Innovation and its Enemies

Book Review:

Innovation and Its Enemies Why People Resist New Technologies

by Calestous Juma
OUP 2016 429pp

We all know about the Luddites, the most famous of activists who, between 1811 and 1816, took direct action against new weaving machines that were going to replace their jobs, but as Harvard Professor Calestous Juma shows in this extremely well researched book, the history of opposition to new technology perceived as threatening to the status quo goes much further back, and has taken many surprising forms. New technologies have often been opposed despite the benefits they may confer, not just because of the direct threat to existing jobs and technologies, but also as a result of the challenge they pose to broader issues of social and moral values. In providing this survey, he hopes to show how proponents of innovation need to understand carefully the underlying causes of such opposition, and draws useful lessons as to how the introduction of new and potentially disruptive technologies might be smoothed.

Take the printing press for example. In the Islamic world, the ability to reproduce multiple versions of the Koran which were identical was not just a threat to the social standing of those who had responsibility for transmitting the sacred text orally, but also challenged the oral tradition of memory and repetition which was itself seen as part of the process of worship. Only later was the advantages of spreading the faith through the printed word accepted as a sufficient advantage to allow printing.

Another example considered is that of coffee, which was opposed and met with suspicion, not just since it was a direct competitor with the existing beverage of beer, but because coffee houses provided a new  opportunity for political gossip and organisation.

A common strategy for incumbent industries that might feel directly threatened is the systematic demonisation of the innovation. Coffee was claimed to cause madness and sterility; in a foretaste of contemporary obsessions with the “natural”, margarine- which was originally developed to make up for shortages of butter in a rising population-  was associated with “lower standards” and was “stigmatized as an imposter delivering new dangers and an artificiality that corrupted ‘natural good food.'”

These are methods that continue to surround genetically engineered food, demonised shamelessly by opponents who have claimed it causes everything from cancer to farmer suicides to infertility and pretty much anything else bad that can be imagined. Absence of any kind of evidence for such claims is besides the point: the mere suggestion of risk about something new is enough in many cases to slow its progress and persuade people to err on the side of caution, in this case by paying more for Organic food.

One of the most fascinating chapters is on the introduction of electricity in New York in the mid-19th Century. Edison was hoping for early adoption of his system based on DC, even though he new it was inferior to Westinghouse’s AC system (which did ultimately see general adoption). But he needed to buy himself time to get out of the DC market, so he employed every kind of  negative advertising imaginable, even producing, garishly, publicity directly aimed at linking DC with the first executions by electricity- electrocution.

Conspicuous by its (almost) complete absence from the book is nuclear power. Juma does allude to it briefly in his conclusions, showing how merely providing more information about the relative safety of different energy sources is not necessarily enough to sway public opinion, but makes a rare slip-up when discussing obstacles to addressing climate change by suggesting that renewable energy – wind and solar- have been held-up largely through obstruction by fossil fuel interests. While this may be partly true, a much bigger factor is simply that renewables are many times less energy-dense, and have the problem of intermittency. A more interesting aspect of this story would be to examine why so many advocates of clean energy still resolutely oppose nuclear power, the cleanest and most energy-dense source of all. Fracking would have made another fascinating chapter.

Juma shows how many things have to come together for the smooth introduction of new technologies. Proper regulation needs to be in place with a sufficiently engaged and independent oversight bodies. The deficiency model  is being challenged, and it is now seen not to enough to simply provide more information- public trust is a key concern and needs to be taken seriously. Science must become more democratic, as the public will not simply accept unquestioningly its dictats. Innovation can and does lead to serious disruption in labour markets and can undermine established social networks, and these issues need to be foreseen and allowed for. Perhaps fingering some of the more enthusiastic voices taking on the likes of Vandana Shiva and the anti-GMO brigade, Juma counsels against so much focus on what may ultimately be a small but vocal minority of skeptics, suggesting that energy may be better spent on more general educational campaigns to win over the silent majority who ultimately will make decisions.

An important and stimulating book that should be widely read.

Magical Thinking about Energy

Monbiot’s column a couple of days ago- “No Fracking, drilling or digging: it’s the only way to save life on earth”– is about as egregious a piece of misdirection as I have seen coming from him, and that is saying something.

The problem under discussion is the unobtainable nature of the Paris climate agreements, and Monbiot is absolutely correct in asking whether governments know what they have signed. Whether they do know or not, setting arbitrary targets for CO2 reductions without the slightest idea as to how they can be achieved in practice has never been a good strategy. Fossil fuels are not like CFCs, which were basically a set of chemicals which it was possible to develop alternatives for and then simply ban, as was done under the Montreal Protocol; they are, rather, the lifeblood of the modern world. There is currently no known way of doing without them, and a couple of bilion of our brethren have yet to gain access to the wondrous benefits they can bestow, so we can assume use will continue to increase globally.

“a 2C target” Monbiot explains “means that we can use only around 85% of the fossil fuel that’s currently good to go, while a 1.5C target means we can extract little more than a third… So what’s the point of developing new reserves if the Paris agreement precludes the full extraction of those already in production?”

What indeed. He then goes onto point out that the only alternative to meet these climate targets is the widespread adoption of BECCS (biomass energy carbon capture and storage):

As for the belief among some governments that they can overshoot the climate targets, then at a later date suck carbon dioxide out of the air: this depends on scenarios that would be no less realistic if they involved sorcery. The most popular proposal is to combine the capture and storage phantasm with biofuel plantations covering an area between one and three times the size of India, then harvesting the material they grow, burning it in power stations and burying the emissions.

I agree that this is unfeasible, and it is worrying that Paris does indeed seem to be based on these assumptions. Monbiot claims however that there is a simple no-brainer alternative:

All this nonsense is a substitute for a simple proposition: stop digging. There is only one form of carbon capture and storage that is scientifically proven, and which can be deployed immediately: leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

Then there will be a complete phase-out of fossil-fuel extraction including compensation of the mining companies and retraining for the employees. Retraining for what? Monbiot doesn’t specify. What will we use to replace the fossil fuels? He doesn’t say- maybe a magical alternative fuel will just appear?

But later on the real point of his article becomes clear:

In Britain, for example, tax rebates for North Sea oil and gas companies are so generous that over the next five years the government is likely to give them around £5bn more than it receives in revenues. There are similar tax breaks for fracking companies – but not, of course, for renewable energy.

(Apparently, from what I can gather, fracking companies will only receive tax breaks for the exploratory phase, not the extractive phase, for which it will pay 30% tax, more than many industries; fracking will bring net revenue and jobs to the economy, not to mention cheaper fuel bills.)

In Monbiot’s world, we are to replace coal, oil and gas with…wind, mainly (solar in sunnier countries perhaps). The problem is, to replace these reliable and energy-dense fuels, with which we have constructed the entire modern world with all its amenities and benefits, with wind would require every bit as much “sorcery” as BECCS. Monbiot tells us BECCS will take an area 1 1/2 times the size of India, but gives us no details on how much land would be required for wind, or what other land uses it would compete with, or what environmental impact it would have: how many windfarms, where would they go, how much will it cost- and how does he propose to overcome the issue of intermittency, something which biomass at least does not have to contend with?  On these pressing issues, George is silent. It is as if his entire “alternative” energy policy consists of “replace fossil fuels with wind, The End.”

Fortunately, the sums have already been done on this, as I reported here, by Professor David McKay, who concluded that “Britain cannot live on its own renewables”. Monbiot however is relying on a report by Oil Change International, (OCI) which is based on projections created by Professor Mark Jacobson of Stanford University, which are also used by Bil McKibben’s campaign in the US. Robert Bryce explains what the proposed 100% renewables scenario would look like for the US here:

McKibben, the founder of, and his friends are pushing would result in the despoliation of vast swaths of the American landscape. Indeed, it would require that an area the size of Texas and Louisiana combined be covered with hundreds of thousands of wind turbines.

OCI use Jacobson’s projection of 50% renewables by 2035. That is just 20 years away. Currently the world barely produces 5% of its energy from renewables. It is completely unfeasible, and even if attempted, would take many decades- there is no possible scenario even in your wildest dreams where we could build out the tens, hundreds of thousands of wind turbines that would be required by 2035. Grids find it very difficult to accommodate intermittent wind and solar once they go much above 30% supply; most countries are still a very long way from that, and that is just electricity- wind does nothing to replace oil for transport. And did I mention that the wind doesn’t blow all the time? Wind needs baseload for it to work, that currently means gas as the best option.

Perhaps even more curious, neither OCI nor Monbiot make any mention of nuclear power, the only conceivable low-carbon source that could replace fossil fuels- but even if there was an all-out program for nuclear new builds, it would also take decades to achieve. Despite having spoken up for the importance of nuclear in the past, Monbiot’s purpose in this piece seems to be nothing more than put forward an anti-fracking screed.

The article he links to which exposes the BECCS plan behind Paris relies on two other fairy-tale assumptions: energy efficiency, and the hubris of assuming that the poor who currently produce little of no emmissions- because they are poor- are content to stay that way:

But move away from the cosy tenets of contemporary economics and a suite of alternative opportunities for delivering the deep and early reductions in emissions necessary to stay within 2°C budgets come into focus. Demand-side technologies, behaviours and habits all are amenable to significant and rapid change – and guided by stringent policies could drive emissions down in the near-term. Combine this with an understanding that just 10% of the global population are responsible for around 50% of total emissions and the rate and scope of what is possible if we genuinely thought climate change was an important issue becomes evident.

Again, there is absolutely no evidence that “demand-side technologies” can achieve more than a cosmetic fraction of the kinds of emissions cuts the author is talking about. This can only mean one thing in reality: draconian energy rationing, and the complete and permanent denial of energy access to the bottom couple of billion who don’t currently have it. In practice, the developed world will ofcourse never accept energy rationing, so the world’s poor will have to carry the brunt of our climate policies.

Just as egregious is Monbiot’s tarring of all fossil fuels with the same brush, which only misleads and results in bad policy. Oil is used mainly for transport, treating it as if it is interchangeable with coal and gas- used mainly for electricity and heating – makes no sense. Gas has half the emissions of coal, and because it is so readily dispatchable, energy dense and available, can bring down CO2 emissions much faster than renewables by displacing coal. But Monbiot’s aim does not appear to be to actually reduce emissions, but merely to join McKibben’s bandwagon against fossil fuels in general and fracking in particular.

So, absolutely correct, the Paris targets will not be met under any plausible scenario. Should we still strive to reduce emissions as fast as possible? Sure- but not at any cost, and only if an equal goal is to ultimately provide energy access for all. The only realistic path to these twin goals is rapid displacement of coal, and also transport oil – with cleaner gas, and a long-term transition to nuclear power. Anything else truly is magical thinking.

Professor David MacKay and the Renewables Delusion

“I’m not pro-nuclear- just pro-arithmetic”.

The cause for a rational evidence-based approach to energy policy has suffered a huge loss with the death of Professor David Mackay  three weeks ago, on April 14th.

Mackay, Chief Scientific Advisor at the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, was the author of Sustainable Energy Without Hot Air, a key text that has been my number one stop to point folks to as a starting point for understanding energy supply and demand. In particular, I have frequently cited this table which explains very well the limitations of wind and solar energy due to their relatively low energy density:

Power per unit land or water area

Based on these figures, population and current energy demand, MacKay calculates that Britain cannot live on its own renewables- they simply need too much land.

By contrast to the 2-20W/m2 that can be achieved through wind or solar pv power, fossil fuels or nuclear power are extremely energy dense, perhaps delivering up to 1000W/m2- or 1-2 orders of magnitude greater.

Additionally, wind and solar are intermittent in that they only supply energy when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining, and so would need a baseload back-up- typically natural gas- or a whole additional infrastructure of energy storage would be required, which is very expensive and the technology does not yet exist to do this at scale.

A third factor, which is a result of the first two, is the speed at which renewables can be deployed.

If decarbonisation is the goal, France decarbonised most of its electricity supply using nuclear power 6 times faster in the 1980s than the famous German Energiewende is achieving today:


In MacKay’s last interview given to Mark Lynas shortly before his death (below), he is very outspoken about the lack of energy literacy applied to energy policy, leading to dangerous delusions:

there’s so much delusion, it’s so dangerous for humanity that people allow themselves to have such delusions, that they are willing to not think carefully about the numbers, and the reality of the laws of physics and the reality of engineering….humanity does need to pay attention to arithmetic ad the laws of physics.

He goes on to lament the emergence of a new delusion- that the  drop in price of solar and wind in recent years signifies a greater capacity for them to replace fossil fuels- but calculates that price would have to come down by a factor of 100 to make much difference (for battery storage also)- and even if they were free, they would still be just as costly in terms of land-use. Dream on…

Solar and wind can still play a role perhaps, in sunnier parts of the world, but is likely to remain relatively small. Although fossil fuels have dropped slightly in terms of their total share of supply to the UK, they still supply 85% of our power.

Meanwhile, in Germany they are also busy closing the largest supplier of low-carbon energy they have, and one would be forgiven in thinking that the decarbonisation agenda is really just a smoke-screen to facilitate the  traditional Green anti-nuclear agenda.

To replace fossil fuels, the only option is to move forward to a more energy dense fuel, not one that is 100 times more diffuse and intermittent to boot. Based on arithmetic, rather than ideology, in the foreseeable future that can only mean nuclear power.

If you are interested in honouring the legacy of David MacKay and would like to include arithmetic and basic engineering to promote a realistic energy policy, you can do worse than to start with reading his book, or if you prefer, watching his talk from 2010:






What have Fossil Fuels Ever Done for Us?

Book Review:
The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels
Alex Epstein

Portfolio/Penguin 2014

Kindle Edition

Energy is a life and death issue—it is not one where we can afford to be sloppy in our thinking and seize upon statistics that seem to confirm our worldview. -Alex Epstein

Everyone knows fossil fuels are Bad. Bad for the planet, Bad for the environment, Bad for people. They pollute the atmosphere and groundwater, destroy whole eco-systems, and worst of all are responsible for the wholesale eco-cide of the entire biosphere through unstoppable apocalyptic climate change.

But wait, urges Alex Epstein, author of the recent book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. Isn’t there something important missing from this narrative of Bad Guy Fossil Fuels? Indeed we might ask, as Monty Python did of the Romans: What have fossil fuels ever done for us?


…apart from education, roads, hospitals, sanitation, and a vastly increased life expectancy… in fact, pretty much everything that makes life in the modern world worth living.

This is the passionate moral case for fossil fuels that Epstein develops in his eminently readable and clearly-laid out book, and through his organisation The Center for Industrial Progress:
contrary to what nearly everyone has been brought up to believe in these strangely post-modern and relativistic times we live in, fossil fuels are not just good, but a moral necessity for the foreseeable future, a human right no less, and it is about time people started making an unequivocal stand for them.

Taking on the Big Guns of the environmental movement such as Bill McKibben, Paul Ehrlich and Amory Lovins, Epstein shows that not only have they been spectacularly wrong in their predictions but that there is a fundamental flaw in their moral philosophy:

The environmental thought leaders’ opposition to fossil fuels is not a mistaken attempt at pursuing human life as their standard of value. They are too smart and knowledgeable to make such a mistake. Their opposition is a consistent attempt at pursuing their actual standard of value: a pristine environment, unaltered nature. Energy is our most powerful means of transforming our environment to meet our needs. If an unaltered, untransformed environment is our standard of value, then nothing could be worse than cheap, plentiful, reliable energy.

This muddled and dangerous way of thinking has become mainstream, infecting our education systems and politics so much that speaking out in favour of the dirty black stuff we dig out of the ground to fuel our civilisation must be the highest form of heresy. Even oil giants such as ExxonMobil and Shell have pandered to environmentalist agendas- for example by avoiding any mention of the word “Oil” on their Homepages, and paying lip-service to renewables and the “idealism” of their opponents without challenging the basic moral argument- something Epstein takes strong issue with in his section “What the Fossil-Fuel Industry must do”.

What is at the heart of this irrational objection to the wonders of cheap energy?

The reason we have come to oppose fossil fuels and not see their virtues is not primarily because of a lack of factual knowledge, but because of the presence of irrational moral prejudice in our leaders and, to a degree, in our entire culture.

But fossil fuels are non-renewable! I hear you say. Is it not crazy to base a society on an essential mineral that is going to run out?
-but predictions of “peak oil” and fears over shortages have been with us since the beginning of the Oil Age- the reality is, we have barely scratched the surface, literally, in terms of the resources that are there in the earth’s crust waiting for the technology to arrive to extract them: the data does not lie- even as our populations grow and demand for energy increases and extraction rises to keep pace, paradoxically fossil fuel reserves continue to grow.

The problem is not the lack of resources, but the increasingly tight straight-jacket being placed around the freedom to extract them:

Our concern for the future should not be running out of energy resources; it should be running out of the freedom to create energy resources, including our number-one energy resource today, fossil fuels.

Ultimately, advanced nuclear energy- the only scalable energy source that is more (potentially far more) energy dense than oil and gas- may step in to drive what will be the greatest energy transition of all time; but although nuclear should still be supported whenever possible, this will take decades- and nuclear, as we all know, is not even considered as an option by most environmentalists.

What about direct pollution from extraction? Naturally, Epstein does not dismiss the obvious downside to mining and drilling- there is certainly an environmental and human-health cost. But what is missing from the general public debate is that as wealth increases as a result of access to energy, so does our ability and desire to clean up the environment. British cities like London were far more polluted by smog in the early industrial era than even Beijing is today. Furthermore, we choose in today’s world to spend some of our fossil-fuel wealth on environmental protection, wilderness preservation and so on, something poor countries cannot easily afford to do. The downsides make fossil fuels an easy target- the overwhelmingly net positive benefits to human life and the environment are generally ignored.

Pessimistic predictions often assume that our environment is perfect until humans mess it up; they don’t consider the possibility that we could improve our environment. But the data of the last forty years indicate that we have been doing exactly that—using fossil fuels.

Shouldn’t we be switching to cleaner energies such as wind, solar and hydro anyway? Apart from the fact that most environmental groups have been busy vigorously opposing hydro-power in much of the world for the past 30 years, the fact is that there simply is no good affordable, scalable alternative to coal, oil and gas at present. Renewables are sometimes dubbed “unreliables”- they don’t work all the time and they need a gas or coal back-up in any case. More than that, they have far lower energy density than the fuels they pertain to replace, in some cases by two or more orders of magnitude.

It seems that there’s more focus on getting energy directly from the sun, which is often considered “natural,” than there is on getting it in a way that will maximize human life. It is deeply irresponsible and disturbing that environmental leaders are telling us to deprive ourselves of fossil fuels on the promise of what can charitably be described as a highly speculative experiment, and can less charitably be described as an ill-conceived, resource-wasting, perennial failure.

Epstein goes onto point out that tens of thousand of giant steel wind-turbines are hardly “renewable” in any meaningful sense, even if the wind is:

For something to be cheap and plentiful, every part of the process to produce it, including every input that goes into it, must be cheap and plentiful.

Renewables are low-density, extensive technologies that, if unrolled on the vast scale that would be required for them to really replace much energy-dense coal or gas, would certainly have an immense negative environmental impact on the land where they are installed, but also in the pollution caused by their manufacture. Epstein notes wryly

Fox could make a far more alarming movie than Gasland based on supposedly risk-free solar and wind technology. Imagine a scene at a rare-earth mine in a movie called Wasteland.

In short, Epstein makes clear that trying to replace energy-dense fossil fuels with diffuse intermittent renewables is a recipe for disaster:

If fossil fuels have catastrophic consequences and it makes sense to use a lot less of them, that would be an epic tragedy, given the state of the alternatives right now. Being forced to rely on solar, wind, and biofuels would be a horror beyond anything we can imagine, as a civilization that runs on cheap, plentiful, reliable energy would see its machines dead, its productivity destroyed, its resources disappearing.

At the core of the moral issue must be energy access for the couple of billion in undeveloped countries who currently lack pretty much any access to cheap energy at all: they tend to be very poor with low life-expectancy and high infant-mortality, little educational opportunities and poor or non-existent health services. Yet as a result of the environmental agenda’s influence on current policy, they cannot expect to get much help from the West which has decided it best to keep the poor in the dark with the US refusing to fund coal-fired power stations- the cheapest and most effective option- in developing nations.

Epstein shares some personal opinions from those effected by this naive “Green” policy of only promoting unreliable and expensive renewable energy to those who really need it:

Another Kenyan, James Shikwati of the Inter Region Economic Network, explains why he resents programs to encourage underdeveloped countries to use solar or wind. The rich countries can afford to engage in some luxurious experimentation with other forms of energy, but for us we are still at the stage of survival. I don’t see how a solar panel is going to power a steel industry, how a solar panel is going to power a railway network, it might work, maybe, to power a small transistor radio.

Right now, there are calls to reduce the life-giving, life-sustaining use of fossil-fuels by 80% in order to meet the demands of addressing climate change (and Bill McKibben has apparently called for 95% cuts)- once again we have to ask the question, has a full accounting of both costs AND benefits been done here? Humans have always been, and will always be subject to the vagaries of weather and climate- but it is our technology and skills of innovation that keep us safe.

Epstein claims we are basing policy on bad science and an unreasonable faith in “experts” who have been repeatably shown to be wrong in the past:

many professional organizations, scientists, and journalists have deliberately tried to manipulate us into equating the greenhouse effect with the predictions of invalid computer models based on their demonstrably faulty understanding of how CO2 actually affects climate….
This sloppy use of “science” as an authority, practiced by politicians of all parties, guarantees that we make bad, unscientific decisions.

Alex Epstein is really unimpressed with the call for alarm so far, with on about a half-degree of warming caused so far since industrial CO2 emissions really picked up pace in the first half of the last century; nor is he impressed by the use of unreliable climate model projections on which to base policy. The last thing we should be doing is timetabling the rapid dismantling of the only way we can actually protect ourselves from storms, droughts, floods and sea-level rise: the cheap, abundant energy produced through fossil fuels.

Thus, climate change, extreme weather, volatility, and danger are all inherent in climate whether or not we affect it with CO2 emissions. Thus, when we think about how fossil fuel use impacts climate livability, we are not asking: Are we taking a stable, safe climate and making it dangerous? But: Are we making our volatile, dangerous climate safer or more dangerous?

Environmental policy is based on the ideological and even religious belief that everything was fine and perfect and dandy in the world until modern humans came along with their dirty technology and filthy fossil fuels. Epstein slices through this deceit rather nicely:

the truth is the exact opposite; we don’t take a safe climate and make it dangerous; we take a dangerous climate and make it safe. High-energy civilization, not climate, is the driver of climate livability. No matter what, climate will always be naturally hazardous—and the key question will always be whether we have the adaptability to handle it or, better yet, master it.

He concludes with the most important point, again one almost entirely missing from climate discourse (emphasis added):

The climate future appears to be extremely bright. Fossil fuels’ product, energy, has given us an unthinkable mastery over climate and thus record climate livability. And its major climate-affecting by-product, CO2, has fertilized the atmosphere and likely brought some mild and beneficial warming along with it. But we can’t know how good the warming is because, whether it is net negative or positive, it’s completely drowned out by the net positive of the energy effect.

In this essential book, Epstein makes an impassioned call for clarity on what our moral perogative should be in terms of energy, climate and environmental policy:

if we’re on a human standard of value, we need to have an impact on our environment. Transforming our environment is how we survive. Every animal survives in a way that affects its environment; we just do it on a greater scale with far greater ability. We have to be clear: Is human life our standard of value or is “lack of impact” our standard of value?

More than just a close analyses and explanation of what is wrong with the anti-fossil fuel movement, Epstein wants us to take action. He wants the fossil fuel industry to stop being ashamed of its product, but rather proudly speak out in its defence; and he wants you, the reader and every-day user of fossil fuels, to join the debate and stand up to defend the attack on our fossil-fuel future.

We don’t want to “save the planet” from human beings; we want to improve the planet for human beings.

Mankind’s use of fossil fuels is supremely virtuous—because human life is the standard of value, and because using fossil fuels transforms our environment to make it wonderful for human life.

Sky Gardens and Moon Planting

No it’s not that kind of Moon Planting- I’m talking about actually growing crops on the Moon and in space, just one of the ambitious and unusual career opportunities proposed in the inspiring talk by James Wong last night in Cork.


The talk was hosted by the Biological, Earth and Environmental Science department, UCC. Speaking to a packed auditorium of mainly young horticulture students, TV botanist James Wong was keen to show a career in horticulture could be exciting, sexy, cutting edge, and perhaps most of all, lucrative.

Keen to get away from the typically uninspiring openings he sees on the internet, which paint a picture of horticulture as just back-breaking unskilled work aimed at “tidying up” garden borders, James invited us to consider opportunities as diverse as:

– the “living walls” or vertical gardens of Patrick Blanc;
“living buildings” with movable panels of micro-algae in the walls which replace AC for cooling;
the amazing Botany Builders who are developing buildings that literally are living, made of trees;

Park-royal Sky Garden, Singapore

Park-royal Sky Garden, Singapore

– for those looking for something on a grander scale there may be inspiration to be found in holding back the deserts in China with Great Green walls of millions of trees;

or in designs like the amazing Sky Gardens of Singapore.

And if that was not enough to attract even the most adventurous horticulturalist eager to break the mold of growing the ubiquitous begonias, yes, there might even be opportunities in space with NASA’s project to grow plants on the moon by 2016– an essential first step to allow humans to travel into deep space.

James also catered for those with a more down-to-earth approach to gardening by discussing the interesting commercial and entertainment value of unusual edibles such as Synsepalum dulcificum the “miracle berry” that makes even raw rhubarb taste delicious shortly after eating some; or the potentially huge commercial potential in the anaesthetic properties of Spilanthes acmella, the “Electric Daisy”, also known as the toothache plant.

James is unapologetic in his futuristic and technophile approach, along with his irrepressible plant-geekery, and was not afraid to make a gentle jibe about someone who was objecting that their interest in plants was to “feed the world” rather than make money (one might aspire to do both of course). A couple of his sometimes outspoken and controversial views stuck with me:

At one point in the talk he showed a familiar map of North Africa, showing the relatively small square that, if entirely covered with pv solar panels could theoretically supply the whole world’s electricity. James was rather dismissive of such claims- “people live there” he said, “it would have an impact.” Just as importantly, solar cells do not have a very long life-expectancy, only about 25 years. Smart design solutions with plants however, which grow and reproduce themselves- now that might have much more promise for ecological restoration and even, as in his living walls examples, substitute for some energy production and efficiency.

The other idea was about innovation and change: horticulture in Britain, James thinks, has become stuck in a rut and is extremely conservative and unwilling to try new ideas- everyone just grows Begonias. There might be bold new ideas in British architecture, but “Why do we have to live as if it is 400 years ago when we go outdoors?” The irony in this retro-romantic, conservative trend is that when, in this part of the world, we think of heritage, we tend to think about how the Victorians did things, with their style standing for stability and tradition. Yet the Victorians themselves, in garden design at least according to James, were anything but conservative in style, and were obsessed with novelty, in design, new plant varieties, new concepts. In truth, we would be more like the Victorians with our approach to gardens, plants and perhaps even the natural world if we reached more for the stars.

Renewable Energy cannot sustain a Consumer Society

Continuing my series re-posting archive posts from my old permaculture/peak oil blog Zone5, which has now gone to the Great Blogosphere in the Sky….

The Peak Oil movement has done some good things: it has made us aware of how dependent upon fossil fuels we are, how many energy slaves we have working for us day and night; and how absurd it is therefore to claim that it is crazy to be using them, or that there is a simple alternative. Not.

Well the first two are true- Peak Oil really did do that for me, leading to me learn a great deal about energy of all sorts and think about energy in our daily lives very carefully. But in general, peak-oilers, power-downers and Transitioners shirk the logical conclusion that, as the old song goes, we “might as well face it- we’re addicted to oil” – and that that is not a bad place to be; instead, they either indulge in collapse-porn or fuel the deluded idea that wind and solar, combined perhaps with a return to Medieval peasant lifestyles, could realistically replace our immoral high-energy lifestyles.

Some in the peak oil/climate change movement were not so sanguine about what wind and solar could achieve however. The first book I ever read on the problems of trying to come off oil, years before I had ever heard the phrase “peak oil” was The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight by Thomm Hartmann.
At the end of the book he explains how modern wind turbines and pv solar cells are themselves entirely dependent on cheap fossil fuels -not to mention a complex globalized industrial base- to manufacture them.
Another writer firmly in the “civilisation-is-bad-and- we- should-return to simpler-lifestyles” camp but who could see through the myth of replacing fossil fuels with wind and solar power is Ted Trainer. Below is a review of his book on the subject which formed one of my earliest Zone5 posts.

My views on the false claims made for renewables are one of the things that have not changed since those days. They have become more informed: in particular, I would refer to Colin McInnes’ analysis showing the importance of energy density: fossil fuels and nuclear power are two- or three orders of magnitude more energy dense than diffuse and unreliable wind and solar power.
If we look at the world leader in transition to renewables- Germany with its Energiewende- we can see even from a recent favorable report how this translates into real practical obstacles: firstly, to reach 100% renewables (including biomass and storage of surplus power as gas through electrolysis and methanation- an as yet hardly developed technology) is predicated on a 50% reduction in total energy consumption- almost as unrealistic as Trainer’s views;
and apart from anything else, includes covering fully half of Germany’s entire arable land in solar cells. An interesting thought experiment perhaps, but hardly practical.

Where I differ with Trainer today of course is a)his assumption that such a powerdown scenario is necessary or desirable; and
b) his views on “peak uranium” should nuclear power be pursued: predictions of “peak” are nearly always wrong because they underestimate the development of new technology, for new resource discoveries, new extraction technologies, and new efficiencies in end-use: fast-breeder reactors which are in the pipe-line are able to extract more than 90% of the energy from uranium fuel rods, as opposed to just 1-2% from current models. And after Uranium of course, there is Thorium.

I would also be strongly critical of his advocacy of “the Simpler Way”. There is no way to objectively differentiate “needs” from “wants”, and attempts to lay down the law and tell everyone else what constitutes “enough” seem paternalistic and oppressive. They are also based on deeply flawed Limits to Growth thinking, creating a sort of scarcity-consciousness which I feel all too often leads to a self-serving romanticizing of poverty. I also completely reject his idea that technology s not key- it is not the only crucial element, but for the billions of urban dwellers to have good lives into the future will certainly need ongoing technological innovation, as will farming and food production.

The moral approach to addressing poverty and inequality will certainly involve more energy consumption, not less.

Book Review: Ted Trainer – Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society

Originally Posted on 9 September 2007 on Zone5

Ted Trainer, of the University of New South Wales, has made a valuable contribution to the literature of energy and resource depletion with his new book Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society.
The title says a lot I think. With the focus of most mainstream debate on peak oil and energy being on the supply side- the oil is running low so what are we going to use instead?- Trainer brings a refreshing approach in which he provides a detailed and technically comprehensive analyses of existing renewable energy options- including wind, solar thermal, solar electric, biomass and energy crops, and hydrogen, as well as a look at nuclear and the issue of storing energy- and concludes:
“…we could easily have an extremely low per capita rate of energy consumption, and footprint, based on local resources- but only if we undertake vast and radical change in economic, political, geographical and cultural systems.”
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Powering Up

After many years of living off-grid with a small 600w solar array, I have this week been successfully connected to the mains. The immediate benefit was plugging in a fridge and having a cool beer.


Living off-grid has done nothing for me if not helped me appreciate the enormous value of reliable electricity supply. In this part of the world, solar is extremely variable at any time of the year. I could only use the washing machine if I was sure of several hours of clear sunshine, for example. Living this way, although winning me Brownie points for virtue from visitors concerned about use of fossil fuels, is neither more “sustainable” nor cheaper. I have noticed a phrase used by those who work in the renewable energy sector: “free energy” as in “use a generator when the sun/wind is not there, and the ‘free’ energy the rest of the time.” But none of this is ‘free’- this is a deception as misleading as conspiracy claims of suppressed ‘free energy’ machines.

(If you believe in such conspiracy theories, or the plausibility of “free energy” I suggest a thought experiment: what would a free energy machine look like? How big might it be? Would just one do for the whole world, or would every household and industrial plant need their own? How would the energy be transmitted to the users? Would that be ‘free’? The point is of course, wind and solar power are indeed free, but getting them to a usable form is not.)

I know several people around West Cork who live off-grid with wind, solar or both, and even those with bigger systems- which would have cost substantially more than mine (EUR5000 in 2009)- routinely rely on petrol or diesel generators when they have not enough “free energy” to keep the lights on. Since I will now be saving the costs of running a generator, I expect in the winter at least to be actually saving money, in addition of course to having access to far more power when I need it.

The draw-back with off-grid living is of course the storage issue: batteries are expensive and have a life-expectancy of only a few years. Grid-tie and national renewable options have the same draw-back: you cannot store electricity, and only having access to power at the whim of nature is not much use to anyone: unlimited “free” energy that was available only, say, between 3-4am would be of little benefit with no means of storing it.

The day after my power was turned on I awoke to reports that the UK could be facing blackouts very soon. The Guardian argues that this is because energy companies shutting gas plants that do not make good returns, because they have been undercut by cheap imports of coal from America and elsewhere. Lomborg argues on the other hand that the UK has its priorities wrong by opting to continue to subsidize expensive off-shore wind while sitting on the world’s biggest deposit of shale gas.

It is wrong to see wind and solar as “clean” when they clearly also involve large-scale industrial processes and produce toxic waste; neither are they in anyway “free”- indeed, some analysts claim the drop in price of pv panels is largely driven by subsidies and “energy from solar PV is currently about one order of magnitude more expensive than energy from coal.”

The Coomhola and Borlin valley where I live is a remote part of west Cork which only achieved electrification in the 1970s. (High-speed broad-band access has still to achieve this!) According to Hidden Gold- History and Folklore of the Coomhola and Borlin Valleys by Julia Kemp (1998)

Electricity came to Lower Coomhola in 1958, but did not reach the higher parts of the valley until 1974. It was offered previously but it was considered too much to pay another bill on top of the existing rents and rates.


My energy needs are still modest. I am not going to become suddenly profligate in my energy consumption. I was brought up to turn off lights and appliances when not in use and will continue to do so. I have spent extra money on energy-efficient LED bulbs in the hope that they will last much longer (despite my electrician scornfully telling me they were a waste of money).


This 4W LED bulb amply illuminates the whole room with a bright but soft light

In the times we live in, where it is fashionable to talk about “powering down” – as of course I also used to preach– I invite you to join me this week in celebrating the wonders of cheap electricity, available on demand, and spare a thought for the 1.2 billion people worldwide who still do not have access to this. Let’s work to change the environmentalist mindset that energy use is somehow bad and aspire instead to a world where everyone can Power-Up and have at least some of the benefits of electricity that the rest of us take for granted.

Electricity– seen on Bantry market last week