I stumbled across a new review of Chris Martenson’s book “The Unsustainable Future Of Our Economy, Energy and Environment” today. It’s a generally positive review, but with a few drawbacks that the reviewer calls “flaws”.
John Atcheson starts the review with the following:
The first thing to say about The Crash Course is that it is an impressive work of scholarship. It is reminiscent of Guns, Germs and Steel in terms of the scope and breadth of knowledge brought to bear by the author in support of his thesis – which is basically that we’re headed for hard times unlike anything humanity has seen.
The second is that it contains a few fundamental flaws.
The third is that you should read it anyway. His thesis is more than plausible; his research is meticulous; and no matter how much you think you know about sustainability, you will walk away from The Crash Course wiser, if sadder.
Let’s look at the flaws the reviewer brings up and see if they really are valid “Flaws”:
Altogether, he makes a strong case for the inevitability of economic collapse. To read The Crash Course, one would think that it’s all been predetermined, as certain as it is inexorable.
Enter flaw number one.
Martenson dismisses the possibility of changing our policies in ways that might mitigate debt, mostly on the basis that more prudent policies such as tax increases and cost cuts are politically impossible, and the size of our debt is unprecedented.
But political winds change. Our enslavement to debt remains a choice, not a life sentence. There are viable solutions. For example, the Congressional Progressive Caucus recently released their Budget for All which would balance the budget by 2021 while preserving Social Security and the social safety net and investing in job-creating, prosperity-inducing infrastructure projects, using policies that are individually popular with the majority of Americans. Only the combination of media malfeasance and the Democrats’ complete inability to communicate keep these kinds of strategies from being seriously considered.
In short, there are solutions to our economic problems out there, but Martenson is making an assumption that we will not use them.
Atcheson still has hope that the grotesque machinations of what we call our “political system” will actually operate for the common good of our society rather than for the narrow monied interests of individuals and groups. Good luck with that. Money is the ‘mother’s milk‘ of politics and no truer words were spoken when Jack Abramoff recently said “the whole system is corrupt.” Remember, Politicians like money. LOL.
Scientific research has proven that humans are hard-wired to overlook negative information and cling to positive outlooks. Atcheson appears to have the obligatory ‘Hope’ implanted in his brain although reality does manage to resurface occasionally(see underlined text in the above Atcheson quote).
Enter Flaw number two.
Towards the end of the book, he acknowledges that there is substantial potential to increase the efficiency with which we use energy. But in his discussion on energy he fails to note how efficiency can be used to lower costs and buy us the one thing we need most: time to manage a transition. Moreover, he understates the potential for the most bountiful source of energy of all, the sun. Even with today’s technology we could generate more than 20 times the energy we now use from vacant, unused land in the world’s deserts. Throw in improvements in solar technology, end use efficiencies, and improved energy density in storage systems, and solar energy is clearly capable of providing more than enough energy to fuel a modern, prosperous society for as long as the sun burns. And with costs coming down, it can do so at affordable rates.
And with electric cars becoming more viable and more widely accepted, wind and solar can directly displace oil. EIA notes that the average car stays on the road for 15 years, so even this transition could be made relatively quickly. It wouldn’t be easy. It wouldn’t be cheap. But it is possible.
Here again, what Martenson presents as essentially a factually determined outcome is, in reality, a choice. He may well be right in the outcome he’s projecting, but it won’t be because it was inevitable. It will be because we failed to make the right choices.
If the gridlock of politics and the inherent need for economic growth had allowed, a transition should have been instituted decades ago before we had hit the plateau of peak oil.
Atcheson overlooks Jevons Paradox which states that increased efficiency simply leads to increased consumption due to growth:
“In economics, the Jevons paradox (sometimes Jevons effect) is the proposition that technological progress that increases the efficiency with which a resource is used tends to increase (rather than decrease) the rate of consumption of that resource.…The Jevons effect indicates that increased efficiency, by itself, is unlikely to reduce fuel use, and that sustainable energy policy must rely on other types of government interventions. ”
Atcheson’s views on solar energy misses the fact that solar energy is simply a fossil fuel extender as explained by Gail Tverberg in “What President Obama Should Have Said Regarding Energy Policy“. John Weber has a nice explanation of fossil fuel extenders as well in his essay “Machines Making Machines Making Machines“:
“Solar and wind capturing devices are not alternative energy sources. They are extensions of the fossil fuel supply. There is an illusion of looking at the trees and not the forest in the “Renewable” energy world. Not seeing the systems, machineries, fossil fuel uses and environmental degradation that create the devices to capture the sun, wind and biofuels allows myopia and false claims.
Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI) is only a part of the equation. There is a massive infrastructure of mining, processing, manufacturing, fabricating, installation, transportation and the associated environmental assaults. Each of these processes and machines may only add a miniscule amount of energy to the final component of solar or wind devices. There would be no devices with out this infrastructure.”
Timothy Gutowski and colleagues calculated that as computer chips shrunk in size and grew in power the material and energy intensity per unit mass increased a million-times. This is even before we factor in the cost of armies swarming over Afghanistan to secure the lithium for batteries.
We tend to think that since our computers require so little energy to operate, that they are ‘efficient’, but we’re measuring the wrong thing. We need to measure the ‘embodied’ energy and material required to mine and ship resources and to build telecom infrastructure, server networks, software, research labs, and office towers. According to the International Energy Association report,’Gadgets and gigawatts‘, electricity consumption for computers, cell phones, iPhones, and other devices will triple by 2030, and this does not include the bulldozers digging up resources.
Remember when people claimed computers were going to save paper? This never happened. In 1950, at the dawn of the computer age, humanity used about 50 million tons of paper each year. We now use 250 million tons, five times the paper. Growth swamps efficiency. Computers stimulated growth and created more uses for packaging and paper. Meanwhile, during that period, the Earth lost over 600 million hectares of forest.
In ‘The Monster Footprint of Digital Technology‘ Kris De Decker points out that utility stations operate at about 35 per cent efficiency, so the actual energy consumed is almost three-times the electricity consumed when a device is switched on. This is the metabolic cost of growth, the rising cost of complexity, paid long before you boot your computer or recharge your iPhone.
Where does this energy come from? It comes from damming rivers, loping off mountain tops for coal, and boring wells deep into the Earth’s crust below the ocean.
…chemical energy is stored in crude oil and in other fossil fuels as the result of ancient geological processes mainly driven by solar energy as, of course, you know very well. Oil is a lot of embedded energy. Now, what is happening is that this energy collected long ago is being gradually dissipated; we extract oil, we burn it, and the final result is heat lost to space (and some nasty greenhouse gases that will give us lots of troubles in the near future).
But the process extracting oil and burning it is more complex than just dissipating thermal energy to interstellar space. That’s not a single step process. Energy flows and it is embedded for a while in that thing we call “civilization”. To make a long story short, chemical potentials are gradually dissipated in systems which are out of equilibrium – it is an effect of the second law of thermodynamics. The higher is the potential difference between source and sink, the faster the potential is dissipated, creating in the process some dissipative structures; “eddies” in the flow of matter and time. These eddies are where embedded energy is stored: civilization described from a thermodynamical viewpoint. The window panes of your house are such dissipative structures, just as your books, your house and yourself (and Bobbins as well!).
As we gradually run out of fossil fuels, we are reducing the chemical potentials out of which we can drive an energy flux. That means we have to adapt to dissipative structures that embed smaller amounts of energy. This is the problem we are facing with such highly energy embedding structures as cars, air conditioning equipment, refrigerators and McMansions.
As far as electric cars, even if we can solve the battery charge and driving distance limitations we still run into other confinements like the space needed to operate cars on such a large scale for the world’s growing population, resultant traffic congestion, road and parking infrastructure, etc. as explained here. Electric car batteries also require finite rare earth minerals.
The final “Flaw”:
Flaw number three.
Martenson all but ignores the effect of using the environment as a sink – as the repository of the wastes that inevitably result from our battle with entropy. And while he could be accused of overstating the inevitability of the adverse consequences of the first two Es, his choice to look at the environment mainly as a stock of resources means he barely addresses the impact of global warming. In fact, it is mentioned only once, in a section entitled “Convergence,” as a “…potential demand on our limited budgets.”
This may actually be a legitimate flaw, but it does not detract from any of the other points made by Martenson. I have not yet read the book. The unabated use of the environment as a ‘bottomless’ sink for our economic activities actually makes collapse of industrial civilization even more inevitable. Take for instance the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We are literally trashing the planet. Climate change and peak energy are two different sides of the same coin. Solving climate change and environmental degradation requires weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels and investing in an alternative energy infrastructure whose construction will, of course, require the use of our depleting fossil fuels.
Real wealth has no money flow until humans impose one. All non-human societies and human societies for most of human history consumed Nature’s real wealth without money. Modern human societies, for example, pay loggers and fishermen to harvest Nature’s embodied energy. Inside the human system, money can expand exponentially, but “real wealth” remains limited by energy, materials, and biophysical processes.
In human economics, rising debt is fake energy. In Nature, all debts are paid and no one is “too big to fail.”