Peak Oil will Never Die

In my former peak-oil days, I was a fan of James Howard Kunstler, and read both his fiction and non-fiction work, taking him seriously as a critique of the American zeitgeist. I was disappointed though to read this recent article by him in response to a recent NY Times article about the defusing of the population bomb:

One main contention in the story is that the problem of feeding an exponentially growing population was already solved by the plant scientist Norman Borlaug’s “Green Revolution,” which gave the world hybridized high-yielding grain crops. Wrong. The “Green Revolution” was much more about converting fossil fuels into food. What happens to the hypothetically even larger world population when that’s not possible anymore? And did any of the 23 journalists notice that the world now has enormous additional problems with water depletion and soil degradation? Or that reckless genetic modification is now required to keep the grain production stats up?

Kunstler obviously fails to understand the demographic transition, which is driven not by providing more food, but first by controlling the death rate: modern medicine, vaccines and sanitation lead to lowering of infant mortality and longer life-expectancy; since birth rates at this stage remain high, the population rapidly increases, which is precisely what lead to the “population  bomb” scares of Ehrlich and others in the sixties. Mathusian fears of die-off as a result of being unable to feed the consequent teeming masses were indeed solved- if not completely, but to a large extent- by Borlaug and the Green Revolution. Ehrlich was proved wrong- he said, definitively, “the battle to feed the world’s population is over”. He didn’t say “unless we figure out how to convert fossil fuels into food”.
In any case, the amount of fossil fuels that are actually used to produce food is relatively small:

In the USA in 2004, 317 billion cubic feet of natural gas were consumed in the industrial production of ammonia, less than 1.5% of total U.S. annual consumption of natural gas. A 2002 report suggested that the production of ammonia consumes about 5% of global natural gas consumption, which is somewhat under 2% of world energy production.

And of course, as Kunstler well knows, the shale revolution has massively increased the supply of natural gas in his home country -the cognitive dissonance required to ignore this as if nothing has happened in the past 10-15 years is staggering. Maybe the reality of increasing resources as a result of technological advances is simply incompatible with the narrative of Peak Oil Doom on which JHK has based his entire writing career, just as the reality of declining birth rates is just too challenging for Ehrlich.

Later in the piece Kunstler randomly mixes up turmoil in the Middle East with over-population issues, again ignoring the fact that one of the reasons for instability in Saudi Arabia is precisely  that they are no longer the world’s swing producer as a direct result of the revived US shale boom, which is decreasing the dependency of the West on OPEC.  It seems there is no pleasing Kunstler though.

Kunstler then goes onto finger “reckless” genetic engineering which displays ignorance of the highest order- all farming starts with plant breeding, changing wild plants beyond recognition to provide better yields for us humans to chew on. Far from reckless, genetic engineering is the most precise and regulated and tested form of plant breeding ever. Not only that, but GM crops have already been shown to reduce reliance on tilling, pesticides and fertilisers,

-thus reducing fossil fuel dependency and environmental impact while maintaining or even help increase yields.

Like Ehrlich- who ” still seems to think that getting rid of girls is a capital idea” Kunstler is molded in the tradition of many of the early-20th Century environmentalists, elitists who prefer peasants who know their place, harmoniously working the land and not upsetting the Natural order. This is reflected in the accolades showered on Ehrlich by environmental institutions such as the WWF, a major environmental NGO with roots in eugenics and deeply conservative and traditionalist ideologies. In another recent article on Ehrlich, author Jonathon Last writes

Of course, it’s been obvious that Ehrlich was not just misguided, but an actual charlatan, since the 1970s…..

Other people caught on to Ehrlich over the years. In her book about sex-selective abortion, Mara Hvistendahl has a long, devastating interview with Ehrlich in which she probes his errors, pushes him for accountability, and reveals him to be a doddering, foolish, old man wedded to a political ideology and with no interest in science, demographics, or even basic math. And Hvistendahl is a progressive feminist in good standing.

In a fascinating review of post-apocalyptic literature, Michael Potts shows how in Kunstler’s fictional writings, “the myth of feudal obligations and care in a hierarchical society is resurrected and its loss is related to decline and degeneration.”

Like other traditionalists like Vandana Shiva, Ehrlich and Kunstler are more about lamenting a lost world of aristocrats and peasants than they are about addressing real environmental problems.

50 Shades of Green

A Spectrum of Environmental Thought

“You seem to spend a good bit of time slagging off environmentalists” complained a particularly earnest student to me recently. His gripe seemed to be to do with some fairly incidental comments I had made in passing about fracking being OK in principle, and Permaculture offering no silver bullet for delivering sustainable agriculture.
The thing is though, who are these “environmentalists” of which we speak? It is misleading to speak about “environmentalists” as if they all agree on things like nuclear power or GMOs; in fact, when it comes to the Green movement , we are talking about a very broad church indeed.
Here then, is a selected range of thinkers, movers and shakers on environmental issues, most of them who would identify with being “environmentalists” in some way. This also roughly equates with Professor Steve Fuller’s suggestion (see below) that we are seeing a dramatic 90-degree shift in the poles of political thought- no more so much “Left wing” and “Right wing”, much more “Down-wingers” (Dark Green environmentalists) and “Up-wingers” (eco-pragmatists and technophiles).
As we move through the spectrum, we see a shift from focus on the Precautionary Principle with regard to technology- a general aversion to any more “meddling with nature”- and gradually move closer to Fuller’s “Pro-actionary imperative”- the view that as humans, we are all but compelled to keep innovating and developing new technologies, leaping further into the unknown of the future, if we are to continue to thrive.

There are of course hundreds more writers I could have included. The exact placement of each writer is open to interpretation, and not intended to be precise, not least because many will be further one way on some issues (eg nuclear power or climate) and further the other way on others.

Here we go then- 50 Shades of Green:

Dark Green
This end of the spectrum tends to be quite extreme and ideologically motivated, characterised as:
-anti-capitalist
-Suspicious of technology
-romanticizing the past
-romanticizing “Nature”;
tends to make apocalyptic predictions- the “Doomers”;
emphasis on “over-population”;
follows “Limits to Growth” philosophy: the Earth’s resources are finite, and humanity is approaching the limits- soon there will be severe shortages of energy, minerals, food, leading to a likely population collapse;
Peak Oil= Peak Energy- humans are like “bacteria on a petri dish” and subject to the same laws of limits as other species- it is only our hubris and arrogance that blinds us to this truth;
Humans must cut back and end economic growth, restrict use of technology, live simpler lives;
Moralistic- Humans are an inherently malevolent influence on the planet
Often Misanthropic = human-hating- seeing Nature as Pure and Humans as Polluted.

At the very extreme end of the spectrum…
Eco-fascism: eg Nazi Germany- Rudolph Hess was a leading Nazi Nature Mystic who believed the purity of the German race was intimately connected with the purity of the Land and its Soil –Blut und Boden– (“Blood and Soil”)- the Nazis were the first and only movement to promote Steiner’s mystical practice of Biodynamics on a large scale, which was also inspired by this view;
The Nazi mystics believed there to be a powerful, ordained connection between Das Volk and Das Vaterland– the notion of a sort of chosen land for a chosen people, the Aryan race. This link was expressed naturally enough through farming practices, which needed to be “pure” so as not to pollute the blood through “unclean” food. Purity of the soil- the Land- meant purity of the food; purity of the food maintained purity of the Blood- and therefore, purity of the Race.
Organic farming emerged after this time as a reaction against the rise of industrial farming which was seen as polluting, not just the soil and the land, but the Race.
This kind of thinking, while not explicitly racist in content, can still be found underpinning the Darker side of the Organics and anti-GMO movement. In many ways, the foodie movement in general is best seen as versions of Kosher foods- a modern take on the age-old tradition of identifying ones tribe by the food it eats. “Pig meat unclean” and only eaten by the Infidels becomes “GMOs unclean”.
This position is perhaps best exemplified in the figure of Dr. Vandana Shiva, who, while feted widely by western environmentalists who would prefer to see themselves on the Left, in her native country is more closely identified with right-wing nationalistic interests who shun modernity and have vested interests in the maintenance of the caste system.

Deep Ecology

Anarcho-primitivsism- Derrick Jensen “The Culture of Make-Believe”

Dark Mountain

We are the first generations to grow up surrounded by evidence that our attempt to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ has been a grim failure, proof not of our genius but our hubris. The attempt to sever the hand from the body has endangered the ‘progress’ we hold so dear, and it has endangered much of ‘nature’ too. The resulting upheaval underlies the crisis we now face.

– from the Dark Mountain Manifesto

Thomas Malthus 1766-1834- predicted food supply would fail to keep up with population increases, leading to inevitable famines;

Paul Ehrlich The Population Bomb 1968:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…

Giving society cheap, abundant energy … would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.

– Paul Ehrlich, “An Ecologist’s Perspective on Nuclear Power”,

May/June 1978 issue of Federation of American Scientists Public Issue Report cited here

Silent Spring Rachel Carson 1962

Limits to Growth 1972 Club of Rome report by Meadows and Randers;

Jared Diamond 2005 Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Richard Heinberg The End of Growth 2011
Heinberg is an influential figure in the Peak Oil movement, which sees the peaking in world oil supplies to be happening now and leading to inevitable collapse of modern industrial society;

Transition Towns Network
A world-wide network of community projects started in Tones, Devon in 2004:

is a charitable organisation whose role is to inspire, encourage, connect, support and train communities as they self-organise around the Transition model, creating initiatives that rebuild resilience and reduce CO2 emissions…Ultimately it’s about creating a healthy human culture, one that meets our needs for community, livelihoods and fun.

TTN promotes the urgent need for a response to the “twin threats” of Peak Oil (resource depletion) and Climate Change (pollution of the Global Commons) by forming re-localisation projects. The vision appears to be a return to more-or-less self-sufficient local and regional communities growing their own food and producing their own energy and other resources, in a general move away from globalisation, technology and progress; they could be characterized as a “neo-feudal” movement.

Supporters and alliances include Prince Charles and the Schumacher College; their seems much in common with the ideology espoused by Rudolph Steiner and other early 20thCentury reactions against modernity.

Permaculture –again, closely aligned with and informing of Transition, Permaculture began as a landscape design method, but now represents a very broad movement claiming to work towards a “Permanent Culture”, Permaculture clearly began as a reaction against industrialisation and modernity and a conviction that society is surely doomed should it continue down its current path;
Also linked with Anthroposophy, Organics and the Food Sovereignty Movement.

The giant multi-national green NGOs Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth probably fit in around about here, with a strong anti-GMO and anti-nuclear stance;

George Monbiot
Monbiot is one of the UK’s leading environmentalists, and aligns strongly with the anti-capitalist, anti-corporate Left; but he also has links with Dark Mountain and the darker Greens on many issues, while at the same time breaking ranks in a rather fundamental way through his advocating of nuclear power as the “lesser of two evils” when considering the need for base-load low-carbon energy to tackle climate change.

***

Thus far those cited have tended to believe in the inherent unsustainability of the modern world and call with varying degrees of urgency and optimism for a retreat “back to Nature”;
Coupled with this is frequently found at root a rejection of Enlightenment values- which see human agency as liberating us from the confines of an often merciless “Nature”- as hubris. Instead, they argue, the escape from “natural limits” is a dangerous illusion.
Most mainstream environmentalism including the Green parties of Europe and the US tend towards this view.

Now we look at those who support conservationism and environmental protection in various guises, but who see this as best happening in the context of modern industrial society which should continue to use human ingenuity and technology to solve environmental problems without a wholesale abandonment of modernity:

Eco-Pragmatists:

Sometimes also known as “neo-Greens”;
Mark Lynas
The myth of Easter Island’s Ecocide

In this article, Lynas points to recent research suggesting Diamond (above) was wrong to point to Easter Island as a metaphor for ecological over-shoot and collapse.
Lynas falls between the two ends of the spectrum as he also has very dark views of potential climate apocalypse (viz his 2006 book “Six Degrees” and more recent “The God Species” about planetary boundaries.)

Other thinkers are less concerned about any concept of absolute boundaries.

Eco-pragmatists believe technology can really help the environment- indeed, it is unethical in the extreme to abandon the poor, and they see bringing the rest of humanity out of poverty to be the number one priority. As people become wealthier they naturally take more care of the environment and reduce family size;
See Maslow
Advanced technologies like nuclear power and genetic engineering are cleaner and can both feed and bring energy to the world and help solve some of the problems of earlier technology; “Nature” is something to conserve, but not something we should be aiming to return to.

James Lovelock

The maverick scientist is the hardest of anyone on this list to categorise- on the one hand, his Gaia hypothesis inspired a generation of Deep Ecologists, and also the broader environmental movement, to think differently about the planet; on the other hand he has in recent years made a dramatic turn-around from stating climate change will result in the end of humanity, to “noone really knows” and advocating technofixes including fracking, nuclear power and the geo-engineering.

Hans Rosling Population Growth
TED Talks: Global Population Growth

Rosling shows how development and the demographic transition is leading to a reduction in fertility rates and decline in population growth rates, which is happening all over the world more rapidly than expected.
Essential viewing: The Magic Washing Machine

Emma Marris Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World

Fascinating look at changing perspectives in ecology and conservation in a world where very little if any “nature” that hasn’t been modified by humans remains.

Peter Kareiva, Chief Scientist at the Nature Conservancy.
In this talk, Kareiva takes issue with the romantic notions of Nature of Thoreau and Edward Abbey.
Failed Metaphors and a New Environmentalism for the 21st Century

Stewart Brand Whole Earth Discipline

We are as Gods – and must get good at it.

Brand, one of the founders of the environmental movement and a pioneer in permaculture and appropriate technology in the ‘60s, discusses 4 Environmental Heresies:
-cities are green
-nuclear power is green
-genetic engineering is green
-geo-engineering is probably necessary to tackle climate change.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger and the Breakthrough Institute: The Death of Environmentalism
-a Key article from critics of the mainstream environmental movement

Norberg and Shellenberger reject the idea that it is human population and overall human impact that is the problem, instead embracing enlightenment values, seeing technology and human progress the key to solving climate change and other environmental issues.

Daniel Botkin Botkin challenges the “Balance of Nature” narrative in Darker Green Environmentalism

Matt Ridley The Rational Optimist

To go back to Nature would be a disaster- for Nature

Self-sufficiency is poverty.

TED talk: When Ideas Have Sex

Ridley believes human beings became the dominant species through innovation, specialization and trade, aided by our unique ability to communicate through language;
the “optimist” in his book’s title places him further towards the “upwing” of the spectrum, believing that technological innovation can continue to improve life for humans, overcoming environmental problems;
unlike most of the previous writers, he is controversial and outspoken on climate change, believing it to be less of a threat than the Darker Greens.

Bjorn Lomborg
The Skeptical Environmentalist 2001
Cool It! 2011 Book and Film

key article: Lomborg Explains how to Save the Planet

How we live today is clearly unsustainable. Why history proves that is completely irrelevant.

Lomborg was influenced by Julian Simon (d.1998)

In The Ultimate Resource (1981) Simon argued that human innovation and economic forces would always overcome apparent or temporary resource limits, as in the saying ”The stone-age didn’t run out because we ran out of stones”- in other words, we will always be able to find better substitutes long before a resource actually expires.
Lomborg continues to be skeptical of the more doom-ridden end of the spectrum, and in particular, while accepting that man-made climate change is a problem, believes the mainstream policy response is all wrong, and the key is once again technological innovation- we cannot move away from fossil fuels until we have a cleaner alternative that is also cheaper- and in the meantime there are far more pressing human and environmental problems we should be spending our money on solving.

Patrick Moore Confessions of a Greenpeace Dropout 2010
http://www.greenspirit.com/index.cfm

Pure science made me a Greenpeace drop-out.

Moore believes much of the “Dark Green” environmental movement had become irrational and reactionary and anti-science.
More than other “eco-pragmatists” mentioned, Moore is skeptical of the science behind man-made climate change, tending to argue that CO2 plays little if any role in warming the planet, and is certainly not a risk.

At the extreme end- Promethean Greens
Believe technology and human innovation will ultimately lead to a better environment- there is no “Nature”- only what humans decide will remain;
Even asteroid-mining or deep space travel will be possible eventually;
Transhumanism– human-computer link-ups; nano-technology; and even eternal life after the Singularity is reached and life-expectancy advances faster than real time.
Eg Jacques Fresco’s The Venus Project
See Mark Stevenson An Optimists’ Tour of the Future for an entertaining survey of future technologies that may not be that far off.

As mentioned in my intro above, in his 2014 book The Pro-actionary Imperative Professor Steve Fuller takes issue with the dominant Left-Right dichotomy, instead positing “Down-wingers” (anarchist Deep Ecologists and Conservatives) and “Up-wingers” (Marxists and Libertarians). He himself advocates Transhumanism as a political strategy, embraces technological fixes- but, in sharp contrast to the more secular/atheist tendencies of other Prometheans, this emerges from his Christian belief that God made us in his image ie our destiny therefore is to literally become As Gods, and not just metaphorically as per Stewart Brand. Successful risk-taking is what has made us human, and the last thing we want to is allow the Dark Greens to slow this down.

***

So there you have it. Let me know if you think there are any major omissions. In truth, we are all environmentalists– once we have sufficient wealth and security to worry about things beyond our immediate survival.

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.

The Cult of Perma

Most thinking people would agree that we have arrived at final and irrevocable decisions that will abolish or sustain life on earth. We can either ignore the madness of uncontrolled industrial growth and defence spending that is in small bites, or larger catastrophes, eroding life forms every day, or take the path to life and survival.

-Bill Mollison Permaculture- A Designers’ Manual 1988

Permaculture is notoriously hard to define. A recent survey shows that people simultaneously believe it is a design approach, a philosophy, a movement, and a set of practices. This broad and contradiction-laden brush doesn’t just make permaculture hard to describe. It can be off-putting, too. Let’s say you first encounter permaculture as a potent method of food production and are just starting to grasp that it is more than that, when someone tells you that it also includes goddess spirituality, and anti-GMO activism, and barefoot living. What would you make of that?

-Toby Hemenway What Permaculture Isn’t- and Is

Permies just don’t do numbers

-Peter Harper The Big Rock Candy Mountain 2013

Peter Harper of the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales wrote a fascinating critique of the permaculture movement earlier this year which appeared in The Land magazine. This was a follow-up to an earlier article from 1997 called Cleaning out the Stables.

What is significant about Harper is that he is an insider:

I have been in the ‘alternative’ tribe all my life. I am acquainted with the permaculture literature, did the 72-hour course nearly 20 years ago, contributed to the Permaculture Teachers’ Handbook, and personally know many of the luminaries of the movement.

Indeed, Harper already took a very different view from the majority of permaculture practitioners in the Teachers Handbook by pointing out that, if your goal was reducing dependency on fossil fuels- one of the core aims of the general sustainability movement- you would do better to focus on insulation and getting rid of the car rather than the main preoccupation of growing one’s own food, which accounts for a relatively small proportion of our carbon footprint.

So what is Permaculture then?

As should be clear from the above quote from the beginning of  Bill Mollison’s seminal Designer’s Manual, “Permaculture”- a corruption of “Permanent Agri-Culture” – came in on the back of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb and the 1972 Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth. The world is on an unsustainable path which can only end badly unless we radically change direction. Peak Oil and Climate change, combined with loss of topsoil, fresh water and biodiversity, will mean imminent doom for humanity and the biosphere unless we revert to a much simpler life-style, running only off the ambient solar interest that accumulates through biological processes each day, rather than delving ever deeper into the Earth’s precious capital stores of fossil energy and other non-renewable resources. I think it is critical to understand this: without a Malthussian understanding of the world and a deeply conservative ethic that resists economic development and idealizes both the natural and the traditional, permaculture could never have come into existence.

Farming in particular was deemed to be in need of change. Rather than exterminating the forests and using chemical fertlisers and waging war on Nature with pesticides to grow our food, Permaculture would provide a design system that allowed us how to do things more in tune with natural rhythms and lead us to a gentler and more sustainable way of life. By closely observing natural eco-systems, in particular forests, we would be able to replace unsustainable resource use with small-scale systems that could sustain us without growth into the future.

Often defined as “sustainable design based on natural systems” it began in the late 1970s as a response to the excesses of industrial agriculture, advocating much more use of trees and perennials planted in polycultures as food crops, use of elements of a system in all their functions, and an emphasis on recycling, water harvesting from rooftops and also from swales, water catchment channels cut along the contours of the land; and “intermediate” technology such as small-scale renewables and low-tech DIY devices which might include for example compost toilets and pedal-powered washing machines.

But here already we hit the first obstacle, not a speed-bump, but a brick wall: Permaculture’s embrace of “design-by-nature” is an oxymoron, and the beginning and end of the concept is based on the naturalistic fallacy, as Harper points out in Cleaning out the Stables:

It is undeniable that natural ecosystems are sustainable: because they are still there after several billion years! Then why don’t we keep them? The answer comes as a great shock to the biologically naive: because in human terms, nearly all natural ecosystems are hopelessly unproductive. They just do not produce the accessible calories (principally as starch) to support large populations. And they don’t produce much accessible protein either: mostly they produce cellulose, largely in the form of wood. So contrary to common PC lore, Nature has to be tweaked to improve productivity, usually a lot, even beyond recognition. And ‘using nature as a model for design’ is not to be taken literally; in fact it is so easily mis-construed that I would withdraw it as a basic design precept for beginners.

Peter Harper’s critiques deal a knock-out punch: permaculture doesnt work. While claiming to be developing pockets of intelligent “natural” design which act as prototypes for an alternative to the modern industrial world, the permaculture movement lives in the fantasy world of Big Rock Candy Mountain:

Harper describes how he was first attracted to permaculture as an elegant system of passive design, constructing systems for rain-water harvesting for example that would get nature to do the work for you with very little maintenance required afterwards. He expected these ideas to be thoroughly tested in the field- as would happen in “normal” engineering- and the good ideas kept and refined while the bad would be thrown out.

OK then, so here we are waiting for all these new ideas and eager to put them to the test. What we got was more like a cult…..

“A cynic would say this lack of quantitative testing is not accidental, because it might reveal that many favourite notions are false, or at least not what they are cracked up to be. Most people attracted to Permaculture are young, dreamy idealists looking for some kind of system to structure their activities and impart meaning. It does not matter much whether things ‘work’ because you are not obliged to depend on them. It is their symbolic value that counts. I have encountered numerous ‘permaculture gardens’ with abysmal levels of productivity that have nevertheless persuaded their creators that they are virtually self-sufficient in food. A few measurements and numbers would quickly dispel this illusion, but Permies just don’t do numbers.

This reluctance of permaculture advocates to actually test any of their ideas along the lines of the scientific method was brought home to me two years ago on a visit to the Bullock Brothers Permaculture Homestead in Washington State.

Permies dont do numbers... Doug Bullock on Orcas Island, WA. 2011

Permies dont do numbers… Doug Bullock on Orcas Island, WA. 2011

Addressing a class of permaculture design students, Doug Bullock explained how they were sometimes visited by “researchers” who, inspired by the concepts of alternative farming they were demonstrating, wanted to live with them and study their systems and record inputs and outputs and collect data to “prove” that permaculture worked: Doug waved them away- “we are just not interested- that’s not what it’s about.”

Harper proposes a distinction between “smart permaculture”- which does want testable hypothesis but is more like an “immature academic subject”- and  “cult permaculture” which is more visionary and cultish and includes magic. He suggests that while the charismatic but temperamental Mollison is more in the second camp, the more cerebral and analytic of the two co-founders, David Holmgren, would be in the first. I find this a curious oversight, because as I have shown in my last blog post on permaculture, Mollison is in fact the rational skeptic, with Holmgren the awkward purveyor of metaphysics,  biodynamics and Mother Earth religion, despite their very obvious contrasting styles which might suggest otherwise.

And where, really, is this careful measurement to be found anywhere in permaculture? I am personally skeptical that the “smart” permaculture exists at all: I see little if any data collected by either Holmgren or Harper, at least on agricultural yields for example. Permaculture advocates tree crops, perennials and complex (and hard to maintain) polycultures over the vast monocultures of high-yielding industrial farming. Of the one example of a comparative study being done that Harper refers to, at Schumacher college, he comments

“Too early for results yet, but the permaculture movement should have done all this thirty years ago. Why didn’t it?

but then immediately points out its redundancy (it was surely redundant even 30 years ago):

“From long experience I can tell you what the results will be: the ‘forest garden’ will turn out to be a low-input/low-output system, while the standard horticultural plot will be a high-input/ high-output system.

This is the crux of the matter: any measurement or controlled studies that the permaculture movement might conduct itself will only be re-inventing the wheel and will hardly be able to add anything significant to the body of agronomic science we already have. Just as “alternative medicine” that works is just  called “medicine” so anything that could be shown to work in what is called “permaculture” is simply “good farming”, “good design” or “good engineering”.

A recent article in the UK Permaculture Magazine by Chris Warburton Brown addresses this issue of “permaculture science”, finding not surprisingly that there is very little; but while Brown lists various criteria for what such a science would look like, he fails to define permaculture in any way that could actually lead to testable hypotheses, and seems to see this as more of a problem of science, which is not “holistic” enough for the complexity of permaculture. While he acknowledges that merely quoting results that support your original hypothesis would not pass for science, Brown’s whole article is based on an explicit assumption that permaculture really does have something distinctive to offer, and that this is indeed provable: there is no suggestion that maybe it should be shelved as a failed hypothesis. Brown discusses the difficulty of measuring multiple yields- rather than just comparing the yield of fields of wheat grown in different ways- but resists the obvious conclusion of Harper that anyone familiar with farming would already know- industrial-scale monoculture is much more productive.

“Yields are also subjective” he says: “a grower might consider one sack of fruit from an apple tree with no labour a higher yield than two sacks from a tree that was pruned, cultivated and fed. Inputs of time, labour, fertiliser etc. need to be considered alongside yields.”

What is missing here is obviously that there is a hierarchy of yields. Even one apple might be valued more than a ton of apples if it brings a smile to a child’s face; but what value is that smile as a “yield” if the child goes to bed hungry? If you need to pay the bills and earn a living as a farmer, your higher apple yields are all-important; if you are hungry, or live in a country blighted by hunger, the total amount of food you get today- and every day- trumps any feel-good factor of “being holistic”. Happiness and job satisfaction come second after a full belly, every time.

This is explained by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which does in fact form part of the Permaculture Design Course curriculum- but is another example of permaculture completely ignoring its own teachings, even when they are valid. Permaculture attracts a middle-class hippy-peasant chic  that seems obsessed with the belief that poor people are happier, that this modern concern with actual, measurable yields and wealth is the whole problem. Instead, meeting physical needs is seen as somehow dirty and base compared with narcissistic aspirations of spiritual purity and “well-being”.

Just as Bretharians- who claim to survive on pure prana and need no food at all- invariably turn out to have a fridge full of sausages, so permaculture uses wishful thinking and Good Intentions to hide the fact that its own larder is very sparse indeed, and even the most successful permaculturalist will also avail of industrial food, diesel for the car and even the occasional international flight to attend conferences. In common with its close sister Organic farming, permaculture is really just the icing on the cake of industrial farming, a fossil-fuelled smoke-and-mirrors that feeds on industrial society all the while it claims to be replacing it.

Of course there are costs and benefits, inputs and outputs: in the real world, outside Big Rock Candy Mountain, these issues are commonly dealt with under “accounting”, something which from reading Brown’s article you get the impression is as yet unknown within the permaculture community but which, should it be stumbled upon,  will be trumpeted as a discovery to rival that of the Higgs Boson.

From Brown’s article again:

Preparing content for the Permaculture Digest, I have found little of use to the permaculture community in conventional plant science literature. Because research papers are expected to show strong statistical significance, work has become lab-based, not field-based. Moreover, in order to avoid complexity “contaminating” the results, there is an emphasis on the smallest units of analysis: genes, microbes, chemicals. This boosts conventional crop yields, but inevitably leads to interventions at a microscopic level and to GM crops.

Shock horror! Genes and chemicals just sound so… unholistic – how could a “permaculture science” ever embrace such things? And note the unquestioned assumption that this kind of “reductionist” science leading to GMOs just has to be bad- see the Toby Hemenway quote at the start of the post. Brown effectively acknowledges that permaculture is a political ideology, yet cannot join the dots to see that it cannot therefore be a science.

The strong link between permaculture and the reactionary anti-GMO movement is only too obvious to anyone who reads Permaculture Magazine, which campaigns actively on behalf of Vandana Shiva. Noone within the permaculture movement seems to have noticed that, given the challenges of keeping yields high in forest gardens while promoting biodiversity, and the much longer time-scales required to breed more suitable varieties of perennials and woody shrubs,  genetic engineering should be seized upon as a great ally of permaculture. See for example the work being done to resurrect the American Chestnut, something that could not be done with traditional plant-breeding methods.

One of the few scientists to take a critical look at permaculture is Dr. Linda Chalker-SCott of the Washington State University’s Extension Urban Horticulture department. She examines Toby Hemenway’s  book Gaia’s Garden and finds it lacking in rigorous science on a number of counts:

-his advocacy of invasive species such as bamboo, with scant regard for the ecological problems that can be casued by invasive species; (see Part 1: Permaculture- Beginning a Discussion;)
(Holmgren also has a controversial take on this issue, strongly advocating the work of Theodoropoulos, which is generally considered pseudoscience.)

-pseudoscientific advocacy of “companion planting”, “mineral accumulators” including the use of some poisonous and noxious weeds; (Part 2, Permaculture- the discussion continues;)

-another permaculture favourite, sheet-mulching with cardboard- this creates an impermeable layer at the soil level which tends to lead to anaerobic conditions; (Part 3- More Concerns);

-the expropriation of scientific concepts and words and re-defining them for use in permaculture; and failure to draw on the existing scientific literature, instead relying on grey literature and pseudoscience throughout (Part 4- Final Thoughts).

How can there ever be a “scientific permaculture” when many of the movement’s leading figures themselves seem influenced by pseudoscience, and apparently unaware of the real body of scientific knowledge in these areas?

Despite the laudable and as far as I know unique attempt by the Australian Permaculture Research Institute to have a teacher’s registery to restrict pseudoscience in permaculture, the movement will never be able to extract itself from the end-of-days religion of the wider environmental movement that it was sired from. Without resource depletion and Limits to Growth thinking, permaculture simply has no meaning at all. It is curious that Harper, for all his insights into how the movement deludes itself and is all fluff and no substance, still feels it has value and can be salvaged.

Permaculture then is a broad church and Harper is correct to say there are many permacultures; nevertheless it is inescapable that permaculture as a political movement fits snugly alongside broader conservative environmentalism, with its mixture of elitist traditionalism and eco-fascism, closely associated with New Age spirituality, anti-science and pseudo-science, the quackery of the Organics movement and “alternative” therapies, middle-class health-food obsessions and quasi-religious misanthropic convictions about the purity of Nature and the Fallen-ness of Mankind.

At the end of the day though, once you strip away the pseudo-science, the Sky-is-Falling doomerism and the feel-good idealism of living in barefoot communes and growing your own food all you are left with is the Cult of Perma.

Peak Snake Oil: Richard Heinberg and his predictions

Peak Oil guru Richard Heinberg has a new book out on fracking: Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future.

Disclaimer: I have not read it, and, while curious, have no plans to in the near future, so am basing this on a couple of reviews.

I have however read some of his other books, notably The Party’s Over (2003) and Powerdown (2004), two of the most influential books of the Peak Oil movement from the past decade or so.

Apparently, Heinberg argues in his latest offering that shale gas- which has gone from zero to supplying 40% of US gas in the past 10 years -is just hype, a bubble that will burst soon, leaving society worse off (because of increasing dependence on fossil fuels and consequent climate change) than if we had never exploited it in the first place.

Let’s see what he said about fracking in his earlier books:

Nothing. Not a word. There is no mention in either about the potential of shale gas. Heinberg, who is now predicting the imminent demise of shale gas, completely missed the biggest shake up in the energy world since nuclear power, even as it emerged at the very same time he was writing his predictions of the collapse of industrial society due to peak oil (shale gas started to become economic in the US in 2003, the same year The Party’s Over was published).

In The Party’s Over Heinberg writes:

US natural gas production has been in decline for years….
The public got its first hint of a natural gas supply problem in the latter months of 2000, when the wellhead price shot up by 400%. This was a more dramatic energy price increase than even the oil spikes of the 1970s…
There are disturbing signs that rates of natural gas extraction in North America will soon start on an inexorable downhill slope perhaps within a few months or at most a few years. When that happens we may well see a fairly rapid crash in production rather than the slow ramp-down anticipated for oil.

(Emphasis added.)

In Powerdown, published the following year, he writes:

Nevertheless, while nearly everyone is upset about the shortages and high prices, it is surprising how seldom one hears or reads the word that most clearly sums up the cause of the dilemma- depletion.
The nub of the issue is that North America has passed its peak in natural gas production. US production peaked in 1971, but the country managed to maintain a fairly flat production curve until the end of the 1990s by steeply increasing investment in exploration and recovery. By 2002, the US was importing 15% of its gas from Canada; meanwhile, Mexico- which had been exporting gas north of the border- had begun importing gas from the US. In 2003 it became clear that Canada’s production was also in decline.

Instead of these dire apocalyptic predictions, the advent of shale gas in the US lead to a collapse in prices, a surge in production and now serious plans to invest huge sums to retrofit LNG import terminals to be used for export.

Not only that, but the 1971 peak in production has now been exceeded, apparently in defiance of the Peak-Oil Laws of Gravity:

File:US Natural Gas Production.svg

Does shale gas involve huge investment, thousands of wells, environmental costs and dislocation of communities? Absolutely, yes all of these things (though mainly hugely exaggerated by activists)- but so does any extractive industry have a cost. For the most part, the benefits of cheap energy outweigh the problems; gas is a low-carbon fossil fuel and, unlike wind and solar, energy-dense enough to deliver energy where it is needed and displace coal and even oil in transport (Liquified Natural gas) as is happening in some US cities where buses are being converted to run on LNG.

According to this review, which claims the book is “unbiased”, Heinberg has now revised his predictions of Peak Gas production in the US-

The evidence shows that in less than 50 years, shale gas will peak and the decline will be quick and dramatic, leaving society unprepared.

Fifty years is a looooong time in the world of energy. The shale revolution- new techniques of high-pressure fracking combined with multiple horizontal drilling- blew Heinberg’s earlier predictions out of the water, rendering them obsolete even as he was publishing his Tomes of Doom. Now he is being more cautious it seems, leaving plenty of time to publish many more failed predictions before being proved so spectacularly wrong again.

Over the next 50 years, we can surely expect further improvements in drilling technology, allowing the access to even larger volumes of gas hitherto considered too expensive or inaccessible. The Japanese are even seriously expecting commercial production of methane hydrates from the sea floor around their coasts  within just 10 years.

We can also expect of course developments in nuclear power, and yes renewables as well over that time scale. What is not likely to happen is that the world will sit back and twiddle its thumbs while draining the last of its currently recoverable resources.

This is how the world works: far from the Peak Oil view of a bucket of known resources being drained by more and more straws sucking them out, the size of the bucket is unknown and continually expands with new technology.

Will Richard Heinberg ever learn?

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.

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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.

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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).

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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

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Earth Hour: We will Never Give up our Energy Slaves

One of the good things about the Peak Oil movement is to highlight just how much work and benefit fossil fuels have actually done for us. It has been calculated for example that a barrel of oil is equivalent to something around 25,000 hours of human-muscle power or manual labour; at 60 barrles of oil consumption per year, the average American has anything then from 60-450 “energy slaves” working around the clock for them, providing lighting, heating, food, transport and entertainment, not to mention health care and art and other cultural exploits.

This reality of modern life was brought home most effectively in a TV show a couple of years ago in which, unbeknownst to the residents, a family house was run for a week literally by a gym full of pedal-powered dynamos- including the “Human Power Shower”:

What is odd then is how this emancipation from drudgery that fossil fuels have given us is often decried as more of a curse than a blessing. Peak oil guru Richard Heinberg for example quotes Nikiforuk’s new book (which I have not read) The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude:

The energy in oil effectively replaces human labor; as a result, each North American enjoys the services of roughly 150 “energy slaves.” But, according to Nikiforuk, that means that burning oil makes us slave masters—and slave masters all tend to mimic the same attitudes and behaviors, including contempt, arrogance, and impunity. As power addicts, we become both less sociable and easier to manipulate.

This would seem to be a classic example of retro-romantic thinking- the conviction that things are not perfect now so they must have been much better in the past- thinly disguised as concern about “dependency” on or even “addiction” to oil and technology, which is apparently a much bigger worry than the vaguaries of nature that under “normal” times would cut us down in our prime and steal our children by the sack-full; a kind of miserabalist negative thinking, where nothing good can come of progress, which is sure to end badly, perhaps even worse than if we had not bothered in the first place.

Peak oil of course is all about the problems that will face us if we “run out” of these energy slaves- and is often explained in rhetorical language as if to say, how stupid we humans are! we think we are improving our lives by exploiting these non-renewable resources but it will be all the worse for us in the long run! We should have just stayed in the caves! In fact, however counter-intuitive it may seem, human ingenuity and continuing advances in science and technology mean that we are running into resources rather than running out.

Add in an unhealthy dose of guilt about having it better than many who do not yet benefit from the stupendous gains of the last couple of centuries and you have…

Earth Hour. That is tonight, 8.30-9.30 pm when we are supposed to turn the lights off for an hour in what has become according to Andy Ridley, CEO & Co-Founder of Earth Hour, the world’s largest mass-participation event, with 7000 cities and 152 countries involved around the world.

“We didnt start this to turn the lights off, but to do something much much bigger.” says Ridley at the Earth Hour Global Media Launch last month, but I wonder if he was even dimly aware of the irony in his next sentence:

We wanted this to be about hope, not about fear… the digital revolution has meant that we are undoubtedly the first generation in history that has the power to connect behind a common purpose, the empowerment of communities…

The digital revolution powered by…. the very fossil fuels that are causing global warming and environmental destruction that Earth Hour is supposedly campaigning against.

More than that, as Lomborg points out, turning the lights out for an hour will do nothing to reduce CO2 emissions, and if you light candles instead – or drive any distance to Earth Hour events -you will in fact cause more pollution.

Tom Zeller disagrees: why does Lomborg takes pot-shots at a “relatively benign awareness campaign like Earth Hour?” Precisely because it has indeed grown so large and influential and really does give out the wrong message- that the changes being called for in the name of solving climate change will be benign fun things like going to a fire-juggling event, or that we really should be feeling guilty about deriving better lives from the use of fossil fuels.

So I will not be participating in Earth Hour, or driving to the local event. As someone who lives off-grid on solar pv, turning out the lights would be quite redundant: in this sunless country and in this year of apparently never-ending winter, the solar panels do very little in any case and I will in fact be running a petrol generator to finish writing this and cook my dinner. (Not for much longer- I have applied for a grid connection and will soon be joining 21st century with a secure power supply.)

Instead, we should be celebrating human ingenuity and working together to ensure abundant power and electricity become available for the rest of the planet’s 1.3 billion. The Earth Hour people would do well to mull over the lessons of the peak-oilers as they sit by candle-light tonight, but be careful to draw the opposite conclusions: we will never give up our energy slaves, it is they that banished real slavery, not to mention the slavery of women in the home, and these are gains that we really should not trivialize and that we should ensure above all else are never reversed.