Energy featured

Ecological transitions and energy transitions

August 10, 2023

Translated by Mark Burton. Reviewed by Steven Johnson, Manuel Casal Lodeiro, and María Celeste Delgado-Librero.

* Original Spanish text: https://vientosur.info/sobre-transiciones-energeticas-y-transiciones-ecologicas/

“How can a young person (especially one from the big city) face the deepest problems, the misery of society, without succumbing at least temporarily to pessimism? There is no counter-argument there, only our consciousness can help us: no matter how bad the world is, you were born to sort it out. This is not arrogance, just the consciousness of duty.[1]-Walter Benjamin (in “Sleeping Beauty”, a text from his youth)

“In the earthquakes that are to come, I hope I won’t let my cigar go out through bitterness”[2]-Bertolt Brecht (in his “Poor Man’s Ballad”)

A Nature editorial

A notable editorial in Nature, in March 2022, reaffirms the results of the 1972 study The Limits to Growth (the first of the Club of Rome reports), and notes:

Although there’s now a consensus that human activities have irreversible environmental effects, researchers disagree on the solutions — especially if that involves curbing economic growth. That disagreement is impeding action. It’s time for researchers to end their debate. The world needs them to focus on the greater goals of stopping catastrophic environmental destruction and improving well-being.”[3]

The Nature editorial goes on to argue that, once the existence of biophysical limits to growth is accepted, the debate today centres on two principal positions, green growth versus degrowth, and that they should each make an effort to talk with one another.[4]

It is, without a doubt, a key debate, one that is repeated, with variations, at different levels. To take an example close to home, a friend (and fellow activist in Ecologistas en Acción) told me in June 2022 that the debate on the ecological transition (and the energy transition in particular) is extraordinarily complicated. It is creating divisions among us in the ecological movements[1]. “The question is whether we can get to where we want to (a society that respects biophysical limits) by modifying and reducing an industrialised system, or whether it can be done directly. And it doesn’t look like we have much time for either option.”[5]

The question is posed in the same way in the Nature editorial.

I would say that the situation, in the third decade of the third millennium, is tragic: we cannot avoid a hellish climate without an emergency economic contraction (in the global North), rapidly ending capitalist relations of production.[6] And there is certainly room to doubt whether such a transformation is on the horizon. But let’s look at it step by step…

What is an ecological transition?

As industrial societies rush towards catastrophic scenarios, we need an ecological transition. César Rendueles writes:

“We must fight together for a just, planned, and public ecological transition, but being clear that a slow and optimal transition is infinitely worse than a fast but less fair one.”[7] Well, let’s try to clarify what an ecological transition is and what optimal or suboptimal possibilities are available to us.

What is an ecological transition? I would say that it is a socioeconomic transformation, based on the evidence of ecological overshoot, which frees up ecological space so that dignified lives are possible for those who are exploited, marginalised, and humiliated today; and so that we can coexist well with the myriad of living beings with whom we share the common home that is the biosphere of Mother Earth. The basic idea of meeting fundamental human needs within planetary boundaries is still enlightening.

The acid test, to identify a true ecological transition, is that it would manage to avoid (or at least significantly reduce) the likelihood of ecocide plus genocide towards which we are heading.

The mere haphazard addition of wind turbines and photovoltaics to our electrical system is not an ecological transition. And we must begin by pointing out that a “carbon tunnel vision” is a kind of reductionism that we cannot afford.[8] But the absence of a systemic approach means that in the debates on ecological transitions the ecological-social problem is always reduced to climate change, the energy problem to electricity generation, and the destruction of the web of life to nothing (because we generally ignore it: we prefer to look the other way). The height of reductionism is reached when one tries to limit criticism of the current model of deployment of hyper-technological renewables[9] to a matter of preserving the view![10]

What we are suffering from is not just a climate crisis that can be solved with technological transformations driven by “green capitalism”. I wish it were so; we would have much more room for manoeuvre! But our real situation is much more difficult. It is a crisis of civilization: a systemic and global crisis the fundamental responsibility for which lies with a capitalism that generates immense external costs for which it takes no responsibility[11], and whose self-expanding dynamic seeks to make the market economy grow indefinitely without taking into account the planetary biophysical boundaries. As long as that does not change, as long as we are not capable of systemic change, it will not matter how many short-term technological fixes we apply.[12]

A few years ago, in my book Ecosocialismo descalzo [Barefoot Ecosocialism], I suggested an image that I think accurately captures the situation we find ourselves in. In their rush forward, industrial societies resemble a runner in a hurdle race, but with hurdles getting closer and increasing in height (diminishing returns conditioned by the second law of thermodynamics!)… and the runner trusts to their magic running shoes, which the multinational shoe company is about to make for them, or so they assure them.[13] One hurdle is the peak in oil extraction (peak oil), but a little further on is the even more fearsome hurdle of the joint “peak” of all non-renewable forms of energy. Close to it is the ongoing depletion of phosphates (with potentially devastating consequences for the dominant model of industrial agriculture; this is a matter of decisive importance almost completely absent from public debate).[14] A little further on are the depletion of aquifers and world fisheries, and the “peaks” of essential metals and minerals for industrial economies, from neodymium to lithium through to tantalum and tellurium. There are also multiple hurdles linked to the degradation of ecosystems and the Sixth Great Extinction of living species… And, to be sure, the terrible hurdles of global warming, with its multiple consequences (among them ocean acidification). A scenario that, according to optimistic forecasts, will become apocalyptic in the second half of the 21st century; and according to pessimistic forecasts, between ten and twenty years from now.

Unjustified energy pessimism?

Yet might there be more leeway than pessimists realise? Throughout 2022, in Spain, an intellectual controversy took place in the form of an attack against supposed analytical weaknesses in the positions pejoratively termed “collapsist”[2], in the work of researchers such as Antonio Turiel or Luis González Reyes.[15] Among these weaknesses would be unjustified pessimism about energy, which would mean that ecosocial collapses are more improbable and the timescales for the ecosocial crisis are longer than what the so-called “collapsists” estimate.

Now, it is true that the short-term energy shortages that peak oil scholars and activists anticipated in the early 2000s have not occurred on a global scale. The extraction and processing of unconventional hydrocarbons (especially thanks to fracking techniques in the US) has allowed us to buy some time: continuing the forward surge of the societies of the core capitalist countries for a few more years. The lower EROI (rate of energy return on investment) of these oil-like liquids and gases is diluted in the global energy mix and, as Juan Carlos Barba suggested, this production “can ensure several decades of energy viability for the current economic model”.[16]  In the 2010s Jørgen Randers came to a similar conclusion with his future scenarios.[17]

But is this really good news? The best that can be expressed is a feeling of bittersweet unease, for this potential, temporary, extension of fossil capitalism’s viability increases the probability of a much worse collapse, due to the degradation of the biosphere to the point of making an uninhabitable Earth (for beings like us). In particular, the danger increases that the greater GHG emissions will tip us into runaway climate change and, with this rapid and uncontrolled warming, leading to an untold devastation of the biosphere. The collapse would be postponed at the cost of aggravating it.

It almost goes without saying that the war in Ukraine and the militaristic “return of geopolitics” (which never really went away) means that fossil fuels will continue to be used until their complete economic exhaustion (as nothing can replace them to power the heavy machinery of armies and societies that want to be superpowers) and that nuclear energy will continue to be deployed, not because it is advantageous for producing electricity (it is ruinous in that sense), but because of its close association with the manufacture of nuclear weapons.[18]

Addition instead of replacement

The long phase of energy decline, in whose early stages we find ourselves, will lead us, whether we accept it or not, to societies that are more austere in both energy and material terms.[19] But for now we continue trying to grow by any means. Richard Heinberg has adequately summarised our situation: renewable energies are not replacing the energy from fossil fuels, but rather adding to it.[20]  As Jean-Baptiste Fressoz has been pointing out for years, and Jaume Franquesa now reiterates, strictly speaking, the energy transition does not exist: sources are not being replaced, but new energy capacity is being added from new sources, while global energy use continues to grow.[21] And despite all the investments and installations of renewable energy, global GHG emissions continue to rise.[22]

That is largely due to economic growth: While renewable energy supplies have expanded in recent years, global energy use has skyrocketed even further, with the difference being provided by fossil fuels. The more the world economy grows, the more difficult it is for renewable energy additions to turn the tide by actually replacing fossil fuel power, rather than simply augmenting it.

“In the year 2000, global dependency on fossil fuels was around 90% and twenty years later this percentage only dropped to 83%. The fact that the participation of these fuels in the energy mix has been reduced by only 7% in twenty years does not mean that today we consume less hydrocarbons than before, on the contrary: current consumption is 40% higher than then. This shows another of the characteristics of the history of energy transitions until now: we have never replaced one source with another, but rather added new sources to the previous ones. The history of energy transitions has been a history of additions.”[23]

There will be no real energy transition without seeking a radical decrease (in the use of energy and materials) that our societies are not even considering at the moment. And, on the other hand, continuing to add electricity generation with renewables without touching the other elements of the system submerges us ever more deeply under the corporate control of energy (and, through this, under the control over society as a whole)[24] and within the dynamics of colonial/neocolonial extractivism that are already very powerful today.[25]

What they call transition isn’t any such thing

Xan López, a proponent of the Green New Deal from the Madrid collective Contra el Diluvio [against the flood], suggests that we should call climate delayismn“the position that denies the need for urgent or aggressive action to mitigate or adapt to the effects of that climate change” (a position that, of course, places such delayism from the outset in the realm of irrationality, and puts the bulk of the ecological movement out of any accusation of delayism). He goes on to point out that,

An infinity of concerns can come together in climate delayism, many of them not only legitimate, but easy to understand and support. I am thinking of the concern for the environmental impact, for the deepening of territorial inequality, in the distrust towards energy companies, the State, and in general the interference in our towns or regions by foreign powers. Others may have less appeal, but be capable of mobilising a significant number of people, such as the impact on very specific business interests, or the simple desire to reject the costs of an energy transition without rejecting its benefits.[26]

In a very significant way, among the “legitimate concerns” identified, the most important of the reasons that can lead to the motto, “Renewables, yes, but not like this”, is missing: that what is presented as an energy transition (merely adding photovoltaic solar modules and wind generators) is no such thing. Any supposed energy transition that does not aim firstly, in the global North, at ways to live well while greatly lowering energy and materials consumption, is not an ecological transition.

A civilizational trap

We are decades, if not a century, late with this transition.

Ethanol was first used in combustion engines in 1826. Rudolph Diesel invented the diesel engine in 1890 with the intention of running it on biological fuel. The first practical battery, the Daniell cell, was invented in 1836. The first hydrogen fuel cell was invented in 1839. The energy crises in the 1970s led to the Department of Energy being established in 1977, and since then billions of dollars have funded university and national lab research on energy. The basic and unsolved problem is that alternative sources of energy require fossil fuels for every step of their life cycle.[27]

For example, producing polysilicon is a highly electricity-intensive process. The German analyst Johannes Bernreuter points out that three-quarters of existing polysilicon, an essential component for the construction of photovoltaic cells, comes from Chinese factories… whose electricity is generated largely from coal.[28] Now with the increase in demand for photovoltaic cells to power a “green energy transition”, what is foreseeable is a concomitant explosion in the use of coal.[29] In fact, in 2022 China authorised two new coal-fired power plants per week (106 GW from new projects authorised in one year).[30] Thus we delude ourselves, pretending that the displacements of impacts are real reductions of them…

The dependency of our high-tech renewables on fossil fuels is a central issue.[31]

…investment in renewable energy is itself highly energy intensive. What this means is that, in the short run, we’re going to need more of the black stuff. (…) John Hess, the chief executive of the U.S. independent oil producer bearing his name, predicts that $16 trillion of planned green investments will ‘turbocharge’ demand for oil in the near future.[32]

Or as Antonio Turiel explains:

To date no one has been able to build a hydroelectric dam, a wind turbine or a photovoltaic panel in such a way that fossil fuels are not used in their manufacture, installation, maintenance, and eventual dismantling. No one has done it with just renewable energy because it is not clear that it can be done. Perhaps it could be done with some clever new technology, but surely we would spend more energy than the system would give us back, so that we would have an energy sink and not an energy source. Furthermore, we do not realise that materials we take for granted, such as cement and steel, are critically dependent on the existence of fossil fuels. Nobody addresses this problem seriously because it is insurmountable. It is by no means proven that these systems can be constructed without fossil fuels. In fact, some authors say that the current renewable systems, the electric ones, are only extensions of fossil fuels. Obviously they have a smaller carbon footprint, they emit less CO2 per unit of energy produced, but without fossil CO2 they cannot be started up.[33]

And going a little deeper into the matter: as Óscar Carpintero and Jaime Nieto observe, the construction of these high-tech renewable devices implies being able to reach high temperatures in the industry: between 1,480ºC and 1,980ºC for photovoltaic panels; between 980ºC and 1,700ºC for the cement and steel of the wind turbines[34]. Practically speaking, with large-scale production in view, this requires using high-density fuels such as oil, coal, or gas.

While it is technically possible to produce such temperatures using technologies powered by renewables-provided electricity, we must ask how practical and affordable it would be to try to produce photovoltaic panels and wind turbines, on the mass scale envisioned by the “green” energy transition, in that manner. The physicist Carlos de Castro, a colleague of Carpintero and Nieto in the Group for Energy, Economics and System Dynamics at the University of Valladolid, maintains: “In practice, it is crazy to try to produce heat above 1,000ºC using photovoltaics or wind. This heat is much more expensive than if we burn gas, and its EROI is not worth it.”[35]

Further, as Carpintero and Nieto point out:

…a massive renewable electrification of these processes (apart from the reduction in EROI that it would bring about) would also require replacing large amounts of industrial equipment and machinery used for these heating processes (ovens, etc.), which are now largely powered by coal and fossil fuels.[36]

Feasible Recipes vs. Viable Technologies

Now, assuming that alternative energy sources require fossil fuels for every step of their life cycle, let’s assume for the sake of the argument – it’s a huge assumption – that a transition to “100% renewable” (conventionally understood) was achieved in the strict deadlines imposed by the climate tragedy, two or three decades (in reality, the urgency imposed by the ongoing climate tragedy is greater, and the previous energy transitions of industrial society needed much longer time frames).[37] In that period of transition, GHG emissions would hardly decrease or could even increase (due to the already mentioned dependence on fossil fuels and the economic growth that is still being sought). This is what Mariano Vázquez Espí (member of the Architecture, Urbanism and Sustainability Research Group of the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid) has proposed (only half jokingly) to call the “Carpintero paradox” (after ecological economist Óscar Carpintero, professor at the University of Valladolid), in the vein of the Jevons Paradox (which demonstrated that the increase in the efficiency of steam engines, far from reducing coal consumption, overall increased it). “I formulate it”, says Vázquez Espí, “in my own way, without the author’s permission: In the current situation, building everything necessary for a transition to all renewables by 2050 or so, far from reducing GHG emissions, will increase them”.[38]

The useful life of wind turbines and photovoltaic cells is situated, at most, in that period: two or three decades. So that, as soon as the installation of the first generation of machines was completed, it would be necessary to start replacing them. How would it be done, if we do not have high-tech systems for capturing renewable energy that reproduce themselves?

And do not think that we have suddenly come across this problem: half a century ago, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen already formulated it in these terms.

Viable technologies based on solar radiation or on nuclear reactions require immense amounts of matter for their scaffolds—the former for concentrating a low intensity, the latter for constraining a dreadfully high intensity. Only fossil fuels can be used with smaller installations, in some cases with virtually none at all.  …matter seems to be a technological factor as crucial as energy.[39]

As Ernest Garcia has recalled on numerous occasions[40], Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen made a distinction between feasible recipes (things we know how to do) and viable technologies (sets of feasible recipes self-sustaining by a basic feed process). One could also speak of self-reproducing socio-technical systems or durable technical matrices. Viable technologies must be self-reproducing.

Georgescu-Roegen said that, throughout human history, only two viable technologies have existed: the control of fire (pre-industrial societies, or Prometheus I) and the steam engine (industrial societies, or Prometheus II). Now that the fossil energy model is coming to an end, what, if any, will be the third viable technology (Prometheus III)?[41]

As Art Berman explains:

A 100% renewable economy is fine only if we are willing to accept a lower living standard and much smaller population than we have today. Humans have never gone from a higher to a lower density energy source. A renewable energy world would have a smaller and less productive economy because of the lower energy density of its primary source. I am an advocate for solar and wind, and I take climate change very seriously. It is, however, critical that people know the truth: the world will be much poorer when fossil energy is abandoned.[42]

If we do not grasp the profound dependence of industrial societies on fossil fuels, we will underestimate the difficulties of any serious post-capitalist ecosocial transition. And if we open our eyes to the profoundly fossil-based character of capitalism, a phenomenal strategic difficulty appears: decarbonizing means impoverishing ourselves[43], and it seems very difficult to mobilise society in pursuit of climatic and ecological objectives that go hand in hand with a certain amount of impoverishment. Such is the hard pill we have to swallow, not sugarcoat it. (And then, of course, we can and should clarify what is poverty and wealth, what is scarcity and abundance, and how good lives for everyone are thinkable with much less use of energy and materials.)[44]

Letting go

The key word for any ecological transition is less (degrowth), but we are determined to continue using more. “If there are no photovoltaic panels”, we are told, “there will be coal, gas and oil”. What is left out of the debate beforehand is the only thing that would really get us off the path of ecocide plus genocide: using (much) less energy…

Merely adding (electricity generation capacity with renewables) is not making any transition. It is also necessary to relinquish, to do without, to know how to let go. That is very difficult, almost always, in our personal lives. The same is true in our collective life.

Another way of enunciating the key word for a true ecological transition, if we are talking in the Global North, would be renunciation (or áskesis, in the Greek). Give up segments of the human domain; the appropriation of ecological space; the colonial exploitation that became neocolonial; the patriarchal abuse of women; the entertainment that plunders our conscience and attention; the comfort that conceals the structures of crime.

I know that renunciation is not a popular idea. But what will happen when, despite the penetration of wind and photovoltaics in the electrical systems of some countries, GHG emissions continue to increase on a planetary scale, as they are doing now? What will happen when more and more countries on the periphery collapse? What will happen if we enter the runaway climate change phase and have to give up almost everything for lost?

As a researcher and popularizer pointed out on Twitter, high-tech renewables are admirable devices that cannot sustain this civilizational model or help with the ecological overshoot:

The main focus would have to be how we reduce and simplify our civilization to live within the planetary ecological limits and at the same time cover the basic needs of the entire population. This and no other is the great challenge of the decade. Within this real ecological transition (strong reduction in production and consumption), renewables have a role to play.[45]

Let’s conclude. In trying to hang on to our excessive levels of energy consumption in a world that is set on a course of energy decline, we will heap ever more external costs upon the peoples and countries of the periphery (in a neocolonially structured world system) and upon nature (with ever greater sacrifice zones, and perpetrating an ecocide that is also a crime against ourselves). There will be a relevant change in electricity generation in countries like Spain (where it is under way) and they will call it the “ecological transition”. But it will be just playing with words, because, unfortunately, it will not pass the test of practice: avoiding the ecocide plus genocide towards which we are advancing. And we will deceive ourselves, acting like we are working on the problem, like the drunk looking for the keys under the lamppost.[46]

The crucial question of the ecological transition is not how many MW of wind and photovoltaic solar power we are going to be able to plug into the electricity grid[47], but, what new levels of love, justice, and rationality are we going to be able to deploy? And at the moment we are not responding well…

Notes

[1] Obras: Obra Completa, Libro II, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (Abada Editores, 2010).

[2] Quoted by Francisco Fernández Buey in a lecture that he gave at the College of Humanities of Universitat Pompeu Fabra on April 28, 1998. https://espai-marx.net/?p=12745.

[3]“Are There Limits to Economic Growth? It’s Time to Call Time on a 50-Year Argument,” Nature 603, no. 7901 (March 16, 2022): 361, https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-00723-1.

[4]“Researchers such as Johan Rockström at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany advocate that economies can grow without making the planet unliveable. They point to evidence, notably from the Nordic nations, that economies can continue to grow even as carbon emissions start to come down. This shows that what’s needed is much faster adoption of technology — such as renewable energy. A parallel research movement, known as ‘post-growth’ or ‘degrowth’, says that the world needs to abandon the idea that economies must keep growing — because growth itself is harmful. Its proponents include Kate Raworth, an economist at the University of Oxford, UK, and author of the 2017 book Doughnut Economics, which has inspired its own global movement.”

“Both communities must do more to talk to each other, instead of at each other. It won’t be easy, but appreciation for the same literature could be a starting point. After all, Limits inspired both the green-growth and post-growth communities, and both were similarly influenced by the first study on planetary boundaries (J. Rockström et al. Nature 461, 472–475; 2009), which attempted to define limits for the biophysical processes that determine Earth’s capacity for self-regulation.”

[5] I answered: And if it can’t be done either way, dear friend? — which is, I’m afraid, the situation we’re really in. But I will save this sketch of a paradoxical reflection for another day.

[6] On this see, for example, Antonio Turiel, Petrocalipsis (Editorial Alfabeto, 2020), 117-123.

[7] https://twitter.com/crendueles/status/1625856680612495363.

[8] “‘Carbon tunnel vision’ is seeing reality solely through carbon emissions. It considers a product or service (an apple, a jacket, or our home’s electricity supply) solely based on how many grams of carbon dioxide were generated by producing it. In the particular case of solar plants, this tunnel vision is leading us to very serious dysfunctions regarding land use. The ecological transition, although some limit their conception of its needed scope out of interest or ignorance, goes far beyond the energy transition, and this in turn exceeds the simple fact of changing the fossil plug for a renewable one. Where is the energy produced? What opportunity cost does it have for the territory? Who benefits from it? How is it distributed? What decision-making power do the inhabitants have? Does it promote or correct territorial imbalances? Where does it leave biodiversity, agriculture, or landscapes? To what extent are cities involved in this effort? Will we manage demand or will we only bet on increasing the supply?” Andreu Escrivà García, “Un deslumbrante túnel de carbono” [A dazzling carbon tunnel], El País, October 1, 2022, https://elpais.com/espana/comunidad-valenciana/2022-10-01/un-deslumbrante-tunel-de-carbono.html.

[9] On “hyper-technological renewables”, see Luis González Reyes, “The Energy Crisis, Renewable Energies and RR+E,” 15/15\15, February 5, 2023, https://www.15-15-15.org/webzine/2023/02/04/the-energy-crisis-and-renewable-energies-rre/.

[10] Alejandro Tena, “El Despliegue de Renovables Abre Un Cisma En La Lucha Climática: ¿cómo Acelerar La Transición Energética y Proteger El Paisaje?” [The deployment of renewables opens up a chasm in the climate struggle: how to accelerate the energy transition and protect the view?], Público, December 18, 2022, https://www.publico.es/sociedad/despliegue-renovables-abre-cisma-lucha-climatica-acelerar-transicion-energetica-proteger-paisaje.html.

[11] As Nate Hagens has pointed out on more than one occasion, “No industry in the world would be profitable if full cost pricing were to include all externalised costs (e.g. damaging impacts of coal $0.38 kWh full cost instead of $0.04).” Nate Hagens, “Where Are We Going?: The 40 Shades of Gray,” MAHB Blog (blog), May 18, 2018, https://mahb.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/MAHBBlog_WhereAreWeGoing40ShadesOfGray_NHagens_May2018.pdf.It is revealing to re-read today texts such as those of the German institutionalist economist, Karl William Kapp,  who went into exile and worked in the USA. In 1950 he published the first edition of The Social Costs of Private Enterprise , available at http://www.kwilliam-kapp.de/documents/SCOPE.pdf. More than seven decades ago, Kapp wrote about the ubiquity and enormous magnitude of “externalities”, about the socio-ecological destructiveness of capitalism, and about sustainability: not with the language we are speaking with now, but with enormous lucidity about these issues that now seem “new” to many.

[12]] We are talking about ecological overshoot, energy crisis, ripping apart the web of life, loss of biodiversity, extractivism (with intensive exploitation of renewable and non-renewable resources), overfishing, deforestation, destruction of fertile soil, desertification, scarcity of fresh water, global warming, alteration of large biogeochemical cycles (such as those of nitrogen and phosphorus), persistent chemical contamination, food dependence on finite resources, increase in zoonotic diseases, increase in bacterial resistance…

[13] Jorge Riechmann et al., Ecosocialismo Descalzo: Tentativas [Barefoot ecosocialism: Explorations], (Icaria, 2018), https://icariaeditorial.com/analisis-contemporaneo/21-ecosocialismo-descalzo-tentativas.html.

In 2016, Adidas and Nike promised long-distance runners that they would build “magic running-shoes” to enable marathon world records to break the two-hour barrier (the record stood at 2 hours, 2 minutes, and 57 seconds in 2016-17). It seems that Nike has made most progress on this with its Vaporfly Elite model (no less!), which would reduce the energy expenditure needed to run by 4%. See Carlos Arribas, “La polémica envuelve las zapatillas del maratón de dos horas” [Controversy envelops the “two-hour” running shoes], El País, March 21, 2017, http://deportes.elpais.com/deportes/2017/03/19/actualidad/1489949905_491011.html.

[14] In June 2023, the Norwegian company Norge Mining announced the discovery in its territory of large deposits of phosphate rock that could push this hurdle a bit further back in the race. Frédéric Simon, “‘Great News’: EU Hails Discovery of Massive Phosphate Rock Deposit in Norway,” Euractiv, July 14, 2023, https://www.euractiv.com/section/energy-environment/news/great-news-eu-hails-discovery-of-massive-phosphate-rock-deposit-in-norway/.

However, and as Aurora Despierta observes, we still lack sufficient information to assess this discovery in precise terms. Keep in mind that in just two weeks the same company Norge Mining reduced its estimate of the size of the new deposits by half. Aurora Despierta, “Alimentación mundial. Fosfatos, fósforo. Noruega, novedades” [World food supply. Phosphates, phosphorus. News from Norway], Kaosenlared, July 9, 2023, https://kaosenlared.net/alimentacion-mundial-fosfatos-fosforo-noruega-novedades/.

[15] See, among other texts, Emilio Santiago Muíño, Jaime Vindel, and César Rendueles, “Colapsismo: La cancelación (ecologista) del futuro” [Colapsism: The ecological cancelation of the future], Corriente Cálida, November 14, 2022, https://corrientecalida.com/colapsismo/. And this response: Jorge Riechmann, “¿Buscar las llaves bajo la luz de la farola, aunque las hayamos perdido en otro lugar? Algunas reflexiones sobre colapsismo” [Looking for the keys under the streetlamp even though we lost them somewhere else?], Viento Sur, December 8, 2022, https://vientosur.info/una-ofensiva-anticolapsista/. Reprinted as Jorge Riechmann, “Una Ofensiva «anticolapsista» [An “anti-collapsist” offensive], Kalewche, April 30, 2023, http://kalewche.com/una-ofensiva-anticolapsista/.

[16] Presentation at the Instituto de Transición Romper el Círculo, November 11, 2018, Móstoles, Madrid, Spain.

[17] Jørgen Randers, 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012).

[18] José María Lasalle writes: “Security has slipped into the European unconscious through the back door of fear. This shifts continental solidarity from a North-South consensus axis to an East-West one. It modifies the design of a green economy to another of arms and geopolitics”.-José María Lassalle, “Mackinder, China y el imperio gamberro” [Mackinder, China, and the hooligan empire], El País, March 16, 2022, https://elpais.com/opinion/2022-03-16/mackinder-china-y-el-imperio-gamberro.html. Cecilia Carballo writes: “We run the risk of missing the ecological transition train due to the security crisis stemming from the invasion of Ukraine. What the pandemic placed on the agenda and accelerated could now be relegated and postponed as a consequence of the military and security crisis. Despite decades of talking about the energy transition, fossil fuels still represent 80% of primary energy and, unfortunately, the deployment of renewables has only served to cover an additional demand that continues to grow.”-Cecilia Carballo, “Si Europa quiere, puede” [If Europe wants to, it can], El País, March 22, 2022, https://elpais.com/opinion/2022-03-22/si-europa-quiere-puede.html.

[19] Two brief yet dense books explain this perspective: Turiel, Petrocalipsis, mentioned above, and Alice J. Friedemann, Life after Fossil Fuels: Lecture Notes in Energy (Springer International Publishing, 2021), https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-70335-6. See also Megan K. Seibert and William E. Rees, “Through the Eye of a Needle: An Eco-Heterodox Perspective on the Renewable Energy Transition,” Energies 14, no. 15 (July 26, 2021): 4508, https://doi.org/10.3390/en14154508. As well as “Crisis Energética (y de Materiales)” [Crisis of energy (and of materials], PAPELES De Relaciones Ecosociales Y Cambio Global, no. 156, https://www.fuhem.es/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/PAPELES-156.pdf.

[20] This leading American researcher shows that high-tech renewables cannot be considered the definitive solution to our climate and eco-social crises (but they are not a lost cause either). He argues that we need to develop a realistic plan for energy descent, rather than cling to wishful dreams of everlasting abundance for the consumer by means other than fossil fuels.

“After humanity’s fossil-fueled fever has eventually broken”, Heinberg says, “we will return to renewable energy, one way or another. We’ve relied on renewable energy for untold millennia in terms of food, firewood, wind, and flowing water. It certainly would be preferable if we could partially transition to forms of renewable energy that would enable us to maintain some of the best of what we’ve accomplished over the past few energy-intensive decades—including scientific knowledge and creative works produced in a growing host of media, from sound recording to motion pictures to digital art.”

But this is not a matter of wishful thinking, but of realistically assessing possibilities.

“Unfortunately, that will be impossible without functioning electricity grids, which are challenging to maintain even in the best of times. If we could use hydro, solar, wind, and geothermal energy to power slimmed-down grids, that would greatly ease the transition away from fossil fuels.”

The author develops this line of reasoning in Richard Heinberg, “A Realistic ‘Energy Transition’ Is to Get Better at Using Less of It,” Resilience, February 17, 2023, https://www.resilience.org/stories/2023-02-17/a-realistic-energy-transition-is-to-get-better-at-using-less-of-it/.

His conclusion is that “Currently, politically rooted insistence on continued economic growth is discouraging truth-telling and serious planning for how to live well with less.”

[21] Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, “Pour une histoire désorientée de l’énergie” [For a disoriented history of energy],  Entropia. Revue d’étude théorique et politique de la décroissance [Entropia. Journal for the theoretical and political study of degrowth], no. 15 (autumn, 2013).

In an interview, Franquesa explains: “The concept of energy transition suggests a history of substitutions, or presumed substitutions, of energy sources. It implies a kind of sequence where we would have passed from some sources to others. But if one looks at the history of consumption, and I am speaking globally but we could lower it to a national or continental level, this substitution does not exist. That is, when oil overtakes coal as the world’s leading energy source, coal consumption continues to rise. What we are seeing now is an addition. Even if we think in terms of renewables, the reduction in fossil fuel consumption in recent years is minimal and is taking place in a context of decreasing energy consumption worldwide. So the new sources that are being used are really just adding to what we already had to supply a growing demand. So the energy transition does not exist…”-Pablo Rivas, “Jaume Franquesa: ‘La transición energética no existe,’” El Salto, February 12, 2023, https://www.elsaltodiario.com/energias-renovables/jaume-franquesa-transicion-energetica-no-existe.

The author presents theses from his book, Molinos y gigantes: la lucha por la dignidad, la soberanía energética y la transición ecológica [Windmills and Giants: The Struggle for Dignity, Energy Sovereignty and the Ecological Transition] (Errata Naturae, 2023).

[22] In 2022, after the economic slowdown induced by the response to Covid-19 in 2020, the maximum record of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels was reached: 37,500 million tons, 48% higher than those of the year 2000 (and increasing). Data from https://www.globalcarbonproject.org/.

[23] Delfina Godfried and Juan Ignacio Arroyo, Elefantes en la transición energética  [Elephants in the energy transition], CEPE – Di Tella, October 2022, 5, https://www.utdt.edu/ver_novedad.php?id_novedad=5152&id_item_menu=25201

[24] See in this regard Álvaro Campos-Celador, “15 tesis para el debate sobre la transición energética [15 theses for the debate on the energy transition]”, elDiario.es, February 4, 2023, https://www.eldiario.es/ultima-llamada/15-tesis-debate-transicion-energetica_132_9910433.html.

[25] I have already argued this point in my extensive article, “El descenso energético (y la necesidad de decrecimiento): implicaciones para las transiciones ecosociales” [The energy decline (and the need for degrowth): implications for ecosocial transitions], Contra el Diluvio, November 7, 2022, https://contraeldiluvio.es/el-descenso-energetico-y-la-necesidad-de-decrecimiento-implicaciones-para-las-transiciones-ecosociales-continuacion-del-debate-con-emilio-santiago-muino/.

See also Peoples of the Global South, “Manifesto for an Ecosocial Energy Transition from the Peoples of the South,” Foreign Policy in Focus, February 10, 2023, https://fpif.org/manifesto-for-an-ecosocial-energy-transition-from-the-peoples-of-the-south/. Where we read:

“What’s new about this current moment are the ‘clean energy transitions’ of the North that have put even more pressure on the Global South to yield up cobalt and lithium for the production of high-tech batteries, balsa wood for wind turbines, land for large solar arrays, and new infrastructure for hydrogen megaprojects. This decarbonization of the rich, which is market-based and export-oriented, depends on a new phase of environmental despoliation of the Global South, which affects the lives of millions of women, men, and children, not to mention non-human life. Women, especially from agrarian societies, are amongst the most impacted. In this way, the Global South has once again become a zone of sacrifice, a basket of purportedly inexhaustible resources for the countries of the North.”

There is a Spanish version: “Manifiesto de los pueblos del sur: Por una transición energética justa y popular” [Manifesto of the peoples of the South: For a just and popular energy transition], Pacto Ecosocial E Intercultural Del Sur, February 9, 2023, https://pactoecosocialdelsur.com/manifiesto-de-los-pueblos-del-sur-por-una-transicion-energetica-justa-y-popular-2/.

[26] Xan López, “El retardismo climático y un Green New Deal para una época escéptica” [Climate delayism and a Green New Deal for a sceptical age], elDiario.es, updated February 20, 2023, https://www.eldiario.es/opinion/tribuna-abierta/retardismo-climatico-green-new-deal-epoca-esceptica_129_9965268.html.

Xan suggests (I don’t know if with some kind of lapsus calami) that what is at stake in climate delayism are identity issues: “The strength of climate delayism, condensed in the slogan ‘Yes to renewables, but not like this’, is that in it you can unite those two opposing forces, simplifying an almost impossible debate into a seemingly simple request: ‘Yes, the first problem is serious; no, I am not going to overlook all the issues that define me, even if that means delaying any kind of energy transition.’” The issues that define me: identity politics.

[27] Friedemann, Life after Fossil Fuels, 192.

[28] Matthew Dalton, “Behind the Rise of U.S. Solar Power, a Mountain of Chinese Coal,” WSJ, July 31, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/behind-the-rise-of-u-s-solar-power-a-mountain-of-chinese-coal-11627734770.

[29] Which was being observed in 2021, although factors in addition to the one mentioned above are involved in this “coal explosion”.

“Despite all the advances made by renewable energy and electric mobility, in 2021 we see a big rebound in the use of coal and oil. Largely for this reason, we are also seeing the second largest annual increase in CO2 emissions in history”,-Fatih Birol, director general of the International Energy Agency (IEA), quoted by Víctor Martínez, “La resurrección del carbón provoca el segundo mayor aumento de CO2 de la historia en plena carrera ecológica” [The resurrection of coal causes the second largest increase in CO2 in history in the midst of an ecological race], El Mundo, October 14, 2021, https://www.elmundo.es/ciencia-y-salud/medio-ambiente/2021/10/14/6166c8fffdddffa8978b45a9.html.

[30] Javier Leal, “China crea dos nuevas centrales de carbón por semana” [China commissions two new coal power stations each week], The Objective, March 5, 2023, https://theobjective.com/economia/2023-03-05/china-centrales-carbon-eeuu-consumo-verde/. At the same time, China continues to install a lot of solar and wind capacity: 125 GW in 2022.

[31]“As Smil has shown for wind turbines and Storm van Leeuwen for nuclear power, the production, installation, and maintenance of any technological infrastructure remains critically dependent on fossil energy. Of course, it is easy to retort that until the transition has been made, solar panels are going to have to be produced by burning fossil fuels. But even if 100% of our electricity were renewable, it would not be able to propel global transports or cover the production of steel and cement for urban-industrial infrastructure. And given the fact that the cheapening of solar panels in recent years to a significant extent is the result of shifting manufacture to Asia, we must ask ourselves whether European and American efforts to become sustainable should really be based on the global exploitation of low-wage labour, scarce resources and abused landscapes elsewhere.”-Alf Hornborg, “A Globalised Solar-Powered Future Is Wholly Unrealistic – and Our Economy Is the Reason Why,” The Conversation, September 6, 2019, https://theconversation.com/a-globalised-solar-powered-future-is-wholly-unrealistic-and-our-economy-is-the-reason-why-118927.

See also Thomas A. Troszak, “The hidden costs of solar photovoltaic power,” NATO ENSEC COE, April 2021, https://enseccoe.org/data/public/uploads/2021/04/nato-ensec-coe-the-hidden-costs-of-solar-photovoltaic-power-thomas-a.troszak.pdf.

[32] Edward Chancellor, “Chancellor: Going Green Is Everything except Easy,” Reuters, October 6, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/breakingviews/chancellor-going-green-is-everything-except-easy-2021-10-06/.

[33] Antonio Turiel, “La escasez de materiales es una estaca en el corazón de la transición energética” [The scarcity of materials is a stake in the heart of the energy transition”], CSIC, November 29, 2021; https://www.csic.es/es/actualidad-del-csic/antonio-turiel-la-escasez-de-materiales-es-una-estaca-en-el-corazon-de-la

[34] Seibert and Rees, “Through the Eye of a Needle: An Eco-Heterodox Perspective on the Renewable Energy Transition.”

[35] Carlos de Castro, message to Petrocenitales discussion list,  Oct 11, 2022.

[36] Óscar Carpintero and Jaime Nieto, “Energy transition and post-growth scenarios,” (revised edition) Resilience, October 6, 2022, https://www.resilience.org/stories/2022-10-06/energy-transition-and-post-growth-scenarios/.

[37] Vaclav Smil often makes this point. Energy transitions “go very slowly. When the tractor appeared at the end of the 19th century, horses continued to be used in the fields for generations. (…) The transition towards fossil fuels began in England in the 18th century, but it did not reach Asia until 1950 (and this transition is precisely the cause of global warming). (…) In 1800 we burned wood. And today it still represents 10 percent of our energy. This means that in two centuries the world has not completed the transition from wood to coal.”-Carlos Manuel Sánchez, “Vaclav Smil: Vivimos en un sistema irracional y la Tierra no puede soportarlo” [Vaclav Smil: We are living in an irrational system and the Earth can’t bear it], El Correo-XLSemanal, August 26, 2021, https://www.xlsemanal.com/personajes/20210608/cambio-climatico-energias-renovables-transicion-energetica-vaclav-smil.html.

[38] Mariano Vázquez Espí, personal communication, November 23, 2021. Information here: http://habitat.aq.upm.es/gi/mve/

In the words of Carpintero and Nieto:

…our current civilisation is facing what has been termed the “energy trap”. This is: the expansion of renewable sources and infrastructure requires the massive use of fossil fuels (and more of it the faster we want to implement the transition process) and, at the same time, this will entail, during the first years, higher GHG emissions which will aggravate the climate change problem. And this, in circumstances where time is also short, and where, moreover, given the installations’ useful life of 20-30 years, within three decades we would end up needing similar amounts of energy to replace them (for which it would be difficult to find available fossil resources).-(Carpintero and Nieto, “Energy transition and post-growth scenarios.”)

[39] Nicholas Georgescu-Rogen, “ViewPoint: The Crisis of Natural Resources,” Challenge: The Magazine of Economic Affairs 24, no. 1 (March-April 1981): 50–56, https://doi.org/10.1080/05775132.1981.11470677.

[40] Ernest García, “Del pico del petróleo a las visiones de una sociedad post-fosilista” [From peak oil to the visions of a post-fossil society], in El final de la era del petróleo barato[The end of the era of cheap oil], ed. Joaquim Sempere and Enric Tello (Icaria, 2008), 28.

[41] Georgescu-Rogen, “ViewPoint: The Crisis of Natural Resources.”

[42] Art Berman, “Why the Renewable Rocket Has Failed to Launch,” Art Berman (blog), May 8, 2020, https://www.artberman.com/2020/05/08/why-the-renewable-rocket-has-failed-to-launch/.

To better understand all this (and a few more things): N.J. Hagens, “Economics for the Future – Beyond the Superorganism,” Ecological Economics 169 (March 2020): 106520, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.106520.

[43] “Impoverishing ourselves” means slowing down, doing less, using less energy and materials, traveling and moving less, producing and consuming fewer goods, substituting private forms of activity with communal ones. It does not necessarily mean living less well. But it does mean to live in a different way – radically. The ribeye steak/pea stew debate puts that issue on the table very clearly.[3]

[44] See, e.g., Jefim Vogel et al., “Socio-Economic Conditions for Satisfying Human Needs at Low Energy Use: An International Analysis of Social Provisioning,” Global Environmental Change-Human and Policy Dimensions 69 (July 1, 2021): 102287, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2021.102287.

[45] https://twitter.com/limites1972/status/1622964309050421257.

In another Twitter thread, the same author explained:

To understand the magnitude and implications of the civilisational crisis we are in, a systemic and broad approach is necessary that allows us to understand how the various parts of the system are related to each other.

Super technical specialisation is now encouraged (and professionally rewarded). The brightest minds tend to know a whole lot about a particular subject but very little or nothing about other fields that are not their specialty. (…)

…many analyses and possible ‘solutions’ to the ecosocial crisis that are proposed are flawed because they are biased by that super-specialist tunnel vision and simply do not take into account the systemic and global dimension of the problem.

What’s more, those failed ‘solutions’ are often the consequence of a faulty diagnosis that is limited to one part of the system (for example ‘the climate crisis’ or ‘electricity generation’) or to the immediate future (e.g. this year). or this winter) or to the local sphere (e.g. Spain).

And so it happens, for example, that the pro-renewable* BAU advocates reduce the ecosocial crisis to the climate crisis or reduce the issue of energy to that of electricity.

They do not have a systemic vision and therefore do not realise that climate change and the increase in CO2 emissions is just one of the many symptoms of the ecological overshoot and the Great Acceleration produced by exponential economic growth.

They do not have a systemic vision and therefore do not take into account the physical limits to the use of minerals and rare earths to undertake the energy transition.

They do not take into account that modern mining is totally dependent on fossil fuels and diesel.

They do not take into account that the progressive, non-linear, decrease in the quality of the deposits of the minerals necessary for this energy transition will intensify the dependence on diesel even more and that the recoverable reserves will decrease over time.

They do not take into account the peak production of fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal) and the decrease in their net energy yield and the impact of these factors on economic and industrial activity. Nor their impact on geopolitics. Nor their impact on a supply chain ultra-dependent on cheap shipping and cooperation between states. They also do not take into account their impact on finances and the availability of financing (i.e. energy and resources) to undertake all these mammoth scale projects.

And they do not take into account the physical limits of science, its diminishing returns and how it will be progressively more difficult – due to lack of resources – for it to provide the technologies (fusion, carbon capture, etc.) that renewable plans require and that don’t even exist today.

And they do not take into account how less developed countries are NOT going to sit idly by and watch as we plunder their resources for our energy transition while they have to deal with toxic waste, environmental impacts, and other externalities.

And they do not take into account how states and powers (India, Brazil, Russia, China…) will at some point have to prioritise the well-being of their population and a certain level of internal social stability, and how this will impact our consumption of their resources and the products that they manufacture FOR US.

And they do not take into account how all the environmental crises (climate change, loss of biodiversity, chemical pollution, etc.) derived from the ecological overshoot will impact people’s day-to-day lives and the growing energy and resource effort that their mitigation will entail.

And they do not take into account the time horizon and the economic (energy) effort and financing requirements involved in completely replacing an industrial and transport system between continents developed on the basis of (and around) coal, oil, and diesel.

And they do not take into account or care that after the first wave of macro renewables in which we will spend almost all the mineral capital of the Earth, they will have to be replaced in 20 or 30 years. And what will we do then? Where will we get the minerals for the second wave? Nobody takes into account that minerals are integrated (diluted) in circuits and alloys and that it will not be energetically (economically) viable to recycle them. And that the renewables that are installed today are not designed to be recycled.

None of this is taken into account by these super specialists when they project into the future; they simply consider the ‘normal’ of the last 75 years – that is: cheap energy, abundant resources, high practical returns from scientific research, international cooperation, global supply chains, outsourcing of waste and the extraction of resources to poor countries, access to financing… – all of this, we say, they simply consider that it will remain there as long as it is necessary for the implementation of that transition.

For this reason, and for the sake of what we wish to preserve (food production? plastic production?), our political, economic, and scientific leaders should have a systemic perspective, with a broad global and temporal vision.

To this day, the best approach to understanding the world is still the System Dynamics approach used by MIT scientists more than fifty years ago when they published The Limits to Growth.

[* Almost all of us are pro-renewable. Where we differ is on the scale and manner of their implementation.]

https://twitter.com/limites1972/status/1617614173147652096.

[46] The drunk is looking for his house key (which he lost a while before) under a streetlight, although he has dropped it in a dark place twenty metres away, because under the lamp the light is better.

[47] Campos-Celador,  “15 tesis para el debate sobre la transición energética” [15 theses for the debate on the energy transition].

[1] Translator’s note: “movimientos ecologistas” in Spanish. “Ecologismo”, as used by various movements, can have shades of meaning that distinguish it in significant respects from mainstream environmentalism. Such movements tend to call for deep changes of the currently dominant systems and ways of life, beyond merely regulating or reforming them.

[2]  Translator’s note: “colapsista” in Spanish.

[3] Translators’ note: This refers to a debate in Spanish media that took place in 2021, when President Pedro Sánchez (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) replied to the Minister of Consumption Affairs Alberto Garzón (United Left, communist and degrowther), who had asked for a smaller consumption of meat in Spanish diets, with a kind of humorous defence of steaks.

Jorge Riechmann

Jorge Riechmann, a professor of moral philosophy at the Autonomous University of Madrid, writes poems and essays. He has dedicated a considerable effort to try to understand the different dimensions of social ecology since the mid-1980s. He directed the Observatory of Sustainability in Spain in its constitutional phase, and he tried to develop something like a worker ecology with the First of May Foundation and the Institute of Labor, Environment, and Health between 1996 and 2008. Since 2013, he has coordinated the Transdisciplinary Research Group on Socioecological Transitions. He is the author of various collections of essays about questions of political ecology, environmental ethics, and ecological thought. He has published his reflections on ecological ethics in Eticas extramuros.

Tags: ecological transition, energy transition