Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

The 3 pillars of unsustainable denial

with 19 comments

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)

19 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Antarctica is already melting, and, ultimately, sea level will rise 70 meters, drowning the capitals of finance supreme; a form of justice.

    Because of non-linear effects, it all could go very fast. And no geoengineering short of thermonuclear reactors (to freeze the CO2), or a nuclear winter (soon to be fetched), will change anything… If we keep on refusing to put giant taxes on burning fossils…

    Patrice Ayme

    12 October 2012 at 00:29

    • Thanks Patrice. Antarctica is clearly not melting fast enough to be noteworthy (in the minds of the majority). The Antarctic Peninsular may be warming faster than any other place on the planet outside the Arctic; the Pig Island Glacier (PIG) may calve bergs bigger than Manhattan; and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) may well be being destabilised at an unprecedented rate but… All we ever here in the mainstream media is that much of the continent is colder than it used to be (it is a very big place); and that sea ice is extent is consistently above average extent. No one seems bothered-enough to ask where the sea ice came from (or whether it is nevertheless losing mass because it is getting thinner)…
      For the more-than-mildly-curious, please see

      Martin Lack

      12 October 2012 at 08:30

      • Antarctica sea ice has spread due to higher winds caused by warming. That (part of) Antarctica is cooling is not true in my opinion. Snowfall is augmenting, as it is in the Himalaya, but that is to be expected from warming.

        Patrice Ayme

        12 October 2012 at 18:27

  2. Great diagram. The reality of our actions is contained by super-sets rather than almost disjoint sets.

    Charles Zeller

    12 October 2012 at 05:33

    • Thanks Charles. For the record, it is a combination of Figures 2 and 3 in Nele’s post (a week ago) – both of which may be found on the Internet. However, the modified labeling is 100% my idea.

      Martin Lack

      12 October 2012 at 08:18

  3. I have a cunning plan! Well I am writing Energy Futures part 2, with a possible plan of action.


    12 October 2012 at 18:44

  4. Thanks Martin for your post, it does the best thing about blogging – it stimulates thought. I do draw different conclusions than you as can be found here.
    I think my first difference is the value of unconventional fossil fuels [I agree entirely on their destructive nature]. Just like the 2007 financial crisis there are whistle blowers who see the shale revolution as on the brink of collapse, this may be hard to accept given the fact that even governments [the US] see it as the saviour.

    This video is very informative, it concludes that reserves are already running out, costs have gone out of control as companies have to drill more and more just to keep up with production that is flat lining. The first hint that a collapse is imminent is a legal incident with the CEO of Chesapeake Energy, the biggest frack gas company.
    You may remember Mr DeLorean getting into financial and criminal trouble as he tried to save his car company.

    Unconventional fossil fuels are possibly/most likely hype. They are a dying industry presenting hope to the addicted that their lives are not on the brink of change. Industry experts aren’t [with exception of those in the pay of industry] saying if, it is when. If we listen to the US advisor’s it is happening in a couple of years. Evidently we are not listening, people are buying new cars which will probably have low mileage at the end of their lives.

    I think the worse case scenario is the desperate addict paying more and more to get a fix with agricultural land disappearing under bio oil crops. More revolutions because food and veg oil will go through the roof. And the UK spending £millions to guard the Oman gas fields. It won’t quite be a Mad Max world just yet.

    My advice is move closer to your work, insulate, fit solar, get an electric bike, sell the Range Rover and by an eco diesel [2nd hand]. I reckon within 5 years.


    13 October 2012 at 12:06

    • Thanks Jules. If fracking is dead in the water (hooray) – where does that leave George Osborne’s potentially-illegal decision to commit the UK to another 20 years of unabated gas-fired generation?

      Martin Lack

      13 October 2012 at 14:28

      • Fracking in the UK, even if it met the hype is irrelevant, We currently rely on diminishing UK reserves (37%), Norway and now Qatar.
        From a supply pov it is not an issue for the next 25 years, geographically LNG is. A look at the map

        shows that domestic production will be replaced by a small country jammed in between the volatile & hostile states of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Our other bff is Oman [rich in gas], we have strong military links with both [and airbases], both have had military engagements with SA.

        Any local war will draw both us and the US into the engagement. Qatar and Oman get military cover in return for gas. That is the truth of peak oil/gas, we need a military [and its £20-30 billion annual price tag] to safeguard fossil fuel supply, makes green energy look increasingly economic, don’t you think?

        20 years of gas- only if we keep proper co2 accounts, it is either/or, I suspect it will be more of the same.


        13 October 2012 at 15:56

        • Thanks Jules. I have clearly been working under the misapprehension that Osborne was being honest when stating that Govt policy was to reduce our dependence on imported fossil fuels. This could only be achieved by rapid growth of renewables and/or fracking and/or nuclear. If growth in fracking is a delusion, renewables already being pursued, and nuclear a long way off… then someone somewhere must be lying to themselves (and us).

          I really wish I was not so unemployed and unsettled, because it is just mad sitting around burning gas waiting for the next price rise to come along. Anyone in a stable job with a south facing roof has simply got to be insane not to invest in solar PV…

          Martin Lack

          13 October 2012 at 16:46

  5. I particularly like the idea that “our government needs to focus more effort on reducing the demand for centrally-generated power”. To have every home as efficient and self reliant as possible, and have the central system supply the rest. Every home with PV panels and solar boilers would make and gigantic difference in the amount of energy required from the central system. Plus it is much more efficient because there are no transmissions loses.
    MARTIN FOR PM! Or at least energy minister:)


    13 October 2012 at 13:46

    • Thanks JP. Just now, any kind of job would do me.😦

      Martin Lack

      13 October 2012 at 16:27

  6. Martin, I think it is clear that your unemployment is not wasted, our energy strategy needs to to be exposed. As for pv, and my interest in peak fossil fuels and am doing some work for a friend on an individuals best practise, thankfully they are planning to sell their house. My recommendations include pv, thermal, a 70s house [they are cheaper] retrofitted with triple glazing, super insulation, a south facing roof, a garden, close to the town centre, electric bike, small diesel car. plus a lot minor home improvements. Send me your house details and I would be happy to cost up a plan for you [even for the poor unemployed].


    13 October 2012 at 20:05

  7. Military dependent energy policy is not from naivety. Quite the opposite. An aim is to have a pretext for supporting the Military Industrial Complex.

    Patrice Ayme

    14 October 2012 at 22:44

  8. Micro-generation is anathema to an infrastructure that is built on the concept of mega-corporations controlling supply.

    And as for ‘sustainable’, it never ceases to wind me up when some dense economist-politician starts wittering on about something being ‘unsustainable’ — in terms of employment numbers/ economic growth prospects. Like all those unable to think outside the box, they redefine terms to suit their own internalised mindsets, and so do nothing but confuse (deliberately?, or unwittingly? — that’s the question).

    PS Typo alert:
    “… but had not presented it to as clearly as Nele did…”
    “… because so many are>/b> still far too complacent…”
    “… which power stations of all kinds […] <b.we
    will need…”
    “… the roof of every singlysingle suitable home…”


    16 October 2012 at 16:40

    • Thanks Colin. I agree with everything except your penultimate alleged typo.

      Martin Lack

      16 October 2012 at 17:01

      • My bad, insufficient pre-post checking…

        There’s something wrong with:

        “Rather than focus on large infrastructure projects such as new power distribution networks, which 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.”

        I think it should say ‘we will need’.


        17 October 2012 at 04:42

        • Thanks for persisting with this, I have spotted it now – “the” is missing in front of “new”. In fact, I have now taken the opportunity to restructure the entire sentence to make it clearer what its main point is (and what is – like this – supplementary)…:-)

          Martin Lack

          17 October 2012 at 08:13

        • Glad to help:)


          17 October 2012 at 09:40

Please join the discussion

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 350 other followers

%d bloggers like this: