Planet Earth, our habitat, is in dire straits And our world is suffering from various crises, conflicts and problems. There is hardly any sign that something is seriously being done to solve these problems.
Some Americans – not government officials, not corporate big-wigs, but civil society activists – have now come forward to save the earth and, along with it, the world. It is only this nation, they seem to assume, that can really do something to take up the task – thanks to its enormous military and economic power. They have not only spoken generally on solutions, they have also worked out more less detailed and apparently well-founded plans of action. These plans are now also being discussed, seriously and widely. They have come from the civil society. You may also call them grassroots groups, although they are so big and so well resourced that they may be compared with big lobby organizations that have access to the powers that be, i.e. they cannot be suspected of any hidden agenda. I have now read two such plans and two discussion papers 1, 2,3,4 One of the plans, entitled A World at War, comes from Bill McKibben,1 founder of the group 350.org, that mainly organized the huge demonstration in New York in September 2015. McKibben was one of the members of the committee that drafted (later adopted) the Democratic Party platform for this year’s presidential election in the USA. I shall discuss this plan first, as the whole discussion started with it. The Climate Mobilization (for short TCM)2, for whom Ezra Silk prepared a first draft of a detailed action plan, by and large follows the main idea of McKibben.
Wrong Analysis/ Wrong Etiology
McKibben compares the whole effort that he calls for with a “war” effort, with the huge American military and industrial mobilization for World War II. Now, you cannot fight a war without knowing your enemy! Here McKibben makes the initial big error in analysis, although “war” is here only a metaphor. The enemy, he thinks, is climate change; he imagines this enemy is committing a huge aggression against us, the world, as if it has some Satanic will. Once he calls it an “enemy as powerful and inexorable as the laws of physics.”
Nothing can be more absurd than this analysis of the situation. Any person with some common sense, including McKibben, knows that climate change is only the result of something else. Of course, the extreme weather events that are so regularly happening are largely being caused by climate change, which in turn is being caused by global warming. But even global warming is not the ultimate “enemy”. We know today that it is man-made. For a moment McKibben also recognized his error. He himself mentions in a half-sentence “our insatiable desires as consumers,” but he failed to spell it out as the right diagnosis of the malady.
All this should not actually surprise us. Already in the 19th century Friederich Engels made a similar mistake. He wrote: ” …our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us,”5 as if nature is a living being with the anthropomorphic character trait of getting angry and taking revenge when hurt by some enemy. James Lovelock, however, who likened nature to the ancient Greek Earth-Goddess Gaia wrote: “It may be that the white hot rash of our technology will in the end prove destructive and painful for our own species, but the evidence for accepting that industrial activities either at their present level or in the immediate future may endanger the life of Gaia as a whole, is very week indeed.”6 In other words, Lovelock’s theory says Gaia is only bothered about the continued existence of life on earth. She will guarantee that. But whether in the future biosphere humans would still have a place is none of her concern. This indifference of hers to our fate may make us sad, but that is no good reason to think of our response to climate change in terms of a Third World War as McKibben does.
Wrong Strategy/Wrong Prescription
We may allow McKibben his war metaphor in the name of poetic license. But if a general makes a wrong analysis of the war situation or, said in the jargon of applied medical science, if the diagnosis is wrong, the strategy or the prescribed medicine may do more harm than good. McKibben’s prescription, the huge dose of the wrong medicine, a huge mobilization for the “Third World War” that climate change is allegedly waging against us, is actually uncalled-for. McKibben could have prescribed a much lighter and more effective medicine (a simpler strategy) to remedy the “white hot rash”, i.e. global warming, if he had based his prescription on his more correct analysis (or diagnosis), namely his own half-sentence “our insatiable desires as consumers“.
Any leftist of any kind would speak of the capitalists‘ insatiable desire for profit and capital accumulation as the main cause of our troubles. She would call upon us to wage class struggle. The diagnosis of Engels, however, was much better, more comprehensive. He spoke of “us” and “our human [technological] victories over nature” as the cause that provoked nature’s revenge. But this wise man of the 19th century, a century agog with scientific and technological optimism, could not but think of any medicine other than more of the same poison that caused the malady in the first place. He wrote:
“… all our mastery of [nature] consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.
And, in fact, … after the mighty advances made by the natural sciences in the present century, we are more than ever in a position to realize and hence to control even the more remote natural consequences of our day-to-day production activities.”5
McKibben belongs to the camp of Bernie Sanders, who boldly and openly called himself a democratic socialist. But he, like Sanders, is not willing to condemn, let alone openly fight against, capitalism, as Engels did. He however accepts Engels’s other idea quoted here and fights only against climate change by technological means. Blinded by optimism, such people believe that a 100 percent transition to renewable energies is possible. They say we need more technology, not less; they assert we could overcome all crises and problems of mankind by means of technology. I already heard in 1984 that the intermittency-and-storage problem of renewable energies has been solved, namely by means of liquid hydrogen.
Feasibility and Viability
Basing himself on calculations of some US scientists and engineers, McKibben shows what a huge effort would be necessary to accomplish the complete energy transition in the USA by 2050. It would be similar to the whole industrial mobilization in the USA that was necessary to win the World War II. He writes: “… you would need to build a hell of a lot of factories to turn out thousands of acres of solar panels, and wind turbines the length of football fields, and millions and millions of electric cars and buses.” David Roberts3 makes it vivid:
“Well, have a look at Solar City’s gigafactory, … .It will be the biggest solar manufacturing facility … covering 27 acres, capable of cranking out 10,000 solar panels a day – a gigawatt’s worth in a year. At the height of its transition to WWS [wind, water, solar], the US would have to build around 30 gigafactories a year devoted to solar panels, and another 15 a year for wind turbines. That’s 45 of the biggest factories ever built, every year. That is [even for an American] a mind-boggling pace of building,…”
Roberts comments: “It would mean building a huge amount of shit.” I agree, it indeed would also result in producing a hell of a lot of shit every day. Think of the ecological impact of all that. And since McKibben I guess, is an internationalist, similar kinds of transition to 100 percent “clean energy” should also take place in at least all the G20 countries. That is a must, for a transition only in the USA would not suffice to win the “war” against climate change.
Think now of the amount of nonrenewable material resources that would have to be extracted from the earth for carrying out this mobilization, in addition to the amount that has already been extracted, burnt and used up Think of the treeless scars on the earth’s surface, and the holes that the mining activities would leave behind, in addition to those that the planet has already gotten. Think also of the amount of collateral waste production, in addition to what has already been produced. And think of the additional number and area of waste disposal sites where it can be dumped! Moreover, when you have scrapped and demolished all the fossil and nuclear fuel power plants, where will the waste be dumped? Will it not really become like hell on Earth?
Remember that all machines and all products wear out and have a limited lifespan. The same holds true for solar panels, wind turbines and machines with which we make them. They have to be replaced, sooner or later, even factory buildings. Remember also that inorganic nonrenewable materials cannot be fully recycled, because the entropy law also applies to materials. As many in the ecology movement have been saying for quite a few years now, if it should go on like this, we humans would soon need at least two more planets – one as our resource base, and the other as our waste dumping site. Joking apart, such an industrial economy as McKibben envisages it, even if it could somehow be brought into existence, would not be viable. It would soon collapse.
I wonder why McKibben could not think of all this while issuing his call for a Second-World-War-like industrial mobilization. After all, he definitely knows enough about the true production process in the industrial age, that it is not a cyclical but a continuous linear process, that it begins with resource extraction and ends in dumping waste in landfills or the atmosphere or the waters, while midway (if we are lucky) giving us consumers some satisfaction and fulfilling some of our material and immaterial basic and non-basic needs. After all, he is the author of a famous book that I read in the 1980s, End of Nature,7 wherein he took up a position against anthropocentrism, which he considered to be the root of all evils. But in this essay he displays an anthropocentric – worse, an US-centric –thinking. For what may be possible in the huge USA, the strongest economic and military power in today’s world, is simply not possible in, say, India with its 1.25 billion people cramped in an area one third of that of the USA.
EROEI / Net Energy
There are three more reasons why I think an industrial economy like the present-day US-American one solely driven by so-called clean renewable energies– if the idea can at all be materialized –will be neither free from CO2 emission, nor generally pollutions-free, nor sustainable. I have in the past published several texts presenting my reasons for thinking so.8 There is therefore no need to fully repeat them. Here is only a very short gist of my argumentation:
(1) The “clean energies” (mostly electricity, but also biofuels) may be a little cleaner than energy from fossil fuel sources, but they are not 100 percent emissions-and-pollution-free. For all equipments – solar panels, wind turbines, cables etc. etc. – used at any stage in the process of generating and distributing “clean energies”, in fact any kind of energy, are manufactured by means of machines and factories that are driven mainly (though not solely) by either coal-based energy or nuclear energy, which emit CO2 and radioactive particles respectively.
(2) All protagonists of 100 percent “clean energy” simply assume that solar and wind energy plants yield an amount of net energy – i.e. a surplus over the whole amount of energy that was consumed for manufacturing and building them) – that justifies their commercial deployment. In other words, their EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested) is sufficiently positive. But there is considerable doubt about that.8 I shall take up this point once more below.
(3) They simply ignore the difference, first pointed out in 1978 by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen9, between feasibility and viability. He maintained till 1994, the year he passed away, that solar-electricity technology was of course feasible, but not viable. Also TCM’s Victory Plan2, despite its other merits, contains these last two errors. I shall come back to this point below.
Merits and Weaknesses of TCM’s Victory Plan
McKibben’s action plan appears to pursue only one goal, to, somehow and as soon as possible, replace fossil fuels with renewables. He seems to think once that goal has been attained, all other major problems of the earth and the world (economic crisis, unemployment, pollution etc.) would quasi automatically, though gradually, disappear. As against that, TCM has realized that that would not suffice. It therefore wants, additionally, to pursue a broad range of other, equally important, concrete goals: for instance, to phase out cars and trucks and replace them with a public transportation system, to curtail aviation, to scale back commercial fishing, to cut production and consumption of meat and dairy products etc.
McKibben’s is in effect a huge Keynesian plan that would not only win the “war” against climate change, but also, additionally, function as a huge growth, job and income creating machine. Such ideas have earlier been submitted by others under captions like eco–Keynesianism, eco-capitalism, green growth, green New Deal and green economy.10 As against that, TCM seems to have realized what a huge amount of shit such a plan would also produce. Its Victory Plan is in effect one of drawing down production in general, of “de-growth,” so to speak, and stopping and reversing population growth culminating in demanding that half of the earth/USA should be reserved for conservation purposes.
Both McKibben and TCM calls upon the state to intervene in the economy in order to motivate or compel the economic actors (particularly companies) to do what is needed to save the planet. McKibben’s eco-Keynesian action plan does not need to question capitalism. But I wonder how TCM’s plan, which is in effect tantamount to enforcing a world-wide recession, can be compatible with capitalism with its growth compulsion. The plan even envisages rationing of all products and services that emit greenhouse gases in order to ensure more equity. That is not far from planning. Why doesn’t the group call its plan one for eco-socialism in America? Of course, I know it is very difficult to say this in America.
Readers of my writings would surely guess that I heavily sympathize with the TCM plan. That is also the reason why my eco-socialist friend Kamran Nyeri sympathizes with it and calls it a “breakthrough” in the movement to save the planet.4 However, there are two weaknesses in TCM’s Victory Plan. One I have just mentioned above, namely that it cannot be realized without abandoning capitalism, a call for which I have not seen in the 110 pages (or have I overseen it, or is it only hinted at?). The other is that the whole plan, like that of McKibben, is based on the assumption that running the whole US-American economy by using only “renewable” “clean energies” is not only feasible but also viable.
In TCM’s Victory Plan, this assumption is based on the latest book by Richard Heinberg, written together with David Fridley,11 wherein the two authors claim they have drawn their conclusions after studying a large number of latest studies on the subject. I had learnt the term EROEI from one of Heinberg’s earlier books The Party is Over (2003)12. In that book he quoted two tables that showed different estimates of EROEIs of various sources of energy in connection with the respective technologies. In their latest book, Heinberg and Fridley write:
“Unfortunately, the net energy or EROEI literature is inconsistent because researchers have so far been unable to agree on a common set of system boundaries. Therefore two analysts may calculate very different EROEI ratios for the same energy source. This does not entirely undermine the usefulness of NEA [net energy analysis]; it merely requires us to use caution in comparing the findings of different studies.)11
That means even today, one cannot quote a certain figure and assert with any degree of certainty that this is now the EROEI of solar energy.
Also Ugo Bardi13, (not an American, but) a European scientist and member of the Club of Rom, shows in his article published in May 2016 how much uncertainty still exists in this matter. Bardi, a protagonist of Photovoltaic solar energy, used a question rather than a statement, for the title of his article: “But what’s the REAL energy return of photovoltaic energy?” I request my readers to especially read all the comments and responses to his article, which mainly (but not only) came from researchers working on this question. The readers will then see how many of them hold the view that it is negative.
In his 2003 book, Heinberg (2003: 152f.) quoted two studies. One from the year 1984, in which Cleveland et al. estimated the EROEI of Photovoltaics to be 1.7 to 10.0. Twelve years later, in 1996, Howard Odum estimated it to be only 0.41, i.e. negative. Heinberg wrote in this connection:”Time is relevant to EROEI studies because the net energy yield for a given energy source may change with the introduction of technological refinements or the depletion of a resource base” (ibid). In the case of solar energy, its resource base, namely solar radiation, hadn’t undergone any depletion in the said 12 years. And presumably, both studies were made in the mainland of the USA, in average locations ( not one in the Death Valley and the other on the North Slope of Alaska). Now, if we may logically assume that in those twelve years the photovoltaic technology had undergone some technological refinements, then the EROEI of photovoltaic technology should actually have improved rather than deteriorated in that period (as Odum’s figure shows). Be that as it may, the point I want to make here is that it has been very unwise on the part of McKibben, TCM, and Heinberg himself to base their plans for saving the planet on uncertain data from “inconsistent” literature. In fine, I think it simply is not possible to directly answer this question by raising data. One must have recourse to indirect reasoning, as I have done in my writings on this topic.14 I myself think that the EROEIs of the renewable energy technologies, except hydroelectric power stations, are negative, and they are generally becoming ever more negative because all the resources needed to manufacture and/or build all the equipments and plants needed for or relevant to these technologies are nonrenewable and are continuously being depleted or have to be extracted from ever remoter and ever more difficult terrain (mines), which entails ever more energy investment.
Another question that protagonists of solar energy (generally, of renewable energies) avoid taking up is the question of viability of these energy technologies. This question, as stated above, was first raised by Georgescu-Roegen in his 1978 paper referred to above.9. In 2016, 38 years later, it still remains unanswered. But it is not forgotten. In the discussion that followed Ugo Bardi’s article referred to above13 , one discussant, using the pseudonym “foodstuff” impatiently put the same question in much simpler language:
“I still want to know if the following can be done and does the EROEI quoted include it all (plus extra energy demand I haven’t thought of):
- Mine the raw materials using equipment powered by solar panels.
Transport and convert metal ores, e.g. bauxite-aluminium, using equipment run by solar panels and in a factory built using the energy from solar panels.
Make the finished panels in a factory run by solar panels, including building and maintaining the factory.
Transport, install and maintain the solar panels using equipment running on solar panels.
All this is presently being done [mainly] with the energy from fossil fuels. How will it be done when they are gone?”
I request McKibben, TCM, Heinberg and Fridley to please answer these questions. My answer is No. If they cannot answer Yes, that would mean their vision of an industrial society based on “100 percent renewable clean energy” is a 100 percent illusion, even TCM’s reduced-scale industrial society.
I think TCM’s victory plan has another weakness: It is sending mixed or contradictory messages. Otherwise, how could Paul Gilding,15 former executive director of Green Peace International, write in his forward to Ezra Silk’s Victory Plan:
“[In a situation of] economic and social crisis [and]… despair, a climate mobilization of this sort could result in [inter alia]… huge economic benefits … innovation, technology and massive job creation … much better quality of life … business opportunities [etc.].… . [It would] leave our energy costs lower and supplies more secure … more people employed. [In a situation , in which] the global economy is in deep and serious trouble, [in which] growth … is grinding to a halt, [in which] inequality and the lack of progress of the Western middle class has laid the foundation for political extremism, xenophobia and isolationism,… brought us phenomena like Trump, Brexit … movements that further threaten the global economy, [it could be a] mobilization to save the economy.” [This quote is partly reconstructed by me. My insertions are in square brackets.]
Conclusions: The Other “Plan” and the Other Path
Is any other plan for saving the planet possible?, one may ask. It is possible, but it surely will not be popular among present-day Americans. It is possible, if we accept McKibben’s other diagnosis, namely, “our insatiable desires as consumers” is the cause of climate change, and if we accept the truism, as I formulated it in an earlier blog16, that the real and deeper causes of many of our maladies are the continuously growing “needs”, aspirations and ambitions of a continuously growing world population, while our resource base is continuously dwindling and the ability of nature to absorb man-made pollution is continuously diminishing – in short, the lunatic idea that in a finite world infinite growth is possible. Then it follows that the spirit of the other plan that could perhaps save the planet must be the very opposite of McKibben and Co’s gigantism and limitless technological optimism, i.e. the beliefs that everything is doable, that we can also build a colony on the Moon etc., which are themselves diseases, not remedies.
TCM (with Heinberg and Fridley) has discarded gigantic plans for stopping climate change. But it too has offered only half a solution. It still seeks a high-tech solution to the energy problem, namely “renewable clean energies”. We then first need an antidote to these typical American diseases, which has long ago been offered by Fritz Schumacher with his slogan “Small is beautiful”. He wrote:”Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” 17 However, the latest that I have read 0f Heinberg points to the right direction. He seems to have returned to his former healthy skepticism. In an article published in September 2016,18 he writes:
“We concluded that, while in theory it may be possible to build enough solar and wind supply capacity to substitute for current fossil energy sources, much of current energy usage infrastructure (for transportation, agriculture, and industrial processes) will be difficult and expensive to adapt to using renewable electricity. In the face of these and other related challenges, we suggest that it likely won’t be possible to maintain a consumption-oriented growth economy in the post-fossil future, and that we would all be better off aiming to transition to a simpler and more localized conserver economy.”
For such a transition, a Second-World-War-like mobilization a la McKibben is not necessary. Actually we are not at war at all. And if we cannot but use the war metaphor, then it is we who are the aggressors, we are the enemy of nature.
Then the first task on the path of this transition is to end our aggression. We then need only to withdraw and not carry on the aggression with other weapons.19 We then don’t need to build much, but we do need to dismantle a lot. Above all, particularly Americans and their fans and imitators in the rest of the world need to dismantle their American way of living.
Before society, the state, the economic powers that be take the first step backwards, we ecological-political activists will have to do a lot of mainly educative work. At present at least, we cannot compel anybody to do anything. But there is also no hindrance to educative work. Everything else – electoralism, demonstrations, lobbyism, party work, setting personal examples, writing, lecturing etc. – can be used to convince and persuade the people and the powers that be.
One of the goals in TCM’s Victory Plan is to stop and reverse world population growth. This ought to be the first point where the transition should begin. For, as Paul Ehrlich wrote to point out its utmost importance, “Whatever be your cause, it is a lost cause unless we control population [growth].”20 All problems that nature has with us, as well as all problems of our own human society get aggravated as population grows. There are also two advantages of beginning at this point: It is easy to persuade the powers that be to do something in this regard. And it is easy to persuade people in the lower income groups that their living conditions would immediately improve if they limit the number of their offspring to two.21 Also, here there would be the least resistance from the ruling classes and the imperialist nations. So here we could achieve our first successes.
I think at present an elaborate and detailed “other plan” like that of TCM is neither possible nor necessary. We can however start with what is immediately possible.
1. McKibben, Bill (2016): A World at War
2. Salomon, Margaret Klein (2016): The Climate Mobilization Action Program: Victory Plan (This is only a preface. The link to the 110 page document written by Ezra Silk is given at the end of this text)
3. Roberts, David (2016): Climate Justice Policy and the Metaphor of War
4. Nayeri Kamran (2016):”Making Progress: A Critical Assessment of Climate Action Plans by Bill McKibben and The Climate Mobilization”.
5. Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich (1976) Selected Works (in 3 volumes) Vol. 3, Moscow. P. 36.
6. Lovelock, James (1987) Gaia –A New Look at Life on Earth, Oxford and New York. P. 10.
7. McKibben, Bill (2006) End of Nature. USA (?): Random Haus.
8. Saral’s articles :
(a) Chapter 4 of: Saral Sarkar (1999) Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism?. London: Zed.
9. Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas (1978): ” Technology Assessment. The Case of the Direct Use of Solar Energy”;
10. For a critique of these ideas see Sarkar (1999) Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism?.London: Zed Books.
11. Heinberg, Richard and Fridley, David (2016) Our Renewable Future
12. Heinberg, Richard (2003) The Party’s Over – Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies. Forest Row: Clairview.
13. Bardi, Ugo (2016)”But what’s the REAL energy return of photovoltaic energy?” in Cassandra’s Legacy (online).
14. Sarkar’s writings on EROEI (see note 8)
15. Paul Gilding (2016) Forward to Silk, Ezra (2016) The Climate Mobilization Action Program: Victory Plan (see note 2)
16. Sarkar, Saral (2016): “A Historic Event or a Fraud?”
17. Schmacher, E.F. (August 1973)”Small is Beautiful”, an essay, in The Radical Humanist, Vol. 37, No. 5, p. 22
18. Heinberg, Richard (2016) "Exploring the Gap Between Business-As-Usual and Utter Doom". https://www.resilience.org/stories/2016-09-19/exploring-the-gap-between-business-as-usual-and-utter-doom
19. Sunzi,: An ancient Chinese author (2500 B.C.). He wrote on strategies of warfare inter alia: “Verily, he wins, who does not fight”, (quoted from Wikiquotes)
20. Ehrlich, Paul (quoted in Weissman).
Weissman, Steve (1971) “Forward” (in Meek 1971).
Meek, Ronald. L (1971) Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb, Berkeley.
21.Saral Sarkar (1993) “Polemics is Useless – A Proposal for an Eco-Socialist Synthesis in the Overpopulation Dispute”.