What “transition” are the Germans up to exactly?

19 02 2020

Jonathon Rutherford pointed me to this fantastic article…. Last night the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent had a piece on energy transition, making the broad argument that Germany is succeeding by comparison to Miserable old Australia. Much has been written about Germany’s Energiewende, but the real situation is a good deal more messy than the doco portrayed as shown in this piece by Jean Marc Jancovici (written in 2017, but still applicable). It will be fascinating indeed to see how the German transition, involving the planned phase out of coal by 2038 pans out, especially if it is combined with the nuclear phase out. Make no mistake though, Germany is closing down unviable mines, just like Britain had to 70 years past its Peak Coal…. As Jancovici shows, the transition to date – which, despite massive renewable investment has achieved literally no carbon reduction – has been very expensive. While the German electorate seems more willing to stomach the costs than Australia, there might be limits! I say this, of course, as somebody who, like Jonathon, wants such a transition; but doubts it can be done within the growth-consumer etc framework taken for granted and desired everywhere collapsing first…

Jean Marc Jancovic

250 to 300 billion euros, which is more than the cost of rebuilding from scratch all the French nuclear power plants, is what Germany has invested from 1996 to 2014 to increase by 22% the fraction of renewable electricity into the gross production of the country (that went from 4% to 27%). For this price tag our neighbors did not decrease their energy imports, did not accelerate the decrease of their CO2 emissions per capita, that remain 80% higher to those of a French, increased the stress on the European grid (which is not less useful when electricity production is “decentralized”, all the opposite), and it is debatable whether it allowed to create industrial champions and jobs by millions. If net exports are taken into account – they rose from zero to an average 6% of the annual production, and mostly happen when the wind blows or the sun shines – the fraction of renewable electricity in the domestic consumption is probably closer to 20%. Analysis below.

***

Seen from France, our German neighbors definitely combine all virtues: their public spending is under control, their exports are at the highest, the unemployement low, and on top of that housing affordable and mid-sized companies thriving like nowhere else. With such a series of accomplishments, why on Earth should we act differently from them on any subject? And, in particular, when it comes to energy, the French press is generally eager to underline that they have chosen the right path, when we remain blinded by our radioactive foolishness.

As usual, facts and figures may fit with the mainstream opinion in the paper… or not. In order to allow the reader to conclude his way, I have gathered below some figures that are published by bodies that are neither antinuclear nor pronuclear, neither anti-renewables nor pro-renewables, but only in charge of counting electrons depending on where they have been generated. Let’s start!

Where do the German electrons come from?

Anyone saying that German electricity is more and more renewable will indeed answer correctly. Without any doubt, renewable electricity increases in Germany.

German electricity generation coming from renewable sources since 1996, in GWh 
(1 GWh = 1 million kWh ; the electricity consumption of Germany is roughly 600 billion kWh – hence 600.000 GWh – per year).

In 12 years (1996 to 2012) the renewable production has been multiplied by 7.

Data from AGEE-Stat, Federal Ministry of Environment, Germany.

From there, anyone will conclude that if renewables increase, the rest decreases. True again!

Breakdown of German electricity generation in 1991.

Renewables amount to 4% of the total, with 3% for hydroelectricity (which amounts to 12% in France).

Data from TSP data portal TSP data portal

Breakdown of German electricity generation in 2014.

Renewables now amount to over 27% of the total, but only half of them is composed of intermittent modes (solar and wind).

Data from ENTSOE

But there is something else that is obvious when looking at the graphs above: in 2011 as in 1991, most of the electricity generation comes from fossil fuels, coal (including lignite) being the first primary energy used, and, furthermore, the amount of kWh coming from coal, oil and gas is about the same today as what it was 20 years ago. If the name of the game is to decrease CO2 emissions, then no significant progress has been made in two decades.

Breakdown of the German electricity generation from 1980 to 2014

One will easily see that the total coming from fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) is roughly constant over the period, with a little less coal, a little more gas, and almost no oil anymore.

One will also notice that nuclear has begun to decrease in 2006 (thus before Fukushima), and that the “new renewables” (biomass, solar and wind) increase came on top of the rest until 2006.

Data from TSP data portal

A zoom at the monthly production for the last years (since 2005) confirms the rise of the “new renewables” (biomass, wind, solar) in a total that remains globally unchanged. Something else which is clearly visible is that fossil fuels account for the dominant share in the winter increase (France is thus not the only country with an increased consumption in winter).

Monthly electricity production in Germany from January 2005 to May 2015, with a breakdown showing fossil fuels (oilgas and most of all coal), nuclear, hydroelectricity, and “new renewables” (all renewables except hydro).

The sharp decrease of nuclear after Fukushima (March 2011) is clear, but a close look indicates that shortly after it came back to its historical trend, that is a slow decline that begun in 2006.

Data from ENTSOE

What is absolutely certain is therefore that renewable electricity has significantly increased in Germany, and that’s definitely what is focusing the attention of the French press. But… the available data indicates that before 2006 this renewable supply came on top of the rest (with no impact on CO2 emissions), and after 2006 they mostly substituted nuclear (with no more decrease of the CO2 emissions!).

If that is so, then the overall “non fossil” generation (nuclear and renewables alltogether) must be about stable. And it is indeed what is happening!

Historical monthly “non fossil” electricity generation in Germany from January 2005 to May 2015, in GWh.

This production totals renewables (including hydro) and nuclear. The trend is almost flat, and we will see below that the increase of the last two years is almost fully exported.

Author’s calculations on primary data from ENTSOE

As the global production is otherwise almost stable, it means that the share of “non fossil” must be about constant (on average), which is confirmed by figures.

Monthly share of “non fossil” electricity generation in Germany from January 2005 to May 2015.

Author’s calculations on primary data from ENTSOE

Another element that confirms that renewables substitute nuclear, and not fossil fuels, is to observe the historical energy imports of Germany and France (which has far less renewables in its electricity generation, but far more nuclear).

Reconstitution of German imports by energy, in billion constant dollars since 1981.

There is no obvious difference with France (below): the trends are exactely the same for oil and gas, and the amounts of the same magnitude. One will notice that Germany imports coal (almost 50% of its consumption).

Author’s calculations on primary data from BP Statistical Review, 2015

Energy imports in France, in billion constant dollars since 1981.

It resembles a lot to Germany!

Author’s calculations on primary data from BP Statistical Review, 2015

One might argue that we should also take into account the exports associated with domestic industries in renewable energies: wind turbines, solar panels, or biogas production units. But… for solar panels Germany is a heavy importer, as Europe. We have imported for more than 110 billion dollars of imported solar cells from 2008 to 2014, and Germany accounted for almost half of the total. For wind turbines China is also becoming a tough competitor on the international market. It is not clear whether the cumulated exports have outbalanced by far the cumulated imports!

What about money?

Another hot topic regarding the German “transition” is its cost. First, let’s recall that the “transition”, for the time being, is a change for 22% of the electricity production (but Germans also use oil products, gas and coal – the latter for their industry). Discussing money allows for a number of possibilities, and the first item that is discussed here is investments. These are absolutely indispensable to increase capacities, and one thing is sure: capacities have increased!500

Installed capacities for various renewable modes in Germany since 1996, in MW.

The total amounts to 93.000 MW, or 93 GW.

Source: AGEE-Stat, Federal Ministry of Environment, Germany.

Germans therefore had 93 GW (or 93 000 MW) of installed capacities for renewable electricity at the end of 2014, that is more than the French installed capacity in nuclear power plants, that will amount to 65 GW when Flamanville is completed. One might therefore conclude that Germany produces more renewable electricity than France nuclear. Actually, it is not the case: Germany produced roughly 160 TWh (160 billion kWh) of renewable electricity in 2014, when the French nuclear output was about 3 times more. The reason is that the load factor for the new renewable capacities in Germany is between 60% and 10%, when for nuclear the values are rather between 70% and 80%. Furthermore, the german load factor (for renewables) is rapidly decreasing for the moment.

Load factor for each renewable capacity in Germany.

This factor corresponds to the fraction of the year during which the capacity shoud operate at full load to produce what it really produces in a year.

For example, if this factor is 20%, it means that the annual output would be obtained with the capacity operating at full load during 20% of the year, and nothing the rest of the time. What really happens, of course, is that during the year the output of a given installation constantly varies between zero and full load, and when an average is done over a large number of installations and a long time (one year), then we get this famous load factor.

The higher it is, and the more electricity you get out of a given capacity.

The curve “total” gives the average factor for all renewable capacities in Germany. It has been divided by 2 since 1996, because solar (which contribued a lot to new capacities) has a much lower load factor than any other renewable capacity.

Author’s calculations on primary data from (BP Statistical Review, European Wind Association, AGEE Stat).

As a consequence, to produce as much as 8 GW of nuclear (one third of the German capacity) with a 80% or 90% load factor, it is necessary to have – in Germany – 40 GW of wind turbines, that have a load factor below 20% (as low as 14% for bad years), and even more if losses due to storage are taken into account. With photovoltaic, 65 GW are necssary (without losses due to storage). In both cases, it is more than what has already been installed in Germany.

To benefit from the production of these new capacities, investments are necessary. One should of course invest in the production units themselves (wind turbines, solar panels, etc), but also in the grid. It is obviously necessary to connect the additional sources, but also to reinforce the power transmission lines, or add some new. Indeed, the new capacities (in the Northern part of the country for wind) are located far from the regions of high consumption (which are rather in the South).

Besides, for a same annual production, the installed capacity increases when the load factor decreases. The low load factor of solar and wind lead to a high installed capacity… that will sometimes lead to a very high instant power that has to be evacuated, including through exports (see below).

The question is: how much will it cost? Figures for this part are hard to find, because the operators of low and high voltage power lines do not separate, in their financial reporting, what pertains to the “transition” from the rest. The graphs below give some hints from which we will derive an order of magnitude.

Billion euros invested yearly into the transportation network in Germany.

Source: European Parliament

One can see a strong increase after 2011, 2 years after Germany voted a “Law on the Expansion of Energy Lines”. But in 2016 Transport operators (transport is the part of the grid that operates over 90.000 volts) had completed only a third of the new lines to be built (source: same as above).

Billion euros invested yearly into the distribution network in Germany (distribution is the part of the grid that operates below 90.000 volts).

Source: European Parliament

If we sum up what is invested into the grid, both low and high voltage, we come up with something in the range of 8 billions per year, that is about what is now invested into production means. But no breakdown is available between what is just regular maintenance, and what is linked to the increase in the total power installed.

The commentary in the European report that goes with the chart on soaring investment in the transport network from 2011 suggests that there is a part of the investments that “remain to be done”. We will therefore assume, as a first approach, that investments in the grid (in the broad sense) are, or will eventually be, about 50% of what goes into production units over the period.

If we make the a additional hypothesis that unitary costs for solar, wind and biomass decrease by respectively 5%, 2% and 2% per year, and if we accept that for the period pre-2004 it was also necessary to put half of an euro into the grid when one euro was invested into new capacities, then Germany has already invested more than 250 billion euros into its “transition”.

Yearly investments, in billion euros, that Germany has made into adding new renewable capacities.

These amounts include both the sources (solar panels, wind turbines) and the rest of the electric system (grid). This amount does not include the amounts, far less important, invested into renewable heat.

Author’s calculations on primary data from BP Statistical Review, European Wind Association, AGEE Stat.

The graph below provides an estimate directly given by the German Ministry of the Economy. One can see that the order of magnitude is the same for the “production” part, with a higher peak around 2010.

Investments in renewable electricity production unites in Germany, in billion euros.

Source: Renewable Energies Information Portal

And what about a “completed” transition? If Germany was to turn to renewables all its present electricity production, it should “convert” an additional 320 TWh, or 2 times what has already been done. We can assume that the unitary cost of wind turbines and solar panels is not bound to be divided by something significant anymore (among other reasons, we might suggest that the production of turbines or panels will increasingly suffer from the growing scarcity of raw materials, that will apply here as elsewhere).

We can also assume that the unitary costs of the investments in the grid required to absorb new capacities increase with the installed capacity of intermittent sources. In other words, the integration cost of the last MW to be connected is supposed to be higher than the integration cost of any MW that came before. In practical terms, we will assume that for any euro invested into additionnal capacities, al capacities, we must put one euro into the grid “at large”: low and high voltage power lines, transformers, storage devices.

We will at last assume that the share of each mode remains the same.

With these hypotheses, we need to add:

  • 90 GW of wind turbines, and
  • 120 GW of solar, and
  • 20 GW of biomass

for a total cost of 750 billion euros, grid reinforcement included.

But then, to backup intermittence with no more coal and gas power plants (and no possibility to rely on the “dirty” plants of the neighboring countries!), such a system would require a storage capacity of 100 to 200 GW (such as pumping stations), when Germany has only 4 so far, for an investment of 500 to 1000 billion euros, for example with new dams in the German Alps, and plenty of pipes to carry water up and down from the Baltic Sea (with batteries the investment would be even higher and the lifetime much shorter).

As such a way to store electricity generates losses of 30% of the incoming electricity (the yield of a pumping station is 75%, and transporting electricity from the turbines to the storage and vice-versa adds 5% at least), it means that the installed capacity has to be increased by 20% to 40% – depending on the share used without storage – for an additionnal 250 billion euros, grid included.

The total bill should therefore amount to something close to a year of GDP, that is over 2000 billion euros. Furthermore, assuming biomass units keep the same load factor and have a yield between 30% and 45% (smaller units have a smaller yield), that any land devoted to biomass production can produce 5 tonnes oil equivalent per year of raw energy, then 20% to 25% of the country (8 to 10 million hectares) would be devoted to biomass production for electricity generation. Easier said than done!

If we try to summarize, at this point we can conclude that:

  • From 1996 to 2014, Germany has increased by 140 billion kWh (or 140 TWh) its renewable electricity, and in this total:
    • a little more than 60 TWh is an increase of electricity production (which contradicts the idea sometimes put forward that “when everyone has a solar panel on his roof and a wind turbine in the field next door, then the population becomes conscious of the true value of electricity and uses less”), that will mostly be exported at “sacrified” prices since the global consumption is decreasing,

Electricity generation in France since 1985, in billion kWh.

From 1995 to 2014 it increased by 12%.

Source BP Statistical Review, 2015

Electricity generation in Germany since 1985, in billion kWh.

From 1995 to 2014 it increased by 14% (a little more than in France). Besides the global aspect is very similar (the stability during the 80’s and the early 90’s is the reflect of the reunification, because of the poor efficiency of former East Germany).

Source: BP Statistical Review, 2015

  • Roughly 60 TWh has been used to partially offset nuclear, that decreased from 160 to 100 TWh,
  • Fossil fuels decreased by only 12 TWh, which is not significant over the period (the change of the shares of gas and coal in the total fossil is not linked to the penetration of renewables),
  • Germany has invested 300 billion euros (over 10% of its annual GDP), and should multiply this amount by 7 at least to become 100% renewable in electricity. This investment should be repeated for a large part in 25 year, that is the lifetime of wind turbines or solar panels (nuclear power plants last 60 to 80 years). Over 60 years, a “100% renewable electricity” plan would therefore require 15 to 30 times more capital than producing the same electricity with nuclear power plants (not accounting for the cost of capital).
  • This “transition”, so far, has had no discernable impact on the energy trade balance. Becoming fully renewable for electricity will avoid gas imports for electricity generation (now amounting to 160 TWh per year, or 16 billion cubic meters, for roughly 4 billion euros), but no more, since oil (which represents by far the dominant part) is almost absent from electricity generation, and coal is mostly domestic,
  • This “transition”, so far, had had no effects on CO2 emissions, and to have one it will be necessary to phase out coal, when, for the time being, our German friends are planning to add more capacities (and lignite production has been increasing for several years),

Monthly electricity generation coming from lignite in Germany since 2006, in GWh.

Not really going down!

Source: ENTSOE

Let’s recall that lignite, apart from CO2 emissions, is produced from open pit mines, that lead to a complete destruction of the environment over tens of square kilometers, heaps of ashes, water pollution, population displacement, etc, and that lignite power plants are no more virtuous than nuclear ones regarding heat losses.

A lignite mine in Germany, with a digging machine at the center of the picture.

The size of the bulldozer, at the bottom of the excavator, gives an idea of the size of the digging machine! And besides the landscape is not precisely environmentally friendly…

Photo: Alf van Beem, Wikipedia Commons

A lignite power plant in Germany (Neurath; roughly 4000 MW of installed capacity).

The difference with a nuclear power plant is not that obvious! The “answer” is in the presence of chimneys (to evacuate fumes), that do not exist for nuclear power plants, in a water treatment plant (not necessary with nuclear), and in the train terminal used to carry lignite (50 000 tonnes per day at full capacity, when a nuclear power plant will use 10 kg of U235 to provide the same thermal energy).

  • and, at last, it is absolutely certain that some jobs have been created, but if we offset those that have been destroyed elsewhere, because the end consumer cannot spend his money twice, the total is most certainly below the numbers boasted by the German government (which, like all governments, counts what is created in the sector sustained, but cautiously avoids to look at the perverse effects that might happen elsewhere for the same reason!).

Let’s now take a lookat what happened for the end consumer. The amount per kWh has indeed increased, but not only because of renewables. Gas and coal also played a role, because the price of the fuel represents 50% to 70% of the full production cost with coal and gas fired power plants.

Price per kWh for the individual cosumer in Germany, 1998 to 2012.

The increase is clear, but the main contributor is “production+distribution”, which includes transportation costs, but also the purchasing price of fossil fuels used with coal and gas power plants. One will notice that the red bar increases during the 2000-2009 period, when the price of imported gas and coal rises fast, and decreases when the price of imported gas and coal decrease (2009-2011).

Source : BDEW

Spot prices of gas in several regions of the world (Henry Hub relates to the US) and of oil, all expressed in dollars per million British Thermal Unit 
(1 million BTU ≈ 0,3 MWh).

CIF means Charged Insurance and Freight, that is the full cost with transportation and insurance.

The price of gas in Europe evolves just as the red bar in the previous graph over the period 2000 – 2012.

Source: BP Statistical Review, 2015

Spot prices of coal in several regions of the world.

Over the period 2000 – 2012, the price of coal in Europe has also evolved as the red bar in the graph giving the price per electrical kWh for the end consumer.

Source: BP Statistical Review, 2015

We might now suggest an additional conclusion: if electricity prices have increased for the individual, it is not only because of renewables, but because there remains an important fraction coming from fossil fuels!

Where do the German electrons go?

That’s a funny question: if Germans produce electricity, it is to use it, ins’t it? Well, that partially true, but also partially false. European countries are interconnected, and electricity can go from one country to another. Statistics show that imports and exports have greatly increased at the borders of Germany lately.

Monthly balance of electricity echanges (with the rest of Europe) at the border of Germany, in GWh.

One will easily notice that the magnitude increases until 2007, and remains at the same level since then. Besides, Germans used to export little amounts before 2005, and now export more, mainly in the winter.

Data from ENTSOE

As the above graph shows, exports mostly take place in the winter (and imports in the spring). It happens that it is also in the winter that there is more wind, as the graph below shows.

Monthly wind production in GWh from January 2005.

The output is highly variable depending on the year, but it always happens in December of January.

Data from ENTSOE

It is therefore normal to wonder wether there is not a link between wind and exports. And it might well be the case!

Monthly exchanges (vertical axis, positive values mean net imports and negative ones net exports) depending on the monthly wind production in Germany, from January 2005 to May 2015.

The dots clearly show that when wind production increases, exports also increase. It suggests that increased exports are directely or indirectely linked to an increase in wind production.

Author’s calculations on primary data from ENTSOE

This link between the German electricity production coming from “new renewables” and German electricity exports is also found when looking at the hourly production and exports.

German hourly production coming from solar and wind combined, in MWh (horizontal axis), vs,  for the same hour, German electricity exports in MWh (vertical axis), for the year 2013.

This cloud of points clearly shows that hourly exports increase with the hourly production coming from wind+solar.

Source: Author on data from Paul-Frederik Bach

This is, incidentally, exactly the situation in Denmark, which, even more spectacularly, manages the intermittency of its production with imports (not necessarily carbon-free) and dispatchable modes (namely fossil fuels, Denmark is a flat country with no dams!).

Danish Electricity supply in November 2017

Source: Paul-Frederik Bach

If exports have increased along with the increase of the amount of renewable electricity produced, then it might be instructive to look at the fraction of “non fossil electricity” that remains in Germany once deducted the exports that appeared since the beginning of the EnergieWende.

Non fossil electricity (renewable+nuclear) once additional exports (since the beginning of the EnergieWende) are deducted.

Surprise: what remains for Germany is about constant for the last 10 years. In other words, the fraction of renewables that does not replace nuclear is exported (and does not replace any fossil production, which is consistent with what is mentionned above).

Author’s calculations on data from ENTSOE

As production increases when the wind blows, but not consumption, a last effect generated by the 10% of electricity coming from wind is a significant decrease in spot price of electricity when wind increases.

Hourly spot price of electricity on the German market depending on the hourly wind production for 2013.

Obviously, the more wind there is, the lower the price is, with the apparition of nil or even negative prices over 10 GWh per hour. As there was roughly 30 GW of installed capacity in Germany in 2013, it means that when one third of wind turbines operate at fiull power, nil or negative prices appear (and then the producer pays the consumer to take the electricity, because the cost of stopping everything is even higher).

When there is no wind the average price is 50 euros per MWh, and when the installed capacity is operating at almost full power (24 GW) the average price per MWh falls below 20 euros.

Data from pfbach.dk

If we come back to the initial question, our dear neighbors certainly do something that is meaningful for them, but what they do not do for certain is trying to phase out fossil fuels as fast as possible. A simple reminder of the emissions per capita on each side of the Rhine will show that the “good guys” are not necessarily where the press finds them!500

Per capita CO2 emissions coming from fuel combustion in France, from 1965 onwards (in tonnes). This graph is made assuming the emission factor is constant for each fuel.

Coal contributes for a little below 1 tonne per person and per year (4 times less than in 1965), gas for about 1,5 tonne, and oil for 4 tonnes, for a total of roughly 6 tonnes in 2014.

Author’s calculations on data from BP Statistical Review, 2015

Per capita CO2 emissions coming from fuel combustion in Germany, from 1965 onwards (in tonnes). This graph is made assuming the emission factor is constant for each fuel.

Oil contributes a little more than in France, but gas is 50% higher, and coal 5 times higher, for a total of over 10 tonnes.

Since 1980 he evolution for oil is very similar to what it is for France, but the “transition” is still to come regarding coal and gas… and obviously the “EnergieWende” didn’t have any kind of “CO2 avoided” effect that is often boasted in governmental or even academic publications.

Author’s calculations on data from BP Statistical Review, 2015

If we look at Germany’s overall CO2 emissions, we can see that those arising from coal and gas – which are the two fossil fuels used for electricity generation, oil being marginal – have only decreased by 40 million tons in 20 years.

Fossil CO2 emissions in Germany from 1965, discriminated by fuel (this graph is made assuming the emission factor is constant for each fuel).

Emissions from coal have dropped by 40 million tonnes since 1996 (but this also includes the effect of improving the energy efficiency in the industry after the reunification), and those from gas have hardly changed.

Calculation: Jancovici on BP Statistical Review data, 2017

But that does not prevent our German friends from claiming more than 100 million tonnes of avoided emissions thanks to these renewable energies!

Avoided emissions claimed by the German Ministry of the Economy.

While electricity consumption is not increasing, it is extraordinary to find avoided emissions – thanks to renewable electricity – that amount to 3 times the real decrease in emissions from coal and gas, all uses combined! The “politically correct” that replaces a correct calculation (or an efficient action…) is also effective on the other side of the Rhine…

Source: Renewable Energies Information Portal

Of course, one can only wish that our Germans friends do succeed, in a short delay, to get rid of fossil fuels, in electricity generation and elsewhere. But, on the ground of the available data, a preliminary conclusion is that they have achieved nothing significant in that direction for the last 15 years. If they eventually succeed to get rid of fossil fuels in the 10 to 20 years to come, and if the population is ready to pay 10 times more (that is 3000 billion euros instead of 300) to avoid the inconvenients of nuclear, real or supposed, there is nothing to object. It is a respectable choice, only it is not the only one which is possible!

But if the Germans where to stop in midstream, that is with renewables that have substituted only nuclear, without replacing fossil fuels, then they will have spent their money on something else than the European objective (phasing out fossil fuels), and lost a precious time, which is the most serious damage in the present case, as Europe is running against time regarding its energy supply.





The Make Believe Future

6 02 2020

Put simply, there is not enough Planet Earth left

for us to grow our way to sustainability

Another brilliant post from Tim at Consciousness of Sheep…

US President John F. Kennedy began the political fad of setting targets for the future US President John F. Kennedy began the political fad of setting targets for the future when, on 25 May 1961, he persuaded the Congress to agree to the goal of landing men on the moon by the end of the decade. On 12 September 1962 he made his more famous public speech at Rice University:

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”

Notice that Kennedy referred to going to the moon as hard; not once did he use the word “impossible.” Even in 1962, all of the technologies required already existed. For sure they needed refining and developing. Certainly there would be hardships – including several tragic deaths – along the way. But success largely depended upon the political, organisational and economic requirements of the project rather than the creation of novel technologies.

Although largely a Cold War project, the moon landings were widely viewed at the time as a stepping stone on humanity’s journey of discovery to the stars. In hindsight, the years 1969-72 marked the apex of human progress. The oil shocks and economic crises of the 1970s removed the optimism of the previous two decades. Humans were never again to venture out beyond a low Earth orbit. The new space technologies and energy sources that might have bridged the enormous distances between us and our nearest celestial neighbours failed to put in an appearance. Closer to home, other “leading edge” technologies such as commercial supersonic flight were also being mothballed – only the Concorde, heavily subsidised by British and French taxpayers, continued to ferry the rich and famous across the Atlantic.

We have been on a downward trajectory ever since. During the boom years 1953-73, as the economies of the developed and developing states made the switch from coal to oil, energy per capita rose exponentially alongside oil production. Had it not been for the 1973 OPEC embargo, global oil production might have managed a couple more years of exponential growth before the inevitable slowdown began. As it was, 1973 – the year after the final moon landing – marks the point at which energy per capita across the developed economies went into reverse. This sounds technical, but the consequence was that productivity (essentially using more energy or using energy more efficiently to generate more economic value) began to slow. And since productivity growth is what allows wage growth, wages began to fall too. The wage-price inflationary spiral of the 1970s – exacerbated by state currency-printing and capital control policies – was the result of a battle between capital and organised labour over the relative shares of falling productivity growth.

John Michael Greer described the practical consequences when he pointed to the difference in living standards between a semi-skilled manual worker in the 1970s and a semi-skilled worker of today. In those days, a single worker on the average semi-skilled wage could afford to buy a house, support a family, run a car and enjoy annual holidays. Today a single semi-skilled worker would be lucky to avoid homelessness. The consequence of our now falling energy per capita is that productivity has ceased entirely. We now face a series of linked crises in the economy, environment and energy which severely limit our scope for action. Wages in the developed economies have been stagnant since the financial crash in 2008. Wages in the emerging market economies are now also slowing. Outside a handful of niche industries like tech and pharmaceuticals – which survive on the back of huge state subsidies – investment has switched away from technology into a series of derivative financial instruments that have no practical value and add nothing to economic development.

Even things that were once hard, but possible – like landing people on the moon – are now beyond us. But John F. Kennedy’s words continue to echo down the decades to reach the ears of contemporary politicians who mistakenly believe that we only need to set a goal and smart people somewhere else will make it happen. So it is that our political leaders have committed to decarbonising the economy by 2050 despite – unlike the Apollo Project – several of the required technologies and the resources to construct them only existing in the pages of science fiction novels.

More recently, the Prime Minister of the (increasingly un-) United Kingdom – a man who studied classics and, apparently is clueless about climate change – has decided to bring forward to 2035 the ban on new internal combustion engine cars and vans. Worse still, and to the horror of motoring organisations, vehicle manufacturers and grid engineers, he has decided to include hybrid vehicles in the ban. On the same day – and also in response to government climate commitments – the UK air industry announced plans to become “net zero carbon” by 2050. This, apparently, is to be achieved using yet-to-be-invented lean-burn engines which use yet-to-be-invented artificial hydrocarbon fuels manufactured by combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide sucked out of the air.

At least electric cars actually exist. The infrastructure required to make the switch is an altogether different matter. As Will Bedingfield at Wired warned last month:

“[A] spectre is haunting the UK’s emissions targets – the spectre of nuclear retirement… By the early 2030s, just one of the UK’s seven nuclear power stations will be operational. Over the last few years, plans to construct three new power stations – Hitachi’s Wylfa Newydd nuclear plants on Anglesey in Wales and Oldbury in Gloucestershire, and Toshiba’s Moorside project in Cumbria – which together could have met 15 per cent of the UK’s future electricity demands, have been scrapped.”

Meanwhile, efforts to fill the gap with non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies have stalled, as Phillip Inman at the Guardian explains:

“Britain’s green economy has shrunk since 2014, heightening concerns that the government will miss targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the decade.

“The number of people employed in the “low carbon and renewable energy economy” declined by more than 11,000 to 235,900 between 2014 and 2018, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Green businesses fared little better, seeing their numbers drop from an estimated 93,500 to 88,500 over the same four-year period.”

There are some big offshore wind projects still to come online, but without government subsidies, these may be the last of their kind. In any case, they provide nothing like the generating capacity which will be lost as coal and nuclear plants are decommissioned.

The absolute numbers also hide the technical issues around intermittency and grid frequency which resulted in a nationwide blackout in August last year. National Grid had been relying on combined cycle gas turbine plants, which can rapidly increase and decrease production, to iron out the intermittent generation from wind and solar. However, as the percentage of renewable energy fed into the grid passes two-thirds, it appears that this solution is no longer sufficient. The temporary – and probably unsustainable – fix for this is to pay for gas power plants just to keep the turbines spinning even if the electricity generated is not needed. As Nina Chestney and Noor Zainab Hussain at Reuters report:

“National Grid’s said on Wednesday it had agreed contracts with five parties worth 328 million pounds ($431 million) over a six-year period for services to manage the stability of its electricity system in Britain…

“The key service to be provided is what is known as ‘inertia’ on the grid, which helps to keep the electricity system running at the right frequency… Under the new approach, National Grid said inertia will be achieved without having to provide electricity. This will allow more renewable generation to operate and ensure system stability at lower costs.”

The “lower costs” refers to the difference between this approach and paying for expensive storage. Paying someone to provide additional inertia is not cheaper than not having to do it at all. Even so, inertia balancing is just one of a plethora of the headaches currently stressing grid managers and engineers. As James Sillars at Sky reports:

“The UK’s electricity network needs urgent investment to prepare for an electric vehicle future or risk blackouts, a report for the government has warned.

“The Electric Vehicles Energy Task Force, commissioned by ministers, urges a ‘smart charging’ approach – utilising times of weak demand – along with a power network able to adapt to shifts in electricity use.”

Nor, apparently, is electric vehicle infrastructure easily constructed by energy engineering companies tasked with keeping an increasingly old and frail grid infrastructure operating. When it comes to public charging facilities, delays of several years are not uncommon. As Peter Campbell and Nathalie Thomas at the Financial Times reported last month:

“Britain’s electricity network is ‘not fit for purpose’ and is stifling the rollout of electric vehicle chargers along key trunk roads in the UK, say motorway services operators.

“Electric vehicles currently account for only about 2 per cent of sales in the UK, but a steep rise is expected during the next two years as carmakers strive to meet new stringent CO2 targets and as the country gears up to hit its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

“Motorway service areas are preparing to increase their charging provisions to meet the jump in demand. But Simon Turl, chairman of operator RoadChef, said his company’s attempts to add charging services have been held up by distribution network operators (DNOs), which own local electricity grids and demand millions of pounds and waits of up to three years, to install new power lines.”

Electric vehicles are, of course, merely one component of the fantasy zero-carbon future. The wider task is truly staggering, as another Sky News report explains:

“A mass recruitment drive involving hundreds of thousands of people is needed by the energy sector if the UK’s 2050 target for zero net emissions is to be met, a new report claims.

“The National Grid says 400,000 skilled tradespeople, engineers and other specialists are required across the industry, with at least 117,000 of them needed in the next 10 years.

“However the report says the sector is facing stiff competition for staff from other areas such as tech and finance, while a looming retirement crunch and not enough young people choosing to study science, technology, engineering and maths, are making matters worse.”

As I pointed out last month:

“An energy transition which requires this number of new skilled workers is simply not going to happen. Nor is the UK in a position to easily afford the £3.75bn per year additional wage bill for the 117,000 new workers in the 2020s; still less the £12.8bn annual wage bill in the 2030s and 2040s. In the event that government continues adding the cost of upgrading the energy grid onto household bills, this amounts to an annual increase of £667 for every household in the UK. At a time when household purchasing power – still lower in real terms than in 2008 – has fallen to the point that tens of thousands of retail jobs are being lost, it is doubtful that the economy can afford the additional cost without being plunged into recession.”

This is where our tendency to believe that since economists are on a par with astrologers and homeopaths, the economy itself doesn’t matter. However – as Henry Ford discovered in the early days of oil-powered vehicles – unless the workers can afford the technologies, the energy revolution simply isn’t going to happen. And at present, American cities have joined the third world while urban British workers shiver in the dark, as a new report from The Prince’s Trust explains:

“The research suggests that young people are skipping meals, selling items that are important to them and not putting the heating on to save money. The research reveals a gap between the confidence levels of the UK’s most and least disadvantaged young people, with those from disadvantaged backgrounds feeling less hopeful about their future prospects…

“The research shows that one in three young people aged 18 and over with an overdraft facility are regularly using it, and one in five (18 per cent) go further into their overdraft each month. Over a fifth (22 per cent) of young people in rented accommodation struggle to pay their rent. Borrowing from family and friends has also been a necessity for some, with one in four young people (26 per cent) admitting they have done this in the past year. However, six in ten young people (62 per cent) are embarrassed to ask others for financial support.”

When John F. Kennedy sold the Apollo Project to the American people, he had the luxury of an expanding economy in which all but the very poorest were experiencing rising standards of living. The energy, materials, technology and the surplus value needed for the moon shot were all available in abundance. None of those prerequisites is true of the proposed energy transition today. The energy cost of energy has risen beyond the point that developed economies can continue to grow; and is fast reaching the point at which the emerging economies which have provided at least some growth for the past decade are beginning to stall. Whereas the 1960s USA had access to the raw resources of a largely untapped planet, today we are squeezing the last accessible dregs out of our exhausted Earth. As a recent letter from scientists at the Natural History Museum warned:

“To replace all UK-based vehicles today with electric vehicles (not including the LGV and HGV fleets), assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation NMC 811 batteries, would take 207,900 tonnes cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate (LCE), at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium, in addition to 2,362,500 tonnes copper. This represents, just under two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production during 2018. Even ensuring the annual supply of electric vehicles only, from 2035 as pledged, will require the UK to annually import the equivalent of the entire annual cobalt needs of European industry…

“There are serious implications for the electrical power generation in the UK needed to recharge these vehicles. Using figures published for current EVs (Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe), driving 252.5 billion miles uses at least 63 TWh of power. This will demand a 20% increase in UK generated electricity.

“Challenges of using ‘green energy’ to power electric cars: If wind farms are chosen to generate the power for the projected two billion cars at UK average usage, this requires the equivalent of a further years’ worth of total global copper supply and 10 years’ worth of global neodymium and dysprosium production to build the windfarms.

“Solar power is also problematic – it is also resource hungry; all the photovoltaic systems currently on the market are reliant on one or more raw materials classed as “critical” or “near critical” by the EU and/ or US Department of Energy (high purity silicon, indium, tellurium, gallium) because of their natural scarcity or their recovery as minor-by-products of other commodities. With a capacity factor of only ~10%, the UK would require ~72GW of photovoltaic input to fuel the EV fleet; over five times the current installed capacity. If CdTe-type photovoltaic power is used, that would consume over thirty years of current annual tellurium supply.

“Both these wind turbine and solar generation options for the added electrical power generation capacity have substantial demands for steel, aluminium, cement and glass.”

Put simply, there is not enough Planet Earth left for us to grow our way to sustainability. And even if there was, the environmental damage of constructing an entirely new infrastructure would likely destroy what remains of the human habitat anyway. In any case, without further economic growth and in the absence of a radical redistribution of wealth of a kind that would have made Lenin blush, it is hard to imagine increasingly impoverished populations voting for ever more expensive energy bills. There is a reason why Luddites like Trump and Morrison are currently getting away with dismantling environmental laws and regulations – and they are the relatively benign face of a nationalist populism that will get a lot worse if current levels of inequality continue to grow.

The challenge of a zero-carbon civilisation only appears realistic when one of its elements is viewed in isolation. Once it is seen in its complete energetic, material, technological, environmental, economic and political dimensions it is an obvious fiction. There is simply no way in which we get to continue with business as usual simply by swapping one energy technology for another. And attempts at channelling the ghost of John F. Kennedy will not change this.





Why Climate Change Isn’t Our Biggest Environmental Problem, and Why Technology Won’t Save Us

27 11 2019

Richard Heinberg

August 17, 2017


Our core ecological problem is not climate change. It is overshoot, of which global warming is a symptom. Overshoot is a systemic issue. Over the past century-and-a-half, enormous amounts of cheap energy from fossil fuels enabled the rapid growth of resource extraction, manufacturing, and consumption; and these in turn led to population increase, pollution, and loss of natural habitat and hence biodiversity. The human system expanded dramatically, overshooting Earth’s long-term carrying capacity for humans while upsetting the ecological systems we depend on for our survival. Until we understand and address this systemic imbalance, symptomatic treatment (doing what we can to reverse pollution dilemmas like climate change, trying to save threatened species, and hoping to feed a burgeoning population with genetically modified crops) will constitute an endlessly frustrating round of stopgap measures that are ultimately destined to fail.

The ecology movement in the 1970s benefitted from a strong infusion of systems thinking, which was in vogue at the time (ecology—the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments—is an inherently systemic discipline, as opposed to studies like chemistry that focus on reducing complex phenomena to their components). As a result, many of the best environmental writers of the era framed the modern human predicament in terms that revealed the deep linkages between environmental symptoms and the way human society operates. Limits to Growth (1972), an outgrowth of the systems research of Jay Forrester, investigated the interactions between population growth, industrial production, food production, resource depletion, and pollution. Overshoot (1982), by William Catton, named our systemic problem and described its origins and development in a style any literate person could appreciate. Many more excellent books from the era could be cited.

However, in recent decades, as climate change has come to dominate environmental concerns, there has been a significant shift in the discussion. Today, most environmental reporting is focused laser-like on climate change, and systemic links between it and other worsening ecological dilemmas (such as overpopulation, species extinctions, water and air pollution, and loss of topsoil and fresh water) are seldom highlighted. It’s not that climate change isn’t a big deal. As a symptom, it’s a real doozy. There’s never been anything quite like it, and climate scientists and climate-response advocacy groups are right to ring the loudest of alarm bells. But our failure to see climate change in context may be our undoing.

Why have environmental writers and advocacy organizations succumbed to tunnel vision? Perhaps it’s simply that they assume systems thinking is beyond the capacity of policy makers. It’s true: if climate scientists were to approach world leaders with the message, “We have to change everything, including our entire economic system—and fast,” they might be shown the door rather rudely. A more acceptable message is, “We have identified a serious pollution problem, for which there are technical solutions.” Perhaps many of the scientists who did recognize the systemic nature of our ecological crisis concluded that if we can successfully address this one make-or-break environmental crisis, we’ll be able to buy time to deal with others waiting in the wings (overpopulation, species extinctions, resource depletion, and on and on).

If climate change can be framed as an isolated problem for which there is a technological solution, the minds of economists and policy makers can continue to graze in familiar pastures. Technology—in this case, solar, wind, and nuclear power generators, as well as batteries, electric cars, heat pumps, and, if all else fails, solar radiation management via atmospheric aerosols—centers our thinking on subjects like financial investment and industrial production. Discussion participants don’t have to develop the ability to think systemically, nor do they need to understand the Earth system and how human systems fit into it. All they need trouble themselves with is the prospect of shifting some investments, setting tasks for engineers, and managing the resulting industrial-economic transformation so as to ensure that new jobs in green industries compensate for jobs lost in coal mines.

The strategy of buying time with a techno-fix presumes either that we will be able to institute systemic change at some unspecified point in the future even though we can’t do it just now (a weak argument on its face), or that climate change and all of our other symptomatic crises will in fact be amenable to technological fixes. The latter thought-path is again a comfortable one for managers and investors. After all, everybody loves technology. It already does nearly everything for us. During the last century it solved a host of problems: it cured diseases, expanded food production, sped up transportation, and provided us with information and entertainment in quantities and varieties no one could previously have imagined. Why shouldn’t it be able to solve climate change and all the rest of our problems?

Of course, ignoring the systemic nature of our dilemma just means that as soon as we get one symptom corralled, another is likely to break loose. But, crucially, is climate change, taken as an isolated problem, fully treatable with technology? Color me doubtful. I say this having spent many months poring over the relevant data with David Fridley of the energy analysis program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Our resulting book, Our Renewable Future, concluded that nuclear power is too expensive and risky; meanwhile, solar and wind power both suffer from intermittency, which (once these sources begin to provide a large percentage of total electrical power) will require a combination of three strategies on a grand scale: energy storage, redundant production capacity, and demand adaptation. At the same time, we in industrial nations will have to adapt most of our current energy usage (which occurs in industrial processes, building heating, and transportation) to electricity. Altogether, the energy transition promises to be an enormous undertaking, unprecedented in its requirements for investment and substitution. When David and I stepped back to assess the enormity of the task, we could see no way to maintain current quantities of global energy production during the transition, much less to increase energy supplies so as to power ongoing economic growth. The biggest transitional hurdle is scale: the world uses an enormous amount of energy currently; only if that quantity can be reduced significantly, especially in industrial nations, could we imagine a credible pathway toward a post-carbon future.

Downsizing the world’s energy supplies would, effectively, also downsize industrial processes of resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and waste management. That’s a systemic intervention, of exactly the kind called for by the ecologists of the 1970s who coined the mantra, “Reduce, reuse, and recycle.” It gets to the heart of the overshoot dilemma—as does population stabilization and reduction, another necessary strategy. But it’s also a notion to which technocrats, industrialists, and investors are virulently allergic.

The ecological argument is, at its core, a moral one—as I explain in more detail in a just-released manifesto replete with sidebars and graphics (“There’s No App for That: Technology and Morality in the Age of Climate Change, Overpopulation, and Biodiversity Loss”).  Any systems thinker who understands overshoot and prescribes powerdown as a treatment is effectively engaging in an intervention with an addictive behavior. Society is addicted to growth, and that’s having terrible consequences for the planet and, increasingly, for us as well. We have to change our collective and individual behavior and give up something we depend on—power over our environment. We must restrain ourselves, like an alcoholic foreswearing booze. That requires honesty and soul-searching.

In its early years the environmental movement made that moral argument, and it worked up to a point. Concern over rapid population growth led to family planning efforts around the world. Concern over biodiversity declines led to habitat protection. Concern over air and water pollution led to a slew of regulations. These efforts weren’t sufficient, but they showed that framing our systemic problem in moral terms could get at least some traction.

Why didn’t the environmental movement fully succeed? Some theorists now calling themselves “bright greens” or “eco-modernists” have abandoned the moral fight altogether. Their justification for doing so is that people want a vision of the future that’s cheery and that doesn’t require sacrifice. Now, they say, only a technological fix offers any hope. The essential point of this essay (and my manifesto) is simply that, even if the moral argument fails, a techno-fix won’t work either. A gargantuan investment in technology (whether next-generation nuclear power or solar radiation geo-engineering) is being billed as our last hope. But in reality it’s no hope at all.

The reason for the failure thus far of the environmental movement wasn’t that it appealed to humanity’s moral sentiments—that was in fact the movement’s great strength. The effort fell short because it wasn’t able to alter industrial society’s central organizing principle, which is also its fatal flaw: its dogged pursuit of growth at all cost. Now we’re at the point where we must finally either succeed in overcoming growthism or face the failure not just of the environmental movement, but of civilization itself.

The good news is that systemic change is fractal in nature: it implies, indeed it requires, action at every level of society. We can start with our own individual choices and behavior; we can work within our communities. We needn’t wait for a cathartic global or national sea change. And even if our efforts cannot “save” consumerist industrial civilization, they could still succeed in planting the seeds of a regenerative human culture worthy of survival.

There’s more good news: once we humans choose to restrain our numbers and our rates of consumption, technology can assist our efforts. Machines can help us monitor our progress, and there are relatively simple technologies that can help deliver needed services with less energy usage and environmental damage. Some ways of deploying technology could even help us clean up the atmosphere and restore ecosystems.

But machines won’t make the key choices that will set us on a sustainable path. Systemic change driven by moral awakening: it’s not just our last hope; it’s the only real hope we’ve ever had.





What Would Net Zero Emissions by 2025 Look Like?

16 11 2019

Another guest post by Dave Pollard…. and it’s a doozy.


graph by Our World in Data

The latest IPCC report says that in order to prevent catastrophic climate change global net CO2 emissions will have to reach net zero by 2050, from their current levels of 33-38B tons rising by nearly 2%/year. The IPCC’s past reports have been almost laughably conservative and optimistic, which is just one of the reasons Extinction Rebellion have set a net-zero deadline of 2025, just 6 years from now.

It should be noted that total greenhouse gases will continue to rise for at least another 15-20 years after net zero CO2 is achieved, due to the ongoing run-on effects of other greenhouse gases, notably methane, that have been unleashed ‘naturally’ as a result of the damage we have already done to the atmosphere. And it is at best a long shot that even if we were to achieve net zero CO2 by 2025, it isn’t already too late to prevent climate collapse. Our knowledge of the science remains abysmal and every new report paints a bleaker picture. Expect a fierce anti-science, anti-reality backlash as more and more climate scientists concur that runaway, civilization-ending climate change is inevitable no matter what we do, or don’t do.

So what would be required to reduce the course of the hockey-stick trajectory shown in the chart above and achieve net zero CO2 in just 6 years, for a population that will at current rates be 7% (at least 1/2 billion people) greater than it is now?

I think the reason that, while parliaments and political parties and scientists will readily accept XR’s first demand of proclaiming a climate emergency “and communicating the urgency for change”, for most the second demand of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss to zero by 2025 is simply absurd. Western economies have merely shifted production to Asia; their accelerating consumption of CO2-produced goods continues unabated. Our global economy depends utterly on cheap hydrocarbon energy. It’s completely preposterous to think a short-term shift is even vaguely possible. Renewables won’t help us; as the chart below shows, new solar energy isn’t even keeping up with the annual increases in demand, let alone cutting into the still-accelerating need for hydrocarbon energy:

graph by Pedro Prieto, cited by Bill Rees

So let’s be preposterous. What would have to happen, at a minimum, to achieve this valiant goal? Based on what I’ve read and on my understanding of complex systems, here’s just a few of the things that I think would have to happen:

  1. An immediate, complete and permanent grounding of all air traffic. That means no executive jets, no flying for diplomatic or business meetings or emergency family reasons — or military adventures. Achieving meaningful carbon reductions is simply impossible as long as planes are flying.
  2. Immediate rationing of liquid/gas hydrocarbons for essential and community purposes only. To get all the hydrocarbon-fuelled cars and trucks off the road in six years no more travel in personal hydrocarbon-burning vehicles could be permitted. And we’d have to work hard to convert all public buses, trains and ships to non-CO2 producing vehicles in that time. If you look at supply/demand curves for gasoline, we’d be looking at carbon taxes in the area of 1000% to ‘incent’ such conversions. My guess is that most shipping and much ‘privatized’ public transit would not be able to stay in business with these constraints. So say goodbye to most imported goods.
  3. All hydrocarbons in the ground would have to stay there, all over the world, effective immediately. We’d have to make do with existing reserves for a few years until everything had been converted to renewable resources.
  4. Industrial manufacturing based on fossil fuel use would have to convert in equal steps over the six year timeframe, and any plants failing to do so would have to be shuttered.
  5. Construction of new buildings and facilities would have to stop entirely. Existing buildings would have to phase out use of fossil fuels over the six years through rationing and cut-offs for non-compliance, and they would have to be remodelled to meet stringent net-zero energy standards and to accommodate all new building needs.
  6. Trillions of trees would have to be planted, and all forestry and forest clearing stopped entirely. Likewise, production of other new high-energy-use building materials (especially concrete) would have to cease. We’d have to quickly learn to re-use the wood and other building materials we have now.
  7. All this centralized, ‘unprofitable’ activity (and enforcement of the restrictions) would need to be funded through taxes. As during the great depression, the rich could expect tax rates north of 90% on income. And a very large wealth tax would be needed to quickly redistribute wealth so that the poor didn’t overwhelmingly suffer from the new restrictions.
  8. The consequences of the above would be an immediate and total collapse of stock and real estate markets and the flow of capital. The 90% of the world’s wealth that is purely financial and not real (stocks, bonds, pensions etc) would quickly become substantially worthless in a ‘negative-growth’ economy, adding a complete economic collapse to the crises the governments trying to administer the transition to net-zero were trying to manage. In such an economic collapse, many governments would simply fail, leaving communities in their jurisdictions to fend for themselves, and making it likely that much of the world would abandon the constraints of net-zero transition because they wouldn’t have the power or resources to even begin to enforce them.

Of course, none of this will happen. Even if governments had the power and wisdom to understand what was really required to make the net-zero transition, it would be political suicide for them to implement it. It won’t happen by 2025. It won’t happen by 2050. It won’t and wouldn’t happen by 2100 even if we had that long, which we do not.

The message of all this is that we cannot save our globalized civilization from the imminent end of stable climate, affordable energy, and the industrial economy — all of which are interdependent. No one (and no group) has the power to shift these massive global systems to a radically new trajectory, without which (and perhaps even with which) our world and its human civilization are soon going to look very different.

No one knows how and how quickly this will all play out, and the scenarios under which collapse will occur vary from humane, collaborative and relatively free from suffering, to the very dystopian. There is therefore no point dwelling on them, or even trying to plan for them. As always, we will continue to do our best, each of us, with the situation that presents itself each day, and our love for our planet and its wondrous diversity will play into that. Our best will not be enough, but we will do it anyway.





Unpacking Extinction Rebellion — Part IV: The Way Forward

7 11 2019

Kim Hill

Having published parts I II and III of Kim Hill’s excellent XR Rebellion unpacking series, I’ve really been hanging out for part IV which seemed to take forever to get published…… well, was t ever worth waiting for, it’s a rip roaring article, easily the best of the series. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Image: Roseanne de Lange

Part IPart IIPart III

As we’ve seen from the first three parts of this series, the current goals and tactics of Extinction Rebellion and the climate movement are leading us in the wrong direction. An entirely different strategy is needed if we are to have any hope of building an effective movement to end corporate control and the industries destroying the planet and all who live here.

More effective solutions

A movement that is serious about extinction and climate change needs to address the root problems: capitalism, the industrial system, a culture that sees life as a resource to be exploited, and the infrastructure that holds it all together. It needs to have clear goals, that can’t be diluted or used to manipulate and misdirect the movement. It needs to take action immediately, not in several years’ time. And it needs to target the weak points in the system, where it can have the most impact for the least effort.

The misdirection of Extinction Rebellion has come about because most urban dwellers have only an abstract idea of nature, as they don’t depend on it directly for their food, water and shelter. Their relationship with nature is mediated by the economic system, which provides for their needs by stealing resources from elsewhere and selling them on for profit. The rebels are led to believe that the extractive economy is necessary for survival, and that new industries and investments offer benefits to humans and wild nature. So city folks are more than willing to take to the streets to defend the very system that is crushing the life out of us all. It’s a form of collective Stockholm syndrome, on a global scale.

Effective solutions require rebels to have a direct relationship with the natural world. To defend nature requires love, which is a constant, reciprocal relationship, which means listening, observing, giving and receiving, and being in communion on a daily basis.

To be effective, rebels need to identify not as a citizen, consumer or worker, demanding action from business and government, but as a living being, interdependent with all life. To identify with the living world is to see the entire planet as an extension of the self, so action taken to defend nature is an act of self-defence.

Demanding that governments and corporations change will only lead (and has already led) to changes that give them more power. The entire social and legal structure that puts them in a position of power needs to be dismantled. This violent arrangement is not deserving of the respect of polite demands and peaceful protest.

Being effective requires a healthy mistrust of anyone offering technological or market-based solutions, and requires asking a whole lot of uncomfortable questions. The capture of this rebellion has depended on the lack of questioning (and probably more to the point, lack of answers) as to what net-zero emissions actually means, what the rebellion aims to achieve, and what the proposed solutions really entail. Always respond to any proposal with ‘what does this mean in practice? and who benefits from this?’

The burning of fossil fuels needs to stop. Not because it is releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, but because it is powering an industrial economy that is wiping out all life. The impacts of industrialism cannot be offset, decarbonised, decoupled from economic growth, exported to the third world, or made sustainable. Fossil fuels power mining, agriculture, shipping, aviation, road and rail transport, land clearing, manufacturing, plastics, the electricity grid, and imperialist wars. Dismantling the infrastructure of oil and gas would drastically reduce the impacts of these industries. Some possible approaches to achieve this are offered by Stop Fossil Fuels, which “researches and disseminates strategies and tactics to halt fossil fuel combustion as fast as possible.”

The goal needs to be not to Make Your Voice Heard, or cause a temporary, symbolic disruption to industrial activity, but to permanently shut down the industries that are causing harm. A single drone attack on a Saudi oil processing facility this September reduced Saudi Arabia’s oil production by 50%, an action which has had more impact on the fossil fuel industry than the environmental movement ever has. No-one was harmed. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), by sabotaging fossil fuel infrastructure in Nigeria, have been able to reduce the country’s oil production by half. Ruby Montoya and Jessica Reznicek, in burning holes in the Dakota Access Pipeline, were 1000 times more efficient in terms of material impact on oil production than the entire #NoDAPL campaign. And to demonstrate that government and business will never be on board with efforts that genuinely reduce fossil fuel extraction, they are facing more than 100 years in prison, despite harming no-one.

Principles for effective action

Be on the side of the living. The biosphere, endangered species, indigenous cultures and the third world don’t need development, investment, technology, corporate ambition and sustainable infrastructure. They don’t need business opportunities and economic growth. They need all these things to stop. Those on the side of industry advocate for sustainability, aiming to sustain the destructive system for as long as possible, and have brought environmentalists across to their side. The industrial system is a war on people and planet, and taking the side of the living means being willing to fight in defence of life, and oppose efforts to sustain industry and growth.

Learn from history. The rebellion has become disconnected from the struggles of the past, which has limited its tactics to civil disobedience, cutting off the possibilities of using tactics that have been successful in historical campaigns for justice. The book Full Spectrum Resistance offers lessons from movements of the past, and principles and strategies that can be applied to current struggles for social and ecological justice.

Ancient wisdom offers ways to live in harmony with the natural world. Learning about the traditional cultures of your ancestry, as well as those of the land where you live, can provide guidance towards rebuilding a genuinely sustainable land-based culture, and strategies for land and community defence.

Drop the attachment to nonviolence. The culture of industrial capitalism is based on systemic violence. To adhere to individual nonviolence in this context is to be complicit in the ongoing violence of imperialism, patriarchy, and resource extraction. The primary goal of an effective environmental movement needs to be to stop the violence.

Nonviolence is a tactic that is only available to the privileged, those who are not personally experiencing the effects of ecocide. Those who are directly under attack from destructive industries don’t have that option, and need to defend themselves and their land with weapons. Solidarity means being willing to fight alongside them, to follow their leadership and support their tactics.

Adults need to take the lead. The targeting of young people by the corporate-led climate movement has been deliberate. It is easier to manipulate their fears, and they can be convinced that the campaigning tactics used in the past have been ineffective, and that the new way of campaigning is better. This creates a separation between the generations, and interferes with any learning about historical movements. It also presents adults as incapable of taking action themselves, requiring young people to take responsibility for guiding them.

This is not the way to build a healthy culture of resistance. Adults need to take responsibility, and create a world that nurtures the next generation. Teaching young people about all the world’s problems and expecting them to take it all on is morally awful, and also repeating this same tactic for generations is clearly not going to work, if everyone just keeps passing their problems down the line. Children need to enjoy their childhood in a healthy culture. Young people are of course welcome to get involved in resistance work, and their energy and new ideas are essential, but they shouldn’t be made to feel it is their responsibility to guide adults.

Get political. Creating meaningful change requires a solid foundation of understanding of how political power works, and how change happens. By adhering to a principle of being non-political, XR shuts down any discussion of the politics influencing the movement, and prevents rebels from engaging in any political change. Rebels who engage in political discussion or advocate for political goals or strategies get excluded, which of course serves the interests of those who are manipulating the rebellion for their own political goals. Goals that no-one is allowed to talk about, because that would be political. See how this works? Only people with limited awareness of politics can realistically comply with the principle of remaining non-political, and these are the people who are most easily led into supporting goals that oppose their interests.

Set clear goals. Having vague goals that can appeal to a wide range of people is useful if the only purpose of the movement is to appeal to a wide range of people, but those who actually want to get things done need to be specific on what they want to get done. The goals need to be clear so that they can’t be used to redirect the movement, and there needs to be a realistic strategy for how they will be achieved.

You don’t have to include everyone. The principle of inclusion is promoted by the corporate campaigners because it prevents any real change. When all political views are included, there is no possibility of forming shared goals or effective strategies. Serious activism requires people who are dedicated and willing to take risks for the cause, and should only include people who have integrity and can take on the responsibilities. Everyone is of course welcome to support and contribute, but including people who are not fully committed will only hold back those who are.

Being included in the climate movement has set back indigenous struggles, as indigenous people are expected to set aside their own causes to focus on the goals of climate action, which are often in opposition to their interests. Rather than aiming to include indigenous people, third world movements, and other marginalised groups, predominantly white movements would do well to instead offer support and solidarity to autonomous struggles, to avoid co-opting or reinforcing existing power dynamics. A principle of inclusion is embraced by the white middle-class people leading the rebellion as it makes them feel good about their identity as inclusive people, but this comes at the expense of those being included. Inclusion of marginalised people in white-led capitalist movements is colonisation. White people need to position themselves as the back-up rather than the centre.

It should go without saying that the inclusion of corporations, the World Economic Forum, banks, and the military and police force that exist to defend them, is a barrier to forming a movement that can dismantle these institutions. When ‘we’re all in this together’, those who are being exploited by capitalism are required to align themselves with those who are profiting from their exploitation. This arrangement only serves the interests of those in power, and perpetuates the system. XR claims that “we live in a toxic system, but no one individual is to blame”, which renders invisible the industries and structures of power that created the toxic system, and refuses to acknowledge that there are individuals who benefit from keeping it in place. Which leaves ordinary people identifying with the destructive economic system and blaming themselves, rather than collectively detoxifying by eradicating the entire capitalist economy.

Noticeably absent from all this performative inclusivity are the billions of living beings under threat of extinction, those whose interests XR claims to represent, yet whose names and needs for defence I’ve never heard mentioned in any of the rebellion’s discussions.

Abandon climate as an issue to rally around. Climate change is an effect of capitalism and the industrial system, and only one of many. It is not a separate issue that can be addressed on its own. Effective action needs to address the root causes. The climate issue has been thoroughly obfuscated by those who seek to benefit from manipulating the discussion. Studying and debating climate change is distracting us from taking action to address the underlying structural causes of ecological collapse.

Organise, not mobilise. XR’s strategy is predominantly based on mobilising — getting large numbers of people to come together in mass actions as individuals, rather than organising collectively on creating change on issues that directly affect them in their own neighbourhoods. The majority of rebels are simply part of a crowd at an action, rather than participating in political education, developing personal agency and leadership skills, and engaging with the wider community. Mobilising has some value as a tactic, but needs to be just one part of a broader strategy, and is unlikely to be effective on its own. Focusing exclusively on mobilising reinforces power structures and doesn’t lead to the necessary social changes.

Engage in decisive rather than symbolic actions. Standing in the street holding a banner and shouting slogans at no-one is not going to change the world. XR’s strategy of civil disobedience by blocking traffic has the effect of disrupting the lives of ordinary people on their way to work to earn a living. Effective action needs to target not working people, but the corporations and industries that are causing environmental and social devastation. Capitalism is already making people’s lives difficult enough without the rebels’ contribution. Making people aware of the issues doesn’t lead to change in itself. Decisive action means directly targeting the physical infrastructure of the industrial system, and undermining the legal and social structures that sanction it.

Create the future. Stopping the destructive system and creating a better world starts with believing that things can get better, and collectively we have the power to make that happen. Grieving the future is not going to get us there. Grieve for what has been lost, sure, but getting stuck in negativity about the future can create a global nocebo effect: if enough people genuinely believe we’re all going to die, then that’s probably what will happen. We don’t have to stay trapped in a culture of violence, isolation, suburbia, employment, junk food, debt, electricity, toxicity, traffic jams, social media and antidepressants. We can envision and create a world without these things, where humans live in healthy communities within their natural environments, not separate and imposed over top of them.

The way forward

Many people involved in XR are seeing the cracks in the green façade. There are some in the rebellion who support the goals of economic growth and the fourth industrial revolution, and don’t care about the natural world. But there are many more who care deeply, and are willing to take direct action and risk their own lives in defence of the greater web of life.

Every rebel needs to make a choice: are you on the side of the industrial economy, or on the side of the living planet? Because you can’t have both, and if you choose the economy, you’re taking away the future of every living being (including yourself), and that’s really not very nice. And there’s no room for half measures. More than 90% of the world’s rainforests have been lost to deforestation. Over 300 tons of topsoil are lost every minute. Corporations dump five million gallons of toxins into the ocean every day. One species goes extinct every 15 minutes. More than 90% of large fish in the oceans are gone, and there is 10 times as much plastic as phytoplankton in the oceans. There’s definitely no space here for economy-saving Climate Action.

The movement is already huge, and momentum is building. The economy is failing, and on the brink of collapse. An organised, committed, strategic movement that targets the critical nodes of the economic system has the potential to take it down completely.

We have millions of years of evolution on our side. Our ancestors have fought off predators and forces that could have destroyed them, and survived long enough to reproduce. Every person reading this has this heritage. We can fight for our lives and survive this. We’ve been doing it for millions of years, and with a collective act of self-defence, we can keep on for millions more.

Be guided by the courage of your wild heart, not the fears of your domesticated mind. Ask the wild creatures what they would do if they had your resources. And listen. Then act. Always, always, speak and act on behalf of those who can’t. Those who would take down all the structures that stand in the way of life.

No expectations that the government or business will save us. No demands. No compromise. No shiny illusions of net-zero, carbon-neutral, future-proofing, renewable, climate-friendly bullshit. No green capitalism, clean growth, decarbonised economies or whatever other meaningless marketing slogans corporations use to sell fake protests.

An effective movement to reverse the trend of ongoing extractivism that’s leading us toward total extinction won’t be dependent on governments and businesses taking action in response to street protests. It will require communities to work together to take down the infrastructure of the extractive industries in their own neighbourhoods, and rebuild a culture based on living in harmony with the land that sustains us. It requires an allegiance to the living world, not to the system of laws and proper channels that exist to protect those who benefit from extraction, exploitation and extinction.

The path to a better world won’t come from a fear of atmospheric gases, and demands for investment in infrastructure and industry. It needs to come out of a place of love for the natural world, and from ancient wisdom. It will come from listening to the land where you live, and taking action to defend it. Let the Earth and those who maintain relationships with their land be our teachers and guides.





Unpacking Extinction Rebellion — Part III: The Fourth Industrial Revolution

28 09 2019

Kim Hill

Kim Hill, Sep 26 · 13 min read

Part I of this series investigated the corporate interests and fossil fuel companies behind the rebellion’s goal for net-zero emissions. In Part II we looked at XR’s goals, tactics and proposed solutions to the climate crisis, which are all serving capital at the expense of the natural world. In Part III, we dive in to the history of the climate movement, the tactics being used by the elites to co-opt activist movements into supporting corporate agendas, and what those agendas entail.

This article is largely a synthesis of the extensive research of Cory Morningstar into the manipulations of the climate movement by corporations and nonprofits, which is well worth reading, at Wrong Kind of Green, to get a deeper understanding of the actors involved and their elaborate marketing strategies.

Manufacturing Consent

The corporate sector, with its network of think-tanks, lobby groups, business associations, philanthropic foundations, global forums and summits, and co-opted environment groups, has been directing the climate movement towards its own goals for more than ten years. As this video puts it, “idealistic youth are simply being herded into pre-approved movements to create the illusion of a popular mandate for what the ruling classes have already determined to be the best course of action for preserving their dominance and control.”

Corporate power manufactures consent for its neoliberal agenda with a range of tactics:

· Advertising products as ‘green’ to appeal to concerned citizens, directing their energy into lifestyle actions and consumer choices rather than organising collectively to dismantle the global economy.

· Advocating market-based solutions to problems caused by the market itself, such as fossil fuel divestment schemes, that make no difference to the underlying economic system, as it is entirely powered by fossil fuels.

· Promoting over-hyped books and documentaries that offer lifestyle changes, new technologies and neoliberal reforms as solutions, and don’t mention the possibility of direct action or systemic political change. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and the recent Ice on Fire are the lead culprits, but there are dozens of these.

· Providing training to activists, to direct them to campaign in ways that are beneficial to corporate interests. Al Gore, who sees the climate crisis as “the biggest investor opportunity ever writ in history” has been doing this for years with the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

· Installing their own leaders into environmental movements, especially young people who have had no experience in grassroots organising. Climate Reality again, and Sunrise Movement, 350, the Youth Climate Coalitions, Zero Hour and others, through youth leadership training programs that offer careers and in some cases opportunities to meet world leaders at global summits.

· Inviting prominent activists to attend and speak at corporate events, to make it look like they really care. The celebrity status of Greta Thunberg is a recent example of this approach. I’m definitely not making a judgement of her choice to accept the invitations, as I probably would have done the same if I was in her position. The point here is that the motives for inviting her are to detract attention away from their underlying agenda of promoting economic growth.

· Providing favourable media coverage to symbolic actions and non-confrontational movements. The BBC and The Guardian have been consistently enthusiastic in their reporting of the XR protests.

· Offering jobs in their foundations and NGOs to effective activists, to direct their energy away from radical change and into reform. Even Big Oil is recruiting, wanting to “harness the power” of young activists, and bring the fossil fuel industry into the movement.

· Recruiting concerned citizens into supporting corporate-endorsed Big Green NGOs, such as Greenpeace, Avaaz, WWF and 350, and soliciting donations for these organisations, while starving legitimate grassroots groups of support, media and funding.

· Isolating people working towards systemic change from the movement, so they can’t be effective. Extinction Rebellion training specifically includes strategies on how to do this.

· Directing activists into electoral politics, to work within the current system. The UK Labour Party supports the rebellion, and in the US the Democrats are supporting climate activist groups. Rebels are then distracted from their goals by party politics, and drawn into compromises for the sake of the party.

· Offering grants and sponsorship, on the condition that the recipients align their goals with those of the sponsor. The Guardian reported on July 12: “A group of wealthy US philanthropists and investors have donated almost half a million pounds to support the grassroots movement Extinction Rebellion and school strike groups — with the promise of tens of millions more in the months ahead.” All on the condition of non-confrontational and corporate-friendly campaigning methods, of course. And among those wealthy philanthropists are oil tycoons.

· Offering support for the movement, and conceding to demands, but using this tactic for self-promotion, to market themselves as sustainable and green without making any real change to their business or governance practices. This brings activists over to their side, and activism becomes an advertising campaign for business.

· Dividing movements into those who accept the promises of green business, and those who see through the greenwash. In this way the movement is undermined by directing energy into infighting, rather than working together towards a clear goal of ending corporate power and control. It leads those who buy in to the promises of green growth to directly campaign against the activists who are defending the natural world.

The goal of the climate movement has become to sustain and expand the system of corporate dominance, in direct opposition to the environmental movement’s goals of dismantling this economic system, to protect and regenerate wild nature. Rebels have become unpaid corporate lobbyists. Big business has seized on popular anger at their abusive practices, and redirected it to prop up the very system that needs to be torn down.

Corporate leadership

In XR’s core leadership team are long-time corporate lobbyists Gail Bradbrook and Farhana Yamin.

Bradbrook works for Citizens Online, a telecommunications industry lobby group that campaigns for ‘digital inclusion’ to get as many people as possible to use their products, and to compel councils to accept the rollout of 5G networks. She has used her leadership position in XR to launch XR Business, a network of corporations who see the climate crisis as — you guessed it — a great business opportunity. The Astroturfing the way for the Fourth Industrial Revolution series of articles explores Bradbrook’s corporate connections and their influence on the rebellion.

Yamin is the CEO of Track 0, a non-profit that supports the goals of the Paris Agreement (a plan for continued economic growth that is completely out of touch with reality) and declares “Getting on track to net zero is an economic imperative as much as a scientific one. The prize is innovation opportunities, and an abundance of technologies and ideas that fuel economic growth, create jobs and fuel the track to a bright economic future”. According to her bio “She is widely credited with getting the goal of net-zero emissions by mid-century into the Paris Agreement.” She is also a member of the Global Agenda Council on Climate Change at the World Economic Forum, and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House, a think tank on international affairs.

Who put the fox in charge of the henhouse? That these people are in leadership shows that the rebellion has not been co-opted by corporate interests along the way, but has been wholly contrived from the beginning as a propaganda campaign. The very definition of an astroturf movement. The good intentions and hard work of many thousands of rebels count for nothing when these are the people running the show.

The goal of the corporate backers of the rebellion is to facilitate the transfer of trillions of dollars of government money into corporate profits. It’s a bailout for a global economy that is falling into recession. After the global financial crisis of 2007–2008, people are unlikely to support another bailout, so this time it is being presented as necessary to save us from supposedly catastrophic climate change. The money required is taken from working people in the form of pension funds, carbon taxes and climate emergency levies. It’s all being invested in the energy industry and infrastructure, thereby accelerating the process of genuinely catastrophic ecological collapse.

The Climate Markets and Investment Association states: “Much has been written about the nature and the scale of this economic opportunity. Most recently, the New Climate Economy estimated that bold action on climate change would result in incremental economic opportunities of $26 trillion and 65 million new jobs, that wouldn’t exist with a business as usual approach, between now and 2030.” Interesting how the potential profits are of the same order of magnitude as the amount governments are asked to invest.

For the capitalists, the crisis is that the economy is failing and ‘climate action’ can be used to save it. For the natural world, including any humans who identify as living beings rather than economic production units, the crisis is that capitalism is destroying us, and climate action to keep it going will cause total annihilation. Pick your crisis.

From anti-globalisation to inclusive capitalism

In the 1990s and 2000s, there were massive protests all around the world, against the World Economic Forum, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organisation, which all exist to advance the interests of powerful corporations at the expense of the commons and the third world. These bodies, which are all unelected and have no popular mandate for their existence, spent millions on security and policing to protect their events from overwhelming opposition. The protesters demanded that these bodies be disbanded, and replaced by organisations that represent the people. Instead of conceding, the elites infiltrated, funded, and co-opted the resistance, and built their own mass movement, one that they could control and lead.

Protest has become a commodity, a marketable product that the corporate sector can buy, and the nonprofits are happy to sell for some funding, media attention and good feelings. The protesters themselves are both a disposable product, and consumer of the protest message, sold on feelings of guilt, fear, virtue, and their need to take action.

In the lead up to the school strikes in March, the World Economic Forum released this video advertisement, encouraging young people to join the strikes. As if the strikes are a product, and the youth the target market. Think about that. The very institution that was the target of a massive international protest movement not long ago, due to its promotion of unjust and environmentally destructive practices on a global scale, is now directly advertising a protest movement that appears to have exactly the same concerns.

Instead of identifying the corporate-controlled economic system as the cause of ecological collapse, this new movement is guided to direct their protest at some nebulous ideas about changing atmospheric conditions. A massive, international movement is quite literally protesting against a load of hot air. And somehow, the story that the corporate sector are the saviours, who can fix everything if only we demand our governments bail out the collapsing economy, and give them a few trillion dollars to invest in new infrastructure and energy sources, is rarely questioned. It’s all wrapped up in the innocuous and undefined term Climate Action, which is widely accepted as a worthy and necessary goal, with barely any inquiry into what it actually means.

The World Economic Forum aims for ‘inclusive capitalism’, and as capitalism is an economic system that sees everyone and everything as resources to be exploited, being included in the scheme isn’t likely to be on anyone’s wish list. Our imagination, creativity, skills and wishes to make the world better are turned into innovation, entrepreneurship, and human resources. Our insecurities, ambitions, and basic needs are a resource to be extracted and sold back to us as products, services, and experiences. Every living being, every natural feature, and everything the world needs to survive and live well, is all included in capitalism.

In an economy that sees all of nature and all of human experience as a resource to be traded, even protest movements can have their energy extracted. People power is just another energy source to be harnessed and used to fuel economic growth.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

Just as carbon dioxide is captured and used as a resource to suck the last drops of oil from the planet, so too is resistance (a useful waste product of the destructive economic system) captured and used to extract every last drop of our human resources. And the corporate elites have a specific plan for what they want to do with these human resources.

According to their website, “The World Economic Forum provides a platform for the world’s 1,000 leading companies to shape a better future.” I really don’t want to imagine what kind of future a thousand multi-national corporations might envision when they get together. And I don’t have to, as they’ve laid it all out in gruesome detail. It’s called the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge, are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.”

“The revolution could yield greater inequality, particularly in its potential to disrupt labor markets. As automation substitutes for labor across the entire economy, the net displacement of workers by machines might exacerbate the gap between returns to capital and returns to labor,” meaning the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And “governments will gain new technological powers to increase their control over populations, based on pervasive surveillance systems and the ability to control digital infrastructure.” And “The Fourth Industrial Revolution will also profoundly impact the nature of national and international security, affecting both the probability and the nature of conflict… As this process takes place and new technologies such as autonomous or biological weapons become easier to use, individuals and small groups will increasingly join states in being capable of causing mass harm… the Fourth Industrial Revolution may indeed have the potential to ‘robotize’ humanity and thus to deprive us of our heart and soul.”

That’s quite a sales pitch. Extreme poverty, war, surveillance, government and corporate control, and soullessness. These are the people promoting the climate strikes, and using Greta’s message to advance their goals.

The definition of fascism as “a merger of state and corporate power” has been attributed to Mussolini, and is an accurate description of this latest phase of globalization.

Another event promoting the Fourth Industrial Revolution was the Global Climate Action Summit, held in September 2018. Involving a lot of the same corporations as the WEF, and sponsored by Google, Facebook and Amazon, it states in its Exponential Climate Action Roadmap:

“To halve emissions by 2030 requires the implementation and scaling of a set of technologies which are at different levels of development. Mobile internet, cloud computing, big data, apps, smart devices and first-generation industrial automation are mature technologies and can serve as a foundation for big efficiency gains in all industries by providing connectivity and computing. The next technologies down the ramp are artificial intelligence, 5G networks, digital fabrication, smart sensors, the large-scale deployment of the internet of things and drones. These will enable a further level of emissions cuts before 2030. Finally come the technologies which are in a relatively early phase at the time of writing — blockchain, immersive user experiences like virtual- and augmented-reality, 3D printing, gene editing, advanced robotics, and digital assistants. At this stage it’s impossible to quantify their potential impact on emissions, but it can be assumed to be substantial.”

Note the word exponential in the title. Exponential growth. Exponential climate action. Exponential rate of extinction. All this new technology is predicted to use up to one fifth of global electricity by 2025, mooting any claims of efficiency gains. And another thing: most of these things are weapons and surveillance technologies. This plan has nothing to do with scaling back any polluting or life-destroying industries, and everything to do with going to war, and monitoring, manipulating and controlling the population. I feel I need to repeat, in capitals, that THESE THINGS ARE WEAPONS. And all being passed off as climate action.

Now making weapons would be an entirely appropriate response to ongoing environmental devastation, if the weapons were to be used by living beings acting in self-defence, to drive out the industrialists destroying the land that provides our food, water and shelter. But here the opposite is happening: the industrialists are using the weapons to repress the very essence of our human nature, and control our actions and thoughts, and even our genes. This is the ultimate panopticon: smart cities, smart meters, smart grids, smart appliances, facial recognition, all monitoring our every move, every interaction and every transaction. A world where we talk to machines more often than we talk with other people, and we definitely don’t speak with trees or spirits. Where even lampposts chat with you, and trees are replaced with smart trees. No possibility of dissent or resistance. We’ve been led into demanding our own subjugation and oppression.

If this happened in the real world, the one where people get to think for themselves and act in their own self-interest, the population would rise up and burn down every one of these 1000 corporations, and destroy all their assets and infrastructure. But here in the screen-mediated propaganda-sedated techno-fantasy world, where the only thoughts on offer in the marketplace of ideas are mass-produced corporate-branded delusions, we’re presented with a kid whose script says “I want you to panic” so we do that instead.

I’ll end this section with a quote from Cory Morningstar: “What better way to create a demand for something detrimental to both the environment and the populace, than to package it under climate change solutions, with the lovely and innocent face of Greta. With reality turned on its head, industry doesn’t have to impose its will on the people — the people will impose it on themselves, via Avaaz et al. The people are thus engineered to demand the very false solutions that the corporations have had up their sleeves for years and even decades.”

+ + + + + + + + +

Part IV will look at ways the rebellion might be turned around to serve life instead of profit, and offer some principles for effective action.





Unpacking Extinction Rebellion — Part II: Goals and Tactics

27 09 2019

Kim Hill

Kim Hill, Sep 19 · 16 min read

In Part I, the rebellion’s goal of transitioning to net-zero emissions was exposed as a campaign to save the capitalist economy and the fossil fuel industry. In Part II, we look into Extinction Rebellion’s demands for truth from government and a Citizens’ Assembly, their tactics, and the proposed solutions to the climate and ecological crisis.

Demand 1: that the government tell the truth about the climate crisis

What is the truth about the climate crisis? There are so many theories, debates and agendas regarding the significance of climate change, what caused it, and where it could lead, that it isn’t possible for anyone to make any claim to truth. Demanding truth from any government about such an abstract issue could lead to a propaganda campaign presenting only one side of the story, and the shutting down of debates and discussions that don’t align with the government’s version of the truth.

Governments don’t exist to serve the people and tell the truth. They exist to serve those in power, and lie. If elected representatives genuinely represented the people, the conditions that led to this point would never have happened, and there would be no need to make demands.

XR makes no demand to tell the truth about the causes of climate change and ecological collapse: endless economic growth, industrial agriculture, empire, wars, the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. It’s as though climate is a completely separate issue, which can be solved with some truth-telling and new technology that will allow all these industries to continue unabated.

Demanding “tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency” doesn’t make sense. Simply stating there is an emergency going on doesn’t lead to a spontaneous outburst of truth. More likely the opposite is the case: giving governments emergency powers leads to repression, and the silencing of inconvenient questions and truths.

This demand was changed in April, to include declaring a climate emergency, at around the same time the declaration was made in the UK. This suggests that the demands are fluid and can be adapted according to outside circumstances, and are being influenced by government policies. The core goals are not clear.

“Communicate the urgency for change” doesn’t specify what change. Again, the demand is vague and can easily be re-directed to mean anything at all. If the demand is to stop extracting fossil fuels, and stop land clearing, then it needs to say that. Communicating the urgency of reaching an unspecified goal sounds like an invitation for governments (and the corporate lobbyists in ‘the media’ and ‘other institutions’) to manufacture a crisis, create a state of panic in the populace, and take advantage of the chaos for profit. A well-documented tactic known as disaster capitalism, or the shock doctrine. As we’ve seen in Part I, this is exactly what has happened. The question of enabling the shock doctrine is raised, but not adequately addressed, on XR’s FAQ page. (The FAQ page has since been updated, with this question removed. The earlier version can be accessed at archive.org and some of the questions included, and the less-than-reassuring responses given, are quite revealing as to the true nature of the rebellion).

In a political environment where telling the truth about the government, or the ecological crisis, can get you thrown in jail, tortured or killed, demanding truth from government is naïve at best.

My main concern with this demand is that it is directed at the government. Is this really who we want to put our faith in as the authority on truth? This worldview, that we need to trust the government, rather than our own direct experience, leads to learned helplessness, disempowerment, total dependence on some higher authority. Given the lengths that governments are willing to go to hold on to power — violent repression of protests, unnecessary wars as a show of force — surely we’d be better off finding our own truths, through inquiry and discussion, rather than depend on any government to guide us.

There’s something Orwellian about this, it’s like a demand for a Ministry of Truth, that can give a government such power over our beliefs about ourselves and the world that we can really be convinced that Big Brother loves us, that net-zero emissions will save the planet, and that 2+2=5.

Virtue ethics

XR’s FAQ states: “Ultimately though, we are doing this because it is the right thing to do, in part we remain unattached to outcomes, meaning that although we hope we can save something of life on earth we try to stay motivated by action being the right thing to do (virtue ethics) rather than taking action because we think it will work (utilitarian ethics).”

So there is no goal, and no belief that the actions will be effective. Basically a way for people to feel like they’ve expressed their concerns, without actually changing anything. Compare the above quote to this one from Stratfor, a consultancy firm that advises governments on how to quell social movements: “Most authorities will tolerate a certain amount of activism because it is seen as a way to let off steam. They appease the protesters by letting them think that they are making a difference — as long as the protesters do not pose a threat. But as protest movements grow, authorities will act more aggressively to neutralize the organizers.” XR’s leaders have studied social movements, so should be well aware of this strategy. It’s almost as if the rebellion has been intentionally designed to be ineffective.

The decision to hold the largest protests, supposedly intended to disrupt business as usual in London, over Easter weekend, when absolutely no government business was taking place, further demonstrates the virtuousness of creating a spectacle rather than engaging in targeted and decisive actions.

Check out this grab from a live interview with XR founder Gail Bradbrook, on Sky News during the Easter weekend protests:

Bradbrook: “…the politicians, behind the scenes, including this current government, tell us that they need a social movement like ours to get social permission to do the necessary… We need people to focus on this emergency, and we need really big action.”

Interviewer: “Let’s be clear, you say that government politicians are saying to you, we need you to come to London [to protest]? You’ve got government ministers telling you that’s what they want?”

Bradbrook: “…I’ve met a couple of people who’ve talked with Theresa May’s advisors, and they’ve said, they do know how bad it is, and they need you guys to help. So, basically, we’re doing the job…”

So we have the government making demands that the rebels make demands of the government. The government leading a rebellion against itself. Is this a rebellion, or a government propaganda campaign? Who’s pulling the strings here?

Lack of goals might be virtuous, but it leaves the movement wide open to be used for the goals of whoever has the most power.

Proposed solutions

XR’s website offers a number of possible solutions to the ecological crisis. Let’s unpack what they each entail.

The Climate Mobilization (TCM, based in the US) advocates “an emergency restructuring of a modern industrial economy, accomplished at rapid speed. It involves the vast majority of citizens, the utilization of a very high proportion of available resources, and impacts all areas of society. It is nothing less than a government-coordinated social and industrial revolution.” This is a plan to expand the industrial system and increase resource use, requiring the government to give money to private interests, and clearly not planning to shut down the industries that are causing extinction. There’s nothing here about protecting nature, reversing economic growth, defending human rights, reducing consumption, or breaking corporate dominance. Everything TCM advocates is the exact opposite of what’s needed.

This plan will likely require people to work longer hours for less pay, accept higher taxes, reduced services, and increased government control of citizens, leading to a greatly reduced quality of life. The level of austerity inherent in “the use of World War II–type policy instruments to transform the economy on an emergency basis, including a substantially increased federal government role in planning and steering industrial investment, providing jobs, allocating energy and materials, and managing demand” when a large part of the population are already suffering unbearable levels of poverty, trauma, ill-health, violence, repression, and soul-crushing bureaucracy, could lead to a complete collapse of the social order, to the point of civil war.

If I’m going to live through a revolution, I’d prefer one that overturned the entire political and economic system that the US empire stands for, and definitely not one that has the faceless bureaucracy of the US government leading it. I can’t imagine anything worse. This is the same government that is on track to achieve ‘full spectrum dominance’, meaning total military control of the entire planet — land, sea, air and space — in service to corporate profits, by 2020.

TCM’s report Leading the Public into Emergency Mode claims that “The climate crisis is, far and away, our top national security threat, top public health threat, and top threat to the global economy.” So the US military, one of the most environmentally destructive forces on the planet, which burns through more than 10 million gallons of oil every day, and $1.7million every minute, and the economy, which is the process of converting the living world into disposable commodities, are apparently under threat from the devastation they caused. The Climate Mobilization takes the side of the military and the economy, and advocates economic and military expansionas an appropriate response. Instead of acknowledging that industrial activity is damaging the natural environment, we’re redirected to believe that natural forces in the form of changing weather patterns are damaging the economy. Nature becomes the feared and hated enemy. This is the opposite of environmentalism.

The rhetoric seems to be calling for war, but war on who, or what? Clearly not on the industries that are burning the planet. And the changing condition of the atmosphere does not make for a tangible adversary. Given that the military and economy exist to maintain the power and control of the wealthy, at the expense of the poor and the natural world, this leaves the victims of imperial wars and the capitalist system, and the living world itself, as the enemies to be defeated. Analysis presented in the video Selling Extinction suggests that initiating wars to maintain the global economic dominance of the US is indeed the goal of TCM.

“We are calling on America to lead the world in heroic, world-saving action!” Given the history of what happens when the US claims to be heroically leading and saving the world, I’d really rather you didn’t.

The parallels between TCM’s rhetoric and this definition of fascism are alarming. “Fascism is a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.” (Merriam Webster)

Extinction Rebellion distributes a proportion of the money it receives in donations to The Climate Mobilization.

Beyond Zero Emissions claims that “all sectors of the Australian economy can decarbonise, repower and benefit from the transition to zero emissions.” Economic benefits again. No environmental benefits. Again.

“Manufacturers can replace fossil fuels with renewable electricity and eliminate up to 8% of Australian emissions,” which seems hardly worth the effort, given the emissions from manufacturing the new infrastructure required for the transition probably more than makes up for the reduction. Even if it was possible to eliminate emissions from the process entirely, the manufacturing of cement, plastics, chemicals, and all the other unnecessary toxic crap continues, and continues polluting and driving extinction.

A shift to 100% electric vehicles would eliminate at least 6% of Australia’s greenhouse emissions.” Or just stop making cars.

And also, why is a rebellion against the UK government that claims to be concerned about extinction, endorsing a think-tank associated with the Australian manufacturing industry? How is that even connected? Of course it’s not going to state the obvious solution to the problem, which is to stop manufacturing stuff.

Green New Deal Group lists as its first principle “A massive environmental transformation of the economy to tackle the triple crunch of the financial crisis, climate change and insecure energy supplies.” The primary concern here is saving the economy, and supplying more energy to industry. Not about protecting the natural world. Rapid Transition Alliance and One Million Climate Jobs also promote the economic growth agenda, and also have nothing to say about reversing the trend of environmental destruction.

The Breakthrough Institute is where the proposed solutions get even more disturbing. “The Breakthrough Institute is a global research center that identifies and promotes technological solutions to environmental and human development challenges.” It advocates for nuclear power, fracking, and increasing gas extraction (collectively referred to as ‘clean energy’), genetic modification, lab-grown food, “significantly higher levels of energy consumption,” urbanization, and economic growth. It promotes technology-dependent, large-scale industrial food systems, increased use of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, and moving rural people off their land and into service and manufacturing jobs (where I guess they’d be making the chemicals to poison the land that’s been stolen from them). Basically severing humans from any relationship with the natural world. And accelerating the process of destroying every living being. And no I’m not making any of this up. It’s all listed on their website.

This is the future that Extinction Rebellion is envisioning. These are the solutions that millions of people around the world have been marching in the streets to demand of their governments. Not to cut back on fossil fuel use. Not to protect wild nature. Not to repair and regenerate the land. Not to do anything at all to address the causes of climate change and extinction. Instead to save the very system that continues to wreak havoc on the land, sea, and air, and kill us off at a rate of 200 species a day.

You might want to take a moment to let that sink in. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling the need to go outside, and scream.

Not one of these proposed solutions contains any mention of the causes of extinction and climate change, or any plan to address these issues at all. The main drivers of extinction are war, forest destruction, pesticide use, toxic chemicals, plastics, mining, road building, synthetic fertilisers, broad-scale agriculture, industrial fishing, dams, and urban sprawl. In the plan for economic transformation, decarbonisation, and green growth, these processes are not just allowed to continue, but ramped up. There’s no mention of indigenous sovereignty, rights of nature, human or environmental health, resilience, autonomy, democracy, community. These concepts have no place in the New Climate Economy.

Something worth noting about these proposed solutions is that they are completely out of touch with the reality of the world we live in. None of them address any of the predicaments that are interconnected with the climate issue they claim to solve (and they’re not even addressing that one). Millions of refugees are fleeing conflict zones. Factory farming and animal testing enslave living beings. Propaganda, surveillance and censorship are instilling fear and unravelling our communities, our autonomy, and our ability to think. Addiction, violence, household debt, homelessness and chronic illness impact more and more people, disproportionately affecting women, people of colour and the poor. 45 million people are in slavery. Free trade agreements give corporations power over sovereign nations. Six men have as much wealth as half the world’s population. Indigenous people continue to be massacred and forced to leave their homelands. Many people in Western society are so severely traumatised by this culture that the resulting anxiety and depression leave them barely able to function.

Under XR’s proposed plan, all of this, all of us, the entirety of life on this planet, is nothing but carbon, nothing more than a business opportunity, a resource to be traded, and converted into money.

Demand 3: A Citizens’ Assembly

A citizens’ assembly. A way to bypass the democratic process so the net-zero plan can be enacted without deliberation by our elected representatives. Extinction Rebellion claims that we can’t trust the democratic process because it is corrupted by corporate influence. Yet they want to keep it in place, and allow the corporate corruption to continue.

A Citizens’ Assembly is no less corruptible than the current system. The assembled citizens are not a blank slate, open to all possibilities. They don’t have magic powers that can solve all the world’s problems. They have been exposed to as much propaganda and marketing as everyone else. And they definitely won’t be given the opportunity to discuss any possibilities that aren’t in keeping with the corporate-led plan that is already unfolding.

The experts advising the citizens will quite likely be the same people who have already been advising the government on the transition. They are engineers, energy industry experts, economists, and representatives of the fossil fuel and finance industries. Not conservationists, farmers, land defenders, community activists, or people who will be affected by the new industries. Definitely not anyone who speaks on behalf of nonhuman life and future generations. This is because the transition to net-zero is all about expanding the economy and the energy industry. It’s not about addressing ecological collapse. The assembly won’t be advised by experts in land regeneration, human ecology, indigenous lifeways, permaculture design, decolonisation, de-growth, mutual aid, alternative economic and political systems, autonomous development, or participatory democracy.

The plan on how the UK will achieve the transition to net-zero has already been set, and was discussed in Part I of this series. You can read all 277 pages of it here. It makes no mention of being thrown out so these decisions can instead be made by a bunch of randos. The Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy Committee has suggested that this plan “is likely to form the basis of the Citizens’ Assembly discussions,” which doesn’t give the citizens any space to suggest anything outside of these parameters. And yes, the Citizens’ Assembly is led by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee, because, yes, it’s all about business, energy and industry. Not climate. Not extinction.

“The BEIS Committee has recently held evidence sessions (on Tuesday 18 June and Wednesday 8 May) with witnesses including Extinction Rebellion, WWF, Committee on Climate Change and other stakeholders on the net zero target and actions needed to achieve net zero emissions. The hearings are part of the Committee’s ongoing work on the Clean Growth Strategy and complement its current inquiries on financing energy infrastructureand on energy efficiency. The Committee has also carried out inquiries on Carbon Capture Usage and Storage and on Electric Vehicles.”

In case you weren’t clear on what all this rebelling is for, it’s growth, finance, infrastructure, efficiency, carbon capture, and cars. The XR representatives are more than happy to be consulted and included in these plans. So much for ‘rebel for life’.

The only concerns expressed by XR leadership about this proposal are that it isn’t legally binding, and doesn’t let the citizens set the timeline for the transition. They have made no objections to what the plan actually involves.

It’s remarkable that XR’s website goes to great lengths to describe the sortition process, and their vision for how the assembly will be run, but says absolutely nothing about what net-zero means or how it might be achieved. What isn’t said tells you a whole lot more that what is.

A mass movement of this scale has the capacity to overthrow the existing system and create a genuinely equitable, sustainable and eco-centric society in its place. But it’s not doing that. It’s instead handing over more power to governments and corporations, with the small concession of giving citizens some limited say in how this happens.

An outcome of the Citizens’ Assembly will be general public acceptance of the decisions made. This will effectively shut down any further debate on the issue, or any consideration of alternative plans, as the citizen delegates represent all of us. Resistance is neutralised.

Demanding government leadership and co-ordination takes away power from communities to make their own decisions and plans. The rebels could, if they chose, hold their own Citizens’ Assembly, or many regional assemblies, with no input from the government, and implement their own plans. This would take back power from government and corporations, and put it in the hands of the people. Yet XR has made a statement actively discouraging regional assemblies, wanting to instead focus on the national assembly.

The rebels could be engaging in prefigurative politics and municipalism, and working towards secession for regional independence, building the local structures of participatory democracy, mutual aid and local economies that can take the place of the global capitalist system. The rebellion could join forces with Symbiosis, “a confederation of community organizations across North America, building a democratic and ecological society from the ground up.”

This brings us to the aim of rebellion: to gain concessions from those in power, rather than to overthrow the entire system. A movement that aims to keep the economic system in place can never address the root cause of ecological collapse, because it is the economy itself that needs to go. A transition to a new structure, that allows business as usual to continue under a new banner of decarbonisation, has about as much effect as covering the industrial system in a layer of green paint and calling it eco-friendly.

Here’s a couple quotes from old dead dudes to help guide the rebels into doing something more useful.

“This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.” — Abraham Lincoln

“We need a revolution every 200 years, because all governments become stale and corrupt after 200 years.” — Ben Franklin

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Part III will explore the history and corporate manipulation of the climate movement, and the endgame of climate action: The Fourth Industrial Revolution.