Archive for the ‘Ecological modernisation’ Category
This post was therefore not published yesterday (i.e. International Workers’ Day).
Since publishing my book, I have been contacted by a number of academics in a variety of countries who are doing – or have done – research into climate change scepticism (i.e. similar to that which I did for my MA – the basis of my book). As well as being very enthusiastic about my research, they have all asked me why I did not get it published in an academic journal. However, the answer to this question is simple: I did not rate my chances as an unknown, sole author, while not doing a PhD. I am therefore now actively pursuing the possibility of doing both.
However, to get to the point, having established these contacts, it is obvious to me that, along with ‘Agenda 21’, the concept of a ‘New World Order’ conspiracy is one that I did not mention in my dissertation two years ago. Although one is merely a subset of the other, Wikipedia is a good place to start if you are unfamiliar with these terms:
– Agenda 21 is a non-binding, voluntarily implemented action plan of the United Nations with regard to sustainable development. It is a product of the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. It is an action agenda for the UN, other multilateral organizations, and individual governments around the world that can be executed at local, national, and global levels.
– The common theme in conspiracy theories about a New World Order is that a secretive… elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government… Significant occurrences in politics and finance… and current events are seen as steps in an on-going plot to achieve world domination through secret political gatherings and decision-making processes.
Christopher Monckton, the third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, is fond of mentioning Agenda 21 in his speeches (e.g. here and here), but I have still not come across anyone (maybe I have just not looked hard enough) who frequently refers explicitly to the New World Order (NWO). Having said that, NWO conspiracy theory is the basis of James Delingpole’s stupid Watermelons books.
The trouble is, of course, that, whereas the organised nature of the campaign to discredit climate science and scientists is a very well-documented conspiracy fact, the idea that there is a global conspiracy to bring about an NWO is a delusion. Indeed, it may even be a form of vestigial anti-Semitism. I say this because Hitler believed the Jews were intent on establishing an NWO. However, as well as being entirely discredited long before the start of World War Two (WW2), this idea was – and is – entirely intellectually incoherent. In the decades preceding WW2, Jews were simultaneously accused of plotting to bring about an NWO and derided for being obsessed with making money. Despite this, even today, anti-Semitic organisations such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood indoctrinate their followers into believing that there is an NWO conspiracy – they just call it ‘Zionism’. But that is another story.
Certainly, from the beginning of the Cold War onwards, belief in an NWO and/or characterisation of the USSR as the “evil empire” or “Red Menace”, acted as a recruiting sergeant for libertarians and free-market economists everywhere. Furthermore, as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have clearly documented, in their book Merchants of Doubt, it was a bunch of neo-conservative physicists, whose worldview was forged in the Cold War era, who laid the foundations of the campaign to dispute climate science for ideological reasons. In the twilight years of the USSR (before the Berlin Wall came down), it was they who convinced President George Bush to resist much of what the first Rio Earth Summit sought to do in 1992… The USA had decided that the new enemy was “environmentalism”. People may think this is simplistic but the German Minister for the Environment at the time, Klaus Topfer, is on record as having said this is how he perceived the USA’s position at the time (See Timothy Luke’s ‘A Rough Road out of Rio’ (2000) – PDF available here).
Sadly, the idea that environmentalism is the enemy of progress is complete bullshit.
I’m sorry to be so blunt but, there really is no better word for it. However, this is sad for a variety of reasons:
– So many have been – and still are – convinced that concern for the environment is a form of Communism (or Fascism).
– This powerful delusion has been responsible for the failure of international efforts to prevent the environmental catastrophe that is now unfolding.
– The failure of climate scientists to explain their message in such as way as to shatter this delusion may result in things getting much worse than they might have done.
– The World’s politicians are yet to wake up to (or admit) the reality that simply curtailing the increase in global CO2 emissions will never solve the problem.
What we needed was ecological modernisation (i.e. modifications to the way we do things so as to make them more ecologically-friendly and environmentally-sustainable). Instead, what we have got is economic stagnation (because perpetual growth in consumption and accelerating resource depletion was always going to run into trouble eventually).
The questions that therefore remain are whether climate change sceptics are going to continue to try to perpetuate:
– The myth that Communists realised they could not win power in Western democracies so therefore invented the Green Party instead.
– The myth that there is a left-wing conspiracy to over-tax and over-regulate people (so as to make everyone poorer).
– The myth that we need not worry about the finite nature of the Earth’s mineral resources or its ability to deal with our pollution simply because of human ingenuity (Prometheanism) or Nature’s bounty (Cornucopianism).
I really do think it is time to admit that the game is up, the NWO does not exist:
– The only environmental conspiracy is that which seeks to deny the truth that human activity is irreversibly altering the Earth’s climate.
– The only political conspiracy is that which seeks to under-tax and under-regulate industry (so as to make a few people richer).
– The amount of energy received from the Sun is effectively constant and therefore, by powering industrialised civilisation using the fossilised energy received by the Earth over millions of years, the Carbon Era has been neither physically nor environmentally sustainable.
So, then, the NWO conspiracy does not exist. However, that is not the end of the story.
Sadly, as I pointed out three months ago now, the CO2 fairy does not exist either: Given the history of exponentially growing demand for fossil fuels (and therefore CO2 emissions), it will be a very long time until carbon capture and storage (CCS) could possibly begin to solve our problem. Indeed, the technology is still at the experimental stage and, even once the best method of CCS is identified, it will then have to be made operational on a global basis such that sequestration exceeds emissions. Only then would the atmospheric concentration of CO2 begin to fall. This will therefore never happen unless global emissions are massively reduced.
The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones; and we have a limited carbon budget that we simply cannot exceed and expect to retain a habitable planet. Therefore, wherever their use is easily substitutable, we need to phase out the use of fossil fuels as soon as possible. And, yes, that is the end of story.
This post has been prompted by an exchange of comments I have been having with Patrice Ayme – on my previous post (i.e. here) – that I feel deserves wider exposure and/or appreciation. However, if you have not the faintest idea what I might be on about, please be patient: This post is not too long and, if you read to the end, I believe all will become clear.
The image shown here is the cover of one of the two main course texts I had to buy in order to do my MA in Environmental Politics at Keele University in 2010-11. It is an excellent introduction to the subject of environmental politics and the concept of discourse analysis.
It is in this book that John Dryzek puts forward his own particular method of discourse analysis – analysing the things people say or have written – suggesting examination of: (a) the basic entities people recognise or appear to construct; (b) the assumptions they make about natural relationships; (c) the agents they recognise and motivations they assume; and (d) the key metaphors and rhetorical devices they use.
In the sphere of environmental politics, Dryzek suggests that it is possible to classify people on the basis of whether they appear to believe sustainability can be achieved by reformation of the status quo; and the extent to which they are thinking “outside the box”; as follows:
After Dryzek Box 1.1 on page 15 of The Politics of the Earth (2005).
In essence, economic rationalists assume market forces can be used to solve environmental problems; whereas ecological modernisers think it will take more than that.
This then was the starting point for my discourse analysis of climate change scepticism, which I have now published as The Denial of Science. However, in order to propose a similar classification of climate change scepticism, it was necessary to take Dryzek’s basic idea and combine it with what I have called the ‘Six Pillars of Climate Change Denial’ that I extracted from Robert Henson’s The Rough Guide to Climate Change:
The atmosphere may not be warming; but if it is, this is probably due to natural variation; but if it isn’t, the amount of warming is probably not significant; but if it is, the benefits should outweigh the disadvantages; but if they don’t, technology should be able to solve problems as they arise; but if it can’t, we shouldn’t wreck the economy to fix the problem (after Henson 2008: 257).
As I explain in my book, I simplified this summary of the positions adopted by those who are supposedly sceptical, in order to produce my Dryzek-style classification of climate change denial, as follows:
(1 – ACD is not happening)
(4 – ACD is not worth fixing)
(2 – ACD is not significant)
(3 – ACD is not problematic)
Contrarians are those refuse to acknowledge the nature of reality.
Cornucopians are those (like Julian Simon) who do not believe action is yet required to address any anticipated effects of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD). They are named after Cornucopia, the horn of the goat Amalthea in Greek mythology, which Zeus endowed with a supernatural power to provide an unlimited supply of food etc.. As such, Cornucopians have unlimited confidence in the abundant supply of natural resources; the ability of natural systems to absorb pollutants; and their corrective capacity to mitigate human activities.
Economic Rationalists are defined and discussed by Dryzek (2005: 121-42) but, for the sake of argument, can here be taken to be synonymous with Karl Marx’s “money fetishism” as cited in Elster (1986); and/or Herman Daly’s “growthmania” (1974).
Prometheans are those (like Bjorn Lomborg) who propose radical technological solutions including environmental stabilisation of the atmosphere by means of geo-engineering. They are named after Prometheus, one of the Titans of Greek mythology, who stole fire from Zeus and so vastly increased the human capacity to manipulate the world. As such, Prometheans have unlimited confidence in the ability of technology to overcome environmental problems.
In a nutshell, my discourse analysis of climate change scepticism (i.e. the most prominent climate change sceptics in the UK) appears to suggest that the majority of these “sceptics” are either contrarians or economic rationalists. However, I suspect that as the outright denial of reality and the need to address the problem of ACD both become increasingly untenable, I think more and more people will try and find solace in either cornucopian or promethean beliefs.
In the discussion that I alluded to at the outset of this post, Patrice Ayme did not like the way in which I appeared to disparage the importance of human ingenuity (by suggesting that people who believe in both Cornucopianism and Prometheanism are deluded). I am pleased to say that we have now resolved any misunderstanding by agreeing that Prometheanism is the best option. However, crucially, we also agree that, in order to avert an ecological catastrophe, we will also need to modify our behaviour. That is to say, neither faith in Nature’s bounty (Cornucopianism) nor faith in human ingenuity (Prometheanism) should be used to deny our responsibility for causing the problem or to abdicate responsibility for doing everything we can to minimise its consequences.
Great stuff, hey? All we need to do now is get those with the power to make policy decisions to do the right thing.
With apologies for the delay, here is the latest email received from Greenpeace:
Right now, we have a huge chance to help save the Arctic.
To tackle the threats posed by the disappearing ice and the invasion of oil drillers – like Shell – we need to reduce the world’s thirst for oil. We can do that by making greener cars. And the good news is we’ve already begun.
We know this can be done. When we first asked VW to make their cars cleaner and more efficient, they said it wasn’t possible. Then 526,000 of us piled pressure on VW and helped persuade the biggest and most powerful car company in Europe that clean technology is possible. That’s something we can be proud of. Now it’s time to move the whole of Europe (and the world) forward.
This isn’t just about our continent. If we make these big wins here, the global car market will feel the pressure to keep up with innovation in Europe. That means we could see less polluting cars in countries like China and the US too. That’s better for the Arctic, the air we breathe and the stability of our global climate.
Over the next few months European politicians are making decisions that will affect every new car in Europe – this is a huge opportunity – so let’s make sure we send the strongest possible message. We know that these politicians aren’t used to getting thousands of messages from people like us, so this could really have an impact.
Together we can show the world what can be done,
Nic and all the Greenpeace crew
PS Of course, not everyone drives – I don’t – and your bicycle is the most efficient vehicle you can use. But cars are a big part of society today, so please help make cars cleaner in Europe (and the world).
PPS You may have heard about the No Dash For Gas heroes who shut down a polluting gas power station last year and were being sued by owners EDF for £5m in an attempt to stifle peaceful protest. This week, we heard the amazing news is that, after nearly 65,000 people signed a petition, EDF have backed down! The activists still face criminal charges and you can get the latest updates on their website.
Last week, I re-published Nele Marien’s ‘20 years of unsustainable development’ – commenting that I knew this stuff but had not presented it as clearly as Nele did. Today, I would like to try and re-formulate Nele’s message in view of what the UK government is doing (or rather not doing) – as I summarised on Monday.
First of all, I should just like to say that I have been looking back at the notes I made in the very first lecture I attended at the start of my MA (i.e. 2 years ago already); and have discovered why this image of three intersecting circles seemed strangely familiar: The 3 Pillars of Sustainable Development is quite a well established concept – just try using any search engine and you will find out what I mean…
If not three intersecting circles, the other common illustration – as the name of the concept suggests – is that of three columns supporting a rectangular or triangular structure like this.
However, as Nele made clear, the three intersecting circles are a misconception of reality and, if so, then so are the three pillars. However, at the risk of completely mangling the metaphor, I think the only edifice that the three pillars are supporting is unsustainable denial. This is the denial – apparently widespread amongst politicians of all kinds – of the reality that our current power generation methods and energy policy are not sustainable. There is – and can be – only one excuse for such denial of reality; the highly questionable belief that the ingenuity of humans will solve the problem (i.e. “prometheanism” – also known as “technological optimism”).
I think this is highly dangerous strategy. I do not think we should have allowed ourselves to get into a position where we must rely on technology to minimise the adverse consequences. However, we are where we are, and I am not anti-technology. There is, therefore, a great deal that we could do that we are not doing (because so many are still far too complacent about the nature, scale and urgency of the problem we face). We have been fooled into a false sense of security by this misconception of reality: We have taken it and distorted it in order to allow us to pursue growthmania. As a result, where we are is still a very long way from where we need to be.
For all of us, therefore, embracing reality is going to be tough. In the UK context, it would be a good start if the government would try a spot of lateral thinking. Rather than focus on large infrastructure projects (such as the new power distribution networks that power stations of all kinds – not just fossil fuel burning ones – will need), our government needs to focus more effort on reducing the demand for centrally-generated power. After all, compared to all this expenditure on infrastructure, how much would it cost them to pay to install Solar PV panels on the roof of every single suitable home in the country? They almost certainly know but – if they do not – do they not have a moral responsibility to future generations to find out?
However, I suspect they do know what this would cost (or at least they have a good idea of the number of suitable houses), because many local authorities have already surveyed their entire areas to determine the feasibility of micro-generation of wind power. However, if an equivalent survey – to determine how many properties have a south-facing roof – has not been done; it should be done as soon as possible. Why? Because micro-generation – reducing the demand for centrally-generated power by getting people off the grid – is the solution to our energy crisis.
As far back as May 2011, George Monbiot warned us that our problem is that we have too much fossil fuel (not too little) and earlier this year Bill McKibben quantified the problem by telling us that we have 5 times more fossil fuel on Earth than it would be safe to burn. Therefore, because (as Dr Myles Allen and others have been saying for at least three years) it is cumulative emissions that now matter…
– we need to stop burning conventional fossil fuels: and
– we need to stop looking for unconventional fossil fuels.
This is not going to be easy or quick; but planning not to do it for at least the next 20 years is not the answer – that is what people do when they are in denial about the nature of the problem.
Our politicians need to have the courage to admit that the Carbon Age must be brought to a premature end. If they do not, within 80 years, they may well be consigning 20 to 50 % of species to a premature end instead! This is because:
– As sea levels continue to rise, we will find that fertile soils and trees cannot migrate to higher ground; and
– As temperatures continue to rise, species that can migrate to higher ground will find they run out of space.
Dr James Hansen summarised all of this in a talk he gave at a TED conference six months ago. If this does not sound familiar to you, please click on the link below for the video and my 10-point summary of what he said:
The solution to all our problems (13 March 2012)
By Nele Marien in Bolivia – www.nelemarien.info/20-years-of-unsustainable-development/
Therefore could all those re-blogging this please stop crediting me as the author!
Foreword by Martin Lack
Today, with the permission of its Bolivian author, Nele Marien, I am delighted to re-publish an item first posted on her For Whom The Bell Tolls blog earlier this week. I am completely indebted to Nele for bringing this to my attention yesterday; in completely unsolicited comment on something I posted here in July. I was so impressed with the power and clarity of Nele’s blog (brilliantly supported with illustrations), that I immediately knew I had to re-publish it. In the About me section of her blog, Nele describes herself as a “freelance analyst and investigator on environmental policies at both the Bolivian and international level”; who focusses on environmental and climate justice. From 2009 to October 2011 she was a negotiator for the Bolivian delegation to the UNFCCC. This experience and expertise shines through in Nele’s writing; in which she expresses things I know – only she does it better than I have yet achieved…
20 years of unsustainable development
20 years ago, the ecological crisis was already quite evident. Enough for world leaders to worry about it, and to call for a global “Earth Summit”.
At the time, humanity yearly consumed resources and caused pollution at a rate that Nature could regenerate in approximately one year time. But it was clear that this rate was growing. The environmental crisis was growing and the unsustainability of the (even then) current way of life was obvious.
The response of the Earth Summit in Rio (1992), was the launching of the concept of “sustainable development”. The concept was based on three “interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars”: economic development, social development, and environmental protection. The basic idea was that the three are compatible, and that there does not need to be a contradiction between economic development and protection of the environment.
Evaluating the “pillars”
20 years is quiet some time to see if a proposed scheme works, so, time for an evaluation of the evolution of the three interdependent pillars:
1. The Economy has received most attention, and was totally enhanced:
– During this period, world GDP grew approximately 80%.
– Hundreds of multilateral, regional and bilateral economic agreements were established.
– The whole international trade system is legally binding and counts with enforcement mechanisms that have more power than individual nations, in particular the ICSID.
– In times of economic crisis, states have mobilised billions to save the bank.
– The only valid indicator states use to see how they are doing is the growth rate of their GDP
2. For social development, some progress was made:
– Several agreements were made, at a multilateral level.
– New bilateral or regional agreements on social issues are scarce.
– The enforcement of those agreements has been weak, with only a few international institutions having the possibility to emit judicious sentences, but only for those states that accept them.
– The millennium development goals were decided upon, and up to some degree, progress has been made to try to meet them.
3. For environmental protection growth seemed to come from the wrong side:
– On climate change, global green house gas (GHG) emissions grew with around 30% and the GHG concentrations in the atmosphere increased from 354 ppm (just over the 350 ppm safety limit most scientists recognise) to 392 ppm, far above this limit.
– Biodiversity loss escalated, up to more than 100 species/million a year.
– There were multiple human-induced ecological disasters in this period, including several major oil spills and a major nuclear disaster. Nevertheless no policies to prevent this kind of events happening were elaborated, on the contrary, every day more projects that imply huge dangers are approved.
– The global ecological footprint is now 1,5 times Earth’s capacity, while 20 years ago, this was approximately 1 time its capacity.
– Almost none of the environmental agreements are subject to strict compliance systems.
In synthesis, although there has been many conventions, summits and declarations on the environmental side, almost non of them has been enforceable, and the results are clear: the environment is in a worse situation than ever.
So, while sustainable development established three “equal” priorities, it is clear which one prevailed, and which one wasn’t really prioritized. No building can stand on uneven pillars.
Looking for a new paradigm
But, let’s take one step back. Should the three pillars really be of equal importance? Or, rather, is the one pillar the inevitable condition for others to stand? Let’s be clear: without the natural conditions, no social nor economic development is possible!
As a wise indigenous saying says “Only when the last tree has been cut down; Only when the last river has been poisoned; Only when the last fish has been caught; Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.”
The importance of a healthy environment for human wellbeing and even as a condition for the economic functioning is something everybody agrees on. Indeed, development that doesn´t take into account the intrinsic Laws of Nature, and uses up the Earth’s resources at a faster rate than its capacity for regeneration is unsustainable by definition.
If we accept that we have to keep our common activity within the limits of Nature’s capacities and laws, then the next thing humanity should do is to define the fairest way possible of sharing the resources and living possibilities with all human beings. This, the social element, is the next level. Then, having clear that Mother Earth’s health is imperative, that social wellbeing is a common aspiration for humanity, then economy should be put in function of those other elements. Economical policies should make sure that Nature and social wellbeing are to be respected.
Nothing can be nor supportable, nor viable, nor equitable, and much less sustainable, if the first condition is not fulfilled: a healthy environment.
Rio+20: A reflection and adjustment of this unbalanced scheme?
The logical thing for Rio+20 would have been to make an evaluation of 20 years of sustainable development, and adjust any factor that causes a lack in equilibrium.
Unfortunately, quiet the contrary has happened. There was no such thing as an official evaluation, not about the current situation of the environment and the development, nor about the adequacy of policies that have been implemented in the name of sustainable development.
On the contrary, a new “response” was prepared, under the name of “green economy”. The green economy enhances exactly the pillar of the sustainable development that is already the most inflated: it proposes an unlimited economic growth –the final text mentioned ‘sustained economic growth’ not less than 23 times. It claims that technological advances will imply that the impact on the environment will decrease, and proposes economical mechanisms, such as the payment for ecosystem services, which incorporate the environment in the economic scheme, and puts the environment at the service of the economy.
The future this is leading to, may not be exactly the one we want: a future where economy is prioritized over social wellbeing, and where social wellbeing is being prioritized over Mother Earth. This can go only as far as Nature permits us.
(Please note the absence of a question mark)
Last Wednesday, I eventually called a halt to an online discussion, which was threatening to get off-topic, by promising to dedicate a separate post to the subject today.
I think the problem is that we need altruistically-motivated public servants who enter politics to try and make the World a better place. Unfortunately, most of us get ideologically-driven career politicians who seek power in the World because they think they know best.
However, with my thanks to Christine, blogging at 350orbust.com, for bringing him to my attention, the President of Uruguay may well be a rare exception. I cannot put it better than Christine does at the start of her own post about a speech he gave at the Rio+20 Earth Summit in June this year:
President José Mujica of Uruguay [is] so unusual because here we see a political leader speaking the truth about our current situation…
The contemporaneous subtitling (i.e. simultaneous translation) is not very good and makes it harder than it need to be to fully appreciate what he says. However, his passion and his intent are clear; and make it well worth watching despite this. Nevertheless, thanks to the wonders of Google, I have tracked down a transcript of the speech made by a blogger in Uruguay (who was also appalled by the on-screen translation); but…
I really do think you should watch it. Therefore, even though I am sure the translator would not mind me reproducing the text in full here, I have not done so.
For an opposing view, by someone who considers president Mujica to be a dangerous misanthopic Communist, please visit ExPatBob’s blog. I am most certainly not a Communist sympathiser, but I find it very hard to fault President Mujica, when he says stuff like this:
I ask this question: what would happen to this planet if the people of India had the same number of cars per family as the Germans?… Does the world today have the material elements to enable 7 or 8 billion people to enjoy the same level of consumption and squandering as the most affluent Western societies?… Are we ruling over globalization or is globalization ruling over us?… Today, man does not govern the forces he has unleashed, but rather, it is these forces that govern man… And no material belonging is worth as much as life… I’m not talking about returning to the days of the caveman, or erecting a “monument to backwardness”. But we cannot continue like this, indefinitely, being ruled by the market, on the contrary, we have to rule over the market.
A ‘musical’ investigation (thanks to Autotune software) into the causes and effects of global climate change; and our diminishing opportunity to prevent it. Featuring (in order of their appearance) Sir David Attenborough, Bill Nye, Isaac Asimov and Richard Alley. “Our Biggest Challenge” is the 16th episode of the Symphony of Science series by melodysheep…. I can guarantee that you will either love it; or you will hate it…
“We are a flexible and innovative species; and we have the capacity to adapt and modify our behaviour. Now, we most certainly have to do so, if we are to deal with climate change. It is the biggest single challenge we have yet faced.” – Sir David Attenborough
“It is important that the World get together to face the problems which attack us as a unit.” – Isaac Asimov
The energetic formative years
In the past, I have proven quite fond of mentioning both the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the concept of Entropy. However, I suspect that my doing so may have left quite a few people a bit cold… For those that know what I mean that was a pretty lame joke. For those that do not, let’s just say that our problem with energy is that there is only a finite amount of it in the Universe; and trying to stop it being converted into progressively less useful forms is like trying to prevent water flowing to the sea. Leaving aside the questions of how or why, the Universe appears to have had a beginning; and it appears to be perpetually expanding towards a dark state where everything reaches a uniform minimum temperature (i.e. so called Heat Death). Here too, it seems to me, the Second Law of Thermodynamics appears to be in danger of failing but, hey, take it up with the experts…
On Monday, I highlighted the fact that the Earth receives an enormous amount of energy from the Sun. Then, on Wednesday, I highlighted how fortunate we are that plants convert this energy into sugar, which forms the basis of all food chains on the planet. This is why fossil fuels are sometimes described as fossilised sunlight – with coal being derived from dead plants and oil; and gas being derived (predominantly) from dead sea creatures. As such, fossil fuels appear to violate the entropic principle, which dictates that things go from order to disorder (i.e. low entropy to high entropy). However, even though they take millions of years to be created, fossil fuels defiance of entropy can only be temporary; and they can only be burnt once. Thus, they contain an enormous amount of energy captured from the Sun and packaged into a very condensed form over unimaginably long periods of time. However, we are no more likely to come up with a method of doing this artificially than we are likely to genetically modify cells in the human body so that they can extract energy from sunlight.
In short, we are currently burning fossil fuels many times faster than they are being created, which is polluting our environment: The burning of fossilised carbon adds carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and oceans many times faster than it can be removed. We have known for decades that this would almost certainly cause problems but, for a variety of reasons, we have done very little to prevent those problems now becoming a reality.
A life of Dissipation
The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be changed from one form to another. The only thing that appears to contravene this Law is the creation of the Universe itself. The Sun is not creating any energy; it is just a giant nuclear fusion reactor taking advantage of the fact that E=mc2.
The principle of Entropy implies that Energy is generally transformed from more to less useful forms. The formation of fossil fuels may appear to contravene this principle; but only when you look at them and the Carbon Cycle (as it is on Earth) in isolation. When you consider the journey that the Universe is on – from the Big Bang to its ultimate Heat Death – this act of defiance is only temporary. Therefore, just as it would seem unwise to deny that fossil fuels are a non-renewable source of energy that will run out one day, I think it is unwise for anyone to pick a fight with the way the Universe works.
However, our greatest problem is not that the Universe may well be on a one-way entropic journey to a cold dark future state of nothingness; it is that fossil fuels are going to run out much faster than the fusion reaction in the Sun. Furthermore, just as the Earth will become uninhabitable long before the Sun runs out of fusion energy to dissipate; so the Earth will become uninhabitable long before we humans run out of fossil fuels to burn. That being the case, I think we should stop doing it: Relying on the Sun (for heat, light, and – albeit indirectly – winds and waves) would seem like the better option; and don’t forget all that geothermal energy beneath our feet as well. Speaking of which, entropy dictates that it must all escape eventually but not in any timescale relevant to us; and – in the meantime – it is a shame to let it go to waste.
The inevitable conclusion
The post-carbon era is coming; and we cannot stop it: The only question that remains is are we going to embrace that future; or cling to the past? One thing is for certain; both choices have consequences: If we plan for a sustainable future then we have a chance of making an organised transition to it. However, if we do not plan for it, it will still arrive; and it is unlikely to be pleasant.
Here are two videos from the Post Carbon Institute (PCI) that are well worth watching (depending on the time you have available to ponder these issues).
A 300-year history of fossil fuels use told in about 300 seconds (narrated by Richard Heinberg – as in the PCI’s excellent ‘Addicted to Growth’ video):
A 30-minute video on the consequences (both good and bad) of our comparatively recent access to cheap energy (narrated by Peter Coyote):
A more positive post-script
People say that nothing lasts forever and, certainly, that applies to fossil fuels. They may have taken 300 million years to form but, from start to finish, we humans will have burnt them all in little more than 300 years. That means we will have burnt them 1 million times faster than they took to form; a definition of unsustainable development if ever there was one.
However, the post-Carbon era may well be inevitable but it does not have to be dark. It could be very bright indeed; all we need to do create a star here on Earth (see video embedded below): If we can build a nuclear fusion reactor that does not consume more energy than it produces, our energy problems will be effectively over.
Thanks to E= mc2, the mass converted to energy in an atomic bomb explosion is approximately 1 gram. Compare this to the nuclear fusion reaction going on in the Sun. Because the Sun is so massive, it can burn for billions of years by converting 4 million tonnes of mass to energy every second – equivalent to 4 million million (4 x 1012) atomic bomb blasts per second. Almost incredible; but true nonetheless.
Scientists are working on this right now but, it will take time to make it work – and time is a luxury we no longer have. Even though we may have to continue to use hydrocarbons to make plastics and to fly our aeroplanes, we must substitute their use where ever we can; and minimise our use of them because once they are gone they are gone. We cannot manufacture them in a laboratory; and even if we could… burning them would still be a problem. Basically:
If you think fossil fuels are the answer, you are asking the wrong question!
Do we lack solutions to our environmental problems or merely the will to implement them?
As I hope this blog has made clear over the last 12 months, our environmental problems are not the product of an over-active imagination; the result of a predisposition to being a doomsayer; or the fictional preamble to an insidious plan for worldwide authoritarian government – they are real.
They are also all inevitable consequences of the number of humans on the planet and the rate at which we are consuming, polluting, and/or destroying the Earth’s finite resources. In short, all our environmental problems are long-predicted Limits to Growth phenomena.
Even with only a rudimentary understanding of the basic Laws of Physics, this ought to be self-evident and incontestable. However, there are many people – either very wealthy or obsessed with becoming wealthy – who do not want to accept this reality. This led former World Bank economist Herman E Daly to conclude:
“Anyone who asserts the existence of limits is soon presented with a whole litany of things that someone once said could never be done but subsequently were done… but [c]ontinuing to study economies only in terms of the [exchange value of money] is like studying organisms only in terms of the circulatory system, without ever mentioning the digestive tract.”
Bearing all this in mind, I think a very important thing happened last week, which I hope will be a turning point in the long battle to rouse the bulk of humanity from its catatonic state of reality denial – in that one of the UK Government’s most senior scientific advisors has said that it is no longer realistic to think we can limit the rise in global average temperatures being caused by human activity to less than 2 Celsius: Professor Watson is a highly respected and world renown scientist on climate change policy and is currently Chief Scientist at the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and a former Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I really hope that this will be a game-changer; it certainly deserves to be: For the first time ever (that I can recall), the BBC publicised what he said as genuine news; with no attempt to provide a false balance with the opinions of those who claim nothing unusual is happening.
David Roberts has recently drawn attention to the probability that the prevailing view that unconventional hydrocarbons (oil shale gas in particular) represent the solution to our energy problems is a form of collective hypnosis. However, having recently finished reading parts 6 to 9 of Schalk Cloete’s 9-part series on the probability of an impending economic collapse, I think Professor Watson is right to say that our leaders lack the political will to change course. This is because, as Schalk shows – with typical crystal clarity – we are all (whether we like it or not) so deeply enmeshed in the Ponzi Scheme of Globalised Capitalism that it will be impossible to deconstruct it as fast as is now required.
In saying this, I would not want anyone to think of me as an anarchist – or even an anti-Capitalist – I consider myself to be merely a pragmatist and a realist. Indeed, as Schalk eventually demonstrates (in posts 8 and 9 of the series), there are simple solutions but no easy way to see how our political leaders will allow them to be implemented (because turkeys will never vote for Christmas). Despite this, we really must all stop being so compartmentalised in our thinking. Our economic and environmental problems are so intertwined it is not possible to solve any of them in isolation. A holistic problem requires a holistic solution. Arthur Mol, an early proponent of the concept of Ecological Modernisation, circumscribed the problem perfectly when he suggested that “a structural design fault of modernity” is causing “the institutionalised destruction of nature.” (For more on this subject, please see my Can modernisation ever be ecological? – Part 1 (24 September 2011)).
As Professor Watson notes, our leaders appear to lack the political will to change the system; and (as I have suggested) the analogy of turkeys not voting for Christmas may explain why this is the case. However, what are the solutions and why will they be so hard to implement? Well, even though Schalk’s discussion is focussed on the impending collapse of globalised economics, the solutions he proposes apply equally well to the environmental collapse that we have also brought upon ourselves:
Solutions to our problems
In his Healing the System post (part 8 of 9 in the Collapse series), Schalk posits four necessary changes required to the way the World currently operates:
– Minimise our use of products and services that consume non-renewable resources.
– Eliminate the massive inefficiencies of the globalised economics that drive this over-consumption.
– Pay off our all our ludicrous debts and re-establish individual financial resilience.
– Reduce over consumption in developed countries and excessive population growth in developing countries.
I know this is in danger of sounding like a Utopian dream to eliminate poverty and suffering; and establish World peace… but – as Learning from Dogs has recently reminded all those that will listen – David Roberts has a point; either we do something about all of this or we’re screwed.
Obstacles to implementation
In his Practical Challenges post (the final part in the Collapse series), Schalk highlights the following difficulties:
– Reducing consumption of non-renewable resources will require an entire culture shift to convince 100s of millions of people that consuming things does not make us happy.
– Restoring system efficiency will require the money to be spent on things that benefit society as a whole rather than an elite who are already very wealthy (turkeys and Christmas problem again).
– Reducing overall indebtedness will also require the dismantling of systems of power and control; power that has corrupted people, companies and entire governments (ditto).
– Reducing over-consumption (i.e. implementing austerity) is not easy at a time when people are obsessed with consumption and in the Age of Entitlement. In the meantime, although reducing population growth in developing countries through the education and emancipation of women is genuine work in progress, it is taking a long time; and time is a luxury we do not have.
Change the World begins at home
Echoing another recent post on Learning from Dogs, if we want to change the World; we must start by changing our own behaviour. This is the conclusion Schalk reaches too:
Honestly, the only practical solution I can see is a peaceful grassroots revolution of concerned individuals changing their lifestyles and talking to their friends… People simply need to wake up to this blindingly obvious fact and start incorporating it in their day-to-day consumption patterns… The One in a Billion project has been especially designed to make such individual action as easy and rewarding as at all possible. I am fully convinced that gradually implementing these sustainable lifestyle choices is the single most important thing that any one of the richest billion individuals on planet Earth can be doing right now.
I may have linked and/or dipped into it repeatedly above but, as it is so beautifully constructed, scripted and presented, I really would recommend reading Schalk’s entire series of posts from their beginning. So, if you have not already done so, start here.
Today, as promised yesterday, I am going to discuss why there was no discernible change in government policy after Tim Jackson’s Prosperity without Growth (PWG) report was published by the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC). But first, here is a clue:
In May 2010, the UK failed to vote for a majority government and so, after a lot a political horse-trading, what we got was government by a Coalition of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. Somewhat unkindly, this was almost immediately labelled by the likes of idiosyncratic Socialist (or may be just “self-publicist”) George Galloway as the “CON-DEM” coalition.
However, in what came to be known as the Bonfire of the Quangos, one of the many organisations that were condemned to oblivion by the incoming government in an attempt to reduce government spending was… yes, you guessed it, the SDC: Rather than kicking the PWG report into the political long grass; by appointing a committee to review it and come up with recommendations (i.e. including that government should appoint a committee to come up with recommendations) the government simply waved a magic wand and made it disappear…
Will history repeat itself?
Upon the restoration of Charles II to the throne, the body of Oliver Cromwell was exhumed – and the head was separated from his body – as a deliberate act of retribution for his having engineered the trial and execution of Charles I. This makes me wonder if future generations of humans, once they have resolved the existential threats to their survival, will dig up any available corpses of today’s politicians simply to disarticulate them in retrospective protest at their failure to face up to the nature of reality. If so, in order to avoid their final resting place being desecrated, I would recommend that all politicians clearly specify in their Wills that their mortal remains should be cremated. Furthermore, they had better hope that they die before their folly becomes much more obvious; and that their wishes are respected.
The essence of the problem
We don’t live in a democracy; we live in a global petrocracy; where all real power is vested in companies extracting fossilised sunlight from rocks (a million times faster than it can be recycled). As such, our politicians have mostly been hypnotised into slavish obedience to their essential oil masters.
Just as turkeys will never vote for Christmas, our politicians will not choose to prohibit the burning of fossil fuels (or even for the generation of the main waste product of their combustion to be properly penalised)… unless the opinions of the great mass of ordinary people becomes more important to them than the risk of disappointing the vested interests of those who are already extremely wealthy.
In short, we need to complete another failed revolution; namely the establishment of government of the people for the people by the people… Because, what we have now is government of the people, by the politicians, for the businessmen.
Therefore, despite being a very long way from being a Marxist, I am tempted to say: “Viva la revolucion!”