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“Imperialism is the political expression of the accumulation of capital in its competitive struggle for what remains still open of the non-capitalist environment”
-Rosa Luxemburg, “The accumulation of capital,” 1913
“Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington told delegates to the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday that John Kerry would help America reduce its dependence on foreign oil if he is elected president. The Democratic senator was tapped to give a brief speech on Kerry’s energy policy. Cantwell is a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee… Cantwell touted Kerry’s support for alternative fuels such as wind energy, which she said will help the United States wean itself off foreign oil. She said the development of alternative fuels also could help create jobs… She compared Kerry’s commitment to alternative fuel technology to President Kennedy’s efforts to land a man on the moon… ‘This Massachusetts senator is going to lead our generation of Americans to energy independence,’ she said.”
-Erin Kelly, Gannett News Service, August 12, 2004
John Kerry smells environmental blood these days. The Republican’s eager biospheric vandalism would alarm even the most phlegmatic observer, and this is a perfect seg for the Kerry strategy–proving he is not George W. Bush. While the Republicans leverage our fears of the menacing Dark Other, the Democrats leverage our fear of Republicans. Now Kerry has engaged the Battle of the Bonesmen with a new ally–the eco-capitalists. He has become the proponent of tax subsidies to energy snake-oil salesmen and has eagerly joined the think-tank neocons in ritualized public Saudi-bashing as part of the “energy independence” delusion.
I’m going to repeat a theme here that doesn’t get much play elsewhere–Counterpunch’s value is that we can speak plainly here and don’t have to pretend we support capitalism here in order to legitimate ourselves–that our “energy problem” cannot be solved by capitalism. The sooner those of us who want to preserve some semblance of a viable biosphere for future generations understand this, the better. Our environmental and energy crises are caused by capitalism. That’s not original, but it is controversial.
John Kerry, just as much as George W. Bush, is as full of shit as a Christmas turkey on energy. Still, well-meaning environmentalists will flock to the polls this year to elect this charlatan… because we are afraid. And because we haven’t looked closely at capitalism, which is an expansionary system at its very core, and which–in my considered opinion–must be taken apart root and branch, or the planet upon which we all depend will be converted, as it is being converted right now, into a microtoxified industrial trash heap… under the John Kerries every bit as much as under the George W. Bushes.
I’m not a scientist, but I can read and search the internet, as anyone reading this can. Figuring out this energy business is certainly harder than studying for an undergraduate mid-term, but it’s not something that requires years of disciplined study. A little curiosity and patience will yeild a wealth of information about ‘energy,’ and can quickly disabuse us of the eco-capitalist swindle. Here is my own admittedly didactic account of what I have discovered.
The Warning Shot
“Energy… is certainly linked to, or behind almost any international event, crisis. war, military adventure or environmental catastrophe that we are forced to witness almost any day,” points out Andrew McKillop, a founding member of the International Association of Energy Economists, “and which are due either solely or mainly to our urban industrial civilization and fossil energy habit…Attack of New York’s Twin Towers can best be thought of as a warning shot. Three airplanes crashed into three nuclear power plants will produce three Chernobyl catastrophes–this true catastrophe being deliberately downplayed, even lied about by such UN agencies as the World Health Organization until 2002 nearly 16 years after the event, because nuclear power, absurdly, is still ‘believed in’ as a solution to expensive oil and gas. As with so many of the myths of the neoliberal age, the myth of nuclear energy being ‘cheap’, and oil and gas being ‘expensive’ is the complete opposite of reality.”
McKillop puts his finger on the fact not only that nuclear is expensive and dangerous, but that the question of energy itself is so basic, so all pervasive, so universal, so widely misunderstood, so misrepresented by capitalists and their professional publicists, and so profound in its implications if we are to be at all serious about it, that we have to rely on independent macro-analysis of energy to put the issue in some kind of context.
The Centrality of Energy as a Geophysical, Economic, Social, and Political Issue
“Energy has always been the basis of cultural complexity and it always will be. The past clarifies potential paths to the future. One often-discussed path is cultural and economic simplicity and lower energy costs. This could come about through the “crash” that many fear — a genuine collapse over a period of one or two generations, with much violence, starvation, and loss of population. The alternative is the “soft landing” that many people hope for–a voluntary change to solar energy and green fuels, energy-conserving technologies, and less overall consumption. This is a utopian alternative that, as suggested above, will come about only if severe, prolonged hardship in industrial nations makes it attractive, and if economic growth and consumerism can be removed from the realm of ideology.”
– Joseph A. Tainter
The failure to grasp the full significance of energy is based largely on our understanding of it as a seemingly endless commodity. I turn the ignition key, and the car starts. I flip the switch, and the lights come one. But we cannot understand the significance of energy, or how our consumption of it is irrevocably changing the entire biosphere, without understanding energy in a more basic and essential way.
Energy is the force that drives all change, that which is bound with matter and keeps it in motion. The energy used by life on earth originated almost entirely from the sun, whereupon it was chemically bound up and concentrated by organic matter. The biosphere evolved as an ever more complex architecture of consolidated energy, first as simple life forms that gained energy directly from the sun, then as autotrophs that converted sunlight into metabolic fuel, and later as heterotrophs that consume autotrophs for the energy concentrated within them. The net energy available for “use” within the biosphere was increased over billions of years through super-fecundity, punctuated equilibrium, evolutionary complexity, and niche maximization. Until the appearance of human beings, however, all life forms in the biosphere exploited energy internally, that is, within each life form’s own body–endosomatically. Only with the appearance of homo sapiens was the biosphere introduced to intentional, systematic, extra-somatic, or outside-the-body, exploitation of biomass concentrated energy, first through the use of fire, then through the domestication of animals, and finally through the burning of organic material that was hundreds of millions of years in the making–fossil fuels.
“Life on Earth is driven by energy. Autotrophs take it from solar radiation and heterotrophs take it from autotrophs. Energy captured slowly by photosynthesis is stored up, and as denser reservoirs of energy have come into being over the course of Earth’s history, heterotrophs that could use more energy evolved to exploit them, Homo sapiens is such a heterotroph; indeed, the ability to use energy extrasomatically (outside the body) enables human beings to use far more energy than any other heterotroph that has ever evolved. The control of fire and the exploitation of fossil fuels have made it possible for Homo sapiens to release, in a short time, vast amounts of energy that accumulated long before the species appeared.”
The specific social forms–most recently global, industrial, and expansionary (profit/growth-based)–of this extrasomatic energy exploitation has set in motion an increasingly grave situation that is multidimensional and self-accelerating. It has transformed the face of the planet, expanded the human population and decanted it mostly into cities that are becoming seas of unemployment, created the most dramatic species extinction in the earth’s history, begun the rapid carbonization of the earth’s atmosphere, and plunged the human species into cycles of increasing economic polarization and war. It has also put the developed nations –most particularly the United States, where the whole society has been physically and socially designed around the private automobile–on a runaway train aimed at a thermodynamic cliff that less than 30 years away.
“Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”
Energy is a material basis of ALL development, without exception. Any real account of our circumstance must be based significantly on an account of where energy is originated, how it is changed into useful forms, and how society is organized to use that energy. If not, we will be deluded into thinking that “progress” will continue in the present economic, social, and political paradigm. It will not. It is empirically provable that we cannot sustain our current energy use or the social organization that shapes that energy use.
My premise: This is not a moral valuation, but a scientific one. The current system will end, as a mathematical certainty, and the choice before society is not whether it will end, but how.
If this premise is valid, any useful course of action must be established directly on the assumptions that (1) there is an existing energy crisis and (2) this crisis can only be addressed within the context of systemic social change that pays direct attention to energy use and development.
“Developing and commercializing carbon-free power technologies by the mid-21st century could require efforts, perhaps international, pursued with the urgency of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo space program,” says Martin Hoffert, a physicist at New York University, during a forum on global warming.
Implicit in that is political will, and implicit in political will is a profound shift in political power. Society cannot leap over or end-run these preconditions.
As McKillop pointed out, energy impacts on the totality of social relations, centralizing the issue of energy for alliance and coalition building has tremendous potential for harnessing a broad and diverse array of forces to effect that shift. But these forces, if they are to have any effect beyond merely adding new layers of commentary, cannot include the vested interests that currently thrive completely within the context of the existing profit/growth regime. Bureaucratic and profit-driven organizations are driven by the imperatives that define them– self-perpetuation and the expansion of monetary value.
It must be a movement that fully recognizes the inextricability of energy use and social relations, and therefore it must consist of people who are committed to fundamental social transformation. It must be an insurgent movement that jealously guards its independence from and maintains a fundamentally adversarial relationship to the current dominant interests and institutions of that very system, because its inexorable goal is the obliteration of that paradigm.
Not the fucking Democratic Party, and not high-dollar NGOs like the Sierra Club!
The Political Economy of Energy
The beginning of the fossil fuel age was not simply a technological shift. It was a specific outcome of a specific set of historical circumstances. We cannot understand why global society is what it is now, without understanding its evolution. Late historian Mark Jones of Great Britain described the advent of human hydrocarbon dependency and the population explosion that accompanied it:
“Industrial capitalism was surely a response to a crisis of relative over-population which emerged in Europe and elsewhere by the end of the 17th century. But did industrial capitalism achieve a new (growth based) equilibrium, or was this solution no solution at all since it has done no more than bring about a huge new increase of population on a still more unsustainable basis?
“The population of Europe doubled from 100 million in 1650 to 200 million by 1800. And the rate of increase constantly accelerated. By 1789 Paris had more than 600,000 inhabitants, of whom at least 100,000 were vagrants: the foot soldiers of the French Revolution. London’s population grew from 575,000 in 1750 to almost a million by 1801, ‘including a mass of the bustling street-hawkers, pickpockets, urchins, and felons so well captured in contemporary prints.’ [Paul Kennedy]
“The burgeoning population huddled into the cities from the countryside and inhabited ‘sprawling slums of jerry-built houses, lacking water, light, heat, and sanitation… in the new manufacturing towns hordes of children lacked adequate health care, nutrition and education; gangs of unemployed agrarian workers attacked the new farming machines that had thrown them out of work; social protest was common, especially in years when poor harvests drove up the price of bread.
“By 1750 European economies were increasingly gridlocked, and hunger was common, especially in France. The agrarian revolution impacted the environment in destructive ways. Enclosing of commons destroyed the last great British forests, which had been under intensive pressure as competitive uses for timber proliferated.
“The most dangerous bottleneck faced by the British economy was the complete collapse of the iron industry as supplies of wood for charcoal dried up. By 1700 Britain was importing iron wrought and pig-iron from Sweden, Spain and even the Urals.
“That this trade was profitable evidences the desperate straits the English iron industry was in. The iron famine affected the entire English economy and imperiled its defence. This was the background to British activity in India and the Far East.
“There were many attempts to solve the problem of smelting iron with substitutes, the most obvious being coke made from coal. These attempts did not succeed in solving the iron shortage until almost the end of the 18th century.
“When the solutions came they synergistically combined to provide the platform for industrial take-off. But there surely can no longer be any doubt that take-off happened largely because of fortuitous accident (available coal, but in waterlogged deep mines requiring the development of pumps and then steam engines).”
Jones elaborates in a separate essay:
“The Industrial Revolution began in England when a set of technologies fortuitously converged to overcome a shortage of energy and raw materials (principally iron and steel). The shortage emerged at the end of an extremely rapid cycle of proto-industrial development during the 17th and 18th centuries.
“The technologies of steam power and of iron-manufacture utilising coal instead of wood- charcoal, had interdependent origins. The first railways and steam engines were developed in coal-mining districts to answer specific problems of deep shaft working, where coal had to be transported considerable distances and flooded mines had to be pumped dry
“Once the technologies emerged they swiftly became generalised, first to the iron and steel industries, then to textiles, machine building, transport, agriculture and arms manufacture
“The era of fossil fuel-based industry was launched and led to very rapid population increases, which consolidated the new system’s dependence on its material and energy basis, which emerged in this fortuitous way at the beginning of the 19th century.
“World [hydrocarbon] capitalism has enjoyed two centuries of sustained development since 1800. However the gigantic growth in social productivity, resource-use and population, the creation of a vast new built environment and the subordination of natural processes and resource-systems, has never enabled capitalism to shake free of its initial path-dependence. On the contrary, capitalism today is more critically dependent on fossil fuels and the use of non- renewable resources than at any time in the past, and the absolute level of resource-extraction and energy use continues to grow.”
Even as those finite resources are depleted. Consider the implications.
With human beings, the biological and social cannot be separated except as analytical categories. In reality, biological and social phenomena are in interfused with one another.
There is a debate going on between one camp that says we are expanding beyond the earth’s carrying capacity and another that says the problem is not biological but social. Each camp has occupied one pole in the same false dichotomy, based on the confusion between analytical categories and material complexity, and therefore the tendency to pose them against each other as opposites, which they are not.
The “carrying capacity” camp has made the error of accepting genetic predestination as the cause of this population expansion, and failed to grasp the social-historical character of all human relations. But they are right that the earth has a carrying capacity. The “social” camp has made the error of denying the physical reality of carrying capacity, but they are right that human economic activity is not genetically, but socially, determined.
“It must be of relevance… that the United States’ share of world energy consumption is 25%, while 20% of the world’s people do not have access to enough energy to successfully maintain their own body metabolism. This obviously also has an environmental dimension. The richest 20% of the world’s population consume 86% of the aluminum, 81% of the paper, 80% of the iron, and 76% of the lumber. Per capita carbon dioxide emissions in 1990 were around five tons in the United States but only 0.1 tons in India. (Remarkably, however, many people in the industrialized [global] North continue to believe that it is their mission to educate people in the [global] South on how to live and produce sustainably, as if the North was setting a good example, and as if environmental problems in the South were the result of ignorance rather than impoverishment.)”
We don’t simply maximize our niche as other species do, we actually build new niches, and exactly HOW those habitats are built is largely determined by the interfusion of geography, technology, and socio-economic and political organization. Moreover, the habitats themselves then restructure human social relations and human consciousness. Roadside stands in Haiti, for example, cannot be replaced by strip malls because most people do not have automobiles, nor do they have the money to buy expensive consumer goods. In the US, on the other hand, most people would be incapable of obtaining food or a job to get the money to buy it without an automobile to get to the vast, refrigerated, central-heat-and-air, super-lighted energy sinks that are strip malls and supermarkets.
Our niche has been over-maximized, however, based directly on energy use, but under the imperatives of a competitive system that is fundamentally based on expansion. Whether that imperative is direct, as in the capitalist imperative to expand or be consumed by competitors, or indirect as in socialist projects that were driven by geopolitical and military competition (paradoxically forcing socialist systems to compete within a capitalist world system), the whole system has been based on something called “growth.” With this economic expansion is population expansion. Marx even called it the Law of Population. Population expansion within growth economics has not merely been an arithmetical phenomenon, but one that is qualitative–characterized importantly by mechanized agriculture that has pushed populations off the land and progressively urbanized larger and larger fractions of the world’s gross population. Fossil fuel has permitted us to build huge cities in climates that bordered on hostile to human habitation, whether that involves the air conditioning required in Riyadh or the heating required in Helsinki.
By 3000 BC, the earth’s human population was roughly 50 million. Exploitation of biomass and animal power doubled that population by 1000 BC. Metallurgy and agricultural innovation set off a population breakout around then, and the population jumped almost to 300 million by 1 AD. Population growth stabilized for the next 1500 years, where proto-industrialization and crop rotation created an uptick from 1500 until around 1850 that brought the world within reach of the 1 billion mark. Plotted on a graph, this whole process up until 1850 looks like a gently rising, slightly bumpy slope. From 1850, however, with the introduction of widespread use of fossil fuel, until the present, one cannot extend the same graph on any standard sheet of paper, because the spike from under 1 billion to over 6 billion happens in so short a time, just over 100 years. This sends the graph line shooting steeply up from the end of the 19th Century, then straight into the air like a Titan missile.
The fossil fuel that underwrites this growth, we must remember, took hundreds of millions of years to form as biomass (like the green algae that turned into oil). In fact, the predominant form of that fossil energy, oil, is a good marker to see into our energy future. We have used approximately half of all the extractible oil in the earth.
This is a situation described empirically by Dr. Richard Duncan in his 1996 paper, The Olduvai Theory: Sliding Towards a Post-Industrial Stone Age, as the “transient-pulse theory of Industrial Civilization” wherein dramatically growing population increasingly dependent on higher and higher inputs of fossil fuel sets a trendline of higher demand even as the actual fuel goes into permanent decline. Measuring “civilization” by per capita energy consumption chronologically, Duncan observes that–with world oil production peaking approximately right now (2002-2010)–per capita consumption has been in decline since around 1980, and will continue to decline into perpetuity. This is more than some historical cycle, explains Duncan, “the endless rise and fall of civilizations. [This is] about something quite different, more profound, more pervasive. Global industrial civilization has no cycles at all. It is a ‘one shot affair.’ Exponential growth, exponential decline. That’s it.”
This is, of course, a very important starting point. It starkly tells us what will happen if we continue on the same course–that by 2030 or thereabouts we are likely to have returned to the per capita energy consumption of 1930, en route to harder, darker, colder, and hungrier times still.
But it isn’t the whole story.
Beyond Empiricism: Energy and Social Systems
Empiricism: the philosophical theory which attributes the origin of all our knowledge to experience.
“Modern empiricism has been conditioned in large part by two dogmas. One is a belief in some fundamental cleavage between truths which are analytic, or grounded in meanings independently of matters of fact and truths which are synthetic, or grounded in fact. The other dogma is reductionism: the belief that each meaningful statement is equivalent to some logical construct upon terms which refer to immediate experience.”
– Willard Van Orman Quine
Mark Jones’ recounting of the dawn of hydrocarbon industrialism reminds us that the world is a complex, geographically and socially diverse place, and that human “development” is driven not by some genetic program, but by a combination of dynamic historical forces that include necessity, conflict, conscious decision-making, and not infrequently the unintended consequences of ill-informed decisions.
The United States is now involved in war, intended to extend its control over the most oil-rich region in the world, but that war this very day is a wretched military and political quagmire. Only the most stubbornly self-delusional elements in society still believe that oil had nothing to do with the US decision to invade Iraq. That is why it is important to see not only the empirical analysis of energy, but to understand the social and political relations of energy. The energy crisis is manifesting itself socially and politically.
Empirical information arrived at through a process of direct observation and quantification is essential to the whole scientific method. But failure to account for reality beyond that which is empirically observable, that is, failing to account for not merely data, but the relationships and interactions of people and the environment in the real world, is the error of empiricism.
This dredges up some long standing controversies, but it is absolutely necessary to engage that controversy here and take sides. In our case, a couple of great debates come to mind; that between Thomas Malthus and Karl Marx and that between fellow Darwinists Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould.
Richard Duncan, quoted above and cited on his “Olduvai Theory”, might be called a neo-malthusian. Neo-malthusian reliance on broad numerical averages supports a case that this impending disconnect between energy availability and population is a “population problem.” Beneath the argument that population is the central problem is the notion, as Duncan says, that “Long ago, nature dealt us a bad hand– we’re sexually prolific, tribal, short-term and self-centered. And after thousands of years of trying, Culture hasn’t changed that.” In other words, it’s in the genes. “Human nature” is responsible, and it is unalterable.
Professor Martha Gimenez of the University of Colorado describes Malthus’ view in her 1973 paper, “The Population Issue: Marx vs. Malthus”:
“Malthus’ argument rests upon two propositions; unchecked population increases in a geometrical ration while subsistence increases in an arithmetical ratio. The two propositions together constitute the famous principle of population which, according to Malthus, is “… one of the causes that have hitherto impeded the progress of mankind towards happiness” (Malthus, 1933:5). This cause is “intimately united with the very nature of man … (it) is the constant tendency in all animated life to increase beyond the nourishment prepared for it” (Malthus, 1933:5); “…its natural and necessary effects (are) … a very considerable portion of that vice and misery, and of that unequal distribution of the bounties of nature which it has been the unceasing object of the enlightened philanthropists in all ages to correct” (Malthus, 1933:5).
“Malthus bases his principle of population on a natural law; the tendency of all animated life to increase beyond the means available for its subsistence. The natural law of population growth is checked by another natural law; the law of necessity which restrains that growth within certain boundaries and keeps it down to the level of the means of subsistence. Within the human species the natural law of necessity operates through various checks which fall under two main categories: a) preventive checks which control fertility (i.e., moral restraint or marriage postponement, and vice). b) positive checks which increase mortality or the probability of dying (i.e., “unwholesome occupations, … poverty …great towns and excesses of all kinds, the whole train of common diseases and epidemics, war, plague and famine:) (Malthus, 1933:14).
“The constant operation of the principle of population brings about the operation of the law of necessity. The outcome is “much of that poverty and misery observable among the lower classes of people in every nation, and those reiterated failures in the efforts of the higher classes to relieve them” (Malthus, 1933:1).
“Malthus also brings support to his theory in the law of diminishing returns the implication of which is that food production is bound to lag behind population growth. This law provides him with the most general theoretical basis for his principle of population and constitutes the basic argument with which Neo-Malthusian thought addresses itself to population problems today. Thus, according to contemporary thought about this matter, not only food production but every natural resource is bound to lag behind population growth.”
Gimenez then describes Marx’s rebuttal of Malthus:
“At the most general theoretical level Marx and Engels see in Malthus’ principle of population another instance of the way… economists reify social relations… to reify means to change concrete historical social relations and processes into universal categories or eternal natural laws.
“Malthus begins with the results of the process of capitalist development before him; i.e., widespread poverty, hunger, unemployment, etc. and, disregarding the concrete social relations of exploitation and competition which had produced that hungry and unemployed population, he views it as the outcome of the operation of inexorable natural laws… Poverty, unwholesome working conditions, hunger, disease, unemployment, etc. are depicted as the product of the natural law of necessity which in that way checks the functioning of another natural law; the tendency of all animated life to reproduce itself beyond the means of subsistence.”
The crux of this great controversy, of course, is whether “human nature” is genetically determined, or whether that “nature” is influenced by society and its relations. It has long been the tendency of those at the top of any social hierarchy to prefer narratives that make that social order either divinely ordained or a product of natural law.
This is an epistemological controversy first, and only later a political one.
“Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies knowledge. It attempts to answer the basic question: what distinguishes true (adequate) knowledge from false (inadequate) knowledge? Practically, this question translates into issues of scientific methodology: how can one develop theories or models that are better than competing theories? It also forms one of the pillars of the new sciences of cognition, which developed from the information processing approach to psychology, and from artificial intelligence, as an attempt to develop computer programs that mimic a human’s capacity to use knowledge in an intelligent way.
“When we look at the history of epistemology, we can discern a clear trend, in spite of the confusion of many seemingly contradictory positions. The first theories of knowledge stressed its absolute, permanent character, whereas the later theories put the emphasis on its relativity or situation-dependence, its continuous development or evolution, and its active interference with the world and its subjects and objects. The whole trend moves from a static, passive view of knowledge towards a more and more adaptive and active one.”
Stephen Jay Gould, the pre-eminent biologist who died recently, actually expanded the point of view of dynamic “environmental” influence into the study of evolution, and engaged a decades-long debate with biologist Richard Dawkins, who identified something called the “selfish gene” as the singular motive force in evolution. This controversy spilled over into social debates, with empiricist Dawkins cited by defenders of “The Bell Curve,” a book that claimed to demonstrate racial superiority, and Gould’s rebuttal in his own book, “The Mismeasure of Man,” now heavily quoted by opponents of high-stakes standardized testing.
“Dawkins, a student of animal behaviour under Niko Tinbergen, works with a number of tacit axioms. First is that you can ask, for any behaviour or function, a why question in terms of adaptive function. Second is that you can ask this largely without knowing or caring what the genetic and physiological mechanisms involved are; the mechanisms do it somehow, and selection acts on their output. As far as adaptive explanation goes, they are a black box. The third is that, of all the various types of explanation in biology, the adaptive one is the linchpin, the master key. This is because it is this alone which really tells us why; all other accounts merely tell us how. It is of course a short step from these premises to the view that adaptation is a universal moulder of forms and behaviour, and adaptationism a universal acid for dissolving away scientific problems.
“Gould by contrast is a palaeontologist, and as such long schooled in the difficult reconstruction of the details of the past. In particular, paleontology has been concerned with multi-leveled patterns of organisation in the fossil record; species and radiations, guilds and kingdoms, stasis and change. What counts as explanation is in many respects a description of pattern, one that captures all the relevant complexity. It is thus no surprise that Gould’s view of evolution is one of many-levelled patterns and contingencies, not reducible to any master force like gene-level selection.”
Gould does not discount the value of reductive science, that operationalizes questions to be answered by the experimental (empirical) method. But Dawkins reduces the question of evolution to a single determinant, the “selfish gene.” Gould, by contrast, is a systems person, because physical, biological, geological, and social realities do not act in a laboratory setting but in a dynamic and non-linear relation to one another. Systems cannot be accurately theorized solely based on empirical, atomized data.
I am with Jones, Gimenez, Marx and Gould on the energy question. And the neo-Malthusians are on a very dangerous ideological slope where they can easily slip into racism and xenophobia, as some environmentalists have already done.
The empiricists have identified a very serious consequence if we continue on the same path, and the energy crisis is quite real (We will show further on just how real in many ways). But if we accept their premise that it is genetically predetermined, then we might as well party on until the lights go out, because there’s nothing we can do about it.
There is a population aspect to our problem, but it is not a population problem. It is a social system problem.
Here is the outline of our social system problem.
. The earth’s climate is being transformed and the biosphere is being dangerously over-simplified by fossil fuel combustion.
. The “health” of the global economy is now measured by the indices that measure profit, the self-expansion of monetary values, which depends on “growth,” which depends on ever-higher inputs of fossil fuel.
. It is physically impossible to “develop” the whole world in a manner similar to Europe and America. There is not enough iron, there is not enough petroleum, etc. Moreover, those “advanced” societies are not sustainable in their present form for more than two decades.
. The current energy regime depends overwhelmingly on fossil hydrocarbons.
. The entire society is structured for hydrocarbons so extensively that it is physically impossible to replace current consumption with in existing sectors at existing levels.
. World oil production is peaked, even as the US, Europe, Japan, and China are all projecting massive increases in oil consumption–which objectively makes them competitive antagonists.
. Most of the world’s remaining easily extractable oil is in one region that is being destabilized.
. Agriculture now depends on current or increasing levels of fossil fuel.
Growth and Sustainability
“Sustainable growth is an oxymoron.”
There is a growing body of pseudo-scientific rebuttal of the global-warming thesis proliferating with the support of vast profit-driven enterprises that depend in a variety of ways on the continued and expanded use of fossil energy. Most of this polemical nonsense is done by “scientists” who are un-respected in their fields, and most is not peer-reviewed to test its validity. This so-called critique is aimed not at scientists, who largely accept that human activity–in particular, the use of fossil fuel–has caused an unprecedented atmospheric shift in the last century and a half. This propaganda is aimed at people with limited or no scientific acumen, and emphasized the unanswered “uncertainties” in the body of scientific research on climate change. In fact, uncertainty is exactly what science seeks by determining the limits of certainty. The scientific method does not answer all questions. It seeks to answer a question at a time, to the exclusion of other questions. Science does not conclude. It either reinforces or weakens existing interpretations.
The “uncertainties” argument made by industry-and-ideology groups is a logical fallacy called a “red herring,” designed to cast enough doubt on the alarm being raised about global warming to reinforce the public’s fear-induced denial.
Red Herring: a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:
1. Topic A is under discussion.
2. Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).
3. Topic A is abandoned.
This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an argument against a claim.
Industry-supported junk-science goes a step beyond logical by publishing patently false claims and, with stunning right-wing chutzpah, referring to the conclusions of the majority of reputable scientists as “junk science.” In some cases, these reports emanating from the plethora of front organizations posing as public interest groups actually claim that there is no real evidence that global temperatures have risen as a result of human causes. Science for the last decade had conclusively debunked this growing mountain of horse shit.
Another claim was that computer models of climate change have predicted far more warming than satellite records actually show. This is also categorically untrue.
The Union of Concerned Scientists state:
The scientific consensus around climate change is robust. To make this point clear to policy makers in Washington, D.C., more than 1,000 scientists from across the nation have signed the State of Climate Science letter. This letter, from experts in the field, outlines the consensus on the anthropogenic component to climate change. In doing so, the letter reconfirms reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Research Council that the consequences of climate change, which is driven in part by emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, will be both disruptive and costly to the United States…
. Anthropogenic climate change, driven by emissions of greenhouse gases, is already under way and likely responsible for most of the observed warming over the last 50 years_warming that has produced the highest temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere during at least the past 1,000 years;
. Over the course of this century, the Earth is expected to warm an additional 2.5 to 10.5 ‘F, depending on future emissions levels and on the climate sensitivity_a sustained global rate of change exceeding any in the last 10,000 years;
. Temperature increases in most areas of the United States are expected to be considerably higher than these global means because of our nation’s northerly location and large average distance from the oceans;
. Even under mid-range emissions assumptions, the projected warming could cause substantial impacts in different regions of the U.S., including an increased likelihood of heavy and extreme precipitation events, exacerbated drought, and sea level rise;
. Almost all plausible emissions scenarios result in projected temperatures that continue to increase well beyond the end of this century; and;
. Due to the long lifetimes of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the longer emissions increase, the faster they will ultimately have to be decreased in order to avoid dangerous interference with the climate system.
Evidence that climate change is already under way includes the instrumental record, which shows a surface temperature rise of approximately 1’F over the 20th century, the accelerated sea level rise during that century relative to the last few thousand years, global retreat of mountain glaciers, reduction in snow cover extent, earlier thawing of lake and river ice, the increase in upper air water vapor over most regions in the past several decades, and the 0.09’F warming of the world’s deep oceans since the 1950s.
Evidence that the warmth of the Northern Hemisphere during the second half of the last century was unprecedented in the last 1,000 years comes from three major reconstructions of past surface temperatures, which used indicators such as tree rings, corals, ice cores, and lake sediments for years prior to 1860, and instrumental records for the interval between 1865 and the present.
On the subject of human causation of this warmth, the NRC report stated that, “The IPCC’s conclusion that most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations accurately reflects the current thinking of the scientific community on this issue.” Indeed, computer simulations do not reproduce the late 20th century warmth if they include only natural climate forcings such as emissions from volcanoes and solar activity. The warmth is only captured when the simulations include forcings from human-emitted greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere.
In summary, the main conclusions of the IPCC and NRC reports remain robust consensus positions supported by the vast majority of researchers in the fields of climate change and its impacts. The body of research carried out since the reports were issued tends to strengthen their conclusions.
The Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii has collected ice cores that demonstrate a 30% increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide since 1860. The very idea that a quantum chemical shift of this magnitude in the atmosphere would NOT create profound changes in the climate is on its face worthy of ridicule.
Global warming is real, but because the global climate is such a highly complex system, the sequence, intensity, and forms of its consequences cannot be known. Barring a dramatic change of course socially, however, we can be assured that these changes will be immensely destructive of human health and social stability. The rise of a few inches in sea levels would effectively inundate hundreds of millions of people around the world, salinize estuaries and destroy soil fertility, shift tropical disease vectors and pathogens further into temperate zones, and create unstable weather patterns that generate more catastrophic weather events in heavily populated areas.
But fossil energy exploitation has more consequences than the unintended ones. Combined with growth-economics, fossil energy exploitation has given human societies the capacity to transform the material environment for economic purposes in unprecedented ways, as have fossil fuel bi-products, particularly in agriculture. The transformation of all of nature–now even including its scenic vistas–into marketable commodities is the dominant determinative force in growth-economies. The additional capacity added to that general tendency by fossil fuel is difficult to overestimate, and its impact tends to increase geometrically.
Food, being necessary for individual human metabolism, is a special concern, and has a special place in global social patterns of energy use. Using plain input/output models for food production by 1994, Mario Giampietro and David Pimentel showed that one calorie of food requires approximately 10 calories of extrasomatic energy to produce. But that is a global average. In the industrialized metropoles of Europe, the United States, and Japan, the average is 40/1. In the United States, it is around 90/1. Yet because of the global system of US dollar seignorage, which allows the US to print money to cover its enlarging debt to other nations (which, for reasons we won’t go into here, it never intends to pay back), effectively a subsidy to the whole United States from the rest of the world, the US percentage of disposable income spent on food is remarkably low, around 15%.
So if we set aside the monetary cost of food and focus solely on the energetic costs, and if we factor in variables like sun-energy and disparate gross production figures, US consumers on average are consuming five times the global average at below market value because of an external hidden subsidy provided by those throughout the world who are consuming less energy to eat.
This is exactly what Luxemburg was referring to, and this self-same imperialist system is what John Kerry aims to RESCUE from the excesses of his neocon class affiliates.
We are immediately confronted with the inadequacy of an empirical model to make sense of the situation we are facing. We are not all consuming the same kind of food, and the reasons are structured not by human DNA, but by political economy. The same profligate energy waste that underwrites agriculture for the well-to-do nations underwrites the associated and equally destructive satellite activities to industrial, growth-based food production.
Monoculture crop production not only requires fossil fuel and petrochemical inputs. The same system of dollar hegemony described above not only forces foreign central banks to provide free loans to the US government, it creates a situation where all nations need have large supplies of US dollars to pay their external debts–mostly to the United States controlled International Monetary Fund. To get those dollars, they need to export to the United States. So, in effect, as Wall Street investment broker Henry C. K. Liu describes it, “the US makes dollars, and the rest of the world makes things to get dollars.”
This imperative to export has transformed even the most underdeveloped nations into net food exporters, compelled by market imperatives to produce food on a monocultural, industrial model. That model is characterized by four major structural changes: the use of large tracts of land instead of small plots; the use of fossil-fueled mechanization to harvest, process, and transport the products; the need for massive irrigation efforts; and the deracination of most rural people and their transfer to cities (the few who remain behind to labor for industrialized agriculture work for wages, another shift from the former system where they worked for a “share” of the product).
Not only does this increase the ecological and energy “footprint” of those newly urbanized populations–because urban living is more energy intensive than rural life–in a global economy that has suffered a net contraction beginning in the 70s, it has added a much larger aggregate unemployed population to the world, now unemployed in the waged sector without access to subsistence agriculture to guarantee basic survival. So here is another example of a hidden connection between energy and social disorder–social entropy, or social disorder materially related to thermodynamic entropy as energy use (I will not digress here into a long discussion, tempting as it is, of Prigogine’s thesis on dissipative structures).
“Prigogine’s concept of ‘dissipative structures’ (Prigogine & Stenger 1984; cf. also Adams 1982, 1988). Dissipative structures are systems which stay far from thermodynamic equilibrium by continually drawing in exergy (negative entropy) from the outside and exporting the entropy, or disorder, they produce in the process. Erwin Schrodinger (1967:79) suggested that ‘the device by which an organism maintains itself stationary at a fairly high level of orderliness (= fairly low level of entropy) really consists in continually sucking orderliness from its environment.’ This interpretation can be extended from biological to social systems (cf. Adams 1982, 1988). Societies also maintain their internal structure by drawing order from their environments. For hunter-gatherers this is generally a matter of exploiting other species in a fairly local, ecological context. For cities or world system centres, however, the maintenance of structure relies on exchange with other, peripheral social sectors more directly involved in the extraction of exergy from nature. This social dimension of exergy appropriation has proven very difficult to conceptualize in terms which can be integrated with the perspectives of thermodynamics. Bunker (1985:33) observes, for instance, that Adams (1982) has ‘not fully realized the sociological implications of his essentially physical formulation.'”
In other words, energy and order are drawn toward wealth and urban concentrations, and the corresponding waste and disorder are exported onto those with the least political power in social-geographical peripheries. This is what the environmental justice movement is about. And it has been this specific process of economic expansion that has led to massive population increase, not the other way around.
Returning to agriculture itself, which under growth-industrialism become more inherently energy-intensive, it also requires other material inputs to keep up with expanded production, most significantly land and water. With the expansion of all energy-intensive industry, the requirements for large quantities of water have increased, but with agriculture the increase has been phenomenal. Most of the world’s fresh water aquifers are being depleted far faster than they can recharge (with energy-intensive technologies facilitating the actual withdrawal of the water), concentrating the toxins in remaining aquifer and ground water supplies. Aquifers are not alone. Los Angeles now uses so much of the Colorado River that it often doesn’t trickle to the sea. Soils are being toxified by fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, as well as salinized and abandoned when they are rendered sterile. The need for more land has led to increasing deforestation. This is the exponential effect, the runaway train, of modern high-energy agriculture that is at the very center of the current world system. As fossil fuel production begins its permanent decline–with oil beginning almost immediately–there will be a crisis in food production that will hit the newly urbanized unemployed peripheries with a terrible impact, and the reaction will be a terrible social fury.
Worldwatch describes how:
“giant dams, massive irrigation systems, and widespread logging often bring few economic benefits, and instead cause environmental degradation, poverty, and suffering, as well as irreplaceable loss of biodiversity. Billions of dollars spent for flood control, plus the effects of land degradation, actually increased the severity and cost of flooding on the Columbia, Rhine, and Mississippi rivers. Pollution and diversion have driven freshwater fisheries into collapse worldwide, and the extinction of freshwater species far outpaces the extinction of mammals and birds. Wetlands worth billions of dollars to the public for fisheries, water purification, and groundwater renewal have been converted to less beneficial uses. Freshwater ecosystems are both disproportionately rich and disproportionately imperiled. Some 20% of 9,000 known freshwater fish species worldwide are already extinct or imperiled, with the toll much higher where human impact is heavy.”
“Land: On-going soil erosion and expanding urbanization contribute to the continuous loss of cropland in the U.S. Annually, more than two million acres of prime cropland are lost to erosion, salinization, and waterlogging. In addition, more than one million acres are removed from cultivation as America’s limited arable land is Overwhelmed by the demands of urbanization, transportation networks, and industry. As a result of arable land shortages, U.S. meat consumption may be reduced.
“Water: The groundwater that provides 31% of the water used in agriculture is being depleted up to 160% faster than its recharge rate. The vast U.S. Ogallala aquifer (under Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas) will likely become non-productive within the next 40 years. Even if water management is substantially improved, the projected 520 million Americans in 2050 would have about 700 gallons/day/capita, considered the minimum for all human needs, including agriculture.
“Energy: The availability of non-renewable fossil energy explains in part the historically high productivity of U.S. agriculture. Currently the 400 gallons of oil equivalents expended to feed each American amount to about 17% of all energy used in this country each year. Yet given current use levels, only 15 to 20 years of oil resources remain in the U.S. Although imports now account for 58% of oil used in the U.S., these international reserves are expected to be exhausted within the next 30 to 50 years.
-David Pimentel, Cornell University and Mario Giampietro, Istituto di Nazionale della Nutrizione, Rome
Ocean fisheries are now imperiled by the same drive for profit, fuelled by diminishing fossil resources. The giant factory trawlers that prowl the oceanic fisheries now drop giant bottom-scoops that pull in every species, including juvenile organisms and wreck the reefs that often define the habitat. Non-commercial species are killed and discarded. Interdependent species collapse alongside the fisheries with this slash-and-burn technique.
So the eventual and inevitable decline of the fossil energy economy will not leave behind the potentiality for a return to a more sustainable existence, “closer to nature,” but a wrecked and grotesquely toxified and simplified biosphere. We are currently undergoing the most dramatic period of extinctions since the dinosaurs.
“There is consensus in the scientific community that the current massive degradation of habitat and extinction of many of the Earth’s biota is unprecedented and is taking place on a catastrophically short timescale. Based on extinction rates estimated to be thousands of times the background rate, figures approaching 30% extermination of all species by the mid 21st century are not unrealistic an event comparable to some of the catastrophic mass extinction events of the past. The current rate of rainforest destruction poses a profound threat to species diversity. Likewise, the degradation of the marine ecosystems is directly evident through the denudation of species that were once dominant and integral to such ecosystems. Indeed, this colloquium is framed by a view that if the current global extinction event is of the magnitude that seems to be well indicated by the data at hand, then its effects will fundamentally reset the future evolution of the planet’s biota.”
-Michael J. Novacek and Elsa E. Cleland
This is the end result of a global economy that is driven by so-called “growth” and by the Cartesian fallacy that Man (always the guy, right) is somehow destined to subdue Nature. It is a dangerous chimera to believe that the motives at the heart of this system can lead us out of its dilemmas.
Hornborg describes the antithetical outlooks of growth-ecology (or green-capitalism) proponents (like JOHN KERRY) and anti-growth advocates as “cornucopian” and “zero-sum” respectively. The cornucopians insist that the world can “grow” its way into a sustainable future by adopting the proper forms of technology. The zero-summers insist that economic “growth” in one place is coming at a direct cost to the quality of life somewhere else.
The cornucopians argue that with intelligently designed development (growth), there is actually a better chance of protecting the environment. They show the very strong correlation between rich countries and the comparatively positive numbers on preservation of forests, etc. They have even come up with a formula comparing GNP with loss of natural resources. To explain what is clearly a negative correlation between these numbers, they point out that richer economies demonstrate a tendency to become more and more based on provision of services, and that with greater wealth, populations become interested in conservation.
But correlation is not causation, and this is a perfect example of it. Here is an example of Boulding’s caustic comment about economists. It assumes “that an economic activity and its environmental consequences coincide geographically.” They do not. Moreover, this fails to take into account issues like carbon emissions. If the cornucopian model is followed and development becomes uniform around the earth at the levels of the industrial metropoles, says Mathis Wackernagle, we shall need three more earths, because this one won’t support that level of atmospheric carbon. Of course, development can’t take that trajectory, because resources would run out in short order if it were even hypothetically attempted–which under existing geopolitical circumstances, it won’t. Growth, contrary to the magical implication of the cornucopians, does not cause ecological damage to dissolve. In fact, it is simply moved out of sight and out of reach of First World conservationists.
An example of the conceptual consequences of cornucopian myopia can be found in Lester Brown’s Eco-Economy, a bible for eco-capitalists. Published in 2001, Brown suggests that natural gas can be the step-one “transition fuel” to move toward the solar-hydrogen economy. In outlining this scheme, he cites the cutting edge company working on this transition from gas to wind to hydrogen: Enron… hmmm.
“Enron, a Texas-based natural gas company, is also keenly aware of the part it can play in the transition to the new energy economy. In recent years, it has purchased two wind companies, which gives it the capacity to exploit the vast wind resources of Texas.” Any questions? This is the essence of the Kerry Energy Plan, and I’ve got a bridge for sale.
Brown goes on (in typical eco-racist language) to decry rising birth rates in the “under-developed” world, and even connects fertility rates to women’s education and access to family planning services. He does not, however, connect these voids in education and social services to the immense external debts that are extorted from these nations by Europe, the United States, and Japan. Moreover, he fails to correlate the per-capita energy/materiel consumption ratios between these nations to show the connection of net outflow of material from these countries that is transformed into higher levels of social complexity in the Northern core states.
“The flows of energy and material from the former [global South] to the latter [northern core states] tend to reduce complexity and power in the hinterland while augmenting complexity and power in the core. Extractive economies generally cannot count a a cumulative development of infrastructure as can the productive economies in the core, because [fossil fueled] economic activities in the former are dispersed and shifting according to the location of the extracted materials. As the stocks of natural resources become increasingly difficult to extract as they are depleted, and intensification of extraction will tend also to increase costs [and energy inputs] per unit of extracted resources, instead of yielding the economies of scale associated with intensification in the industrial core… The luminous agglomerations of industrial infrastructure in the satellite photos are the result of uneven flows of energy and matter, and these processes of concentration are self-reinforcing because the increasing advantageous economies of scale in the center progressively improve its terms of trade and thus its capacity to appropriate the resources of the hinterland. Extractive economies are thus pressed to overexploit nature, while those parts of the landscape in industrial nations that have not been urbanized can instead be liberated from the imperative to yield a profit and rather become the object of conservation programs.”
In a very real sense, the current global growth economy is one where nations that have the economic and military power are able to pull “order” into themselves using the resources of weaker countries, and to export their entropy (thermodynamic and social) back to those countries. The world is finite, and the zero-sum school is right. And those in power, including John Kerry, know it.
“In late 1991, Lawrence Summers, the chief economist for the World Bank, delivered a confidential memo to a World Bank colleague. He asked: ‘Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [less developed countries]?’ Pointing to the cheaper economic valuation of human life, calculated by the lower wages of third-world workers, he boldly proposed, ‘I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.'”
This is the World Bank to which John Kerry has given his unconditional support.
It is physically impossible to “develop” the whole world in a manner similar to Europe and America. Moreover, those “advanced” societies are not sustainable in their present form for more than two decades. I have already shown how hypothetically bringing the whole world to the same level of consumption of food–at its energetic value, not monetary– would require an increase of energy inputs eight times the current global average. If 6 billion people used petroleum at the Euro-American-Japanese per capita rate, it would require production of 120 billion barrels a year. Right now, production is around 29 billion barrels. Not only would the oil, coal, and natural gas run out in fairly short order, so would copper, iron, etc. And a simple extrapolation of US greenhouse gas emissions tells a terrifying story, with the US alone creating 25% of world emissions by only 5% of the population.
“The laws of thermodynamics provide an immutable framework to all life on closed planetary systems such as ours. No advances in the science of energetics and no improvements in capital efficiency or in the productivity of labour, under any social system whatever, can prevent anthropogenic climate change as a result of human-made greenhouse gas emission. No substitute technologies such as nuclear, hydrogen or any other, can overcome the problem of planetary warming; even supposedly non-greenhouse technologies like nuclear power, if implemented on a wide enough scale to provide 9 billion humans with today’s US per capita energy consumption, would result in such significant ambient warming and the release of water vapour (a powerful greenhouse gas by itself) as to produce the same risks of rising oceans, climatic change and even runaway, ecosphere-destroying warming. Any responsible scientist is bound to concede that no amount of technical improvement, progress etc, can overcome the iron limitations imposed on us by unalterable constraints determined by the limited size of the planet and the laws of thermodynamics. Therefore it is clear that current US living standards are achieved at the peril of the ecosphere and of all life on earth, and by the theft of life-opportunities from billions of fellow-humans living today in the Global South–and also by the theft of life and opportunity from all future generations, including America’s.”
Ya think John Kerry would say that?
The current energy regime depends overwhelmingly on fossil hydrocarbons. Jones’ point that these sources of energy cannot be replaced on a calorie by calorie basis with alternative energy sources is absolutely correct. These ‘alternatives’ are not even close.
The Party’s Over
Many proponents of alternative energy center their discourse on achieving “sustainability.” To be sustainable, an energy source would have to be perpetual by its very nature (wind, solar, wave), replaceable through re-concentration (biomass), or rely on some nearly inexhaustible resource (theoretically hydrogen or fusion, but I will show later that these are chimera). Proponents often present empirical data–how many kilocalories a day of solar energy hit the earth, etc.–or simply present alternatives that can transform energy into useful energy, with no reference to ultimate capacity, density, portability, stability, safety, ease of extraction, etc.
Before reviewing so-called alternatives, it is important to review some energy basics (Thanks to Don Lancaster’s excellent “Some Energy Fundamentals”).
In physics, force is something that pushes against resistance. If resistance is overcome to any degree, that is, if something is moved, that is work.
Work, in the physics sense, is measured by an arbitrary but consistent standard. For example, if a force can lift a one pound weight one foot straight up (directly away from the center of the earth actually), we refer to the quantity of that force as one foot-pound. Physical work, on the other hand is a reference to something that is affected. In this case, the one pound weight. The work is performed on the weight. The force that holds a spring closed is a force, not work. Work has to move something.
Energy, on the other hand, is the capacity to do work. It can be latent (available, but not currently moving anything) or actual (moving something now). My fingers can access the energy to strike these keys. When I am thinking and not typing, that energy is latent. When I type, the energy is actual.
Energy comes in forms: thermal, chemical, electrical, etc. Those forms come packed in different sources: heat from sunlight, heat from wood, heat from coal, heat from animal metabolism.
Power is a combination of intensity and time. Power is the quantity of energy delivered for work over a specific time.
Different energy sources are measured in different ways. British Thermal Units (BTU) measure heat. One BTU equals the heat energy required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. One volt of electricity successfully overcoming one Ohm of resistance is a current of one Ampere. The heat generated and lost to the environment by that resistance is one Watt. The power of one Watt (quantity) for one second (time) is called a joule. The power of a Watt over one hour is… one Watt-hour.
An energy source contains energy. An energy carrier only moves it. A battery is an energy carrier. Hydrogen is an energy carrier. All energy carriers, with no exceptions in the physical universe, are energy sinks. Batteries are convenient for certain uses, but they are not cheap when you look at the power delivered. People with photovolactic-powered calculators are paying around $500 a kilowatt-hour for the power in them. Fortunately, they require very little power.
An energy sink is any process that uses up more “past” energy than it returns as “present and future” energy.
Energy density refers to how much energy is stored in how much volume or weight. These are not the same, and they are important. Volumetric energy density is how many watt-hours per liter, for example. Gravimetric energy density is how many watt-hours per kilogram. Gasoline has a volumetric value of 9,000 watt-hours per liter. 150 Bar gaseous hydrogen, on the other hand, contains 405 watt-hours per liter. A 15-gallon gas tank would have to be replaced by a 334-gallon gas tank to carry around the same energy. It matters, John.
Portability is another issue related to energy. Gasoline is relatively simple to contain and transport. Natural gas is far more difficult.
Taking all these factors into account, we can now look at energy reality.
The simple fact is that the world system as it is now constituted, in every facet, including technological development and population, has been fueled predominantly by fossil hydrocarbons, exclusively and irreplaceably in many sectors by oil. Any analysis that fails to confront this fact squarely is neglecting physics, specifically the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The reason this physical law– related to energy–is so important is that it is a law that cannot be broken. We cannot “make” energy, and when we use it up in work, it is gone for all practical purposes.
Second Law of Thermodynamics–This law states that heat can never pass spontaneously from a colder to a hotter body. As a result of this fact, natural processes that involve energy transfer must have one direction, and all natural processes are irreversible. This law also predicts that the entropy of an isolated system always increases with time.
The central question regarding “alternative” energy is whether and how it can replace fossil fuel–and I will concentrate here on two sectors, transportation and electricity, beginning with oil. The first premise we have to face is that neither wood, hydropower, solar, wind, wave, tides, fission, geothermal, batteries, nor gas hydrates are interchangeable with oil. These can produce electricity, but electric batteries that store it cannot replace oil.
Walter Youngquist, in “Alternative Energy Sources–Myths and Realities” (Electronic Green Journal, December, 1998) explains:
“How to use electricity to efficiently replace oil (gasoline, diesel, kerosene) in the more than 700 million vehicles worldwide has not yet been satisfactorily solved. There are severe limitations of the storage batteries involved. For example, a gallon of gasoline weighing about 8 pounds has the same energy as one ton of conventional lead-acid storage batteries. Fifteen gallons of gasoline in a car’s tank are the energy equal of 15 tons of storage batteries. Even if much improved storage batteries were devised, they cannot compete with gasoline or diesel fuel in energy density. Also, storage batteries become almost useless in very cold weather, storage capacity is limited, and batteries need to be replaced after a few years use at large cost. There is no battery pack which can effectively move heavy farm machinery over miles of farm fields, and no electric battery system seems even remotely able to propel a Boeing 747 14 hours nonstop at 600 miles an hour from New York to Cape Town (now the longest scheduled plane flight). Also, the considerable additional weight to any vehicle using batteries is a severe handicap in itself. In transport machines, electricity is not a good replacement for oil (Jensen and Sorensen, 1984). This is a limitation in the use of alternative sources have where electricity is the end product.”
Batteries are also energy carriers, and therefore energy sinks. More energy is put into their production than what is retrieved for work in their use. This is not a technological deficiency, though some batteries are less inefficient than others, though far more expensive. This is a reality inscribed by physical law. Batteries cannot replace gasoline for vehicles. Not now. Not ever. To think otherwise is not merely technological optimism; it is technological blind faith–the belief that somewhere, somehow, technology can solve any problem. This is quite simply not true, and sometimes the opposite of true.
This points us to the question of interchangeability. All BTUs are not equal, because of form. We not only will never use batteries to fly airplanes or run eighteen wheelers, we will never use coal, wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, or wave power to run these vehicles. Volumetric, gravimetric, and portability considerations remain paramount for specific energy applications. There are a handful of highly-expensive, science-project electrical cars, but in the world there are more than 600 million automobiles (75% of them are private cars). That number is rising precipitously (30% in ten years if trendlines hold). They consume approximately half of the world’s gasoline. They continue to be produced along with replacement parts, and will continue to be produced–barring some massive social cataclysm or transformation–until the petroleum is no longer economically available.
The petroleum is in fact about to go into an irreversible decline in production. C. J. Campbell and Jean H. Laherrere, petroleum geologists working for Petroconsultants in Geneva, wrote in 1999 that world oil production would peak approximately this year (2004) then go into permanent decline. Youngquist and Duncan of the Petroleum Engineering Program at UCLA predicted 2006. That was net oil. World per capita production peaked in 1978.
If, points out Dr. H. E. Puthoff of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Austin, “it appeared that the development of alternative energy [were economically feasible, it] would be welcomed for the simple reason that if the burden of major energy use were to be removed from the oil industry, then their rapidly dwindling resource could be conserved for a longer period of time, and they could concentrate on the development of pharmaceuticals, plastics, synthetic fibers, etc., for which the profit margins are significantly greater.” Puthoff goes on to explain that “what remains to be proven [with regard to alternative energy sources] is whether the fundamental processes involved can be brought from proof-of-principle to engineering maturity so as to constitute market-viable energy resources.” For 600 million automobiles aimed at becoming 800 million automobiles, there is no alternative to diminishing fossil fuel. That is precisely why energy companies have not invested in the research and development of these alternatives.
Ethanol is touted by some who fail to understand two things. Industrially grown corn is its basis, and it is severely destructive of soil and water. Even more importantly, perhaps, ethanol is an energy sink. Ethanol requires more energy inputs than what we get back from it. It is, in fact, a vote-buying scheme that subsidizes agri-business for growing corn that neither the environment nor the economy needs. According to Pimentel, ethanol takes 71% more calories to make than it produces. This is disputed by alternative energy buffs who claim that sugar beets can yield an energy positive in the production of alcohol, but even though this may be theoretically true, it fails to account for the ecological downsides of intensive industrial agriculture on the scale necessary to replace oil, which would be, again, massive soil salinization and depletion, and additional strain on depleting aquifers.
For producing electricity, the alternatives most often considered are nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, waves, and hydrogen.
Nuclear not only creates extremely dangerous material that will remain dangerous longer than any civilization yet recorded, it is not greenhouse gas free, as advertised. Nuclear fuel is made with uranium, an ore that has to be mined, milled, refined, and shipped, each step requiring energy inputs, and the rarer any extracted material becomes, the more energy intensive the extraction process becomes along with it. Studies conducted in Europe showed that nuclear electricity has a greenhouse “footprint” similar to combined-fuel generators, and as uranium become rarer, that footprint will become deeper.
“Uranium, the fuel base of nuclear power, must be mined, milled, converted, enriched, packaged, sent to reactors and split to produce the heat and steam that generate electricity. The uranium enrichment process in particular, in which the radioactive material is made more radioactive, generates greenhouse gases galore. “It requires a tremendous amount of electricity,” explains Elizabeth Stuckle, a spokeswoman at the US Enrichment Corporation, the company in charge of altering the uranium for the reactors. To get that electricity, she says, ‘we are having to rely on fossil fuels.'”
– Mark Francis Cohen, Nuking the Atmosphere
Even the libertarian-capitalist Cato Institute notes that nuclear energy is also heavily subsidized and could not survive in a free market (neither could any of the other commercial energies! The free market is now and always has been a pernicious ahistorical myth.). Nuclear is not safe, it is not clean, and it is not cheap. It is the most expensive energy on the grid, except to the subsidized corporations who sell it. And a spent fuel fire or a reactor meltdown could have unbelievably catastrophic consequences. To power the whole world with nuclear electricity would require more than 500 reactors that would age and deteriorate in ultimately unpredictable social, economic, and political circumstances.
At this juncture, partly for thermodynamic reasons and partly for economic ones, solar (photovoltaic) panels–on aggregate, over time, worldwide–have not produced a single watt-hour of electricity. For the time being, photovoltaics are a net energy sink. Photovoltaics can be improved, and theoretically they can be developed and used in a manner that gains energy, but this will require many more years and millions of dollars in research and development to begin gaining energy from photovoltaics. Right now, there is more energy expended in aggregate production of the panels than those panels ever produce. Moreover, their power delivery is extremely limited and they cannot complete with conventional electricity. And while photovoltaics may be made more efficient over time, they still have one other material constraint, and that is the increasing scarcity of silicon. Finally, geography and climate constrain the universality of a solar solution. Sixty square miles of solid solar cells would theoretically be required to power Oregon. If it rains, everyone suddenly has cold showers as their food rots.
Similar problems are obviously associated with wind, waves, waterfalls, and geothermal. They are all geographically fixed and cannot produce more than a small fraction of the energy currently in use and inextricably bound up with the economic viability of the existing socio-political system.
That brings us to hydrogen.
The caustic Don Lancaster says, “It is reasonable to expect that hydrogen is probably going to play a big role in future transportation and energy developments. Hydrogen can make a great student paper or a nice research topic. And eventually might lead to a technical buck or two… At the same time, there is sure a lot of hogwash and misinformation out there. Especially on the web. So, the more you know about real hydrogen resources, the more intelligently you can dismiss all the rest of them.”
Hydrogen is not really a fuel, but an energy carrier and therefore an energy sink. Most commercial hydrogen is produced by reforming methane, not through electrolysis, as many hydrogen-acolytes want to do for the “hydrogen car.” The process of either reforming methane or producing hydrogen through electrolysis is both expensive and energy-intensive. In fact, pre-existing energy is required… more energy than can then be produced by the combustion of the hydrogen. Lancaster compares it to trading a US dollar for one Mexican peso. That is actually about right.
Hydrogen cannot be produced by any means on earth that “does not consume more energy than it delivers.” And while the immensely expensive and energy inefficient hydrogen has around 39,000 watt-hours of (carried) energy per kilogram, compared to gasoline’s 13,000, the hydrogen can only deliver 3.5 watts per hour per liter. Hydrogen, if inefficiently burned, actually produces nitrogen oxides. It also embrittles metals and diffuses through all non-metals.
The fact of the matter is, contrary to all the utopian fantasies that are being propagated by charlatans and consumed by people who don’t understand the science, there is not now nor will there ever be a “hydrogen economy.” It is the modern equivalent of alchemy. The Bush administration is pushing this right now, with the hidden agenda of producing it, using hydrolysis… with nuclear electricity; a rather backhanded way to push their agenda on behalf of their nuclear utility clients.
The unpalatable truth, which must be faced squarely if we are to be the least bit serious about energy, is that (1) there is no alternative to fossil fuel, and (2) it will take many years more dependency on fossil fuel to effectively transform our energy paradigm into anything that approaches sustainable. Youngquist and others estimate that full exploitation of all alternatives, even after extensive research and development to which there has been no meaningful political commitment, could not replace more than 30% of fossil fuels, and that is a net figure that does not take into account diversity of use, geographic constraints, or the fossil inputs that will be required to retool and restructure the whole world for an new energy regime.
This is about as pleasant to say and hear as, “That leg is gangrenous, and if we don’t cut it off, you will die.” It is also just as true and important.
Even so-called alternatives would require substantial fossil fuel inputs–not to mention a political will not yet on the horizon–to develop.
We are stuck with hydrocarbons, and they will be running out sooner than later. Our option is to stay with the train as it plunges off the cliff, or throw off the engineer and begin to apply the brakes until we can get off. This exceedingly bad news does not win huge numbers of devotees, it doesn’t make for a great grant proposal, and it doesn’t sell anyone’s political newsletters. No one wants to hear that the party is almost over. Least of all John fucking Kerry while he is stumping to become the next CEO of USA, Inc.
Our system is a world system, and there is no way to realistically assess energy issues in any other context. Since we are examining energy use worldwide, we have to pay particular attention to the most populous nation on the planet, China.
As this is written, China has been for several years now the fastest growing economy in the world. This is not solely a function of population. China is developing its industrial base, to include its research and development capacity at an unprecedented rate. Its domestic oil production peaked in the mid-1990s and is now in permanent decline, even as energy needs increase with its phenomenal growth. In 1995, China’s energy consumption was 16,662 barrels of oil equivalent (BOE) per day. By 2005, it is projected to be 32,776, and by 2015, on that same trendline, it will be 64,475. This is just one example of the emerging conflict over finite global energy supplies.
It is in the examination of the global conjuncture that we have to more fully amalgamate the question of energy with that of geopolitics, because it is here where we can see how energy as a long-term secular trend figures into a massively destabilized world system that has been left since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The USSR was a “developmental state,” just as present-day India and China are. That is, the single central priority of the state (aside from self-defense) was economic development. But the USSR was distinct from China and India inasmuch as it had an overwhelmingly determinative role in the global system, while China and India today are merely articulated within a system in which the United States plays the singular and determinative role. In many respects, the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United States defined the 20th Century. Many historians speculate that had it not been for the USSR, there would have been three, four, or more world wars between the industrialized capitalist metropoles, but the US-USSR standoff, renegotiated during WWII for reasons this article will not dwell on, created a bipolar world that served as the impetus for the development of “free-world multilateralism.”
When that system collapsed with the USSR in 1991, the raison d’etre of multilateralism collapsed with it, and the suddenness of that shift–the equivalent of a Richter-8 geopolitical earthquake–caught the whole world unawares, including the former adversaries of the Soviet Union, like the United States.
The factor of the Soviet Union in the international equation had given credence to an illusion of autarkic national-industrial development that impacted even on the thought processes of US-aligned states like Japan and Germany. I will leave the detailing of this immense post-Soviet disequilibrium to historians and political scientists. Suffice it to say the repositioning scramble was on.
The unchallenged financial and military dominance of the world system dropped into the lap of the United States, just as it was becoming clear even to the most obtuse among the powerful that the earth’s very resource base was drying up. They know that there is grave danger to both the bioshpere and the world energy system, and that “growth” uses up these resources. In response, using the International Monetary Fund combined with selective applications of military power, crisis-stricken economies in the global South have been plunged into deeper and deeper misery. They cannot be permitted continue on the path of growth, because, as Hornborg shows, it is a zero-sum game.
Review any of the documents produced by the think tanks from whence the current administration has drawn most of its cabinet, and they are extremely frank and explicit about their goals. The conquest and control of Southwest Asia is their absolute highest priority, and has been for almost a decade, precisely because over 50% of the world remaining easily extractible oil is there. When John Kerry says he supported the war, even though he had the admission dragged out of him by Republican ridicule, he is telling the truth. John Kerry is not trying to abandon imperialism, he is being sent by George Soros and Warren Buffett to save it.
Aggregate world oil production is peaking now. Gulf States production, with Saudi Arabia being the greatest producer, will peak around 8-10 years later, around 2010-2012 (though recent news suggest it may actually be peaking NOW). Which if you do the math, it means that everyone except the Gulf States is already peaked or in decline. Best predictions for the end of recoverable oil are between 50 and 100 years, with the most neutral folk predicting 2070 or so. (Industry paid liars make idiotic claims about hundreds of years, for which my mama would slap the shit out of them.) But as it runs out, which according to Hubbert Curve analysis begins almost immediately, there are a series of crises that will occur. This makes it more than a resource, and the drive to control what’s left is more than an economic competition. When we run out of a commodity like shirts, we can make more shirts. Oil is not a mere commodity. When you run out of oil, you’re out. You’ve got to die and come back in 2 billion years to get it back. This is the diminishing lifeblood of the global economy. That is why there is an attempt afoot to resolve this situation in favor of US economic interests by military means.
Military action against many groups across the globe, which is what the administration was telling us quite openly they were planning to do before Iraq turned into a military tar baby, has put a lot of backs against the wall.
Terror attacks are already multiplying in the region, and regimes that are perceived to be in the US camp are facing the not totally unjustified perception that they are Quislings of the US. As standards of living in those nations fall, given the passing of Arab nationalism, the Islamist appeal to large masses of people has increased.
The war in Iraq is first and foremost an energy war, which could evolve into a new kind of world war, a war where non-state actors redefine armed conflict in dramatically new ways. In fact, it is likely that this is happening right now.
World oil consumption right now is around 77 million barrels a day. By 2010, that is expected to increase to 100 million barrels a day. This oil is produced by two major groups, let’s say, for the purpose of analysis. OPEC and non-OPEC (NOPEC). OPEC is largely concentrated in the Gulf region. NOPEC is the North Atlantic, North America, Mexico, China, Nigeria, and so forth. That doesn’t tell the whole story, though. Gulf States’ oil does not peak in production until 2010, and half the world’s remaining accessible oil is there. World production is peaking right now, but world production is an average. NOPEC peaked several years ago, now being in permanent decline. So, OPEC is getting stronger, and NOPEC is getting weaker. Saudi Arabia–an OPEC nation–is the biggest pool, with Iraq second. The US has for years been trying to ensure domination of OPEC, and they have accomplished that to some degree, by ensuring the corrupt Saudis and others invest heavily in US financial instruments. Given that OPEC production is still rising, and NOPEC is in a permanent free fall, OPEC is inevitably regaining dominance over the overall oil market. Iraq is the best potential swing producer outside of Saudi Arabia, and therefore the best potential stalking horse within a newly reconfigured OPEC. Now the US is beginning the process of psychological preparation of the US citizenry for some kind of action against Iran!
Since world oil production begins to decline on average almost immediately, the US as the biggest end user needs to figure out how to compensate for the losses being sustained in NOPEC production. Their solution, now in its first stage with the occupation of Iraq, is to gain political control over the region. But the most optimistic scenarios are that all regional producers combined, with massive investment (over $1.5 trillion, a number that is daily rising with Iraqi armed resistance) in new infrastructure, might put out an additional 15 million barrels a day. Given that our extrapolated appetite will go up 25 million barrels a day within nine years, the US remains in a dilemma.
Lat week, with oil prices threatening Greenspan with a “soft patch,” the heat was turned upon OPEC to raise production. Implicit in this demand is that Saudi Arabia open the faucet. The president of OPEC came back with a sheepish admission… they can’t. They are pumping full-bore right now.
In fact, the US has been trying to structure this post-WWII space for quite some time, and the bare fact is, it’s an over-reach. It can’t do it, and it can’t NOT try. The only option now, from the point of view of the Bush administration, is to wage the “infinite war,” a war of extermination against 100 million Islamic people in the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa. John Kerry fully intends to continue on the same course, while he pisses on our collective leg with “green-capitalism” and “energy independence.”
“It is a war fought not to grab a huge new untapped and undefended asset, but a declining one. The soon-to-be-decaying oil fields of the Middle East embedded in a sullen ocean of mass anger are no great prize upon which to build the next wave of capitalist accumulation.”
The people who are now in possession of half the world’s remaining oil reserves are being unpredictably destabilized, and the US loss of access to critical energy supplies is now at least within the realm of possibility. Pakistan has been destabilized even as it continues to be in a nuclear standoff with its neighbor, India. Russia grows more hostile to US foreign policy by the day. Turkey is under attack from the US-allied Kurds. The fake Iraqi government is fracturing as this is written during the second general Shia uprising. Ex-CIA asset Osama bin Laden is closer to his goal of overthrowing the House of Saud than he has ever been. And Anti-American sentiment around the world is the strongest in living memory.
Between 1945 and 1990, the US intervened militarily on 52 occasions. Between 1990 and 2000, it intervened 60 times. As we progressed through that decade, the US has begun to more and more organize these adventures without UN approval or oversight. Our government has refused to ratify the land mine convention, and is now abrogated the Test Ban Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Accord. This drive to achieve independence of military action has now culminated with the grant of the broadest and most ill-defined war powers of any president in history to George W. Bush, with which he has managed to establish a situation that is, paradoxically, degrading the very institution upon which he most desperately depends to see his agenda through: the military.
How does John Kerry propose to change this when he is in office? He doesn’t. He’s going to create 100,000 more defense industry jobs, raise the troop levels in Southwest Asia, and probably re-institute the draft. But he supports green-capitalism, so he’s better than Bush… right? His delusion will take three years longer to finish fucking up the biosphere than the Bush delusion, but it will give the people four more years of false hope and denial and further forestall what really needs to be done.
If we want to know what the energy crisis looks like, look around. This is it.
If we want to know the logically simple but socially very difficult solution, it is conservation. Conservation is not conservative, but something that can only be accomplished through a revolutionary change in society. Whether we can accomplish the social transformation necessary is one issue, but the fact is that an energy soft-landing will require us to dramatically conserve dwindling fossil fuel stocks, by as much as 75%, and begin to think seriously about how to de-link from the growth economy… forever.
John, you Swiftboat daredevil, you….you listening?
STAN GOFF is the author of “Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti” (Soft Skull Press, 2000) and of the upcoming book “Full Spectrum Disorder” (Soft Skull Press, 2003). He is a member of the BRING THEM HOME NOW! coordinating committee, a retired Special Forces master sergeant, and the father of an active duty soldier. Email for BRING THEM HOME NOW! is email@example.com.
Goff can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org