilience even through such apparently harmless action as the production of CO2 – the CO2 waste becomes pollution after it passes certain levels, and the more the ecology is destroyed the more waste becomes pollution.
I also hope naming this system reminds people that the manufacture and distribution of renewables may produce pollution. We need to cut this pollution down, but it seems that renewables are relatively non polluting after installation (before decommission), unlike fossil fuel energy, which only functions through continuing pollution. However, waste and pollution are not removed from the system.
If renewable energy, after the initial costs, is almost free, until the installation reaches the ‘waste/pollution’ stage, that has a large disruptive capacity in itself.
The Extraction System
The eco-social extraction system can damage itself, through ecological ‘revenge’ effects and feedback. There is obviously nothing unusual about asserting this, although it does not seem to be recognised in orthodox pro-capitalist economics.
The damage does not have to be gradual or linear. It can be abrupt and excessive as systems breakdown.
Extraction systems do not have to be harmful – they can pay attention to ecological information, and moderate themselves as needed. However, largely, unconstrained extraction/destruction, pollution, and expansion (or what is usually called ‘growth’) have historically been part of both capitalism and developmentalism, and are the main factors which seem to produce the current eco-crisis. Capitalism and Developmentalism also tend to suppress, downplay, or ignore information about ecology. We can also note that pro-corporate neoliberals tend to remove limits on extraction, pollution and expansion, as soon as they can.
Given this, we can raise the question of ‘how we can transform the energy system without continuing a damaging extraction system?’
If economic growth is linked to increasing extractive destruction, then either growth has to go, or we need to find new ways of extraction. This may cause ‘climate justice’ issues if growth remains our main solution for poverty.
The Information system
This is how humans generally recognise eco-feedback. However, the information system can be distorted by organisational, economic and political processes.
It seems useful to have some idea of how this distortion occurs, and where it is dangerous, and maybe how to diminish it .
Planetary Boundaries and the limits of eco-social resilience.
This is pretty crude but, that is because of a lack of ecological knowledge. However, it does place constraints within the model.
Firstly we need to consider the physical layout, geography, climate, and spatial configuration of a place. This can effect the possibilities of the renewable energy being used, and the way it is deployed. Changing the environment can produce the experience of people being ‘unhomed’. Land not only shapes human activities but is shaped by them. Possible uses of land depend on political struggle and sometimes violent displacement of those originally occupying the land.
As well as this the world’s systems are effected by what people call planetary boundaries, which are themselves systems. The formal planetary boundaries and the eco-social systems which encapsulate them are:
- Climate stability,
- Biospheric integrity (balance between species, rates of extinction etc),
- Water cycles,
- Biochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen cycles etc),
- Ocean ph (acidity or alkalinity),
- Particulate levels,
- Ozone depletion, and
- Novel entities (new chemicals, microplastics etc.).
We can think of these as essential planetary geo-bio cycles – they are necessary to human functioning, and to the functioning of the planet. They can be broken, and appear to be being broken at this moment. Adjustment will eventually happen, but there is no reason to think that this adjustment will automatically be friendly to current human societies, or even to humans themselves.
It seems that capitalism and developmentalism, both seek to avoid limits, and claim they can transcend those limits, usually though innovation and new technology. But this is likely to be a fantasy. Going by the evidence so far, it is a fantasy – however consoling it might be.
Even if we have massive unexpected technical innovation in the next twenty years (say, fusion power), then it still may be too late, and we still have to stop pollution and ecological damage from other sources.
It almost certainly will not hurt more to stop breaking the geo-bio cycles, than it will hurt to continue breaking them.
All of the above systems are obviously interconnected, but specifying them out, might help us factor them all in to our analysis, all the time.
I didn’t particularly bother about the class system and its political dynamics (plutocracy) at this time, because I figure I’m unlikely to forget that, but it affects all of the above. Likewise the political system and its patterns affect all of the above.
Politics can affect the energy system. People can encourage and hinder certain forms of energy. They can forcibly ignore the consequences of energy production and so on.
Politics can affect the waste/pollution system such as the kinds of pollutions accepted or banned. Who is allowed to pollute. Where the pollution is dumped. What kind of penalties apply, and so on.
Politics affects extraction. Who can do the extraction. What kind of royalties are paid. What kind of property is made. What kind of limits to extraction exist. What local benefits arise.
Politics affects what kinds information are promulgated. The kinds of truth standards to are applied. The modes of distribution of information. The suppression of information and so on. What kinds of people who are ‘trusted’ with respect to information. The kind of information is accepted by different groups?
In later blogs I’m planning to try and incorporate the property/accumulation system, and the class/plutocracy/group-categorisation systems into the analysis.
Decarbonisation seems obviously affected by all of these factors:
How do we generate the energy to decarbonise, without disrupting ecologies, through waste/pollution and extraction processes? How do we decarbonise without harmful growth?
How do the information systems work to recognise, or not recognise, what is happening? how do they play out through the political and economic processes? Is it possible to improve them?
How do ecological limits affect decarbonisation pathways when they are not in good shape. We face doing decarbonisation in an era of compounding eco-social crises, which increases energy expenditure as people attempt to control them. This adds to the difficulties of decarbonisation.
To reiterate: we cannot successfully decarbonise, without generating enough energy to decarbonise. It also seems we must generate this energy at the same time as cutting pollution, ending extractive destruction, ending growth, refining information, and protecting ecological resilience, etc.
If there are any points that I would really like people to take from any of this it is that:
- It takes energy to ‘release’ energy – and usually leads to waste or pollution somewhere in the cycle. Pollution must be minimised to keep geo-bio cycles functional.
- In this sense, no energy is completely free.
- If it takes more energy for humans to make energy than energy is released then, over the long term, the human system will collapse.
- Human action is limited by available energy. It is also limited by the amount of destruction, and damage to the geo-bio cycles produced by the energy system.
- The Information System and its confusions, is not an addenda to the other systems, it is vital to any analysis.
- Human energy, extraction, waste/pollution, information and other systems, interact with planetary geo-bio-cycles or planetary boundaries, and if the human systems disrupt those geo-bio cycles, they will be limited and disrupted in turn – probably violently.