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.

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.

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?

Who is the Most anti-Science of Them All?

A fascinating debate was recently aired by the Canadian public affairs program The Agenda With Steve Paikin featuring Michael Shermer, Chris Mooney and Mark Lynas.

The topic under discussion was whether the charge of being “anti-science” was just as valid for the Left as for the Right.

Shermer, a libertarian skeptic thinks yes- there is Liberal War on Science; Mooney, author of The Republican Brain, disagrees. In a strongly entitled piece for Mother Jones There is no such Thing as a Liberal War on Science he argues that although liberals and the Left certainly reject science on specific topics such as vaccines and GMOs, these positions have been marginalised by the mainstream Left/Liberal political establishment, while on the Right, “Republicans today are majority creationist (58 percent, according to Gallup) and majority climate denier.”

As Lynas says, the political spectrum is not clearly divided along these lines in Europe; the alignment of the US Republican Party with creationist religion does not really have a parallel here, so while there are some similarities, this discussion is no doubt colored by my Euro-centric bias.

Mooney goes on to say

polls alone don’t tell enough of the story. Evolution denial and climate denial on the right are much more politically problematic—because conservatives, not liberals, are going around trying to force these wrongheaded views on children in schools. Oh, and by the way: By denying global warming, they also jeopardize the planet and the well-being of humanity. In my view, not all wrong beliefs are equally harmful—rather, wrong beliefs are harmful in proportion to their bad consequences.

There is a couple of things wrong with this position I think, as Mooney fails to distinguish between very different kinds of scientific issues, and their policy implications.

Firstly, the issue of conservatives trying to force “anti-science” views on schoolchildren made me think immediately of an instance of this from the Left: Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth was incorporated into the school curriculum in the UK, leading to a court action by a concerned parent. The judge upheld the complaint that the film contained many scientific inaccuracies, including that

The film said a sea-level rise of up to 20ft would be caused by melting of either west Antarctica or Greenland in the near future; the judge ruled that this was “distinctly alarmist”

I am not suggesting that this is directly comparable to teaching creationism or denying evolution; on the other hand, it seems inescapable that this is indeed an example of politics masquerading as science, and as such its placing in schools in this way is highly questionable. There is no scientific debate about evolution vs Intelligent Design, but to pretend that everything about man-made global warming is “settled science” – including what to do about it (Gore’s film implies that changing your lightbulbs might be an appropriate response to ensuring Manhattan is not inundated with sea water) is itself political.

(Ironically, Shermer used to question climate science himself, and cites An Inconvenient Truth as one of the influences that made him change his mind.)

Secondly, Mooney does not really address Shermer’s point that Republicans only reject science on these specific topics because they conflict with specific beliefs they have. While Creationism is a core belief of many right-wing Christians, and climate change skepticism a reaction to what they see as a ruse to impose more government regulation on every aspect of their lives, they do not take an “anti-science” position per se.

On the Left however, despite scientists and academics being overwhelmingly liberal themselves as both Mooney and Shermer agree, there tends to be an underlying current of suspicion of science in and of itself. The liberal mind wants purity of nature and purity of their bodies, and is prone to suffer excruciatingly from the naturalistic fallacy; they are more likely to be anti-technology which they distrust as leading to yet more environmental destruction and an aspect of increased corporate control- even when being introduced for humanitarian reasons as with Golden Rice.

This callousness of progressive activists towards the poor who really need access to better technology also calls into question Mooney’s claim that they are motivated emotionally by sticking up for the underdog and fighting against injustice: all too often, the main priority seems to be just to kick “science” or “technology” or “corporations” where it hurts, and to hell with the poor (who, let’s face it, are much happier anyway just being poor).

Mooney points to research showing that the trust in science has declined precipitously in recent years- but I am just wondering whether this itself can be partly explained by the clear liberal bias amongst scientists and scientific institutions- particularly when they are seen, rightly or wrongly, to promote left-wing policy responses to complex scientific issues like climate change. Of course, this is often translated into a suspicion of the basic science of CO2 as a greenhouse gas, but there is no reason for the Right (or anyone) to have particular position on this but for the implications of left-wing policies being promoted as to remedy the situation: as I say, questioning CO2 as a greenhouse gas is not a core belief in and of itself for the religious right in the same way creationism is- it is purely a reaction to the policies of the Left.

I am not defending the misrepresentation of science by any side in this- merely pointing out that Mooney is misreading the context and mis-diagnosing the underlying causes.

What about Mooney’s contention that “wrong beliefs are harmful in proportion to their bad consequences”? He claims that opposing the “science” of climate change will lead to a “global disaster that we are going to regret for all time- so how could it be bigger than that?” This seems to be an ideologically loaded statement that is a far remove from the “consensus science” on global warming, which can only give us different scenarios of how much warming based on different emissions trajectories, none of which there is any great certainty about as Mooney is implying. He seems to have slipped seamlessly from the science of CO2 as a warming gas and that humans are contributing to warming, to just the kind of alarmist rhetoric that Gore was guilty of.

The fact is, we don’t know what to do about global warming, or at least the solutions offered seem themselves to be split down political lines: on the one hand, more government regulation and the creation of powerful supra-national organisations which can usurp national governments’ ability to determine their own energy policy;
on the other hand, the potential for technological innovation to move much faster at reducing emissions than treaties have been able to, as we are seeing with the failure of Kyoto and the success of shale gas in the US.

A good example of this is the Keystone XL pipeline which has been a figure-head for “climate action” recently, but which has no real bearing on climate change regardless of whether you “deny” or “accept” the consensus scientific position.

This is what happens constantly in the climate debate which renders such discussions about who the the most anti-science fairly redundant: the science quickly merges into questionable policies or activist causes; question the policy, you become a “science denier”.

So it seems to me highly questionable- and certainly not scientific- for Mooney to suggest that “science denial” to the extent that it does exists on the Right can really be blamed for putative future global catastrophe; claiming certainty that the science is wrong for political reasons is of course damaging, but in this case we simply don’t know precisely what the correct course of action will be and we have to weigh it up against other considerations including the obvious need to keep the lights on and warm our homes.

It is possible then that thwarting certain liberal policies on climate could actually turn out to be the best thing to do- even if for entirely the wrong reasons.

Compared with the damage already done by opposing GE crops the damage done by questioning climate science, even in an extreme way, seems speculative at best, and in fact entirely unknown.

As Shermer points out, the left doesn’t seem to care what the actual solutions to global warming are anyway- which is why a strong contingent of the grassroots at least (whatever about Obama’s stance) is fundamentally opposed to both fracking and nuclear: they just want to impose “more government”, or, as I would prefer to say, they just want their solutions.

I have often argued, and still do, that the Left’s apparent pro-science stance on climate change is really just opportunistic, since they are so anti-science on some of the obvious and most promising solutions.

Mooney is correct that the Left and the Right are promiscuous with the science in different ways- but he just seems to be scoring political points in claiming the Left is worse- a rather obvious trap to fall into when claiming to understand the psychology of the opposition, but not your own.

Green for Me Talk for UCC Enviro Soc

I had an enjoyable evening at the Green for Me event at UCC Environmental Society on Tuesday where I gave a talk along with Dan Boyle of the Green Party and well-known biologist and TV/radio presenter Eanna ni Lamhna as part of their Green Week.

The theme given us for our talks was “My Reasons for Being Green.”

Eanna spoke first, but I had already got into a discussion with her about population as soon as she came into the lecture hall, pointing out that birth rates are declining everywhere, and hurriedly added in a few graphs to prove my point; her own graph was I felt somewhat misleading in that it showed only the dramatic population expansion of the past hundred years, without any context or explanation that this phase finished some 20 years ago.

Update: As Patrick Hayes writes here in response to David Attenborough’s recent Malthusian remarks, even sub-Saharan Africa has seen a massive drop in birthrates:

But as Slate has observed, it’s not just the most developed nations: ‘From 1960 to 2009, Mexico’s fertility rate tumbled from 7.3 live births per woman to 2.4, India’s dropped from six to 2.5, and Brazil’s fell from 6.15 to 1.9. Even in sub-Saharan Africa, where the average birthrate remains a relatively blistering 4.66, fertility is projected to fall below replacement level by the 2070s.’

All of which is bad news for Attenborough and his Malthusian ilk, as it reveals that what lurks behind their doom-mongering is prejudice rather than fact. That becomes increasingly evident when you hear headline-generating comments, such as those Attenborough made recently to the Radio Times: ‘We keep putting on programmes about famine in Ethiopia; that’s what’s happening. Too many people there. They can’t support themselves – and it’s not an inhuman thing to say. It’s the case.’

Too many people in Ethiopia? This is a country which, according to the World Bank, has a mere 83 people per square kilometre. This is the same as Serbia, and there aren’t mass starvations there. At 196 people per square kilometre, Switzerland has a far higher population density than Ethopia, but people aren’t starving there. Nor in Japan, where there are 350 people per square kilometre, or the Netherlands, which has 493 people per square kilometre.

She then went on to talk about climate change and supported the issues around this with two more rather misleading slides, one of polar bears and one of deserts. Polar bears are of course the poster child of climate change and have been used to very good propaganda effects since before Al Gore; but the reality seems very different- many polar bear populations are increasing, they seem remarkably adaptable to declining sea ice.
A much greater threat to bears in the Arctic than global warming is hunting.

So bears polar bears are probably an eye-catching but bad example of the effects of climate change- so far at least. Similarly, desertification also is more complex than just laying it at the feet of CO2 emissions- de-forestsation from human activity being another obvious cause, with underlying poverty often being the problem.

Eanna then wnet onto talk about renewable energy- “we have very little renewable energy- and yet the wind blows all the time!” Yes, it’s a no-brainer: humans, especially Irish humans in a country that has been hailed as the Saudi Arabia of wind- choose to use Polar-Bear murdering fossil fuels when they could just switch to clean wind.

Unfortunately, one of the major draw-backs with wind is that it does not in fact blow all the time even in Ireland, as anyone who has lived off-grid with wind-power as I have done in the past will tell you: plenty of calm still “soft” days Ireland where you get effectively no power from wind, no matter how many turbines you might have.

Even a super-grid covering the whole of Europe would not solve the problem– there is really quite dramatic indetermittency issues Europe-wide as well. For this reason, wind can never on its own replace fossil fuels or nuclear, and as another graph of Eanna’s showed quite well, renewables currently only supply a tiny percentage of energy- for well-understood reasons that are more to do with the laws of physics and cost than anything else.

More controversially, Eanna then went onto discuss waste, asking why dont we have have incinerators- a local hot-potato. “You can’t even mention them- they are considered as bad as GMOs!” The last time I had seen Eanna was at the potato day last year in Skibbereen, where she had had done an admirable job of myth-busting about the GE potato trials that started last year.

She then commented that at the protest meetings on incinerators she had been to, at the break about a third of the protestors went out to smoke!

Eanna finished her entertaining talk by admonishing us to eat only food that is in season and plant trees to help combat climate change.

I was up next, and began by staking out my credentials as a back-to-the-lander. While preparing the presentation I had in fact dug up photos of a commune I had lived in in the 1980s on the Welsh borders.

This is a photo of the Earthworm Housing Co-op from 1990, possibly when I was still actually living there.Brings back memories- many of which make me cringe!


I then discussed my involvement with the Peak Oil movement, and how my views had changed as time went on and the expected collapse failed to materialise, and the new energy story became one of the Golden Age of Gas.

I then used Stewart Brand’s Four Environmental Heresies to frame my new perspective on “Being Green.”

-population growth stablising and the world is not over-populated;
-cities are green
-nukes are green
-genetic engineering is green

I then gave a brief explanation of the Environmental Transition- the idea that environmentalism is a product of wealth and industrial growth rather than a reaction to it, and told the story from Shellenberger and Nordhaus’ book Breakthrough about the fires on the Cuyahoga River:cuyahoga_fire650

In June 22nd 1969 Time Magazine showed this photo of burning oil on Cuyahoga River with the caption
“The Price of Optimism” and it became emblematic of start of the US Environmental Movement.

The problem was, the photo was not from the 1969 fire, which has burned out in half-an-hour before the Time photographer could get there- but from an earlier and much more severe fire from 1952. In fact, there had been fires on the Cuyahoga river for a hundred years, some of them burning for days and causing loss of life: but the society had not yet reached a level of wealth and development- which would support universities with Environmental Societies- until much later. Poor people are not generally environmentalists- they have more expressing concerns, but once society has a critical mass of relatively affluent educated people with time on their hands, then industry is compelled to clean up its act.

I concluded my presentation with a quotation from Daniel Botkin’s book The Moon in the Nautilus Shell.:

Our perspective, ironically in this scientific age, depends on ancient myths and deeply buried beliefs. To gain a new view, one necessary to deal with global environmental problems, we must break free of old assumptions and myths about nature and ourselves while building on the scientific and technical advances of the past.

Dan Boyle followed me and began by expressing surprise to find himself having to defend the broad thrust of the environmental movement from the past few decades. He began by emphasising his agreement that Luddism is false, and that greens depend upon science and technology;

but seemed to struggle to hide some exasperation at my reference to Lomborg: “It is NOT the case that you burn your hydrocarbons and then clean up afterwards”- rather missing the point about the environmental transition, because of course that is precisely what the greens have been doing, otherwise we would never have embarked on industrialisation in the first place: the greens would have stopped us!

Dan’s main points seemed to be a bunch of Green Herrings: the supposed rallying cries of “bigger faster more” are the problem; untrield technology is dangerous and we should proceed with greater caution;
while his reference to dangers of the “chemical soup” used in frakking, and from “cross-contamination” from genetic engineering belie his claim to environmentalism being underpinned by science. Not to mention his suggestion that we can have “smaller and more efficient” wind turbines- surely not? To become more efficient, wind turbines can only do one thing: get bigger, due to well-understood laws of physics concerning wind-speed increasing to the square of the altitude/height and rotor span’s ability to collect the diffuse wind energy from a given space.

In the discussion and questions afterwards I was challenged quite strongly on nuclear waste issues, and general “Pandora’s Box” concerns about whether naughty humans should really be trusted with technology.

Dan Boyle made the very good point that at a meeting he had attended recently in the midlands concerning the proposed giant wind farm there, anti-wind activists used the same rhetoric and alarmism used by the anti-nuclear lobby, even including the threat of radiation- from wind turbines!

A popular theme seemed to be that rather than constantly striving for more energy sources, we should just use less. “Let’s turn out the lights then!” I said looking up to the ceiling at the dozens of lights that were probably consuming more energy that evening than I would at home in a year. My personal experience of living off the grid was apparently not persuasive however, and when I pointed out that there are still a couple of billion people without electricity at all in the world, I was told, “They can just use the Gravity Light!”

“Would you use one?”

“Well, it would be great for an outdoor light or something.”

Indeed it would, and for those without electric lights of any kind, this remarkable invention will surely be a wonderful boon. But for those who think that we can or will do anything other than make cosmetic changes in our energy usage, that “powerdown” can in some way substitute for cheap reliable electricity supply, should contemplate what life might be like if one or two gravity lights is all you ever have as a light supply, for the rest of your lives, ie without development.

Several people came up to me afterwards and thanked me for a thought-provoking perspective, while others took a more conventional green- perspective, concerned more about a presumed loss of contact with Nature, the virtues of the simple life and the insanity of endless growth rather than addressing the concerns of the poor. “We are all too greedy in this country!” proclaimed Eanna at one point.

But as Colin McInnes shows in this award-winning essay, growth is not just a matter of extraction and consumption, but is also about complexity:

While innovation-driven growth has delivered immense improvements to the human condition, it is also the means through which human needs can be gradually decoupled from the environment. Growth emerges from productivity, doing more with less. For example, new additive manufacturing technologies, so-called ‘3D printers’, look set partly to replace the wasteful subtractive manufacturing of machine tools. In contrast, in coming down from our oil high, as advocated by {Richard} Heinberg, we could regress to using whale oil for lighting, as was the case prior to commercial oil production. But this hardly constitutes progress, economic or environmental….

The real worry of Heinberg’s vision of a post-growth world is his straight-faced assertion that ‘there should be [an] increasing requirement for local production and manual labour’. This chilling claim is more Year Zero than zero growth. A return to carbohydrate-fuelled manual labour may be appealing to Heinberg and others as a means of powering down our lives and reconnecting with the land. But he shouldn’t expect a long queue of volunteers.

Maybe not- but he could well expect a long line of green ideologues who have forgotten that their green ideas are only possible because of the benefits brought by the very techno-industrialism that they campaign against.

Science and the Greens

A couple of recent posts continued with the theme I have been writing about in my last few posts, the awkward relationship between environmentalism and science.

Adam Corner and Alice Bell, writing for the New Left Project pick up on the Genetic Engineering/Nuclear issues that have been highlighted so effectively by “Chernobyl-Death-deniers” Mark Lynas and George Monbiot, but appear to add little to the debate, making the usual abstract remarks about the power context in which science takes place, while apparently unaware of the power-context within which environmentalism has emerged.

They stray into dubious territory right from the start when claiming that the Greens have always had a strong affinity with science, and that Green activism is actually rooted in science, evoking Rachel Carson and Julian Huxley:

Like the biologist Julian Huxley’s role in the founding of the WWF the year before, Silent Spring is endemic of the way science’s ability to look carefully at the natural world alerts us to the negative impacts humans have had on  it. To borrow a phrase from sociologist Steven Yearley, there is “elective affinity” between science and the greens, though as Yearley himself would be keen to stress, this doesn’t mean it’s a simple relationship.

Although Carson was right about some things, and played an important role in raising awareness about environmental impacts of farming, she over-egged the pudding and exaggerated on many issues, going well beyond the evidence, and these exaggerations arguably were responsible for chemophobia and radiophobia and the legacy of general alarmism and disregard for the facts -the very subject under discussion.

Julian Huxely is also surely a very bad example, since he was a champion of the then-fashionable “science” of eugenics and set the tone for much environmental thinking since with his concern about over-population, a political stance that is traditionally associated with the Right, not the Left. (For reading on this, see Fred Pearce, PeopleQuake 2010.) Continue Reading

The Perils of Prediction

A couple of weeks ago The Royal Society published a major new report called People and the Planet(pdf),which has drawn a lot of criticism for its apparent commitment to outdated “Limits to Growth” type thinking.

Who can know the future?

As Tim Worstall points out, while there is much to merit in the nuanced analysis of the main report, in the actual discussions of what we should do about both consumption and population,

it appears that we really are running out of “reserves” and that we should hand out condoms to all and sundry. That last isn’t all that surprising, as Jonathan Porritt is part of the team and he’s incapable of saying anything else on the subject.

Indeed, Porritt is not of course a scientist at all, more an activist, and his presence here which does in itself raise serious questions about the integrity of the study, if it means that the science is being mixed up with ideological interpretations and policy recommendations.

Similarly, Mark Lynas argues

Whilst using a lot of dark language about increasing numbers of humans globally, the report nowhere acknowledges that the current median level of total worldwide fertility has fallen dramatically from 5.6 in the 1970s to only 2.4 today. In other words we are already close to natural replacement levels in terms of total fertility – the reason that the absolute population will continue to grow to 9 billion or more is that more children are living long enough have their own children. To my mind a reduction in infant mortality and an increase in life expectancy are self-evidently good and desirable – and their impact on world population levels should be celebrated, not bemoaned.

Lynas goes onto to explain that the main failing of neo-Malthussianism is that it assumes resource consumption is a “zero-sum game”- that there is a finite pie to be shared by an expanding population, with only one possible outcome- not enough pie to go around. While this might be true in an absolute sense, it ignores technological developments which allow economic growth – “qualitative” rather than just “quantitative” growth to continue even as per capita, and ultimately even total impacts may plateau and even decline.

Chris Goodall at Carbon Commentary picks up on this theme by arguing that more resource consumption and growth need not necessarily result in greater impact. He uses the example of waste and rubbish:

Waste production per person in the UK peaked at around 520 kg a year in the year to March 2002. The latest two quarters figures are fifteen per cent below that level. The latest quarterly figures suggest a figure of about 443 kg. The decline from year to year isn’t smooth but is probably getting steeper.

As societies get richer, they become smarter, more eco-conscious and generally have a tendency to clean up our act. Goodall wryly continues

In contrast to what the Royal Society says, growth may be good for the environment. We waste less and are prepared to devote more cash to ecological protection. Technology improvements mean things last longer and use fewer physical resources to make. Regretfully, I have to say that the world’s most prestigious scientific institution should spend more time checking its facts.

Continue Reading