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Forever and a day

Talk with many green technology advocates and you might get the impression that we have forever and a day to make the transition from an unsustainable society to a sustainable one. Of course, they will tell you that one day far into the future, if we don't make the transition, we will have serious problems.

Their view is based on not one, but two assumptions. First, as I said, it is based on the notion that we have a comparatively long time to make this transition, usually claimed to be several decades. Second, it is assumed that technology will appear and be deployed in time to prevent the worst problems that might result from fossil fuel depletion, climate change and a variety of other environmental and resource challenges. In short the transition will be a relatively smooth one. Keep in mind that these are people who believe we have serious problems that need to be addressed. Their agenda as environmental matters go is actually quite radical if somewhat gradualist.

The notion that we have a comparatively long time stems from two lines of thought: 1) The idea that the problems we face aren't that serious yet and 2) the belief that supplies of fossil fuels will be adequate until we are able to address these problems by developing and deploying alternative energy along with other technologies to address climate change, soil degradation, deforestation, fisheries depletion, fresh water depletion, and so on.

Of course, the technological optimism stems from two centuries of unparalleled technical achievement. My usual response to this is that technology is NOT energy, but rather runs on energy. Ergo, if you don't solve the energy problem, you won't get the technical fixes you are expecting for two reasons. First, you need sufficient energy to support a gargantuan research and development infrastructure to invent and test possible technical solutions. Second, you need energy to run that technology once you deploy it. Think of the amount of energy we would require for atmospheric carbon dioxide collectors on the scale needed to actually reduce carbon dioxide levels even if we seriously curtail emissions. And, finally, the perverse or counterproductive effects of new technology are never considered. All the technologies which are going to be deployed are somehow assumed to have zero side effects.

Let us return to the urgency issue. It is notable that some green technology optimists give themselves decades for a successful transition. Clearly they are hoping they are right for a very important reason: Substituting one technology for another or a new resource for a dwindling one requires time, often considerable time. It could easily take decades to replace our current liquid fuel-based transportation infrastructure with one that relies primarily on electricity. If our rate of conversion is too slow and the time window for the conversion too short, then we will fail.

The most critical question is how much time we have to make the transition. A fully equipped hospital with on-duty surgeons and staff may be the ideal technology for a critically injured patient. But they mean little to such a patient if we are in the position of having to build the hospital and train the surgeons and staff before administering treatment. I think this analogy aptly describes our current predicament. If you miscalculate concerning the time question, it will not matter how clever human beings are.

This concern is at the heart of the peak oil movement. Its most coherent statement is the now famous (at least within peak oil circles) Hirsch Report published in 2005. The report suggests that a 20-year crash program to develop and deploy alternative liquid fuels before the peak would be necessary to prevent tremendous social and economic dislocations. Hirsch is even less sanguine now given the torpor among the world's leaders on this issue. Partly this stems from his belief that peak will arrive within the next five years.

The green optimists need to rethink their position and do a little scenario planning. What if they're wrong about how much time we have? What is their fallback strategy? Even if they regard the risk of a nearby oil peak as small, they cannot absolutely know when peak will occur. Given that their entire approach is balanced on one assumption, namely, that we have decades, they must, of necessity, admit that a nearby oil peak would call for an entirely different approach.

That approach would require immediate and drastic action to reduce our consumption of oil and to move our infrastructure quickly toward other forms of energy that do not deplete. It might also require some stopgap measures using nonrenewable resources such as coal and natural gas, but only to help us complete the transition.

Editorial Notes: My impression is that most renewable energy advocates don't have a considered position about the future of energy supplies; they just haven't given it much thought. -BA

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