The conundrum of civilisation…..

4 01 2018


By Kim Hill / Deep Green Resistance Australia


Ten things environmentalists need to know about renewable energy:

1.    Solar panels and wind turbines aren’t made out of nothing. They are made out of metals, plastics, chemicals. These products have been mined out of the ground, transported, processed, manufactured. Each stage leaves behind a trail of devastation: habitat destruction, water contamination, colonization, toxic waste, slave labour, greenhouse gas emissions, wars, and corporate profits. Renewables can never replace fossil fuel infrastructure, as they are entirely dependent on it for their existence.

2.    The majority of electricity that is generated by renewables is used in manufacturing, mining, and other industries that are destroying the planet. Even if the generation of electricity were harmless, the consumption certainly isn’t. Every electrical device, in the process of production, leaves behind the same trail of devastation. Living communities—forests, rivers, oceans—become dead commodities.

3.    The aim of converting from conventional power generation to renewables is to maintain the very system that is killing the living world, killing us all, at a rate of 200 species per day. Taking carbon emissions out of the equation doesn’t make it sustainable. This system needs not to be sustained, but stopped.

4.    Humans, and all living beings, get our energy from plants and animals. Only the industrial system needs electricity to survive, and food and habitat for everyone are being sacrificed to feed it. Farmland and forests are being taken over, not just by the infrastructure itself, but by the mines, processing and waste dumping that it entails. Ensuring energy security for industry requires undermining energy security for living beings (that’s us).

5.    Wind turbines and solar panels generate little, if any, net energy (energy returned on energy invested). The amount of energy used in the mining, manufacturing, research and development, transport, installation, maintenance and disposal of these technologies is almost as much—or in some cases more than—they ever produce. Renewables have been described as a laundering scheme: dirty energy goes in, clean energy comes out. (Although this is really beside the point, as no matter how much energy they generate, it doesn’t justify the destruction of the living world.)

6.    Renewable energy subsidies take taxpayer money and give it directly to corporations. Investing in renewables is highly profitable. General Electric, BP, Samsung, and Mitsubishi all profit from renewables, and invest these profits in their other business activities. When environmentalists accept the word of corporations on what is good for the environment, something has gone seriously wrong.

7.    More renewables doesn’t mean less conventional power, or less carbon emissions. It just means more power is being generated overall. Very few coal and gas plants have been taken off line as a result of renewables.

8.    Only 20% of energy used globally is in the form of electricity. The rest is oil and gas. Even if all the world’s electricity could be produced without carbon emissions (which it can’t), it would only reduce total emissions by 20%. And even that would have little impact, as the amount of energy being used globally is increasing exponentially.

9.    Solar panels and wind turbines last around 20-30 years, then need to be disposed of and replaced. The production process, of extracting, polluting, and exploiting, is not something that happens once, but is continuous and expanding.

10.    The emissions reductions that renewables intend to achieve could be easily accomplished by improving the efficiency of existing coal plants, at a much lower cost. This shows that the whole renewables industry is nothing but an exercise in profiteering with no benefits for anyone other than the investors.
Further Reading:

Zehner, Ozzie, Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism,


Originally published on Stories of Creative Ecology



17 responses

4 01 2018
Chris Harries

Perhaps a minor point but 8) is not quite correct. Emissions from energy supply comprise only part of carbon emissions. The rest comes from farting cows and landfill and deforestation and all manner of other sources. So renewables (even if we ignore the ERoEI factor) can only hope to deliver much less than 20 percent of overall carbon emissions.

This is the problem with applying renewable energy technology as THE solution without, first and foremost, addressing the malignancy of our culture.

4 01 2018

There have been ruminants on this planet for a very long time, and I would not be surprised if their total numbers are still roughly the same, just different species……. just think how many elephants were here 200 years ago before we started exterminating them? And they’ve always belched (the farting is not the problem!) and they never altered the climate.

Proper management of ruminents on farms can actually lower C in the atmosphere…

4 01 2018
Chris Harries

I was saying that the problem is even bigger that the article is stating. Renewables have even less chance of fixing the problem.

But I’m happy for you to be the more conservative voice on this, Mike. Enjoy. It’s not often you will be praised for conservatism. 🙂

4 01 2018
Jonathan Maddox

For once I’m with Mike: think bison herds.

CO₂ emissions from burning fossil fuels for energy are over 70% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and *all* of that can ultimately be replaced with renewable energy. Most of it could be replaced with renewable energy in a couple of decades if we diverted only those resources which are currently “invested” in the continuing supply of fossil fuels in excess of our stated carbon budget and the equipment to burn them. We could go even faster if we were collectively willing to give up a few frivolities and luxuries, or heaven forbid, put our unemployed people to work.

The remaining 30% or less of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions include other industrial emissions such as fugitive emissions of methane from fossil fuel extraction (which will simply go away when we stop using those fossil fuels for energy), leaks of niche industrial gases like insulators (SF₆) and refrigerants, nitrous oxides from fertiliser and combustion byproducts. They also include agricultural methane (some of which is indeed taking the place of pre-industrial bison and elephant belches, though the world population of cattle has been on the rise lately), but most devastating of all next to fossil fuel related emissions is land clearing for pasture and for oil palm.

4 01 2018
Chris Harries

Ha! Mike with your new conservative hat on I’ve brought you praise from an unlikely source. 🙂

4 01 2018

The world’s total primary energy supply (includes mining, refinement etc) in 2014 was 155,481 TWh.
In just one hour the sun delivers 89,300 TWh to the earth’s surface.
I think the potential is there for a massive increase in solar energy use.

4 01 2018

That is not the point though…….. we are using far too much energy, period….

4 01 2018

Well a lot of people have reduced their energy use, and electronics and machine have made incredible efficiency improvements.
But perhaps they should make electricity, for instance, more expensive.
Despite what the media bleat on with, I think most people hardly even notice the expense, compared to their income.

4 01 2018
Chris Harries

Yes, Jeff, people complain about energy prices yet we pay a small fraction of real costs of energy production, if you include the externalities that are never costed in, such as climate change and pollution. But any government that increases energy costs would be thrown out of office.

But pricing also has little relevance to overall resource consumption. Efficiency gains are the best way to go, but driving down rich world consumption to a small fraction of what we currently consume is what is required. Building new factories pouring out billions of batteries and EVs and drones and 3D printers and such….. without dealing with the larger questions is futile…. though it does make us feel good about our consumption.

4 01 2018
Chris Harries

Jeff, excuse me but that’s really reductionist logic. We use that energy every day all over the world via growing plants and incident sunshine that warms the planet and our bodies. Extracting it artificially requires significant inputs of energy. This whole question boils down to how much energy has to be fed in to deliver useful energy that can be traded. This equation should not be simplified down as a zero game – as if physics and economics don’t matter.

The debate isn’t how to generate energy. It’s mostly about what we ant to do with it. The aim of most of society is to generate energy by any means to try to sustain the unsustainable consumer society that we live in. This aim is unachievable using any energy form. That’s the dilemma that is confronting humanity. Society likes its comfort one and desperately wants to keep itself on the rails and will do anything to do so.

There is a problem in trying to convey the limits of renewable energy because some people see any such questioning as being anti-renewable. When we look deeply into it switching away from fossil fuels is not a radical position if not much is done to change underlying malady – exponential growth of everything. It just amounts to new factories pouring out different consumer objects that are tagged as being ‘green’.

4 01 2018

There doesn’t seem to be exponential growth in the population of developed, industrialised, capitalist countries.
In fact the annual number of births barely exceeds deaths.

4 01 2018
Chris Harries

Yes, nearly everything in our society is exponentially growing. Look at almost any resource. Listen to parliament and listen to how often the growth word is used with reverence. Without growth happening the world’s global $220 trillion (million million) of debt could not be serviced and the whole edifice would collapse. That’s what economists are scared of. Consumers are, meanwhile, worried about their comfort zones. It will take a lot of creativity to pull back from this monster and we can’t do it by trying to keep feeding it.

4 01 2018

Efficiency is the low hanging fruit that we only play lip service to. So many simple and cheap options are simply ignored. When we do get efficiency so many times that efficiency translates into increased consumption.

We are so very wasteful, deliberately so in many ways. We globalize when we need to localize. We make ourselves more dependent we we need to become independent. We destroy resilience in the name of efficiency.

We are so very short sighted, only the current financial cycle matters. So many cannot even get in the right traffic lane until the last second.We are becoming more and more self centered, civility and co operation is disappearing.

We are doing a Thelma and Louise, foot as hard as we can on the gas making sure our fall is as hard as it can be.

4 01 2018
Dr Bob Rich

Mike, I put it this way: the global economy has an addiction to growth. Suppose free or very cheap, environmentally clean energy became available. It would race us faster toward destruction, because it is the same as a relative enabling an addiction, as explained by Al Anon.

4 01 2018

Bang on Dr Bob!

Clean/Green/Efficient/Renewable/Bla bla motha fuckin bla Energy is a moot point when all it will do is speed up the rate at which this stupid fuckin “society” devours the poor old biosphere.

4 01 2018
Chris Harries

On the issue of Hopium versus Despair, here’s today’s article on the Guardian. I side with the argument that it’s important to spell things out honestly in most circumstances. There’s a greater risk in inducing mass complacency than there is in inducing fatalism. Nearly every last person believes in the other argument (being pragmatically not honest with audiences).

4 01 2018
Jonathan Maddox

Points 1 through 4 have a grain of truth, but are hyperbole. The single largest part, more than half, of our ecological “footprint” is carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning. The rest must also be tackled in order to return humanity’s existence to sustainability, but it will not be tackled by avoiding the best solutions to the largest and easiest part.

Nobody but nobody says that the industrial system as we know it today must be preserved at all costs; rather, the great mass of people are simply unwilling to go without the benefits of modernity, not least the many people who have scarcely enjoyed them to date. Medicine, family planning, modern farming, refrigeration, modern communications and transportation all require modern energy technology. Going without these amenities means returning to “nasty, brutish and short” in all our seven billions, not the mere one or two billion we had before the industrial and green revolutions.

We do have to make the energy system cleaner; decarbonising it is the best first step towards achieving this aim.

Outside of the energy industry, we do conduct many other wasteful, destructive and dirty activities, and we should minimise or eliminate those as well. That argument has nothing whatsoever to do with “the problem with renewables”.

The pollution associated with rare earth metals (pics in the Daily Mail link above) has very little to do with wind or solar energy. Some wind turbines use rare earth fixed magnets, but most do not. Solar PV and solar thermal energy similarly require no rare earths. Wind and solar power need steel, aluminium, glass, copper, plastic, silicon, phosphorus, boron and (optionally) silver. None of these is especially toxic to extract or to process in the way that rare earths can be.

Mining is indeed destructive, but the largest mining activity is the extraction of fossil fuels, and most of the rest is again for no purpose related to energy at all.

Point number 5 has been rebutted many many times over, here and elsewhere. Wind, solar and hydroelectric energy have high positive net energy yields.

Point number 6 is wrong: money comes from governments, not from “taxpayers”, and it is the job of governments to allocate resources to desirable activities. It is not just desirable, it is *imperative*, to transform the energy system, so government must arrange for the resources to be allocated accordingly. To complain about government allocation of public and common resources is some sort of libertarian moral argument which ignores the ethical imperative of collective sustainability.

Point number 7 is mostly wrong: many fossil-fuelled power plants have indeed been closed in recent years, largely due to initiatives to reduce emissions, and many more will be retired in coming years as we get more and more of our energy from renewables. There’s a grain of truth in point 7, in that obviously fossil fuel consumption has continued to rise, but this is due to social and economic development of countries which have not until today enjoyed most of the benefits of modern energy technology. Those billions of people (just like the rest of us) will not willingly give up that energy; they are however eagerly embracing the best renewable energy technology available right alongside fossil fuels.

Point 8 is another one we have addressed here repeatedly: Electricity as *final* energy is less than 20% of consumption of *primary* energy, but almost 50% of primary energy goes towards generation of that electricity, and almost all of the other half is equally susceptible to decarbonisation through electrification. Also it’s hardly the case that “the rest is oil and gas”: fully 13% of our measured primary energy, used for cooking food, for home heating, in lime kilns and in Brazilian steel foundries as well as in a few power stations, is supplied in the form of biomass.

Point 9 about the lifetime of wind turbines and solar panels is somewhat moot, given the strong positive energy yield of these technologies. Retired 30-year-old wind turbines from Denmark and Germany have been on-sold to developing countries where they continue displacing fossil fuels, and the excellent original sites re-used for the latest equipment with vastly better energy yield. Scrapping and recycling of retired aluminium, copper and steel equipment, whether it be wind turbine towers, domestic plumbing and cars or container ships, heat exchangers and battle tanks, is very much a sustainable business which increasingly offsets the impact of mining. Glass and silicon PV are a bit less susceptible to recycling but this is more because their raw materials are not subject to scarcity in the way that copper is, than because recycling is inherently difficult.

Point 10 is simply bollocks (wind and PV are the cheapest form of electricity available today, whereas old coal-fired power plants are very expensive to upgrade or even to retain in service past their original design life, and coal itself is expensive) and very much goes against the grain of the arguments above about the impact of industry on the ecosystem. On reaching the last talking point, the author has decided to have it both ways!

Finally, it seems Kim Hill goes to Wind Watch and the Daily Mail for sources. Where next, the Heritage Foundation and the John Birch Society?

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