“But Can’t Technical Advance Solve the Problems?”

16 07 2016

More from Ted Trainer…..

tedtrainer

Ted Trainer

Ted Trainer.

9.4.16

The “limits to growth” analysis argues that the pursuit of affluent lifestyles and economic growth are the basic causes of the many alarming global problems we are running into.  We have environmental destruction, resource depletion, an impoverished Third World, problems of armed conflict and deteriorating cohesion and quality of life in even the richest countries…essentially because the levels of producing and consuming going on are far too high.  There is no possibility of these levels being maintained, let alone spread to all the world’s people. We must shift to far lower levels of consumption in rich countries. (For the detail see Trainer, 2011.)

The counter argument most commonly raised against the limits case is that the development of better technology will solve the problems, an enable us to go on living affluently in growth economies.  Almost everyone seems to hold this belief. It has recently been reasserted as “Ecomodernism.” (For the main statements see Asaef-Adjaye, 2016, and  Blomqvist, Nordhaus Shellenbeger, 2015. For a detailed critique see Trainer 2016a.)

It is not surprising that this claim is regarded as plausible, because technology does constantly achieve miraculous breakthroughs, and publicity is frequently given to schemes that are claimed could be developed to solve this or that problem.  However there is a weighty case that technical advance will not be able to solve the major global problems we face.

The Simpler Way view is that technical advances cannot solve the big global problems and therefore we must change to lifestyles and social systems which do not generate those problems.  This could easily be done if we wanted to do it, and it would actually enable a much higher quality of life than most of us have now in consumer society.  But it would involve abandoning the quest for affluent lifestyles and limitless economic growth…so it is not at all likely that this path will be taken.

The problems are already far too big for technical advance alone to solve.

Most people have little idea how serious the main problems are, or how far beyond sustainable levels we are. Here are some indicators of how far we have exceeded the limits to growth.

  • The 2007 IPCC Report said that if greenhouse gas emissions are to be kept to a “safe” level they must be cut by 50-80% by 2050, and more after that. The 50% figure would mean that the average American or Australian would have to go down to under 5% of their present per capita emission rate. Some argue that all emissions should cease well before 2030. (Anderson and Bows, 2009, Hansen, 2008, Spratt, 2014.
  • By 2050 the amount of productive land on the planet per capita will be 0.8 ha (assuming we will stop damaging and losing land.)  The present amount required to give each Australian their lifestyle is 8 ha.  This means we are 10 times over a sustainable amount, and there is not the slightest possibility of all the world’s people ever rising to anywhere near our level.
  • Australians use about 280 GJ of energy per capita p.a.  Are we heading for 500 GJ/person/y by 2050?  If all the world’s expected 9.7 billion people were to live as we live world energy supply would have to be around 4,500 EJ/y…which is 9 times the present world energy production and consumption.
  • Almost all resources are scarce and dwindling. Ore grades are falling, and there have been food and water riots. Fisheries and tropical forests are in serious decline. Yet only about one-fifth of the world’s people are using most of these; what happens when the rest rise to our levels?
  • Many of the world’s ecosystems are in alarmingly rapid decline.  This is essentially because humans are taking so much of the planet’s area,  and 40% of the biological productivity of the lands.  We are causing a holocaust of biodiversity die-off mainly because we are taking the habitats other species need.  Of about 8 billion ha of productive land we have taken 1.4 billion ha for cropland, and about 3.5 billion ha for grazing.  We are depleting most of the fisheries.  The number of big fish in the oceans is down to 10% of what it was. We are destroying around 15 million ha of tropical forest every year.  And if all 9 billion people expected are going to live as we do now, resource demands would be about 10 times as great as they are now.  There are many other environmental impacts that are either past the limits biologists think are tolerable, or approaching them, including the rate of nitrogen release, ozone destruction, chemical poisoning of the earth and atmospheric aerosol loads. (Rockstrom, 2009.)
  • The World Wildlife Fund estimates that we are now using up resources at a rate that it would take 1.5 planet earths to provide sustainably. (WWF, 2014.) If 9.7 billion are to live as we expect to in 2050 we will need more than 20 planet earths to harvest from.

These are some of the many ways in which we have already greatly exceeded the planet’s capacity to meet human demands, and they define the task the tech-fix believer is faced with.  So ask the tech-fix optimist, “If technology is going to solve our problems, when is it going to start?  Just about all of them seem to be getting worse at present.”

Now add the absurdity of economic growth.

These and many other facts and figures only indicate the magnitude of the present problems caused by over-production and over-consumption.  To this alarming situation we must now add the fact that our society is committed to rapid and limitless increases in “living standards” and GDP; i.e., economic growth is the supreme goal.

If we Australians have 3% p.a. economic growth to 2050, and by then all 9.7 billion people will have come up to the “living standards” we will have by then, the total amount of economic production in the world each year will be about 20 times as great as it is now.  The present amount of production and resource use is grossly unsustainable, yet we are committed to economic system which will see these rates multiplied 20 times by 2050.

And note that most of the resources and ecosystems we draw on to provide consumer lifestyles are deteriorating. The WWF’s Footprint index tells us that at present we would need 1.5 planet Earth’s to provide the resources we use sustainably. So the Tech-fix advocate’s task is to explain how we might cope with a resource demand that is 20×1.5 = 30 times a currently sustainable level by 2050…and twice as much by 2073 given 3% p.a. growth.

Huge figures such as these define the magnitude of the problem for technical-fix believers.  We are far beyond sustainable levels of production and consumption; our society is grossly unsustainable, yet its fundamental determination is to increase present levels without limit.  If technical advance is going to solve the problems caused by all that producing and consuming it must cut resource use and impacts by a huge multiple…and keep it down there despite endless growth.  Now ask the tech-fix believer what precisely he thinks will enable this.

Faith-based tech-fix optimism.

At this point we usually find that the belief in tech–fix is nothing but a faith, and one that has almost no supporting evidence.   Because technology has achieved many wonders it is assumed that it will come up with the required solutions, somehow.  This is as rational as someone saying, “I have a very serious lung disease, but I still smoke five packs of cigarettes a day, because technical advance could come up with a cure for my disease.”  This argument is perfectly true… and perfectly idiotic.  If you are on a path that is clearly leading to disaster the sensible thing is to get off it.  If technology does come up with solutions then it might make sense to get back on that path again.

The tech-fix optimist should be challenged to show in detail what are the grounds for us accepting that solutions will be found, to each and every one of the big problems we face.  What precisely might solve the biodiversity loss problem, the water shortage, the scarcity of phosphorus, the collapse of fish stocks, etc., and how likely are these possible beak-throughs?   Does it not make better sense to change from the lifestyles and systems that are causing these problems, at least until we can see that we can solve the resulting problems?

It should be stressed that the argument here is not to deny or undervalue the many astounding advances being made all the time in fields like medicine, astronomy, genetics, sub-atomic physics and IT, or to imply that these will not continue. The point is that technical advance is very unlikely to come up with ways that solve the resource and environmental problems being generated by affluent lifestyles.  The argument is that when the magnitude of the task (above) and the evidence on the significance of technical advance for resource and ecological problems is considered (below), tech-fix faith is seen to be extremely unwarranted … and the solutions have to be sought in terms of shifting to a Simpler Way of some kind.

Amory Lovins and Factor 4 or 5 reductions.

For decades Amory Lovins has been possibly the best known of several people who argue that technical advances could cut resource use per unit of GDP considerably.  He says we could in effect have 4 times the output with the same impact.  (Von Weizacher and Lovins, 1997).  But the above numbers make it clear that this is far from sufficient.  If by 2050 we should cut ecological impact and resource use in half (remember footprint and other indices show this is far from enough), but we also increase economic output by 20, then we’d need a factor 40 reduction, not Factor 4…and resource demand would be twice as high in another 23 years if 3% growth continued.

The factors limiting what technical advance can do.

It is important to keep in mind that there are several factors which typically determine the gains a technical advance actually enables are well below those that seem possible at first.  Engineers and economists make the following distinctions.

  • “Technical potential.”  This is what the technology could achieve if fully applied with no regard to cost or other problems.
  • Economic (or ecological) potential”.  This is usually much less than the technical potential because to achieve all the gains that are technically possible would cost too much.  For instance it is technically possible for passenger flights to be faster than sound, but it is far too costly.  It would be technically possible to recycle all lead used, but it would be much too costly in dollars and convenience to do so. Some estimate that it would be technically possible to harvest 1,400 million ha for biomass energy per year, but when ecologically sensitive regions are taken out some conclude that the yield could only be 250 million ha or less. (World Wildlife Fund, 2010, p. 181.)  The WWF study quotes Smeets and Faiij (2007) as finding that it would be technically possible for the world’s forests to produce another 64 EJ/y of biomass energy p.a., but Field, Campbelo and Lobell (2007) conclude that only 27 EJ/y can be obtained, under 2 per cent of the Smeets and Faiij figure.
  • What are the net gains?  Enthusiastic claims about a technical advance typically focus on the gains and not the costs which should be subtracted to give a net value.  For instance the energy needed to keep buildings warm can be reduced markedly, but it costs a considerable amount of energy to do this, in the electricity needed to run the air-conditioning and heat pumps, and in the energy embodied in the insulation and triple glazing.

The WWF Energy Report (2010) claims that big savings can be made in building heating and cooling, but their Figs. 3 – 11 and 3 – 12 show that although their measures would reduce heat used in buildings by 90%, electricity used would increase c. 50% (and there is no reference to what the embodied energy cost of manufacturing the equipment and insulation might be.)  The graphs don’t seem to show any net reduction in building energy use.

The Green Revolution doubled food yields, but only by introducing crops that required high energy inputs in the form of expensive fertilizers, seeds and irrigation.  One result was that large numbers of very poor farmers went out of business because they couldn’t afford the inputs.

Similarly, it is possible to solve some water supply problems by desalination, but only by increasing the energy and greenhouse problems.

  • What is socially/politically possible?  Then there are limits set by what people will accept.  It would be technically possible for many people in Sydney to get to work by public transport, but large numbers would not give up the convenience of their cars even if they saved money doing so.  The energy efficiency of American cars is much lower than what is technically possible, and in fact lower than it was decades ago … because many people want energy-intensive vehicles.  Australians are now building the biggest and most energy wasteful houses in the world.  A beautiful, tiny, sufficient mud brick house could be built for less than $10,000…but most people would not want one.  These examples make it clear that the problems of over-consumption in many realms are mainly social rather than technical, and that they can’t be solved by technical advance.  The essential tech-fix issue is to do with whether or not the problems can be solved by technical advances which allow us to go on living and consuming as we were before, or whether we must change to values and behaviour that don’t cause problems.
  • The Jevons or “rebound” effect.  Then there is the strong tendency for savings made possible by a technical advance to be spent on consuming more of the thing saved or something else.  For instance if we found how to get twice the mileage per litre of petrol many would just drive a lot more, or spend the money saved on buying more of something else.  The Indians have recently developed a very cheap car, making it possible for many more low income people to drive, consume petrol and increase greenhouse gases.

So it is always important to recognise that an announced technical miracle breakthrough probably refers to its technical potential but the savings etc. that it is likely to enable in the real world will probably be well below this.

Some evidence on technical advance in the relevant fields.

Again the focus here is on fields which involve high resource or ecological impacts and demands, not on the many advances being made in fields like medicine or particle physics. It should not be assumed that in general rapid, large or continuous technical gains are being routinely made in the relevant fields, especially in crucial areas such as energy efficiency. Ayres (2009) notes that for many decades there have been plateaus for the efficiency of production of electricity and fuels, electric motors, ammonia and iron and steel production.  The efficiency of electrical devices in general has actually changed little in a century (Ayres, 2009, Figs. 4.1 and 4.19, p. 127.)  “…the energy efficiency of transportation probably peaked around 1960”.  (p. 126), probably due to increased use of accessories.  Ayres’ Fig. 4.21a shows no increase in the overall energy efficiency of the US economy since 1960. (p. 128.)  He notes that reports tend to publicise particular spectacular technical advances and this can be misleading regarding long term average trends across whole industries or economies.

We tend not to hear about areas where technology is not solving problems, or appears to have been completely defeated.  Not long ago everyone looked forward to super-sonic mass passenger flight, but with the demise of Concorde this goal has been abandoned.  It would be too difficult and costly, even without an energy crunch coming up.  Sydney’s transport problems cannot be solved by more public transport; more rail and bus would improve things, but not much because the sprawling city has been build for the car on 70 years of cheap oil.  Yes you could solve all its problems with buses and trains, but only at an infinite cost.   The Murray-Darling river can only be saved by drastic reduction in the amount of water being taken out of it.  The biodiversity holocaust taking place could only be avoided if humans stopped taking so much of nature, and returned large areas of farmland and pasture to natural habitat. (For an extremely pessimistic analysis of what future technology might achieve, see Smith and Positrano, 2010.)

Most indices of technical progress, efficiency and productivity show long term tapering towards ceilings.  “But what about Moore’s law, where by computer chip power has followed a steep upward curve?”  Yes in some realms this happens, for a time, but the trend in IT is highly atypical.  (By the way, the advent of computers has not made much difference at all to the productivity of the economy; indeed in recent decades productivity growth indices for national economies have fallen.  This is identified as “The Productivity Paradox.”)

There are two important areas where recent trends seem to run counter to this argument; the remarkable fall in the costs of PV panels and the advent of new batteries. However the significance of these is uncertain. The PV cost is largely due to latge subsidies, very cheap labour, and the general failure of the Chinese economy to pay ecological costs of production. (On the enormous difference the last factor makes see Smith, 2016.)  Thus the real cost, and that which we will have to pay in future is likely to be much higher.  (… the EIA thinks costs will probably rise before long.), The significance of the new battery technology is clouded by the fact that costs would have to fall by perhaps two-thirds before they could be used for grid storage without greatly increasing the cost of power, and it is not likely that there is enough Lithium to enable grid level storage of renewable energy.

The crucial “decoupling” issue.

The fundamentally important element in the tech-fix or ecomodernist position is the belief/claim that resource demand and ecological impact can be “decoupled” from economic growth, that is, that new ways will enable the economy to keep growing and “living standards”, incomes and consumption to continue rising without increasing resource use or environmental damage (or while keeping these down to sustainable levels.) The following passages deal with considerable evidence on decoupling and show this belief to be extremely implausible, to put it mildly.

What about the falling “energy intensity” of the economy?”

The fact that the “energy intensity” of rich world economies, i.e., ratio of GDP to gross energy used within the country has declined is often seen as evidence of decoupling but this is misleading. It does not take into account the large amounts of energy embodied in imports, i.e., energy use we benefit from but does not show up in our national accounts.  (below.) Possibly more important is the long term process of “fuel switching”, i.e., moving to forms of energy which are of “higher quality” and enable more work per unit. For instance a unit of energy in the form of gas enables more value to be created than a unit in the form of coal, because gas is more easily transported, switched on and off, or converted from one function to another, etc. (Stern and Cleveland, 2004, p. 33, Cleveland et al., 1984, Kaufmann, 2004,  Office of Technology Assessments, 1990, Berndt, 1990, Schurr and Netschurt, 1960.)

What about productivity increases?

It is commonly thought that the power of technology is evident in the constantly improving productivity of the economy.  Again this is misleading, firstly because productivity gains have been low and decreasing in recent decades and this is a constant concern and puzzle among economists and politicians. Even the advent of computerisation has had a surprisingly small effect, a phenomenon now labelled the “Productivity Paradox.”

The overlooked role of energy in productivity growth and decoupling.

Most of the productivity growth that  has taken place now seems to have been due not to technical advance but to increased use of energy. Previous analyses have not realized this but have analysed only in terms of labour and capital input “factors of production”. Agriculture is a realm where technical advance has been predominantly a matter of increased energy use. Over the last half century productivity measured in terms of yields per ha or per worker have risen dramatically, but these have been mostly due to even greater increases in the amount of energy being poured into agriculture, on the farm, in the production of machinery, in the transport, pesticide, fertilizer, irrigation, packaging and marketing sectors, and in getting the food from the supermarket to the front door, and then dealing with the waste food and packaging. Less than 2% of the US workforce is now on farms, but agriculture accounts for around 17% of all energy used (not including several of the factors listed above.) Similarly the “Green Revolution” has depended largely on ways that involve greater energy use.

Ayres, et al., (2013), Ayres, Ayres and Warr (2002) and Ayres and Vouroudis (2013) are among those beginning to stress the significance of energy in productivity, and pointing to the likelihood of increased energy problems in future and thus declining productivity. Murillo-Zamorano, (2005, p. 72) says “…our results show a clear relationship between energy consumption and productivity growth.” Berndt (1990) finds that technical advance accounts for only half the efficiency gains in US electricity generation. These findings caution against undue optimism regarding what pure technical advance can achieve independently from increased energy inputs; in general its significance for productivity gains appears not to have been as great as has been commonly assumed.

The productivity trend associated with this centrally important factor, energy, is itself in serious decline, evident in long term data on EROI ratios. Several decades ago the expenditure of the energy in one barrel of oil could produce 30 barrels of oil, but now the ratio is around 18 and falling. The ratio of petroleum energy discovered to energy required has fallen from 1000/1 in 1919 to 5/1 in 2006. (Murphy, 2010.) Murphy and others suspect  that an industrialised society cannot be maintained on a general energy ratio under about 10. (Hall, Lambert and Balough, 2014.)

So when we examine the issue of productivity growth we find little or no support for the general tech-fix faith.  It is not the case that technical breakthroughs are constantly enabling significantly more to be produced per unit of inputs. The small improvements in productivity being made seem to be largely due to changes to more energy-intensive ways, and energy itself is exhibiting marked deterioration in productivity (ie, as evident in its EROI.) Some analysts (e.g., Ayres, 2009, Ayres et al., 2013) believe that any gains occurring now will probably disappear with coming rises in energy scarcity and cost.

Lets examine ewhere materials are used; not general GDP

Evidence on low past and present decoupling achievement.

The historical record suggests that at best rates of decoupling materials and energy use from GDP have been very low or less than zero; i.e., some important measures show materials or energy use to be increasing faster than GDP. It is important not to focus on national measures such as “Domestic Materials Consumption” as these do not take into account materials in imported goods.  For example the OECD (2015) claims that materials used within its countries has fallen 45% per dollar of GDP, but this figure does not take into account materials embodied in imported goods. When they are included rich countries typically show very low or worsening ratios. The commonly available global GDP (deflated) and energy use figures between 1980 and 2008 reveals only a 0.4% p.a. rise in GDP per unit of energy consumed.   Tverberg () reproduces the common plot for global energy use and GWP, showing an almost complete overlay; i.e., no tendency for energy use to fall away from GWP growth.

Weidmann et al. (2014) show that when materials embodied in imports are taken into account rich countries have not improved their resource productivity in recent years. They say “…for the past two decades global amounts of iron ore and bauxite extractions have risen faster than global GDP.” “… resource productivity…has fallen in developed nations.” “There has been no improvement whatsoever with respect to improving the economic efficiency of metal ore use.”

Giljum et al. (2014, p. 324) report only a 0.9% p.a. improvement in the dollar value extracted from the use of each unit of minerals between 1980 and 2009, and that over the 10 years before the GFC there was no improvement. “…not even a relative decoupling was achieved on the global level.” Their Fig. 2, shows that over the period 1980 to 2009 the rate at which the world decoupled materials use from GDP growth was only one third of that which would have achieved an “absolute” decoupling, i.e., growth of GDP without any increase in materials use. It must be stressed here that, as they point out, these findingss would have been worse had the production of much rich world consumption not been outsourced to the Third World (that is, had energy embodied in imports been included.)

Diederan’s account (2009) of the productivity of minerals discovery effort is even more pessimistic. Between 1980 and 2008 the annual major deposit discovery rate fell from 13 to less than 1, while discovery expenditure went from about $1.5 billion p.a. to $7 billion p.a., meaning the productivity expenditure fell by a factor in the vicinity of around 100, which is an annual decline of around 40% p.a. Recent petroleum figures are similar; in the last decade or so discovery expenditure more or less trebled but the discovery rate has not increased.

A recent paper in Nature by a group of 18 scientists at the high-prestige Australian CSIRO (Hatfield-Dodds et al., 2015) argued that decoupling could eliminate any need to worry about limits to growth at least to 2050. The article contained no support for the assumption that the required rate of decoupling was achievable and when it was sought (through personal communication) reference was made to the paper by Schandl et al. (2015.)  However that paper contained the following surprising statements, “ … there is a very high coupling of energy use to economic growth, meaning that an increase in GDP drives a proportional increase in energy use.”  (They say the EIA, 2012, agrees.) “Our results show that while relative decoupling can be achieved in some scenarios, none would lead to an absolute reduction in energy or materials footprint.” In all three of their scenarios “…energy use continues to be strongly coupled with economic activity…”

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural Economics (ABARE, 2008) reports that the energy efficiency of energy-intensive industries is likely to improve by only 0.5% p.a. in future, and of non-energy-intensive industries by 0.2% p.a. In other words it would take 140 years for the energy efficiency of the intensive industries to double the amount of value they derive from a unit of energy.

Alexander (2014) concludes his review of decoupling by saying, ”… decades of extraordinary technological development have resulted in increased, not reduced, environmental impacts.”  Smil (2014) concludes that even in the richest countries absolute dematerialization is not taking place. Alvarez found that for Europe, Spain and the US GDP increased 74% in 20 years, but materials use actually increased 85%. (Latouche, 2014.) Similar conclusions re stagnant or declining materials use productivity etc. are arrived at by Aadrianse, 1997, Dettrich et al., (2014), Schutz, Bringezu and Moll, (2004), Warr, (2004), Berndt, (undated), and Victor (2008, pp. 55-56).

A version of the decoupling thesis is the “Environmental Kuznets Curve”, i.e., the claim that as economic development takes place environmental impacts increase but then decrease. The evidence on this thesis indicates that it is not correct. Greenhouse gas emissions give us a glaring example. Alexander concludes his review, (2014),  “If the EKC hypothesis sounds too good to be true, that is because, on the whole, it is false.”

These sources and figures indicate the apparently total lack of support for the ecomodernists’ optimism. They are assuming that there can be massive absolute decoupling, i.e., that by 2050 energy, materials and ecological demand associated with $1 of GDP can be reduced by a factor of around 30. There appears to be noecomodernist literature that even attempts to provide good reason to think a general absolute decoupling is possible, let alone on the required scale. (I have made about five attempts to have such evidence sent to me from the leading ecomodernist authors, without receiving any.)

            The changing components of GDP.

There is another consideration that makes the situation much worse. Over recent decades there has been a marked increase in the proportion of rich nation GDP that is made up of “financial” services. These stand for “production” that takes the form of key strokes that move electrons around.  A great deal of it is wild speculation, making risky loans and making computer driven micro-second switches in “investments”. These operations deliver massive increases in income to banks and managers, commissions, loans, interest, consultancy fees.  These make a big contribution to GDP figures. In one recent year 40% of US corporate profits came from the finance sector. It could be argued that this domain should not be included in estimates of productivity because it misleadingly inflates the numerator in the output/labour ratio.

This means that the most significant measures will be to do with industries that use material and ecological inputs.  The crucial question is, in those industries that are causing the pressure on resources and ecosystems is significant decoupling taking place? However when output per worker in the production of “real” goods and services such as food and vehicles, or aged care is considered we do not seem to find reassuring evidence of decoupling.  Again agricultural industry provides some of the best examples. Over the last 50 years there has been a huge increase in energy used in fuel, pesticides, fertilizers, transport, packaging, marketing and waste treatment. Kowalski (2011) reports that between 1960 and 2010 world cereal production increased 250%, but nitrogen fertilizer use in cereal production increased 750%. Between 1997 and 2002 the US household use of energy on food increased 6 times as fast as use for all household purposes. (Canning et al., 2010.)

The enormous implications for energy demand.

The main ecomodernist texts make clear that if the technical advances envisaged could not take place unless there was extremely large scale increase in the amount of energy produced.  They look forward to shifting a large fraction of agriculture off land into intensive systems such as high rise greenhouses and acquaculture, massive use of desalination for water supply, processing lower grade ores, dealing with greatly increased amounts of industrial waste (especially mining waste), and constructing urban infrastructures for billions to live in as they propose shifting people from the land to allow more of it to be returned to nature.  They do not think renewable energy sources can provide these quantities of energy, so their proposals would have to involve very large numbers of fourth generation nuclear reactors (which run on plutonium). How large?

If 9 billion people were to live on the per capita amount of energy Americans now average, world energy consumption in 2050 would be around x5 (for the US to world average ratio) x10/7 (for population growth) times the present 550 EJ p.a., i.e., around 3,930 EJ. The nuclear generating capacity needed would be around 450 times as great as at present.

And the baseline is deteriorating…

The general “limits to growth” analysis of the global situation makes it clear that the baseline on which ecomodernist visions must build is not given by present conditions such as resource availability. As Steffen et al. (2015) and many others stress the baseline is one of not just deteriorating conditions, but accelerating deterioration.

It is as if the ecomodernists are claiming that their A380 can be got to climb at a 60 degree angle, which is far steeper than it has ever done before, but at present it is in an alarming and accelerating decline with just about all its systems in trouble and some apparently beyond repair. The problem is the wild party on board, passengers and crew dancing around a bonfire and throwing bottles at the instruments, getting more drunk by the minute. A few passengers are saying the party should stop, but no one is listening, not even the pilots. The ecomodernist’s problem is not just about producing far more metals, it is about producing far more as grades decline, it is not just about producing much more food, it is about producing much more despite the fact that problems to do with water availability, soils, the nitrogen cycle, acidification, and carbon loss are getting worse.  It can be argued that on many separate fronts halting the deteriorating trends is now unlikely to be achieved. Yet the ecomodernist wants us to believe that the curves can be made to cease falling and to rise dramatically, without abandoning the quests for affluence and growth which are responsible for their deterioration.  Stopping the party is not thought to warrant consideration.

This is not an argument against technology.

Research and development and improving things are obviously important and in The Simpler Way vision we would have more resources going into technical research than we have now despite a much lower GDP, because we would have phased out the enormous waste of resources that occurs in consumer-capitalist society.  But it is a mistake to think that the way to solve our problems is to develop better technology.  That will not solve the problems, because they are far too big, and they are being generated by trying to live in ways that generate impossible resource demands. The big global problems have been caused by our faulty social systems and values.  The solution is to develop ways and systems that don’t generate the problems, and this requires movement away from affluent, high energy, centralised, industrialised, globalised etc., systems and standards. Above all it requires a shift from obsession with getting rich, consuming and acquiring property. It requires a willing acceptance of frugality and sufficiency, of being content with what is good enough.

Hundreds of years ago we knew how to produce not just good enough but beautiful food, houses, cathedrals, clothes, concerts, works of art, villages and communities, using little more than hand tools and crafts.  Of course we should use modern technologies including computers (if we can keep the satellites up there) where these make sense.  But we don’t need much high-tech to design and enjoy high quality communities.

Some of our most serious problems are to do with social breakdown, depression, stress, and falling quality of life.  These problems will not be solved by better technology, because they derive from faulty social systems and values.  Technical advances often make these problems worse, e.g., by increasing the individual’s capacity to live independently of others and community, and by enabling machines to cause unemployment. Especially worrying is the fact that ecomodernist dreams would involve massive globally integrated professional and corporate run systems involving centralised control and global regulatory systems (e.g., to prevent proliferation of radioactive materials from all those reactors.  Firstly this is not a scenario that will have a place for billions of poor people.  It will enable a few super-smart techies, financiers and CEOs to thrive, making inequality far more savage, and it will set impossible problems for democracy because there will be abundant opportunities for those in the centre to sdrure their own interests, to be corrupt and secretive. (See Richard Smith’s disturbing account of China today: 2015.)

(For a detail account of The Simpler Way vision of a sustainable and satisfactory society see The Simpler Way website,  thesimplerway.info and  in particular thesimplerway.info/THEALTSOCLong.htm

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Blomqvist, L., T. Nordhaus and M. Shellenbeger, (2015), Nature Unbound; Decoupling for Conservation, Breakthrough Institute.

Canning, P. et al., (2010), Energy Use in the US Food System, USDA.

Cleveland, C. J., R. Costanza, C. A. S. Hall, and R. K. Kaufmann “Energy and the U.S. economy: A biophysical perspective.” Science, 225: (1984), pp., 890-897.

Field, C.B., Campbell, J.E. and Lobell, D.B. (2007), “Biomass energy: the scale of the potential resource”, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Vol. 13 No. 2, pp. 65-72.

Hansen, J., et al., (2008), “Target atmospheric CO2; Where Should humanity aim?”, The Open Atmospheric Science Journal, 2, 217 – 231.

  1. K. Kaufmann, (2004), “A biophysical analysis of the energy/real GDP ratio: implications for substitution and technical change”, Ecological Economics , 6: pp. 35-56.
  2. K. Kaufmann, (2004), “The mechanisms for autonomous energy efficiency increases: A co-integration analysis of the US energy/GDP ratio”, Energy Journal , 25(1), pp.  63-86.

Office of Technology Assessment, (1990), Energy Use and the U.S. Economy, US Congress, OTA-BP-E-57, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington DC.

Rockstrom, J., (2009) “A safe operating space for humanity”, Nature, 461:24 (Sept.), pp. 472 – 476.

  1. Schurr, and B. Netschert, (1960), Energy and the American Economy, 1850-1975, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Smeets, E., and A. Faaij, (2007), “Bioenergy potentials from forestry in 2050 —  An assessment of the drivers that determine the potentials”, Climatic Change, 8, 353 – 390.

Smith, R., (2015), China’s communist-capitalist ecological apocalypse”, Real-world Economic Review, 71.

Spratt, D., (2014),The real budgetary emergency and the myth of ‘burnable carbon”, Climate Code Red, 22 May.

Stern, D. and C. J. Cleveland, (2004), “Energy and Economic Growth”, in C. J. Cleveland (ed.), Encyclopedia of Energy. San Diego: Academic Press.

Trainer, T, (2011), The Simpler Way; Outline of Our Perspective, http://thesimplerway.info/TSWmain.htm

Trainer, T., (2016a), The extreme implausibility of Ecomodernism, (This critique overlaps considerably with this argument against the Tech Fix position.)

Von Weizacker, E. and A. B. Lovins, (1997), Factor Four : Doubling Wealth – Halving Resource Use : A New Report to the Club of Rome, St Leondards, Allen & Unwin.

World Wide Fund for Nature, (2011), The Energy Report, WWF and Ecofys.





Tasmania’s Greek Tragedy…..

23 03 2016

Just when I thought Tasmania’s electricity woes could not get any worse…….  they did. And they haven’t just gone from bad to worse, they have morphed from tragic to farcical.

Tasmania’s dam levels are dropping fast, some so critically, like the Great Lake, that it has been shut down altogether.  There’s talk of draining Lake Pedder to raise water levels elsewhere in the system, but would you believe it, the morons in charge are actually balking at the idea.  There are rumors that if Lake Pedder’s iconic beach was brought back from the dead, Hydro Tasmania would not be allowed to flood it again.  But if you think that’s weird, wait, there’s more…..

Here is a chart showing the flow of electricity through Basslink, the electric cable, now down for several months, joining Victoria to Tasmania…..:

basslink-flows

If you’re paying attention, unlike the morons in charge of Tassie’s electricity, you will notice something odd happened on the way to the market…..  the electricity market that is.

Until 2010-11, Tasmania was overwhelmingly a nett power importer. Then, during 2010-11 and 2011-12, Tasmania dramatically increased its exports to the point of equaling imports. Suddenly, in 2012-13, Tasmania’s Basslink’s imports plummeted to 2.6% of its electricity consumption (see page 130 of the link).  By 2013-14, Tassie was importing almost nothing at all via Basslink – shedloads of energy was going the other way.  What was going on you are likely to ask?

Well, remember the Gillard government? (yes I know, it’s a lot of Prime Ministers ago….) In August 2010, Julia Gillard cheerfully introduced a ‘carbon tax’. Gillard’s scheme (not a ‘Carbon tax’ according to the ALP) made ‘renewable’ hydroelectricity artificially more price competitive in the energy market. In turn, Tasmania’s government, who owned Hydro Tasmania became decidedly giddy with excitement… and greed.  After all, why worry about Tasmanians’ electricity requirements when you can make money hand over fist, seemingly for free?  (you knew the environment comes for free, right??)

The results look like this……..:

hydro-tasmania-storage-graph-2010-2016

You can clearly see the Winter inflows making the levels rise, and the Summer dry season making the levels go down…..  Now, before the Carbon Tax was introduced, levels rarely dropped below 30%, giving this state a relatively good safety cushion in case of a drought…. and seeing as Climate Change is going to bring us more droughts, then it’s a good idea to keep this buffer.  Right?  Unless of course there’s money to be made….!! Never get between a conservative government and a stash of free money, let me tell you…. they will run straight over the top of you (by the way I consider a Labor government to be conservative these days…)

Hydro Tasmania must’ve been licking its lips as it flicked the Basslink switch into reverse, and recklessly ploughed through more than half of its stored energy supply (i.e. stored water) during the carbon tax period:

The figures show that Tasmanian hydro generators have been selling electricity into the mainland market at unprecedented rates, drawing down storage levels dramatically since the carbon price was implemented in July 2012.

And if you operate a hydroelectricity plant and you flog off all your stored water much faster than the rain can re-fill your dam, you’re going to be in a lot of pain….

Along comes the drought we had to have (sorry Paul…)

You think the drought’s bad right…… well wait, there’s more!

According to the Mercury….:

BASSLINK owners sought to restrict Hydro Tasmania’s electricity exports and enforce a “cooling off” protocol during the period of the carbon tax to ensure the undersea cable was operated safely and reliably.

The news comes as Basslink prepares to cut the cable today [March 10 2016] and enable the cause of the fault to be pinpointed.

After three outages in July 2012, Basslink parent company Cityspring Infrastructure Trust sought to enforce what it called a “dynamic protocol” on the service agreement between it and Hydro, which enable it to transmit at “certain elevated levels”.

But the company said the outages came after Hydro transmitted electricity at levels above these in early July.

Yes, you read right, the greedy bastards fried the cable……… Look, I’m no electrical engineer, but I do know that if you put too much current through a cable, the black smoke locked inside that cable will be released.  Except you can’t see it underwater….!

The cable has been cut…….  but they still haven’t found the fault.  If you ask me, this doesn’t look good.  And a whole lot of other Tasmanians agree.  Just the other night on ABC TV news, Hydro Tasmania engineers were interviewed about why they are installing external plugs for running their houses off generators, and stocking up on batteries and, you won’t believe this, candles…….  only in Tasmania!  CSIRO is also planning for the worst.

Yes Tasmania, you are run by buffoons…….

On a personal level, my off the grid system is coming along.  Today, the Victron inverter arrived; I purchased the steel Pete the blacksmith will turn into a lean-to frame to be bolted onto the shipping container; and I have located eight 260W Trina panels for $2000 locally which I will pick up after Easter.  All I need now is for my Nickel Iron batteries to arrive from Russia, and I will be ready for the rolling blackouts now looming on the horizon.  As my freezer is the biggest energy consumer in the shed, I will move it to the container as soon as the solar power system is up and running…. and if rolling blackouts do eventuate, I will also move the fridge there, and maybe the TV too and abandon the shed to Hydro Tasmania……  they can all get stuffed.

UPDATE

This story got some airtime on ABC TV the other day, and to my utter disgust it was mentioned that the executives of Hydro Tasmania paid themselves $900,000 in bonuses at the height of the Carbon Tax frenzy, then $650,000 the year after, and $450,000 the year after that, for a grand total of $2,000,000…….

Not only should heads roll over this, but they should pay all that money back in my not so humble opinion.





The Lie We Live

25 03 2015

This great video questions our freedom, the education system, corporations, money, the American capitalist system, the US government, world collapse, the environment, climate change, genetically modified food, and our treatment of animals….

“They gave us money, and in exchange we gave them the Earth”

Enjoy, and share widely……..





The End of Endless Growth: Part 2

4 01 2015

THIS is the follow up to part 1 published a little while ago…

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

Written by Nafeez Ahmed

Worried about the shit hitting the fan on climate change and other major crises? Good. Because those crises prove that we have an unprecedented opportunity to change the world.

Yesterday, I ​pointed to the groundbreaking work of University of Turin economist Mauro Bonaiuti on the deeper roots of the ongoing crisis of capitalism in a wider environmental crisis. The ‘endless growth’ model of unlimited material accumulation that we take for granted is increasingly breaching natural and environmental limits of the biosphere, with devastating consequences. 

Yet Bonauiti is hardly a lone voice. He represents a widening ​movement of econo​mists and scient​ists who are pointing to the need to re-e​ngineer capitalism as we know it if we want to sustain prosperity while sav​ing the planet. The pseudo-debate over whether 2015 entails recession or recovery overlooks the bigger picture: that the global economic crisis is simply a stage in the long decline of a paradigm that has outlasted its usefulness.

“Far from being all doom and gloom, continuing global economic fragility is symptomatic of a fundamental shift”

Far from being all doom and gloom, continuing global economic fragility is symptomatic of a fundamental shift in the very nature of civilization itself. The new era of slow growth and austerity has emerged because the biosphere is forcing us to adapt to the consequences of breaching environmental limits.

This fundamental shift has also brought about significant changes that offer profound opportunities for systemic transformation that could benefit humanity and the planet. These five interlinked revolutions in information, food, energy, finance and ethics are opening up opportunities for communities to co-create new ways of being that work for everyone. This year we could discover that the very disruption of capitalism itself is part of a major tipping point in the transition to a new post-industrial, post-capitalist paradigm.

The information revolution

The world is currently, quite clearly, at the dawn of a huge technological revolution in information that has already in the space of a few years transformed the way we do things, and is pitched to trigger ongoing changes in coming decades. A glimpse of some of those changes, and the possibility of weaponizing them, can be found in my article on the Pentagon’s plans for defense reform.

The main impact of the information revolution so far has been the decentralization of communications infrastructure across the world, the increasing interconnection of different countries and communities, and as a consequence, the opening up of myriad sources of information, often for free, to the public.

Of course, this is no global village. Access to the internet remains massively unequal between rich and poor, and new battle-lines have been drawn—illustrated by the impunity and unaccountability of mass surveillance by intelligence agencies in cahoots with corporations, as well as ongoing efforts by telecoms giants and governments to explore ways of controlling and censoring the internet.

But this is largely a regressive response to the increasing inability to control the inherently uncontrollable and decentralized dynamic of the information revolution. We now know that intelligence agencies are playing catch-up as it has become clear that social media is an enabler of radical political messaging and, thus, an amplifier for social movements capable of facilitating the toppling of repressive military regimes that happen to be our closest allies (Egypt, anyone?).

Similarly, the attempt to shut-down Pirate Bay has been futile. The moment legislation was introduced to kill the site, instead of disappearing, hundreds of Pirate Bay mirror sites proliferated in a manner demonstrating the literal impossibility of ever being able to eliminate the flagship pirating portal. The latest raid on the Pirate Bay’s servers in Sweden resulted in the immediate ​launch of a Pirate Bay “clone” site by competitor Isohunt. In 2012, the site had become more portable and easier to clone. Now Bruno Kra​mm, Berlin chairman of the Pirate Party which was founded after the first Pirate Bay shut-down in 2005 to promote online information sharing, promised that the site would simply re-open by multiplying servers. “Basically, each time you shut the Pirate Bay down, we will multiply,” he said.

It is this freedom of information, both in accessibility and cost, that is also eating into the traditional business models of the broadcast and print media.

Those models are walking dead. The members of the next ge​neration do not read newspapers, and they don’t watch TV news. They get their info from YouTube shows, curate their news from across multiple mainstream and alternative digital sources, while sharing and communicating news across social networ​ks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Vine, Tumblr, and so on. And this is a big reason why the conventional business models of the mainstream media are experiencing rapid​ decline.

Despite its pitfalls, the information revolution has thus opened up previously unthinkable opportunities for alternative media, accessibility of information, and interconnections between different people, communities, social movements, and nations. Hence, the rapid​ proliferation in the last decade of alternative news sites and sources such as blogs, community news platforms, and reader-supported models of digital journalism.

This is already undermining the relevance of traditional centralized information highways, and creating sp​ace for public engagement and new digital media models, in a process that will only accelerate and become increasingly unstoppable as encryption and privacy tools become cheaper and more common.

The energy revolution

As I’ve shown ​elsewhere, the fossil fuel system is already in its death throes. Costs of production have rocketed for oil, gas and coal, and the market simply cannot afford to pay prices high enough for the big fossil fuel majors to sustain increasing profits.

Mark Lewis, former head of energy research at Deutsche Bank, points out that the industry is investing “at exponentially higher rates for increasingly small incremental yields of energy.”

This year the US Energy In​formation Administration found that as a consequence of this shift to expensive energy, the world’s leading oil and gas companies were sinking into a debt ​trap even before the latest oil price crash. Their net debt increased by $106 billion in the year up to March, while they sold off $73 billion of assets to cover surging production costs. “Alarm bells are ringing. Investors can see that this is unsustainable,” Lewis recently told the Telegraph. “They are starting to ask whether it wouldn’t be better to return cash to shareholders, and wind down the companies.”

As the fossil fuel empire crumbles, in contrast, the cost of renewable energy technologies (especially solar and wind) is dramatically falling even as efficiency gains are rapidly increasing. According to Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Stanford business studies lecturer Tony Seba, who forecasts the dominance of solar within just 15 years, the Energy Return On Energy Investment or EROEI of solar is far superior over the long-term than fossil fuels.

Seba told me that conventional EROIE calculations are potentially misleading because they ignore critical costs and externalities, especially in land and water usage, waste and pollution. Applying the concept of Energy Payback Time (EPBT) to photovoltaic (PV) solar panels—where EPBT is how long it takes to produce the same quantity of energy that was used to create and install the panels—Seba notes that recent thin film technologies will payback this energy in around just one year. After that point, effectively, energy is generated for free. If a thin film panel produces energy for 25 years, then its EROEI is 25. “This is far higher than the published results for most forms of energy today, including oil, gas, wind, and nuclear,” Seba said.

But Seba also pointed out that PV panels are likely to last many decades after 25 years. Panel performance degrades at around 0.5 percent per year, which means that even after 60 years, they would produce at 70 percent capacity. EROEI would therefore be on the order of 50 or 60. Given that by 2020, PV costs are expected to drop by another two thirds or so, this suggests that by then EROIE for solar would be even higher, potentially as much as 150. And as the efficiency and capacity of PV technology continues to improve (at a rate of 22% every 2-3 years), EROEI of solar PV technology is pitched to reach triple digits and exponentially improve, rather than degrade.

Fossil fuels simply cannot compete with this. As costs continue to drop, businesses and communities are already shifting rapidly to cheaper, decentralized solar, where post-EPBT energy is literally free. When combined with the fast emerging storage solutions diminishing prices, the old model of being dependent on expensive, centralized and dirty oil, gas and coal will be increasingly displaced by the relentless momentum of cheap, distributed clean energy.

The food revolution

As we wean ourselves off fossil fuels, one of the most energy-intensive pursuits ripe for transition is industrial agriculture. In the US alone, 19 percent of fossil fuel consumption goes to the food system for pesticides, fertilizers, on-site machinery, processing, packaging and transport. But as industrial agriculture continues to degrade t​he soil, the productivity of land in key food basket regions is steadily d​eclining.

With global food prices at record levels in the context of these challenges, combined with the pressures of climate-induced extreme weather, volatile oil prices, and speculation by investors, the incentive to develop greater resilience in locally accessible food production is also growing.

In the UK and US, for instance, demand for local​ly grown food production is ris​ing fast. The US Departm​ent of Agriculture reports that between 1992 and 2007, demand for local produce grew twice as fast as total agricultural sales, and the number of local food outlets has quadrupled from 1994 to 2013.

Transition initiatives across the western world are pioneering community efforts to grow their own food, organically and outside of the industrial food system. Preliminary studies show that the reloc​alization of food economies is a viable option that could have huge benefits to local economies and create a wide range of jobs—although this would involve less meat consumption, with greater numbers of people living on and working the land.

Recently, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has been exploring the potential to scale-up agroec​ology—a specialized farming method which combines organic agriculture with an ecologically-conscious social, economic and political structure. Successive UN special rapporteurs on the right to food, drawing on a rich peer-reviewed literature, have endorsed agroecology as a viable solution for increasing crop yields for the small farmers that provide 70 percent of global food production.

A Masters t​hesis in Environment and Planning completed this year by Zainil Zainuddin, a food and agriculture researcher at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, conducted a case study of 15 households doing urban farming on a 1,096 square meter sized collective plot in Melbourne city. Eleven of the participating households farmed using Permaculture design principles, including no-dig, raised beds for food growing, the use of compost and/or worm-farm castings for soil improvement (and the use of animal manure for those engaged in poultry or fowl raising), companion planting for organic pest management and rainwater harvesting. In one year, the project produced a total yield of 388.73 kg worth of fruits, vegetables, nuts, honey and meat, along with a total of 1,015 eggs. The study found that, “All participants register a surplus of between 5 per cent to 75 per cent, depending upon the crops and seasons,” which was shared among immediate family, and local communities” through local swap and share networks.

In ensuing years, more and more food will be pro​duced and consumed locally in both urban and rural environments, as the industrial food system becomes more unsustainable and costly. Real-world cases like Park​ 2020 in the Netherlands show that with the right design principles, large-scale urban agriculture to sustain a community food system and local businesses based on “closed cycles for materials, energy, waste and water,” represents a viable future for converting modern cities into regenerative ecologies.

The finance revolution

The information, food and energy revolutions are being facilitated by a burgeoning revolution in finance. Once again, the emerging trend is for new models that give greater power to the crowd, and undermine the authority and legitimacy—and even necessity—of the traditional, centralized banking infrastructure.

This has been enabled by the information revolution. According to the technology market research firm Forrester, the avalanche of new mechanisms for potential lenders and borrowers, or funders and receivers, to interact online without the intermediation of traditional banks and financial institutions, poses a huge threat to conventional banking. Of these new mechanisms, peer2peer lending has experienced particularly rapid growth.

Forrester Research’s new r​eport shows that since 2005, over $6 billion has been generated in loans. Although peer2peer remains tiny in the context of banks’ larger balance sheets, Forrester forecasts that the long-term trend is for these new forms of social lending—including digital investment management and crowdfunding—to “continue to grow, chipping away at banks’ profits, diverting deposits, and disintermediating banks.”

“Banks have now been brought to the edge of the disruption abyss.”

As the Aust​ralian Business Review recently noted, “banks have now been brought to the edge of the disruption abyss” where “the media, mail and music businesses” are already on the verge of toppling over. These new social lending and finance mechanisms will “break the business of banking into its parts, each with its own set of disrupters.”

This has also opened the way for new digital currencies and new digital wallet systems, which many forecast will disrupt billions of dolla​rs a year in banking, especially in less developed markets where banking infrastructures are not well established. While Bitcoin is often the most hyped, others are quickly emerging which promise greater stability, transparency, and public accountability, such as M​axCoin and St​artCoin.

According to Walter Isa​acson, CEO of the Aspen Institute and former chairman of CNN, “digital currencies and micropayments are likely to be the disruptive innovation of 2015.”

One of the most significant potential developments in finance is in the concept and practice of the “circular economy,” which focuses on the need to recycle resources in an economic system, rather than simply generate escalating quantities of waste in the name of endless growth. A major report to the Club of Rome this year by Ugo Bardi of the University of Florence’s Earth Sciences Department showed that recycling, conservation and efficiency in the management of the planet’s mineral resources could enable a prosperous​ and high technology society, though not one indulging in the sort of mass consumerism we take for granted today.

Corporations are leading the way in exploring the circular economy purely for business reasons. Resource costs have rocketed since 2009 more quickly than global economic output. A r​eport put out earlier this year by the financial consultancy McKinsey noted that businesses are being forced to find “novel ways to reuse products and components” in managing access to “valuable natural resources.” The relative success of these efforts led by companies like Renault evoke the possibility of “an industrial system that is regenerative by design,” which “restores material, energy, and labour inputs.”

In the age of expensive energy, McKinsey points out that the incentives to shift to a circular economy are huge. Savings in materials alone could exceed $1 trillion a year by 2025. While the corporate and business sectors see the circular economy as a necessary means to sustain growth in a new age of resource scarcity, Bardi points out that endless material growth is a simple impossibility. The rise of the circular economy being led by some of the world’s largest compan​ies represents an unwitting but accelerating shift to a post-growth economic system.

The ethical revolution

Perhaps the most profound shift of all, implicit in these seemingly disparate, but inherently interwoven revolutions, is the ethical revolution.

The old paradigm, which is facing increasing disruption by the emerging revolutions described above, is premised on a model of centralized, hierarchical control focused on unlimited material accumulation, and premised on the values of individualism, self-interest, competition, and conflict.

The model that is fast developing and disrupting this paradigm from within, is one premised on open access to information; distributed and effectively free, clean energy; local, community and democratic ownership over planetary resources; and a form of prosperity and well-being that is ultimately decoupled from the imperative for endless material accumulation.

The old and new paradigms can be clearly related to two quite different value systems. The first paradigm, which is currently in decline, is that of egoism, crude materialism, and selfish consumerism. It is a value system that, we now know from our best scientific minds, is on course to potentially lead to an uninhabitable planet, and thus, perhaps even species extinction (with many scientists arguing we appear to be at the dawn of the planet’s six​th mass extinction event). This suggests that this value system is actually dislocated from human nature, our biophysical environment, and the relationship between them.

In contrast, a value system associated with the emerging paradigm is also supremely commensurate with what most of us recognize as ‘good’: love, justice, compassion, generosity. This has the revolutionary implication that ethics, often viewed as ‘subjective’, in fact have a perfectly objective and utilitarian function in the fundamental evolutionary goal of species survival. In some sense, ethics provide us a value-driven benchmark to recognize the flaws in the old paradigm, and glimpse the opportunities for better social forms.

This ethical revolution is ultimately rooted in a profound fundamental shift in our scientific understanding of life and the world, from the old Newtonian/Cartesian paradigm to the n​ew paradigm represented by relativity, quantum physics, evolutionary biology and epigenetics. This shift has on the one hand brought to light curious parallels between Eastern mysticism and Western science which occupied the minds of the very foun​ders of quantum mechanics, and on the other highlighted conc​epts like “nonlocality” and quantum interconnections, the inherent relationship between observer and observed, and the complex irreducibility of mind-body interactions. These point to an emerging scientific worl​dview in which human beings are intimately interwoven with our biophysical environment, and where ethical values therefore in some way provide us a means to objectively navigate this relationship in our day-to-day moral choices, regardless of religious dogma.

As these five revolutions accelerate and disrupt the old paradigm, as they are already doing—resulting in the increasing eruption of social movements that challenge and overthrow states and systems—the phase shift to a new era also accelerates. The birth pangs of this new era are premised on the escalating disruption of the old paradigm, a process that invokes chaos, uncertainty, and violence. Yet it is precisely in the ashes of that great disruption that the opportunities for these revolutions to take flight will become ever greater.​





Machines, making machines, to make PVs, to power machines to make more….

9 10 2014

I know I lead a sheltered life, but what I have just discovered (and should have known existed, really…) has me nodding my head in disbelief.  We’ve all seen those mesmerising robots that weld cars together and even solder computer boards and assemble all manner of modern life’s little conveniences, but I have to admit it never occurred to me that they would be used to multiply…  like this:

THEN……  they are also used now to manufacture PVs…

AND…

After watching that, it’s really obvious why people are dazzled by technology…….  how can there ever be any limits to our ingenuity?  Well, for starters, how about the fact these things put huge numbers of people out of work, who can no longer afford to buy the stuff the robots make..?  Or that surely all this stuff was made with ever increasing amounts of non renewable resources, causing greenhouse emissions at every stage?

While participating in the Conversation’s degrowth article I’ve mentioned a couple of posts ago, this Ted-X presentation in Moscow came up.  It’s a bit longer than most at about 30 minutes, and I hasten to add the presenter Harald Sverdrup is not the most fluent public speaker I’ve ever seen, but his points are valid nonetheless.  If you are familiar with Limits to Growth, I recommend skipping the first half.  I’d love to know what you all think…





The Electricity Industry’s Death Spiral

8 07 2014

Over the past seven or so years, our electricity costs have more than doubled.  While the media has feasted on the pink batts, Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson fiascos, the astonishing reasons behind these price cost has been largely ignored, even though they may well turn out to be one of the greatest scams in the history of Australia.

Since 2009, the electricity network companies that own and maintain our “poles and wires” have spent an astonishing $45 billion on what will turn out to be the most expensive project Australia has ever seen.  Allowed to run virtually unchecked (now they have been mostly privatised..), all that money was spent on infrastructure we don’t need, and we’re all paying for it with ‘connection fees’.  The spending was approved by the federal regulator, but the federal government didn’t even realise what was going on until it was well underway and too late to stop it……….

NPX1221158

Make no mistake…… this is the single biggest reason electricity prices have skyrocketed.  The federal treasury tells us that 51% of your electricity bill goes towards “network charges”.  The carbon price, despite unending propaganda to the contrary, is peanuts, comprising just 9% of the price rise….. NOT 9% of the entire bill as is often touted!  The rest of your bill is carved up between those companies that actually generate your electricity (20%) and the retailers who package it up and sell it to you (20%). How one packages electricity I’ll never know, but if there’s a buck in it…….. The RET (Renewable Energy Target) is such a small  impost, the treasury’s analysis doesn’t even include it; the Australian Energy Market Commission says it may be around 5%.

Thanks to the network companies’ infrastructure binge, we now pay the highest prices in the developed world. In the US, electricity costs just 13 cents per unit (kWh), less than half what we are charged, now the cost has gone up another 17%….  The impact has been felt most in New South Wales and Queensland, where the networks are government owned and network charges have accounted for two thirds of the price increases.

For a Coalition intent on destroying the carbon price, the price hikes were a gift from heaven – absolute “proof” that the carbon price is as destructive to the economy as they predicted.  Chris Dunstan, of the Institute for Sustainable Futures, believes that the networks’ spending spree may actually be the reason for the mad monk’s success.  “If electricity prices hadn’t doubled,” he says, “the carbon tax would not have been anything like the issue it was”……  and maybe the fiberals would not have won the election.

But wait……..  it gets worse.

In Climate Spectator, Tristan Edis writes “Private sector businesses have either acquired or constructed over 20,000 megawatts of fossil-fuelled power plant capacity since after 2007, when the Labor Party committed to substantially expand the Renewable Energy Target. This represents the vast majority of fossil fuel power plant capacity owned by the private sector in the National Electricity Market.”

Why does this matter?

“Well, just about every respected Australian energy market economic modeller estimates that repealing the Renewable Energy Target would probably end up costing them money through higher bills. Instead the main beneficiary of a wind back in the legislated target will be the existing owners of fossil fuel power stations.  According to analysis prepared by Hugh Bannister of Intelligent Energy Systems, abolishing the RET would deliver a $12.8 billion windfall to fossil fuel generators over the next 10 years in net present value terms, but cost consumers $500 million and renewable energy generators $7.7 billion.” writes Tristan.  The solution?  A $30 billion government bail-out for power companies……..  I would call that a cock up of epic proportions.

Investment bank Morgan Stanley says it has been overwhelmed by the response to its recent analysis which suggested that the falling costs of both solar modules and battery storage presented a potential tipping point that would encourage huge numbers of homeowners and businesses in the US to go off grid.  If that’s the case in the US, how much stronger is this case here in Australia where power costs twice as much?

Australia will be one of the proving grounds for the world’s second largest solar energy company to test its off-grid solar energy storage, putting solar panels and lithium-ion batteries into customers’ homes in Victoria. SunPower is expected to make an official announcement on a pilot project in Australia’s second most populous state in the next two months.

And now, the Tasmanian Economic Regulator has dropped the feed-in tariff (FiT) for solar customers who signed up after 30 August 2013 from 8.282c to a paltry 5.551c effective from 1 July 2014.  Read all about that here…. and see the comments where everyone is talking about disconnecting from the grid, and town sized mini smart grids with storage.

And hot off the press, we now have this from the ABC….

The Australian Solar Council has criticised moves by Ergon and Energex to encourage new customers to install smaller solar systems that do not feed electricity back into the power grid.  Ergon and Energex said the changes, which included new rules about installing systems that feed-in power, would help them manage the detrimental impact of solar on their power networks.

John Grimes from the Australian Solar Council said he believed the power companies were trying to limit solar uptake.  “There’s a very small number of instances where there are technical issues caused by solar uptake, but they are a tiny fraction of a per cent,” Mr Grimes said.

and

Price of solar has come down, but not batteries: installer

Solar installer Brian Cooke specialises in systems that allow households to generate all their own electricity.

He said poor battery technology was limiting the ability of people to go “off the grid”.

“The price of solar has come down dramatically but the other associated cost of batteries, which is the other major cost, is not really coming down,” Mr Cooke said.

However that has not stopped the growth in people looking to become self-sufficient.

That the idiots in charge may have started their own demise with a revolution of their own making is undeniable.  This revolution, however, still demands a working economy and resource availability, neither of which I can see lasting much after 2020.

How a small town could go off the grid

The collapse of the electricity distribution system may well have already started.  Slowly perhaps, but the death spiral, as it is known, is underway.  People I know in the solar industry are saying the next wave of business opportunities for them is disconnecting grid tied people who (unlike us) are going to lose the FiT they were expecting to pay for their investment in PVs, and installing battery storage, running their houses as stand alone systems.  Our plan is definitely to not connect to Tasmania’s grid when we move.  One thing is certain about the future……  it’s really really uncertain!





Successful launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite

3 07 2014

Below is the NASA press release from a a successful launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite. The scientific community has been waiting for this for a long time since the first version OCO-1 blew up on launch. This should provide a much better understanding of how carbon is cycling into and out of the atmosphere. For emissions, this is a non-trivial problem since this is like trying to spot who is pouring the most water into the oceans by way of comparison. The atmosphere is well mixed so CO2 isn’t very different anywhere and spotting new emissions (or uptake) is not easy.

Mark Cochrane

July 2, 2014 NASA Launches New Carbon-Sensing Mission to Monitor Earth’s Breathing

OCO2launchA United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket launches with the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2)satellite onboard from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. on Wednesday, July 2, 2014.

NASA successfully launched its first spacecraft dedicated to studying atmospheric carbon dioxide at 2:56 a.m. PDT (5:56 a.m. EDT) Wednesday. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) raced skyward from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket.

Approximately 56 minutes after the launch, the observatory separated from the rocket’s second stage into an initial 429-mile (690-kilometer) orbit. The spacecraft then performed a series of activation procedures, established communications with ground controllers and unfurled its twin sets of solar arrays. Initial telemetry shows the spacecraft is in excellent condition. OCO-2 soon will begin a minimum two-year mission to locate Earth’s sources of and storage places for atmospheric carbon dioxide, the leading human-produced greenhouse gas responsible for warming our world and a critical component of the planet’s carbon cycle.

“Climate change is the challenge of our generation,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “With OCO-2 and our existing fleet of satellites, NASA is uniquely qualified to take on the challenge of documenting and understanding these changes, predicting the ramifications, and sharing information about these changes for the benefit of society.” OCO-2 will take NASA’s studies of carbon dioxide and the global carbon cycle to new heights. The mission will produce the most detailed picture to date of natural sources of carbon dioxide, as well as their “sinks” — places on Earth’s surface where carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere.

The observatory will study how these sources and sinks are distributed around the globe and how they change over time. “This challenging mission is both timely and important,” said Michael Freilich, director of the Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “OCO-2 will produce exquisitely precise measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations near Earth’s surface, laying the foundation for informed policy decisions on how to adapt to and reduce future climate change.”

Carbon dioxide sinks are at the heart of a longstanding scientific puzzle that has made it difficult for scientists to accurately predict how carbon dioxide levels will change in the future and how those changing concentrations will affect Earth’s climate. “Scientists currently don’t know exactly where and how Earth’s oceans and plants have absorbed more than half the carbon dioxide that human activities have emitted into our atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial era,” said David Crisp, OCO-2 science team leader at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “Because of this we cannot predict precisely how these processes will operate in the future as climate changes.

For society to better manage carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere, we need to be able to measure the natural source and sink processes.” Precise measurements of the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide are needed because background levels vary by less than two percent on regional to continental scales. Typical changes can be as small as one-third of one percent. OCO-2 measurements are designed to measure these small changes clearly.

OCO2During the next 10 days, the spacecraft will go through a checkout process and then begin three weeks of maneuvres that will place it in its final 438-mile (705-kilometre), near-polar operational orbit at the head of the international Afternoon Constellation, or “A-Train,” of Earth-observing satellites. The A-Train, the first multi-satellite, formation flying “super observatory” to record the health of Earth’s atmosphere and surface environment, collects an unprecedented quantity of nearly simultaneous climate and weather measurements.

OCO-2 science operations will begin about 45 days after launch. Scientists expect to begin archiving calibrated mission data in about six months and plan to release their first initial estimates of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in early 2015. The observatory will uniformly sample the atmosphere above Earth’s land and waters, collecting more than 100,000 precise individual measurements of carbon dioxide over Earth’s entire sunlit hemisphere every day. Scientists will use these data in computer models to generate maps of carbon dioxide emission and uptake at Earth’s surface on scales comparable in size to the state of Colorado. These regional-scale maps will provide new tools for locating and identifying carbon dioxide sources and sinks.

OCO-2 also will measure a phenomenon called solar-induced fluorescence, an indicator of plant growth and health. As plants photosynthesize and take up carbon dioxide, they fluoresce and give off a tiny amount of light that is invisible to the naked eye. Because more photosynthesis translates into more fluorescence, fluorescence data from OCO-2 will help shed new light on the uptake of carbon dioxide by plants.

OCO-2 is a NASA Earth System Science Pathfinder Program mission managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Orbital Sciences Corporation in Dulles, Virginia, built the spacecraft bus and provides mission operations under JPL’s leadership. The science instrument was built by JPL, based on the instrument design co-developed for the original OCO mission by Hamilton Sundstrand in Pomona, California. NASA’s Launch Services Program at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida is responsible for launch management. Communications during all phases of the mission are provided by NASA’s Near Earth Network, with contingency support from the Space Network. Both are divisions of the Space Communications and Navigation program at NASA Headquarters. JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

For more information about OCO-2, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/oco2 OCO-2 is the second of five NASA Earth science missions scheduled to launch into space this year, the most new Earth-observing mission launches in one year in more than a decade. NASA monitors Earth’s vital signs from land, air and space with a fleet of satellites and ambitious airborne and ground-based observation campaigns. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems with long-term data records and computer analysis tools to better see how our planet is changing.

The agency shares this unique knowledge with the global community and works with institutions in the United States and around the world that contribute to understanding and protecting our home planet. For more information about NASA’s Earth science activities in 2014, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/earthrightnow Follow OCO-2 on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/IamOCO2 -end- Steve Cole Headquarters, Washington 202-358-0918 stephen.e.cole@nasa.gov

Alan Buis Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. 818-354-0474 alan.buis@jpl.nasa.gov