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An anthem for the post-industrial age

Throughout history it has fallen to poets and artists rather than scientists and economists – still less politicians and journalists – to present the true nature of the human condition.  With this in mind, I wondered if there might have been a popular song that sums up our current human impact predicament and its environmental, resource depletion and economic collapse sub-crises.  There are, it turns out, a raft of apocalyptic songs that imagine the horrible fates that might befall humanity in the not too distant future.

David Bowie’s Five Years Left imagined some unspecified millennial catastrophe of the kind that was popular back in the 1970s.  Emerson Lake and Palmer’s 1973 Karn Evil 9 imagined the more plausible headlong rush toward nuclear annihilation at the height of the Cold War.  In 1987, REM announced the End of the World as we know it; while in 1989 Chris Rea told us that we were on The Road to Hell.  But none of these visions really gets to the malign banality of the predicament we face.

There was, however, a much earlier and far simpler song which gets to the nub of our situation.  It turns out that a sixteenth century German folk song offers a greater insight into the catastrophe that is unfolding around us than any of the apocalyptic visions offered by the music industry.  The song in question features the techno-utopian Lotte, who believes that there is a technical fix to each of the problems we face.  Lotte’s nemesis – Hans – is, however, far more aware of the complexity which renders what appears to be a series of problems into a single unresolveable predicament.

Updated for the modern world, Hans might patiently explain that the fossil fuels that we have been burning for the last 300 years have polluted and undermined the human habitat leaving us facing at best severe hardship and at worst the complete extinction of humanity.  Hans would also explain that one way or another we have to wean ourselves off these fossil fuels because we have so depleted them – and a host of other mineral resources – to the point that future production is bound to slump.

Lotte’s solution is some combination of solar panels, wind turbines, hydroelectric dams, tidal barrages, geothermal pumps and biofuels.  Hans, of course, objects that to replace the energy we currently derive from coal, gas and oil would require a massive global effort to deploy the equivalent of two nuclear power stations every three days or 1,500 wind turbines covering an area of 300 square miles every day, for the next thirty years!  This, though is only the start of our problems because, Hans explains, once we have dispensed with the fossil fuel industry together with all of the industrial processes built around it, we will not be able to maintain and eventually replace the nuclear and/or non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting infrastructure that we built in its place.

Lotte can’t see this, of course.  If the wind turbine stops working, she tells Hans, “You just have to replace it”.  But Hans objects, “Where will we get the steel and the concrete for the base?  Where will we get the plastic for the blades?”  Lotte suggests that Hans finds a steelworks, a cement works and a plastic factory.  But Hans points out that since all three were part of the oil infrastructure that we replaced; and since none of these materials can be made without the fossil fuel feedstock or the heat that only fossil fuels can generate, the only way to manufacture them is with the fossil fuels that we need to – and ultimately will have no choice but to – cease using.

The song about Lotte and Hans was anglicised in the twentieth century, and became a nursery rhyme that most English-speaking children will have sung at some point in their upbringing.  For the English version, Lotte and Hans were replaced with the American Lisa and Henry.  The song – There’s a hole in my bucket – sets out precisely why too narrow an assessment of the problem can make simple – but wrong – pseudo-solutions appear plausible.  Henry cannot fix the hole in his bucket because he has no straw; he can’t cut the straw because his knife is too blunt; he can’t sharpen the knife because the grindstone is too dry; and, of course, he cannot wet the grindstone because there’s a hole in his bucket… 

As with our human impact predicament today, the problem is real enough.  But those who offer supposedly “green” solutions based around harvesting renewable energy, like so many Lisas and Lottes have simply failed to understand the whole picture.  In most cases they assume that the economists know what they are talking about when they claim that if the price is right, the necessary resources or some equally good substitute will always be available.  That is, they assume that the fossil fuel-based global industrial economy will still be able to deliver any resources we might desire long after we have replaced it with something far less material and far less energetic.

So next time someone tries to tell you that we can “save the world” with some combination of wind and solar electricity, just tell them that there’s an old German folksong they might want to listen to.

As you made it to the end…

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