Category Archives: Energy

Answering the Wrong Question

On the Colbert Report Monday night – if you’re keeping count as I am, that’s two weeks in a row that Colbert’s “forced” me write a post – environmental policy expert Michael Shellenberger advocated for nuclear power as a necessary energy source. His rationale is that energy demand is going to double by 2050, efficiency and conservation notwithstanding, so we really have no choice.

The new e-book he and co-author Ted Nordhaus have edited is called Love Your Monsters and in the Colbert interview, he explains we need to love our problematic children, our monsters, rather than abandoning them.

As I’ve mentioned before, I hate metaphors because it seems you can always find one to make any position sound right. One of our monsters, he says, is nuclear power and we simply haven’t been good parents. Were they my children, I’d give nuclear reactors a really really long time out.

SimpsonNuclearSafety

I could go on about the major issues of nuclear energy, from the fact that it isn’t economically feasible without massive government subsidies and insurance, to the not-so-small question of what to do with the leftover radioactive waste for the next few thousand years or so. But there’s a bigger point at work here. Shellenberger and other pro-nuclear environmentalists like Stewart Brand are committing the ecological sin of not thinking in systems. They’re looking at the energy issue as if it’s independent from our other environmental and social dilemmas. In fact, there are at least two larger pictures that they are ignoring.

That doubling of energy demand prediction is predicated on an assumption of the status quo: that the population will continue to grow until we reach 10 billion of us sometime mid-century and, perhaps more significantly, that our patterns of consumption will continue along the paths we’ve been following for the last century.

It’s somewhat understandable that they follow the population growth predictions. Slowing population growth, to put it mildly, is a difficult issue. (Though, as I mentioned in “Less is More, More or Less,” it’s been pointed out that annual population growth is roughly the same as the number of unwanted pregnancies.) Altering our rates of consumption, however, is a much more achievable – and desirable – goal.

There’s a fundamental mathematical formula that calculates our environmental impact. It goes like this: I=PxCxT. Environmental Impact is determined by the Population, how much we Consume and the resource or Technological intensity of those things we consume. So the ways to reduce impact are by reducing population, reducing consumption and decreasing material and energy intensity. That predicting doubling of energy demand assumes we can’t do much or anything about the first two and we can perhaps eke out some mildly increased efficiencies in the last one.

It also assumes, as most conventional economic theory does, that those increases in C and T are a good thing because growth is assumed to be good. Sort of a tautology. But as has been mentioned here in EcoOptimism and elsewhere, more consumption and more technology do not automatically lead to improved quality of life. In fact, once basic needs have been fulfilled, the opposite is true. Many studies have found that people in developed countries are no happier now – and may be less happy – than they were a generation or two ago. Of course, indoor plumbing and antibiotics made life infinitely better and many of us would find it hard to live without Starbucks drip coffee makers. However, the digital revolution, for all its amazing abilities and benefits, doesn’t seem to have improved quality of life or happiness. Some would say it’s done the opposite.

So that’s the first missing element in the pro-nuclear argument. The path it assumes is not actually the path we want. And the paths that would really make our lives better happen to also require less energy.

The other part of the big picture that they are missing is due to a narrow concept of environmentalism that focuses almost exclusively on energy. One of the first slides I often show my classes shouts out “It’s not just about climate change.” Yes, climate change chaos has the potential to do to us what that asteroid did to the dinosaurs. At the very least, adapting to it is going to be very expensive and will in all probability involve a lot of human suffering. Superstorm Sandy brought that point home. A seemingly relentless series of other atypical storms, heat waves and droughts are making the point elsewhere.

But simply solving the energy issue with low-carbon sources, whether it be through “too cheap to meter” nuclear power or a more likely blend of renewable sources, won’t make everything hunky-dory. It won’t solve resource depletion, water shortages, loss of biodiversity or numerous other ecological impacts. Moving away from fossil fuels doesn’t diminish the amounts of materials needed for all the stuff demanded by 10 billion people desiring to live as Americans do. It doesn’t reduce the staggering amounts of material we throw out daily. It doesn’t eliminate the toxic runoff from the industrial farming that barely feeds 7 billion people today. It doesn’t change either P or C or T.

Here’s the thing: we can’t approach this (nor should we) with only the goal of weaning ourselves off fossil fuel. We need to dramatically reduce the demand for energy and – happily — that can go hand in hand with some very positive changes in our patterns of consumption and in our lifestyles. And then we wouldn’t have to deal with creating more misbehaving monsters in our nuclear family.

Bouncing Back, or Elastic Demand: The Historical Parallels Between Rubber and Renewable Energy

If history truly does repeat itself, then perhaps we can take a chapter from World War II and fruitfully apply it to the 21st century. At the outset of hostilities, even before 1941, it became clear that the military had a significant supply problem with a particular material needed for mobility and other uses such as wire insulation: rubber.

Rubber had been originally sourced from rubber trees in the Amazon. (The rubber, or latex, is tapped from the trees in sort of the way that maple syrup is harvested.)

Harvesting latex from a rubber tree. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

With the development of the automobile, demand for rubber soared and a vicious Brazilian industry rapidly grew. But by the late 19th century, rubber seeds had been successfully exported to Southeast Asia and, from then on, the Brazilian sourcing of rubber declined dramatically from basically 100% to, by 1940, merely1.3%.

Playing the national security card

Which brings us to the start of WWII. The US was dependent on Asia for its rubber supply, and wars on two oceans cut off 90% of the supply. Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Rubber Reserve Company, forcing the major rubber companies to work together and all but conscripted the scientists and engineers in the field to develop reliable synthetic sources of rubber. That source: petroleum.

Germany had, out of necessity, actually produced synthetic rubber in WW1, but it was much more expensive than natural rubber and, therefore, manufacturing ceased when that war ended. Now, there was an immediate dire need for the US to advance that research and put it into cost-effective production.

The wartime effort prevailed (along with such conservation measures as lowered speed limits to decrease wear on tires) and by the end of the war the US was producing almost as much rubber as it had been importing.

 

Manufacture of natural rubber versus synthetic rubber. Source: Mindfully.org.

 

It’s not a perfect environmental parable since natural rubber was displaced by synthetic rubber, dependent on petroleum supplies that eventually had to be imported. The synthetic rubber manufacturing process, too, is not exactly a clean industry. (Not that natural rubber harvesting, as conventionally practiced, was all that sustainable either.) The point, though, is that the US recognized a severe problem of national security and determined that the response had to be stimulation of domestic industry. An all-out effort was initiated and, five years later, amidst wartime conditions, the problem was essentially solved.

The new rubber?

Ironically, seventy years later, it’s the petroleum whose supply is threatened. This time, though, it’s not only rubber production that is in jeopardy; it’s our entire industrial base as well as our lifestyles, that “American Way of Life.” And what’s our national response? Let’s frantically grab onto a diminishing supply of increasingly expensive and increasingly dirty fossil fuel sources and perhaps postpone the problem by a few years while doing nothing to address the core problem. And in going that route, those core problems become even harder and more painful to remedy – if indeed remedies are then still possible — later.

If we had the leadership we had in the 1940’s, it would be a different picture. Yes, speed limits would be reduced to conserve fuel (as they were, but only temporarily, in the seventies). But moreover, we’d see a national effort – one akin to a wartime effort, not our current haphazard and intermittent programs – to ensure our national security by simultaneously decreasing demand for fossil fuels and developing alternative sources.

The synthetic rubber initiative in the 1940s was a matter of life or death. Without alternative rubber production, the war may well have turned out differently. Is the need now for renewable energy significantly different? As then, we face endangered supply lines. On top of that, the supply currently endangered is itself finite and disappearing rapidly (we’ve used up 500 million years of accumulated fossil fuel in less than two centuries) and its usage is creating issues both local and global, and threatening our health, our food supplies and perhaps our survival.

Hubbert’s Curve (above, source: Wikipedia Commons) is a common depiction of imminent peak oil. But perhaps more illuminating and dramatic is this graph (below) from one of my favorite geek blogs, Do the Math. Over millions of years, the Earth slowly accumulated a stockpile of fossil fuels. We suddenly started extracting them only a century or two ago, and are using them up far faster than the planet can replace them. “Blowing through our inheritance” is what Do the Math author, Tom Murphy, calls it.

 


The enemy is different. It’s not as easily identifiable or as obviously evil as countries attacking us (leaving aside Middle East politics and terrorism), but it is at least as menacing. Our way of life is endangered not, as George W. Bush said, by action to fix a combined strategic, economic and ecological problem, but by inaction. Perhaps the big difference is that, at the end of this “war” effort, the outcome is not merely survival, but our flourishing: better, healthier and happier lives on a cleaner, healthier planet. Not acting puts everything at risk. In acting, on the other hand, there is very little to lose, and everything to gain. It’s the consummate win-win-win scenario and shying away from it is not merely foolhardy and shortsighted, but in fact unpatriotic.

So our role models are petroleum-based rubber and the atomic bomb?

Many say we need a contemporary Manhattan Project to develop renewable energy. Perhaps the concurrent rubber project, with its industry focus and strategic parallels, is a better model.

A big, and positive, difference is that, while there was really only one possible substitute for imported rubber, there are quite a few potential substitutes for petroleum. We use oil both as an energy source and as a basis for synthetic materials (like, ahem, rubber). However, we can generate energy from a number of renewable sources, and there are alternatives – existing or in development — to making plastics and other materials from petroleum.

 

Produce packaged, appropriately enough, in bioplastic. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

The question might be: how do we create the political environment, as WWII did for rubber, for renewable energy? Preferably, without a war. The strategic importance argument is there, but it hasn’t taken hold in the imperative way that synthetic rubber did. And if I am to be consistent in favoring the carrot over the stick, the demand should not arise from fear – though it’s a helluva motivator – but from desire. What’s needed to engage the next Manhattan or Rubber Project?