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The green deal is hopium

Image: Bence Damokos

The immediate urgency of Brexit has helped the UK avoid much of the “green new dealism” that is currently exercising our cousins on the other side of the Atlantic.  Along with school students around the world, ours are taking time out from classes to protest the imminent arrival of an environmental collapse that we were warned about half a century ago.  But few of our political leaders are taking their protests seriously; and none of the few who do can offer any serious solution.

In the USA, meanwhile, what purports to be a debate about the environment has been largely co-opted on both sides of the growing political divide into a debate about the economics of public spending.  The Democrat Party version of the green new deal is little more than a debt-based job-creation and public healthcare scheme with some windmills and solar panels providing a veneer of greenwash.  The Republican Party – or at least the minority who don’t think climate change is a hoax – in contrast, seek to cut public spending and green energy subsidies in favour of carbon taxes and free market pseudo-solutions.  Neither side inspires much confidence in addressing the full scope of the human impact crisis that is breaking over us.  As Julia Adeney Thomas explains*:

“The phrase ‘Earth System’ refers to the entirety of our planet’s interacting physical, chemical, biological, and human processes. Enabled by new data-collecting technologies like satellites and ever more powerful computer modeling, Earth System science reframes how we understand our planet. Climate is just one element of this system; if we focus on that alone, we will misunderstand the complexity of the danger. The term ‘environment’ helps us understand ourselves as part of ecosystems, but fails to capture the newness of our current situation. We have always lived in the environment; only very recently, just as Asia began its skyrocketing development, did we begin living in the altered Earth System of the Anthropocene…

“Reducing our problem to climate change, then to CO2, and finally to measuring emissions only at the point of energy production is a dramatic misrepresentation of our dilemma. An Anthropocene perspective is needed to keep the totality of the predicament in view.

“Slowing climate change is crucial but navigating its challenges is only possible if it is understood as one facet of planetary overshoot. The challenges of our altered, unpredictable Earth System cannot be met by technological tinkering within the very systems that pushed it over the edge in the first place. There’s nothing for it but to roll up our sleeves and begin the hard work of transforming our political and economic systems with the aims of decency and resilience.”

A large part of green new dealism is a product of affluent privilege within the developed economies of Europe and North America; and it is no accident that those most attached to it come from what remains of the affluent middle class within those states.  Their part of the global economy has been set up, through centuries of imperialism, to obscure the violence and destruction at the heart of our way of life.  The sanitised meat aisle of the local Waitrose allows affluent shoppers the luxury of not thinking about the horrors of industrial meat processing.  Clothing aisles offer few clues about the impoverished third world labour that keeps prices affordable.  The electronics aisle provides no reference to the Congolese children whose health is destroyed by hand mining the cobalt that is an essential component of the batteries that make the technology possible.  We, in the developed states, enjoy (relatively) clean air and water because we long ago offshored our pollution to the developing regions of the planet.

When we think about an energy revolution, we think only about swapping out the electricity that is currently generated using fossil carbon fuels.  Even then, we treat the alternatives as if they are conjured into existence with no impact on the planet when, in fact, they are the product of fossil fuels – they are not “renewables” in the sense of something that can be infinitely renewed; merely non-renewable technologies that happen to harvest renewable (for all practical purposes) flows of energy.  This, for example, is the waste and pollution generated from the manufacture of the non-recyclable rare earth metals that make so called “green energy” possible… “Out of sight out of mind,” as the old saying goes.

The UK is a world-leader in renewable energy farming (not surprising given its location in the path of the Gulf Stream) with a third of its electricity coming from wind and solar.  But even here, and despite a big fall  in car ownership, electricity makes up just a fifth of the energy we consume; the remainder coming from fossil carbon fuels that power our agriculture, industry and transport systems and that provide domestic households with energy to heat their homes and cook their food.

As is the case with oil producing states around the world, Britain’s apparent green energy revolution is actually about electrifying as much of the domestic economy as possible in order to maximise the amount of oil and gas available for export – an amount, by the way, that has fallen more than 60 percent since peak production in 1999.  Herein is a clue to another – often unacknowledged – dimension of the human impact crisis: resource depletion.  Although the developed states began burning coal back in the eighteenth century, oil – our main fossil carbon fuel today – only arrived in the 1860s.  Even then, it was only in the post war economic boom (1953-73) that oil production rose exponentially toward modern levels.  Indeed, more than half of the fossil carbon fuels that humans have ever produced were consumed in the three decades after the United Nations began to take climate change seriously… and there is absolutely no chance of global consumption even standing still for the foreseeable future.  As Andrew Freedman at Climate Central reported back in 2013:

“Of the renewable energy sources, the [IEA] report projects that wind and hydropower will see the fastest growth, with wind dominating in developed nations, and hydropower projects more limited to developing countries. By 2040, the report projects, renewables’ share of world energy use will be 15 percent, up from 11 percent in 2010.

“Importantly, though, the report projects that, despite robust growth in renewables, fossil fuels will continue to supply nearly 80 percent of world energy use through 2040.”

Even this is likely to be optimistic, since most of the best hydroelectric power locations have already been developed.  Moreover, by “renewables” Freedman is largely talking about wood burning – something that has a higher pollution footprint than coal, and would – if scaled up – require massive deforestation or the use of large swathes of current agricultural land being turned over to growing trees.  The technologies that we might refer to as “modern renewables” – upon which the green deal is supposed to be based – have barely scratched the surface of global energy demand.  As energy expert Kurt Cobb has pointed out:

“I recently asked a group gathered to hear me speak what percentage of the world’s energy is provided by these six renewable sources: solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, and ocean energy.

“Then came the guesses: To my left, 25 percent; straight ahead, 30 percent; on my right, 20 percent and 15 percent; a pessimist sitting to the far right, 7 percent.

“The group was astonished when I related the actual figure: 1.5 percent. The figure comes from the Paris-based International Energy Agency, a consortium of 30 countries that monitors energy developments worldwide. The audience that evening had been under the gravely mistaken impression that human society was much further along in its transition to renewable energy. Even the pessimist in the audience was off by more than a factor of four.”

It is, of course, precisely this sluggish take up of modern renewable energy harvesting technologies that the various forms of green deal are supposed to address.  Some appeal to landing humans on the moon, the Manhattan Project or mobilising the economy to fight World War Two are enlisted as examples of what we humans can achieve if only we put our minds to it.  This, however, is simply naïve.  As Mark P. Mills recently pointed out in evidence presented to the US Congress:

“This popular rhetorical analogy is in fact another profound category error. Transforming the energy economy is not like putting a dozen people on the moon a handful of times. It is like putting all of humanity on the moon —permanently. To do the latter would require science and engineering that doesn’t exist today…

“To be blunt: there is simply no possibility that more government funding for wind turbines, silicon solar cells or lithium batteries will lead to a ‘disruptive’ 10-fold gain. All those technologies are approaching physics limits, just as aviation engines have.”

As with any other oil-based technology, wind turbines and solar panels are subject to diminishing returns which leave green deals dead in the water.  But resource depletion is an even greater problem simply because humanity consumed all of the cheap and easy fossil carbon and mineral resources in the two-decade long blowout of the post-war boom.  Our problem is not just that we cannot improve the technologies we currently have, but also that we no longer have access to the resources to re-fight World War Two or to purposelessly launch humans anywhere beyond a low earth orbit.  As Tad Patzek explains:

“To compare the WWII industrial effort with the global dislocation necessary to ameliorate some of the effects of climate change is surprisingly naïve… This comparison also neglects to account for the human population that has almost quadrupled between the 1940s and now, and the resource consumption that has increased almost 10-fold.  The world today cannot grow its industrial production the way we did during WWII.  There is simply not enough of the planet Earth left to be devoured.”

As the energy and resources available to us become increasingly expensive (in energy terms) our scope to use them to maintain the wider economy – which includes the life support systems (like food and clean water supplies) that we take for granted – diminishes.  This can be offset with efficiency/productivity gains – essentially using technology to maximise the amount of useful work we get from energy – but not to anything like the extent required to maintain our fossil fuel economy without burning even more fossil fuels.  As Mills explained to Congress:

“We know from history that revolutionary discoveries happen. We also know they come from basic research that unveils entirely new phenomenologies and not from deploying R&D funds to improve or subsidize yesterday’s technologies. The Internet didn’t emerge from improving the rotary phone, nor the transistor from subsidizing vacuum tubes, nor the automobile from subsidizing railroads. An energy revolution requires we focus on basic science.”

The vain hope that by shovelling vast amounts of fiat currency at lithium ion batteries we will somehow transcend the laws of physics is a siren song that takes us even further away from even mitigating the crisis before us.  Indeed, the ability of states and banks to continue to create fiat currency out of thin air is itself only possible because of the illusion that there will be sufficient additional energy and mineral resources available in future to repay the debt we are running up today.  When that illusion is shattered – as it very nearly was a decade ago – the resulting stagflation will put paid to any chance of deploying a fraction of the windmills and solar panels required even to maintain the standard of living currently endured by a growing precariat in the developed states.

The biggest failing of all within the new green deal movement is that it requires a faith in government that is entirely misplaced.  When our school students call upon government to “do something” to address climate change (itself a mere subset of the growing collapse) they must engage a high degree of denial to overlook the fact that the government they are calling upon is made up of rank incompetents epitomised by the current UK Transport Secretary together with a sprinkling of full-blown psychopaths who will happily destroy the planet provided that they are offered enough of a bribe by the corporate lobbyists.

The truth, though, is that the grown-ups that our school students are hoping will save the world with some kind of green deal are little more than frightened children who have been around long enough to learn to put on a brave face.  Even the cleverest of the adults struggles to understand the full complexity of our predicament.  And among those who do understand, the majority long ago decided to lie about the severity of the crisis so as not to discourage potential supporters.  Green parties and environmental charities continue to promote a bright green vision of perpetual economic growth on a finite and largely depleted planet.  But behind closed doors they continue to argue about the relative merits of letting the public know the full horror which is already breaking upon us.

To express our predicament as simply as I can, it is this:

  • In order to prevent environmental collapse bringing about the death of more than six in every seven humans on the planet, we (all of us) simply have to stop using fossil carbon fuels today.
  • But if we stop using the fossil carbon fuels that currently provide the world with 85 percent of its power, our highly complex and interconnected oil-dependent economy will crash; resulting in a global famine that will kill more than six in every seven humans on the planet anyway.

There are two courses of action available to us; and neither of them is anything like a green deal.  The first is the one that Mills offered to the US Congress:

“Fundamentally, APRA-E [Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy] should have a clear focus on basic science and resist its drift towards the near-term, and projects that duplicate other agencies or the private sector. While it is often tempting and perhaps more politically comfortable to fund projects with obvious utility, that fails the ‘transformational’ science challenge set out for ARPA-E. And it won’t bring about a revolution.”

This is the most difficult path to follow since it admits not only that we currently have no clue as to how to maintain energy growth without using fossil carbon fuels; but that also, most of us can do nothing but sit back and hope that the “experts” come up with some transformational (i.e. yet-to-be-invented) technology to save the day.  The second course of action available to us is, however, even less palatable to most people since it involves letting go of most of the things that we currently take for granted.

If we leave matters to Mother Nature – assuming no energy breakthrough arrives to save the day – then the collapse of the environment just as our critical infrastructure fails is going to result in a massive cull of the human population via some combination of war, plague and starvation.  We might mitigate this, however, by embarking upon a managed de-growth that begins with a radical shrinking of our material consumption to bring us (in the developed economies) to the standard of living of sub-Saharan Africa.  In the process, we will have to take some seriously unpleasant decisions in order to shrink the population back to a more sustainable level – for example, rationing healthcare to the under 50s (I’m 58 by the way) and enforcing birth controls far more draconian than China’s infamous one-child policy.  I have no expectation that anyone is going to vote for this; I just put it forward as a slightly more benign alternative to sitting back and waiting for nature to put an end to most of our species.

In the end, we are going to go with Mills’ option simply because it is the only one that fits with our underlying quasi-religion of progress.  If material science provides us with the hoped for technological breakthrough – most likely one that unlocks the full potential of the atom (simply because of the vast potential energy within the nucleus as opposed to that released by breaking electron bonds) – then the kind of technologies available to future humans will be about as puzzling to us as a smartphone or a GPS satellite would have been to our Neolithic ancestors.  If, as is far more likely, the technological breakthrough fails to put in an appearance, then irrespective of how many windmills and solar panels we manage to erect before our resources run out, this civilisation and possibly our entire species is done.


* My objection to Adeney Thomas’ use of the term “Anthropocene” is that it implies a geological age measured in millions of years.  In reality, the impact of industrial society upon the geological record is more likely to be akin to the thin layer of dust left around the planet by the comet that wiped out the dinosaurs… a brief release of energy followed by a few centuries in which the web of life recovers from the pollution released before an entirely new ecosystem – one that does not contain humans – emerges.  Not an age; but a mere blink of an eye in geological time.

As you made it to the end…

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