I had an interesting conversation with an old friend the other day while hiking through the woods we played in as kids. We both come from formal backgrounds in science and engineering, and we are both cognizant of things like climate change and other environmental issues, but we seem to have very different ideas about what a good solution to these problems looks like. He says we need to develop more technology -fusion, PV solar, graphene batteries- to solve the problems, while I say we have all the technology we need (and indeed, we have always had this technology).
My friend’s argument (which seems to be the culturally dominant argument) went something like this:
- Climate change is largely driven by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere that prevent the Earth from radiating heat into space (kind of like a giant, invisible blanket around the sun)
- Most GHG emissions come from burning fossil fuels for engines, electricity, and transportation
- Fusion and solar can produce lots of energy with few emissions
- High-efficiency batteries could make electric vehicles on-par or superior to gas-powered vehicles
- Therefore: Developing better fusion, solar, and battery technologies will solve the climate crisis.
He also added that it would be nice if we could develop technology to catalyze a reaction to turn atmospheric carbon into graphene or some other material for batteries. This is the technology, he said, that if we can develop, will save us. This is the technology we should spend our time and energy developing.
I thought for a minute, then I chuckled. I looked at him and said “I’ve got your technology right here!” Then I pointed to the sky and said,
“Here’s your fusion reactor,
here are your solar panels,
and here is your carbon-based energy storage device.”
“As an added bonus,” I added, “the fusion reactor costs nothing to manufacture or operate and has no toxic waste; the solar panels and batteries use advanced nano-technology so self-assemble from atmospheric carbon and water, using no toxic arsenic  or cobalt mined by child slaves in the Congo ; and all of it is 100% recyclable with no waste!”
I thought that was funny. He didn’t agree.
The points are still valid, though. The sun is massive fusion reactor in the sky beaming truly clean energy to Earth’s surface at about 1 kW/m^2. That energy can be used to directly heat our homes and water, eliminating the need for gas/electric heating.
Green plants can convert this energy into the fats, proteins, and carbohydrates that fuel our bodies, while also producing an extremely energy-dense carbon-based battery, known as wood. The energy density of dry wood varies with species, but on average is about 20 MJ/kg , a little less than half that of most fossil fuels , and about twenty times greater than current Li-ion rechargeable battery technology . Now, while you can’t charge your phone with a log, you can certainly cook with it, and the energy density and multiple functions of trees and green plants are not to be ignored.
Many people think that burning wood is just as bad as burning coal or oil, because the carbon in the wood goes back into the atmosphere as CO2. In fact, this is not necessarily the case. Over its lifetime, the tree sequestered tremendous amounts of carbon in the form of roots and decomposed leaves that remain in the ground even if the wood is burned. Granted, this is only true if trees are felled sparingly and responsibly and allowed sufficient time to regrow; clear-cutting or over harvesting will lead to soil decomposition and further increases in GHG emissions (the recent senate ruling completely ignores this fact, and this will likely result in significant increases in GHG emissions) . Burning branches in high-efficiency rocket stoves allows the tree to produce fuel while still remaining alive and sequestering carbon . On top of that, the carbon in the tree is still part of the active carbon cycle in the atmosphere and therefore can be accommodated by the ecosystem under normal circumstances without much disturbance. The carbon in fossil fuels, on the other hand, has been locked underground for millions of years, and reintroducing it suddenly to the carbon cycle causes drastic changes in equilibrium and results in environmental catastrophe.
But let’s talk for a bit about the real problem at hand. The problem isn’t that we can’t generate enough energy in a sustainable way, it’s that we USE too much energy as a society! Humans use 40% of all the energy used by life on Earth , far from a fair share! The solution isn’t to find new ways to produce more energy; we need to find ways to use less of it! Because the truth is, just reducing GHG emissions isn’t going to be enough: we need to lock up the carbon that’s already out there at a massive scale. And fast. 
When we talk about energy, GHGs, and climate change, we talk almost exclusively about electricity. But in fact, research has shown that of the top 20 solutions to climate change, only five relate to electricity, while twelve relate to food and land use . That means that regenerative agriculture techniques like chop-n-drop living mulch, composting, perennial crops, tree-based systems, and forest farming, could reduce GHGs by more than double what energy technologies like solar and fusion could accomplish. And in the process, they provide fresh, healthy food to people who need it, rebuild soils and protect biodiversity, and bring our failing industrial agriculture system back from the brink of collapse.
As if food, GHG reductions, and reduction in pollution from toxic metals and pesticides wasn’t enough, forest-based systems can also provide us with renewable materials for manufacturing goods that today deplete limited resources and produce non-decomposable waste.
Products made from fossil fuel-based plastics can be replaced by products made from wood and bone. Textiles and ropes made from petroleum-derived poly-ester, nylon, and acrylic can be replaced with leathers, furs, and fibers made from plants like nettle and hemp. Threads and joiners can be made from sinew and beeswax; paint and sealant can made from plants, stones, and pine pitch; rubber can made from dandelion sap; the possibilities are endless! All of these products can be produced in regenerative and forest-based systems, and in doing so we eliminate waste and reproduce system stability as a consequence of system productivity.
Shifting to local, regenerative systems like these also significantly reduces transportation, both of goods like food and materials, but also of people who no longer have to travel 50 miles to a job so they can make the money to drive 10 miles to the supermarket – the conditions of survival and purpose are met locally.
Our society is facing a crisis right now.
The biggest crisis in the history of our society: total environmental and cultural collapse. This collapse is a result of our incessant use of energy and resources- our quest for infinite growth and control. The solution is not – cannot be – to increase our ability to appropriate energy and resources to fuel more growth. We must find ways to reduce our consumption of energy; eliminate all waste; and rebuild the closed-loop, regenerative systems that supported us before the disaster that was agriculture and that support all other life on this planet.
I’m not saying we should’t develop fusion or batteries or PV solar, for those may certainly be part of the solution, but rather I am saying that there is much more to the solution than that, and we need to be talking about and spending our time and energy on the parts of the solution that matter most- that we can’t love without. We don’t need electricity and computers; we need clean water, healthy soil, and food.
I personally love technology, computers, the internet, math and science; and I wouldn’t want to give them up. If it weren’t for these technologies, I couldn’t be talking to you right now. But perhaps if we lived in a better society, one that was truly regenerative and sustainable, then I wouldn’t have to be.
We’d love to hear your thought on this subject. Do you think fusion is the answer? Or do you think projects like the Southside Permaculture Park represent a small-scale version of bigger and more impactful solutions? Do we need to more technology to save us? Or has the technology been here all along, just waiting for us to notice it? Let us know what you think in the comments below!