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13.4.05

More On Biomass Vs. Fossil Burning

Stephen Pyne's theory of the gradual replacement of biomass burning by fossil fuel burning is historically limited. No matter how optimistic you are, it's undeniable that we're eventually going to run out of fossil fuels. So even granting Pyne's simple developmental model, the fossil fuel burning stage can only be transient. I see three possibilities for what would happen next:

1. A return to biomass burning. This scenario is advocated by eco-anarchist and other radical environmentalisms, who want us to return to the more sustainable practices of non-industrial society. This scenario is also the likely outcome of an eco-catastrophe, as the economic infrastructure neccesary to sustain a fossil-fuel-using economy would be fatally disrupted by extreme environmental collapse.

2. A sort of Hegelian/Marxist synthesis of the two types of burning. Technologies like thermal depolymerization offer the possibility of using biomass as a feedstock for fossil-fuel-burning technologies -- e.g. turning scraps from turkey processing plants into gasoline.

3. A transition to a non-burning economy. This would be perhaps the most radical change, as humanity's tenure on this planet has been defined by burning. Yet ironically it's the vision of the reformists, rather than the radicals, in the environmental movement. The "ecological modernization" school of thought argues that technological advances will be able to solve our environmental problems without requiring radical lifestyle changes. In this vision, a suite of renewable energy sources -- wind, solar, tidal, nuclear -- will replace fossil fuels. Notably, few of these proposals incorporate any sort of burning-based energy source (though sustainably-farmed biomass fuels have been discussed).

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