We Must Face Our Shadow: Talking Hard Truths About Solar and Wind Power

While gratefully participating in the brilliant and beautiful recent NC Climate Justice Summit, I did find at least one piece of information on our shared movement I was desperate to hear in the conversation that I did not have the chance to share.

Stated simply: in order for 100% or even 75% renewable energy to work, we would need to adjust our demand to the available supply of sun and wind. High tech batteries can help but do not ultimately change this physical limit. This “shadow” of the renewables conversation is not a small thing. It has radical implications for the economy and our way of life that as a movement we must begin learning to face now.

Tons of smart person data here (and yes, this person is very sympathetic to renewables):


In other words – it would be possible to have a future where we have electricity and we do not destroy the whole planet, but it would mean not having electricity whenever we want or as much as we’re used to. It would mean the current American way of life just can’t be lived without future-destroying overuse of fossil fuels. We would have to adjust our lifeways and our livelihoods to the real patterns of the wind and sun regardless of battery storage. Our lives and our systems have to change – not just our lightbulbs. This isn’t a don’t-use-plastic-bags kind of change but more about actually learning to live within the rhythms of the planet and accept “no power now, wait until morning” as an answer for homes and businesses.

It’s also a pretty sure thing that we couldn’t continue “growing” the economy with 100% renewables. The economic growth imperative as we know it is not compatible with a fossil-fuel free world. Even as we ephemeralize more and more of the economy, growth still requires a growing power supply to support it. We can have economic growth or 100% clean power but not both (…though one of those will lead to its own end anyway).

It is hard for ecological advocacy organizations to accept and speak of this physical limit because it further radicalizes their position from the perspective of business-as-usual politics. The pressure is to adopt a “pragmatic” approach in order to get policy passed and keep receiving funding from large donors who make their money off the industrial growth system coming – but in this case, it can be at the cost of actually meeting the goal of enabling human life to continue on planet earth. That isn’t worth the short-term gains that we can achieve by not talking about the elephant in the room. This is a time to face the darkness together so we can speak the full truth.

The ecological justice movement has done so much courageous work to amplify intersectionalities and see the non-separateness of the different justice movements we work for. This is another of those truths it must learn to incorporate. The narrative around economy, jobs, and increased economic opportunity and the possibility of simply replacing fossil fuels has a shadow that it will need to just as courageously face and integrate in order to be whole.

If de-growth does not become a part of the same conversation as renewables now, it may later be faced as an unexpected limit and be a division point for the movement – or, far worse than that, it will be kept at the margins of the movement and we will continue being enablers of the growth economy’s energy addiction by building the CO2 intensive “clean” but CO2 intensive infrastructure (supergrids, batteries, peaking plants) for a 100% renewable system that can still keep the same corporate-state mess running in the same corporate-state way – which means we could find our grandkids fifty years from now in a situation where we have transitioned to 100% solar and wind with batteries and supergrids that the construction of which put so much CO2 and other gases into the atmosphere that future generations must still say farewell to most humans and much of recognizable life on earth. I think we should avoid that starting now.

This is part of why Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren suggests that the most valuable thing about solar power experiments like we’re currently running is the way they can teach us to live within limits (and right now, with that winter sun, we are feeling the limits! we’ve had almost no power the last three days). This is something missing from all the completely understandable cheerleading for solar panels and wind. I am not stating this to take the wind out of the turbines of my sisters and brothers fighting for clean power but to strengthen the movement with an inevitable truth that will surface sooner or later because of physics.

How can we begin to tell the majority of the people in the US who are used to on-demand almost everything that, rather than a future of flying cars, it will be a future of learning to accept new limits?

I suggest we can do this by becoming the ones who learn the beauty of those limits with our own lives and can speak from the actual joy that comes from the intimacy of living skillfully with the rhythms of sun and wind.

There is a mystery school teaching that the limits of a being are its beauty. The beauty of a flower is the shape of its limitations. The beauty of a bird is everything it gave up. It gave up heaviness, great stores of fat, strong land legs, a hard protective shell, deep ocean diving, warm burrow digging, nimble tree climbing – and in so doing, bird learned to live singing beauty in the heavens themselves.

Will we miss the industrial growth system and the “always-on” digital haze world that we’re all more or less compelled to give our entire lives to serve for the short-term profits of an oligarchy anyway? Let’s talk about whether or not we do when we share food from our gardens decades from now under the finally once again fully visible stars.

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