Nearly all of our thinking about energy is “wishful” and geared towards the destruction of notions of limits on action, travel and possessions. However, energy is, by its nature, bound up with entropy and limits. The first step towards ‘realism’, is realising these limits.
For example, you cannot expend more energy than you have, and it is only in rare circumstances that energy production is near free – that is that the amount of energy expended (over the production and distribution cycle) to make energy is much less than the energy produced.
It always takes energy to make energy available. Even human food gathering, takes humanly expended energy.
Making or capturing energy also usually creates mess and danger. For example, mass slavery destroys the societies the slaves come from as well as posing problems for the societies using the slaves. Fossil fuel production and burning creates poisons and ecological destruction.
We are now moving out of a rare period of really cheap energy into an era of either both expensive or dangerous energy.
Fossil fuels are getting expensive and dangerous. Coal mines are getting even more ecologically fraught and people are more likely to resist being poisoned for the ‘greater good,’ even if governments, like Trump’s, are trying to make it easier not to have to contain dangerous materials. Oil appears to have already hit its peak, taking more and more energy to extract, and gas via fracking is largely uneconomic and destructive. Gas is dangerous in general because of leakage at wells or in old, expensive to replace, pipes in cities.
However, moving to renewables will not completely solve the energy problem. The level of renewable energy sources we need to fully replace fossil fuels will take massive amounts of energy to build; some figures suggest that we have to increase the amount of renewables by a factor of fifty to seventy, in about 10 years, to fully replace fossil fuels before it is too late. Renewables, generally occupy large amounts of land (even if they don’t have destroy that land forever, they sometimes may), and require large amounts of mining for materials, and this mining probably will destroy land. Renewables also wear out eventually, and have to be replaced, although this is also true of fossil fuel power stations; it is not entirely certain we can recycle all components, and even if we can this will take energy.
If we want to survive, then we need to recognise that the era of cheap energy has gone. There is, of course, the vague possibility of massive technological innovation which will replace the cheap energy of yore with new sources, but the problem with being saved by wished for tech, is that sometimes the tech just cannot be made in time, with the energy available, or within the costs people are prepared for. That we need a new working technology does not mean it will arise, or arise in time.
We need to work with what we have, while trying to make it better, rather than distract ourselves with wishful fantasy. Fantasy that leads to more constructive action than just indulging in hope is a different matter.
There is no question that fusion could solve our problems. But despite research since the 1940s, we are nowhere near having a commercially viable fusion generator. All fusion energy, so far, seems to require more energy consumption to make than is emitted. It is not something we can depend upon solving our problems.
Clean coal, or carbon capture, is theoretically possible (if you ignore a few problems of policing the results) and relatively easy, yet it has not come into being, despite lots of public money being made available for companies to develop it in their own self-interest.
Thorium reactors have been tried and failed in Germany for commercial and technical reasons. It is possible that we could revitalise thorium research, but it is not happening at the moment, and development, testing and (finally) building new thorium based energy sources will probably take twenty to forty years, going by normal time cycles, with plenty of government investment. Again this is not happening, so thorium is unlikely to save us, even if it can be made to work. Normal nuclear reactors are not being built because of the cost, time to build, impossibility of gaining disaster insurance, resistance by local populations, and so on. So they are not going to save us either.
If we are going to be saved by tech we don’t have, then the chances of being saved are low – in my opinion of course.
A further problem is that wishful thinking plagues discussion. Pro-fossil fuel people tend to blame renewables for society’s energy problems and renewable people tend to blame fossil fuels, when they are mutually implicated. However, it serves as a distraction from those problems with the sources they are promoting.
I’m reading Michael Mills report on renewables (thanks Mark) which is realistic about the costs and inefficiencies of renewables, but completely blasé about the costs of fossil fuels, which he insists must remain the main energy source for the world. Likewise the Australian government has decided the country’s potential energy problems arise solely because we have too many renewables.
Both cases are wishfully ignoring problems with fossil fuels in order to support established industries and established cheap energy, which is no longer cheap due to its consequences.
This wishfulness probably arises because so much of our culture is bound into cheap safe energy. Without it we face an existential crisis. The future appears uncertain, and unpleasant. It is very hard to decide what to do about the problems in a way which maintains life as it ‘should be’ and which will gain the necessary support. It is much easier to be wishful.
Consequently, the most likely trajectory is that we will just crash and burn. Another reason for ‘us’ ‘choosing’ to crash and burn, is because so much privilege and security is bound up with continuing along as we have done. It is not uncommon for ruling classes to be more interested in preserving their power and privilege than in seeing the problems, dealing with them and surviving – and that is what seems to be happening.
We might need to explore and understand the conditions in which societies do not pursue wishfulness fantasies, or the preservation of ruling class power, and actually face their existential problems. I would suspect that circulation amongst the elites, in which established members of the elite can slide down, and people in the non elites can slide up without depending on a single dictator like figure, might be one common circumstance in survival, but I’m not sure this is still present in most of our societies.
Whatever, the case, wishful business as usual, does not appear to be delivering civilisational survival. Such survival is almost certainly going to demand a completely new way of organising socially, and of ‘lowering expectations’ of what can be done. This will generate more resistance from the ruling classes, and from most people who see the current mode of being as being the only one worth having.
If we keep the same social dynamics, then it is probable that any new technology will be engineered and expected to fit in with the established social dynamics of ecological destruction or exploitation, and will not work to help save society in the long term.
Others may object that its hard to change society, even if the rulers co-operate. However, it is not harder to change society than to change the working of the global ecological system to preserve social relations of power and wealth.
We have changed societies and the ways they operate quite quickly in the past. It took less than 30 years for neoliberalism to become the norm in Australia and the US. It is true that that particular change was helped by it benefiting the rulers considerably, but the working classes made heaps of sacrifices for it to come about. That is probably one reason why they won’t like making more sacrifices for new forms of social organisation – but I suspect that people could still make sacrifices, if they could see that sacrifices were equitable, and the new life was being delivered equitably, and they could participate.
People will do heroic things for their kids and grandkids (not everyone obviously, but most people)
But, at the moment, people are going to think wishfully that it is someonelse’s problem or wonder what’s in it for them. Overcoming those problems is not something neoliberalism helps, as it is based on lack of responsibility and proft, so that has probably got to go.
The point is that transition is more difficult than most people want to see, even if they do see it as inevitable. It requires transformations at all kinds of levels and all kinds of places. I’m not sure its impossible, but we almost certainly need to change social organisation as much as we need new technology, and as much as we need to guard against wishfulness…