Can renewable energy sustain consumer societies?
A new report has just been published which ought to provoke a Copernican revolution in dominant conceptions of renewable energy and of sustainability more generally. The message may not be one that environmentalists want to hear, but it is one that we must all take very seriously, or risk having our good intentions dedicated to goals that cannot actually solve the very real environmental crises that we face.
Most people, including many environmentalists, seem to believe that Western-style consumer lifestyles can be sustained and even globalised, provided the world transitions to systems of renewable energy and produces goods more cleanly and efficiently. This assumption is reflected especially clearly in political discussion on environmental issues, which consistently pushes the message that we can grow our economies while reducing ecological impact. This view relies heavily on the expectation that renewable energy sources can be substituted for fossil fuels, but very little attention is given to the question of whether that expectation is realistic. Environmentalists want to believe it, but of course merely wanting something does not affect the laws of physics.
With little recognition, Dr. Ted Trainer has spent the best part of a decade tirelessly surveying the best available data on renewable energy and other technologies, and he has recently published the culmination of his efforts with the Simplicity Institute. Contradicting widely held assumptions, Trainer presents a formidable case that renewable energy and other ‘tech-fixes’ will be unable to sustain growth-based and energy-intensive consumer societies, with implications that are as profound as they will be unwelcome.
Trainer’s general point on technology is that the extent of ecological overshoot is already so great that technology alone will never be able to solve the ecological crises of our age, certainly not in a world based on economic growth and with a growing global population. The best-known advocate of technological solutions to ecological problems is probably Amory Lovins, most famous for his ‘factor four’ thesis. He argues that if we exploit technology we could have four times the economic output without increasing environmental impact (or maintain current economic output and reduce environmental impact by a factor of four).
In response Trainer points out that if the rich economies grow at 3% until 2070, and by that stage the poorest nations have attained similarly high living standards – which seems to be the aim of the global development agenda – total world economic output and impact could be 60 times larger than it is today. If we assume that sustainability requires that fossil fuel use and other resource consumption must be half of what they are today (and the greenhouse problem would probably require a far larger reduction than this), then what is needed is something like a factor 120 reduction in the per unit impact of GDP, not merely a factor 4 reduction.
Even allowing for some uncertainty in these calculations, the claim that technological solutions can solve the ecological crises and sustain limitless economic growth is simply not credible. Trainer has shown that the necessary reductions in ecological impact that are just beyond what is remotely possible. The final nail in the coffin of techno-optimists is the fact that despite decades of extraordinary technological advance, the overall ecological impact of the global economy is still increasing, making even a factor four reduction through technological advance seem wildly optimistic.
Trainer has also levelled a narrower critique of technological solutions, which focuses on renewable energy. This is not the place to review in detail Trainer’s arguments and research, which would be a laborious task given the meticulous and necessarily dry nature of his analysis of the evidence. For the facts and figures, readers are referred to Trainer’s latest essay. But the critical findings of his technical research can be easily summarised. After examining the evidence on varieties of solar, wind, biomass, hydrogen, etc., as well as energy storage systems, Trainer concludes that the figures just do not support what almost everyone assumes; that is to say, they do not support the argument that renewable energy can sustain consumer societies.
This is because the enormous quantities of electricity and oil required by consumer societies today simply cannot be converted to any mixture of renewable energy sources, each of which suffer from various limitations arising out of such things as intermittency of supply, storage problems, resource limitations (e.g. rare metals, land for biomass competing with food production, etc.), and inefficiency issues. Ultimately, however, the cost is the fundamental issue at play here. Trainer provides evidence showing that existing attempts to price the transition to systems of renewable energy are wildly understated.
This challenging conclusion, however, only defines the magnitude of the present problem. If we were to commit ourselves to providing nine or ten billion people with the energy resources currently demanded by those in the richest parts of the world, then the problems and costs become greater by orders of magnitude. The challenges are exacerbated further by the existence of the “rebound effect,” a phenomenon that often negates the expected energy use reductions of efficiency improvements. At times efficiency improvements can even be the catalyst for increased energy consumption, a phenomenon known as the “Jevons” paradox. Going directly against the grain of mainstream thinking on these issues, Trainer is led to conclude that renewable energy and efficiency improvements will never be able to sustain growth-based, consumer societies, primarily because it would be quite unaffordable to do so.
It is of the utmost importance to emphasise that this is not an argument against renewable energy; nor is it an argument more broadly against the use of appropriate technologies to achieve efficiency improvements. Trainer argues without reservation that the world must transition to full dependence on systems of renewable energy without delay and exploit appropriate technology wherever possible. We cannot afford not to! But given the limitations and expense of renewable energy systems, any transition to a just and sustainable world requires a vastly reduced demand for energy compared to what is common in the developed regions of the world today, and this necessitates giving up growth-based, consumer societies and the energy-intensive lifestyles they support and promote.
The implications of this can hardly be exaggerated. It means that the global consumer class must learn how to live ‘simpler lives’ of reduced resource and energy consumption, as well as build new economic systems based on notions of sufficiency rather than excess. But as I have argued elsewhere, this does not need to sound so depressing. A growing number of people are seeing the hollowness of consumer culture and are finding a new abundance in oppositional lifestyles of voluntary simplicity. The necessary cultural shift obviously requires a radical change in worldview, and it is difficult to be optimistic that the necessary changes will ever arrive. But as Lao Tzu once said: ‘Those who know they have enough are rich,’ which also suggests that those who have enough, but who do not know it, are poor.
The choice is ours, if only we choose it.
Dr. Samuel Alexander is co-director of the Simplicity Institute and a lecturer in ‘Consumerism and Sustainability’ at the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne. The Simplicity Institute has recently published Ted Trainer’s new report on renewable energy, which is freely available at: http://www.SimplicityInstitute.org/publications. To join others exploring the practice and politics of the ‘simple life,’ please sign up to the Simplicity Collective.
You can download a copy of the 22-page report (pdf) here.
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