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Searching for a Miracle
FOREWORD: WHICH WAY OUT?
by Jerry Mander
INTERNATIONAL FORUM ON GLOBALIZATION
Prior reports include “The False Promise of Biofuels,” by IFG board member Jack Santa Barbara, which was first to predict what was confirmed a year later in dire studies from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations — that the mad rush toward biofuels, especially corn ethanol, well underway by 2006, would cause more global environmental, agricultural and hunger problems, than it could ever begin to solve.
Despite this, U.S. policy continues to favor subsidizing industrial biofuels.
A second publication in the series, produced in partnership with the Institute for Policy Studies, was “The Manifesto on Global Economic Transitions” —a collective effort among 50 IFG Board and Associate Members. It is essentially a draft roadmap for the mandatory transformation of industrial society in recognition of limits imposed by planetary carrying capacities.
The third report, “The Rise and Predictable Fall of Globalized Industrial Agriculture,” was written by former IFG executive director, Debbie Barker. That report shredded the expensively advertised notions that industrial agriculture systems are the best way “to feed a hungry world.” The opposite is actually the case.The publication exposed and amplified a myriad of little-recognized connections of industrial farming to advancing hunger, global migrations, and climate change, among many other deadly effects.
All of these publications are now in wide distribution.
The report which follows here, “Searching for a Miracle: ‘Net Energy’ Limits, & the Fate of Industrial Society,” by our longtime friend and colleague Richard Heinberg, an associate member of IFG and senior fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, is the first to use the newly emerging techniques of “life cycle technology assessment,” and in particular “net energy” analyses, for in-depth comparisons among all presently dominant and newly touted “alternative” energy schemes.These include all the major renewable systems currently being advocated. For the first time we are able to fully realize the degree to which our future societal options are far more limited than we thought.
With fossil fuels fast disappearing, and their continuing supplies becoming ever more problematic and expensive, hopes have turned to renewable sources that we ask to save “our way of life” at more or less its current level. Alas, as we will see, the “net energy” gain from all alternative systems — that is, the amount of energy produced, compared with the amount of energy (as well as money and materials) that must be invested in building and operating them — is far too small to begin to sustain industrial society at its present levels. This is very grim news, and demands vast, rapid adjustments by all parties, from governments to industries and even environmental organizations, that thus far are not clearly in the offing. There are, however, viable pathways forward, most importantly and urgently the need for a wide-ranging push for conservation; it is only a question of realism, flexibility, dedication, and more than a little humility. Our beloved “way of life” must be reconsidered and more viable alternatives supported.
THE WRONG TREE
We observe daily the tragic, futile official processes that continue to unfold among national governments, as well as global political and financial institutions, as they give lip service to mitigating climate change and the multiple advancing related global environmental catastrophes. Those crises include not only climate disruption, and looming global fossil fuels shortages, but other profound depletions of key resources — fresh water, arable soils, ocean life, wood, crucial minerals, biodiversity, and breathable air, etc. All these crises are results of the same sets of values and operating systems, and all are nearing points of extreme urgency.
Even our once great hopes that world governments would rally to achieve positive collective outcomes in some arenas; for example, at the United Nations climate change talks in Copenhagen, as well as other venues, are proving sadly fatuous. But certain things are ever-more clear: Global institutions, national governments, and even many environmental and social activists are barking up the wrong trees. Individually and as groups, they have not faced the full gravity and meaning of the global energy (and resource) conundrums.They continue to operate in most ways out of the same set of assumptions that we’ve all had for the past century —that fundamental systemic changes will not be required; that our complex of problems can be cured by human innovation, ingenuity, and technical efficiency, together with a few smart changes in our choices of energy systems.
Most of all, the prevailing institutions continue to believe in the primacy and efficacy of economic growth as the key indicator of systemic well-being, even in light of ever-diminishing resources. It will not be necessary, according to this dogma, to come to grips with the reality that ever-expanding economic growth is actually an absurdity in a finite system, preposterous on its face, and will soon be over even if activists do nothing to oppose it. Neither does the mainstream recognize that economic systems, notably capitalism, that require such endless growth for their own viability may themselves be doomed in the not very long run. In fact, they are already showing clear signs of collapse. As to any need for substantial changes in personal lifestyles, or to control and limit material consumption habits? Quite the opposite is being pushed — increased car sales, expanded “housing starts,” and increased industrial production remain the focused goals of our economy, even under Mr. Obama, and are still celebrated when/if they occur, without thought of environmental consequences. No alterations in conceptual frameworks are encouraged to appreciate the now highly visible limits of nature, which is both root source of all planetary benefits, and inevitable toxic sink for our excessive habits.
In this optimistic though self-deluding dominant vision, there is also dedicated avoidance of the need for any meaningful redistribution of the planet’s increasingly scarce remaining natural resources toward more equitable arrangements among nations and peoples—to at least slightly mitigate centuries of colonial and corporate plunder of the Third World. And on the similarly ignored question of the continued viability of a small planet that may soon need to support 8-10 billion people? Some actually say it’s a good thing.We should think of these billions as new consumers who may help enliven economic growth, so goes that argument. But only if we find a few more planets nearby, perhaps in a parallel universe somewhere, bursting with oil, gas,water, minerals,wood, rich agricultural lands, and a virginal atmosphere.
The scale of denial is breathtaking. For as Heinberg’s analysis makes depressingly clear, there will be NO combination of alternative energy solutions that might enable the long term continuation of economic growth, or of industrial societies in their present form and scale. Ultimately the solutions we desperately seek will not come from ever-greater technical genius and innovation. Far better and potentially more successful pathways can only come from a sharp turn to goals, values, and practices that emphasize conservation of material and energy resources, localization of most economic frameworks, and gradual population reduction to stay within the carrying capacities of the planet.
THE PARTY’S OVER
The central purpose of all of our False Solution documents, including this one, is to assert that this whole set of assumptions upon which our institutions have hung their collective hats, is tragically inaccurate, and only serves to delay, at a crucial moment, a major reckoning that must be understood immediately.
We are emphatically not against innovations and efficiencies where they can be helpful. But we are against the grand delusion that they can solve all problems, and we are against the tendency to ignore overarching inherent systemic limits that apply to energy supply, materials supply, and the Earth itself. For example, the grandest techno-utopian predictions at large today, such as “clean coal,” via carbon sequestration, and “clean nuclear,” via a new “safe 4th generation of reactor design,” have already been revealed as little more than the wild fantasies of energy industries, as they peddle talking points to politicians to whom, on other days, they also supply with campaign cash. There is no persuasive evidence that clean coal, still in the realm of science fiction, will ever be achieved. Most likely it will occupy the same pantheon of technological fantasy as nuclear fusion, not to say human teleportation. In any case, the entire argument for clean coal, however absurd, still ignores what happens to the places from where it comes.Visit Appalachia sometime — now virtually desertified from mountain top removal, and its rivers poisoned to get at that soon-to-be “clean” coal. Clean nuclear offers similar anomalies — no currently contemplated solution for waste disposal is anywhere near practical—even if uranium supplies were not running out nearly as quickly as oil. To speak of nuclear as “clean” or “safe” is a clear sign of panic while, vampire-like, it’s permitted to again rise from its grave.
Okay, we know that some technological “progress” is useful, especially among renewable energy alternatives. Systemic transformations toward a highly touted new complex mix of “renewable” energy systems such as wind, solar, hydro, biomass, wave and several others, will certainly be positive, and together they could make meaningful contributions, free of many of the negative environmental impacts that fossil fuels have brought.
But, as this report exquisitely explains, as beneficial as those shifts may be, they will inevitably fall far short. They will never reach the scale or capacity to substitute for a fossil fuel system that, because of its (temporary) abundance and cheapness, has addicted industrial nations to a 20th century production and consumption spree that landed us, and the whole world, into this dire situation. As Richard Heinberg has so eloquently said before, and used as the title of one his very important books, “the party’s over.”
So, those limitless supplies turned out not to be limitless, or cheap, (or any longer efficient), and we are left with only one real option: to face the need for a thorough systemic transformation of our entire society to one that emphasizes less consumption of material resources and energy (conservation), less globalization (shipping resources and products back and forth wastefully across oceans and continents), and more localization which has inherent efficiencies and savings from the mere fact of local production and use, and far less processing and shipping. Such changes must be combined with achieving lower population in all global sectors, and the fostering of an evolution of personal, institutional and national values that recognize (even celebrate) the ultimate limits of the earth’s carrying capacities, presently being dramatically exceeded. None of that vision has infected the Copenhagen processes, nor those of the U.S. Congress, nor debates in national parliaments; anything short of that is just a self-protective, self-interested smoke screen, or, sheer denial of the realities at hand.
THE NET ENERGY FACTOR
Richard Heinberg’s report makes its case by a methodical examination and comparison of many of the most important features inherent to the key energy systems of our time. His detailed summaries include “life cycle assessments” of the currently dominant systems such as oil, gas, coal, and nuclear — the very systems which built industrial society, and brought us to this grave historical moment. These systems are now each suffering advancing supply shortages and increased costs, making their future application dubious. Heinberg then explores and compares all the alternative systems now being hotly promoted, like wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, biomass and biofuels, incineration,wave energy and others. He delineates ten aspects of each system, including everything from direct monetary cost(can we afford it?), as well as “scalability” (will its benefits apply at a meaningful volume?). He also includes environmental impacts in the formula; the location of the resources; their reliability (the wind doesn’t blow all the time and the sun doesn’t shine); density—how compact is the source per unit?; transportability, etc.
Most important is the tenth standard that Heinberg lists — and the bulk of this document is devoted to it:“net energy,” or, the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI). Heinberg explores this revolutionary analytic terrain thoroughly, basing his reportage on the groundbreaking research of leading scientists, notably including Charles Hall of Syracuse University, who has been the pioneer explorer of the full import of “net energy” to the future of industrialism and economic growth.
What is revealed from this process is that the once great advantages of fossil fuel systems, which in their heyday were able to produce enormous quantities of cheap energy outputs with relatively little investment of energy inputs or dollar investments — Heinberg puts the EROEI ratio at about 100:1 — can no longer approach that level. And, of course, they continue to ravage the planet. Meanwhile, the highly promising alternative energy systems, which in most respects are surely far cleaner than fossil fuels, cannot yield net energy ratios that are anywhere near what was possible with fossil fuels. In other words, they require for their operation a significant volume of energy inputs that bring their energy outputs to a very modest level. Too modest, actually, to be considered a sufficient substitute for the disappearing fossil fuels. In fact, as Heinberg notes, there is no combination of alternative renewables that can compete with the glory days of fossil fuels, now ending. So, what does this portend for modern society? Industrialism? Economic growth? Our current standards of living? All prior assumptions are off the table.Which way now? Systemic change will be mandatory.
Of course, there is a huge segment of the grassroots activist world that already instinctively understood all this some time ago, and has not waited for governments, separately or in collaboration with others, to do the right thing. The world is now bursting with examples on every continent of enthusiastic efforts to transform communities into locally viable and sustainable economic systems.We see a virtual renaissance of local food systems, thus replacing the supplies of the industrial agriculture machine that often ships from across thousands of miles of land or ocean. And this burgeoning movement is directly supported by a parallel movement toward re-ruralization. We also see extraordinary efforts to limit the power of global corporations operating in local contexts. There is a growing effort by communities to assert control over their own local commons; to resist privatization of public services; and to return to local production values in manufacturing and energy systems so that conservation is placed ahead of consumption.A myriad other efforts also seek to affirm local sovereignty.
Among the most exciting expressions of these tendencies has been the birth and spread of an international “Transition Towns” movement. Originally launched a few years ago in southwest England, it has helped stimulate literally thousands of similar efforts in local communities, including hundreds in the U.S. All are trying to go back to the drawing board to convert all operating systems toward active conservation efforts that minimize material and energy flow-through, protecting scarce resources, while moving toward energy and production systems that are cognizant of and reactive to an entirely alternative set of values.
So far, this is not yet threatening to the larger machines of industrialism and growth, nor to the primacy of corporate power, but time is definitely on the side of such movements. It behooves us all to align ourselves with them. In this case, it is mandatory that we build and take action at the local grassroots level, while also demanding change from our governing institutions, locally, nationally and internationally. But in any case, as the document you are about to read helps make exquisitely clear, the status quo will not survive.
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