Saturday, April 1, 2017

The end is near

Some say that, almost whatever we do technically, we are all doomed to damage the planet so much that civilisation will collapse. Tinkering will not help.  A recent NASA funded study by the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, said that technical fixes lead to continued resource consumption: ‘Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.’
This is a version of the so-called Jevons paradox: increased resource-use conversion efficiency cuts the cost of consumption which therefore can continue to expand, so that resources are exhausted.

Is that really the case?  Renewable energy sources can supply energy for ever, or at least as long as the sun lasts- they are never used up. However, building the energy conversion technology does need energy and resources.  Some of the specialist materials used in some of these plants may be scarce, although some can be recycled from earlier projects or substitutes found. More significantly, the energy needed will initially have to come from conventional sources. Some say that there won’t be enough fossil energy to build the replacement system, and that might be the case if we continue to use most of it for other things. So we might insist that in future most fossil energy is earmarked just for the renewable expansion programme. However, gradually, and as fossil availability and/or use declines, renewables can provide most of the energy for the next phase of renewable expansion, until a stable state is reached, with renewables supplying all energy and only marginal maintenance and replacement work  then being needed. Some might add nuclear fission to the mix as an interim option, but the increased amount of energy needed to sustain nuclear as fissile fuel reserves dwindle may make it a poor choice for this role, quite apart from the risks. New breeder technology might stretch the fissile reserves and fusion could open up another possible future, but for the moment at least that is very speculative. Renewables are only sustainable options we have at present.

Whatever the mix, how quickly we can reach the point at which renewables can bootstrap expansion will depend on how rapidly we want to make the change over, and on what we do about energy use and wider economic growth.  If we are aiming at a steady state, low or zero growth future, then the resource and energy problems become more tractable. But that may take time. Depending on which renewables are adopted, there may also be other impacts- for example on land use and water resources. They may limit what can be done, for example in terms of using biomass. But in theory a transition could be made, although it will require careful management and also, arguably, some major social changes. 

Here is where the NASA-backed analysis gets quite radical. It suggests that since we can no longer feed endless growth, in that context, the inequitable use of resources by minorities and elites will be increasingly provocative. Indeed, in almost Marxian terms, the study suggested that, ‘accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.’ Moreover, unless that is challenged ‘the Elites eventually consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society’. That is on top of whatever direct damage in being done the planet. However, while not indicting exactly who might make this change, it concludes ‘collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion’. 

It recognises that this will be hard: ‘While some members of society might raise the alarm that the system is moving towards an impending collapse and therefore advocate structural changes to society in order to avoid it, Elites and their supporters, who opposed making these changes, could point to the long sustainable trajectory 'so far' in support of doing nothing.’ Does that sound familiar?

There are other views, some of which, rather optimistically look to new technology changing the growth-consumption link, empowering those previously mostly excluded from economic progress and heralding a post-capitalism transition:   And also

While some of this analysis may be overdone (new technology can also be used by the elites to buttress their control), it is clear that changes are underway, including in the energy economy, with self-generation by ‘prosumers’ and grass roots energy co-ops challenging the market power of some of the conventional corporate energy suppliers and that is part of a wider rethink about the future.   

Seventeen years into the century, millennialism, powered by serious concern about the future, continuing global economic uncertainties and heightened climate change worries, seems to have finally arrived, some of this prefigured in Jeremy Leggett’s 2014 book ‘The Energy of Nations’.  He saw some big global economic risks ahead, most of them being likely to interact and lead to another major global financial crash, but this one worse, as the world markets get hit by energy price shocks due to peak oil, a collapse of the shale gas boom, a collapse of carbon asset values as climate change hits, plus wider economic problems due to climate impacts. But he said mobilizing renewables and redeploying energy funding could soften the crash and set us on a road to renaissance. Some say peak oil has been delayed, although equally it may have been accelerated by low market prices, but either way he may be proved right- we are in for a crisis.  Summary/chapter 1 at:  His latest book, ‘Winning the Carbon War’, brings the story up to date: although gains have been made, the crisis has not been averted and the battle continues, with Trump being the latest challenge:
 Though looking to the future, if IT/AI expands, longer term, we may all be redundant!   Homo Deus included!

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