Fantasies of hyper-globalism: the WWF’s Energy Report

February 6, 2011

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has recently unveiled a new report which ambitiously declares the world can switch to 95% renewable energy sources by 2050. The report is meant to be both inspiring and reassuring in its claim that not only is it “technically feasible to supply everyone on the planet in 2050 with the energy they need with 95 per cent of this energy coming from renewable resources,” but also with its declaration that this is “practically possible” (23). The report further proposes that this can be done even with “projected increases in population, long-distance travel and increased economic wealth,” and with increased energy equity through greater “economic growth” in the developing world, all powered by renewable energy (56).

From a distance, the report—all 250 pages of it—might pass itself off as a substantial document. Rhetorically, it makes repeated efforts to appear cautious and realistic, refusing to rely heavily on undeveloped technologies, “allowing for feasible deployment rates” (103), and employing “a holistic view on the energy system accounting for all sectors, all regions, all carrier forms” (104). It is not, in other words, based on isolated fantasies of one new biofuel or an unprecedented increase in solar efficiency, nor does it isolate our energy supply from food systems, soil erosion, or land development. For this it does deserve credit.

That being said, the report and its ominous “The Scenario,” written by Ecofys Energy Consultants, is more impressive if one simply reads the section and chapter titles, rather than the text itself. On closer reading one wonders if the conclusion—one that would not threaten European and American readers with the possibility that they may have to abandon their quest for affluence–preceded the data, which seems shaped to fit the conclusion, adding some efficiency gains here, to make up for continuation of industrial growth there.

The Scenario’s most obvious shortcoming was the absence of any notions of embodied energy, as well as the essential issue of Net Energy or Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI). Because their inclusion would so drastically alter the energy picture, removing a substantial fraction of the available energy upon which The Scenario’s calculations depend, the net effect of The Report may in fact be to show precisely that we won’t be able to sustain economic growth and increased consumerism on renewable energy: all this work just to show that we are still 20%, 30%, maybe more, short once we make the necessary adjustments for Net Energy as opposed to the gross energy upon which The Scenario seems to depend.

While I trust that many of The Scenario’s projections and calculations will be scrutinized by those far more adept at quantitative analysis than I, its failure to include the constraints of net energy, or, for that matter, any awareness of Jevons Paradox, suggests that behind all the graphs and calculations we are witnessing the driving force of an ideological fantasy—the fantasy that saving our planet from catastrophic environmental damage and resource depletion need “not demand radical changes to the way we live” (23).

I have in previous posts discussed the way in which the Powered-Down world imagined by Transition also contains significant elements of fantasy, most of which will prove relatively harmless, many of which may be beneficial, if we in the Transition Movement retain a sense of humility and contingency. At least in its more self-conscious moments, Transition is aware of its use of narrative and fantasy as the tools of vision, imagination, and inspiration. Fantasy is, in itself, not an entirely bad thing. However the fantasy constructed by the WWF Report, and especially the way The Report implies it might be achieved, may not be so benign.

A Smarter Planet

Despite the projected 9 billion people on the earth in 2050, people are remarkably absent from The Scenario. The ostensible reason is that the report is focused on what is “technically possible,” which is more about joules and btus than about human behavior. But the report does also claim that its conclusions are “practically possible,” which, it turns out, involves little more than calculating the sort of necessary investment levels (never more than 2% GDP), with some recognition that this will be a difficult challenge that will interrupt a complacent, “business as usual” approach to energy markets and the environment. But beyond the use of pictures–a few of which represent people of the “developing world” enjoying the sweet fruits of globalism– the report is faceless.

With this absence of people, the report is able to make abstract assumptions about changes in fuel use and efficiency. The one that stood out to me, perhaps because of my work in the remodeling industry, is the suggestion that all the world’s existing buildings can be retrofitted to “Passive-House” or “zero-energy” standards by 2050. This projection seems possible if the writers of The Scenario keep their attention confined to a world of numbers, calculating only the total world building numbers from which they draw the conclusion that this would only require retrofit rates of no more than 2.5% of floor space per year, something already achieved in Germany, and therefore technically, if not practically, possible. Absent from this sort of calculation, however, is sufficient attention to the nature of the world’s buildings and their suitability for retrofitting, not to mention their owners’ ability to find a high-quality licensed contractor at a reasonable price.

Image Removed

Despite the lack of flesh and blood in the WWF report—and thus of course, hunger, desire, discrimination, greed, entitlement, tradition, and all sorts of addictions and dependencies—present in it, nevertheless is an overriding subjective consciousness, whose presence made me feel increasingly uncomfortable as I read the report.

The phrase “we need to. . .” appears scores of times throughout the report. This is not entirely surprising, as one of the report’s purposes is to offer suggestions about how we might proceed towards this renewable future. There are of course many requirements that must be met for this to happen. Someone will need to make many things happen.

Despite the inevitability of some sort of subject/verb combination, we should not therefore neglect the analysis of its specific qualities. For the report is, through the repetition of this “we,” inviting us to join as readers a community of potential subjects, actors in the transformation to a renewable future. So what sort of community are we being invited into? Not, to be sure, one that favors open space meetings nor, I imagine, that includes people who are excited by compost or humanure. This “we” is certainly not composed of anyone who lives in the “developing world’s” growing slums. Their leaders, also, appear to be mainly the recipients of our recommendations. This “we” is largely white and European, though it may have some space for a few enlightened Americans. We” are not indigenous people. “We” are technologically proficient. “Our” imagination is not troubled by the immediate affects of hunger or deforestation, but may be concerned whether an all renewable future will restrict “our” mobility and comfort. Most of all, this “we” is a group of people with profound confidence in our ability to be the subjects of knowledge rather than the object, the namers rather than the named; “we” are the people who believe we can act decisively upon the world, setting a course for the entire planet to follow. This is an imperial “we.”

Thus we see a parade of imperatives:

“We must introduce legally binding minimum efficiency standards world-wide”

“We need strict energy-efficiency criteria for all new buildings.”

“Developing countries must phase-out the inefficient uses of traditional biomass.”

“We need to massively expand our capacity for generating electricity from renewable resources.”

“We need urgent investment into smart grids.”

“We also need efficient grid management.”

“We need to consider the rights of communities and indigenous people.”

“We need to carefully analyze, country by country, what land and water is available for bioenergy.”

“We should limit growth in areas that depend on liquid fuels.”

The list could go on.

The unembarrassed way in which The Report repeats the clear requirements of what “we” must impose, its repetitive incantation, confirms and reinforces the Imperial We’s fantasy that “we” have the knowledge and can employ it to design and control.

One needn’t have more than a rudimentary understanding of European and American colonialism and its legions of missionaries, technocrats, investors, philosophers, explorers, and engineers who have in the past carried out the latest fantasy of world improvement in order to see where this might all be going. Despite the emphasis on equity, the belief that “a sustainable energy future must be a fair one, in which the equal right of every person to benefit from the world’s energy resources is recognized” (56), what is imagined in The Scenario is in fact an expansion of European and American globalism to an unprecedented level of design specification. We might refer to it as hyper-globalism, Plan B on steroids, in which “we” provide the central intelligence needed to make “country by country” analyses, or to provide the “efficient grid management.” Indeed the report looks forward to a time in which not only is electricity shared within the world’s 10 regions, but eventually between them (150, note 32).

Those of us who have not weaned ourselves off of television are likely to be familiar with IBM’s ad campaign about its work to “build a smarter planet.” The notion of “smart technology” has recently become a marketing buzz-word, with smart phones, smart cars, and, in The Scenario, as elsewhere, with the notion of a “smart grid.” As IBM notes on its website, a smarter world is one that is “Instrumented, Intelligent, and Interconnected.” More specifically, “intelligence is infused into the systems and processes that make the world work.”

This sort of world is the vision, also, of the WWF Report. The Scenario depends largely on increased efficiency and regulated flows of energy through a great system of interconnection. While it recommends “using precision farming and a closed-loop approach wherever possible” (163), for instance, precision farming has no connotations of a permaculture system of locally self-regulating interdependencies, unless the permacultural design model allows for a single global design space held together by a “smart network” that is synchronized by “real-time analytics.”

Gone, also, in this Instrumented, Intelligent, and Interconnected” world is a sense of modularity necessary for true resiliency. To its credit, The Scenario acknowledges the finite nature of at least some aspects of our planet. But with increased innovation and detailed analysis, any effective limits are too far in the future to warrant consideration. A world “that can do more with less,” is predicated on increased specialization: we can grow algae here, cut those forests back, give these people more efficient cook-stoves, put wind turbines in your region, and solar panels over there. Smart technology implies the preeminence of instrumental logic, a technocracy of data streams which are able to lift us above the vicissitudes of choice or motivation, of a local embodied understanding of local conditions. The world, as imagined by WWF, is gripped by a digital-mechanized fantasy.

It remains unclear what role the remaining 9 billion faces, in all our awkward dignity and graceful limitations, might have. My concern is not that we will fail to maintain our growth economy on renewables—it is pretty clear we won’t. My concern is that the hyper-globalism suggested in The Report captures the imagination of those who will try.

Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

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