The Last of Fossil Fools. Part 1 — “The Hard Place”
I stopped writing for about 6 weeks, in order to catch up with reading. I read the following books. “How the world really works”: A scientists guide to our past, present and future — Vaclav Smil. “The end of the world is just the Beginning” — Peter Zeihan. Actually I listened through both books with Audible while taking frequent long walks. Even though I was already lent a print copy of V.Smil. Now I just have to find another audible book to accompany my lone walks.
These two books have related topics. Peter Zeihan recommends Smil’s book as a source. Both books describe details of the complexity of our global industrial megamachine. Both forsee collapse of our global systems.
Global industrial necessities impasse.
I found an online article with V.Smils important points.  For instance he writes that the four pillars of the modern world, which all require fossil fuels, are cement, steel, plastics and ammonia. We have to face up these findings.
The internet and modern telecommunications and computers are only late icings on the cake as social and entertainment luxuries.
Cement with reinforced steel built our cities, roads and bridges, runways, dams and ports. The world now consumes in one year more cement than it did during the entire first half of the 20th century. Cement production entails CO2 production in its chemistry, as well as energy used in heating.
Steel built our ships, and makes our modern containers for our shipping systems, for “just in time” delivery.
All our machines and tools use components of steel for structural strength. Even my garden tools. Our mass transport systems require it. The average car contains about 900 kg of steel.
The invention of industrial ammonia synthesis by Haber and Bosch after WW1 solved a looming nitrogen deficiency problem. Our super fertilization applications now maximize global crop yields. Without it yields will fall short for at least half of our 8 billions of people. Organic farming and manure sourced from people and animals cannot hope to match this scale.
At the same time we pour nitrogen compounds on our crops, excess nitrogen spills over into our oceans and atmosphere, breaching a nitrogen cycle planetary boundary. N2O is global heating enemy number 3. 
Plastics are flexible lightweight polymers made into almost anything, and are used almost everywhere. PVC is poly-vinyl-chloride. Various plastics make up drink bottles, furniture, computer parts, moldings, tubes, bags. Hospitals use plastics for almost everything disposable and reusable.
So for civilization to continue, as steady state, or even grow, we keep using more of these materials. Their functions are not replaceable by any other materials in the near future or on a global scale. Their mass-scale production depends heavily on the combustion of fossil fuels, and together they are major sources of GHG emissions.
I still regularly check Twitter. The appeals to release Julian Assange continue to be ignored by the Australian Government, as are various tweets of Nature Council of NSW and few Green politicians. This tells me just how badly our global civilization is heading. I saw Prof. Eliot Jacobson’s tweet as embedded above. It was in response to a Guardian article about how renewables are already able to save us all. “No way out” may seem a bit harsh. The tweet copped some flak. Too bad there is plenty of painful evidence and arguments to support the “now way out” view. I had already been exposed to these, by bravely reading the “Bright Green Lies” book by Jensen, Keith and Wilbert.
Anyway, stationary energy for electricity production makes only about 20% of our total obligatory “civilized” GHG emissions, so there is still left so much more fossil energy uses cut out, even after we did the impossible and sustainably “greened” all electricity generation. Another book “Electrifying the Titanic — The shipwreck of Industrial Civilization” by William Ophuls, just about says it all, throwing all metaphorical and philosophical hands into the air with resignation.
Moral license to keep feeding our wants and needs by burning fossil fuels as the basis of civilization, is not going to be fixed by the wealthy acquiring very expensive electric vehicles. The moral part that actually works, is that some governments are setting a schedule such that the vast majority of poorer people will soon no longer being allowed to buy and afford to run much cheaper ICE vehicles, without affordable EV replacements. Ditto for all other individualized goods and services provided by fossil fuels. Not everyone should need to own car. Cars are really twentieth century fashion objects.
Do we really understand our predicament in our guts? Broad understanding of Global systems is hard to come by. There is a lot of science, history and geography to absorb and connect, in the rise of industrial fossil fuel empires. Peter Zeihan’s book EOTW.. is good for explicating many such causal interactions. I was annoyed by his initial partitions of topics. His evidence presentation is good, but he tends to keep inserting his opinion that implies imposition of global rules and order, by the hegemony of the USA has been a good thing. He also seems to have inculcated a belief that the USA is somehow going to manage in the globalized world better than the rest of us. I take it that he knows how to increase his appeal to his self-excepting USA readers and listening audience.
Zeihans summaries of demographic trends for the future of various nations industrial production and trade powers are interesting. Zeihan seems to report an aging demographic and low birth rates as a bad thing. To me it seems a natural way to reduce global overproduction of everything. COVID and time is going to take care of us oldies. Like a farmers “Axe medicine” for sick old unproductive chickens. Zeihan seems not buy into the necessity of complete collapse, he is still looking for “ways out”, despite presentation of copious evidence. We all love the perks of civilization.
So “no way out” actually means, from reading V.Smil, we have a painful, difficult way of getting out of our hemmed-in overshoot corner. It means pulling out the rug underneath holding up civilization. High GHG emissions for mass production of cement, steel, ammonia and plastics will need to go. To have any at all, we need to manage our production priorities. Food has to come first from popular demand. We will need to create a world shortage of plastics, cement and steel production, and then let markets decide.
The simplest way would be to directly price — tax fossil fuel energy sources, as James Hansen keeps repeating. But governments and their corporate globalized backers have denied themselves this necessary discipline, in the name of “Laissez Faire”, which means “Don’t tax me, just look over there”, and “We don’t believe in limits to (our profits) the human spirit”.
So what is going to hold back our continual drive to keep “upgrading” and “powering” everything? Include buildings, bridges, cars, computers, phones, and plastic disposable everything. Cement production is becoming a problem as we are running out of sources of suitable quality sand grains.
So these four materials, CSAP, account for about 17 per cent of total energy supply, and 25 per cent of all CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.
Modern economies will always be tied to massive material flows — V.Smil
Producing less stuff means we will require less transport usage to send pieces of everything all over the world.
Climate change, politics, conflicts, wars already ensure that global supplies of ammonia are getting more uncertain. Russia exported 20% of global supply in 2021, and supplies of methane gas are the most common ingredient. Climate change threatens our production of major grain crops. Wars and politics threaten starvation for those that cannot pay or play. Pandemics are starting to pick off the old and the poorly nourished.
RE machines are created, installed and maintained by the complex technology systems of extract , process and trade that they are fully parts of. They require high temperature smelting of silicon — sand, and have our typical technological defects of the original sin of being unsustainable.
Looking for the Exit Sign
I would like to see a way out of this. But a true “way out” keeps failing to appear. No solutions can possibly catch up in a hurry to serve the same wants and needs that have been created by our century or two of exponential global growth of industrial and trade systems. Zeihan describes well the disease as groups of nations in turn caught the modernization growth virus and worked hard to “industrialize” faster than all its predecessors, and join the mutual global trade and environmental destruction. Growth is exponential and competitive. Did I forget to say “Cancer”?. I don’t remember that Peter Zeihan emphasized this. We do have an “international rules based” global biosphere destruction, so when do we start changing the rules?
There are myriads of little way outs of hope being offered every day, in the name of progress and growth. Some of the them are just national public relations efforts. Many are too little or too “way out”, to save our complex global industrial system from consequences of its success. Will Locket writes of a few new ones every week. Exponential time and space scaling of any growth oriented solution while still declining in resources and biosphere habitability is an impossible dream.
Net-zero without a way
Such a “promised way out” has been “net-zero” emissions. Green house gas emissions easily defy the weak gravity of political announcements and keep rising, because industrial production and market created wants are always allowed to keep increasing.
Modest stated emissions reduction targets in Australia are more than counterbalanced by a deep pipeline of massive proposed increases in new coal and gas mines for export. The reality is that our fossil fuel civilization real policy is for a future net-zero human survival.
This needs an Acronym “EOC” — Ecological Overshoot Collapse. Which leads straight down to our actual global policy of “Net Zero Humans” NZH. EO Collapse is entirely due to previous policy of fossil fueled growth and overshoot. Now who wants to take the blame for growth? Who is still asking for more growth and technology?The USA — Russia proxy conflict in Ukraine is an example of how all national governments think only tribal, crude manipulation, and worse. Human beings are expendable numbers in the cold logic of governments, politicians and corporations. War conflicts are devised by empires to kill as many as possible, so that other regions are de-populated, and cheaper access to resources can be acquired, for profits. Then suitable controlling agencies from approved loyalties, genetic stocks, and share holdings, can move in and reap profits.
There is always an underlying national “plan’, behind every national folly, tied to a political party career, or a dictators ambitions. They get too much the very same result. Only human societies in bulk never seem to perform well according to the whims of central planning, as every free marketeer ideologue likes to tell us. And this is so true. (“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men. Gang aft agley,. An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,. For promis’d joy! -Robert Burns)
Real motives, plans and actions become state secrets that require the long term arrest or murder of journalists or agents that reveal them, and powerful governments become all-powerful liars. Nation states inevitably attempt to murder the truth while trying to accomplish impossible plans that only prompt and loudly revealed truth could have saved them from. Glorious patriotic death for other people is preferred to realistic and humble national survival. Governments deeply deny this previous assertion, which is a guaranteed built-in property of highly contested positions of power. Corrupts Absolutely, etc.
Therefore we will forever continue to have repeat variations of the “Follies” of history, and current follies will be just as horrifying and entertaining at a safe retrospective distance as all the past disasters, if humanity survives them. Our mistakes never get old, because we keep on rehashing and recooking with them as basic ingredients of national policy.
The trouble with not writing for a while is that now I have put far many words already in this screed, and so I’m going to cut the rest with crude editorial zest, and paste it elsewhere, hopefully for a continuation part 2.
This was a brief review of the fossil fueled necessities needed to support civilization, and they constitute the basis of the “hard place” in which we overshoot moderns find ourselves. Nation states prefer to place their citizens as being in the “Good Place”, and have them think it is being made better every day.
Now to briefly mention a useful science paper summary of the hurtling “Rocks” of climate change, overshoot, biodiversity collapse, with more than just a few encroachments of planetary boundaries.  We don’t need a asteroid to hit the earth, we are working so hard to guarantee our near future extinction.
If most of the world’s population truly understood and appreciated the magnitude of the crises we summarize here, and the inevitability of worsening conditions, one could logically expect positive changes in politics and policies to match the gravity of the existential threats.
… there is no shortage of evidence-based literature proposing ways to change human behavior for the benefit of all extant life 
Nation-state politicians are blind, deaf and dumb to an “externality” like our biosphere, but can still smell lots of money.
- The Modern World Can’t Exist Without These Four Ingredients. They All Require Fossil Fuels — Time — Vaclav Smil. https://time.com/6175734/reliance-on-fossil-fuels/
- (Nitrogen Fertiliser user could threaten global climate goals — Carbon Brief — https://www.carbonbrief.org/nitrogen-fertiliser-use-could-threaten-global-climate-goals/)
3. “The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam” — Barbara Tuchman
4. “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future”. As written by a large collaboration of actual awake and frightened Scientists.