The carbon trap by Paul Chefurka

Preface. We are caught in the carbon trap — we utterly depend on fossils that don’t have an electric replacement. Someday people will figure this out the hard way, but Chefurka compassionately points out that there is no one to blame for our situation, and it’s not something we can do anything about.

Here are just a few ways our lives depend on fossils:

Petroleum diesel powers the transportation that matters: heavy-duty trucks, rail, and ships

Manufacturing depends on process heat and steam generated by fossil fuels    

Energy to keep the electric grid up around the clock  

The majority of people alive today should thank natural-gas based fertilizers, and oil-based pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides   

Half a million products are made out of fossil fuels and with energy from fossil fuels

The natural gas that heats homes and businesses.   

  • About 90% of homes and businesses depend on fossil fuels for heat, mainly natural gas  (EIA 2018).
  • Generating heat from electricity today is terrifically wasteful.  Two-thirds of electricity is generated by burning natural gas and coal, and two-thirds of this coal and natural gas energy vanishes as heat, plus another 6-10% is lost on the wires, so only 24 to 28% arrives at homes and businesses.  It’s far better to use fossils onsite to generate heat.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Whether we realize it or not, everyone living on planet Earth today is caught in what I have come to call the “carbon trap”. The nature of the trap is simple, and can be described in one sentence:

Our continued existence depends on the very thing that is killing us – the combustion of our planet’s ancient stocks of carbon.

This unfortunate situation was not intentional, and is no one’s fault.

The trap was constructed well outside of our conscious view or understanding.

Its design came from our evolved desires for status, material comfort and security.

We recognized its seductive promise long before we knew enough science to discover its hidden hook.

It was built with the best of intentions by well-meaning scientists and engineers, whose knowledge of the consequences was both incomplete and clouded by their own evolved desire for a better life.

Most of us, even those who are aware of our predicament, distract ourselves by creating and admiring elaborate and luxurious appointments for our carbon-clad prison.

Many who can see the bars spend their time dreaming of ways to slip through them into the world outside – a world of natural freedom that they can see but never reach.

Those who are fully aware of the trap also understand that we now need it to survive; that leaving it (if that were even possible) would be as fatal as staying inside. We are victims of what complex systems scientists call “path dependence” – where we came from and how we got here puts strict limits on what is now possible for us to do.

One of the things we can’t do is simply open the door and leave. Even the fact that our carbon-barred prison is now on fire can’t change the cold equations. We are condemned to wait here until the walls burn down, when a few soot-blackened survivors may stumble out into the blasted and barren landscape left behind by our self-absorbed construction project.

This is why I believe that the one quality most needed in the world today is compassion.

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13 Responses to The carbon trap by Paul Chefurka

  1. Steve Bull says:

    After many years of reading and researching the complexities and dependencies of our globalised industrial world and its energy issues, I have come to a similar conclusion. In attempting to solve the problems of living in complex societies that encompass a variety of unforgiving environments, we have created a path from which there seems little hope of escape. The ‘carbon bubble’ will burst one day and it is probable that it will take many (most? all?) of us with it. The only glimmer of ‘hope’ I hold is that we come to our senses and adopt degrowth strategies as expediently as possible. Unfortunately, all I see, even from those ‘leaders’ who proclaim they want to shift our path, is a mythical narrative that a smooth transition to renewables free of fossil fuels is possible if we just hand power to them…

    • Jeorge says:

      I’ve read so many calls and proposals for turning the proverbial ship around and they are on the whole mostly unworkable in my view as they basically depend upon the masses to suddenly become enlightened and demand their leaders/elites/overlords give them LESS, something totally unprecedented in an Earth-bound lifeform. There seems to be a deep seated growth imperative in all living things that only halts or reverses when it bumps up against an insurmountable environmental boundary. I know that’s kind of a pessimistic view that omits agency but that does seem to be how collectively humanity is behaving. It will likely be a whole lot easier for whomever is left after a collapse/die-off to adopt many of these “sustainable” practices that so many are calling for, forging various cultural norms and folkways to accompany them.

    • Jeorge says:

      Just a little addendum on Paul Chefurka who apparently withdrew from further public discussions of the 3-E crisis; a personal email to Hambone Littletail, aka Sam Mitchell of the Collapse Chronicles YouTube channel:

      Paul Chefurka: “There Is Literally No Hope That Talking Will Bring About the Necessary Changes” (9:13) —

      After far less time thinking and writing on these topics than Paul I have to agree with his ultimate assessment and response, and with that it’s off for a hike among the wonderful Fall foliage, while I still can.

  2. This documentary on the machines used to install large offshore wind turbines is worth a watch. It’s jaw dropping amazing how we are able to deny the reality that renewable energy is not renewable.

    • energyskeptic says:

      Wow, good one. I’ve seen land turbines installed, but they’re small compared to a lot of the offshore ones. Since offshore only last for 15 years (and land for 20), let’s hope that it is a shelter and reef for fish until it rusts apart in

  3. Dark says:

    Is this an excerpt from a blog post or a book or something?

  4. Ken Barrows says:

    When you believe debt can grow faster than income in perpetuity, anything is possible

  5. Rich Diana says:

    The ideologues have the advantage in todays debates because they anesthetize the masses with a BAU ideology that most refuse to abandon. The realists are labeled doomers by merely reciting the scientific data. The masses are rejecting the scientifically literate because the reality of our fate is unacceptable. Trump, the Great Taker, wraps his avarice in the flag , the military, and a god nobody recognizes. A monstrous transformation is taking place that has grown beyond mankind’s ability to either deal with it or ameliorate its effects. As far as compassion as a strategy I prefer a Stoicism that accepts that a die-off is both necessary and scheduled.

    • Xabier says:

      Stoicism is a philosophy highly adapted to the realities of existence, on both sides of the grave (and if only on one side, as Marcus Aurelius might have said) that’s good, too.

      I tend to feel pity, not compassion, looking at mankind and the general ignorance.

      Thank you, again, to out host for this illuminating series of posts.

  6. Weogo Reed says:

    Hi Folks,

    Good stuff here.

    Do we really need the whole grid up 24/7?

    Actually, No, I’m not thankful for synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides and insecticides.
    Sustainable agriculture can feed humanity now and in the future.

    There are farms today that are sequestering significant quantities of Carbon:

    “Its design came from our evolved desires for status, material comfort and security.”

    I believe this is partly true.
    But a significant part is a few greedy individuals, and those seeking power.
    We would be better off with maybe 95% less advertising.

    D’accord on the compassion.
    Yes, there’s a lot to be angry, sad and fearful about, much to regret.
    There is significant pain to come.
    And all of us reading this are all still alive and
    there’s a good chance we will be tomorrow.
    Be thankful for what you have. Hug somebody.
    Do something that makes the world a better place.

    And thanks Alice for the continuing flow of useful information!

    Good health, Weogo

  7. Weogo Reed says:

    Hi Sheila,

    I agree that having some electricity flowing 24/7 can be useful, that’s why I wrote about allowing some of it to go down overnight or possibly seasonally.

    I might keel over tomorrow, but haven’t been in a hospital or doctor’s office in fifteen years.

    I can hold my breath for about four minutes.

    Food drying and fermentation can be good alternatives to frozen foods.

    When I lived in Upper Volta we had no refrigeration in our hut for most of the four months I was there.
    We had a tiny fridge that would run on kerosene, but very little kerosene.

    Locals lived, on average, fairly short lives, though quite a few very healthy people did live to be older than my grandparents and parents.

    At the time, suicide there was virtually unknown.

    Thanks and good health, Weogo

  8. James Charles says:

    Someone of a ‘like mind’?
    ‘ The Bright Green deception is that none of this matters and that we can continue to operate a growing globalised economy simply by abandoning the 85 percent of primary energy provided by fossil fuels and trying to (and most likely failing to) replace it with intermittent non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies which are themselves dependent upon fossil fuels at every step in their manufacture, transportation, deployment and maintenance.  The stark reality, in contrast, is that we must choose between abandoning a global economy that allows six out of every seven of us to be here; and abandoning the human habitat which allows seven out of every seven of us to be here.  As film director Woody Allen once put it:
    “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness; the other to total extinction.  Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” ‘