by David Byrne McDonald III
Greta Thunberg, on January 21, 2020:
“In one aspect, lots has happened since last year….From another perspective, pretty much nothing has been done.”
This sums up Planet of the Humans. Despite everyone’s efforts, global atmospheric CO2 yesterday was at 416.98 ppm, the highest level ever measured. Yet the U.S. has 63,794 installed wind turbines and Germany has 29,844. What is going on?
Planet of the Humans, directed by Jeff Gibbs and produced by Ozzie Zehner, has been viewed (5/14/20) by 7,745,866 on Youtube alone. Everyone is astonished at the massive viewership, not least Gibbs, Zehner, and Michael Moore, who has lent his prestige to the film as executive producer. But POTH has also prompted a flood of anguished denunciations from people in the environmental movement who feel unjustly attacked and demonized. We will dip into a particularly cogent public attack on POTH by the President of the Board of 350 Seattle, Patrick Mazza, to view this controversy from the perspective of a righteously outraged activist.
First, as Greta counsels, let’s look at the science. The single most profound question POTH asks comes at 17:39 when Gibbs queries, “But is it possible for machines made by industrial civilization to save us from industrial civilization?” He continues with a summary statement about a particular wind turbine installation that has been hotly denied and denounced: “Did anybody consider that this is mountaintop removal for wind instead of coal?”
You can see why people are pissed.
The bald statement of the film’s scientific core comes as Gibbs narrates that
“Ozzie Zehner said it was an illusion that renewables were replacing coal or any fossil fuel.” Zehner explains, with a Las Vegas power plant in the background: “This is a 650Mw natural gas plant. That’s four times more megawatts than the coal plant over there that it’s replacing.” (26:45) But is this science? Is it not just an unfortunate circumstance?
Is it not the case that a new and improved process will drive the old process out through economies of scale, as has happened times without number? Jevons says no. His observation has come down to us as Jevon’s Paradox.
Yes, it is science. And not rocket science, since the phenomenon was first reported before there was rocket science, in 1865, by Jevons, in a little book called The Coal Question.
After discussing products and processes that met their fate at the altar of efficiency and disappeared, Jevons makes his point:
“But the economy of coals in manufactures is a different matter. It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”
Jevons was bothered because that the astonishing 10-fold improvement in the efficiency of steam engines in one hundred years had not led to economy in coal’s use, but to huge increases. “Further improvements of the [steam] engine can only have the same result, of extending the use of such a powerful agent.”
There you have it: improvements in steam engines that reduce the amount of coal to do the same work, never result in less coal being used, but always more. This is Jevon’s Paradox.
The long-term result is that the mining of coal, considered globally, has never decreased. More coal is mined today than ever in the history of the world, and more CO2 from burnt coal is entering the atmosphere than ever before.
But, you say, oil overran coal production long ago. And you are right. But oil did not replace coal or diminish its use, it only added to it. Natural gas, in its turn, being more efficient than oil, is gaining share in the energy mix, but it is not reducing the amount of oil burnt, which, as we all know, has never stopped growing and stood recently at about 100,000,000 barrels a day.
The global annual production of coal, oil, and natural gas has never gone down. Well, maybe during depressions and pandemics, but the general trend is always upward. The total produced always goes up for all fossil fuels.
The conclusion to draw: the introduction of a more efficient prime mover never reduces the continued growth of the less efficient — hence allegedly outmoded — fossil fuel. Yet this is exactly what many people persist in believing about renewable energy. They cling to the idea that market forces will ensure the triumph of renewables, because renewables provide cheaper as well as cleaner energy. On the historical evidence, there is zero chance this will happen. And that is why Greta is right and nothing is really being done.
The Consequent Fossil Fuel Industry Strategy
These facts allow us to re-assess the strategy of the fossil fuel industries as they confront a populace increasingly alarmed about climate change. On the one hand, the fossil fuel giants are deeply implicated in climate change denial in all its forms. On the other hand, they also appear to share the goals of the environmental movement. I invite you to contemplate the home page of the World Coal Association here. You will think you are in green heaven. Yet it is from this very website that we learn that coal production in 2018 amounted to 7813.3 Mt and that coal reserves of 1.1 trillion tons should last 150 years. About those reserves: they are proven reserves, meaning they are economically recoverable; as such, they are assets, and as assets, you can bet that the coal barons have monetized them, that is, borrowed money against their future exploitation, money that can only be repaid if the coal is mined, so that future mining is locked in, it must happen.
This greenwashing of fossil fuel corporate sites is multiplied immensely by vast numbers of other sites supposedly wholly in the enviro camp but with significant input, funding, etc., from fossil fuel concerns. You can find huge numbers of such sites with a few clicks. They are full of the message that we must work together to reduce fossil fuel impact. We do that by promoting more efficient, renewable technologies. But, to say it again, we have just seen that more efficient technologies do not replace, but only add to the total energy produced, so this is in fact a total lie.
Parenthetically, this entire discussion of technology deserves to be informed by the insights of Alf Hornborg, who views technology as essentially a zero-sum game where accumulation on one side demands deprivation on the other.
I find no reason to suspect corruption or chicanery in all this on the part of enviro leaders. I doubt very much that Bill McKibben was corrupted by business class tickets to conferences in cool cities. I don’t think using a wood stove brands him a hypocrite — maybe he plants enough trees to make his modest harvest renewable. What Big Fuel has offered him and others is wind turbines, solar arrays and lots of green jobs to make them happen. They have not been corrupted, but hoodwinked.
Of course the environmental movement cannot build its own wind turbines. They have 8000 parts and weigh a million pounds. Only very large enterprises can contemplate engineering, building and installing them. So when those very large corporations offer to partner with you to produce wind turbines or solar arrays, how can you in good conscience say no? Is it not your goal to see wind turbines built?
The goal of the fossil fuel producers, however, is to keep us out of their hair while they organize the burning of the rest of the world’s coal, oil, and natural gas. In the long run, of course, they can never love renewables because once they’re built, the fuel is (kind of) free, but — as John Maynard Keynes said — in the long run we are all dead. Pretend Green is a smashingly successful strategy for the fossil fuel types, as witnessed by the fact that every major fossil fuel producer on earth has such a strategy in place and spends freely to get those wind turbines and solar arrays up and running. To them, it is worth any amount of money to keep the populace thus confused — and content that something is happening. Why stampede enviros into the arms of government for relief if we can convince them that relief is already on the way? This strategy involves nothing more than applying science known since the end of the U.S. Civil War — and keeping quiet about it. It has lulled many environmental groups into somnolence. Hence the harshness of Planet of the Humans.
Jevon’s Paradox is not a conspiracy theory. It’s beauty (from a fossil-fuel-burning standpoint) is that it requires absolutely nothing more than Business As Usual. It is the way the market works. Green initiatives on the part of fossil fuel forces are, like advertising, a cost of doing business.
An Environmentalist Responds
Let’s turn now to how this is sitting with local Northwest activist and 350 Seattle leader Patrick Mazza. First let’s acknowledge that he’s white hot: “…demonization…capitalist tool…ridiculous…grotesque” are words from his lead sentence. In defense of the local work of 350 Seattle he recites a long list of good deeds that seem good to me and many of which I recall, like the fearless kayaktivists who bedeviled Shell Oil’s plan to base an arctic drilling rig in Seattle. He sketches the positive changes in age and diversity of his folk. He homes in on the Green New Deal around which the new movement has “crystallized” and he hews to the IPCC goal of a 50% reduction in GHG by 2030. Clearly a very good guy. Mazza believes “We must ask how we cut emissions in half in 10 years, a towering challenge politically, economically, and socially. What is the critical path?” That is also my goal, and those are also my questions, so let’s see where he goes.
He writes “I can tell you the only way to bring down carbon pollution fast enough is to shift from fossil fuels.” Amen. He continues: “There are two ways to reduce fossil fuels — use less and generate what we do use from renewable sources.” Amen again. But how do we shift from fossil fuels? The GND has a “huge emphasis on energy efficiency, mass building retrofits for example.” But: mass retrofits of existing buildings with efficient heating and lighting reduces overall building energy use only if the total energy of new buildings and retrofitted buildings added together is less than the formerly leaky buildings on their own. Which is to say, basically never. It is good to retrofit buildings, but only truly green if it results in a reduction of total GHG emitted.
We also don’t need Mazza’s next fix: electric cars. Life cycle analyses of electric vehicles show a slight advantage when the grid itself is powered by renewables, as it is in Seattle. But when fossil fuels are used to produce electricity, as is the case for 83% of U.S. electricity production, the advantage disappears or is very slight. Since, according to the IPCC, we need to replace 50% of all electricity we use in 10 years, it is impossible that electric vehicles, with a slight advantage over internal combustion-powered vehicles could be a significant contributor to the reduction of fossil fuel use.
Mazza says “current learning curves” and “economies of scale position renewable and vehicle electrification technologies to massively replace fossil fuels in the 2020’s. We have not stopped the growth of fossil fuels yet, but we have slowed it down from where it might have been.” Unfortunately, “economies of scale” always imply more production, not less.
Take a look at global vehicle production. It is nearly 100,000,000 cars, buses and trucks today and, of course, is reliably predicted to rise. So if nothing is done to reduce the absolute number of vehicles produced, the world will be saddled with an additional one billion vehicles during the same decade we are supposed to reduce our energy use buy 50%. It is a fond and foolish thought that somehow those new vehicles will drive a greater number of fossil fueled vehicles from the roads. When you bought that electric car did you take two internal combustion vehicles to the dump for recycling? That would reduce the vehicle load for sure, but nobody does it.
In his concluding paragraph Mazza accuses POTH of “undermining public support for renewables, which along with reductions in energy use through efficiency investments, are vitally necessary to reach that IPCC goal of 50% pollution reductions by 2030.” There it is again, the rabbit leaping out of the hat: “reductions in energy use through efficiency investments.” I hope I have shown that this is a fantasy, that is has never happened in the history of fossil fuel use, and that it is the source of unending mischief.
But still Mazza is pissed and rightly so. Gibbs and Zehner need to ponder deeply what in their film has turned such obvious potential allies as Patrick Mazza into enemies. If it were my film I would consider this a very serious problem and I would bust my ass to figure out how to make amends while pulling no punches on the science.
There is one issue both sides in this debate agree on, and I do not. That is the problem of intermittency, the fact that the flow of wind and water and cloud create, it is said, the need for some sort of always-on technology that can make the grid hum 24/7/365. The fossil guys say this can’t happen with renewables alone, you gotta have some gas or whatever because the flow-based grid will, inevitably, go down. The renewable forces say it’s a problem and they’re working on it and some fix will happen. There is a debate in Germany about whether the quick turn to renewables there (not to be taken at face value) will result in a spotty grid. They’re worried.
I suggest we look at intermittency in another way, from the viewpoint of the global South. There are 900,000,000 people with no electricity at all, to whom an intermittently-working grid would be a godsend. There are billions more who would barely notice a brown-out. Clearly 24/7/365 electricity isn’t really necessary. So let’s figure out how to equitably turn off the grid for hours every day to save some electricity here and share it there with our neighbors to the South. A vast, difference-making amount of electricity could be saved by the mere agreement to live on 16 hours of electricity per day. So I say we should embrace intermittency as a road to Global energy equity rather than fear it. Man up.
And what about all those wind turbines that are just adding energy in the global North? Let’s start shipping them to the Global South where they are desperately needed, in a real material attempt to create a North-South deal to end global warming.
I don’t know why Gibbs and Zehner chose not to name the strategy they are groping toward. It is Degrowth. Gibbs and Zehner have shown, I believe, that we cannot produce our way out of this mess, answering the question posed in the first minutes of the film in the negative: No, we cannot overcome the evils of industrial civilization by more and better industrial civilization. How then? What does it mean to de-grow?
I find degrowth an awkward word. It is translated from the French and shows it. I have no word to substitute for it, but I think I can do it in a phrase. Humans need to launch an organized retreat from industrial civilization. For comparison, what we are experiencing today with the coronavirus is an chaotic rout, degrowth for sure, but degrowth planned by no one, enforced by the evils of the market, devastating to billions and overseen by morons who do not care. Degrowth is coming to industrial civilization whether we like it or not so let us at least try to manage it.
Degrowth will be by far the most complicated thing the human race has ever done. No one has done it, although the forced march of the Cuban people to organic food production in the wake of the loss of fossil fuels from the fSU deserves much study. No one has a clue, really. The nub is, once we have all agreed that we will adjust in order to live on the proceeds of current sunlight, we must face that industrial civilization is a whole whose parts cannot be readily disentangled. How much of the infrastructure of industrial civilization do we really need to have happy people? I vote for hospitals, but hospitals require … almost everything. As I said, complicated. It is hard to save the good stuff while jettisoning the bad stuff because it all depends on the same basic industry. And we cannot have just one hospital. While we will need no Escalades nor Ram 1500s we will certainly need firetrucks.
Degrowth will be a project of all the people or it will not happen. It cannot be imposed “from above” because “above” has not the necessary wisdom, nor does “above” have our interests at heart, as we all know very well.
David Byrne McDonald III lives in Seattle