Unpacking Extinction Rebellion — Part I: Net-zero Emissions

17 09 2019

Kim Hill

Sep 13 · Originally published by Medium, a very important article needed to be read very widely……..

The Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement has taken off around the world, with millions of people taking to the streets to demand that governments take action on climate change and the broader ecological crisis. The scale of the movement means it has the potential to have an enormous impact on the course of history, by bringing about massive changes to the structure of our societies and economic systems.

The exact nature of the demanded action is not made clear, and warrants a close examination. There is a long history of powerful government and corporate interests throwing their support behind social movements, only to redirect the course of action to suit their own ends, and Extinction Rebellion is no exception.

With the entirety of life on this planet at stake, any course of action needs to be considered extremely carefully. Actions have consequences, and at this late stage, one mis-step can be catastrophic. The feeling that these issues have been discussed long enough and it is now time for immediate action is understandable. However, without clear goals and a plan on how to achieve them, the actions taken are likely to do more harm than good.

Extinction and climate change are among the many disastrous effects of an industrial society. While the desire to take action to stop the extinction of the natural world is admirable, rebelling against the effects without directly confronting the economic and political systems that are the root cause is like treating the symptoms of an illness without investigating or diagnosing it first. It won’t work. Addressing only one aspect of the global system, without taking into account the interconnected industries and governance structures, will only lead to worse problems.

Demand 2: net-zero emissions

The rebellion’s goals are expressed in three demands, under the headings Tell the Truth, Act Now and Beyond Politics. I’m starting with the second demand because net-zero is the core goal of the rebellion, and the one that will have enormous political, economic and social impact.

What does net-zero emissions mean? In the words of Catherine Abreau, executive director of the Climate Action Network: “In short, it means the amount of emissions being put into the atmosphere is equal to the amount being captured.” The term carbon-neutral is interchangeable with net-zero.

Net-zero emissions is Not a Thing. There is no way to un-burn fossil fuels. This demand is not for the extraction and burning to stop, but for the oil and gas industry to continue, while powering some non-existent technology that makes it all okay. XR doesn’t specify how they plan to reach the goal.

Proponents of net-zero emissions advocate for the trading of carbon offsets, so industries can pay to have their emissions captured elsewhere, without reducing any on their part. This approach creates a whole new industry of selling carbon credits. Wind turbines, hydro-electric dams, biofuels, solar panels, energy efficiency projects, and carbon capture are commonly traded carbon offsets. None of these actually reduce carbon emissions in practice, and are themselves contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, so make the problem worse. Using this approach, a supposedly carbon-neutral economy leads to increased extraction and burning, and generates massive profits for corporations in the process. Head of environmental markets at Barclays Capital, Louis Redshaw, predicted in 2007 “carbon will be the world’s biggest commodity market, and it could become the world’s biggest market overall.”

The demand for net-zero emissions has been echoed by a group of more than 100 companies and lobby groups, who say in a letter to the UK government: “We see the threat that climate change poses to our businesses and to our investments, as well as the significant economic opportunities that come with being an early mover in the development of new low-carbon goods and services.” Included in this group are Shell, Nestle and Unilever. This is the same Shell that has caused thousands of oil spills and toxic leaks in Nigeria and around the world, executed protesters, owns 60 per cent of the Athabasca oil sands project in Alberta, and intends to continue extracting oil long into the future; the same Nestle that profits from contaminated water supplies by selling bottled water, while depleting the world’s aquifers; the same Unilever that is responsible for clearing rainforests for palm oil and paper, dumping tonnes of mercury in India, and making billions by marketing plastic-wrapped junk food and unnecessary consumer products to the world’s poorest people. All these companies advocate for free trade and privatization of the commons, and exploit workers and lax environmental laws in the third world. As their letter says, their motivation is to profit from the crisis, not to stop the destruction they are causing.

These are XR’s allies in the call for net-zero emissions.

The nuclear industry also sees the net-zero target as a cause for celebration, and even fracking is considered compatible with the goal.

Net-zero emissions in practice

Let’s look at some of the proposed approaches to achieve net-zero in more detail.

Renewable energy doesn’t reduce the amount of energy being generated by fossil fuels, and doesn’t do anything to reduce atmospheric carbon. Wind turbines and solar panels are made of metals, which are mined using fossil fuels. Any attempt to transition to 100% renewables would require more of some rare earth metals than exist on the planet, and rare earth mining is mostly done illegally in ecologically sensitive areas in China. There are plans to mine the deep sea to extract the minerals needed for solar panels, wind turbines and electric car batteries. Mining causes massive destruction and pollution of forests and rivers, leading to increased rates of extinction and climate change. And huge profits for mining and energy companies, who can claim government subsidies for powering the new climate economy. The amount of fossil fuels needed to power the mines, manufacturing, infrastructure and maintenance of renewables makes the goal of transitioning to clean energy completely meaningless. Wind and solar ‘farms’ are installed on land taken from actual farms, as well as deserts and forests. And the energy generated is not used to protect endangered species, but to power the industries that are driving us all extinct. Not a solution. Not even close. In the net-zero logic of offset trading, renewables are presented as not an alternative to fossil fuel extraction, but instead a way to buy a pass to burn even more oil. That’s a double shot of epic fail for renewables.

Improving efficiency of industrial processes leads to an increase in the amount of energy consumed, not a decrease, as more can be produced with the available energy, and more energy is made available for other uses. The industries that are converting the living world into disposable crap need to be stopped, not given money to destroy the planet more efficiently.

Reforestation would be a great way to start repairing the damage done to the world, but instead is being used to expand the timber industry, which uses terms like ‘forest carbon markets’ and ‘net-zero deforestation’ to legitimize destroying old-growth forests, evicting their inhabitants, and replacing them with plantations. Those seeking to profit from reforestation are promoting genetically engineered, pesticide-dependent monocrop plantations, to be planted by drones, and are anticipating an increase in demand for wood products in the new ‘bioeconomy’. Twelve million hectares of tropical rainforest were cleared in 2018, the equivalent of 30 football fields a minute. Land clearing at this rate has been going on for decades, with no sign of stopping. No carbon offsets or emissions trading can have any effect while forest destruction continues. And making an effort to repair past damage does not make it okay to continue causing harm long into the future. A necessary condition of regenerating the land is that all destructive activity needs to stop.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is promoted as a way to extract carbon dioxide from industrial emissions, and bury it deep underground. Large amounts of energy and fresh water are required to do this, and pollutants are released into the atmosphere in the process. The purpose of currently-operational carbon capture installations is not to store the carbon dioxide, but to use it in a process called Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), which involves injecting CO2 into near-depleted oil fields, to extract more fossil fuels than would otherwise be accessible. And with carbon trading, the business of extracting oil becomes more profitable, as it can sell offset credits. Again, the proposed solution leads to more fossil fuel use, not less. Stored carbon dioxide is highly likely to leak out into the atmosphere, causing earthquakes and asphyxiating any nearby living beings. This headline says all you need to know: “Best Carbon Capture Facility In World Emits 25 Times More CO2 Than Sequestered”. Carbon capture for underground storage is neither technically nor commercially viable, as it is risky and there is no financial incentive to store the carbon dioxide, so requires government investment and subsidies. And the subsidies lead to coal and gas becoming more financially viable, thus expanding the industry.

Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is a psychopathic scheme to clear forests, and take over agricultural land to grow genetically modified fuel crops, burn the trees and crops as an energy source, and then bury the carbon dioxide underground (where it’s used to expand oil and gas production). It would require an amount of land almost the size of Australia, or up to 80% of current global cropland, masses of chemical fertilizers (made from fossil fuels), and lead to soil degradation (leading to more emissions), food shortages, water shortages, land theft, massive increase in the rate of extinction, and I can’t keep researching these effects it’s making me feel ill. Proponents of BECCS (i.e. fossil fuel companies) acknowledge that meeting the targets will require “three times the world’s total cereal production, twice the annual world use of water for agriculture, and twenty times the annual use of nutrients.” Of course this will mostly take place on land stolen from the poor, in Africa, South America and Asia. And the energy generated used to make more fighter jets, Hollywood movies, pointless gadgets and urban sprawl. Burning of forests for fuel is already happening in the US and UK, all in the name of clean energy. Attaching carbon capture to bioenergy means that 30% more trees or crops need to be burned to power the CCS facility, to sequester the emissions caused by burning them. And again, it’s an offset, so sold as a justification to keep the fossil fuel industry in business. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (in the three most likely of its four scenarios) recommends implementing BECCS on a large scale to keep warming below 2°C. Anyone who thinks this is a good idea can go burn in hell, where they can be put to good use as an energy source.

This is what a decarbonised economy looks like in practice. An enormous increase in fossil fuel extraction, land clearing, mining (up to nine times as much as current levels), pollution, resource wars, exploitation, and extinction. All the money XR is demanding that governments invest in decarbonisation is going straight to the oil, gas, coal and mining companies, to expand their industries and add to their profits. The Centre for International Environmental Law, in the report Fuel to the Fire, states “Overall, the US government has been funding CCS research since 1997, with over $5billion being appropriated since 2010.” Fossil fuel companies have been advocating net-zero for some years, as it is seen as a way to save a failing coal industry, and increase demand for oil and gas, because solar, wind, biofuels and carbon capture technologies are all dependent on fossil fuels for their operation.

Anyone claiming that a carbon-neutral economy is possible is not telling the truth. All of these strategies emit more greenhouse gases than they capture. The second demand directly contradicts the first.

These approaches are used to hide the problem, and dump the consequences on someone else: the poor, nonhuman life, the third world, and future generations, all in the service of profits in the present. The goal here is not to maintain a stable climate, or to protect endangered species, but to make money out of pretending to care.

Green growth, net-zero emissions and the Green New Deal (which explicitly states in its report that the purpose is to stimulate the economy, which includes plans to extract “remaining fossil fuel with carbon capture”) are fantasy stories sold to us by energy companies, a shiny advertisement sucking us in with their claims to make life better. In reality the product is useless, and draws us collectively into a debt that we’re already paying for by being killed off at a rate of 200 species a day. With exponential economic growth (a.k.a. exponential climate action) the rate of extinction will also grow exponentially. And the money to pay for it all comes directly from working people, in the form of pension funds, carbon taxes, and climate emergency levies.

The transition to net-zero

There are plans for thousands of carbon capture facilities to be built in the coming years, all requiring roads, pipelines, powerlines, shipping, land clearing, water extraction, pollution, noise, and the undermining of local economies for corporate profits, all for the purpose of extracting more oil. And all with the full support of the rebellion.



To get a sense of the scale of this economic transformation, a billion seconds is almost 32 years. If you were to line up a billion cars and run over them (or run them over) at a rate of one car per second, you’d be running for 32 years non-stop. That’s enough cars to stretch 100 times around the equator. You’d probably need to turn entire continents into a mine site to extract all the minerals required to make them. And even that wouldn’t be enough, as some of the rare earth metals required for batteries don’t exist in sufficient quantities. If all these cars are powered by renewables, you do the math on how much mining would be needed to make all the wind turbines and solar panels. Maybe several more continents. And then a few more covered in panels, turbines, powerlines, substations. And a few more to extract all the oil needed to power the mining and road building. Which all leaves no space for any life. And all for what? So we can spend our lives stuck in traffic? It’s ridiculous and apocalyptic, yet this is what the net-zero lobbyists, with the US and UK governments, and the European Union, have already begun implementing.

Shell’s thought leadership and government advisory schemes appear to be going great, with the US senate passing a number of bills in recent months to increase subsidies for oil companies using carbon capture, and a few more, to subsidise wind, solar, nuclear, coal, gas, research and development, and even more carbon capture, are scheduled to pass in the coming months.

The UK government, with guidance from the creepy-sounding nonprofit Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, is implementing a transition to net-zero, involving carbon capture, nuclear, bioenergy, hydrogen, ammonia, wind, solar, oil, gas, electric cars, smart grids, offset trading, manufacturing and the obligatory economic growth. And offering ‘climate finance’ to third world countries, to impose this industrial horror on the entire planet. All led by their advisors from the fossil fuel and finance industries, with input from the CCS, oil, gas, bioenergy, renewables, chemical, manufacturing, hydrogen, nuclear, airline, automotive, mining, and agriculture industries.

The European Union, advised by the corporate-funded European Climate Foundation, are implementing a similar plan, aiming to remain competitive with the rest of the industrialised world. The EU intends to commit 25% of its budget to implementing so-called climate mitigation strategies. Other industrialised countries also have plans to transition to a decarbonised economy.

Net-zero emissions is also the goal of the councils that have declared a climate emergency, which now number close to 1000, covering more than 200 million citizens.

This is the plan the rebellion is uniting behind to demand from the world’s governments.





To collapse or not to collapse

6 05 2018

Following on from posting David Holmgren’s inspiring speech on collapse yesterday, I’ve had several requests to post the rest of the debate in question, and so here it is in its entirety for your viewing satisfaction……

The SLF Great Debate presents
To Collapse or Not To Collpase
Pushing for economic ruin or building a great transition

Friday 13th February
Deakin Edge, Federation Square
http://www.slf.org.au/event/the-great-debate/





I told you so………

15 03 2018

At this rate, it’s going to take nearly 400 years to transform the energy system

Here are the real reasons we’re not building clean energy anywhere near fast enough.

“Is it possible to accelerate by a factor of 20?” he asks. “Yeah, but I don’t think people understand what that is, in terms of steel and glass and cement.” 

by James Temple  Originally published at Technology Review

windhelicopter

Fifteen years ago, Ken Caldeira, a senior scientist at the Carnegie Institution, calculated that the world would need to add about a nuclear power plant’s worth of clean-energy capacity every day between 2000 and 2050 to avoid catastrophic climate change. Recently, he did a quick calculation to see how we’re doing.

Not well. Instead of the roughly 1,100 megawatts of carbon-free energy per day likely needed to prevent temperatures from rising more than 2 ˚C, as the 2003 Science paper by Caldeira and his colleagues found, we are adding around 151 megawatts. That’s only enough to power roughly 125,000 homes.

At that rate, substantially transforming the energy system would take, not the next three decades, but nearly the next four centuries. In the meantime, temperatures would soar, melting ice caps, sinking cities, and unleashing devastating heat waves around the globe (see “The year climate change began to spin out of control”).

Caldeira stresses that other factors are likely to significantly shorten that time frame (in particular, electrifying heat production, which accounts for a more than half of global energy consumption, will significantly alter demand). But he says it’s clear we’re overhauling the energy system about an order of magnitude too slowly, underscoring a point that few truly appreciate: It’s not that we aren’t building clean energy fast enough to address the challenge of climate change. It’s that—even after decades of warnings, policy debates, and clean-energy campaigns—the world has barely even begun to confront the problem.

The UN’s climate change body asserts that the world needs to cut as much as 70 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions by midcentury to have any chance of avoiding 2 ˚C of warming. But carbon pollution has continued to rise, ticking up 2 percent last year.

So what’s the holdup?

Beyond the vexing combination of economic, political, and technical challenges is the basic problem of overwhelming scale. There is a massive amount that needs to be built, which will suck up an immense quantity of manpower, money, and materials.

For starters, global energy consumption is likely to soar by around 30 percent in the next few decades as developing economies expand. (China alone needs to add the equivalent of the entire US power sector by 2040, according to the International Energy Agency.) To cut emissions fast enough and keep up with growth, the world will need to develop 10 to 30 terawatts of clean-energy capacity by 2050. On the high end that would mean constructing the equivalent of around 30,000 nuclear power plants—or producing and installing 120 billion 250-watt solar panels.

Energy overhaul
What we should be doing* What we’re actually doing
Megawatts per day 1,100 151
Megawatts per year 401,500 55,115
Megawatts in fifty years 20,075,000 2,755,750
Years to add 20 Terrawatts 50 363
Sources: Carnegie Institution, Science, BP *If we had started at this rate in 2000 Actual average rate of carbon-free added per day from 2006-2015

There’s simply little financial incentive for the energy industry to build at that scale and speed while it has tens of trillions of dollars of sunk costs in the existing system.

“If you pay a billion dollars for a gigawatt of coal, you’re not going to be happy if you have to retire it in 10 years,” says Steven Davis, an associate professor in the Department of Earth System Science at the University of California, Irvine.

It’s somewhere between difficult and impossible to see how any of that will change until there are strong enough government policies or big enough technology breakthroughs to override the economics.

A quantum leap

In late February, I sat in Daniel Schrag’s office at the Harvard University Center for the Environment. His big yellow Chinook, Mickey, lay down next to my feet.

Schrag was one of President Barack Obama’s top climate advisors. As a geologist who has closely studied climate variability and warming periods in the ancient past, he has a special appreciation for how dramatically things can change.

Sitting next to me with his laptop, he opened a report he had recently coauthored assessing the risks of climate change. It highlights the many technical strides that will be required to overhaul the energy system, including better carbon capture, biofuels, and storage.

The study also notes that the United States adds roughly 10 gigawatts of new energy generation capacity per year. That includes all types, natural gas as well as solar and wind. But even at that rate, it would take more than 100 years to rebuild the existing electricity grid, to say nothing of the far larger one required in the decades to come.

“Is it possible to accelerate by a factor of 20?” he asks. “Yeah, but I don’t think people understand what that is, in terms of steel and glass and cement.”

Climate observers and commentators have used various historical parallels to illustrate the scale of the task, including the Manhattan Project and the moon mission. But for Schrag, the analogy that really speaks to the dimensions and urgency of the problem is World War II, when the United States nationalized parts of the steel, coal, and railroad industries. The government forced automakers to halt car production in order to churn out airplanes, tanks, and jeeps.

The good news here is that if you direct an entire economy at a task, big things can happen fast. But how do you inspire a war mentality in peacetime, when the enemy is invisible and moving in slow motion?

“It’s a quantum leap from where we are today,” Schrag says.

The time delay

The fact that the really devastating consequences of climate change won’t come for decades complicates the issue in important ways. Even for people who care about the problem in the abstract, it doesn’t rate high among their immediate concerns. As a consequence, they aren’t inclined to pay much, or change their lifestyle, to actually address it. In recent years, Americans were willing to increase their electricity bill by a median amount of only $5 a month even if that “solved,” not eased, global warming, down from $10 15 years earlier, according to a series of surveys by MIT and Harvard.

It’s conceivable that climate change will someday alter that mind-set as the mounting toll of wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, extinctions, and sea-level rise finally forces the world to grapple with the problem.

But that will be too late. Carbon dioxide works on a time delay. It takes about 10 years to achieve its full warming effect, and it stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years. After we’ve tipped into the danger zone, eliminating carbon dioxide emissions doesn’t decrease the effects; it can only prevent them from getting worse. Whatever level of climate change we allow to unfold is locked in for millennia, unless we develop technologies to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere on a massive scale (or try our luck with geoengineering).

This also means there’s likely to be a huge trade-off between what we would have to pay to fix the energy system and what it would cost to deal with the resulting disasters if we don’t. Various estimates find that cutting emissions will shrink the global economy by a few percentage points a year, but unmitigated warming could slash worldwide GDP more than 20 percent by the end of the century, if not far more.

In the money

Arguably the most crucial step to accelerate energy development is enacting strong government policies. Many economists believe the most powerful tool would be a price on carbon, imposed through either a direct tax or a cap-and-trade program. As the price of producing energy from fossil fuels grows, this would create bigger incentives to replace those plants with clean energy (see “Surge of carbon pricing proposals coming in the new year”).

“If we’re going to make any progress on greenhouse gases, we’ll have to either pay the implicit or explicit costs of carbon,” says Severin Borenstein, an energy economist at the University of California, Berkeley.

But it has to be a big price, far higher than the $15 per ton it cost to acquire allowances in California’s cap-and-trade program late last year. Borenstein says a carbon fee approaching $40 a ton “just blows coal out of the market entirely and starts to put wind and solar very much into the money,” at least when you average costs across the lifetime of the plants.

Others think the price should be higher still. But it’s very hard to see how any tax even approaching that figure could pass in the United States, or many other nations, anytime soon.

The other major policy option would be caps that force utilities and companies to keep greenhouse emissions below a certain level, ideally one that decreases over time. This regulations-based approach is not considered as economically efficient as a carbon price, but it has the benefit of being much more politically palatable. American voters hate taxes but are perfectly comfortable with air pollution rules, says Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of government at Harvard University.

Fundamental technical limitations will also increase the cost and complexity of shifting to clean energy. Our fastest-growing carbon-free sources, solar and wind farms, don’t supply power when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. So as they provide a larger portion of the grid’s electricity, we’ll also need long-range transmission lines that can balance out peaks and valleys across states, or massive amounts of very expensive energy storage, or both (see “Relying on renewables alone significantly inflates the cost of overhauling energy”).

Million tonnes oil equivalentA renewables revolution?Despite the wide optimism surrounding renewables like wind and solar, they still only represent atiny and slow growing fraction of global energy.NuclearHydroAll RenewablesCoalNatural GasOil2000200120022003200420052006200720082009201020112012201320142015201605k10k15kSource: World consumption of primary energy consumption by source. BP

The upshot is that we’re eventually going to need to either supplement wind and solar with many more nuclear reactors, fossil-fuel plants with carbon capture and other low-emissions sources, or pay far more to build out a much larger system of transmission, storage and renewable generation, says Jesse Jenkins, a researcher with the MIT Energy Initiative. In all cases, we’re still likely to need significant technical advances that drive down costs.

All of this, by the way, only addresses the challenge of overhauling the electricity sector, which currently represents less than 20 percent of total energy consumption. It will provide a far greater portion as we electrify things like vehicles and heating, which means we’ll eventually need to develop an electrical system several times larger than today’s.

But that still leaves the “really difficult parts of the global energy system” to deal with, says Davis of UC Irvine. That includes aviation, long-distance hauling, and the cement and steel industries, which produce carbon dioxide in the manufacturing process itself. To clean up these huge sectors of the economy, we’re going to need better carbon capture and storage tools, as well as cheaper biofuels or energy storage, he says.

These kinds of big technical achievements tend to require significant and sustained government support. But much like carbon taxes or emissions caps, a huge increase in federal research and development funding is highly unlikely in the current political climate.

Give up?

So should we just give up?

There is no magic bullet or obvious path here. All we can do is pull hard on the levers that seem to work best.

Environmental and clean-energy interest groups need to make climate change a higher priority, tying it to practical issues that citizens and politicians do care about, like clean air, security, and jobs. Investors or philanthropists need to be willing to make longer-term bets on early-stage energy technologies. Scientists and technologists need to focus their efforts on the most badly needed tools. And lawmakers need to push through policy changes to provide incentives, or mandates, for energy companies to change.

The hard reality, however, is that the world very likely won’t be able to accomplish what’s called for by midcentury. Schrag says that keeping temperature increases below 2 ˚C is already “a pipe dream,” adding that we’ll be lucky to prevent 4 ˚C of warming this century.

That means we’re likely to pay a very steep toll in lost lives, suffering, and environmental devastation (see “Hot and violent”).

But the imperative doesn’t end if warming tips past 2 ˚C. It only makes it more urgent to do everything we can to contain the looming threats, limit the damage, and shift to a sustainable system as fast as possible.

“If you miss 2050,” Schrag says, “you still have 2060, 2070, and 2080.”





“Energy Revolution? More like a Crawl” – Dr. Vaclav Smil

18 09 2017

Dr. Vaclav Smil was the speaker at a TISED and Fondation 3E event in September 2015 called “Energy Revolution? More like a Crawl”. He explored the current state of global and major national energy dependencies and appraised the likely speed of their transformation. In his words, “The desirable development of new renewables should not be guided by wishful preferences and arbitrary targets. Using more energy, albeit more efficiently and with lower specific environmental effects, is unlikely to change our fortunes — yet no serious consideration has been given to how to use less, much less.”




Dick Smith on growth; emphatically yes…and no

16 08 2017

tedtrainer

Ted Trainer

Another article by my friend Ted Trainer, originally published at on line opinion……

The problems of population and economic growth have finally come onto the public agenda, and Dick Smith deserves much of the credit…but he doesn’t realise what’s on the other end of the trail he’s tugging.

For fifty years a small number of people have been saying that pursuing population and economic growth on a finite planet is a very silly thing to do. Until recently almost no one has taken any notice. However in the last few years there has emerged a substantial “de-growth” movement, especially in Europe. Dick Smith has been remarkably successful in drawing public attention to the issue in Australia. He has done more for the cause in about three years than the rest of us have managed to achieve in decades. (I published a book on the subject in 1985, which was rejected by 60 publishers…and no one took any notice of it anyway.) Dick’s book (2011) provides an excellent summary of the many powerful reasons why growth is absurd, indeed suicidal.

Image result for dick smith

Dick Smith

The problem with the growth-maniacs, a category which includes just about all respectable economists, is that they do not realise how grossly unsustainable present society is, let alone what the situation will be as we continue to pursue growth. Probably the best single point to put to them is to do with our ecological “footprint”. The World Wildlife Fund puts out a measure of the amount of productive land it takes to provide for each person. For the average Australian it takes 8 ha of to supply our food, water, settlement area and energy. If the 10 billion people we are likely to have on earth soon were each to live like us we’d need 80 billion ha of productive land…but there are only about 8 billion ha of land available on the planet. We Australians are ten times over a level of resource use that could be extended to all people. It’s much the same multiple for most other resources, such as minerals, nitrogen emissions and fish. And yet our top priority is to increase our levels of consumption, production, sales and GDP as fast as possible, with no limit in mind!

The World Wildlife Fund also puts the situation another way. We are now using resources at 1.4 times the rate the planet could provide sustainably. We do this by for example, consuming more timber than grows each year, thereby depleting the stocks. Now if 10 billion people rose to the “living standards” we Australians would have in 2050 given the 3% p.a. economic growth we expect, then every year the amount of producing and consuming going on in the world would be 20 times as great as it is now.

Over-production and over-consumption is the main factor generating all the alarming global problems we face is. Why is there an environmental problem? Because we are taking far more resources from nature, especially habitats, than is sustainable. Why do about 3+ billion people in the Third World wallow in poverty? Primarily because the global economy is a market system and in a market resources go to those who can pay most for them, i.e., the rich. That’s why we in rich countries get almost all the oil, the surpluses produced from Third World soils, the fish caught off their coasts, etc. It’s why “development” in the Third World is mostly only development of what will maximise corporate profit, meaning development of industries to export to us. Why is there so much violent conflict in the world? Primarily because everyone is out to grab as many of the scarce resources as they can. And why is the quality of life in the richest countries falling now, and social cohesion deteriorating? Primarily because increasing material wealth and business turnover has been made the top priority, and this contradicts and drives out social bonding.

Dick has done a great job in presenting this general “limits to growth” analysis of our situation clearly and forcefully, and in getting it onto the public agenda. But I want to now argue that he makes two fundamental mistakes.

The first is his assumption that this society can be reformed; that we can retain it while we remedy the growth fault it has. The central argument in my The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World (2010a) is that consumer-capitalist society cannot be fixed. Many of its elements are very valuable and should be retained, but its most crucial, defining fundamental institutions are so flawed that they have to be scrapped and replaced. Growth is only one of these but a glance at it reveals that this problem cannot be solved without entirely remaking most of the rest of society. Growth is not like a faulty air conditioning unit on a house, which can be replaced or removed while the house goes on functioning more or less as before. It is so integrated into so many structures that if it is dumped those structures will have to be scrapped and replaced.

The most obvious implication of this kind is that in a zero growth economy there can be no interest payments at all. Interest is by nature about growth, getting more wealth back than you lent, and this is not possible unless lending and output and earnings constantly increase. There goes almost the entire financial industry I’m afraid (which recently accounted for over 40% of all profits made.) Banks therefore could only be places which hold savings for safety and which lend money to invest in maintenance of a stable amount of capital stock (and readjustments within it.) There also goes the present way of providing for superannuation and payment for aged care; these can’t be based on investing to make money.

The entire energising mechanism of society would have to be replaced. The present economy is driven by the quest to get richer. This motive is what gets options searched for, risks taken, construction and development underway, etc. The most obvious alternative is for these actions to be come from a collective working out of what society needs, and organising to produce and develop those things cooperatively, but this would involve an utterly different world view and driving mechanism.

The problem of inequality would become acute and would not only demand attention, it would have to be dealt with in an entirely different way. It could no longer be defused by the assumption that “a rising tide will lift all boats”. In the present economy growth helps to legitimise inequality; extreme inequality is not a source of significant discontent because it can be said that economic growth is raising everyone’s “living standards”.

How would we handle unemployment in a zero-growth economy? At present its tendency to increase all the time is offset by the increase in consumption and therefore production. Given that we could produce all we need for idyllic lifestyles with a fraction of the present amount of work done, any move in this direction in the present economy would soon result in most workers becoming unemployed. There would be no way of dealing with this without scrapping the labour market and then rationally and deliberately planning the distribution of the (small amount of) work that needed doing.

Most difficult of all are the cultural implications, usually completely overlooked. If the economy cannot grow then all concern to gain must be abandoned. People would have to be content to work for stable incomes and abandon all interest in getting richer over time. If any scope remains for some to try to get more and more of the stable stock of wealth, then some will succeed and take more than their fair share of it and others will therefore get less…and soon it will end in chaos, or feudalism as the fittest take control. Sorry, but the 500 year misadventure Western culture has had with the quest for limitless individual and national wealth is over. If we have the sense we will realise greed is incompatible with a sustainable and just society. If, as is more likely we won’t, then scarcity will settle things for us. The few super privileged people, including Australians, will no longer be able to get the quantities of resources we are accustomed to, firstly because the resources are dwindling now, and secondly because we are being increasingly outmanoeuvred by the energetic and very hungry Chinese, Indians, Brazilians…

And, a minor point, you will also have to abandon the market system. It is logically incompatible with growth. You go into a market not to exchange things of equal value but to make money, to get the highest price you can, to trade in a way that will make you richer over time. There are “markets” where people don’t try to do this but just exchange the necessities without seeking to increase their wealth over time e.g., in tribal and peasant societies. However these are “subsistence” economies and they do not operate according to market forces. The economies of a zero-growth society would have to be like this. Again, if it remains possible for a few to trade their way to wealth they will end up with most of the pie. This seems to clearly mean that if we are to have a zero-growth economy then we have to work out how to make a satisfactory form of “socialism” work, so that at least the basic decisions about production, distribution and development can be made by society and not left to be determined by what maximises the wealth of individuals and the profits of private corporations competing in the market. Richard Smith (2010) points this out effectively, but some steady-staters, including Herman Daly and Tim Jackson (2009) seem to have difficulty accepting it.

Thus growth is not an isolated element that can be dealt with without remaking most of the rest of society. It is not that this society has a growth economy; it is that this is a growth society.

So in my view Dick has vastly underestimated the magnitude of the changes involved, and gives the impression that consumer-capitalist society can be adjusted, and then we can all go on enjoying high levels of material comfort (he does say we should reduce consumption), travel etc. But the entire socio-economic system we have prohibits the slightest move in this direction; it cannot tolerate slowdown in business turnover (unemployment, bankruptcy, discontent and pressure on governments immediately accelerate), let alone stable levels, let alone reduction to maybe one-fifth of present levels.

This gets us to the second issue on which I think Dick is clearly and importantly mistaken. He believes a zero growth economy can still be a capitalist economy. This is what Tim Jackson says too, in his very valuable critique of the present economy and of the growth commitment. Dick doesn’t offer any explanation or defence for his belief; it is just stated in four sentences. “Capitalism will still be able to thrive in this new system as long as legislation ensures a level playing field. Huge new industries will be created, and vast fortunes are still there to be made by the brave and the innovative.” (p. 173.) “I have no doubt that the dynamism and flexibility of capitalism can adjust to sustainability laws. The profit imperative would be maintained and, as long as there was an equitable base, competition would thrive.” (p. 177.)

Following is a sketch of the case that a zero growth economy is totally incompatible with capitalism.

Capitalism is by definition about accumulation, making more money than was invested, in order to invest the surplus to have even more…to invest to get even richer, in a never-ending upward spiral. Obviously this would not be possible in a steady state economy. It would be possible for a few to still own most capital and factories and to live on income from these investments, but they would be more like rentiers or landlords who draw a stable income from their property. They would not be entrepreneurs constantly seeking increasingly profitable investment outlets for ever-increasing amounts of capital.

Herman Daly believes that “productivity” growth would enable capitalism to continue in an economy with stable resource inputs. This is true, but it would be a temporary effect and too limited to enable the system to remain capitalist. The growth rate which the system, and capitalist accumulation, depends on is mostly due to increased production, not productivity growth. Secondly the productivity measure used (by economists who think dollars are the only things that matter) takes into account labour and capital but ignores what is by far the most important factor, i.e., the increasing quantities of cheap energy that have been put into new productive systems. For instance over half a century the apparent productivity of a farmer has increased greatly, but his output per unit of energy used has fallen alarmingly. From here on energy is very likely to become scarce and costly. Ayres (1999) has argued that this will eliminate productivity gains soon (which have been falling in recent years anyway), and indeed is likely to entirely stop GDP growth before long.

Therefore in a steady state economy the scope for continued capitalist accumulation via productivity gains would be very small, and confined to the increases in output per unit of resource inputs that is due to sheer technical advance. There would not be room for more than a tiny class, accumulating greater wealth very gradually until energy costs eliminated even that scope. Meanwhile the majority would see this class taking more of the almost fixed output pie, and therefore would soon see that it made no sense to leave ownership and control of most of the productive machinery in the hands of a few.

But the overwhelmingly important factor disqualifying capitalism has yet to be taken into account. As has been made clear above the need is not just for zero-growth, it is for dramatic reduction in the amount of producing and consuming going on. These must be cut to probably less than one-fifth of the levels typical of a rich country today, because the planet cannot sustain anything like the present levels of producing and consuming, let alone the levels 9 billion people would generate. This means that most productive capacity in rich countries, most factories and mines, will have to be shut down.

I suspect that Dick Smith is like Tim Jackson in identifying capitalism with the private ownership of firms, and in thinking that “socialism” means public ownership. This is a mistake. The issue of ownership is not central; what matters most is the drive to accumulate, which can still be the goal in socialism of the big state variety (“state capitalism”.) In my ideal vision of the future post-capitalist economy most production would take place within (very small) privately owned firms, but there would be no concern to get richer and the economy would be regulated by society via participatory democratic processes.

So I think Dick has seriously underestimated the magnitude of the change that is required by the global predicament and of what would be involved in moving to a zero-growth economy. The core theme detailed in The Transition… is that consumer-capitalist society cannot be fixed. Dick seems to think you can retain it by just reforming the unacceptable growth bit. My first point above is that you can’t just take out that bit and leave the rest more or less intact. In addition you have to deal with the other gigantic faults in this society driving us to destruction, including allowing the market to determine most things, accepting competition rather than cooperation as the basic motive and process, accepting centralisation, globalisation and representative big-state “democracy”, and above all accepting a culture of competitive, individualistic acquisitiveness.

The Transition… argues that an inevitable, dreadful logic becomes apparent if we clearly grasp that our problems are primarily due to grossly unsustainable levels of consumption. There can be no way out other than by transition to mostly small, highly self-sufficient and cooperative local communities and communities which run their own economies to meet local needs from local resources… with no interest whatsoever in gain. They must have the sense to focus on the provision of security and a high quality of life for all via frugal, non-material lifestyles. In this “Simpler Way” vision there can still be (some small scale) international economies, centralised state governments, high-tech industries, and in fact there can be more R and D on important topics than there is now. But there will not be anything like the resources available to sustain present levels of economic activity or individual or national “wealth” measured in dollars.

I have no doubt that the quality of life in The Simpler Way (see the website, Trainer 2011) would be far higher than it is now in the worsening rat race of late consumer-capitalism. Increasing numbers are coming to grasp all this, for instance within the rapidly emerging Transition Towns movement. We see our task as trying to establish examples of the more sane way in the towns and suburbs where we live while there is time, so that when the petrol gets scarce and large numbers realise that consumer-capitalism will not provide for them, they can come across to join us.

It is great that Dick is saying a zero-growth economy is no threat to capitalism. If he had said it has to be scrapped then he would have been identified as a deluded greenie/commie/anarchist out to wreck society and his growth critique would have been much more easily ignored. What matters at this point in time is getting attention given to the growth absurdity; when the petrol gets scarce they will be a bit more willing to think about whether capitalism is a good idea. Well done Dick!





Fossil fuels in deep trouble…..

19 08 2016

Recently, a handful of Germany’s top scientists argued that “controlled implosion of fossil industries and explosive renewables development” might be able to deliver on the targets in the Paris agreement on climate change.

Even if we accept this notion at face value, and ignoring that many other factors might also be in play, the recent course of events does not offer much hope that “controlled” is the correct word to apply to the predicaments currently battering the energy sector. And while the renewable energy sector might be continuing to make progress, it is clearly not “exploding” as fast as some might wish……. Could it be, by any chance, that the ongoing collapse of the fossil fuel industries will happen at a much faster pace than the wishful explosive transition to ‘solutions’?

Let’s start with coal. The future for this bankruptcy-riddled industry dramatically worsened in July 2016. It increasingly looks as though the Chinese government’s recent retreat from coal is biting hard, and that Chinese coal peak coal production occurred in 2014. Prof Nick Stern, among others, including Chinese collaborators, argued that we are witnessing “a turning point in the climate change battle”. The latest Chinese announcement is a ban on the development of coal projects, until 2018. The staggering air pollution driving this change is proving difficult to beat… and the same is true of India.  NASA data showed toxic air choking huge areas of the Indian subcontinent, most of which the obvious result of fossil fuel combustion. In the face of all this, even Deutsche Bank has stopped financing the coal mining sector.

Investment continues to wane from fossil fuels as a result of divestment campaigns. Swedish pension fund AP4 made the biggest divestment move of any institution to date. The $35billion scheme will decarbonise its $14.7billion global equity portfolio by 2020, switching to passive investment tracking low carbon benchmarks.

Furthermore, the oil and gas industry’s hopes for a return to high oil prices have yet to occur, and as a result its already teetering state is deteriorating. A study of 365 oil and gas megaprojects by Ernst and Young shows 64% with cost overruns, and 73% behind schedule. This dismal record is combining with low oil prices to create a mortal squeeze on profitability.

US drillers have hit an all time high with junk bond defaults: $28.8 billion so far this year, according to Fitch Ratings. With $500 billion+ outstanding,  more bankruptcies can be expected. Some of these companies are even trying to buy time by paying debt interest with more debt. Desperate times require desperate actions I guess…….

Global oil breakeven costs have fallen by $19 to a current average of $51 since the oil price began falling in 2014. Trouble is, the oil price is still hovering around $40 and most of the industry’s targets are totally uneconomic.

“Oil giants find there’s nowhere to hide from doomsday market”, read a Bloomberg headline. “The industry cannot survive on current oil prices,” veteran analyst Fadel Gheit declared. The bankruptcy count so far this year stands at more than 80 companies.

So will the oil price rise, and offer some relief…? Not according to analysts. Morgan Stanley expects oil to fall to $35. (The price is around $40 as I write). The main concern is excessive production of petrol/gasoline by refineries (= less crude imported). As always, some of course disagree. Core Laboratories point to the net worldwide annual crude oil production decline rate of ~3.3%, and expect US production to continue dropping, which they hope will bring tighter supply, and rising prices.

Even if the oil price does indeed rise again, problems are not going away…… The industry faces a huge shortage of workers. 350,000 have apparently been laid off since the oil price began falling in 2014. 60% of the fracking workforce has been laid off, 70% of fracking equipment has been idled. It will be nigh impossible to turn the taps back on, as even some of the industry’s own bosses now point out. And if the price rises back above $90, the global economy will tank……





Is our future our past?

7 07 2016

Chock
At ten months, Chock the ox is already earning his keep around the farm. Photo: Steven French Family.

If there’s one thing most post peak oil commentators have given too little consideration to it’s how goods will be moved and how farms will function in our scary and fast approaching future.

Sure there’s the fraternity that talk about bicycles and walking and they’re on the right track, particularly if you’re lucky or wise enough to reside in a city or village.

However a means of energy or transport that doesn’t involve some form of technical reliance such as electric cars, high speed rail, nuclear power, wind turbines, solar panels or waver power, seems to be strangely missing from the dialogue. Certainly low-tech conveyances such as barges and sailing ships occasionally get a mention, and rightly so. But when the blindingly obvious is mentioned eyes often glaze over.

Horsepower

The one thing that’s almost always overlooked is using animals for transport and farm work.

Pretty much until the early 1900s it was animal power that kept civilization going. Yet today, a little over a half century since many rural people still used animal power, using animals to produce actual horsepower seems unimaginable.

Yet, a snapshot of 1900 could be a view of our future.

Back to the future

I’m lucky enough to live on the island of Tasmania, one of the seven states of Australia.

Much of Tasmania is highly fertile and we have a great climate. Although Tasmania may seem remote, our farmers have always been as keen to modernize in ways akin to our farming cousins in the US. The widespread adoption of tractors for farming happened here around the time of World War II.

But the time that I really want to focus on is the 1930s, when my parents were growing up and most farmers still relied on horses. The maternal side of my family farmed only a couple of miles away. Both families’ lifestyles and farming methods were similar and would have been typical of almost everyone who worked the land in those days. They had:

  • No electricity
  • No telephone
  • No internal combustion engine on the property

My dad’s parents did have a car but my mother’s family never drove. Nan and Grandpa never had a driver’s license even though they farmed another property a fifteen minute bike ride away.

A good living

The point is that they enjoyed a good standard of living, certainly by the standards of the 1930s but also, I suspect, by today’s standards. There was a vibrant social life centered around the little township of Whitemore, with several sporting teams and social functions usually held two or three nights a week. These people were not country yokels by any means. They were articulate and well traveled. Their farms were highly productive. And they used virtually no petroleum.

Yes, they had a little kerosene for their lanterns, and maybe grease and oil were used to lubricate moving parts on the horse-drawn equipment. But their use of petroleum was pretty much nonexistent compared with today.

There was a train-line not too far away and the children rode their bikes to the station to catch a steam-train to high school, a 45 minute trip. Nowadays the local children catch a bus for a one hour trip to their nearest high school. Much of the farm produce was delivered to the railway station by wagon where it was transported to markets.

Their water supply was pumped from the well thanks to a windmill and a hand pump.

Man and beast alone

Paddocks were plowed, worked and sown with horses. At harvest time horses pulled binders which tied the crops into sheaves. The sheaves were later forked onto horse drawn wagons and made into huge stacks not too far from the farmyard. During early winter a wood-fired traction engine (steam-engine) pulled a drum from farm to farm. A drum is a huge threshing machine which took 15 men to operate. It was belt-driven from the traction engine’s flywheel and it threshed the grain from the straw. These drums were still working around Tasmanian into the 1950s. They can still be seen in operation at some of our historic farming field days.

The point that I’m belaboring and repeating is that these farms used almost no petroleum, were highly productive, and farming families and laborers enjoyed a good standard of living.

Could we return to this style of living and farming? The answer is yes, but with some not-insurmountable difficulties.

Ramping up to face the effects of peak oil

First the number of heavy horses required would take decades to breed up. Also there are very few people around with the ability to work heavy horses. It’s a skill that I suspect not everyone has the ability to acquire. An ill trained or poorly driven horse is dangerous and it can take years to learn the skill necessary to work a horse properly.

The answer is oxen (we call them bullocks here in Australia). There’s no shortage of cattle and they are much more placid and easier to train than horses. Also their harness requirements are minimal and they are easy to feed and maintain. The only downside is that oxen are slower than the horse but hey, that’s not so bad, is it?

Up until the mid 1800s all animal power on farms was supplied pretty much by oxen, although the farmer may have had a light horse for riding or to pull a cart. In most American Western movies and TV shows horses are pulling the covered wagons that made up the wagon trains. In actuality, these covered wagons were mainly drawn by oxen. Possibly a slower but certainly a more sensible option, ox could pretty much live off the land they were passing through and didn’t suffer from many off the health issues of the horse.

Could oxen save the day? Quite possibly. Cuban President Raul Castro recently called for ox to be used as beasts of burden as a way for the economically strapped communist country to ramp up food production while conserving energy.

Ramping up food production – conserving energy – a cash strapped economy – falling oil supply? Sounds familiar? How long before a leader of the western world pleads for a solution to the same problems? Or have they already but are looking in the wrong direction?

–Steven French for Transition Voice