This Is Why Nobody Will Do Anything Until It's Too Late

I like a rousing story as much as anyone else, but systems aren’t stories, and confusing the two won’t actually fix what’s not sustainable in the current system’s configuration.

OK, I get it: we all like Hollywood endings: the superhero saves the world, the evil conspiracy is uncovered and the villains get their just desserts and the impossible romance overcomes all the odds. This is why there are Hollywood endings: we are hard-wired to thrill to happy endings and a successful conclusion to the Hero’s / Heroine’s Journey.

We will tolerate a Tragic Hero / Heroine or the occasional Anti-Hero / Heroine, but there is still a moral victory of some sort to cheer.

The real world doesn’t follow a storyline, it operates according to the dictates of systems: inputs are taken up by processes which then generate outputs. If the outputs and processes don’t change, the outputs don’t change either.

One prevalent manifestation of human hubris is the idea that getting someone to agree with us about something or other is some sort of victory, as if human opinions matter. They don’t, unless they change either inputs or processes in extremely consequential ways. Tweaking inputs or policies might make us feel warm and fuzzy (“I’m part of the solution!”) but they are too modest to change the system’s inputs and processes. The net result is the outputs remain the same.

Put another way: labeling something or other a hoax or an existential threat doesn’t change anything in the systems that generate consequences. Whatever is going to happen as output is going to happen regardless of what humans label it or their opinions about it (“El Nino really sucks!”).

Existing processes constrain our choices. This is why it’s difficult to be an environmentally-sustainable saint. Let’s say we’re concerned about climate change and the destruction of the planet’s biosphere. Let’s say we want to lower our carbon footprint and “do the right things” to reduce the negative impact of our consumption and lifestyle.

This is where we substitute Hollywood endings for reality. We like to think that recycling matters. Sorry, it really doesn’t change the inputs or processes enough to change the outputs in any consequential way. For example, the percentage of lithium batteries and electronic waste that are currently recycled is near-zero because the batteries and electronics aren’t manufactured to be recycled in a cost-effective manner, and nobody in the system pays for costly recycling. So the really important recycling isn’t being done.

I still recycle cardboard because that seems like a better choice than dumping it in the landfill, but in terms of total lifecycle costs and resource consumption of recycling versus landfill, I don’t have any data. The system isn’t set up to measure total lifecycle costs and resource consumption of goods, services and processes, and since we only manage what we measure, we’re flying blind: the system is set up to measure “growth” (GDP) and profits, not total lifecycle costs and resource consumption.

Sorry, there’s no Hollywood ending until we change the inputs (stop manufacturing lithium batteries) and/or the processes (require 99% recycling of all electronics, batteries, vehicles, etc.). This will require changing the entire manufacturing and resource supply chain systems from the ground up, globally. If we don’t do that, the output can’t possibly change in any consequential way.

The Hollywood ending is electric vehicles will “save the planet.” Too bad this is Hollywood, not reality. Most of the consumption of resources and damage to the planet occur in the mining, smelting and manufacture of the vehicle, regardless of its fuel. Due to their massive consumption of minerals, electric vehicles consume far more of the planet’s resources than an ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle.

All vehicles are manufactured (mining, smelting, transport, factories, etc.) with hydrocarbons. There’s no difference between vehicles except electric vehicles use even more hydrocarbons in their fabrication.

Then there’s the source of the fuel. An electric vehicle manufactured by burning coal and charged with electricity generated by burning coal is in fact a coal-burning vehicle. Calling it “electric” fits the happy story, but it’s not actually factual: a coal-burning vehicle is an environmental disaster, regardless of labels, our opinions or the happy-ending PR.

In the real world, the least destructive choice of vehicle is a small, light, old ICE vehicle that is well-maintained to conserve fuel and driven only rarely. Hey, look at me, I only drove my old 40-mile-per-gallon Civic 3,000 miles last year–I’m a saint!

Unfortunately, the real world isn’t a Hollywood (or Bollywood) movie, and so I don’t get to be a saint once we look at the world as a system rather than a movie. The fertilizers I use to grow food in my yard come from afar, and even the organic ones consume huge quantities of hydrocarbons in their processing, bagging and shipping. The “organic” fruit or vegetable shipped from afar is an environmental disaster compared to the organic fruit or vegetable from your own yard, but even those require inputs that are part of the system.

I stepped on airliners a few times in the past year, one long-haul and two short flights, and there is really nothing environmentally saintly about consuming immense resources by jetting around the world.

Electric aircraft won’t “save the world,” either. They’re resource-hungry, small, slow, their range is modest and their batteries are no more recyclable or long-lasting than all the vehicle batteries destined for the landfill. And alternative fuels for jet aircraft are incapable of being produced at the scale necessary to replace jet fuel. Sorry, no Hollywood ending.

To really reduce one’s consumption of the planet’s resources, we would have to grow our own food, get around on our own feet or zero-fuel transport (motorless bicycle or skateboard or boat) and not buy / own / use large resource-consuming devices such as vehicles, aircraft, etc.

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