Scientific American's Path to Sustainability: Let's Think about the Details  

Posted by Big Gav

I liked kiashu's response to Gail The Actuary's recent critique of Scientific American's recent clean energy plan, so I'll quote the comment rather than the article itself - Scientific American's Path to Sustainability: Let's Think about the Details.

We will have no problem transporting people and supplying them with goods and services sufficient for a very good quality of life without burning fossil fuels. We may have problems persuading them to stop burning fossil fuels.

Gail is concerned about the following points:

Aircraft - indeed, hydrogen is a nonsense for aircraft. However, very little in terms of essential goods are transported by air. No more Chilean cherries in New York winter, oh well.

Ships - consider the scale of the issue. Currently, some 34% of shipping tonnage worldwide is devoted to transporting oil [source, p.16]. 96% of oil is burned. SA's article proposes no more burning of oil, so some 33% of world shipping can be scrapped.

World coal trade was about 718Mt in 2003 [source, p2], at the same time as total world trade was 6,500Mt, so that coal was 11% of world seaborne trade by weight. Coal is all burned (even if sometimes liquefied first), and again SA proposes stopping this; so another 11% of world shipping could be scrapped.

I could go on, but the point is clear: just by no longer burning oil and coal, we could almost halve our global shipping, thus halving the demand for fuel for it. This does not eliminate the problem of how to fuel the ships, but certainly makes it easier to deal with.

Automobiles and trucks - these don't need to be fuelled at all. We have some recent inventions called "trains" and "trams", which are in many parts of the world entirely electric, and which can thus be powered by renewable energy.

Many supposed "problems" are like this. When you look at changing every single piece of infrastructure to some new power source, things look difficult. When instead you look at what the infrastructure is supposed to do, things look much easier. We don't need cars and trucks. We need to transport people and goods. Cars and trucks are simply one inefficient way of doing that; other more efficient ways exist.

Farm machinery, etc - electric versions of these exist already as anyone can discover in five minutes with google.

Mining and manufacturing - are largely electric anyway. It's only when going for marginal ores that a lot of fossil fuels are used, eg in open-cut lowgrade mines. Of course, absent fossil fuels, our demand for things like iron ore will drop - electric (not electronic) things tend not to break down as quickly as fossil fuel-powered things.

"We'd have to build lots of stuff" - we build lots of stuff anyway. So it's just a matter of building different stuff. In 2006, the world produced a bit under 50 million cars.

If we can produce 50 million internal combustion engine cars I don't see why we can't produce (say) 2 million electric train engines and 10 million electric cars.

Likewise, we are already building more coal-fired and gas-fired power stations. China alone is building one or two new coal-fired power stations each week. If they can do that, they can whack up wind turbines or solar thermal stations or whatever.

We build lots of stuff already. The only question is what we build: more stuff that burns fossil fuels, or more stuff that doesn't.

"We need to figure out how to do this" - a century or two ago we had this thing called the Industrial Revolution. People harnessed wind and water, then wood and coal, and finally gas and oil, and used its energy to build things. Nobody figured out any Grand World Plan To Burn Stuff. They just went ahead and did it and muddled along.

I don't see why we were able to just stumble along through an Industrial Revolution, but an Ecotechnic Revolution is supposed to require careful planning. I suppose because some people are rather anxious that we should not stop burning stuff, their stock in fossil fuel companies might drop too low.

"So how will we pay for all of the new equipment?" - the same way we pay for 50 million new cars, hundreds of new coal-fired power stations, and billions of plastic widgets every year. As noted above, we're buying all this ecotechnic stuff instead of this burning stuff, not as well as it.

"But if we stop burning stuff, my Valiant won't be worth anything in 2028!" - well, so what? Electric typewriters, brick-sized mobile phones with satchel batteries, valve radios and buggy whips ain't worth much nowadays, too. Things become obsolete, that's life in a technological society.

"Will I get compensation for this?" - no, why should you? When we brought in personal computers, did anybody compensate the typing pool? When we brought in cars, did anyone compensate buggy whip makers? When we brought in transistors, did anyone compensate the valve glass factories? Again, things become obsolete, that's life.

"Too many rare minerals are needed!" - name them, and tell us why they're needed.

"What about all the power lines?" - yes, we couldn't possibly have a system where power lines criss-cross the country. Wait, what?

"When the power goes out, we're in trouble!" - how is this a change from today?

"Operating the system will require a huge amount of international co-operation, because the transmission system will cross country lines. " - Of course, that's impossible. That's why the Danes never sold wind power to Sweden and Germany, and the Swedes never sold hydroelectric power to the Danes, nor Germany nuclear power to Denmark.

Good thing countries never buy vital goods and services from each-other. Imagine if the US were to rely on other countries for most of its energy? However would it cope?

"All of the high tech manufacturing will require considerable international co-operation and trade." - this is a bad and new thing?

"The system clearly can't continue forever. It could be stopped by a lack of rare minerals, or international disputes, or lack of adequate international trade." - are you talking about the ecotechnic system, or the current fossil fuel one?

North Korea shows us what happens when countries try to go it entirely alone. All worthwhile systems require some international co-operation, people honouring contracts, that sort of thing.

"Instead of the high tech approach advocated by Scientific American, we may want to find solutions that can be done locally, with local materials." - see now this at last is a piece of good sense. However, the two are not incompatible. We can have some international high-tech, and some localisation of stuff.

We will have no problem transporting people and supplying them with goods and services sufficient for a very good quality of life without burning fossil fuels. We may have problems persuading them to stop burning fossil fuels.



I've read through this Scientific American (SA), cover to cover, a week ago and have been wondering when it would hit the Peak Community fan.

Scientific American, Gail the Actuary and Kiashu all make good, valid and debatable theoretical points on paper, however we live in a world of harsh, indifferent and implacable realities not debatable theories.

Three glaringly obvious problems with their combined rhetoric are political, economic and historical.

Before continuing along these lines, I think it's important to clarify my understanding of "political" which derives from one of my must-read recommendations, "Politics for human beings, 2nd edition", by Ralph Hummel and Robert Isaak (1980).

Hummel and Isaak defined politics as:

"[A] social act that attempts to resolve the tension between human needs and social facts"

They define a "social act" as:

"[A] joint action by two or more people undertaken for similar reasons or with the same intention. It is political if the people involved are aware of a shared need and join in an arrangement to satisfy that need."

They define "human needs" as:

"[W]hat it takes for your body to be human and what it takes for your head to feel human. There are physiological and psychological requisites for human existence. The failure to satisfy needs can result in death or in becoming less than human--that is, in illness or pathology of the mind or body.

"Many people want more than they need. Values are what people want, whether they need it or not. Values include things such as refrigerators, new cars, glass-bead games, and chess sets; they include feelings such as love, revenge, joy, and pain; they include ideas such as freedom, order, truth and salvation."

And, they define "social facts" as:

"[O]ld social acts that have become conditions. Social facts often frustrate human needs. For example, although people set up a corporation to satisfy their own needs and wants, as soon as their act becomes a condition, it frustrates the needs of others who share more in the pollution than in the profits created by the firm. Thus the social acts of one group of people to satisfy their own needs often frustrate the fulfillment of needs perceived by other groups."

(assuming this gets posted)


I make this clarification because, a) it's paramount to understand that a lot of human interaction is "political" (in fact, what we're most often taught to regard as "political"--in the United States, for example, the dog and pony show of a false dichotomy between "Left" and "Right" Capitalist parties--is not effectively political as it most often has no intention of resolving tensions between human needs and social facts, it's about maintaining the status quo); and b) even though I've listed "economic" as a separate point of contention, it's clearly part and parcel of resolving the tension between human needs and social facts. Economics is political by definition.

To return to my original proposition, perhaps the most glaringly obvious social fact which stands in the way of the "Ecotechnic Revolution" optimistically espoused by SA and Kiashu (which appears to tacitly assume the existence of potentially helpful and functional, "free market capitalism") is a blatantly obvious social fact which has been addressed by and John Michael Greer, among others. This fact is the reality that, again using the United States as the example, we don't live in a free market, capitalist system. I have taken to calling the actual system, "plutocratic lemon socialism" (PLS) [1] but no matter what you call it, the fact remains that free market capitalism is nowhere to be found.

PLS works to the overwhelming advantage of a tiny minority at the expense of the vast majority. As retired physicist, Manuel GarcĂ­a, Jr. has observed in, The Purpose is Pork:

"But wait, doesn't the failure to produce the better combat airplane, or fix the economy for the general population, or devise credible defense systems diminish the power of the government and the prosperity of the people? Yes, but so what; the targeted pockets were lined, and that's all that counts in the psychology of me-first immediate satisfaction of pure individualized greed, which is championed as 'the free enterprise system.' Consideration for others is necessarily a limiting factor to any personal agenda, and the economic friction it introduces is resented as 'socialism' or 'communism' by those intent on economic exploitation. The root cause of our difficulties is that this attitude is quite popular. So, we dismiss many technical inefficiencies, like a costly yet ill-suited military establishment, defective economic, health-care and educational systems, and wasteful and polluting energy systems, because the services they are intended to provided are not actually their primary purpose -- since those services are 'socialist' -- but instead they are designed, jury-rigged and gerrymandered into a division of spoils, a consensus of pork barrel, and a careerist network of cronyism."

Those who benefit from PLS will not go quiety into that good night.

These pigs love their pork and will violently resist any real and substantive attempts to close their slaughterhouse, let alone regulate it (in case you're wondering, the so-called attempts by Barack Obama and company to corral these pigs are anything but real or substantive).

(assuming this gets posted)


Regardless of the relative merits and potential feasability of an "Ecotechnic Revolution"--as Bill Rees, the originator of the "ecological footprint" concept and co-developer of the method, says, "there's no particular virtue in becoming more efficiently unsustainable" (MP3)--its goals speak to the needs of the many (life on Earth in general) instead of the needs of a few (plutocratic lemon socialists) and as such will never come to pass within the current, dominent socio-political and -economic paradigms.

Two subsets of PLS are Planned Obsolescence and Perceived Obsolescence [2], both of which have apparently ensorcelled Kiashu.

Planned Obsolescence and Perceived Obsolescence are not natural or necessary and Kiashu's repeated insistence, in various snarky guises, that, "Things become obsolete, that's life in a technological society", reflects lazy thinking, counterproductive and childish technophilia, and a callous indifference to the exponentially increasing pool of human have-nots.

In the United Status--where a "Third-World"-style gap between the haves and have-nots ranks above only Turkey and Mexico [3]--millions of already unconscionably marginalized and at-risk Americans may well soon be faced with the burden of being forced to pay for "healthcare" insurance whether they can afford to pay for it or not (not to mention they may be financially penalized for not being able to afford it).

This ever-growing population of artificially created and maintained-by-force have-nots will simply not be able to keep up with the Joneses in Kiashu's dystopia of too-expensive-for-many, Jim-fine-and-dandy, technologically-obsolete-progress.

(assuming this gets posted)


As for the historical context, as I witness the voluminous, well-meaning cyber-chatter, spoken words and essays about the inevitable, seamless "Ecotechnic Revolution" or our glorious anarcho-primitivist future, I repeatedly return to these two quotes:

"The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs over adversity."
- Jared Diamond [4]

"The best-run and most successful businesses are precisely the ones that are least able to change when change becomes necessary."
- Clay Christensen [5]

They both speak to a reality which Jim Kunstler likes to call, "the psychology of previous investment".

Which is to say, regardless of your particular brand of pie-eyed-optimism about the future, the past is a profoundly influential partner during the actual journey.

Contemporary reality does not remotely augur well for a utopian, sustainable future. And if history is any guide, the tidal wave of sea change on our immediate horizon--imposed by the reality of this finite planet on our myth of infinite growth--will leave tremendous damage, pain and suffering it its wake.

Regardless of our best efforts.

Perhaps John Michael Greer has expressed it best:

"We are not going to have a future better than the present: not in our lifetimes, and not in those of our grandchildren's grandchildren. We collectively closed the door on that possibility decades ago, and none of the rapidly narrowing range of choices still open to us now offers any way of changing that. If this sounds like fatalism, it may be worth remembering that once a car goes skidding off a mountain road into empty air, it requires neither a crystal ball nor a faith in predestination to recognize that nothing anybody can do is going to prevent a terrific crash.

"We do no one a favor, least of all ourselves, by trying to sugarcoat that very unpalatable reality." [6]



I have purposely avoided addressing two more obvious obstacles to a utopian "Ecotechnic Revolution"--psychology and human nature--because I'm just trying to make the significant but more often than not dismissed, ignored or denied point that the theoretical is light years from the real. I see no need to write a book about it when this relatively short story will do.

[1] A plutocracy is a government or state system ruled by the wealthy.

Lemon Socialism is the privatizing of profits and the socializing of losses (all of the recent bank bailouts are a textbook example).

[2] The Story of Stuff

[3] Growing Unequal? Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries

[4] Culled from, Imperial Entropy

[5] Culled from, The Media's Broken Business Model


If this gets posted, I thank Peak Energy for its work and indulgence.

If not, I still thank it for its work.


David Emanuel

lonerphrique, I think you missed the part where I said, with British-style understatement, that we may have trouble persuading people to stop burning fossil fuels.

Gail's article told us that nothing can be done, so we shouldn't even try. I assume she has shares in oil companies, I do know oil companies have flown her to foreign countries to write friendly articles promoting them.

I say that something can be done, and we should try to make it happen, but whether it will be done I don't know.

My general view of peak oil is in Peak Oil, Mad Max and Me, but a sketch of future scenarios for the world as a whole is in What about the Third World?, and for the West in particular in The Oily Smudge on the Future of the City-State.

Essentially, I think the most likely future for the world is much like the Third World today: a wealthy core in the big cities, surrounded by millions living in misery in slums and desperate poverty on the land. The only difference is that the wealthy elites will be renewably-powered.

It doesn't have to be this way, and we should try for something better, rather than just clutching onto our oil shares until the last possible moment.

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