Virtuous Corruption

From the zone5 archives:
First published May 6th 2011 on the my old and now defunct zone5 blog.
Following on from the last post on the “97% consensus” this book also had an interesting discussion on the earlier study by Oreskes

Book Review
The Virtuous Corruption of Virtual Environmental Science
Aynsley Kellow
Edgar Elgar 2007

Complete book downloadable here as a pdf.

Virtuous Corruption

This book by Aynsley Kellow, Professor of Politics and Policy at the University of Tasmania, Australia, is a provocative and in depth look at the degree to which the scientific underpinnings of environmental policy may be at times, and perhaps even chronically, be subject to a sort of “virtual corruption” in which results are biased consciously or unconsciously to fit what the researchers may perceive to be a virtuous cause of environmental protection; and how increasingly this is facilitated by the movement of actual scientific research away from direct observation and field studies towards a ‘virtual science’ of computer modelling.

Kellow asserts that

a purely ‘scientific’ basis for public policy may be a chimera: there is rarely a linear relationship between science and public policy, with scientific understanding leading to only one policy option.

Kellow begins with the example of the “khting vor“, a species of horned cow in Vietnam which was on the 2003 Red List of endangered species put out by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) even though there was every indication that such an animal had never existed. It appeared to be a mythical beast of which numerous museum specimens were in fact fakes.

Much could be written about the process whereby the IUCN consensus (or other international consensus documents on science) was produced, but suffice to say that nobody really had a strong reason to oppose its inclusion, and plenty had some reason to list it. For any skeptics, the invocation of the precautionary principle has been enough to repel dissent. After all, it might have existed…

In the next chapter Kellow examines the political ecology of conservation biology with reference of one of the bastions of environmental ideology, the question of biodiversity. This is one of the key indicators of human impact on the natural world: Greenpeace for example cites species loss at being anything from 50,000 to 100,000 species each year. However, as Kellow points out, few of these are actual known species whose extinction has been documented and confirmed. The IUCN-World Conservation Union, Kellow cites, claim that only ‘more than 800′ plant and animal extinctions since 1500 have been confirmed; the rest appear to be computer generated extrapolations. To put this in context, no one knows how many species there are anyway, with about 1.7million have been described while estimates of the total range from 5 to 100 million. Kellow cites examples of species that were believed to have been extinct that have then reappeared; and while loss of biodiversity and extinctions are of course concerning, most extinctions cited in the very large figures of Greenpeace for example seem to be “virtual’ extinctions.

(It might also be pointed out that in some cases extinction might be a good thing: in a recent conversation with an out-spoken neo-Malthusian of my acquaintance on this topic I gave smallpox and the AIDS virus as examples, to which the response was ‘Why?’- he seemed comfortable with the argument that since every species has equal right to exist alongside ourselves, we have no right to fight against diseases.)

The ideology behind this comes from the notion of the primacy of biodiversity- more diversity is always good as this contributes to the resilience of the ‘balance of nature’ and the strengthening of the fragile ‘web of life’.

Kellow questions these assumptions as well, arguing that “over the past 30 years the idea of adaptation to disturbance” has replaced the concept of the climax community among most ecological scientists” and goes onto say:

It is a point of some interest that in the popular imagination, the stability of the climax community is probably still the dominant ‘myth of nature’, sustained by constant repetition by political ecologists, and like ‘sustained yield’, the progenitor of ‘sustainable development’ (which emerged in a social context of great uncertainty in Germany), no doubt offering the reassurance of stability in uncertain and rapidly changing times. Similarly, ‘climate change’ suggests that the climate doesn’t usually change, which geological science tells us is poppycock.

Kellow gives other examples of this: if the ecosystem (or the climate) is always changing, what state are we supposed to try to conserve? Whatever decisions we take in ecological management, they will inevitably be governed by our own human values about nature. A classic example of this is the ‘native-exotic’ debate: for example, in the woodlands of Glengariff near here, when they were granted SAC (Special Area od Conservation) status over 10 years ago, all the conifers including some high-grade timber such as Cedar and Douglas Fir were removed (I know as I have a couple of beams from those trees in my roundhouse frame) in order to keep the woodland as ‘native’ as possible: but to a permaculturalist, this conservation ethic seems arbitrary and wasteful. Few exotics are actually invasive (rhododendron being an obvious example) while maintaining areas as museum pieces frozen at a particular moment in time involves in keeping humans from taking a sustainable yield. David Holmgren gave me a more extreme example from New Zealand where Douglas Fir was invading the denuded slopes of the Southern Alps. This was dealt with by spraying herbicides from helicopters to deter this ‘invasive’ species.

(Michael Crichton gives other examples of this from the management of National Parks in America which he considers to have been disastrous causing more harm than good, and cites Alston Chase, Playing God in Yellowstone: the destruction of America’s first National Park.)

Environmentalists took to the idea of a self-regulating ecosystem like ducks to Walden Pond but they failed to appreciate that it was the product of mathematics, part of the very post-Enlightenment rationality they were rejecting as they began to turn ecological science into religion, where knowledge rested on the ‘almost sensuous intuiting of natural harmonies’, as Theodore Rosak put it, and the balance of nature was thus granted sacred status.

{see my more recent post reviewing Daniel Botkin’s book which also examines these themes of early computer modelling and the myth f the “balance of nature”.}

Kellow continues with these themes in the next two chapters on climate science, which he calls “post-normal” or “virtual” because of its reliance on computer models and its politicization. Kellow presents here a detailed examination of climate science, the problems with computer models and the way this is used to promote in his view a political agenda. They represent the most damning critique of climate science- all the more so since it was written before climategate but points some of the blame at many of the same players.

One of the problems with modelling is that the models are only as good as the data that is fed into them; yet they have a tendency to become tautological as the models themselves are then used to assess the quality of the data: this is one of the ways in which there may be a strong tendency for “virtuous corruption” in the field. For example, Kellow argues that not only does the data have to be nursed in order to “correct” for the Urban Heat Island Effect, but Kellow cites another example of erroneous data being fed into the models leading to misleading conclusions about future emissions from developing nations, an error based upon hugely underestimating their relative wealth and therefore over-estimating the likely increases in emissions as they develop.

Kellow takes a look at the infamous hockey-stick graph published in 1998 by Mann et al (later to play centre-stage in climategate) and how a couple of papers over-turned the accepted history of global temperatures by essentially eliminating the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) in order to make recent warming look “unprecedented.”

What was surprising was not the publication of a couple of papers which challenged the established scientific orthodoxy- that happens all the time- but that these papers were accepted and became the new orthodoxy so quickly and so readily, and it is clear that both the alacrity and readiness and subsequent defence of the new orthodoxy were inextricably related to the political value of the findings.

One of the most interesting sections is examples given of papers that might have questioned the so-called “consensus” on climate science, but which were rejected by journals or found difficulty in passing peer-review, and also Kellow’s critique of Oreskes 2004 paper claiming in a survey of all 928 scientific papers produced between 1993 and 2003 using the keywords “climate change” that there was essentially no peer-reviewed literature that questioned the “consensus”. Kellow is eviscerating of this paper which he sees as

palpable nonsense, as could quickly be verified by a replication of the search- a test any referee or editor could have subjected the paper to, had they bothered, and had they been at all skeptical of the claim…
…a search of the ISI database using ‘climate change’ produced 12000 papers, and Oreskes was forced to admit… that she had used the three keywords ‘global climate change’, which had reduced the return by an order of magnitude. Science published a correction by Oreskes but it refused to publish a letter from Dr. Benny Peiser which showed that her numbers could not be replicated, and another by Dr. Dennis Bray reporting a survey of climate scientists showing that fewer than 1 in 10 considered that climate change was principally caused by human activity.

The general view expressed by Oreskes is that skeptics are in the pay of Big Oil and therefore there is a professional motive to cast doubt on the consensus. This naive view extends throughout the environmental movement- detractors to any environmental concern are angrily dismissed as industry stooges. While it is easy to see how the oil and coal industry may have a vested interest in casting such doubts, the gas an nuclear industries stand to gain from Kyoto-style treaties, and carbon- trading may be seriously open to corruption from unscrupulous financial corporations, a charge levied at Enron. Just as homeopathy is marketed as an “alternative” to Evil Big Pharma but is actually sold for maximum profit just like real pharmaceuticals, so multi-national environmental NGOs also have agendas, manipulate data to attract more funding, and the same may also be true of activist scientists.
Kellow then goes on in the next chapter to examine the specific case of the attack on Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist.

Swedish Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, Bjorn Lomborg was vilified- and continues to be so- not just for taking issue with proposed responses to climate change, namely the rapid Kyoto-style reduction in emissions, but in his challenge of the deeper tenets of environmentalism, namely that doomsday claims made by environmentalists are often not supported by the evidence and things may not be quite as bad as some would have us believe.

Kellow argues that the rise of virtual science based only on models and not checked in the real world reflect “the prominence among science of those who have been supporting a pessimistic view of environmental degradation since the re-emergence of Malthusianism from the late-1960s, exemplified particularly by Stanford University’s Paul Ehrlich and his associates.” Kellow examines a group centered around Population Bomb author Professor Paul Ehrlich who vigorously defended there worldview which Lomborg characterized as the “Litany” of environmental doom.

Lomborg tells of how he had begin to examine the claims made by economist Julian Simon in the 1980s, who famously made a bet with Ehrlich that prices of a selection commodities would decline rather than increase, thus giving the lie to the Club of Rome’s 1972 report Limits to Growth. Simon won the bet, and as Lomborg examined his critiques of environmentalist pessimism also began to see how Ehrlich and others were wrong.

What is significant about the response to Lomborg was its irrationality, ad hominem attacks (IPCC chairman Pachauri likened Lomborg to Hitler) and lack of scientific rigour. Importantly however, one of the negative reviewers, Michael Grubb, accepted Lomborg’s view that the Litany was overplayed and in many areas things were in fact getting better:

To any modern professional, it is no news at all that the 1972 Limits to Growth study was mostly wrong or that Paul Ehrlich and Lester Brown have perennially exaggerated the problems of food supply
(It just happens that yesterday’s Guardian carries a story on just that- Lester Brown exaggerating the problems of food supply).

The problem was that many of the attacks from the likes of Michael Grubb, Jeffrey Harvey and Stuart Pimm, and other in the Union of Concerned Scientists, were themselves subject to Lomborg’s critique of promoting the Litany:

Not only were these critics the principle “litanists” whose reputations Lomborg had called into question, they were a small and tightly-defined group. They all seemed to be connected by an association with one person: Paul Ehrlich, who had famously lost the wager with Julian Simon, the contrarian whose statistics Lomborg had set out to disprove.

Kellow makes the important point that of course there are strong reasons to protect biodiversity and address climate impacts, but that the specific policies promoted themselves fall outside the remit of pure science- they require more than just science to justify them; there is an irony in the exaggerated attack on Lomborg since it rather proved his point that the Litany is exaggerated; and that while in medical science for example there is a strong principle of declaring conflict of interests,

rarely do we find declarations of political conflict of interest in the broad field of what we might broadly call ‘environmental science.’

Kellow goes on to give many other examples of the politicization of what he calls “activist scientists” in general environmentalism and climate science:

Many ‘activist’ environmental scientists … seem largely unaware that it is there cultural views (or myths) of nature that largely drive their particular ‘take’ on science

while he also makes the case that there are large amounts of funding and vested interest at stake for environmental groups, who gain from the continual belief that we are facing into environmental catastrophe.
This is an important book which documents thoroughly some of the history of the environmental movement and how climate change became its flagship, based on virtual science and a leaping from data to policy that is presented to the public and policy makers as if neutral, when in fact it is frequently imbued with ideology. There are lots of questions to be asked of both the environmental movement and the process of science itself; ultimately however, Kellow concludes that there may not be outright dishonesty involved:

Virtuous corruption need not presuppose deliberate or even conscious manipulation of data or models, but simply the privileging of certain results through the lack of sufficient skepticism of data and methods that provide answers that are politically useful.

We don’t need GE crops but Africa does

Another book review from the archives of my previous blog Zone5.
Paalberg’s book is as relevant as ever- although there has been some movement on GE crops since I wrote the review, by and large they are still slow to take off in most of the continent. The only thing I would change is in the post’s title- we in the developed world also need GE to help improve  the efficiency and environmental resilience of farming practices.
Starved for Science stands as a damning indictment of the environmental movement’s ideological campaign against genetic engineering, which has made the task of solving hunger and poverty in rural Africa much more difficult by keeping it from those who need it the most.

We don’t need GE crops but Africa Does

First posted on 10 September 2010 on Zone5.org

IMG_1625

Starved for science: How Biotechnology is being kept out of Africa

Robert Paalberg
Harvard University Press 2009 Pbck 235pp

Harvard Professor Robert Paalberg has written a book that makes essential reading for anyone interested in global food politics and why Africa still fails to feed many of its people.
Africa remains the only region on earth with increasing poverty and hunger. The number of Africans living on less than a dollar a day increased 50% since the early 90s; Between 1991 and 2002 the number of malnourished people in Africa increased from 169 to 206 million, with nearly a third of sub-Saharan Africa malnourished, compared with just 17% in the developing world as a whole.

Paalberg accounts for this as a result of policies that since the 1970s have resulted in a massive decline in investment in agricultural science in Africa. While in Asia and South America, farmers benefited from the new science of the green Revolution, and have been able to both feed their growing population- confounding the predictions of neo-Malthusians- and bring many out of poverty as well. India started planting new Green Revolution short-straw varieties in 1964; by 1970 production had doubled, averting fears of famine.

Why did Africa get left behind? Paalberg argues that while in Asia and South America had strong enough institutions and science to continue with their own scientific developments with little further outside assistance, Africa was became influenced by a change in the political and cultural climate in Europe from the 1980s onwards. In particular, this has seriously slowed the uptake of Genetic Engineering in Africa, which Paalberg argues is a result in part of the ideological position of many NGOs working in Africa.

In order to examine what lies behind this ideological position, Paalberg gives a detailed account of the rise of the Organic movement in the west, and a strong consumer movement demanding more natural food:
“This reification of what is “natural” is in part a cultural reaction to the hegemonic expansion of modern science. Advances in modern science tend to diminish both unspoiled nature and unquestioned faith, prompting those with a strong romantic or spiritual side to register their objections by seeking foods that incorporate less modern science. “
This view had already emerged in the US as early as 1892 when a clergyman called Sylvester Graham invented the “Graham Cracker” as a reaction against additives used to whiten bread. Paalberg points out Graham was a “patriarch and a prude; he thought women should go back to milling their own flour and believed in vegetarianism as a means to control sexual passions.”

In Europe, Rudolph Steiner founded the vitalist school of philosophy called Anthroposophy.
“‘Vitalism’” explains Paalberg “was the once-dominant view that living things had a chemical composition different from non-living things”- a view known to be untrue by science since 1780, yet one that still underpins much of the organic movement even today. Steiner’s “Biodynamic” techniques- a mixture of sympathetic magic, astrology and animal sacrifice- seem to have been growing in popularity in recent years.
Sir Albert Howard’s 1940 publication “An Agricultural Testament” was also influential in this reaction against science in farming: “Artificial manures lead inevitably to artificial nutrition, artificial food, artificial animals and finally to artificial men and women.”

Lady Eve Balfour was next in 1943 with her book “The Living Soil” which inspired the formation of the Soil Association in 1946, “still the institutional guardian of organic farming traditions in Great Britain.” The SA’s leading patron is HRH Prince Charles, “the most prominent exemplar of this blue-blood attachment in England to pre-industrial, chemical-free farming”.
In the US, J.I Rodale coined the term “Organic farming” and founded the “Organic Farming and Gardening” magazine in 1942. Rodale was also a big fan of alternative health care and supplements.
Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” perhaps did more than any other book to warn of the dangers of chemical pollution from farming. The environmental movement had come of age and began to have a real influence over public policy.

The movement grew rapidly with the rise of an alternative youth culture in the 1960s and 70s, getting a major boost in the US in 1990 with the creation of a single national standard for organic produce.
However, even today in the US the organic sector makes up only 2% of total food purchases and using only 0.4% of cropland. The claims of the organic movement of safer, more nutritious food, and of being more beneficial to nature, are not in general supported by scientific evidence. Paalberg argues that the per capita amount of land need to feed people has declined by more than 50% in the US since 1920; a switch now to organics would require far more land, threatening much of the remaining forest and wild areas.

Carsonain environmentalists cannot refute this logic, but they resist accepting it because it requires them to endorse a larger rather than a smaller role for modern science.

More science had already reduced some of the harm from chemical farming highlighted by Carson; bringing in more science to farming now is still the best way to address the environmental impacts by making farming more efficient. The Organic movement has proved to be still wedded to its ideological roots.
The prevalence of the “nature knows best” ideology has been possible because the west has already seen so much improvement in agricultural productivity, as a result of science and technology, that it is well-fed and unwilling to take on yet more in this sector, switching its concerns to reducing the impact on the environment of farming.

Paalberg accepts that this stance makes sense in the west with its excesses of CAFOs, and a subsidy system that encourages over-application of Nitrogen fertiliser, and problems of obesity rather than starvation.
In addition, the modern world seemed to feel an acute sense of loss of community and connection with the natural world and began to harbor romantic notions of returning to an agrarian past.
What might be understandable if misguided at home has become disastrous in Africa, where essentially farmers are poor- and therefore sometimes hungry- because of too little science, rather than too much. African farmers mostly own their own land (unlike in South America) and so would be well placed to benefit from improvements in crop technology for example, but a combination of powerful western NGOs and corrupt African governments discouraged investment in this area.

{Correction 16-09-10: Paalberg does not say most African farmers own their own land but emphasises that there is far more access to in Africa than in, say Latin America, with only 15 landless landless people in the countryside to every 100 smallholders: “This greater prevalence of land-secure smallholder farmers among the poor in rural Africa increases the chance they will benefit from a farm-technology upgrade. Yet not just any upgrade will do. A new farming technology will be pro-poor as well as pro-growth only if it raises the the total factor productivity of small as well as large farms.”}

This opposition to science is most strongly expressed when it comes to genetically engineered crops. This technology was first being developed at a time when public science funding in agriculture was declining, leaving private corporations like Monsanto to step in and lead the way. The organic movement has banned the use of GE crops; Europe has kept GE food crops out altogether so far. Paalberg sees the ideology behind this as going beyond the simple environmental and health concerns, extending to issues of carrying capacity and population:

Carsonian environmentalists were offended because gene transfer was so clearly an attempt to engineer and dominate nature rather than live within nature’s normal reproductive constraints.

Perversely, the environmental concerns of the rich world became transplanted into Africa, where people struggle to feed themseleves still.
“Farming in Africa is a world apart from farming in Europe or North America” writes Paalberg, and goes onto say:

In Africa…farmers today are not involved in specialized factory farming. They are planting heirloom varieties in polycultures rather than scientifically improved varieties in monoculture. They have a food system that is traditional, local, nonindustrial, and very slow. Using few purchased inputs, they are de facto organic. And as a consequence they remain poor and poorly fed.

Yields of maize in Malawi for example are less than one tenth of yields in the US.
Many NGOs working in Africa seem motivated to keep them this way. Doug Parr, chief scientist of Greenpeace places a great emphasis on safeguarding the “traditional knowledge” of the Africans. The International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) is the most prominent amongst NGOs promoting organics in developing countries; their mission in Africa is not to increase productivity but to enlist farmers there into the organic movement. Since so few farmers use synthetic chemicals it will be easy to get them certified. “Poor and nonproductive” Paalberg notes ruefully , “but certified organic.”

Paalberg is scathing about some of the approaches by NGOs. The German organisation Networking for Ecofarming in Africa has partners in 13 African countries to warn them of the dangers of “Western agricvulture” supplanting indigenous knowledge, yet promotes biodynamic farming in its workshops.

German trainers at one NECOFA session in Kenya in 2005 took the time to introduce local participants the importance of light rhythms from the planets and to instruct them in developing manure preparations that included essential bits of stinging nettle, chamomile, and cow horn (NECOFA 2005). Such knowledge is neither farmer-derived nor indigenous to Africa. Nor is it even knowledge.

Pedalling pseudo-science to hungry people is akin to quack therapists promoting homeopathy for AIDS or malaria.
Paalberg details the political process used by NGOs, aided and abetted by the UN and supported by a complacent governments in the west and corrupt urban-based officials in Africa, to block the use of science to improve the farmers lot there.
How much of this is to support lifestyle choices of the rich in western countries? Paalberg sees it as neo-colonial in its effects: nearly all certified organic produce in Africa is specialty crops destined for the west, not food for the locals. “Organic farming advocates from IFOAM nonetheless like to assert that organic agriculture in developing countries is not a luxury but somehow a precondition for attaining food security.”

What could GE crops do for African farmers? The most obvious is drought-tolerance (DT). Monsanto has played a big role in developing DT corn in the US, but African will have to wait before they can try it. Only South Africa is an exception to the red tape and stiffing restrictions that all other African governments have place don GE technology, following the European model.
In any case, the big companies are not developing DT varieties suitable for Africa because they see little commercial gain there; African farmers are simply too poor. If GE gets into Africa, it will be through philanthropic organisations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has formed a partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation called Alliance for a Green Revolution In Africa (AGRA). Monsanto is working with AGRA however to donate some of its technology to develop DT crops there. There remain many political obstacles, and Africa which needs this new technology more than anyone, seems destined to be the last to get it.
Friends of the Earth have been opposed to DT crops in Africa since 1999, citing the danger of them growing in areas currently unavailable to other crops as one of its main objections to GE.

“How strange that agricultural crops with new growth potential would be seen as a threat by the NGO community” notes Paalberg, “but such was the new political reality.”

A new generation of GE crops may help shift attitudes in the Europe. So far, the technology has been used to benefit farmers, with little apparent benefit to the consumer; new crops may have tangible benefits to those who eat them, and as with GE in medicine- which has not met with the same opposition- may then come to be more accepted.

Paalberg makes a tightly argued case for the unnecessary prolonging of hunger in Africa being at least partly fueled by ideological and even religiously motivated western NGOs. While there is an understandable attraction to the simple life of living from the land in the west- something that I have shared- those of us who choose this life are wealthy enough to afford everything from tools and polytunnels to the best seeds we can get, and we do not have to worry about going hungry if the rains dont come.

GE and other scientific advances would farmers here, and the environment also, but we are wealthy enough -because of the benefits technology has brought us so far- to have the choice. To actively campaign to keep these benefits from the poor is not just anti-science, but anti-humanity.

Whole Earth Discipline

As mentioned in my last post for GMO-Skeptics Forum, one of the major influences in my journey from Dark Green Chicken-Little to pragmatic techno-optimist was Stewart Brand’s seminal Whole Earth Discipline.
This makes interesting reading for me four years later, as I was on the cusp of a new understanding on some key environmental issues: I was still in the grip of peak oil paranoia; I had not yet grasped what is really happening with population or even how fundamental the issue has been for environmentalism; and I would also be much more skeptical these days of apocalyptic climate predictions.

In particular, this book started me questioning the assumptions of my environmentalist tribe on GMOs, which I have since learned a lot more about and written many more posts on.
The review comes over to me now as wordy and long-winded, but this reflects partly the inner struggle I was going through as some of my core beliefs began to be re-aligned, so it serves as a testimony to that process as well as a hopefully useful review of a still important book.

From the Archives: First published on Zone5 March 22nd 2010

Book Review:
Whole Earth Discipline -An Ecopragmatist Manifesto
by Stewart Brand
Atlantic Books 2009 316pp

IMG_1572

“Civilization is at risk, but civilization is the problem”.

Stewart Brand is one of the iconic founders of the environmental movement, an original old hippy whose influence on the boomer generation should not be understated. With his latest book Whole Earth Discipline he takes that same movement to task for rejecting science and getting sidetracked by ideology at the very time when the practical application of science through engineering and technology may be the only way to save ourselves.
I came across an early copy of The Whole Earth Catalog, founded by Brand in 1968, on an early visit to a small “back to the land” commune about 25 years ago. It was a thrilling introduction to the possibilities of the burgeoning “alternative” lifestyle of organic gardening and renewable energy I was joining at the time.

Over the coming years, I read about his early involvement in LSD in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and currently have a copy of his 1999 book The Clock of the Long Now on my bookshelf.
In a recent interview, I heard Brand take on the environmental movement’s anti-science stance on various issues. I have been grappling with this issue myself for some time now, particularly in the credulous acceptance by most green organisations of “alternative medicine” for which there is no evidence, and the anti-science diatribes that are inevitably summoned up in defense.

More recently I have discovered for myself how little science there is behind the health claims of organic food, and how organisations such as the Soil Association are often pseudo-scientific in their claims and their treatment of evidence.
Whole Earth Discipline challenges the greens on four more holy cows: population, urbanisation, nuclear power and Genetically Engineered crops, and in reading this compelling and fascinating book I have had to do some serious re-thinking around these issues myself. Continue Reading

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.”
Continue Reading

From the Zone5 Archives: Five Years till Doomsday

The New Year is a suitable time to shake out the old cobwebs, so I have finally decided to retire my first blog Zone5.org, which I wrote for six years from May 2006- May 2012. As of midnight tonight or thereabouts it shall officially turn into a pumpkin and thenceforth cease to exist.
Its byeline- On the Edge between Nature and Culture- reflected my interests through much of that time which I still hold- the interaction between humans and the environment. My main focus was permaculture, sustainability, peak oil, civilizational collapse, climate change and the like.
As the years rolled by and the promised collapse failed to materialize, my views changed. Radically. Which is why I started Skepteco.
The Zone5 archives- more than a hundred posts and hundreds of comments- chronicle my gradual change from naive Deep Dark Green Doomer, through skeptical rationalist homeopathy-bashing Dawkins-fan, into, eventually, the well-adjusted and enlightened pragmatist I am to-day.
Over the next few weeks I may occasionally post a relic from those dark doomer days, an offering if you will to whatever gods of Truth there may still be out there, a testimony to show how deeply held beliefs that are in fact wrong can actually be rejected in a single lifetime. By baring all once again I hope my past delusions may serve as some kind of cautionary tale to the young radicals just getting going in life who may be open to some kind of guidance in making sense of the klaxons of environmental alarm that have scarcely quietened in the intervening years. I often wonder how my choices in life may have been different had I had someone like me as I am today around to give the younger me a kick up the back-side. It’s doubtful I would have listened, and a kick would surely have been necessary. However, I also think that many of the ideas and insights and evidence that influence me today simply never crossed my path until I painfully, laboriously uncovered them more recently. If nothing else, it shows how easy it is to get trapped in a bubble where a strong community of like-minded- and similarly deluded folk shout out any alternative views until they cannot disturb the cozy illusion of certainty. I was so wrong, yet I was so sure I was right.
We start appropriately enough with a failed prediction from 2007. Many of the early posts are pretty cringe-making, this one being a good example, in which I claimed that we may only have 5 years before the peak-oil-alypse reduces society to rubble, where only those with the largest stock-piles of beans survive. That was six years ago. Was this really me writing? What was I thinking? My only defense: I was quoting a report from the IEA. Now, they really should have known better…

Originally posted on 20 July 2007 on the now retired Zone5 blog.

Five Years

With all the interest in the mainstream media being shown recently about peak oil it seems the world may be finally waking up to the realities of the limits to growth and the beginnings of the end of the industrial cycle.
The big news has been the International Energy Agency’s report last week admitting that there may be a serious oil production crunch within the next 5 years, raising eyebrows around the world as this represents an astonishing about-turn on their stance of the past 30 years which has been to simply assert that whatever the world demands, so shall we be supplied.
Another aspect of this has been highlighted by James Kunstler concerning the crises developing in the five principle oil-exporting areas of Saudi Arabia, Iran, the North Sea, Russia and Venezuela: it seems that they will have far less to export in the near future. The declines in exports will decline far faster than actual production declines because of a rapidly growing domestic markets. In other words, the main oil producing regions of the world are using far more of the stuff themselves, so there will be less for the rest of us. This is likely to unfold also on a shockingly short time-scale- just a few years. Kunstler concludes:
“Every day thousands of new driver’s licenses are issued to Saudi Arabian men. Every day, thousands of new cars are sold in Russia (and China and India). Every day the price of crude oil on the futures markets creeps a few cents higher. Every day the US version of “money” (the dollar) loses a few clicks of value against other world currencies. The markets and the American public are headed for a collision with reality. When it happens, perhaps this fall, it is not going to be pretty.”
Ireland, remember, is considered at least as exposed to oil shortages as the US. This doesnt mean that we may still have five years to hope for something else to happen; it means we have really very little time to prepare for the inevitable: real shortages, rationing and severe economic slump. It is really time to gather your family friends and community around you and have serious discussions about how you are going to pay the mortgage, whether you will still have a job or not, and how are you going to get to see the grandparents/grandchildren once air travel becomes prohibitively expensive.
We will not simply carry on roughly as we have been up till now and then in five years’ time suddenly- Wham! -no more oil. The slide into economic recession and then depression is starting now and will merely gather pace as time goes on, with likely abrupt disruptions. Anything you can do to prepare for a time in the not-to-distant future in which we will be relatively poor and thrown back to a large degree on our own resources should be commenced now. Where can you start a garden? Have you space to store food? Have you any back-up power system for essential lights?
Become aware of the “embodied energy” in everything you might need: what has high fossil-fuel content, either in the materials used or the energy needed to create it and transport it to your door? Spend wisely now on infrastructure that will last and save you energy in the long run, like insulation and a suitable stove; avoid systems that will depend always on imports, even if they appear to be part of a self-sufficient system.(One that is often missed, for example, is imported feed for chickens and other animals.)
If you are preparing well, there is much to look forward to in the future low-energy world, but we should avoid romantic projections also: the future will be hard. So much that we take for granted is performed for us by cheap energy, and few of us have actually experienced life for any length of time without the back-up systems that the fossil-fuel society provides. So I don’t go along with the “bring it on” response that many people give me when I speak of this. We need to be prepared for things to be much harder than we expect, and in many unexpected ways.
Any spare cash you have now, invest it in anything that may help you ride the coming hard times. As far as possible, limit your needs and requirements- the Buddhists have it right: the simple life is the best. “Hedonism” has become synonymous with excessive self-indulgent consumerism, and the pursuit of endless pleasures of the material world, but in fact the philosophy of the original Hedon was quite the reverse: Hedon believed that the key to happiness was not the pursuit of pleasure, but the avoidance of pain. Therefore, he concluded, the fewer possessions and attachments we have, the less active and engaged with the material world we are, the less pain we will create, the more at peace with ourselves and the rest of nature we will be.
This has greater relevance today, as “less is more” becomes the motto for the coming times: less consumerism means less pollution and environmental destruction; less economic growth will mean less stress and waste.
So as the meditation teacher has said, “Don’t just do something- Sit there”.
But make sure you have a functioning permaculture system well established first.