Adding balance to the meat debate

18 02 2019

Of late, I have seen article after article, video after video, exposing ‘meat eating’ as a culprit for the exploding greenhouse emissions we are experiencing. And when I point out it’s all rubbish, I’m attacked as a climate denier….. ME!  A climate denier…?!

There’s so much to say about this topic, it’s hard to know where to start, but I will just say this; meat consumption is not the issue, the predicament is industrial agriculture, pure and simple…… so instead of blaming animal farming, commentators should be attacking the entrenched conventional farming system that needs to be destroyed.

If you are a vegan or vegetarian, the consumption of your diet is just as harmful as the consumption of unsustainable meat. Are you listening George Monbiot? George is one of those classic deniers of the truth. He recently wrote “76% of farmland is wasted on farming animals”. And what does George know about farming?  Zilch I’ll bet…… because farms that grow meat are incapable of growing anything else, otherwise meat would not be produced there.

When soil incapable of growing edible vegetable matter for people is converted to this use, it’s only possible because of the addition of untold chemicals which, since the beginning of the ‘green revolution’, a completely wrong use of the term ‘green’ by the way…..


This opinion piece by Richard Young was originally published by Triodos Bank here


Grazing animals have shaped the quintessentially pastoral British countryside for thousands of years and play a vital role in sustainable food systems. However, over the last decade or so we’ve been told by a succession of high-profile reports that we have to make drastic cuts in our consumption of meat in order to help limit global warming, biodiversity loss and other agriculture-related problems. This has left many people confused about what they should eat to be healthy and have a sustainable lifestyle.

The authors of these reports, such as the recent EAT-Lancet report, all correctly highlight the problems for humanity caused by a rapidly growing global population, high meat consumption in developed countries and an increasing appetite – or in some cases nutritional need – for meat in many developing countries. However, the focus is always put on cutting out red meat, rather than poultry, and no distinction is made in the way the meat is produced.

The basic reason for this is that all cattle, sheep and other ruminants emit the greenhouse gas methane, while chickens do not. They also convert grain to protein less efficiently than poultry or pigs.

It is predicted that by 2050 another billion tonnes of grain will be needed every year to produce enough meat to feed the global population, something which is clearly unsustainable, since continuous grain production is one of the biggest causes of soil degradation and loss. Indeed, globally, cropland soils continue to degrade as carbon is lost to the atmosphere – 24 billion tonnes of soil is lost annually, over three tonnes for every person on the planet.

However, what the researchers invariably overlook is that this is only an issue in relation to grain-fed cattle, such as those in US feedlots, whose rations consist of maize, soya meal and chopped straw.

In contrast, two-thirds of UK farmland is under grass, in most cases because the land is not suitable for growing crops. The only practical way to get food from this land without causing an environmental disaster is to graze it with livestock. Almost all cattle and sheep in the UK are predominantly fed on grass, grazed in the fields during summer and fed as hay or silage over winter – and the UK has one of the best climates in the world for growing grass. Some of these animals do also get grain, but in many cases this is waste grain, like Brewer’s grain (what’s left after beer making), which humans cannot eat.

Tragically, a high proportion of the UK’s most species-rich grasslands have in the past been ploughed for cropping or resown with ryegrass monocultures. However, all organic and most pasture-fed meat producers include legumes, multiple grass species and herbs in their grazing mixtures. Even many intensive farmers have now been persuaded by agri-environment schemes to restore grassland diversity, with wild flowers and delicate species getting a chance to recover once the use of synthetic fertilisers ceases. This in turn helps to revive the intricate web of life, which begins with microbes, soil spiders and other insects, embraces farmland birds and small mammals, and ultimately sustains us humans.

While over-grazing was encouraged by farm subsidies prior to the early 1990s, some grassland is now under-grazed due to falling demand for lamb. This is a problem because many bird and butterfly species have evolved in tandem with grazing livestock. In fact, both the RSPB and Natural England recognise that grazing animals are essential for sustaining healthy wildlife populations.

But what about methane? The high methane levels in the atmosphere are a significant cause of global warming, yet ruminants are responsible for only 5% of UK anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. What’s more, all the carbon in ruminant methane is recycled carbon – grazing animals can’t add more carbon to the atmosphere than the plants they eat take out by photosynthesis. In fact, fossil fuels are not only the main source of carbon dioxide emissions, they are also responsible for a third more methane than ruminants and all the methane from fossil fuels contains additional, ‘fossil’ carbon.

So what meat should we choose to help sustain the planet? It’s not a red versus white issue. The simple answer is that we should eat far less grain-fed meat, be it beef, pork or chicken, instead we should actively seek grass-fed meat and meat from animals supplemented with only small amounts of otherwise waste grain.

While few people yet realise it, we actually need to encourage increased production of grass-fed meat, since the most effective way to restore our degraded arable soils and wild pollinators is to re-introduce grass and grazing animals into cropland rotations.






Big Picture article

14 12 2018

It’s so nice reading an article that joins the dots….  I get so sick of people concentrating on one issue or another, ignoring everything else troubling civilisation.  From Consciousness of Sheep, who else….?

Britain has – apparently – been thrown into crisis overnight.  Meanwhile across the channel, French president Macron is desperately trying to extinguish the flames of another weekend of mass protests that have now spread to Belgium and Holland.  In Eastern Europe the hard-right are gaining support; even undermining the previously untouchable Angela Merkel’s power base in the former East Germany.  Across the Atlantic meanwhile, the lines between deranged Democrats and MAGA nationalists are being drawn in readiness for America’s second civil war.  We are surely living through the greatest crisis in modern history.

Well, yes indeed we are.  But everything set out in the first paragraph is no more than the froth on the beer.  These political spasms are merely the outward manifestation of a human catastrophe that has been decades in the making.

Two far greater symptoms of our predicament have gained at least some public traction this year.  First was an all too visible plastic pollution crisis that is increasingly difficult to ignore now that China has ceased acting as the West’s rubbish dump.  Second is the somewhat less visible insect apocalypse that has seen the near extinction of a raft of pollinating insect species; without which we humans are doomed to starvation.  Interestingly, while these two symptoms are only tenuously related to climate change, they have tended to be included under that shorthand heading.  Plastic certainly damages the environment, but its build up owes far more to the ongoing power of the petrochemicals industry and the myth of recyclingthan to changes in climate.  The same goes for the insects.  While there may have been some climactic impact on migrations and reproduction, the main cause is the vast quantities of chemical insecticides required by an industrialised agriculture tasked with feeding 7.5 billion humans on a planet that could barely feed one seventh of that without fossil fuels and agrochemicals.

In the affected areas, local populations have been stunned by a series of “red tide” events that result in the mass deaths of fish and other marine creatures.  Climate change is indirectly involved in these events because of the increased rainfall from warmer storms.  But once again it is our industrial agriculture that is the primary cause – the giant oxygen-free zones beneath algae and phytoplankton blooms that form because of artificial fertilisers washed off the land when it rains.  When marine creatures stray into these oxygen-free zones (which are pinkish-red in colour due to concentrated hydrogen sulphide) they suffocate before they can swim to safety.

Off most people’s radar is the ongoing sixth mass extinction, as we lose thousands of species every year.  Again, while some of this is directly due to the changing climate, the larger part is due to human activities like agriculture, deforestation and strip mining simply chewing up natural habitats to make way for the creation of the various resources – including food – required to sustain a human population that is projected to reach 10 billion by mid-century.

The use of the term “climate change” to describe these catastrophes is deceptive.  If we were looking at our predicament in totality, we would include these crises alongside climate change as a series of (often interacting) sub-sets of a much greater problem… let’s call it the “human impact crisis.”

Crucially, by focussing solely on a changing climate, we can exercise a form of psychological denial in which human civilisation is able to continue chasing infinite growth on a finite planet while yet-to-be-invented technologies are deployed to magically heal the damage that our over-consumptive lifestyles are having on the human habitat.

The focus on climate change also permits us to avoid any examination of those human activities that increasingly stand in the way of the bright green technological future we keep promising ourselves.  Shortages in a range of key resources, including several rare earths, cobalt, lithium, chromium, zinc, gold and silver are very likely to materialise in the next decade if Western countries get anywhere close to their targets for switching to renewable electricity and electric cars (even though even these are just a fraction of what would be required to decarbonise the global economy).

Energy is an even bigger problem.  For the first time since the dark ages, humanity is switching from high-density energy sources (nuclear, coal, gas and oil) to ultra-low density energy sources (tide, wind, wave and solar).  We are – allegedly – choosing to do this.  However, because we have depleted fossil fuels on a low-hanging fruit basis, it is costing us more in both energy and money to maintain the energy needed to power the global economy.  As more of our energy has to be channelled into energy production (e.g. the hugely expensive Canadian bitumen sands and the US fracking industry) ever less energy is available to power the wider economy. This has forced us into a crisis I refer to as “Schrodinger’s renewables,” in which the technologies being deployed supposedly to wean us off fossil fuels end up merely being added in order to maintain sufficient economic growth to prevent the entire civilisation collapsing.

This, of course, brings us back to the increasingly heated debates in the US Congress, the UK Parliament and the streets of 100 French towns and cities.  Economic growth is the fantasy that almost everyone is buying into as a solution to our predicament.  Sure, some call it “green growth,” but it isn’t.  In reality it is, and always was central bank growth.  Why?  Because every unit of currency in circulation in the West was created with interest attached.  In such a system, we either grow the economy or we inflate the value currency back to something more in line with the real economy.  The former is impossible and the latter is devastating… which is why central bankers around the world have been quietly panicking for the best part of a decade.

To be clear, since 1980 the western economic system has inflated a series of asset bubbles, each of which has subsumed and outgrown its predecessor.  In the 1980s companies bailed out failing companies to save themselves.  In the 1990s stock markets bailed out companies to save stock markets.  In the 2000s banks bailed out stock markets and then states and central banks bailed out banks.  Next time around it will be states and currencies that need bailing out.  And in the absence of space aliens, it is not clear who is going to be riding to the rescue.  What that means, dear reader, is that everything you depend upon (but didn’t know it) for life support – inter-bank lending systems, letters of credit and freight insurance, international trade arrangements, employment, state pensions, etc.  – is going to go away (at least until some kind of debt-write-off (either directly or via “helicopter money”) and a new currency system can be put into place.

The other legacy from this period of debt-based asset inflation is a series of grossly unequal societies; divided, ultimately, between those who get to spend the (uninflated) debt-based currency first and those (the 99 percent) who only get the currency after its value has been inflated away – primarily those who depend upon a wage/salary from employment rather than an income from shares and other investments.  Most people accept some inequality.  However a lack of economic growth (outside banking and tech) has created deep hostility to those political parties that cling to the pre-2008 neoliberal orthodoxy.  The result has been a growth in populist movements claiming to know how to restore the economy to rates of growth last seen in the 1990s.  Political economist Mark Blyth summed up the difference between the left and right wing variants of populism thus:

  • The right says neoliberalism ruined the economy and immigrants took your jobs
  • The left says neoliberalism ruined the economy and capitalists took your jobs.

Needless to say – as the boy Macron is learning to his cost – now is not a happy time to be a neoliberal politician.  The broader problem, however, is that the proposed solutions from the populists are no more likely to result in another round of economic growth simply because western civilisation is already well past the point of overshoot.  China – the place where most of the jobs went and where most of the stuff we consume is made – already consumes half of the world’s coal, copper, steel, nickel and aluminium.  It also consumes nearly two-thirds of the world’s concrete.  To grow at just 3.5 percent would require that China consume all of the world’s reserves of those resources by 2038 – at which point it would also be consuming a quarter of the world’s oil and uranium and half of the world’s grain harvest.  The impossibility of this is what people mean when they use the word “unsustainable” to describe our situation.

Nevertheless, even supposedly green parties cling to the promotion of economic growth as an electoral strategy.  Rather than admit the impossibility of further growth, however, they reach instead for some mythical “green growth” that will supposedly follow the industrial scale deployment of non-renewable renewable energy harvesting technologies like wind turbines and solar panels that require fossil fuels in their manufacture , and for which the planet lacks sufficient material reserves.  Promising de-growth is, however, politically toxic in the current climate.

Most green growth advocates imagine a switch from extraction and manufacturing to (largely digital) services that will somehow decouple resource and energy growth from GDP.  That is, we can all continue to prosper even as our use of planetary resources falls back to something like the amounts consumed in the 1750s.  Writing in Resilience, Jason Hickel gives the lie to this:

“This sounds reasonable on the face of it. But services have grown dramatically in recent decades, as a proportion of world GDP — and yet global material use has not only continued to rise, but has accelerated, outstripping the rate of GDP growth. In other words, there has been no dematerialization of economic activity, despite a shift to services.

“The same is true of high-income nations as a group — and this despite the increasing contribution that services make to GDP growth in these economies. Indeed, while high-income nations have the highest share of services in terms of contribution to GDP, they also have the highest rates of resource consumption per capita. By far.

“Why is this? Partly because services require resource-intensive inputs (cinemas and gyms are hardly made out of air). And partly also because the income acquired from the service sector is used to purchase resource-intensive consumer goods (you might get your income from working in a cinema, but you use it to buy TVs and cars and beef).”

And, of course, without the income derived from making all of that stuff for service providers to consume, nobody can afford to buy the services and the economy will collapse.  Not that anyone has noticed this for now, as we are descend into the politics of blame in which widening inequality and poverty at the bottom is blamed on one or other of a culture’s preferred out groups – Tories, Democrats, socialists, libertarians, migrants, the banks, the European Union, Israel, Angela Merkel, the Rothschild family, Donald Trump… choose your favourite pantomime villain; but don’t expect to be going anywhere but down.

Politics matter, of course.  In a future of economic contraction it is far better to be governed consensually by people who understand the predicament and who plan a route to deindustrialisation that has as few casualties as possible on the way down… one reason not to keep voting for parties that dole out corporate welfare at the top while driving those at the bottom to destitution.  That road tends to end with guillotines and firing squads.

For all of its passion and drama, however, the role of politics in our current predicament is somewhat akin to the choice of footwear when setting out to climb a mountain.  Ideally you want to choose a pair of stout climbing boots; but nobody is offering those.  For now the choice is between high heels and flip-flops to climb the highest mountain we have ever faced.  If we are lucky, the political equivalent a half decent pair of training shoes might turn up, but while the world is focussed on economic growth; that is the best we can hope for… and we still have to climb the mountain whatever shoes we wear.





The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction

8 08 2018

Here’s a thoroughly modern riddle: what links the battery in your smartphone with a dead yak floating down a Tibetan river? The answer is lithium – the reactive alkali metal that powers our phones, tablets, laptops and electric cars.

In May 2016, hundreds of protestors threw dead fish onto the streets of Tagong, a town on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau. They had plucked them from the waters of the Liqi river, where a toxic chemical leak from the Ganzizhou Rongda Lithium mine had wreaked havoc with the local ecosystem.

There are pictures of masses of dead fish on the surface of the stream. Some eyewitnesses reported seeing cow and yak carcasses floating downstream, dead from drinking contaminated water. It was the third such incident in the space of seven years in an area which has seen a sharp rise in mining activity, including operations run by BYD, the world’ biggest supplier of lithium-ion batteries for smartphones and electric cars. After the second incident, in 2013, officials closed the mine, but when it reopened in April 2016, the fish started dying again.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Workers drill though the crust of the world’s biggest salt flat with large rigs. They are aiming for the brine underneath swathes of magnesium and potassium in the hope of finding lithium-rich spots. Since the 2000s, most of the world’s lithium has been extracted this way, rather than using mineral ore sources such as spodumene, petalite and lepidolite

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

Lithium-ion batteries are a crucial component of efforts to clean up the planet. The battery of a Tesla Model S has about 12 kilograms of lithium in it, while grid storage solutions that will help balance renewable energy would need much more.

Demand for lithium is increasing exponentially, and it doubled in price between 2016 and 2018. According to consultancy Cairn Energy Research Advisors, the lithium ion industry is expected to grow from 100 gigawatt hours (GWh) of annual production in 2017, to almost 800 GWhs in 2027.

William Adams, head of research at Metal Bulletin, says the current spike in demand can be traced back to 2015, when the Chinese government announced a huge push towards electric vehicles in its 13th Five Year Plan. That has led to a massive rise in the number of projects to extract lithium, and there are “hundreds more in the pipeline,” says Adams.

But there’s a problem. As the world scrambles to replace fossil fuels with clean energy, the environmental impact of finding all the lithium required to enable that transformation could become a serious issue in its own right. “One of the biggest environmental problems caused by our endless hunger for the latest and smartest devices is a growing mineral crisis, particularly those needed to make our batteries,” says Christina Valimaki an analyst at Elsevier.

Tahua, Bolivia. Salt miners load a truck with lithium-rich salt. The ground beneath Bolivia’s salt flats are thought to contain the world’s largest reserves of the metal. (The Bolivian Andes may contain 70 per cent of the planet’s lithium.) Many analysts argue that extracting lithium from brine is more environmentally friendly than from rock. However, as demand increases, companies might resort to removing lithium from the brine by heating it up, which is more energy intensive.

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

In South America, the biggest problem is water. The continent’s Lithium Triangle, which covers parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Chile, holds more than half the world’s supply of the metal beneath its otherworldly salt flats. It’s also one of the driest places on earth. That’s a real issue, because to extract lithium, miners start by drilling a hole in the salt flats and pumping salty, mineral-rich brine to the surface.

Then they leave it to evaporate for months at a time, first creating a mixture of manganese, potassium, borax and lithium salts which is then filtered and placed into another evaporation pool, and so on. After between 12 and 18 months, the mixture has been filtered enough that lithium carbonate – white gold – can be extracted.

It’s a relatively cheap and effective process, but it uses a lot of water – approximately 500,000 gallons per tonne of lithium. In Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining activities consumed 65 per cent of the region’s water. That is having a big impact on local farmers – who grow quinoa and herd llamas – in an area where some communities already have to get water driven in from elsewhere.

There’s also the potential – as occurred in Tibet – for toxic chemicals to leak from the evaporation pools into the water supply. These include chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, which are used in the processing of lithium into a form that can be sold, as well as those waste products that are filtered out of the brine at each stage. In Australia and North America, lithium is mined from rock using more traditional methods, but still requires the use of chemicals in order to extract it in a useful form. Research in Nevada found impacts on fish as far as 150 miles downstream from a lithium processing operation.

Rio Grande, Bolivia. An aerial view of the mineral formations along the Rio Grande delta, at the edges of the salt flats. The delta is mostly dry due to the effects of lithium mining, which is heavily reliant on water for its shallow artificial salt-pans, or solar evaporation ponds, in which saline solutions are left to dry out over a period of months, leaving the minerals behind. This drying out of the delta has led to a lack of stability in water levels, both on top of and below the surface. The river is home to a wide variety of freshwater fish, many originating in the Amazon basin

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

According to a report by Friends of the Earth, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and causes air contamination. In Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto, locals claim that lithium operations have contaminated streams used by humans and livestock, and for crop irrigation. In Chile, there have been clashes between mining companies and local communities, who say that lithium mining is leaving the landscape marred by mountains of discarded salt and canals filled with contaminated water with an unnatural blue hue.

“Like any mining process, it is invasive, it scars the landscape, it destroys the water table and it pollutes the earth and the local wells,” said Guillermo Gonzalez, a lithium battery expert from the University of Chile, in a 2009 interview. “This isn’t a green solution – it’s not a solution at all.”

But lithium may not be the most problematic ingredient of modern rechargeable batteries. It is relatively abundant, and could in theory be generated from seawater in future, albeit through a very energy-intensive process.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Lino Fita, head of potassium extraction for mining company Comibol, looks out over his factory. The brine in this region is rich with potassium and magnesium, which makes it harder and more expensive to extract lithium. The brine is put in large ponds for many months to evaporate excess water and separate its salts. The remaining compound is then purified and processed. Very few lithium-processing experts work in the factory, as there is a nationwide shortage of staff. In the past, as few as three people have run the factory’s entire production line

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

Two other key ingredients, cobalt and nickel, are more in danger of creating a bottleneck in the move towards electric vehicles, and at a potentially huge environmental cost. Cobalt is found in huge quantities right across the Democratic Republic of Congo and central Africa, and hardly anywhere else. The price has quadrupled in the last two years.

Unlike most metals, which are not toxic when they’re pulled from the ground as metal ores, cobalt is “uniquely terrible,” according to Gleb Yushin, chief technical officer and founder of battery materials company Sila Nanotechnologies.

“One of the biggest challenges with cobalt is that it’s located in one country,” he adds. You can literally just dig up the land and find cobalt, so there’s a very strong motivation to dig it up and sell it, and a a result there’s a lot of motivation for unsafe and unethical behaviour.” The Congo is home to ‘artisanal mines’, where cobalt is extracted from the ground by hand, often using child labour, without protective equipment.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Brine is pumped out of a nearby lake into a series of evaporation ponds and left for 12 to 18 months. Various salts crystallise at different times as the solution becomes more concentrated. It is also treated with lime to remove traces of magnesium. When the minerals are ready for processing, they are taken to the nearby Planta Li lithium factory to produce the ions that will go into batteries. In 2017, the factory produced 20 tonnes of lithium carbonate

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

There’s also a political angle to be considered. When Bolivia started to exploit its lithium supplies from about 2010, it was argued that its huge mineral wealth could give the impoverished country the economic and political heft that the oil-rich nations of the Middle East. “They don’t want to pay a new OPEC,” says Lisbeth Dahllöf, of the IVL Swedish Environmental Institute, who co-authored a report last year on the environmental footprint of electric car battery production.

In a recent paper in the journal Nature, Yushin and his co-authors argued that new battery technology needs to be developed that uses more common, and environmentally friendly materials to make batteries. Researchers are working on new battery chemistries that replace cobalt and lithium with more common and less toxic materials.

But, if new batteries are less energy dense or more expensive than lithium, they could end up having a negative effect on the environment overall. “Assessing and reducing the environmental cost is a more complex issue than it initially appears,” says Valimaki. “For example, a less durable, yet more sustainable device could entail a larger carbon footprint once your factor in transportation and the extra packaging required.”

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Graves such as this one are a common sight on the salt flats. The area has experienced very little rainfall over the last two years, which has affected the lives of local quinoa farmers. The lithium plants, which use vast amounts of water, have exacerbated shortages: in locations such as Pastos Chicas, near the Argentina/Chile border, additional water had to be shipped in from elsewhere to meet demand

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

At the University of Birmingham, research funded by the government’s £246m Faraday Challenge for battery research is trying to find new ways of recycling lithium-ion. Research in Australia found that only two per cent of the country’s 3,300 tonnes of lithium-ion waste was recycled. Unwanted MP3 players and laptops can end up in landfill, where metals from the electrodes and ionic fluids from the electrolyte can leak into the environment.

A consortium of researchers, led by the Birmingham Energy Institute are using robotics technology developed for nuclear power plants to find ways to safely remove and dismantle potentially explosive lithium-ion cells from electric vehicles. There have been a number of fires at recycling plants where lithium-ion batteries have been stored improperly, or disguised as lead-acid batteries and put through a crusher.

Xiangtan, China. Workers on the production line at Soundon New Energy, a huge lithium-ion battery company in eastern China. Most electric vehicles in use today are yet to reach the end of their cycle. The first all-electric car to be powered by lithium-ion batteries, the Tesla Roadster, made its market debut in 2008. This means the first generation of electric vehicle batteries have yet to reach the recycling stage

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

Because lithium cathodes degrade over time, they can’t simply be placed into new batteries (although some efforts are underway to use old vehicle batteries for energy storage applications where energy density is less critical). “That’s the problem with recycling any form of battery that has electrochemistry – you don’t know what point it is at in its life,” says Stephen Voller, CEO and founder of ZapGo. “That’s why recycling most mobile phones is not cost effective. You get this sort of soup.”

Another barrier, says Dr Gavin Harper of the Faraday Institution’s lithium recycling project, is that manufacturers are understandably secretive about what actually goes into their batteries, which makes it harder to recycle them properly. At the moment recovered cells are usually shredded, creating a mixture of metal that can then be separated using pyrometallurgical techniques – burning. But, this method wastes a lot of the lithium.

Linyi County, China. A production line at Chinese electric-car company ZD, in Linyi County. The company’s small, urban electric two-seaters are made exclusively for the Italian market, where ZD has a joint-venture company Share’ngo, a car-sharing startup in Milan. China is the world’s largest electric car manufacturer, and over the past few years, the country has been looking to increase the number of countries it exports to

Matjaž Krivic/INSTITUTE

UK researchers are investigating alternative techniques, including biological recycling where bacteria are used to process the materials, and hydrometallurgical techniques which use solutions of chemicals in a similar way to how lithium is extracted from brine to begin with.

For Harper, it’s about creating a process to shepherd lithium-ion batteries safely through their whole lifecycle, and making sure that we’re not extracting more from the ground unnecessarily, or allowing chemicals from old batteries to do damage. “Considering that all of the materials in these batteries have already had an environmental and social impact in their extraction, we should be mindful of ensuring good custody,” he says.





Not so renewables

12 05 2018

Lifted from the excellent consciousness of sheep blog…..

For all practical purposes, solar energy (along with the wind, waves and tides that it drives) is unending.  Or, to put it more starkly, the odds of human beings being around to witness the day when solar energy no longer exists are staggeringly low.  The same, of course, cannot be said for the technologies that humans have developed to harvest this energy.  Indeed, the term “renewable” is among the greatest PR confidence tricks ever to be played upon an unsuspecting public, since solar panels and wind (and tidal and wave) turbines are very much a product of and dependent upon the fossil carbon economy.

Until now, this inconvenient truth has not been seen as a problem because our attention has been focussed upon the need to lower our dependency on fossil carbon fuels (coal, gas and oil).  In developed states like Germany, the UK and some of the states within the USA, wind and solar power have reduced the consumption of coal-generated electricity.  However, the impact of so-called renewables on global energy consumption remains negligible; accounting for less than three percent of total energy consumption worldwide.

A bigger problem may, however, be looming as a result of the lack of renewability of the renewable energy technologies themselves.  This is because solar panels and wind turbines do not follow the principles of the emerging “circular economy” model in which products are meant to be largely reusable, if not entirely renewable.

dead turbine

According to proponents of the circular economy model such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the old fossil carbon economy is based on a linear process in which raw materials and energy are used to manufacture goods that are used and then discarded:

 

This approach may have been acceptable a century ago when there were less than two billion humans on the planet and when consumption was largely limited to food and clothing.  However, as the population increased, mass consumption took off and the impact of our activities on the environment became increasingly obvious, it became clear that there is no “away” where we can dispose of all of our unwanted waste.  The result was the shift to what was optimistically referred to as “recycling.”  However, most of what we call recycling today is actually “down-cycling” – converting relatively high value goods into relatively low value materials:

 

The problem with this approach is that the cost of separating small volumes of high-value materials (such as the gold in electrical circuits) is far higher than the cost of mining and refining them from scratch.  As a result, most recycling involves the recovery of large volumes of relatively low value materials like aluminium, steel and PET plastic.  The remainder of the waste stream ends up in landfill or, in the case of toxic and hazardous products in special storage facilities.

In a circular economy, products would be designed as far as possible to be reused, bring them closer to what might realistically be called “renewable” – allowing that the second law of thermodynamics traps us into producing some waste irrespective of what we do:

 

Contrary to the “renewables” label, it turns out that solar panels and wind turbines are anything but.  They are dependent upon raw resources and fossil carbon fuels in their manufacture and, until recently, little thought had been put into how to dispose of them at the end of their working lives.  Since both wind turbines and solar panels contain hazardous materials, they cannot simply be dumped in landfill.  However, their composition makes them – at least for now – unsuited to the down-cycling processes employed by commercial recycling facilities.

While solar panels have more hazardous materials than wind turbines, they may prove to be more amenable to down-cycling, since the process of dismantling a solar panel is at least technically possible.  With wind turbines it is a different matter, as Alex Reichmuth at Basler Zeitung notes:

“The German Wind Energy Association estimates that by 2023 around 14,000 MW of installed capacity will lose production, which is more than a quarter of German wind power capacity on land. How many plants actually go off the grid depends on the future electricity price. If this remains as deep as it is today, more plants could be shut down than newly built.

“However, the dismantling of wind turbines is not without its pitfalls. Today, old plants can still be sold with profit to other parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe, Russia or North Africa, where they will continue to be used. But the supply of well-maintained old facilities is rising and should soon surpass demand. Then only the dismantling of plants remains…

“Although the material of steel parts or copper pipes is very good recyclable. However, one problem is the rotor blades, which consist of a mixture of glass and carbon fibers and are glued with polyester resins.”

According to Reichmuth, even incinerating the rotor blades will cause problems because this will block the filters used in waste incineration plants to prevent toxins being discharged into the atmosphere.  However, the removal of the concrete and steel bases on which the turbines stand may prove to be the bigger economic headache:

“In a large plant, this base can quickly cover more than 3,000 tons of reinforced concrete and often reach more than twenty meters deep into the ground… The complete removal of the concrete base can quickly cost hundreds of thousands of euros.”

It is this economic issue that is likely to scupper attempts to develop a solar panel recycling industry.  In a recent paper in the International Journal of Photoenergy, D’Adamo et. al. conclude that while technically possible, current recycling processes are too expensive to be commercially viable.  As Nate Berg at Ensia explains:

“Part of the problem is that solar panels are complicated to recycle. They’re made of many materials, some hazardous, and assembled with adhesives and sealants that make breaking them apart challenging.

“’The longevity of these panels, the way they’re put together and how they make them make it inherently difficult to, to use a term, de-manufacture,’ says Mark Robards, director of special projects for ECS Refining, one of the largest electronics recyclers in the U.S. The panels are torn apart mechanically and broken down with acids to separate out the crystalline silicon, the semiconducting material used by most photovoltaic manufacturers. Heat systems are used to burn up the adhesives that bind them to their armatures, and acidic hydro-metallurgical systems are used to separate precious metals.

“Robards says nearly 75 percent of the material that gets separated out is glass, which is easy to recycle into new products but also has a very low resale value…”

Ironically, manufacturers’ efforts to drive down the price of solar panels make recycling them even more difficult by reducing the amount of expensive materials like silver and copper for which there is demand in recycling.

In Europe, regulations for the disposal of electrical waste were amended in 2012 to incorporate solar panels.  This means that the cost of disposing used solar panels rests with the manufacturer.  No such legislation exists elsewhere.  Nor is it clear whether those costs will be absorbed by the manufacturer or passed on to consumers.

Since only the oldest solar panels and wind turbines have to be disposed of at present, it might be that someone will figure out how to streamline the down-cycling process.  As far more systems come to the end of their life in the next decade, volume may help drive down costs.  However, we cannot bank on this.  The energy and materials required to dismantle these technologies may well prove more expensive than the value of the recovered materials.  As Kelly Pickerel at Solar Power World concedes:

“System owners recycle their panels in Europe because they are required to. Panel recycling in an unregulated market (like the United States) will only work if there is value in the product. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) detailed solar panel compositions in a 2016 report and found that c-Si modules contained about 76% glass, 10% polymer (encapsulant and backsheet), 8% aluminum (mostly the frame), 5% silicon, 1% copper and less than 0.1% of silver, tin and lead. As new technologies are adopted, the percentage of glass is expected to increase while aluminum and polymers will decrease, most likely because of dual-glass bifacial designs and frameless models.

“CIGS thin-film modules are composed of 89% glass, 7% aluminum and 4% polymers. The small percentages of semiconductors and other metals include copper, indium, gallium and selenium. CdTe thin-film is about 97% glass and 3% polymer, with other metals including nickel, zinc, tin and cadmium telluride.

“There’s just not a large amount of money-making salvageable parts on any type of solar panel. That’s why regulations have made such a difference in Europe.”

Ultimately, even down-cycling these supposedly “renewable” technologies will require state intervention.  Or, to put it another way, the public – either as consumers or taxpayers – are going to have to pick up the tab in the same way as they are currently subsidising fossil carbon fuels and nuclear.  The question that the proponents of these technologies dare not ask, is how far electorates are prepared to put up with these increasing costs before they turn to politicians out of the Donald Trump/ Malcolm Turnbull stable who promise the cheapest energy irrespective of its environmental impact.





As usual….. it’s the money stupid.

12 05 2018





It’s the Consumption, Stupid….

2 05 2018

The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics – The Gaping Hole in the Middle of the Circular Economy

paul mobbsA great article by Paul Mobbs, an independent environmental consultant, investigator, author and lecturer, and maintains the Free Range Activism Website (FRAW).

Why the latest buzz-phrase in consumer sustainability is not only failing to tackle the core problem, but why it is doomed to fail

Listening to Radio 4 this morning I heard the two juxtaposed keywords that I’ve learned to dread over the last couple of the years; ‘circular economy’. It’s a great idea, and I can’t fault the true belief of those promoting it. My problem is that the way they describe it has little to do with the physical realities of the world, and hence it’s really just a “get out of hell free” card for affluent consumers – who are, it would appear, the most vociferous proponents of this idea.

As is so often the case with feel-good eco-stories, the Today programme’s[1] interviewer was all light and fluffy; and obviously flummoxed because they did not have the confidence to ask any basic, challenging questions of the interviewee.

The segment was examining the new research[2] from Portsmouth University. They’ve found a ‘mutant’ enzyme from bacteria they found living on plastic in recycling centres. As with all enzymes[3] – like the things they add to washing powder so you can clean clothes without boiling them – these complex molecules accelerate chemical reactions by working on the chemical bonds which hold things together. In this case, the enzyme breaks down the bonds of the polyethylene terephthalate[4] (PET) molecule.

Great idea; and if shown to be ecologically safe, great chemistry. That’s not the issue here.

Enter ‘the Circular Economy’

The scientist then described the value of this enzyme as part of the ‘circular economy’[5] – a concept proposed in the 1980s, and popularized in recent years by organizations such a the Ellen MacArthur Foundation[6], of moving from a linear to a circular economic process:

  • ‘Linear’ economy – meaning that materials are created, used and disposed as waste, requiring that new resources must be reduced to replace them, which is how the core of the global economy works today;
  • ‘Circular’ economy – meaning that all materials and products are manufactured and sold so that their content can be fully recycled and used in new products once more, obviating the need to produce new resources to replace them.

It is a lovely idea. One which I would whole-heartedly support, but for one slight technical hitch I perceive in this concept; The Laws of Thermodynamics[7] – and my particular favourite, The Second Law of Thermodynamics[8].

The Laws of Thermodynamics arose in parallel with industrialization, having first been used to described the operation of steam engines. Over time science has perfected the principles of these ‘laws’ and now finds that they are universal.

The Second Law deals with irreversible reactions – that is, operations which once undertaken cannot be undone.

What the ‘circular economy’ idea would propose in relation to PET plastic bottles is: Take some natural gas (yes, contrary to the idea that plastics come form oil, most plastics are made from the light by-products of oil refining, but mostly natural gas and gas condensate) and turn it into PET plastic; then make a plastic bottle with a blow-moulding machine; use the bottle; then recycle the bottle, and keep recycling after each use – obviating the need to use more natural gas to create plastic. As a result, the use of the bottle becomes ‘circular’.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

The thermodynamic restrictions of human hope

Of course, there’s always a big hairy “but” in situations like this.

In this case, the use of plastic represents a ‘reversible’ reaction – you can make plastic, and then recycle the plastic to make more plastic. Sorted!

The energy expended in doing that, however, is an irreversible[9] process. It can’t be recovered.

The Second Law dictates that energy can be used, but in the process the ‘quality’ (for which read ‘usefulness’, or ‘density’, or ‘value’) of that energy is degraded; and once degraded, that ‘quality’ cannot be recovered without using even more energy than was expended when the energy was first used.

For example, water flowing downhill can turn a turbine to make electricity; but it takes more electricity than that was generated to pump that same volume of water back to the top of the hill again.

Now at this point proponents of the circular economy will talk about using renewable energy, thereby avoiding the issue of finite resources being used to power the process. That’s true, up to a point; and that point is, what are those renewable energy system made from? Finite resources.

Limits to renewable energy

Just because renewable energy is ‘renewable’, it doesn’t mean the machines we require to harvest that energy are freed from the finite limits of the Earth’s resources[10].

There are grand schemes to power the world using renewable energy. The difficulty is that no one has bothered to check to see if the resources are available to produce that energy. Recent research suggests that the resources required to produce that level of capacity cannot currently be supplied[11].

The crunch point is that while there might be enough indium, gallium, neodymium and other rare metals to manufacture wind turbines or PV panels for the worlds half-a-billion or so affluent consumers (i.e., the people most likely to be reading this), there is not enough to give everyone on the planet that same level of energy consumption – we’d run out long before then.

For example, the first metal humans smelted[12] about 9,000 years ago was copper. Ever since copper has been a brilliant indicator of human development, with consumption increasing in line with human development ever since. One reason for that is that as industrial use has fallen (e.g., replacing copper pipes with plastic) we’ve used more copper for new technologies (e.g., electronics – roughly 14%[13] of the weight of a mobile phone is copper).

Copper also has one of the best, most mature recycling systems, but even then it’s been estimated that only half of all copper is reused[14].

The problem is, due to its long and intensive global use, we’re approaching ‘peak copper’[15] – the point where the remaining amount of copper in the ground, and more importantly its falling ore quality, reduces the amount which can be economically produced annually. And more significantly, the ecological impact[16] of the falling copper ore quality is that the energy consumed and the greenhouse gases emitted by production increase exponentially.

Now of course we’ll use copper more efficiently. And if we run short, rising prices will increase recycling rates – though it will also increase the disruptive theft[17] of copper in society. The difficulty is that, just last week[18], the copper industry announced that it worried about production after 2020.

Strategy is important, but ‘real’ change is critical

OK, back to the ‘circular economy’.

What really matters here is not so much the material used in production, but the energy density of production. Energy density isn’t just a matter of how much energy it takes to produce an article, but how long that article lasts. That in turn affects the ‘return’ on the energy invested in its production – or EROEI[19].

Let’s say a plastic bottle takes six weeks to be manufactured, filled, bought, consumed, collected and reprocessed to the point of re-manufacture. That’s good because recycling plastic can represent a saving of more than 50%[20] on the energy used to produce it compared to virgin materials.

What determines the long-term sustainability of this though is not just the one-time saving, but the viable fraction that can be reclaimed and reused.

Let’s assume that, at best, we can recover 60% of the content of the bottle over each 6 week cycle. After 1 cycle, 6 weeks, we have 60% of the material left. After 2 cycles, 12 weeks, we have 60% × 60% = 36% left. After three cycles there’s 60% × 36% = 22%. After four cycles, 13%, etc.

By the end of one year (8 or 9 cycles) we’d only have 1% of our plastic left.

The obvious response is, “well, let’s recycle more”. The problem is that achieving a higher recovery rate actually requires expending more energy, reducing the energy saved – and as you get nearer to 100% the amount required is likely to exceed the energy involved in producing new plastic from raw materials.

For example, recycling in densely populated urban areas is easy, because waste management is an essential part of being able to run an urban area. But what about more sparsely populated rural areas and villages? At what point does the energy expended running a collection vehicle exceed the energy saved from materials recovery? (answer – it’s completely dependent upon local circumstance, and so has to be evaluated as part of the planning process rather than generalized in advance).

“It’s consumption, stupid!”

It’s the same as the falling copper ore problem. The more diffuse your source, the more energy you have to expend to recover it. Getting the easy to find plastic, let’s say the first half, will be easy. Getting the next 20% might take as much effort. The 10% after that twice again. And the last 20%? It might produce no saving at all.

Alternatively we could extend the life of the bottle – by refilling instead of recycling. That would have a significant effect, but even then, on each refill cycle a certain number of bottles would be rejected.

Don’t ignore this option though. It is arguable that, in lieu of increasing recycling rates, extending the service life of resources probably has the best energy profile – since it reduces not only the need to re-manufacture resources, but also the need to recycle/replace them. The problem is that reuse often requires far greater change and co-operation by consumers – precisely the thing our ‘liberal’ economy hates doing because it involves dictating the actions of consumers.

Forget Bill Clinton’s line about ‘the economy’; “It’s consumption, stupid!”

More importantly, throughout this whole process, energy is expended[21]; and energy is the one thing we can’t recover. Therefore we have to avoid re-manufacture or recovery in the first place. The difficulty is that no one wants to advocate this – combining multiple reuse, high recycling AND longer service life – as it means the effective elimination of consumerism, fashion, ‘innovation’, and many of the other totemic traits[22] of the modern consumer materialist economy.

Then again, given that a large amount of the world’s wealth is derived from resource exploitation, any change to that pattern is likely to have huge implications for the day-to-day economy[23] that the most affluent consumers rely upon in order to consume.

The ‘Circular Economy’ must accept thermodynamic reality

Arthur Eddington[24] was a British scientist (and Quaker) who advanced physics and astrophysics in the first decades of the 20th Century, and popularized the theories of Albert Einstein – against the then anti-German and anti-Jewish prejudice of the science establishment.

In relation to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, Eddington produced a famous statement:

If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations – then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation – well these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

The ‘circular economy’ is, in my opinion, a ruse to make affluent consumers feel that they can keep consuming without the need to change their habits. Nothing could be further[25] from the truth, and the central reason for that is the necessity for energy to power economic activity[26].

While the ‘circular economy’ concept admittedly has the right ideas, it detracts from the most important aspects of our ecological crisis today[27] – it is consumption that is the issue, not the simply the use of resources. Though the principle could be made to work for a relatively small proportion[28] of the human population, it could never be a mainstream solution for the whole world because of its reliance on renewable energy technologies to make it function – and the over-riding resource limitations on harvesting renewable energy.

In order to reconcile the circular economy with the Second Law we have to apply not only changes to the way we use materials, but how we consume them. Moreover, that implies such a large reduction in resource use[29] by the most affluent, developed consumers, that in no way does the image of the circular economy, portrayed by its proponents, match up to the reality[30] of making it work for the majority of the world’s population.

In the absence of a proposal that meets both the global energy and resource limitations[30] on the human system, including the limits on renewable energy production, the current portrayal of the ‘circular economy’ is not a viable option. Practically then, it is nothing more than a salve for the conscience of affluent consumers who, deep down, are conscious enough to realize that their life of luxury will soon be over as the related ecological and economic crises[31] bite further up the income scale.

 

References:

  1. BBC Radio 4: ‘Today’, 17th April 2018 – https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qj9z
  2. Guardian Online: ‘Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic bottles’, 16th April 2018 – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/16/scientists-accidentally-create-mutant-enzyme-that-eats-plastic-bottles
  3. Wikipedia: ‘Enzyme’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enzyme
  4. Wikipedia: ‘Polyethylene terephthalate’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyethylene_terephthalate
  5. Wikipedia: ‘Circular economy’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circular_economy
  6. Wikipedia: ‘Ellen MacArthur Foundation’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_MacArthur_Foundation
  7. Wikipedia: ‘Laws of thermodynamics’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laws_of_thermodynamics
  8. Wikipedia: ‘Second law of thermodynamics’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_law_of_thermodynamics
  9. Wikipedia: ‘Irreversible process’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irreversible_process
  10. BioScience: ‘Energetic Limits to Economic Growth’, vol.61 no.1, January 2011 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/brown2011.shtml
  11. EU Joint Research Committee: ‘Critical Metals in Strategic Energy Technologies – Assessing Rare Metals as Supply-Chain Bottlenecks in Low-Carbon Energy Technologies’, 2011 – http://www.oakdenehollins.com/pdf/CriticalMetalsinSET.pdf
  12. Wikipedia: ‘Chalcolithic’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chalcolithic
  13. U.S. Geological Survey: ‘Recycled Cell Phones – A Treasure Trove of Valuable Metals’, July 2006 – http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2006/3097/fs2006-3097.pdf
  14. Environmental Science and Technology: ‘Dynamic Analysis of Global Copper Flows’, Glöser et al., vol.47 no.12 pp.6564-6572, May 2013 – https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/es400069b
  15. Wikipedia: ‘Peak copper’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_copper
  16. Resource Policy: ‘The Environmental sustainability of mining in Australia: key mega-trends and looming constraints’, Gavin M. Mudd, vol.35 no.2 pp.98-115, June 2010 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/mudd2010.shtml
  17. Wikipedia: ‘Metal theft’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metal_theft
  18. Mining: ‘Copper supply crunch earlier than predicted – experts’, 10th April 2018 – http://www.mining.com/copper-supply-crunch-earlier-predicted-experts/
  19. Wikipedia: ‘Energy returned on energy invested’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_returned_on_energy_invested
  20. Ecological Modelling: ‘Analysis of energy footprints associated with recycling of glass and plastic – case studies for industrial ecology’, vol.174 no.1-2 pp.175-189, May 2004 – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304380004000067
  21. Sustainability: ‘Energy, Economic Growth and Environmental Sustainability: Five Propositions’, vol.2 pp.1784-1809, 18th June 2010 – http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/2/6/1784/pdf
  22. Nature: ‘Time to leave GDP behind’, vol.505 pp.283-285, 16th January 2014 – http://www.nature.com/polopoly_fs/1.14499!/menu/main/topColumns/topLeftColumn/pdf/505283a.pdf
  23. International Journal of Transdisciplinary Research: ‘The Need for a New, Biophysical-Based Paradigm in Economics for the Second Half of the Age of Oil’, vol.1 no.1 pp.4-22, 2006 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/hallklitgaard2006.shtml
  24. Wikipedia: ‘Arthur Eddington’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Eddington
  25. Journal of Cleaner Production: ‘Why are we growth-addicted? The hard way towards degrowth in the involutionary western development path’, vo.18 no.6 pp.590-595, April 2010 – https://degrowth.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Van-Griethuysen-why-are-we-growth-addicted.pdf
  26. The Australian National University : ‘The Role of Energy in Economic Growth’, Centre for Climate Economics & Policy, October 2010 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/stern2010.shtml
  27. PNAS: ‘Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economy’, vol.99 no.14 pp.9266-9271, 9th July 2002 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/wackernagel2002.shtml
  28. The Corner House: ‘Energy Security: For Whom?, For What?’, February 2012 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/cornerhouse2012.shtml
  29. Paul Mobbs/MEI: ‘Energy Beyond Oil – Could You Cut Your Energy Use by Sixty Percent?’, June 2005 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/energy_beyond_oil_book.shtml
  30. Ecological Economics: ‘Degrowth and the supply of money in an energy-scarce world’, vol.84 pp.187-193, 28th March 2011 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/douthwaite2011.shtml
  31. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: ‘Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?’, vol.280 no.1754, 7th March 2013 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/ehrlich2013.shtml
  32. Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute: ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?: An Updated Comparison of The Limits to Growth with Historical Data’, Research Paper No.4, August 2014 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/library/pages/turner2014.shtml




A response to Changing the Conversation

8 12 2017

Ed. Note: Richard Smith’s article, Climate Crisis and Managed Deindustrialization: Debating Alternatives to Ecological Collapse, which Saral is responding to this post, can be found on Resilience.org here, or here on DTM where I republished it. My only gripe with Saral’s essay is the total lack of mention of debt abolition…..  canceling debt is the only way forward when we start talking about what to do about all the job losses.

By Saral Sarkar, originally published by Saral Sarkar blog

In his article,1 Richard calls upon his readers to “change the conversation”. He asks, “What are your thoughts?” He says, if we don’t “come up with a viable alternative, our goose is cooked.” I fully agree. So I join the conversation, in order to improve it.

Let me first say I appreciate Richard’s article very much. It is very useful, indeed necessary, to also present one’s cause in a short article – for those who are interested but, for whatever reason, cannot read a whole book. Richard has ably presented the eco-socialist case against both capitalism and “green” capitalism.

But the alternative Richard has come up with is deficient in one very important respect, namely in respect of viability. Allow me to present here my comradely criticisms. It will be short.

Is only Capitalism the Problem?

(1) Richard writes, “Capitalism, not population is the main driver of planetary ecological collapse … .”. It sounds like an echo of statements from old-Marxist-socialism. It is not serious. Is Richard telling us that, while we are fighting a long-drawn-out battle against capitalism in order to overcome it, we can allow population to continuously grow without risking any further destruction of the environment? Should we then think that a world population of ten billion by 2050 would not be any problem?

I would agree if Richard would say that capitalism is, because of its growth compulsion, one of the main drivers of ecological collapse. But anybody who has learnt even a little about ecology knows that in any particular eco-region, exponential growth of any one species leads to collapse of its ecological balance. If we now think of the planet Earth as one whole eco-region and consider all the scientific reports on rapid bio-diversity loss and rapid dwindling of the numbers of larger animals, then we cannot but correlate these facts with the exponential growth of our own species, homo sapiens sapiens, the latter being the cause of the former two.

No doubt, capitalism – together with the development of technologies, especially agricultural and medical technologies – has largely enabled the huge growth of human numbers in the last two hundred years. But human population growth has been occurring even in pre-capitalist and pre-medieval eras, albeit at a slower rate. Parallel to this, also environmental destruction has been occurring and growing in these eras.

It is not good to tell our readers only half the truth. The whole truth is succinctly stated in the equation:

I = P  x  A  x  T

where I stands for ecological impact (we can also call it ecological destruction), P for population, T for Technology and A for affluence. All these three factors are highly variable. Let me here also quote Paul Ehrlich, one of my teachers in political ecology. Addressing leftists, he once wrote, “Whatever [be] your cause, it is a lost cause unless we control population [growth]”. Note the phrase “whatever your cause”. Ehrlich meant to say, and I too think so, the cause may be environmental protection, saving the earth, protecting biodiversity, overcoming poverty and unemployment, women’s liberation, preventing racist and ethnic conflicts and cleansings, preventing huge unwelcome migration flows, preventing crime, fighting modern-day slavery, bringing peace in the world, creating a socialist world order etc. etc. etc., in all cases stopping population growth is a very important factor. Sure, that will in no case be enough. But that is an essential part of the solutions.

Note that in the equation cited above, there is no mention of capitalism. Instead, we find there the two factors technology and affluence. We can call (and we generally do call) the product of T x A (production of affluence by means of industrial technologies) industrialism, of which there has until now been two main varieties: the capitalist one and the planned socialist one (of the soviet type). Nothing will be gained for saving the ecological balance of the Earth if only capitalism is replaced with socialism, and ruling socialists then try to increase production at a higher rate, which they must do under the pressure of a growing population which, moreover, develops higher ambitions and aspirations, and demands all the good things that middle class Americans enjoy.

(2) Modern-day old-socialists do not deny the existence of an ecological problem. They have also developed several pseudo-solutions such as “clean” and “renewable” energies and materials, efficiency revolution, decoupling of GDP growth from resource use etc.

It’s good that Richard rejects the idea that green capitalism can save us. But why can’t it? “Because”, he writes, “companies can’t commit economic suicide to save the humans. There’s just no solution to our crisis within the framework of any conceivable capitalism.” This is good, but not enough. Because there are old-socialists (I know many in Germany) who believe that it is only individual capitalists/companies and the system capitalism that are preventing a rapid transition to 100 percent clean renewable energies and 100 percent recycling of all materials. Thanks to these possibilities, they believe, old-socialist type of industrialism, and even economic and population growth, can be reconciled with the requirements of sustainability. I don’t think that is possible, and I have also earlier elaborately explained why.2 Said briefly, “renewable energies” are neither clean nor renewable, and 100 percent recycling is impossible because the Entropy Law also applies to matter. What Richard thinks is not clear from this article of his. It is necessary to make his thoughts on this point clear.

Is Bottom-up Democracy of Any Use in the Transition Period?

(3) Richard writes, “Rational planning requires bottom-up democracy.” I do not understand the connection between the two, planning and democracy. At the most, one could say that for better planning for the villages, the planning commission should also listen to the villagers. But at the national level? Should, e.g., the inhabitants of each and every 500 souls village in the Ganges basin codetermine in a bottom up democratic planning process how the waters of the said river and its tributaries should be distributed among ca. 500 million inhabitants of the basin? If that were ever to be attempted, the result would be chaos, not planning. Moreover, how do you ensure that the villagers are capable of understanding the national interest and overcoming their particular interests? Such phrases are only illusions.

In his 6th thesis, Richard sketches a rosy, idealistic picture of a future eco-socialist society and its citizens. That may be attractive for him, me and other eco-socialists. But this future lies in distant future. First we would need a long transition period of contracting economies, and that would cause a lot of pain to millions of people spoilt by consumerism or promises of a consumerist future. We shall have to convince such people, and that would be an altogether difficult job. We should tell them the truth, namely that austerity is necessary for saving the earth. We can promise them only one thing, namely that all the pains and burdens as well as the benefits of austerity will be equitably distributed among all.

What to Do About Jobs?

(4) Richard writes: “Needless to say, retrenching and closing down such industries would mean job losses, millions of jobs from here to ChinaYet if we don’t shut down those unsustainable industries, we’re doomed.” And then he puts the question “What to do?” We can be sure that all people who wholly depend on a paid job for their livelihood, whom we must also win over, will confront us with this jobs question. Let me finish my contribution to this conversation with an answer to this question. 

There is not much use talking to ourselves, the already converted. We need to start work, immediately and all over the world, especially in those countries where poverty and unemployment is very high. We know that, generally, these countries are also those where population growth is very high. People from the rich countries cannot simply tell their people, sorry, we have to close down many factories and we cannot further invest in industrializing your countries. But the former can tell the latter that they can help them in controlling population growth. The latter will understand easily that it is an immediately effective way to reduce poverty and unemployment. A massive educative campaign will of course be necessary in addition to concrete monetary and technical help.

In the rich countries, contrary to what Richard perhaps thinks, it will not be possible to provide new equivalent jobs to replace those jobs we need to abolish. For such countries, reducing working hours and job-sharing in the short term, and, in the long term, ostracizing automation and labor-saving technologies, and using labor-intensive methods of production instead, are together the only solution. That is already known. Another thing that would be needed is to negate free trade and international competition. However, it must also be said openly that high wages and salaries cannot be earned under such circumstances. 

We eco-socialist activists must begin the work with a massive world-wide political campaign in favor of such ideas and policies.

Notes and References

1. Smith, Richard (2017) “ Climate Crisis and Managed Deindustrialization: Debating Alternatives to Ecological Collapse.”
https://forhumanliberation.blogspot.de/2017/11/2753-climate-crisis-and-managed.html
and
https://www.commondreams.org/views/2017/11/21/climate-crisis-and-managed-deindustrialization-debating-alternatives-ecological

2. My views expressed in this article have been elaborately presented in my book:
Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? – A Critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices (1999). London: Zed Books,  and in various articles published in my blog-site
www.eco-socialist.blogspot.com