Book cover for “Drawdown”

Several years ago, I took a look at the book Drawdown, edited by Paul Hawken. It has now been turned into a web site, “Project Drawdown,” which several people have recently mentioned to me. It’s a list of proposed solutions to global warming. It is not so much a plan to deal with global warming, but rather strategies that could be integrated into a plan. There are lots of good ideas, including not only the standard ones such as renewable energy, but also including plant-rich diets, forest restoration, bicycle infrastructure, and others.

Approaching global warming in this way looks like an attempt to retrofit sustainability onto our existing system. Is this going to work?

Adopting this idea, we would do the same things we’re doing now, but sustainably. In their defense, “Project Drawdown” doesn’t actually advocate this line of thought, but leaves it up to readers to come up with their own plans. But assuming that the authors favor this approach is a natural assumption. Just do these 100 things, or some reasonable facsimile, and global warming is solved.

This approach is problematic. Focusing on the “trees” rather than on the “forest” leaves a number of significant questions unanswered. Where are all the transmission towers for this renewable electricity going? What about energy storage? What is the energy return on energy invested (EROEI) going to be? What about rare earth minerals? What about industrial heat?

Agreed, we need to do things differently; but we need “less” just as much as “different.” We do not face just a problem with global warming, but with limits to growth more generally. We need a smaller economy: fewer people, less consumption per capita, and please, just get rid of the livestock industry altogether.

This was delicious. Author’s photo, from “Modern Love” in Omaha.

Veganism fits perfectly in that context. It is “less” on a massive scale, because livestock agriculture is not just the main use of land for agriculture, it is the main use of land, period. Compared to (say) trillions of dollars on wind turbines, moving to plant food diets is relatively cheap and quite quick.

This “building block” approach bypasses all the other environmental problems, many only slightly less problematic than global warming. How about peak oil, for example? If a wave of enthusiasm overtakes the country and we decide to implement the Green New Deal, where are we going to get the energy and materials to put implement this renewable energy economy and accompanying infrastructure?

Hubbert’s Pimple. The oil era, from beginning to end.

Here’s a clue: all of this energy and these materials will most likely come out of the consumer economy. This will be a very stressful transition. During the Second World War, the USA quickly realized that we couldn’t have both “guns and butter.” A lot of the consumer economy was shut down and converted to support the war effort. Car manufacturing was gone and Americans grew about half their vegetables in “victory gardens.” We’ll probably face a similar dilemma of “renewables or butter.” All the indications are that when we finally get to a worldwide renewable infrastructure, it will be a smaller economy with less energy. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still a huge improvement on planetary destruction.

And what about emerging infectious diseases like COVID-19, AIDS, and MERS? What about soil erosion, species extinction, groundwater depletion, and mineral exhaustion? And don’t we need to say something about vast economic inequality? About half of all CO2 emissions (world-wide) are coming from people in the top 10% of income. So we’re going to all this effort to remedy a problem mostly created by the elite? Excuse me?

This situation demands a revolution not just in our energy sources, but in our politics, our economy, and our way of life. I’d prefer to see simple living on a massive scale. We need to make everyone as comfortable as possible in that space. Let’s have a modest basic income so that no one will be homeless because of losing their job. Raise taxes on the rich to pay for it. Allow population to fall back nonviolently until we’re at a more sustainable level.

Here we are at the Colorado State Capitol in 2014.

This is why I persist in bringing the discussion back to veganism. Veganism obviously isn’t the only thing we need, but compared to other solutions it’s technically uncomplicated, financially cheap, and will yield early and concrete results. It is likely that at least half of all greenhouse gas emissions are due to livestock agriculture.

Furthermore, this is the direction I’d like to see the vegan movement go. Leaders in “mainstream” animal rights groups, vegan nutrition leaders, and other activists could get out in front of the parade. We need to integrate ourselves into a worldwide movement to deal not only with global warming, but with the crisis of civilization created by limits to growth.

If we think we can do substantially less than all of this, we are deceiving ourselves. There may be some problems with the ideas I’m putting forward, but simple living and veganism would be my starting point. Trying to reduce carbon emissions AND address resource depletion AND stop all the other problems with water, soil, diseases, extinctions AND remedy inequality by getting 7.5 billion people up to the destructive American standard of living — this is just way too much and will result in frustration and despair. Let’s be honest about where we are headed and why. Then let’s come up with a practical approach.

7 Replies to “Drawdown”

  1. Keith ,This is sound advice but a really hard sell. The “I want my giant SUV and drive it too” portion of America will likely buy into windmills before a simple life/vegan lifestyle. Although there has been a recent interest in downsizing and in plant rich diets, the sales pitch of saving the planet still seems to fall on deaf ears as corporations and government push us to to embrace our ever expanding economy and agribusiness diet.

    How to convince those that want to believe this can go on forever seems to be the most pressing problem.

    1. How do we convince those who think this can go on forever? Mostly, it will be events (provided by Mother Nature) plus education (which we can provide). Different people respond to different stimuli and make different connections. It’s good to try to develop a “balanced hand” of persuasive strategies.

      In 2008 we had a significant “teachable moment”: a huge meltdown of the financial system followed by the Great Recession, largely caused by the record spike in oil prices. There was a surge of interest in peak oil, which however dissipated as the economy sluggishly recovered. Until this year we’ve had nothing like it, though arguably the steady grind of bad climate news adds up to one such moment. But in 2020, we’ve already had two doozies, the pandemic and the BLM protests over George Floyd. The pandemic is connected with our treatment of animals, and the BLM protests are about huge social inequality, in turn due to economic stagnation and resource limits. And 2020 isn’t over yet!

      The events symptomatic of limits to growth will continue to increase in frequency, so the good news (which is also the bad news) is that “teachable moments” will also increase in frequency. Not everyone gets these connections, but that’s where we can come in. We’ll have plenty more chances.

  2. Right on track – good critical path analysis here.

    I do wonder if you are writing more to convince vegan thought leaders to embrace a holistic response to limits to growth as fundamental to the definition of veganism, or whether you think it is more incumbent on limits to growth thought leaders like CASSE to embrace veganism as fundamental to the advancement of a sustainable global economy?

    Given current world population and population projections, is there any other reasonably humane way through the bottleneck but a broad-based vegan transition?

    1. I am addressing anyone and everyone who will listen, and so have both audiences in mind. To me, a broad-based transition to vegan diets is the easiest and cheapest path to sustainability. It deals with so many different problems all at once; it does not require a lot of industrial equipment; and the negative economic impact would be minimal compared to the disruption of a rapid transition to 100% renewables.

  3. Fantastic blog entry! Unfortunately, it seems nothing gets done without disastrous trigger events – 9/11, George Floyd’s murder, etc. What disastrous event occurs here that is survivable and galvanizes the people into a course of action? Meanwhile, I have a boss who seems to believe Covid-19 is a Democratic hoax or ploy. Here we see the disaster; but so far it is not really a trigger event because of denialism. WTH?

    1. Obviously, some people aren’t going to get it even when it’s obvious to us. E. g., the Florida governor evidently still wants to open up the economy even though COVID-19 cases are increasing. Your boss is probably believing the governor and will put down contrary evidence as “politics.” The governor, in turn, probably has his eye on that Republican convention which will bring in (he thinks) money and prestige.

      I hope you are staying safe at work. “Herd immunity” isn’t going to kick until we have a vaccine or until 50% – 80% of the population has gotten sick and recovered. We’ve got a long way to go before we hit that level. (It seems to be at about 1% right now.) This, and other crises, are becoming more and more obvious to more and more people. Our job is to nudge or push the process of growing awareness along. And it’s not like resource crises are going away.

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