Casaubon's Book

The good news is that everyone was more or less happy about Obama’s stated energy policy last night. The Republicans were happy because Obama was talking about a “clean standard” which actually means “let’s burn fossil fuels in a barely less harmful way” – ie, let’s switch some dirty coal to natural gas, and pretend that “clean” coal is a reality, and that nuclear plants will come online rapidly and without massive subsidies. The Democrats were happy because some Republicans might tolerate a “clean energy” standard that takes emphasis off solar and wind. And everyone was happy because we’re not going to actually do this.

The best thing about any energy claim made in the State of the Union is that everyone knows they are bullshit. Even as the claims become either more “realistic”
(remember Gore’s call for 80% of our energy to come from actual renewables by as soon as 2020?) or less ambitious and more pointless (depending on your perspective), they become less likely, because there is simply no real will to do so. All of these goals would require a lot of will and money, from a government that has neither. They are simply a political shorthand that means “we’d like it if magic fairies came along and actually took care of this stuff for us.”

I think it is useful to re-run this video, based on Jon Stewart’s commentary about last year’s State of the Union, which contained now-conveniently forgotten lofty energy goals as well:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
An Energy-Independent Future
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

We are an unstoppable fossil fuel dependency breaking machine. Unfortunately, the machine runs on fossil fuels…. Oh, well, pity about the planet and the grandkids, but we’ve got bigger stuff to fight over, right?

As Obama said last night, the future is ours to win (?!?! – Ah, that’s why we don’t take it seriously, it is a board game!), and it is pretty clear that we’ve chosen our strategy – what Homer Simpson once called “the two sweetest words in the world “De! Fault!”



  1. #1 Anna
    January 26, 2011

    I wish I could agree that “win” meant “board game,” Sharon. I gravely fear that it actually means war . . .

  2. #2 Claire
    January 26, 2011

    Just got another forwarded email from my Zen teacher along the same line:

    Green Energy’s Big Challenge: The Daunting Task Of Scaling Up
    By David Biello 25 January, 2011 Yale Environment 360

    Same thing as in Obama’s SOTU, lots of talk about how much land area will be in solar panels, how many windmills, the need to modernize the grid, etc. to get us to generating all the so-called green energy we supposedly need. A nod given to increasing energy efficiency once or twice. Not a word, not a peep or a hint, allowed as to the possibility of substantially decreasing the amount of energy we actually use per capita, much less the necessity to do so for even a rather basic reason in this economic climate (to save money). The suggestion that we might want/need to reduce energy use greatly, for a mix of reasons including moral ones, might as well exist in another universe.

  3. #3 Laura
    January 26, 2011

    I think one HUGE problem with the discussion on energy is that people believe without evidence that the answer is simply to “develop renewable energy”.
    Without understanding things like: the huge amount of land that would be consumed, devastating habitat of many species, by doing this via solar power – and that at current prices for solar panels, it would be prohibitively expensive. It cannot be done just by putting solar panels on rooftops, it would require MUCH MUCH more land.
    And, that electricity is likely to become much more important in the future, if we want to avert global warming. If for example electric cars became the usual thing, our use of electricity would go WAY WAY up. So that it is not enough, even if we could satisfy our current electricity needs by putting solar panels on all the rooftops (I’m not sure if this is possible either).
    And people don’t understand the limitations of capacity in things like wind energy.
    I think there is a HUGE amount of “innumeracy” in this subject: people making unjustified assertions out of faith. There is a free book by a physics professor online about sustainable energy, at He makes many numerical calculations. They throw a bucket of cold water on people’s blithe ideas about renewables; and he is being optimistic.
    We developed our high-energy use industrial civilization based on the one-time gift of fossil fuels, and our population grew to this size based on fossil fuel use. Fossil fuels are concentrated energy, and it is very likely less of a devastation to the environment to use them, than using diffuse energy sources like solar, tidal and wind power.
    We are probably SOL with global warming and energy security, unless we develop nuclear power in a big way, FAST.

  4. #4 WIll
    January 26, 2011

    In this day and age, Obama’s reanimated Reaganesque rhetoric about “winning the future” strikes me as terribly inappropriate. It is high time we consider sharing the future, or facing the worst consequences we have imagined.

  5. #5 Vince Whirlwind
    January 26, 2011

    “to win” is also compatible with the sense of “to work for”/”to earn”.

    Think: “to win a promotion”, and the French: “gagner sa vie”.

    Obama is guilty of over-education in this one – a nice change from the idiot who last occupied his position.

  6. #6 IanW
    January 27, 2011

    Thanks for posting this. We need critical examination of these political promises in order to determine how much is politics and how much is promise.

    Since the SotU speech was so ‘sciencey’ I find it odd that there isn’t more discussion and dissection of it on ScienceBlogs. It seems to me that that’s another sad confirmation of ScienceBlogs’s steady drift from its roots, which is why it’s more important than ever that we get solid coverage from blogs like yours.

  7. #7 Alex Besogonov
    January 27, 2011


    “Without understanding things like: the huge amount of land that would be consumed, devastating habitat of many species”

    Most of the desert species will be more than happy for the additional sources of shadow. That already happens in some desert photo-voltaic installations.

  8. #8 Alan
    January 28, 2011

    Laura, to replace the current 13TW of global electricity capacity would require 400 km^2 of solar cells (assuming 10% efficiency). Expensive, yes. HUGE, not so much. Certainly do-able on rooftops.

    400,000,000 X 375watts X 10% = 15TW.

  9. #9 MEA
    January 28, 2011

    eventually, more that 80% will come from these sources (and wood) b/c we won’t have any other options. And we’ll use a heck of a lot less b/c we won’t have any choice. I’ve given up on any kind of transition envolving alternative sources and massive, voluntary, reductions in consuption.

  10. #10 kermit
    January 29, 2011

    Laura, while solar panels and wind turbines undoubtedly create some problems for the environment, I can’t see how they could be anywhere nearly as destructive as drought, floods, migration of species and the subsequent disruption of ecosystems, rapidity of the changes, the collapse of the ocean’s ecosystem from acidification, and fallout of various kinds from humanity’s developing hysteria (war, migration, etc.).

  11. #11 Coal reports
    April 2, 2012

    Coal Industry would suggest the commodity isn’t going anywhere. Coal reports show if we have to live with it, we may as well reduce the impact of coal and CCS seems to be the best solution found to date. Cherry While for some an ideal world would see no reliance on coal statistics to produce electricity,

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