Energy SystemsGlobal Warming/Climate ChangePeak OilSociety

Zero Carbon Australia?

A new study attempts to flesh out a blueprint for a rapid energy descent for Australia

It’s clear that the world is heading into an extremely interesting new decade. While the world’s insatiable demand for energy shows no sign of slowing in its exponential curve upwards, it’s clear that in the not-too-distant future supply issues are going to become acute. These two clashing parameters promise to take us into an economic ride of almost biblical proportions. If we think the energy price spikes of 2008 and the subsequent recession of 2009 have been a tough time, brace yourselves – there’s much more to come yet….

Whilst wholly late in arriving, at least now we’re seeing these serious issues being increasingly focused on in the mainstream media. Governments, however, are still exceedingly slow to apply the precautionary principle – largely choosing to cherry pick the most optimistic forecasts so they can leave the hard decisions to whoever lands the miserable task of taking on the next term in office. The irony is that even their most optimistic forecasts provide a time frame for transition that still leaves us needing to make serious haste if we’re to avoid major social upheaval, and yet we’re still doing little to nothing. And, when we examine the more conservative and realistic estimates out there, we see we’re now put in the unenviable position of trying to minimise the worst aspects of that upheaval, as it will be impossible to avoid major difficulties entirely.

One thing that is often overlooked when we think of the necessary transition is the energy it takes to make that transition. Building new infrastructure to accommodate renewable technologies like wind, wave and solar power takes copious amounts of fossil fuels – from production of components through to transport, installation and maintenance. When fuel prices skyrocket once more, and skyrocket they will, the rollout of ‘green’ technologies will thus also become more difficult and price-prohibitive. We can really get caught between a rock and a hard place, and this is exactly why getting proactive about transition right now is imperative. The old saying, ‘a stitch in time, saves nine’, has never had such urgency of meaning.

The people at BeyondZeroEmissions.org are giving some thought to a rapid energy descent, specifically in regards to Australia’s electricity production. As a result they’ve just released their Zero Carbon Australia report – an attempt to produce a blueprint for making a ten year transition to 100% renewable electricity. The full report isn’t out yet, but the six page executive summary is worth a peek:

Yes We Can! – Zero Emissions Electricity by 2020

For immediate release, 17 February 2010

Zero emissions electricity by 2020 – affordable, sensible, do-able

Beyond Zero Emissions’ cutting-edge Zero Carbon Australia 2020 (ZCA2020) Stationary Energy Plan is a detailed, costed blueprint demonstrating how Australia can reach zero emissions electricity by 2020 using proven, existing, commercialised technology.

Whilst not all the solutions proposed may be perfect (the only truly clean energy I know of is the result of photosynthesis), they’re a whole lot more appealing and practical than any government policy directions I’ve seen to date. Material like this needs to be examined, discussed and improved on in the halls of power today – unless they have something more pressing to do that is….

16 Comments

  1. Five insights:

    (a) If we manage to restore some degree of sanity in our decision making, some reduction in energy availability actually might be a good thing. What an over-abundance of energy (as in the present situation) does is that it gives a selective advantage to overly stupid ideas. Like year-round indoor skiing halls.

    (b) Energy is a “magic wand” which we like to wave in order to “solve” all sorts of problems, often creating more problems, and hence an even higher demand for energy, as a consequence. So, a high energy demand actually can be a warning sign that one is on the wrong track concerning one’s approach to a problem. So, if we face an energy descent scenario, this means in particular that we have to solve problems simultaneously where we so far just multiplied them, using myopic strategies. This, then, is the actual transition we have to make: a transition from narrow-minded planning which in its totality creates more problems than it solves to approaches that manage to simultaneously address multiple problems.

    (c) There still is a long way to go until we reach the point where we cannot energetically afford it any more to build those things we would have liked to have around. Looking at the numbers, if we just cut heating in half across Europe and the U.S., and got rid of air conditioning and similar things (also, overpopulation of domestic animals), that would set free enough energy to get a lot of sensible things implemented.

    (d) Nevertheless, it would be quite unrealistic to assume that
    we will all wake up one morning and from that day on make much better decisions on how to handle energy resources than we did so far. It is pretty clear that the future we are facing *will* hurt. It already does. Also, it is clear that it will hurt the less the sooner we start to really start to do something effective about it.

    (e) Education is a key issue. We would not be in such a precarious position if more people actually had a clue about what we really need to know now.

  2. I haven’t had a chance to read the summary yet, however most would agree we need to change how we go about generating energy to power our current way of life. And while going 100% renewable is absolutely essential, I don’t think we will get it up and running quick enough and on the scale needed to avoid runaway climate change. At the same time we are busy exporting dirty coal to anyone who buy it. Go figure! And with our increase population, growing thirst for energy, and ever more CO2 in our environment, I think it’s soon going to be time to reconsider nuclear energy as a means of seeing us though this most difficult time of transition. The clock is ticking, random tipping points are colliding, and soon there may well be suffering beyond imagination. Although hard to come to terms with, James Lovelock’s latest book ‘The Vanishing Face of Gaia – A Final Warning’ seems to be pretty much on the money.

  3. The one criticism I had of the report as I read it was the plan to use crop waste for biomass electricity generation. Clearly this would lead to a massive loss of fertility on farmlands in the long run. But I have been following Beyond Zero Energy’s podcasts – They have a radio how on 3CR community radio in Melbourne – and have been very impressed with the way they operate. I can’t think of any other group in Australia that put together a report a like this.

  4. @Thomas: Agree with your points. One truly myopic aspect of our socio-political mechanisms is ignoring – with perilous consequences – our innate human inability to constrain ourselves. Some enviromentalists see the world continuing in its present capitalist state, but merely making a few surface adjustments, like replacing coal fired power stations with solar and wind farms. But when looked at logically, this simply means our economy-must-grow paradigm continues, just with slightly ‘less bad’ aspects patched to it. Following this to its logical conclusion, we would thus continue as we are – growing energy supply to meet unconstrained ‘needs’ until every square metre of arable land is covered in solar panels and every ridgeline and square kilometer of ocean space is covered in wind turbines.

    As you say, education is key. This education must be fully holistic in examining what does humankind really need and want out of existence. And, restraint, conservation, investment in future natural capital, harnessing biological synergies and learning how to collaborate internationally between similar climate zones, etc., must all be integral to that education.

    I am reminded of a quote from Wendell Berry in regards to our ‘supposed’ energy needs:

    One possibility is just to tag along with the fantasists in government and industry who would have us believe that we can pursue our ideals of affluence, comfort, mobility, and leisure indefinitely. This curious faith is predicated on the notion that we will soon develop unlimited new sources of energy…. This is fantastical because the basic cause of the energy crisis is not scarcity; it is moral ignorance and weakness of character. We don’t know how to use energy, or what to use it for. And we cannot restrain ourselves. Our time is characterized as much by the abuse and waste of human energy as it is by the abuse and waste of fossil fuel energy. Nuclear power, if we are to believe its advocates, is presumably going to be well used by the same mentality that has egregiously devalued and misapplied man- and womanpower. If we had an unlimited supply of solar or wind power, we would use that destructively, too, for the same reason.

    Perhaps all of those sources of energy are going to be developed. Perhaps all of them can sooner or later be developed without threatening our survival. But not all of them together can guarantee our survival, and they cannot define what is desirable. – Wendell Berry, The Agricultural Crisis, A Crisis of Culture. p. 16, 17

    You may find this article of interest if you haven’t already read it:

    https://www.permaculturenews.org/2009/05/27/why-increased-energy-efficiency-wont-save-us/

    @Glenn: While I am acutely/painfully aware we have our back up against the wall as far as leaving things far too late, and can certainly see why Lovelock and others would, even if reluctantly, push for nuclear, I am personally loathe to endorse it. Your own realisation of the predicament we’re in should make it easy for you to understand my thoughts on this, as given the likelihood we’ll see large scale social collapse in the ensuing years, we must ask ourselves if future generations we would bestow with the burden of managing our nuclear waste will actually have the technology, time, water (cooling), etc. to accomplish that task. Nuclear power stations have been shown to have a maximum lifespan of 40-50 years, only, the investment in building is immense (always a lot more than initially proposed), but the waste lives on to threaten future generations for longer than we can imagine. Morally this is repugnant. Life will be hard enough for them due to the state of the world we’ve left them, then we add to those woes by giving them an additional task they probably won’t have the resources to deal with. Considering one litre of fuel is worth the labour hours of many men for many hours, and considering they won’t have that fuel, then they will be busy enough just trying to survive – let alone taking on such a technically demanding task that requires energy in itself. And the worse aspect is that even if they could take care of it, somehow, they would get nothing in return for this investment of time and labour!!

    And, my point is proving itself today, as old nuclear power stations which are being retired now, and whose initial budgets supposedly allowed funds for decommissioning, are now not being cleaned up as they should and apparently the funds are not there. Companies are stealthily dumping wastes in oceans and landfills just hoping the problem will go away. If we do this now, when energy is still relatively abundant and the economy is still partially intact, what do we expect to happen further down the track in regards to future decommissioning projects when we’ll already be well past the crest of peak oil and our economies in ruins? Will we just move as far as possible from the power plant, or will we just try to see if humans can physically adapt to life with radioactivity in our soil, our water, our food and our air?

    In regards to nuclear – I think if we’re thinking just for this present generation, how to continue with the lifestyles we’ve grown accustomed to as best we can, then I suppose it’s an option. But, if we take the long view, and a moral one, I can’t see it being an option at all. Yes, that does mean we need to seriously examine the urgent need to simplify our lives greatly. Food, water, shelter and community must become the new ‘must haves’, rather than iPods, plasma screens and fast cars. Again, this is where education comes in. Most of our ‘consumers’, those dearly beloved by big industry, get their education from those same industries. I see a big need to ‘deprogram’ consumers – like is sometimes done for people that have fallen victim to a cult religion. We’ve been living in a dream. We’ve got to wake the hell up.

    Waking up requires developing an economic system to replace consumer-oriented capitalism. The size of this challenge is immense, so it is largely ignored in favour of maintaining the status quo of keeping the throttle down as we make a beeline for the cliff. Waking up will require a groundswell of grass roots comprehension of the problems and a collaborative determination to deal with them peacefully. It will require transition – balancing between speed of transition and a humanitarian need to avoid economic and culture shocks that could unravel that transition through revolutions. It will require an avoidance, somehow(!), of social stratification that would see industry-financed governments make war on their own populace as the captains of industry try to retain their hold on land, resources, and power by using private and government police and military to put down dissent.

    Is such a peaceful transition even possible? Given how long we’ve been ignoring the warning signs, and little evidence of change of stance from our ‘leaders’, then I would regretfully say possibly not. But I don’t see another way out, so can only propose the only exit route for humanity, this side of eternity, that I can see.

    The irony is we regard ourselves as being at top of the intellect scale in relation to all other life forms on the planet. The big difference between ourselves and other species is the ability to objectively reason and to choose: to plan. All other animals live within niches that function through symbiosis with everything around them. We’re the only species that intentionally chooses to live OUT of harmony with everything else, and we do it for wholly selfish reasons – short term gain of ‘things’ that are in themselves without true value and which do not provide happiness. Before we could destroy and then move. Now we have nowhere to move to. It’s either going to be violent conquest to maintain business as usual, or widespread cooperation to transition to a more realistic and rewarding way of life. What will we choose?

    @Evan: Yes, I share the concern over the biomass aspect. Too many people call crop residues ‘waste’, not recognising we’re in serious trouble on the soil front specifically because of our inability to understand the need for carbon cycling. Again, reports like these need to be a start point, and worked into something realistic. It’s just such points as this that get raised in examining reports like this that help enlighten politicians about the realities of biological limits, and the realities of biological potential if we can but learn how to harness their synergies.

  5. Craig,

    concerning the “the economy must grow” paradigm, economists would insist that “efficiency improvements are an important source of growth – and we of course get better at what we are doing the more experience we get”. The problem I have with this perspective is that the numbers just do not add up. The “growth” we have seen in the last decades certainly was related to resource mis-use.

    Actually, the issue is so painfully obvious and simple that the mind is repelled even just contemplating what is happening right in front of our eyes. If valuable non-renewable resources that could have been used for great things get converted to handheld video games, and then thrown away, that is not in any sense an economic process that contributes to a happier future. Our presently prevailing mentality in economics which regards such things as a good idea (along the lines of Keynes – in order to get the economy going, let people dig holes, and fill holes other people have dug) is not only conceptually bankrupt, but actually amounts to little more than perhaps the biggest scam during the entire history of mankind. If we classify historic activities by the amount of energy that went into it, it certainly is.

    The big problem is that the “defenders” of such thinking, who were educated in this sort of “economics”, happen to mistake what they received at University – indoctrination, in this case – as education. It is not. That sort of economics actually indeed does have a product, which is “pertinacious excuses”. Ever experienced a situation where, when trying to talk to economists, they insisted no one else but a trained economist would be permitted to comment on what is happening in economics? I’ve seen that so many times.

    It is high time well educated members of the public take a close look at higher education textbooks in economics. The way I see it, we are facing a situation here which is quite similar to that of Lyssenkoism in Soviet Russia, i.e. a pseudo-scientific cult having obtained the status of science so that it can shield itself from criticism inside the walls of the ivory tower. Note that so many of our problems actually are linked to routing valuable resources and human effort towards inappropriate activities. So, the key step will be replacing our present collective resource utilization strategies (20th century economic thinking) by more appropriate ones. It will happen, one way or another. The worst case scenario is that there will be a big war between the religious crusaders of a doomed economic line of thought and people with more sensible ideas until the former camp is eliminated – maybe via them “winning this war” and then destroying themselves by sticking to stupid resource management ideas. I don’t think this “battle of armageddon” scenario is the most likely one – although, in a certain sense, precisely such a war already has been going on for centuries.

    The important thing to realize here is that many economists actually received a formidable education in self-deception strategies (without noticing, of course). I don’t believe we will ever manage to make much progress until we collectively realize that people who are strongly attached to the way of economic thought that got us into this mess have a serious mental health problem and hence must not be trusted. I do not think they do it out of bad intentions, most likely they really believe their ideas change the world for the better. The way I experienced it, many of them are excellent at dodging questions and spinning tales – first and foremost, to convince themselves, but also to convince others. Strongly reminds one of “confabulation”, actually.

    So, let me articulate this question as a challenge: What conceptual tools should be made available to citizens to help them spot confabulatory and self-deceiving behaviour in themselves, and others – especially in order to help them to reduce the amount of influence on decision making that people with a strong confabulatory disposition have?

  6. There is an extremely interesting “other” book by Masanobu Fukuoka, in addition to his famous “The One Straw Revolution”: “The Natural Way of Farming”. What is so interesting about this book is that it allows us to take a peek at the scaffolding which Fukuoka used as he gradually developed both his methods and his philosophy.

    This book is out of print, which is at the same time good and bad. It is good, because, according to Australian copyright law, it allows one to borrow an electronic copy from an Australian Library that has it for personal use. Indeed, it can be obtained here:

    https://www.soilandhealth.org/01aglibrary/01aglibwelcome.html

    But let me quote the opening passage of chapter 1:

    ===>
    Man prides himself on being the only creature on earth with the ability to think. He claims to know himself and the natural world, and believes he can use nature as he pleases. He is convinced, moreover, that intelligence is strength, that anything he desires is within his reach.
    As he has forged ahead, making new advances in the natural sciences and dizzily expanding his materialistic culture, man has grown estranged from nature and ended by building a civilization all his own, like a wayward child rebelling against its mother.
    But all his vast cities and frenetic activity have brought him are empty, dehumanized pleasures and the destruction of his living environment through the abusive exploitation of nature.
    Harsh retribution for straying from nature and plundering its riches has begun to appear in the form of depleted natural resources and food crises, throwing a dark shadow over the future of mankind. Having finally grown aware of the gravity of the situation, man has begun to think seriously about what should be done. But unless he is willing to undertake the most fundamental self-reflection he will be unable to steer away from a path of certain destruction.
    Alienated from nature, human existence becomes a void, the wellspring of life and spiritual growth gone utterly dry. Man grows ever more ill and weary in the midst of his curious civilization that is but a struggle over a tiny bit of time and
    space.
    <===

  7. Don’t be frustrated or anxious about the energy shock that we will have, we need to have it or we will never appreciate its creative and destructive power.
    I hope that the “shock” isn’t used for concentrating power and wealth but I don’t have much faith in that happening.
    If we are to scramble toward providing huge energy production to make up the shortfall of expensive oil then we need to consider the implications of networked grids on our magnetosphere ( I’ve read that there is quite noticeable warping of the magnetosphere around north America)
    If this topic had a bit more exposure we might be able to prevent another man made environmental disaster under our belts.

  8. Craig,

    It is now commonly said that we need a cut in greenhouse gases of 50 – 80% ‘now’ if we hope to experience only a moderate increase in temperatures and any chance of adapting to a warmer planet.

    Considering our current global addiction to fossil fuels, will renewables come on board quick enough? I don’t think so. As already suggested, an intelligent answer would be to simply cut back on the amount of energy we use. Now ask yourself if the average global citizen is willing to do this? If you make clear the implications of what this really means to each person, the answer is probably no.

    So if the above holds any truth at all, we can expect a pronounced increase in global temperatures, consequently a massive culling of life on our planet.

    Keep in mind our current government seems rather happy with a 5% cut in greenhouse gases.

    Some may say ‘bring it on’ allowing Gaia to restore balance on her own terms. I don’t much like this option.

    The environmental movement is largely anti nuclear and the coal-oil-gas industry has been happy to stand at the sideline cheering them/us on every step of the way. If we moved across to ‘responsible’ nuclear energy, we could largely put an end to fossil fuel usage, allowing our planet to adapt and give us one last chance to get it right.

    Personally, I have never much liked the idea of nuclear energy. However at the same time I have come around to realize not all of the anti nuclear propaganda is true.

    Thomas, I think your ‘insights’ are spot on but you are largely preaching to the converted here. I think we need to consider the ‘current’ mindset of the other 99% of the global population who are not of a permaculture way of being in the world. And we need to do it quickly.

    Craig, thanks again for your wonderful posts.

    Cheers,
    glenn

  9. Glen,

    ad magnetosphere, I’d say it’s pretty much the other way round. If we built a massive grid infrastructure, we would have to pay very close attention to secure this against space weather events.

    If a Carrington event (the solar super flare of 1859) occurred today, it would perhaps finish off civilization within a few minutes. If a massive plasma storm distorts the earth’s magnetic fields, this induces massive DC currents in our electric grid (extremely large area “coils”). The transformers don’t take such DC current well: it drives them into saturation, where they suddenly dissipate a lot of heat – transformer meltdown in a few minutes only. Well, okay, perhaps only a fraction of them will die that way, cutting off sufficiently large parts of the grid that some other transformers would survive. I don’t know.

  10. @Thomas: Love the quote.

    @Glenn #2:

    The nuclear industry has done a great job of making themselves look ‘green’ and ‘carbon free’, but it’s not the case. Aside from the ‘spent fuel’, a very benign sounding name for an end product that requires significant attention and cold water to contain if it’s not to ignite and pour radiative material into the atmosphere, even the mining of Uranium creates radioactive tailings that nobody has figured how to contain either. This dust ends up blowing all over and contaminating water and soils.

    Then there’s the issue of Uranium depletion. A worldwide move towards greater nuclear power capacity will soon see Uranium prices skyrocket.

    And, when you look at the full carbon inventory of nuclear, from mining through to decommissioning, it doesn’t look like as great a picture as the industry would paint.

    https://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=37405

    https://www.iaea.org/Publications/Magazines/Bulletin/Bull471/nuclear_reactions.pdf

    https://www.stormsmith.nl/

    Uranium is now getting like oil as far as availability goes. We’re running out of the easy to get, light, sweet crude and are having to chase oil that is both more expensive to reach and more expensive to process because it’s not as pure. In the same way, not all uranium deposits are equal and we’re now entering an era of more expensive uranium mining.

    Even the most optimistic view on GHG emissions from nuclear still make it on a par with wind generation, but wind generation doesn’t involve aspects such as peak uranium, massive initial investment with large time scales for deployment, security issues, nuclear proliferation and ‘gifting’ our descendants with radioactive waste they will likely be unable to maintain.

    >>”As already suggested, an intelligent answer would be to simply cut back on the amount of energy we use. Now ask yourself if the average global citizen is willing to do this? If you make clear the implications of what this really means to each person, the answer is probably no.”

    I agree with what you’re saying. The only thing is if we resign ourselves to a path with no future just because we can’t see people making intelligent, objective decisions, then we’re giving up on that future.

    If I don’t put a stake in the ground on realities based on the fullest picture possible that takes into account ALL the converging issues we face (too many commentators take individual problems in isolation – not seeing their relationships with other problems) then who will?

    While quite possibly highly idealistic, I can’t help but try to envision a future where the kind of realities we’re discussing become part of mainstream discussion at all levels of society, from Joe Citizen in the factory, field and office, right up to the those sitting in political office. Such discussion could see a rapid rollout of truly educational materials, via TV, radio, billboards, etc., sharing the issues as objectively as possible and seeking to encourage discussion and participation in the cooperative building of a lifestyle far more in tune with the realities of living on a finite planet with the kind of population we now possess.

    Or, we just decide that our lifestyles are non-negotiable, and we consign ourselves to continue watching the rise and rise of industry-led fascism, the oppression of the growing ranks of poor and disenfranchised, and see the easter island microcosm enacted on a global scale.

    There are no easy answers. But, and I think this is a key point I want to make, the sooner we make the hard decisions that need to be made, and plan to design compassion and transition into them, the easier it will be in the long run.

    We really are running out of time unfortunately. Again, being just a little ‘less bad’ is not an answer. The real answers may never be implemented, but I would hope it won’t be from lack of trying on our part.

  11. Thomas … you bring up some interesting points I should learn more about. Thanks for that.

    And Craig, the additional links are much appreaciated.

    With the amount of information now available, there is a growing number of folk out there knowing or sensing the urgency of our current situation, however the lag between thoughts and actions may well be where our troubles sit. Still think we need a ‘big fat bandage’ to see us through the next decade or two, whatever that may be. More food for thought. Cheers

    glenn

  12. Craig,

    there are many interesting aspects related to nuclear fission that should be known more widely. Actually, I think that a separate article on nuclear would make great sense.

    First observation: We are burning about 80 million barrels of oil per day. That is 8*10^7 barrels/day * 160 liters/barrel * 35*10^6 J/liter * 1/3 thermodynamic efficiency = 1.5*10^17 Joules of work from oil/day, or about 1.7 Terawatt. There’s also coal and gas, so we can roughly double that figure; we are hence talking about roughly 3.5 TW of work-power from fossil fuels. Per person on the planet, that is about 500 Watts (hence, 1500 Watts thermal). My numbers may be slightly off, as this is just a guesstimation. A frequently quoted figure is 2000 Watt/Person. But that’s close enough. This is the right ballpark.

    Let us now imagine we wanted to replace just 10% of this 3.5 TW of power with nuclear energy. That’s 350 Gigawatts of electricity. This alone then would roughly correspond to *doubling* the number of reactors around the world. Can we do that sufficiently fast for fission to even just compensate oil depletion? I would say: no way. So, nuclear is not going to prevent our present economic model from collapsing. Do you want a lot of nuclear infrastructure around if you go through massive economic contraction?

    This sort of should give you an idea what phenomena I’d expect to occur under such circumstances:

    https://englishrussia.com/?p=2198

    https://www.bellona.no/bellona.org/english_import_area/international/russia/navy/northern_fleet/incidents/31767

    Nice, isn’t that?

    So much about this. Now, there are a number of other frequently quoted “facts” about nuclear that deserve greater attention. An interesting one is the “Peak Uranium” issue. Note that nuclear energy densities are perversely high in comparison to chemical ones. About a factor 10^7 higher. This very easily confuses our judgment. Some people claim that, due to this enormous energy density, even obtaining Uranium from water(!) may be sufficiently effective to make limited high-quality Uranium ore a non-problem. Now, if one does the maths to work out how much water we would have to filter in an active system to just keep one 1-GW reactor burning, and sets the amount of water in relation to rainfall (which gives an upper bound on the amount of water in our rivers), or just contemplate filtering an entire major river for Uranium, that idea does not appear promising at all. However, curiously, if you think about passive “ion exchanger” harvesting systems where you just immerse a large synthetic membrane (not overly fancy chemistry; all H-C-N-O) in an oceanic current, and work out effective throughput, the result is quite surprising. Indeed, the Japanese seem to have demonstrated that production of Uranium from sea-water may be commercially quite viable, even with present-day technology.

    This is what the Japanese claim to be able to do:

    https://www.taka.jaea.go.jp/eimr_div/j637/theme3%20sea_e.html

    But… remember I said 10^7 times chemical energy density easily confuses our judgment ability. An influential proponent of the “Let’s go all out nuclear fission” idea in the U.S. is John McCarthy. (Personally, I must say I admire him for the work he did on LISP, because this is such an incredibly powerful, useful tool to me. But I totally disagree with many of his other ideas.) Now, McCarthy being a well known and influential person in science, and also science culture, many technophiles have made his preachings as they can be found on the web page

    https://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/

    something like their religion. (At least this is what I frequently observe in discussions about environmental issues on slashdot.org.)

    The problem is: McCarthy seems to be completely unaware that the /only/ product he has to sell is excuses(!) The “thousands of reactors” he is talking about that would be needed to phase out fossil fuels only exist on paper, and all that his “reasoning” ever has achieved was to fuel a false sense of complacency about energy issues. Basically, his position can be summarized as: (1) The claims by “the environmentalists” that energy is a key issue are completely unfounded, as there is so much fissible Uranium around that energy is over-abundant. (2) If there is any environmental trouble, then we can always resort to some futuristic high-power solution, as we have virtually unlimited energy anyway.

    It is quite easy to see how incredibly naive such reasoning is. If all-nuclear were the future, then every nation certainly would like to be part of this. If you take a close look at the numbers in the CIA World Factbook, it would not take you long to realize that a nation such as in particular Iran would have to run about 90 major (1 GW) fission reactors in order to just replace its present oil and gas use. Quite clearly, anyone who dreams about replacing fossil by nuclear on a massive global scale must have some fairly naive ideas about geopolitics. While this is by far not the only reason why such an idea seems quite harebrained to me, there is an interesting further aspect to this. Note that excuses that allow one to self-justify behaviour which otherwise would have to be regarded as totally inacceptable are, and always have been, an immensely valuable currency. Now, what did McCarthy’s activism actually achieve? On the one hand, we have a large number of technophiles who believe his overly naive nonsense, and on the other hand, if things start to get really ugly, they now have the perfect excuse: “It all can be blamed on those crazy environmentalists, for if they had not prevented a massive nuclear program, we would all now swim in cheap fission energy…”

    I would almost want to take a bet that we will see quite severe attacks on environmentally minded people soon, based on such ideology. In particular, I expect attacks by people who never received even the slightest amount of training on spotting self-deception and who do not realize that the all-nuclear plan never could have worked simply for geostrategic reasons alone, if not for a number of others.

    So, it is very very important to realize that there is a “nuclear industry”, whose product is nuclear energy and radioactive pollution, and a “nuclear excuse industry”, whose product is illusions, cheap excuses, and ways to blame serious problems on someone else.

    No matter how you think about nuclear, no matter what you are able to dream of, as it seems we inevitably WILL be going through a phase of serious energy scarcity, nuclear or not. Under such circumstances, the only viable strategies forward will be those that, rather than treating symptoms in a way that causes more problems (and hence need for energy) further down the road, actually tackle problems at their real root and manage to eliminate multiple symptoms-formerly-believed-to-be-individual-problems at the same time.

    This WILL be the end of the ideology of: “Whatever problem we face, the silver bullet is growth, for growth makes us rich, and the richer we are, the easier it will be to address all sorts of problems.” This, then, is the real key step that determines the future of mankind. How will this bizarre ideology be abolished? Those who invested their entire lives in such thinking, the high priests, certainly will never be able to see it for what it is. So, change must come from those who have not been absorbed by such thinking, and who are able to (a) demand answers and (b) will not get lulled by the excuses and self-deceptions the ideologists keep on spinning (as they have been programmed to).

    Anyone here to offer a course on “effective de-programming of growth ideologists”?

  13. @Glenn #2: I think the greatest reason for the lag between our acknowledgement of what’s happening, and our taking action to do something about it, is that for many of us the system still works for us. As long as our comfort levels are higher while doing nothing than they would be for doing something appropriate, many of us will just sit and wait. We don’t want to rock the boat, even if it is full of holes. For this reason I can understand why many are saying ‘bring it on’ in regards to energy descent and economic mayhem – they recognise that nothing will happen to address the direction we’re heading until we start to feel some pain. We’re essentially planning to react, rather than act. Like you, I’m reluctant to accept this option also. The permaculture mindset would prefer observation of all elements in the system, and then to intelligently design social/economic/political and biological aspects that will see us through the wall of converging issues and on to a brighter world on the other side.

    Re some kind of bandaid – I only see one option that doesn’t create as many or more problems than it solves. I hope you’ll take time to read this post, as I think it really points to a very tangible solution that not only addresses root causes, but that is also entirely doable:

    https://www.permaculturenews.org/2009/12/14/the-biology-of-global-warming/

    As I see it, it’s either get serious about the content of that post, learning how to work with biological synergies to restore Gaia’s equilibrium, or we’ll see other band-aids applied so that business as usual can continue. The other band-aids are called geo-engineering – attempts to adjust systems within the biosphere since we refuse to adjust ourselves, our lifestyles.

  14. @Thomas: I haven’t done the math in full, but figures I’ve seen in the past on the amount of nuclear needed to replace fossil fuel generated electricity are comparable to yours. Yes, it’s unrealistic to think we can roll out nuclear on such a scale in rapid quick time (most plants take well over a decade to complete, and are regularly rife with problems and delays), and yes, we don’t have time anyway. And, if we did have the time, would we really want to magnify our problems and risks so dramatically, just for a few decades of more power – power that only enables us to destroy the environment in every other quarter (pollution, soil and water depletion and contamination, GHGs, etc.).

    On top of that is the financial aspect. I would predict that a massive attempt to roll out nuclear will end up like the Dubai landscape – billions of dollars wasted, just to see it all abandoned before completion due to a peak-oil based collapse of economies. Except, unlike Dubai’s abandoned skyscrapers and other expensive disasters, this kind of landscape could leave us with serious issues of radioactive waste that nobody wants to foot the bill to deal with.

    Imagine those billions spent on root-cause repair work instead.

    And, of course, while building nuclear for ourselves, we’d also refuse to let others, those we’ve decided are inferior or who we label our enemies, to have it – applying sanctions or worse. Not conducive to the kind of international-cooperation-in-troubled-times scenario I’d far prefer.

    And, when considering nuclear, we’ve got to realise that it’s only a patch for one aspect of our energy descent blues. It creates electricity, not liquid fuels. It would take at least a couple of decades of rapid transition to move our current world fleet from running on liquid fuels to running on electricity – and I can’t see this ever happening for some forms of transport, like aircraft. Such an unlikely transition would in itself use phenomenal amounts of energy/fossil fuels, and emit profligate amounts of GHGs in the process. But, again, we won’t be able to afford such a transition.

    There really is no patch or silver bullet solution. As mentioned to Glenn in the previous comment, harnessing biology in a holistic fashion seems to be the only true solution, and permaculture is at the centre of that. Where we’re falling short, however, is failing to find ways to alter political and economic mechanisms to favour and incentivise this route. If we don’t take this route now, I think we’re essentially screwed. Without leadership on this, backed by popular consent and demand, this repair work will never happen. It means getting political – despite what some previous commenters in other posts on this site may think.

    Nuclear dreams don’t stack up, but risk, as you say, allowing everyone to fall into a false sense of security. “Don’t worry, the scientists will invent us a way out of this”. There really are no solutions without a massive social awakening.

    As Bill Mollison said:

    “I think it’s pointless asking questions like “Will humanity survive?” It’s purely up to people – if they want to, they can, if they don’t want to, they won’t.”

    We need to want to. How to get people to want to save themselves is the challenge. And that challenge is made all the harder whilst our media and advertising systems keep us all chasing a material based ‘happiness’.

  15. The root cause to all our woe’s is exponential population growth.
    Without addressing this problem first we are doomed.

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