Archive for the ‘energy crisis’ Category
I decided that my review of The Revenge of Gaia, as published by James Lovelock in 2006, was dragging on a bit, so have decided to finish it off. This is therefore the fourth and final part (and thus longer than normal posts).
Having explained what Gaia is (part one), discussed the need to decarbonise our economies (part two), and discussed the various sources of renewable energy available to us (part three), we must now confront ‘the radiating face of Gaia’. The possibly surprising reality is that almost half the book is taken up by Lovelock discussing the sensibility – if not inevitability – of the widespread use of nuclear energy to generate electricity.
As before, some may consider this a self-contradictory position to adopt because, as indeed Lovelock concedes, the ecological carrying capacity of the Earth in a post-carbon age is unlikely to be greater than it was before the Industrial Revolution. That being the case, why would such a small population (of say one billion humans) need nuclear energy; and who is to say they would be capable of harnessing it? When the history of human failure (to see the writing on the wall) has finally been written, catalogued and left in the library long enough to be coated in dust, some may well wonder if today’s nuclear power plants will become the curious prehistoric monuments of a distant, post-carbon, future.
However, I see Lovelock’s pro-nuclear stance as part of the technological optimist side of his split personality: Whereas his pessimistic side laments the unintended ecocide being caused by human arrogance, greed and stupidity; the optimistic side of Lovelock assumes humanity will somehow avert the approaching environmental catastrophe and will, therefore, need lots of energy to power a post-carbon civilisation.
However, to be fair, Lovelock has always been in favour of nuclear energy. In this respect, he is probably very unusual amongst those concerned with issue of environment degradation. He may never have quite been a lone voice crying in the wilderness, but the truth of the matter is that most pro-nuclear environmentalists have not always thought as they do now (e.g. Mark Lynas and George Monbiot). Nevertheless, however and whenever they came to be so, they join with the likes of Tom Blees, Stewart Brand and James Hansen – in being pro-nuclear. Personally, I think it is much more accurate to describe them as ‘ecopragmatists’ (and would count myself as one too). Indeed, Brand’s most recent book sounds like it is worth reading: Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto.
As such, all would agree that nuclear energy will have to be the main source of power in decades to come if billions of humans survive the approaching environmental meltdown, which we are causing by burning fossil fuels.
Before continuing, I think it is worth drawing attention to a couple of things recorded by Brand in the online Afterword he is maintaining in relation to this book. (i.e. as quoted on the Wikipedia page for the book – as per the above link):
(1) Brand quotes Lovelock as having repudiated his alarmism because “Something unknown appears to be slowing down the rate of global warming”. This would appear to suggest that Lovelock was not satisfied by the answers that climate scientists have given, namely that: (a) warming is being offset by ‘global dimming’ (caused by other forms of atmospheric pollution); and (b) the ‘missing’ heat will be found in the deep ocean (because it must have gone somewhere).
(2) Brand has appears to admit having been influenced by the ‘global warming has stopped’ myth that has been peddled so fiercely by the fossil fuel lobby. He has therefore suggested that maybe nothing (more) will happen as a result of the accumulating greenhouse gases. However, he also chose to add that doing nothing about our CO2 emissions would be “like playing Russian Roulette with five cylinders loaded”.
As I have now said quite a few times, although sympathetic to the overall message, I am concerned by intellectual incoherence, selective blindness and a tendency to exaggerate, which Lovelock appears to display in the writing of The Revenge of Gaia. Although not limited to his remarks about radiation and nuclear power, these traits are certainly very much present. This is a shame, in my view, because Lovelock also makes some very valid points about the irrational way most people assess the chances of either good or bad things happening. For example, the chances of any individual winning a lottery is extremely small but, even so, a great many people waste an awful lot of money trying to do so. Similarly, the risk of any individual dying as a result of travelling in a car is much higher than that of flying in an aeroplane but, even so, how many of us worry about the former more than the latter?
Lovelock, correctly in my view, blames widespread anti nuclear sentiment today on fears, stoked by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), over mutually assured destruction that grew out of the insanity of the Cold War. Such fears were entirely justified but, as Lovelock says, the demonisation of the civil nuclear power industry was not. Just because it was a by-product of military programmes to build atomic bombs does not make it inherently bad. Mobile Phones were a product of military surveillance technology, but they are generally accepted as being beneficial (apart from those who blame them for killing bees and causing brain cancers).
Cancer is another subject about which Lovelock has a lot to say; but here also, I think he takes his argument too far. It is undoubtedly true that cancer is very common; that very little of it is caused by radiation; and that even less is caused by artificially-created radiation. Lovelock makes the point that the whole planet was irradiated as a result of atomic bomb tests in the 1950s but the only deaths linked to such tests have been among those who witnessed them. Lovelock also recalls the reactor fire at Windscale (now called Sellafield), which also irradiated the entire UK but has not been linked to any deaths. Most famously of all, of course, Lovelock cites the meltdown at the Chernobyl plant in what is now Ukraine. Estimates vary but, given the amount of hysteria caused in Europe about radiation clouds, the numbers of people killed as a result (i.e. as determined how many more people have died than might otherwise be expected to die) is really not that great. This is not intended to belittle the suffering of individuals; merely to suggest that people put these things in some proper perspective: Perspective that might include considering how many people are shot dead every day; or die in car accidents every year; or how many were killed in wars in the last decade; or died as a result of the Spanish Flu epidemic nearly 100 years ago.
However, Lovelock goes further; and the point at which I think he ceases to be reasonable is this: He suggests that oxygen is a carcinogen. Noting that – whereas some photosynthesising plants can live for hundreds of years – humans tend not to live for much more than 100 years, he argues that oxygen is a carcinogen because it of its involvement in biochemical processes at the level of individual cells (i.e. respiration). This may be true but, if so, it would also be true to say that eating causes constipation. However, that does not mean that we should be worried about eating! Furthermore, there are also scientific studies that have linked the development of cancer with oxygen-deficiency at cellular level. Far more importantly still, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the risks of any individual dying of cancer are dramatically increased by their inherited DNA and lifestyle choices they make (such as excessive alcohol consumption or tobacco smoking). For all of these reasons, I find Lovelock’s argument about oxygen being carcinogenic to be misleading; if not disingenuous.
Nevertheless, I agree with Lovelock that civil nuclear power should not be feared in the way it is (in many minds); and it should not have been abandoned in the way it has (in many countries). However, I remain bemused by the conflict between Lovelock’s misanthropic pessimism (most recently echoed by Bob Geldof) and his technological optimism, which ignores the geologically unprecedented rate of both CO2 rise and warming that has occurred in the last 200 years.
In addition, there remains the problem that the global use of civil nuclear power would likely be a new form of technological dependency (along with the widespread use of GMOs) that will probably not reduce inequality of opportunity because the ‘trickle-down’ effect does not seem to work.
There is also growing evidence that time is no longer a luxury that humanity has. The relatively stable sea level and climate that has made agriculture, civilisation, urbanisation and modernity possible has now been brought to an end by the folly of humans believing they were superior to nature; rather than part of it.
We have fouled our own nest; and we appear to be running out of time to clean it up.
Although much delayed and interrupted by other stuff, this is now the third part of my review of The Revenge of Gaia, as published by James Lovelock in 2006. The first and second parts were published on this blog last month (i.e. here and here).
Once again, I will assume the reader is familiar with the concept of Gaia (as described in part one of my review and on Wikipedia). Also, as discussed in part two of my review, I will also assume the reader is aware of Lovelock’s subsequent attempts to repudiate his ‘alarmism’ (April 2010) and, even more astonishingly, disavow his faith in the objectivity of climate scientists (June 2012). However, in all of this, I hope readers will recognise that I am trying to be pragmatic and objective; as opposed to dogmatic and prejudiced.
Previously, I had got as far as Lovelock’s assertion (circa 2006) that humanity needs to get off its addiction to fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Therefore, I now continue by looking at the ways in which he suggests we might (or indeed might not) do that. However, it must be stressed that Lovelock accepts (or at least accepted) that carbon capture and storage (CCS) will not prevent excessive climate disruption unless we decide to leave most fossil fuels in the ground (or radically reduce the rate at which we are burning them).
Lovelock’s first non-fossil fuel option is hydrogen; and his first point is that, as with electricity, hydrogen has to be manufactured. In addition to pointing out that it can be manufactured from fossil fuels and in nuclear reactors, Lovelock explains how hydrogen can be produced from water by hydrolysis. However, the problems inherent in transportation and distribution of hydrogen (e.g. very low atomic mass and high explosive potential) and the low amount of energy return on energy input (EROEI) mean that this is unlikely ever to be commercially viable.
In contrast to this, hydrogen could be widely used in fuel cells (i.e. as used to generate electricity on the command module in the Apollo missions), although this is not without its own problems and dangers. Wikipedia has a good summary of methods of hydrogen production, from which the important takeaways appear to be that hydrogen is:
(1) mostly produced from hydrocarbons (steam reforming); and
(2) mostly used in oil refineries to derive lighter products from heavy ones (hydrocracking); or
(3) used in other chemical processes to produce other things (e.g. ammonia and methanol).
Both Lovelock and the above Wikipedia article refer to the potential of a hydrogen economy. Indeed, Lovelock refers specifically refers to the work of Geoffrey Ballard – who pioneered the concept of cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells (i.e. like rechargeable batteries), which would consume hydrogen in use (by driving an electric motor) and generate it when not in use (by being recharged).
Expressing his hope that this technology will become widespread, Lovelock moves on to explain why he hopes that renewable technology will not: In essence, his objections are based on:
(1) low EROEI (i.e. in manufacture of hardware with a low energy conversion efficiency); and
(2) low energy density (i.e. need for large areas of land to be given over to electricity production).
Lovelock suggests that the concept of sustainable development has been hijacked by those who promote renewable energy as a means of avoiding dealing with the impossibility of perpetual economic development on a finite planet with finite resources. This is a point on which I would agree – and have agreed (as published here by the Geological Society of London). However, even so, I find his complaints about the industrialisation of the countryside somewhat tiresome. The bottom line is this: anything that reduces our dependency on fossil fuels must be a good thing; as must be the use of any fossil fuels consumed in working towards that goal.
Lovelock does himself no credit whatsoever by suggesting that pursuit of wind power is short-sighted because climate change will alter planetary atmospheric circulation. Such an assertion is almost (but not quite) as stupid as suggesting that harnessing the Earth’s tidal energy is likely to slow the Earth’s speed of rotation (to any significant extent). Similarly, his suggesting that the UK would need 276 thousand wind turbines (each 100m high) to meet national demand for electricity is nothing more than a straw man argument (because no-one is suggesting that this can or should be the aim and it ignores the agreed need for overall consumption to be reduced).
Lovelock’s comments about tidal energy, pre-date the development and testing of numerous technologies (e.g. around the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland), but he does make the valid point that, as with CCS, it will take decades for any technology to become widely available and implemented. However, this does not change the fact that it would be almost insane for an island nation such as the UK not to pursue these technologies. The down-side to all this is that it will require additional power distribution infrastructure to be built. However, so will micro-generation (as opposed to centralised generation), unless everyone is to become self-sufficient and not feed-in unused power to the national network (the income from which is the main reason most people install the systems).
Lovelock then moves on to consider hydro-electric power (HEP). He makes the point that HEP is not without environmental cost (loss of farmland, enforced displacement of populations, and interference with fluvial deposition patterns including the benefits of regular flooding of farmland). However, he also seems to ignore the fact that HEP can be of considerable benefit to communities in areas where population density, competition for land and ecological carrying capacity are all low.
On the subject of biofuels, Lovelock merely re-states his objections to the diversion of agricultural land away from producing food (and takes another swipe at those who favour the inherently inefficient use of land for organic farming). It is on this subject that the intellectual incoherence of Lovelock’s position is most clearly displayed: being simultaneously pessimistic (about the prospects for so many people living on such a small planet) and optimistic (about the potential for technology to solve all our problems) – especially if we embrace GM crops.
However, given that he could not possibly have heard of it in 2006, Lovelock may be forgiven for not mentioning a new avenue for sustainable biofuel production that emerged in 2010 – namely GM algae that photosynthesise ethanol (instead of glucose). However, even this may now be eclipsed by the potential of the latest idea – higher mixed alcohol fuels. These can be produced form any solid, liquid or gaseous waste product and, therefore, could solve all our energy problems (but only if fossil fuel companies don’t buy up the patents to such ideas and then make them disappear).
Finally, in his long preamble to consideration of the future potential of civil nuclear power, Lovelock turns his attention to solar energy: Here, once again, his argument is primarily based on low EROEI and on the cost of manufacturing the hardware (not to mention all the other finite metallic resources required).
On this front, I must confess I have some sympathy: Harnessing the energy the Earth receives from the Sun (especially in mid-to low latitude countries where population densities are and probably will remain low) would seem like an obvious choice. However, pursuing solar power generation on a large scale simultaneously in a large number of countries would have a serious impact on the demand for – and cost of – copper (and other even rarer metals), which is already high as a consequence of the success of hand-held electronic devices such as mobile phones.
As for Lovelock’s justification for his pro-nuclear stance, that will be the subject of the next post in this series (although I am not promising when that will be).
I admit it, even though I am (or would like to be) socially conservative, George Monbiot is one of my heroes. His long track record of illuminating the stupidity of climate change scepticism was one of the reasons I decided to pursue the subject in my MA research.
In his most recent offering on his blog (and in the Guardian on 20 August), George has brillianly highlighted the astounding double standards at the heart of current UK energy policy:
“The government is introducing a special veto for local people to prevent the construction of wind turbines… [Whereas the] government’s new planning guidance makes [Fracking] developments almost impossible to refuse… If local voters don’t like it, they can go to hell…
It has taken me 20 years and an MA in Environmental Politics to work out why I was so uncomfortable being involved in the extractive industries (i.e. mineral exploitation). George achieved this in little more than a few minutes:
Extracting resources, like war, is the real deal: what politicians seem to consider a proper, manly pursuit. Conserving energy or using gas from waste or sustaining fish stocks are treated as the concerns of sissies and hippies: even if, in hard economic terms, they make more sense.
Herewith appended below is an email I sent today to Professor Iain Stewart (and copied to all those named in it).
However, please note that I have just found the BBC TV programme to which it refers has now been posted on You Tube (also appended below).
Dear Professor Stewart,
I wanted to express my appreciation for the sensitive way in which you handled the issues in last night’s Horizon programme and for all the facts, figures and research findings it contained. I was particularly interested in the evidence that shale gas has escaped from poorly-constructed wells in the USA. Even if the UK can improve on the 6 to 7% failure rate in the USA, 100% success (i.e. no failures) is highly improbable. Therefore, if fracking must be pursued (for whatever reason), this would make it imperative that the British Geological Survey establish baseline monitoring for methane as soon as possible. Would it be possible to get a copy of the transcript of the programme (or a list of References)?
Given my geological background and my MA in Environmental Politics, I have written a great deal about Fracking and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) on my blog. However, having started out very much opposed to both Fracking and CCS, my position has evolved as a consequence of ‘exchanges of views’ I had last year with Professor Peter Styles (Keele) and with Professor Robert Mair (Cambridge/Royal Society). As a result of these exchanges – summarised or linked to here on my blog – I would agree with Peter that we probably need shale gas. However, I believe Peter also agrees with me that we probably cannot afford it*. I also understand that the remit of the Royal Society specifically excluded the long-term sustainability implications of pursuing fracking.
Nevertheless, this leaves me wondering whether you could encourage the BBC to do a second programme to address the consequences of humans burning all the Earth’s fossil fuels simply because they are there; and/or the need for ‘Western’ per capita energy consumption to be drastically reduced? Having read David MacKay’s book, Sustainable Energy: Without The Hot Air, I think our biggest problem is that most people do not think holistically about the problems we face or, even worse, they seem to think concepts such as ‘ecological carrying capacity‘ are just [eco-Fascist] propaganda. However, although it would seem that CCS is now going to be essential in order to minimise anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), I think it is also the biggest obstacle to getting politicians to take decisive action to decarbonise our power generation systems.
Even if such a second Horizon programme is not likely, I remain very appreciative of all you have done – and are doing – to raise the profile of ACD as an Earth Science issue that should be of concern to all.
Kind regards, [etc]
* If fracking becomes the new energy boom, it is very hard to see how CCS will ever be able to be rolled-out on a global scale to keep pace with unabated CO2 emissions.
Sad to say it but, having reached cross-party consensus and implemented the Climate Change Act in 2008, the UK has now:
– failed to honour the promise this contained;
– failed to listen to the advice of its own scientific experts;
– failed to dismantle the subsidies that support fossil-fuel production;
– failed to provide certainty for investors in renewable energy (at any scale); and
– failed to take a lead to encourage other countries also to work towards a sustainable future.
I therefore think John Ashton, a former Foreign Office climate expert, was right to conclude recently that no-one who has voted for this new Energy Bill can be considered to be taking the threat of anthropogenic climate disruption seriously.
Here is the latest email from Greenpeace UK summarising what happened in the UK’s Parliament yesterday:
The vote was this afternoon and was amazingly close. But we lost.
MPs have just rejected a clean power future – and I thought you’d want to be the first to know.
It’s been a tense few days as we waited for MPs to vote on a clean power target in the Energy Bill, and it’s not the outcome we all wanted.
But there is a silver lining.
Thousands of us told our MPs to back clean electricity, and as a result the rebellion against George Osborne’s dirty, costly dash for gas continued to grow steadily right up to the vote.
We lost by just 23 votes. That’s the third closest vote since the election. If just 12 more MPs had switched sides, we’d have won.
Osborne may have won this round, but the Energy Bill will now go to the House of Lords. There will be another vote, which gives us another chance to secure our clean energy future.
The battle for Britain’s energy future is far from over.
Over the next few days, we’ll be thinking about where to take the campaign next. But right now we’re recruiting for our core volunteer lobbyists – the people who go and challenge their MPs face-to-face, in their constituency offices.
We need as many of these volunteers as possible to make sure we get the political impact we need. You’ll be trained for free and given all the support you need to become an effective lobbyist – for the good guys.
Let’s use today’s news to make us stronger. Volunteer for the Greenpeace lobbying network now.
P.S. In two days, 21 people will be sentenced for occupying one of George Osborne’s dirty gas power stations. Some of them are facing prison sentences. Please follow [i.e. 'Like'] the Facebook page of Greenpeace’s No Dash for Gas campaign for updates.
The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stone!
I know this has been said many times. Most recently it has been said by one of my favourite environmental commentators/campaigners, Executive Director of CIWEM (the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management), Nick Reeves OBE. If any new readers are not familiar with him, they may wish to start by typing his name into the Search this Blog box (in the right-hand column) and see what happens…
CIWEM publishes a monthly magazine, to which Reeves nearly always contributes an article. Last week, my copy of the May 2013 issue arrived early. It includes an article by Reeves entitled, ehem, “A bonkers energy solution”. However, the online version is indeed entitled “Fracking Mad“. Reeves begins with a seemingly bizarre discussion of the failings of the UK’s education system. However, it soon becomes clear that he considers this to be at least partly to blame for the fact that the general public are willing to accept a “bonkers energy solution” such as hydraulic fracturing. However, it is UK government policy that is “bonkers” (the general public just don’t seem to realise it):
Last December, the energy and climate change secretary, Ed Davey, gave the go-ahead for fracking (the controversial technology for releasing underground shale gas) as part of a plan for maximising the use of (so called) low-cost fuel. In so doing the government has thumbed its nose at legally binding carbon emissions targets and cuffed the country to a fossil-fuel future. Worse still, its commitment to fracking will undermine investment of billions of pounds in renewables, geothermal and energy efficiency. We now know that the ‘greenest government ever’ tag was shameless and that ministers are back-sliding on their commitment to a low-carbon and green economy.
Reeves goes on to recount the recent history of fracking in the UK and mentions all the (probably spurious) safety concerns. Like me, he focusses on the fact that we probably cannot afford to pursue fracking because of the long-term consequences doing so will have; and that we simply must find a way to do without it. However, he is more blunt than I have been, and criticises the reviews the Government commissioned for not making this point:
The scientists appear to have ignored the fact that no amount of control and regulation can stop shale gas from being a fossil fuel or from releasing carbon dioxide.
This is an important point well made. However, in defence of the scientists (and engineers) asked to determine whether fracking is ‘safe’, I would have to point out that the questions of the long-term environmental sustainability, sensibility and/or survivability of fracking were carefully excluded from the remit of the reviews that the Government asked them to undertake. Reeves therefore concludes that fracking is “a reckless move driven by ideology” that “will commit the UK to being a fossil fuel economy and not a low carbon one” for decades to come… And so, you can almost hear the frustration in Reeves’ voice as he asks:
What will it take to get people to understand the seriousness of the climate change catastrophe that awaits us?
Reeves then goes on to talk about carbon budgets and our rapidly-declining chances of limiting global average temperature rise to 2 Celsius (compared to pre-1850) and makes the point many others have made that global reserves of fossil fuels are five times greater than that which we would have to burn in order to guarantee at least 2 Celsius temperature rise. As Reeves puts it:
In other words, we can only avoid devastating climate change if we keep most of the world’s fossil fuels in the ground. But, is that possible? Can we deliberately forgo what many regard as our most precious energy resource – the fuels that have powered 200 years of industrialisation – for the sake of future generations? It is absolutely possible, and we must. The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stone. (my emphasis)
The remainder of Reeves’ article (which I would encourage all to read) is a typically incisive summary of how this problem is entirely solvable. We do not lack the technology or the resources to produce the electricity to provide for the needs of even 10 billion humans. What we (or at least our politicians) lack is the intellectual honesty to admit that the game is up. Fossil fuels are not the solution; they are the problem. Furthermore, the longer we (or they) fail to acknowledge this, the greater the problem will become.
Reeves looks at the situation from a range of perspectives, UK, EU and global. However, in the end, this is a problem that will only ever be solved by people demanding that their politicians solve it:
The dash for oil in the Arctic and the dash for shale gas elsewhere, shows that we are as addicted to fossil fuels as we ever were. But a low-carbon future is the one we must all fight for – our gift to the unborn.
Today is Earth Day 2013, apparently. This would be a good day for everyone on Earth to accept that, given the incontrovertible operational reality of the exponential function in Nature, technological optimism is not a good idea.
I am grateful to a couple of my regular readers who have, completely independently, directed me towards complementary sources of information that go right to the core of what this blog is all about. Before getting into the detail, I will start by simply stating what these two sources of information are, as follows:
1. Thanks to Pendantry, I have discovered an incisive presentation (circa 2002) of Dr Albert A. Bartlett, entitled ‘Arithmetic, Population and Energy’, which High School science teacher Greg Craven (who gave the World the ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ video) has been posted on You Tube as a series of eight 9-minute videos.
2. Thanks to Mike (of uknowispeaksense fame), I have been alerted to the very recent publication of a paper by economist Partha S. Dasgupta and biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, entitled ‘Pervasive Externalities at the Population, Consumption, and Environment Nexus’. The abstract is viewable on the Science journal website but, having done a quick Google search, I found the entire paper published as a PDF by Dasgupta on the website of Cambridge University.
Although a daunting task, I will now attempt to summarise both works; starting today with the presentation by Bartlett. So as to do both works justice, I will publish my summary of Dasgupta and Ehrlich separately.
‘Arithmetic, Population and Energy’ by Albert A. Bartlett
Even if you have watched them before, I would encourage all readers to defy the viewing statistics and watch all eight videos. However, here is a summary: Bartlett starts and finishes his presentation by asserting that, “the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function”. Somewhat incongruously, he repeatedly describes exponential growth as “steady growth”. This is a shame because exponential growth is anything but “steady”. Exponential growth describes any situation “where the time that is required for the growing quantity to increase by a fixed fraction is a constant”. This is most commonly expressed as percentage growth on an annual basis. Bartlett then goes on to highlight the curious coincidence of many things that have historically doubled every 10 years by growing at a rate of 7% per annum (including crime in Colorado, inflation in the USA, and the global consumption of oil). Having carefully explained all the mathematics, Bartlett spends a very large proportion of his presentation quoting from a bewildering array of journalists, economists and politicians who are either completely ignorant of – or deeply disingenuous about – the consequences of exponential growth.
Chillingly, Bartlett highlights the reality that, if the human population of planet Earth does not stop growing exponentially, Nature will intervene to stop it. We can either choose to stop it or it will be stopped; and doing the former (whilst involving some very difficult choices) will be a lot better than allowing the latter to happen. Bartlett’s presentation of population dynamics has been repeated many times before and since (but people are still ignoring it). Even more devastating, however, is Bartlett’s presentation of the history of global fossil fuel consumption (which has given rise to many misleading statements and a great deal of misplaced optimism). He points out that, even if it were safe to extract them, all the hydrocarbons that lie beneath the Arctic will be consumed by the USA in one year. There is so much in Bartlett’s presentation that I could mention but I will focus on his examination of resource depletion in the face of exponential growth of consumption – it requires the perpetual discovery of double the cumulative total resource consumed. On a finite planet, this is quite simply impossible. Bartlett dismisses the proposition that biofuels could solve this problem by pointing out that Agriculture is an industry that uses land and oil to produce food. Therefore, using agriculture to produce biofuels is likely to be a zero sum game.
However, most sobering of all, is Bartlett’s presentation of Dr M. King Hubbert’s predictions regarding Peak Oil. With regard to US production, history has found Hubbert was correct – production peaked in 1970 and exhaustion can be expected by 2050. Furthermore, since global oil production has now peaked, it is guaranteed to be exhausted by 2100 (because we cannot continue to find double what we have already historically used).
Bartlett’s discussion of Growthmania is devastating and, to me, the logic is incontrovertible: The First Law of Sustainability is that population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained. There can therefore be no such thing as sustainable growth. This is not an opinion. On a finite planet, this is mathematical fact. Somewhat surprisingly, in a roundabout way, this leads Bartlett to point out that the country with the World’s greatest problem with regard to population growth is the USA. This is because, in the USA, the per-capita consumption of the World’s resources is four times global average (and some thirty times that of the World’s poorest people).
Towards the end of his presentation, Bartlett counters all the misinformation and misplaced optimism with some telling quotes from a variety of people including Galileo Galileii and Aldous Huxley. However, perhaps the most telling quotation of all is that from Martin Luther King Jr:
Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we posses. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victim.
At the best part of 1000 words, this may seem like a long summary but, in truth, I have barely scratched the surface of all the information Bartlett presents. Therefore, if any of this is unclear or, in your mind, appears to be unjustified pessimism, please watch the videos.
As promised, my summary of Dasgupta and Ehrlich’s new paper will appear later this week.
As the Bishop of London said at the funeral service for the late Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven today, this is neither the time nor the place to argue about her legacy. Comments on this post are therefore disabled (until tomorrow at least). However, even putting aside politics, all those miners of coal who have have shown such crass disrespect for the late Margaret Thatcher need to bear in mind that mining coal is one of the most environmentally damaging things humans have ever done. Therefore, in seeking to make the UK less dependent upon coal, it could be argued that Mrs Thatcher’s greatest mistake was pursuing gas rather than renewable energy. This mistake, replicated the world over for several decades now, is a mistake for which we and our children and our children’s children shall pay a very heavy price.
“An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it” — Orlando A. Battista.
I happened to stumble across a BBC TV Horizon special, entitled ‘Tomorrow’s World’ last Thursday. It begins with a fascinating review of humankind’s history of – and propensity for – invention. It also explains some truly fascinating – and inspiring – developments in the spheres of space exploration, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and power generation.
In the introduction, the programme presenter and narrator Liz Bronnin explains how, after 100s of thousands of years of technological stagnation, the fast-moving world of technological innovation is very definitely a modern invention.
She then looks at how, since our governments announced they were not going to do so, private investors are now involved in a race to return to the Moon (and win a $US 20 million prize). Just after 11 minutes in, however, economist Marianna Mazzucato makes the point that private sector development would never happen unless governments first spent money innovating (just look at your Computer, iPhone, or SatNav).
This is followed by an examination of the invention of graphene (i.e. the repeated use of sellotape to produce a film of graphite comprised of only one layer of carbon atoms in a hexagonal matrix). It is truly astonishing what graphene can do – including carry the weight of a cat…
After 23 minutes, a variety of talking heads demonstrate the complexity of modern science and the impossibility of any one person understanding it all. However, Bronnin then presents the example of Professor Robert Langer at MIT. What he is doing – and enabling others to do – is truly amazing; including potentially doing away with the need for chemotherapy to treat cancer.
After about 32 minutes, Bronnin introduces the power of the Internet to promote innovation – crowd-sourcing research funding and the concept of open-source technology – the complete abrogation of intellectual copyright… It is a fundamental challenge to globalised Capitalism; but it may well be the solution to many of our problems…
However, to me, the final third of the programme is by far the most fascinating… It looks at the challenges of finding a replacement for fossil fuels. It provides a very clear message that this is a technological challenge driven by the reality of physics – not by ideology.
It presents the case for synthetic biology, which has now succeeded in genetically modifying cyanobacteria so that they use photosynthesis to produce ethanol. This is brilliant, but, it is still only recycling CO2 (it is not removing it from the biosphere). With this technology, we could stop the CO2 content of the atmosphere from rising (but it will not help get it down again).
In the final 10 minutes of the programme, Bronnin presents the inspiring case of the British inventor, Michael Pritchard, who miniaturised water treatment technology as a result of watching the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004; when people were surrounded by water they could not drink… Indeed, to prove that it works, he even gets Bronnin (at 54 minutes) to drink water extracted from a tank including all kinds of unpleasant things including dog pooh…
For all these reasons, if you have not seen it, I would recommend that you watch the programme:
Re-engineering nature for our benefit will, without doubt, be very very useful. However, I still think the optimism of the comment at the very end of the programme “…I never worry about the future of the human race, because I think we are totally capable of solving problems…” is very unwise. This is because anthropogenic climate disruption is a problem that is getting harder to solve the longer we fail to address it effectively.
Bronnin concludes by saying that, “it is an exciting time to be alive…” However, I remain very nervous. This is because, as Professor Peter Styles of Keele University – a strong supporter of the hydraulic fracturing industry – recently acknowledged, it will be impossible for carbon capture and storage to remove enough CO2 from the atmosphere to prevent very significant changes to our climate. This is because of the collective hypnosis that deludes most people into seeing perpetual economic growth as the solution to all our problems.
In short, I am certain that technology alone cannot save us. In order to avoid the ecological catastrophe that all but the most ideologically-prejudiced and wilfully-blind can see developing all around us… we need to modify our behaviour: This primarily means that we need to acknowledge the injustice of a “use it up and wear it out” mentality and, as individuals, all learn to use an awful lot less energy.
Climate change “sceptics” have picked a fight with history and science – primarily with the concept of Entropy - and they will lose. The only question that remains is this: Are we going to let them put us all in (what xraymike79 recently called) ‘the dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments’.