Casaubon's Book

The theory, of course, is that eventually an inflection point in renewable production *might* be achievable, after which point total gobal energy consumption would decline. The fact, unfortunately, is that we’re nowhere near achieving such an inflection point, as Tad Patzek carefully points out:

The rate of energy use and carbon dioxide emissions are virtually identical and have grown exponentially over the last 40 years.

The impact of large dams and nuclear power plants has been barely visible, and disappeared by 2007.

The renewable energy sources, wind turbines, biomass cogeneration, and biofuels (photovoltaic panel area is too small to be relevant), are barely keeping up with the deforestation and general paving of the world.

Increased efficiency leads to more energy use and the ratio of the slopes has remained constant (3.8) over the last 40 years. Thus, just as Stanley Javons predicted, higher efficiency leads to more energy use which leads to still higher efficiency.

The visuals are particularly damning, as are the implications. And this leaves out the question I’ve been asking for years, which is – even if we were to do a world-scale WWII style build out, would the increased carbon emissions created by that build-out push us past any critical carbon thresholds and tipping points we aren’t already past. In an exchange of columns I had with George Monbiot a few years ago, Monbiot had to admit the possibility, even though he argued in favor of renewable production.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m in favor of renewable development, but I don’t see how renewables could possibly change our ecological predicament – the only thing that can change that is radical shifts in our behavior and way of life. It is, of course, increasingly unlikely that we will do this as a society in an organized and voluntary way. It is, of course, increasingly (in fact, the two likelihoods run precisely in parallel) likely that we will have no choice but to change our lives radically – involuntarily and painfully.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Greenpa
    March 6, 2011

    It comes as no surprise (to me) that current calculations would show no impact from renewable technologies on the global carbon budget. I guess I’m surprised anyone might be surprised.

    There is reason for this not to be discouraging, however.

    The concepts behind all the renewables are based in long-term thinking; long term, as in benefits are expected and counted in the multi-decades, and multi-century time scales; not in quarterly reports, or annual budgets.

    It’s only been in the last decade that any renewables have started to be installed on scales that plug into any national statistics at all.

    I would castigate Patzek, in fact- for returning to thinking that is not only desperately outmoded, but also demonstrated to be a primary destructive force for the planet – the demand for short-term benefits.

    What he has done here is provide pop-fodder for those who want to burn coal and build nukes. Now the can chant, “see, renewables don’t make any difference, they’re only more expensive!” – which, in the long term, is a lie.

    It is ONLY in the long term that renewables can make a difference. That should have been obvious to start with.

  2. #2 Brad K.
    March 6, 2011

    Sorry, Sharon, Greenpa, this article is clear, concise, accurate, and important. But you had me convinced a couple of years ago.

    Only conservation – radical conservation – could make a difference in reliance on fossil fuels.

    Of course, JMG convinced me also that consuming fossil fuels is the single most important factor – way ahead of ingenuity, of ability and skill, or of intelligence – in creating wealth in the modern world. I suspect that historically only slavery, at times, and peasantries have been able to generate concentrated wealth significantly beyond subsistence levels. Well, maybe gem and precious metal miners, but they are limited to the resources we can find .. and extract .. Oh. That sounds like oil, natural gas, and coal again.

    I have been persuaded that radical conservation necessarily means a radical reduction in the amount of monetary wealth that might be amassed. While us peons don’t have a lot of choice, those with the delusions of power are understandably reluctant to dim their aspirations of ever-broadening scope of control and influence. Real change must necessarily mean that most of the world must turn back from the ambition our governments and private institutions depend on. Our governments and merchants depend on us ‘needing’ the fastest cars, keeping up with the Joneses, that we define social position as a function of conspicuous display of wealth, and that ‘net worth’ is a financial statement instead of reputation, character, and roles in the community and family.

    The point you make about generating CO2 could just as easily be described as burning tax dollars, or consuming resources. That is, there isn’t enough tax money (or money in the economy), or energy available to retain the profligate, ‘just in time’, continent-spanning webs of commerce and lifestyle we put up with today.

  3. #3 ömer coşkun
    March 6, 2011

    The point you make about generating CO2 could just as easily be described as burning tax dollars, or consuming resources. That is, there isn’t enough tax money (or money in the economy), or energy available to retain the profligate, ‘just in time’, continent-spanning webs of commerce and lifestyle we put up with today.

  4. #4 Greenpa
    March 6, 2011

    Brad: “Only conservation – radical conservation – could make a difference in reliance on fossil fuels.”

    Well, yes, of course. Given. Long ago. :-) Which does not change real long-range considerations.

    But simultaneously, do you want to give the opposition weapons?

    And, regarding the creation of concentrated wealth, you overlooked the biggest and most ancient source of power.

    Domesticated animals. Sumer was not built on coal- it was built with oxen, horses, camels, etc. How soon we forget. :-)

  5. #5 Sharon Astyk
    March 7, 2011

    I take Patzek to be making a somewhat different point than the one you take him to be making, Greenpa – his point (which is not a given in our larger society, even though it obviously is for you and me and most of the people here) is that it isn’t renewables per se that can make the largest difference. Patzek is the antithesis of the anti-renewable guy – he does what we do, only as a scientist. His larger point is that the inflection point we assume is close may not be.

    I think he’s right – I think given the timing, there’s every reason to believe that renewables per se will never make the substantive difference in emissions – what will change things is either voluntary (less likely) or involuntary (likely) radical conservation. Renewables have other benefits – most of all they may allow us to sustain a certain amount of what is truly necessary in society. But given timing and lack of understanding and lack of action, even a substantive renewable build out may not happen fast enough to radically alter the C02 picture – if any real action happens on that front it will be because of radical conservation, with renewables making it possible for us to continue to use more energy.

    I think you’ve totally misunderstood Patzek – as for ammunition to the enemy – he’s observed nothing less than the truth. IMHO, if we can’t frame what is well enough to speak to others, we’re not going to succeed anyway.

    Sharon

  6. #6 Douglas Watts
    March 7, 2011

    Well, at the household level, efficiency sure saves lots of money, which is why we do it.

  7. #7 Douglas Watts
    March 7, 2011

    Patzek seems to be doing a strawman. I don’t think anybody has ever seriously thought that non-fossil power sources could replace (or even come close) to replacing fossil sources in the next 50-100 years. But he is right that if savings from efficiencies are gobbled up by new consumption you are kind of running just to stand still, but that still is better than doing nothing, which would leave you even worse off.

    What we need to do is get a few aircraft carriers (which do nothing but cruise around), and have them tow some icebergs to Mauritania and re-terraform the Sahara. Can’t hurt.

  8. #8 Sharon Astyk
    March 8, 2011

    I think strawman is totally incorrect here – I think if you listen to the public discourse (as opposed to what gets said in our community) that the idea that we will smoothly transition to renewables is *precisely* what most people think. Patzek’s point, that an inflection point is a long way from the present is essential.

    Sharon

  9. #9 Ben W
    March 8, 2011

    “The theory, of course, is that eventually an inflection point in renewable production *might* be achievable, after which point total gobal energy consumption would decline. The fact, unfortunately, is that we’re nowhere near achieving such an inflection point, as Tad Patzek carefully points out”..

    Is that really the theory? I don’t see why would a shift from fossil fuels to renewables mean a decline in energy consumption. Not as long as countries are still modernizing or the global population is growing, at least.

    Likewise, I don’t think an inflection point in renewable production can come while renewables are more expensive than fossil fuels. Obviously, you can’t determine this by looking at the growth curves of CO2, energy, and GDP, so I don’t think Patzek has really shown that we’re nowhere near the inflection point. On the contrary, if you want to see when the inflection point(s) will occur, look at the projections for when renewable energy will be comparably priced to fossil fuels.

  10. #10 Sharon Astyk
    March 10, 2011

    Ben, you are right, I phrased that badly. I should have said “total global fossil energy consumption”

    That said, I think that there are several related issues, however, that suggest that an inflection point is a factor of more than just price. The cost of most renewables absent significant subsidies is high enough that at a certain point simply being cost competitive isn’t enough – if people in the developing world or even low income Americans can’t afford to pay the electric bills. Moreover, all renewables are at this point heavily dependent on the price of fossil fuels – basically they are ways of frontloading a lot of fossil energies in manufacture into a device that will then eventually return more than the inputs – but you still have to factor in the cost of all those fossil inputs. So as fossil energies rise, that affects the cost of solar panels, shipping and instillation. Most concerning, though, is the question of volatility – it may well be (as we saw in 2008, and we may be seeing now) that energy prices above a certain level, close to what makes for cost-competition, also tank the economy, causing wild economic swings. We saw that in 08, when there was a spate of excitement “look, renewables are becoming cost competetive…” “look, organic food and industrial food are becoming similar in price…” there’s hope! Ooops, economy tanks, fuel prices drop, every other price drops….

    It simply may be the that the days of steady smooth price increases that send useful market signals may not exist – and may never exist.

    Sharon

  11. #11 Greenpa
    March 10, 2011

    Sharon- we’re coming from different places, and in this case, I’ll insist that I may be coming from the more correct place, and you- may not be.
    :-)

    First of all, recall that you and I tend to agree on bloody everything, to a scary degree. I’m pretty sure that’s the case here, too; the differences lie not in facts, or attitudes but in chosen modes of communication.

    I’m going to try to share a recent epiphany I had. Actually, I didn’t “have” it so much; this lady intentionally snuck up on me from behind, and hit me over the head with it.

    The really annoying thing about it is- I already knew it totally; and so do you. But I didn’t, and in the present instance, I think you may not either.

    I was at the bi-annual CERTS conference in St. Cloud.

    http://www.cleanenergyresourceteams.org/

    The final plenary talk was given by a psychologist, previously unknown to all of us, but one of the CERTS leaders gave her a great personal build up, and told us to listen. The topic; a major focus throughout this meeting, was how to COMMUNICATE with plain folks; specifically- how to communicate so that they would ACTUALLY change their behavior-which is exactly the major point you want to make here; renewables are not enough- behavior has to be changed.

    Everybody out there gets that- at this level, and it’s now a major focus for most of us. How to bring about change?

    The psychologist lady was boring me to tears. I’d not only heard it all before, I’d taught it all before, and known it all since I was in high school. Then, she got cute, and started putting up pictures of Star Trek, the original TV cast, and using the various characters as examples.

    The main comparison was between Mr. Spock – who exemplifies the strictly logical analysis and decision making processes humans sometimes use; and Kirk, who is far more emotional in his decision making- but often saves the day, because of that. (Never mind that this is FICTION…)

    Yes, yes, we all know. yadayada Cute. People are quirky and emotional.

    She went on. Enumerating, exemplifying. More coffee, please…

    Then she started wrapping it up. “So – what we all want to know; all need to learn, is HOW to talk to people about these concerns…”

    And she snuck up; on me, anyway; “The first thing to remember is… (picture of Nimoy pops up) … YOU’RE NOT TALKING TO SPOCK.”

    I doubt I can make that hit you as hard at it hit me; but I’m a changed man. I knew already, I’m not talking to Spock mostly – but I still was making my talks based on clear logic, all the facts… etc. Spending hours making the logic irrefutable and the graphics blindingly simple.

    And- pretty clearly – it doesn’t work; it isn’t working – and we know it.

    Last week Bill McKibben made a video, put up on Treehugger, about the Tim DeChristopher verdict. “We’ve got to ‘up our game’ “, he said- meaning, we are not making enough impact. And he said it with the most intense dead serious face I’ve ever seen him use.

    He’s right. Spock is UNABLE to communicate with McCoy; and it’s the McCoys who must hear, and must change, or we are all going to die.

    So, basically – Patzek was writing for Spock- only. And I’m saying- we have to stop doing that. It hurts us in the end; the Klingons pick it up, load it in their disruptors, and fire it back at us. Yes, you and I and us can understand Spock – but McCoy is reading all this too.

    (incidentally, toots, if you think Patzek’s more of a scientist than I am, you haven’t read my résumé…) :-)

  12. #12 Greenpa
    March 10, 2011

    Sharon- we’re coming from different places, and in this case, I’ll insist that I may be coming from the more correct place, and you- may not be.
    :-)

    First of all, recall that you and I tend to agree on bloody everything, to a scary degree. I’m pretty sure that’s the case here, too; the differences lie not in facts, or attitudes but in chosen modes of communication.

    I’m going to try to share a recent epiphany I had. Actually, I didn’t “have” it so much; this lady intentionally snuck up on me from behind, and hit me over the head with it.

    The really annoying thing about it is- I already knew it totally; and so do you. But I didn’t, and in the present instance, I think you may not either.

    I was at the bi-annual CERTS conference in St. Cloud.

    http://www.cleanenergyresourceteams.org/

    The final plenary talk was given by a psychologist, previously unknown to all of us, but one of the CERTS leaders gave her a great personal build up, and told us to listen. The topic; a major focus throughout this meeting, was how to COMMUNICATE with plain folks; specifically- how to communicate so that they would ACTUALLY change their behavior-which is exactly the major point you want to make here; renewables are not enough- behavior has to be changed.

    Everybody out there gets that- at this level, and it’s now a major focus for most of us. How to bring about change?

    The psychologist lady was boring me to tears. I’d not only heard it all before, I’d taught it all before, and known it all since I was in high school. Then, she got cute, and started putting up pictures of Star Trek, the original TV cast, and using the various characters as examples.

    The main comparison was between Mr. Spock – who exemplifies the strictly logical analysis and decision making processes humans sometimes use; and Kirk, who is far more emotional in his decision making- but often saves the day, because of that. (Never mind that this is FICTION…)

    Yes, yes, we all know. yadayada Cute. People are quirky and emotional.

    She went on. Enumerating, exemplifying. More coffee, please…

    Then she started wrapping it up. “So – what we all want to know; all need to learn, is HOW to talk to people about these concerns…”

    And she snuck up; on me, anyway; “The first thing to remember is… (picture of Nimoy pops up) … YOU’RE NOT TALKING TO SPOCK.”

    I doubt I can make that hit you as hard at it hit me; but I’m a changed man. I knew already, I’m not talking to Spock mostly – but I still was making my talks based on clear logic, all the facts… etc. Spending hours making the logic irrefutable and the graphics blindingly simple.

    And- pretty clearly – it doesn’t work; it isn’t working – and we know it.

    Last week Bill McKibben made a video, put up on Treehugger, about the Tim DeChristopher verdict. “We’ve got to ‘up our game’ “, he said- meaning, we are not making enough impact. And he said it with the most intense dead serious face I’ve ever seen him use.

    He’s right. Spock is UNABLE to communicate with McCoy; and it’s the McCoys who must hear, and must change, or we are all going to die.

    So, basically – Patzek was writing for Spock- only. And I’m saying- we have to stop doing that. It hurts us in the end; the Klingons pick it up, load it in their disruptors, and fire it back at us. Yes, you and I and us can understand Spock – but McCoy is reading all this too.

    (incidentally, toots, if you think Patzek’s more of a scientist than I am, you haven’t read my résumé…) :-)

  13. #13 Sharon Astyk
    March 10, 2011

    Greenpa, I should have said “academic scientist” – no aspersions implied.

    That said, I think you are simply wrong in dismissing Patzek because he can’t get through to Dr. McCoy – sure, Mr. Spock can’t get through to Dr. McCoy, but he can get through to Captain Kirk and Sulu and Uhura – and they need to be persuaded of things too. Patzek’s value is that he runs the numbers on everything, clearly and comprehensively in ways that are revealing to people who do respond well to Mr. Spock. Then, those people can move on to Dr. McCoy.

    I think it is absolutely wrong that “we” have to stop writing for Spock. Some people need to write for Spock. Some people need to write for McCoy. Some people need to write to Sulu and Uhura and Kirk. It is neither necessary nor productive to have just one model for thinking about things. As you’ll note, this is kind of a Spocky website in general (science blogs ;-)), and I don’t have a problem putting up Spocky material, even though I’m definitely not Spock ;-). The message I’d take from all of this is not “don’t talk to spock” but “don’t talk to Spock when McCoy is who you need to persuade.” but that’s not the same thing – there’s a room for a large range of responses.

    Sharon

  14. #14 Greenpa
    March 10, 2011

    Oh….

    Alright, then. :-)

    You caught me with my head caught in non-spock-space.

    Yeah, spock-space exists, too.

    I hereby de-castigate.

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