Edge Collective


Sustainable futures

Some (e.g. Richard Heinberg, 'The End of Growth') are now arguing that it is implausible that we'll be able to fully 'switch over' our economy, as it stands, to renewable sources of energy; and that as a result, we ought to come up with alternatives to our current global supply chain approach.

Issues cited (by Heinberg and others) include:

(Even if one imagined some as-yet-unknown technological solution for these problems, it isn't difficult to imagine other limitations or disruptions to the current global supply network for food, energy, and materials; COVID-19 was one such disruption, as is the war in Ukraine.)

It seems that one general approach to these concerns is to imagine a 'relocalized' economy, no longer so dependent on global supply chains and cheap fossil fuels. Usually, such visions involve adopting a 'lower tech' approach to sourcing food, building buildings, and etc. If we won't be able to finfd gas for our fossil fuel-powered tractors, and if there won't plausibly be battery-powered tractors, then: we need to figure out how to plow using horses once again.

However, there's an interesting case to be made for using the current global supply chain to make infrastructure that will help us weather the transition to an economy beyond fossil fuels.

E.g., Ben Falk, a homesteader and designer, has argued that it is a wise use of currently available fossil fuel energy to power a diesel excavator and use it to create a water-harvesting landscape on his homestead; he claims that the resultant water system might render his homestead productive and water self-sufficent for the next 100 years or so.

This made me think of radios built in the 1980s which still work today, 40 years later. When built solidly and with care, such communications technologies might allow us to build resilient communications networks that will continue to work despite interruptions or breakdowns in the global supply chain over the next decades.

What other technologies might be developed and built now, with this approach in mind? What are the gaps that would remain?

For example: horse-drawn plows might make a resurgence if certain climate and fossil fuel trajectories. When they become necessary, it might be nice to weld them together using e.g. spare parts from no-longer-useful automobiles. But: welding itself is a high-power activity, typically accomplished by plugging into the grid. Should we make at least a few horse-drawn plows now, while it's easy?

Perhaps the underlying point here is that with some of these issues, we seem somewhat ignorant of the ways in which we rely on the global economy operating just as it currently does in order to accomplish what we'd like to accomplish.

How many radios would we need to build in order to make sure that all of New England was in contact if the grid went down? One radio per person might be implausible; one radio per town doesn't seem at all implausible...