“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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Preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse

18 07 2013

The beauty of the internet, is that you no longer need to read newspapers…….  If you’ve been surfing for a while read enough books, and know what information to look for to supplement what you think you already know, an amazing amount of information can come your way with very little effort.  For instance, years ago, before the internet became as entrenched as it is today, I was reading books (on energy, what else...) written by Amory Lovins and his then wife, and associates.  Whilst I don’t believe Lovins is right in everything he says, he does enough to be admired all the same – like refurbishing the whole Empire State Building to substantially reduce its electricity consumption….  And sometimes, merely through questioning some of the things someone like Lovins might be saying, you can even ‘meet’ other people who turn out to be fascinating in their own right…

Amory Lovins

Lovins, for instance, was years ago a great fan of Hydrogen and fuel cells.  He believed that one day all cars would be thus powered..  Because of his enthusiastic attitude towards such things, I too was infected with this techno hubris, until it was pointed out to me that Hydrogen was not an energy source… and one day on an internet forum, this obviously well informed person called Susan krumdieck piped up explaining why fuel cells were never going to make an impact.  Lovins’ hypercar is now no longer fuel cell driven, but electrically recharged by renewables.  Even he is able to see the light!

Lovins runs the Rocky Mountains Institute.  My only gripe with RMI and Lovins is that they are hell bent on keeping business as usual going.  Every now and again though, RMI comes out with surprises……  like this one.

Following a colourful introduction to Zombie-ism – “Scoff at your own peril, but consider this: Doomsday Preppers—a reality TV show about families who stock up on non-perishable food, ammunition, fuel, and more in preparation for a potential apocalypse, zombie-induced or otherwise—is the most popular series of all time on the National Geographic Channel, pulling in 1.3 million viewers for the season two premiere in November last year, RMI make a more or less astonishing observation;  the grid (particularly in the US I might point out) is very fragile……

No People, No Power: Human Operators Keep the U.S. Electricity System Running

Such apocalyptic scenarios make it illuminating to conduct a “war game” exercise with our national infrastructure, and especially our electricity grid. What would be the first thing to go wrong with our infrastructure if society were thrown into disarray by brains-hungry zombies? Without human beings around to perform certain routine tasks, the electricity system will quickly cease to function. In regions dependent on fossil fuels for electricity generation (i.e., the entire U.S.), power plants will shut down, or “trip,” within 24 hours (or less) without continuous fuel supply. As soon as one plant trips offline, voltage at various points along the transmission system will drop below preset thresholds, spurring a domino effect as automated protection devices kick in and disconnect additional sections of the network. This cascade of trips would bring the system to a standstill, and a blackout would ensue.

I’ve seen first hand how the grid is fossil fuel dependant.  In the valley below us there is a high tension power line – probably 110,000V.  Every few months or so, helicopters fly over the power lines, and I’m told, photograph all the insulators with heat sensitive cameras looking for high resistance breakdowns in the lines, and low resistance ones in the insulators.  Nothing lasts forever.  Then when problems are found, four wheel drive vehicles are sent along the easements where the pylons reside for men to fix things.  These repairs must be done before a problem starts, because searching for a fault after the event and while the power’s out is, hum, expensive and unpopular!

“In all seriousness, while walking dead may never roam our streets, catastrophic events can debilitate localized or even regional populations and leave our energy assets without sufficient operational personnel. However, the loss of operational personnel isn’t the only, and not even the most likely, threat to America’s electricity grids. Coordinated terrorist attacks on the grid (including cyber attacks) keep Department of Defense officials up at night; insurance markets worry about the impact of an intense geomagnetic storm on the electricity system, many communities have already experienced first-hand the havoc that Mother Nature can wreak on an unprepared power system (e.g., blackouts resulting from heat waves, superstorms such as Sandy), and just this week the North American Electric Reliability Corp. and some 110 utilities announced that later this year they’ll conduct a mock exercise to see how our power system could handle a coordinated physical and cyber attack on the high-voltage transmission grid. Zombies or not, it’s a cruel world out there, and our electricity grid is looking mighty frail.”

RMI’s solutions?   Microgrids…..

Many critical facilities (e.g., hospitals, military bases) have on-site diesel generators to provide emergency backup power. However, these generators have a 40 percent failure rate, are usually designed to run for 24 hours or less, and require an operator around to babysit them. With no one there to refill the fuel tanks, check the oil, and perform other basic maintenance, most of these generators will not last more than one or two days. Without backup generation, basic services like water and sewage treatment cannot function. During the Southern California Blackout, San Diego’s sewage pumps backed up after less than 12 hours without power, bringing the city dangerously close to a real health crisis.

Dr. Alexandra von Meier, Director of Electric Grid Research at the California Institute for Energy and Environment, points out that sewage may be the least of our problems in a prolonged blackout: “Your mention of sewage pumping is very important. I might say that besides your drains backing up, traffic signals being out (doesn’t matter because gas station pumps aren’t working), and food spoiling, the most immediately life-threatening thing about a widespread blackout is that you find you have no water pressure in your tap. No drinking water, and it’s hasta la vista, baby…”

Of course, no mention of the fact that cities are unsustainable, that sewerage is a 19th Century idea that has reached its use by date, nor that the real problem is centralisation and too many people…..  Nor is there mention that even micro grids need supervision by people who know what they are doing.  And of course, once the economy hits the fan, I want to know who’s going to pay for it….  and how.