Thursday, 14 April 2011

Renewable Energy Denialism

On a recent Riz Khan show two participants made their cases for and against renewable energy respectively. The 'against' participant has recently written a book dispelling what he terms the 'myth' of renewable energy and green options as a global conspiracy of lefties that are bent on destroying good old American pie no holds barred growth, in favour of an over-regulated, over-controlled economic order that is choked out of all freedom. It's all a myth that it creates more jobs than non-renewables he rails, citing that government subsidies actually underlies most of the jobs in renewable energy.

And so, there is nothing wrong with the global economic order, the global climate or the global monopoly of non-renewable fossil fuels companies that are integral to geopolitical stability precisely because growth as we know it is intimately dependent on the provision of cheap energy, high emission loads and the odd disaster here and there. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the recent nuclear disaster in Japan come to mind, yet he does not factor in the accounting of these disasters and the daily damage that is being done to global ecosystems worldwide, with devastating consequences for the future survival of mankind. UN Habitat has declared that 12 out of the 24 ecosystems that are critical for human survival are seriously degraded, and with a projected extra 2 billion people expected to be living on the planet by 2030 we are moving into a resource constrained world that cannot support the same type of growth that the world has undergone over the past 200 years i.e. growth that assumes limitless abundance of resources and an unlimited capacity for ecosystems to absorb waste and human expansion. Instead, we are being forced to negotiate the limits of our growth more deeply.

And there are large costs involved in using and producing fossil fuel energy - but these costs are externalised to the environment and the poorer countries and regions of the globe (such as Africa and Asia) where population growth will be greatest. They are not factored into the cost models of non-renewable energy sources. It is merely assumed that these costs do not exist at best, or they do not matter at worst. Yet they do matter, as rising sea surface temperatures and desertification, drought and natural disasters intensify, often in the poorest, most populous regions of the planet. And this 'myth' is itself core to the argument for non-renewable fossil fuel energy and nuclear energy sources, and for a very good reason. If we were to account for the damage that fossil fuels are directly responsible for in terms of ecosystem damage and loss of ecosystem services the costs rise exponentially so quickly that our brains are unable to handle them. That is, the costs are so large that they appear ridiculous - in the same way as astronomical numbers do ... they are too large for our small brains to comprehend, so we dismiss them using a sleight of mind - we pretend that because the values are so large that somehow the chances of these costs being realised are low. We try to unthink it away, so to speak - yet it is wishful thinking. There is no low probability chance of disaster associated with these numbers. To the contrary, we are already experiencing the horrors of conflict and war associated with declining resources such as water, arable land and grazing lands, and this will only intensify in the future that we face.

A similar example is how the 'small chance of catastrophic failure' in the global markets due to the creation of mind-bendingly perverse financial products such as sub-prime mortgages, was ignored outright, despite the many naysayers who raised their voices and opinions hoping to enforce more regulation in the sector. The chance of catastrophic failure was difficult to envisage during economic boom times, and the 'spoilers' were heckled for their lack of faith in the ability of markets to magically self-regulate themselves. Indeed, financiers and economists placed more faith in the ability of the market to regulate itself than most religious zealots could muster up for their religions in a lifetime, and when the collapse came the bankers who created the crisis were themselves the recipients of huge subsidies - drawn from tax-payers contributions - to save their 'too large to fail' businesses. That is, as explained by Raj Patel in 'The Value of Nothing' the benefits were commercialised while the costs were socialised. We subsidized the very same bankers who failed to maintain stability in the market and by 2009 they were again paying themselves huge bonuses, oblivious to the suffering and loss they created amongst homeowners (whose taxes weren't used to bail them out of debt, but rather the bankers). 

And so it is with non-renewable sources of energy - the real costs are externalised, that is; ecologised and then socialised ... and the real victims of fossil fuel use are so poor and their governments so dependent on aid that they have no recourse in the equation of global power. 

And it gets worse ... the pro-fossil fuel expert on the show went so far as to suggest that there was lots of oil still available in the Middle East, but that because they are not allowed full access to these regions they cannot tell for sure. Are you following this? Because I sure didn't. It sounds tautological to me, a bit of circular logic - there is lots of oil because nobody knows?? Go figure, the jury is still out on that kind of logic. He rounded that argument off by expounding the merits of mining shale for oil - celebrating the new ecologically devastating technological advances associated with 'fracking' as it is known. As I write there is a campaign to oppose a plan for 'fracking' in the ecologically unique Little Karoo, which it seems has not undergone a full and proper environmental assessment that was open to the public. 

Lastly, that a bunch of lefty-oriented greenies are somehow behind a global conspiracy to render our energy markets subject to a new socialist paradigm is a load of tripe. Really, how can a network of greenies who earn peanuts to do the jobs they do, often with precariously funded organisations, take on the globally hegemonic fossil fuels industry? It's truly a David and Goliath situation, and multinational energy companies have far more resources at their disposal to mount campaigns of disinformation and to buy up competing technologies. All the greenies have on their side is the ability to influence public opinion and thereby to force governments to adopt a clear stance on the needs of their citizens, present and future. Their mandate is to make governments think about the needs of future generations and whether our current rates of exploitation are sustainable. They hardly have the reach and means to fuel global conspiracies against the Goliaths of our time.

At a recent workshop I observed a discussion about why China has put 38% of its recovery package into green and renewable energy technology development. The answer would surprise most people. It is not just concerns over the environment that is driving China's direction. It is the need to position China to be a world leader in the next, already emerging wave of technological development i.e. technological innovation to cope with living in a resource constrained world under pressure from exponentially increasing global populations - most of whom will live in cities. Just as the semi-conductor revolution changed the world and created new markets, so too will the green technology and renewable energies revolution change the way we live and behave. Developing the skills and capacity to be at the forefront of this new wave of technological development is about more than just saving ecosystems, it is also about maintaining technological and trade dominance in the future. That is why China is putting such a large portion of its money into funding development in these sectors. Subsidizing jobs in the sector now will pay itself back many times over in the not-too-distant future. This is true of all emerging technologies that have become fundamental to the way we live, work and recreate. It is the role of governments and states to see this far into the future and prepare their nations for it - arguing that renewable energies need to be developed only in the current marketplace, without any assistance, is akin to arguing the same for nuclear energy, defence technology, the semi-conductor industry etc. They all received assistance from institutions in their conception and establishment, and it is no different for renewable energies.

The International Energy Agency announced in 2008 that the price of oil was not coming down. This is changing the economic 'feasibility' of non-renewable energies rapidly, and will continue to do so, even if you don't believe in ideas of 'oil peak' or 'coal peak'. The fact is that the costs of producing fossil fuel based energy is rising - even before we consider the costs that are externalised to the environment and society - and will continue to do so in the future. If we can make billions of dollars available at the drop of a hat to bail out bankers, and yet overlook the necessary requirements to survive the future we will bring about the collapse of civilisation as we know it. All things must adapt to survive, and so must we. Fossil fuels won't last forever, and we need to be able to adapt to much more concentrated and sizeable future societal needs if 'civilisation' as we know it is to survive intact. These needs will be exponentially greater than our current needs, and running at full steam now will compromise the ability of future generations to survive. A balanced approach towards energy is required. The common understanding of energy transitions is that historically they have occurred over long periods of time. However, if we look to the trend towards decentralised technology offerings, especially in the telecommunications and internet markets, it may well be that the next energy transition might go viral and occur over a much shorter time frame, 'leapfrogging' us - so to speak - into a new future. Whatever type of transition eventually unfolds will depend on us, as we have the power to choose, and we must choose wisely and carefully and not run roughshod over the debates that favour alternatives lest we lose our ability to adapt and compete in an overpopulated, resource-constrained future.

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