Why oil didn’t save the whales – and why it matters

A widely aired talking point among those who believe that new technological developments are the key to solving our environmental problems is that “oil saved the whales”. In this view, the emergence of petroleum products in the mid-19th century undercut the price of whale oil, prompting the decline of the whaling industry and thus reprieve for the giants of the deep from being hunted to extinction. But “oil saved the whales” isn’t usually a claim about the past so much as one about the future: the seemingly intractable problems of resource over-exploitation that trouble us today will be solved by new technologies, just as the over-exploitation of whales was solved in the past.

It’s a cute argument. But unfortunately its historical claims are blatantly false – and this calls into question its claims for the future. Far from saving the whales, it was oil that nearly obliterated them, and may yet still do so. The real lessons to be drawn from the history of whaling are more interesting and more complex than the oil salvation narrative. By laying them out here, I hope I might help draw attention to better means for tackling present problems than the one suggested by the oil salvation story.

But let’s first delve briefly into some facts and figures to explore that story. I’m hoping to do this in more depth at some point, but for present purposes we can get quite a long way just by looking at this single graph of the global sperm whale catch from 1800-1980 derived from a paper by Merrill Gosho and colleagues1 (the figures are given as ten-year aggregates).

In the first half of the 19th century the sperm whale was the premier species sought by whalers, mostly US-based, for its oil – much of it used in lamps. What gets the oil-salvationists excited is the dip you see in the graph around 1850, which was around the time that kerosene lamp-oil became available – an innovation that this oil salvation narrative personalizes in the name of Abraham Gesner, who formed the Kerosene Gaslight Company in 1850. Whether the dip really was caused just by the advent of kerosene is debatable. There were various other factors in play, including the depletion of sperm whales in existing whaling grounds. But it seems plausible that kerosene did play some role.

The real problem for the oil salvation narrative comes when you cast your eyes rightwards along the graph at the 20th century sperm whale catch. If we start in 1950, a century after Gesner’s supposedly game-changing invention, over 8,000 sperm whales were taken that year, more than three times as many as in 1850. In fact, more sperm whales were taken in the single decade of the 1950s than in the entire heyday of the sperm whale industry from 1800-1850.

It gets worse if we look at other whale species. Barely any of the fast and elusive rorqual species like blue whales were taken before the late 19th century, because traditional whaling technology wasn’t up to catching them. But in the years around World War I the number of blues taken, mostly in the Antarctic, was around 6,000 per year, and with the invention of the factory ship this leapt to nearly 30,000 blues in 1930-1. One reason the sperm whale catch accelerated in the 1950s was because there were few blues left to catch.

So that, in a nutshell, is why oil didn’t save the whales. It was the modern, industrialized whaling of the 20th century potentiated by fossil oil that truly put whales into danger.

But let’s turn to what we can learn from humanity’s whaling misadventures, which I would itemize as follows.

Technology doesn’t just ‘move forwards’, it cascades. You can take a particular moment or context – the lamp oil market in 1850, for example – and stake a claim for the ecological benefits of a new product like kerosene. But to provide an adequate account of technological impact, you need to trace the ramifications forward in all their cascading complexity. In the case before us, this would involve the deadly impact on whales of fossil-fuelled whaling technologies after 1850, later technological developments such as the invention of margarine and hydrogenation techniques that stimulated a new demand for whale oil in the 20th century, the falling price of whale oil that made it competitive with other oils once again with the rise of labour-cutting mechanization and more efficient processing, new demands for baleen and other whale products, and so on. Any new technology, including kerosene, isn’t a one-shot intervention into a small slice of history like a specific lamp oil market. It cascades across the totality of human history and natural history.

In fact, technology doesn’t ‘move forwards’ at all, nor ‘backwards’ – it just moves. Kerosene might have been an environmental boon for whales in 1850. In its best-known present use as aviation fuel, it’s an environmental disaster in terms of climate change, which may not turn out too well for whales in the long run – or for us. In fact, the development of liquid fossil fuels in the later 19th century, of which kerosene was one strand, didn’t turn out too well for whales even in the short run. ‘Oil saved the whales’ is an untestable claim that the future will turn out well, based on a questionable claim that the past turned out well. It amounts to saying no more than ‘somebody’s bound to think of something’. I’d suggest it’s better to focus on the problems of the present, using the means that are presently available to us.

Low impact technologies can be high impact. Until the mid-19th century, the whaling industry used the same ‘sustainable’ methods as aboriginal whalers from time immemorial: sail, oar, harpoon, lance. And yet because of the social organization of the industry and the clever deployment of sustainable technology in the form of transoceanic sailing ships, it had a global impact on whale depletion. Industries using low impact technologies aren’t necessarily low impact industries.

Capitalism sucks. By which I mean, following the previous point, organising industries in capitalist ways often results in sucking ever more non-renewable resources from the world. The graph above suggests as much. Fossil oil didn’t replace whale oil, it enabled whale oil to be added to an expanding repertoire of resource drawdown. The same is true of renewable energy technologies today. The problem can only really be addressed by changing the nature of the economy, not by changing the means through which it sucks.

Ecological systems have inertia… Although forty years have passed without much large-scale commercial whaling (and many more years than that in the case of some species), recovery of stocks has been glacially slow. I’m hoping to examine this in greater detail, but as I understand it only with one species – the gray – have numbers yet returned to anything like their pre-whaling levels. No doubt this partly has to do with other and ongoing human-induced problems in the oceans (whales entangled with fishing nets, for example) but the nature of whales as stress tolerator or K-selected species means they can’t cope well with a perturbation like large-scale whaling, and they recover from it only slowly or perhaps not at all. A good deal of the biota is similar, suggesting that disturbance events can have negative effects long into the future after they’ve ended – worth noting, perhaps, for many other dimensions of human action upon the world besides whaling.

…and so do economic systems. A firm principle of the oil salvation narrative is that human inventiveness brings forth new and superior alternatives to old and ecocidal ones, like kerosene for whale oil, and that market forces then swiftly do the work of ecological transition. But, leaving aside kerosene’s own ecocidal effects (Point 2), the history of whaling really doesn’t fit this narrative well. Substitutes for almost every whale product existed long before commercial whaling was banned in 1982, 130 years after Mr Gesner’s marvellous invention. The truth is that market forces don’t swiftly do the work of ecological transition, for numerous reasons – sunk costs, industry resistance, political leverage, wider geopolitics to name a few. Cue TED talk: “Oil didn’t save the whales, and market forces aren’t going to solve climate change.”

Social systems cascade too. The oil salvation narrative settles on the singularity that commercial whaling was banned only because superior substitutes for whale products had been found. But in the real world, political decisions usually result from many factors, often with a fair slice of contingency thrown in. The existence of substitutes was no doubt one factor. Other factors included the declining whale catch, possible extinction arising from over-exploitation, and the rise of animal rights philosophies, environmentalist lobbying and direct action against whaling. Global geopolitics too. From my reading of the jockeying at the IWC and the endless foot-dragging of the whaling nations prior to the moratorium, it takes a very reductive worldview to discount all these other factors and impute the moratorium solely to technological substitution.

Activism matters. And on that basis, I’d say that activism matters. It’s impossible to say how much it was the mobilisation of organisations like Greenpeace and changing public attitudes towards the relentless hunting of large mammals that resulted in the moratorium and how much it resulted from other more technocratic factors. But it seems clear to me that without impassioned (and media savvy) public activism the moratorium would have been less likely. So if you want to right a wrong, you could try to invent something that you hope market forces will take up and tip things in your preferred direction. Or you could protest more directly – for example by standing in a small boat between a whale and a gunner’s grenade. To me, it’s a rash theorist who claims to know for sure that Abraham Gesner is more deserving of a vote of thanks from the whales than, say, Paul Watson.

The tragedy of the commons is a thing. As I’ve argued before on here and examine in more detail in my book, the debate about commons is stuck in a rut – Hardin versus Ostrom gets us started, but now we need to move on. In less than a century, humanity reduced blue whales to about 4% of their pre-whaling numbers. You could call this a tragedy of the commons, or – if you prefer – you could call it a tragedy of failing to create a commons, although there was still a common law of the sea in operation during the years of unrelenting, fossil-fuelled whaling. Whatever terminology you favour, the fact is that people don’t always succeed in preventing open access, private property or state regimes from over-exploiting resources and wild creatures.

When going uphill, change down a gear. The oil salvation narrative is part of the wider one in mainstream economics that human ingenuity along with price signals will enable us to do more, to do it better and to do it faster unto eternity. No doubt this seemed plausible during much of the 20th century. But as the fossil fuelled bonanza hustled the human omnibus ever faster downhill, it made little difference to us whether we made sustainable use of whale products or not. And today it seems clearer that the downslope won’t last forever. There’s a good chance we’ll hit a steep energy upslope soon enough, and a climate change upslope before that, and at these points we’d be well advised – like any sensible driver – not to keep piling on full throttle in top gear in the hope it’ll get us to the top of the hill. Instead we need to slow down, change down a gear and trim the vehicle to the realities of the landscape. Oil didn’t save the whales. A low carbon, cheap energy revolution isn’t just around the corner. Slow down. Look out of the window. It’s a beautiful world out there.



  1. Gosho, Merrill, et al. 1984. ‘The Sperm Whale.’ Marine Fisheries Review 46: 54–64.


49 thoughts on “Why oil didn’t save the whales – and why it matters

  1. “The same is true of renewable energy technologies today. The problem can only really be addressed by changing the nature of the economy, not by changing the means through which it sucks.”

    In a recent article in the Cambridge Journal of Economics, Jamie Morgan makes precisely this point regarding the transition from ICE to BE vehicles:

    “If the transition is a form of substitution that conforms to rather than shifts against current global scales and trends in private transportation, then it is highly likely that BEVs will be a successful failure.”

    Because I thought it might be of interest to folks here, I was just going to drop the link somewhat randomly into the comments for the last post, yet, in a fortuitous turn, I arrived here to find that you had a new post to which it was perfectly relevant!

    Electric vehicles: the future we made and the problem of unmaking it

  2. Here’s an interesting presentation that is relevant to the discussion of energy and society. As energy use per capita goes up, social institutions get bigger and more complex. The reverse is also true; as institutions get smaller, they tend to use less energy per capita.

    We can produce a small farm future by disabling world energy supplies (or run out of energy) or we can create a small farm future and watch energy consumption (and environmental damage) wither away. Unfortunately, neither option is likely to be taken in the short term.

    I believe that our only hope is that our overly complex societies (in the rich world) will become unmanageable and collapse on their own, prompted by the beginnings of energy decline perhaps, or even because of a pandemic. One can hope.


  3. organising industries in capitalist ways often results in sucking ever more non-renewable resources from the world

    I’ll say it again, capitalism is not the root problem. Organizing industries in any way always results in “sucking ever more non-renewable resources from the world”.

    The problem is industry itself, not how it’s organized. Capitalism might be very good at creating the incentive to grow industries, but if the same industries were created without capitalism they would still be just as bad.

    Perhaps you mean that industry can’t exist without capitalism, that capitalism = industry, a tautology. In that case, “organising industries in capitalist ways” says little more than “organising capitalism in capitalist ways”.

    I apologize for harping on this, but I think it is important to keep an eye on the forest and not the trees. No matter how it is created, a high-energy-throughput industrial civilization is always going to produce a lot of environmental damage. The bigger it gets the worse the damage will be.

    • Thank you for making this point. Economic growth is the principal goal of all modern societies regardless of their position on the political spectrum. The only real solution, voluntary or otherwise, to large scale environmental destruction is economic contraction – a devilish sell in a world awash with debt.

      I always bristle at the concept of “more sustainable”, an notion used for nothing more than marketing to those who have some remote sense that their present lifestyles are contributing to environmental catastrophe. That term has as much meaning as “more dead”. It is so much easier to just buy a product touting environmental stewardship (IOW slightly less destructive) than to do the hard work of simplification.

      With 10 years under my belt as an organic farmer and an adult lifetime’s worth of researching and analyzing the confluence of politics, the environment, energy production/use, and finance/economics I find it hard to overstate the magnitude of the changes required to arrive at any type of social organization that could be considered sustainable. When many of even my most highly educated and greenest friends are intent on electric car ownership and solar panel installations the true nature of the problem become apparent. Within my circle of friends are senior professionals in healthcare, science, government, industry, academia, and business. It pains me to say that none of them have developed more than a superficial understanding of sustainability. It is certainly not stupidity behind this failure but a simple ignorance of the emergent properties of our complex global system. They are virtually all specialists and as such are not compelled to operate outside their silos of knowledge. Their time is consumed by careers and families. Professional development is focused on deepening not broadening. The resulting blindness of how their disciplines are influenced by external factors means questions are posed mostly in isolation and the answers received are subsequently linear. This compartmentalized approach to decision making is woefully inadequate when faced with the interconnected sorts of problems flourishing today.

      The theoretical consequences of a de-industrialization/de-growth future touch and cross-pollinate every aspect of society. The more energy dependent the aspect, the more difficult it becomes to maintain it’s complexity through time. Even concepts like lending money at interest, presently an absolute given, are incompatible with sustained economic contraction. Globalism or even Nationhood are unlikely to persist in present form or stature as the resources required to maintain them diminish. A return to simplicity leads inextricably to basic human needs like food, water, and shelter moving to the forefront. Niceties like travel, telecommunications, modern medicine, gadgetry, etc,etc, do not make the cut. Herein lies the conundrum – How to initiate such a transition when it is universally perceived (in the western world anyway) as a gross decline in the quality of life? What conditions would have to exist, what mental re-alignment would have to take place for a shift of such magnitude in the conventional wisdom? The changes in attitude and behaviour that have been made in the last little while, although seemingly significant against the backdrop of industrial and social history, are but the merest beginnings.

      The exponential function of growth is generally unappreciated at human timescales. At a 3% economic growth rate (a useful proxy for consumption, and a minimum for perceived increases in prosperity), GDP doubles approximately every 23 years. If I live to an average age the size of the economy will have grown by a factor of 10 in just my lifetime. If it were possible for this trend were to continue, by 2043 we would be globally consuming twice what we are today; a highly dubious proposition given the economic, social, and environmental constraints already hard at work.

      The arrest of growth followed by long-term contraction should be considered imminent but is not being seriously discussed. Unfortunately our blinkered view of history has taught us that growth is perpetual, that any contraction can be overcome with enough manipulation, and that there are infinite substitutions for depleted resources. Reality will soon say otherwise. Divesting ourselves from this delusional belief is our most immediate and pressing concern as the looming disruption of virtually all sectors of society will derail many of the environmental mitigation schemes presently on the table. They are all dependent on some combination of finance, new technology, energy, coordination, and time – all soon to be in short supply. By refusing to generate a realistic estimate of how long we have before economic growth stops (or to even acknowledge the possibility) and systemic collapse begins any proposed remediations are without essential context and will be ineffective at best. We should start there.

  4. Would our current high-energy-throughput industrial civilization have emerged without the capitalist logic of production and its attendant technological rationalism? Seems unlikely. Going forward, would it be possible to jettison the capitalist logic of production while still maintaining the high-energy-throughput industrial civilization that it has made possible? Contemporary and recent historical examples suggest that this is supremely difficult. I’d say, then, that it’s not that organized industry can’t exist without capitalism*, it’s that high-energy-throughput industrial civilization (probably) can’t exist (or emerge) without capitalism.

    *It has, after all, unless you advocate a definition of capitalism that’s so vague as to be entirely without meaning.

    • This was meant to be a reply to Joe’s preceding comment, but, instead, I’ve mistakenly replied to the original post. So it goes.

    • Capitalism: an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.

      Socialism: a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole

      I can think of at least one or two countries where most high-energy-throughput industries were greatly expanded under government ownership, the UK being one of them (WW2 to the Thatcher administration) and the Soviet Union being another. And if the Soviet Union had won the cold war, I can easily imagine the development of a global industrial civilization operating on their economic model, one that would have as much, or more, negative environmental impact as the current global mix of capitalism and ‘state capitalism’.

      The ownership of the means of production may be important for society (I personally lean toward public ownership under democratic control) but the environment is affected by the operation of industry no matter who controls the mines and factories. Socializing all the world’s industries might make for a more equitable civilization, but keeping those industries in operation would still put us on a path of environmental destruction.

      But enough. The real problem is how to quickly transition away from industrialism. Chris raises the prospect of global activism as a possible solution. I think it will more likely require global sabotage. Where’s George Hayduke when you need him?

      • I can think of at least one or two countries where most high-energy-throughput industries were greatly expanded under government ownership, the UK being one of them (WW2 to the Thatcher administration) and the Soviet Union being another.”

        To varying degrees, I’d lump both of those examples under the heading of “state capitalism,” Joe, so we’re definitely running into the problem with definitions to which Chris pointed below. With that in mind, I think that we probably agree on a whole lot more than we disagree.

        “Where’s George Hayduke when you need him?”

        Earlier this year, an academic that I followed on twitter predicted that Earth First-style direction action would become common sense by 2030. That seems wildly optimistic to me, but I’ve thought about that tweet (and, by extension, George Washington Hayduke) a lot in the months since.

  5. Thanks for the comments, Ernie & Joe. Earlier, I drafted this response to Joe, which is similar to Ernie’s:

    Joe writes: “No matter how it is created, a high-energy-throughput industrial civilization is always going to produce a lot of environmental damage.”

    I suspect that’s true, but the only such civilization that’s been created has been a capitalist one – and it’s hard to see how one would be created without something like capitalist ideology behind it (Soviet-style communism isn’t an exception to this, it’s just a mirror of capitalist productivism). Maybe you could posit ‘high-energy throughput industrial civilization’ and ‘capitalism’ as tautologous, or at least synonymous, in my treatment – but I’d argue that’s not really so, because ‘capitalism’ is a shorthand term that supplies the social logic behind the high-energy throughput industrial civilization.

    But I think you slip too easily between ‘high-energy throughput industrial civilization’ and ‘industry’ in general. What strikes me as interesting is that European whaling quickly became quite destructive of whale stocks whereas, for example, Nuu-chah-nulth whaling did not, despite the fact that both employed similar technologies or ‘industries’ of rowed boats, harpoons, lances etc. I think it’s worth pondering why that is. Other economic ideologies, and their associated industries, generally don’t ‘suck’ as much as capitalism.

    Perhaps we need to discuss more explicitly what we mean by both capitalism and industry – a topic for another blog post, no doubt.

    • I guess I was working on my reply to Ernie when you posted yours because I had not seen your comment.

      I do agree that the profit motive and private ownership of capital greatly accelerates the organization of industrial growth, but the main accelerant is easily acquired energy. In the pre-fossil-fuel era, energy supplies were mostly limited to the availability of wood and peat. Even so, plenty of damage was done by the charcoal makers for the iron industry (which is an important clue).

      So why didn’t the Nuu-chah-nulth, who had plenty of access to wood, devastate their surroundings and build up their whaling to whale extermination levels? Did their restraint have to do with their social organization (as you suspect) or something else?

      The Makah and the Nitinat were subsistence foragers, living off the bounty of the rivers and the sea. While they did dry and store food, they had no need to create the same kind of food storage systems that agriculture requires. Perhaps food storage techniques are the key to industry?

      Other indigenous peoples in the same region, terrestrial hunters and gatherers, did manage to accomplish a great deal of environmental transformation/destruction by using fire to burn great swaths of forest. But despite the availability of wood and their facility with fire, they didn’t do much industry building either.

      Why did none of these people built an industrial civilization? My pondering leads me to suspect that the reason was the lack of iron and steel. Pre-Columbian America had no iron production at all. There was some iron available from meteorites and shipwrecks, but no mining and smelting of ferrous metals.

      I think the production of iron and steel, combined with the production of metal weaponry for warfare, are more likely as catalysts for industrial development than any particular social structure. Add unlimited energy from fossil fuels to the mix and you have a recipe for rapid industrialization.

      • I suspect part of the debate is definitional. Your comments make a lot of sense with your definition of capitalism. I prefer a different definition of capitalist society, offered by Wolfgang Streeck: “a modern society that secures its collective reproduction as an unintended side-effect of individually rational, competitive profit maximization in pursuit of capital accumulation…” with ‘modern society’ defined as “one aiming at growth of its productivity and prosperity that is in principle boundless”.

        Once this was unleashed historically, all other economic systems – including state-controlled ones – are essentially just gathered into its orbit.

        As I see it, the direction of causality doesn’t run from the availability of cheap energy or metals to the invention of capitalist ideology in order to maximize the exploitation of these resources, but the other way. The emergence of capitalist ideology or ‘modern society’ starts driving the exploitation of and the search for energy and resources. To me, the big puzzle is the cultural emergence of that ideology.

        But, as I said before, this probably requires further airing in another post.

        • A broad definition of capitalism might lose the nuances between these varieties:
          agrarian capitalism
          merchant capitalism
          industrial capitalism

          “To me, the big puzzle is the cultural emergence of that ideology.”
          Perhaps it emerges in cultures that allow large accumulations of wealth, along with circumstances whereby many people cannot provide for themselves (with subsistence agriculture, for example)?


        • OK, I can agree that Streeck’s definition of capitalism is reasonable, but I fail to see how his definition can be applied to the economy of the Soviet Union. Were all those Marxist comrades intent on “individually rational, competitive profit maximization in pursuit of capital accumulation”? That seems like a stretch.

          As to whether the cultural egg came before the energy chicken (or vice versa), I can say only that while a lot of energy may not be sufficient for the development of a global industrial civilization it is certainly necessary. As Steven Keen notes, “Labour without energy is a corpse; capital without energy is a sculpture”. Energy underpins everything, for good or ill.

          A capitalist culture without the energy intensity provided by fossil fuels would peak out at the complexity of a farmer’s market (plus a modest amount of international trade carried on sailing ships). I think it is fair to say that capitalism without much energy throughput can do little harm. To me, that puts the blame for our predicament on our access to too much energy rather than on how we organize its use.

          • I pretty much immediately regretted wading into the weeds with my “Soviet Union as state capitalism” comment, Joe, so I’ll retreat a little rather than further press that line of argument*. The book that I’m reading at the moment discusses Lenin’s conception of the Soviet project, at least at the outset, in these terms, so it was (too) quick to mind as a way of gesturing to the “definitions” problem. Since it’s not a position to which I’m strongly committed, I’ll move over to the firmer ground that Chris staked out: “countries that successfully instituted the kind of capitalist societies [Marx] describes set the terms of international relations, forcing other countries to adjust in one way or another.” Here’s Lenin, in 1921, speaking to this very issue: “The whole problem – in theoretical and practical terms – is to find the correct methods of directing the development of Capitalism (which is to some extent and for some time inevitable) into the channels of State Capitalism, and to determine how we are to hedge it about with conditions to ensure its transformation into Socialism in the near future.”

            *If you’d like to see how this argument has been articulated in the past, this brief essay by Raya Dunayevskaya, written in 1941, hits the high points:

            The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is a Capitalist Society

        • Indeed, Streeck’s definition as such doesn’t work for the USSR. But the point is that countries that successfully instituted the kind of capitalist societies he describes set the terms of international relations, forcing other countries to adjust in one way or another – Stalin’s ruthless state-led industrialisation was one example of this (Bismarck’s maybe another). And it was prefigured through the emphasis in Marxist thought on progress, development, industry, labour etc which the tradition imbibed from capitalist culture. Marx himself was scornful of ‘utopian’ socialism and the more anti-industrial and libertarian currents of leftist thought. Perhaps with some justification, but how different history might have been with a more rounded view on the left of ‘progress’. The same is true today…

          I agree with Steve on the need to distinguish between different forms of capitalism – something I discuss in my book in some detail. But, again, let’s come back to the history in due course.

          In the meantime, I agree with Joe that capitalism without fossil energy wouldn’t have created the pervasive levels of biospheric threat we face today, but for me the equation is still capitalism + fossil fuels (+ grain, as in my recent post), because without the other two most of the fossil fuels would likely still be in the ground. Whether capitalism without fossil fuels does ‘little harm’ is another matter – if dead whales and dead slaves could speak, they might take a different view.

          • I agree with that analysis re Soviet Union. I believe this is also the reason for why cooperatives operating within a capitalist economy mostly behave in the same way as private companies. The “imperatives” of the market (Meiksins Wood: the imperatives of competition, accumulation, profit-maximization, and increasing labor productivity) are working in a similar way on companies and on government owned companies as well as on whole countries as long as they embrace global trade. With increasing privatization also the public sector start to follow those market imperatives.
            Thanks for a very good post Chris!

          • I’ve come to this debate late, and don’t have much to add, except to attempt to tweak Streeck’s definition, as follows: capitalism is ‘a modern society that secures its collective reproduction as an unintended side-effect of the pursuit of capital accumulation, through competitive profit maximization in market economies at its core, and violent expropriation at its non- marketised periphery‘, with ‘modern society’ defined as ‘one aiming at growth of its productivity and prosperity that is in principle boundless, thus requiring constant conquest of boundaries.’

            I think it’s important to recognise the dynamic of capitalism at its boundaries as a fundamental part of its definition, and thus of its social logic.

  6. Gosh, well thanks for that link! Shellenberger is an old adversary of mine, and one of the better known soothsayers of the ‘oil saved the whale’ myth. There’s nothing he likes more than plumping up his environmentalist credentials and then taking aim at environmentalist perspectives that are deeper green or further left than him (which, to be honest, is almost all of them). But now his mask has truly slipped with this litany of misinformation … in Breitbart, of all places! No, you won’t find it in the Guardian because it’s complete b*** (oops, memo to self – remember NVC language, Chris).

    I’d been toying with the idea of writing an update on the Breakthrough boys, though it’s hard to beat this old essay by David Roberts – both in terms of a characterization of their project, and a caution as to why engaging with them damages the soul: https://grist.org/climate-change/2011-04-26-why-ive-avoided-commenting-on-nisbets-climate-shift-report/

    Still, if anyone else would care to engage here with exactly what Shellenberger gets wrong in this piece, be my guest. It isn’t difficult – but please mind my bandwith.

  7. Thanks Chris.

    I understand the argument about capitalism being a main driver of environmental destruction.

    I tend to take Joe’s side on that sub-argument. But mostly because I believe that capitalism is not a cause, but a radical, and fairly recent purification of destructive philosophy that got started much earlier.
    We have a record of that starting: When Gilgamesh trapped Enkidu, got him hooked on beer, and then went to the cedar forests to kill Humbaba and cut down the sacred trees.
    That was doubtless an old memory even when it was written down 4,000 years ago.

    And interestingly, they didn’t plunder the heretofore holy natural world for the purpose of increasing their personal wealth. They did it so they would be remembered as being heroes. How far we have fallen in our vain pursuits, that now we are only grubbing for money.

    So I don’t believe that capitalism is the basic problem. It is the Humanist death cult. Nor is it access to quantities of energy. It is the will to use the energy that is the problem. Iron smelting may be a good marker for this, since there is no way to smelt iron sustainably in large quantities.

    So also the difference between Western and Native hunting practices: the native societies still viewed the whales as their kin, and so would only kill them as they needed to survive.

    Still, I am having trouble imagining a more purely distilled instance of waste and selfish disregard for anything but our immediate whims than what we see in late-stage capitalism. We not only lay waste to the physical world, but we wilfully ignore its very existence.
    Weird to be able to do both those at once, eh?

    Clearly there is no going back all those thousands of years. We’ve made our mistakes, and the only way is forward through the fire.

    As an aside, Melville in 1851 was quite reverent about the sperm whales, though still excited about killing them. And he repeated a few times his thought about the limitlessness of their numbers.

  8. Eric, thanks for that. Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that pre-capitalist societies were innocent of environmental destructiveness or destructive philosophies. I agree with your nice point that capitalist logic is a radical purification of earlier logics. But I do want to place some emphasis on its radicalism and purity. I think it’s possible to imagine how societies built around agrarian producerism might limit their environmental destructiveness without a fundamental transformation of their economic logic. I’m not sure I can imagine how societies built around capitalist consumerism might do so. Which is more or less JC’s point above (apologies that I didn’t approve that comment earlier, it somehow evaded my radar). Luckily, I reveal the secret of how to transform capitalism into environmental stewardship in my forthcoming book. Sort of.

    Andrew, yes agreed. Though in relation to the state-private point discussed earlier, I’d argue that capitalist economies are rarely ‘market’ economies as such and always involve state-capital alliances … and that violent expropriation occurs in the core as well as the periphery – as in examples such as the Tulsa massacre in 1921, or the sub-prime crisis in 2008…

    • Thanks Chris, I take your point. Perhaps ‘market economy’ is too ambiguous, but I’d argue that the presence of a market economy as such is essential at the core even though capitalism requires that it be ‘misused’, so to speak, by capital. Buying and selling is the central activity at the core, even if it is ‘unfairly’ dominated by monopolising corporations in cahoots with the states, and even though workers selling their labour are exploited as per Marx via the siphoning off of surplus value etc. That’s not to say any given market economy has to be part of a capitalist system.

      Likewise, perhaps core and periphery need to be thought about less geographically, and more like your ideas about interleaved life zones and death zones. The US is a good example of this thanks to Black slavery, and Tulsa perhaps an example of the punishment meted out to people whose claims to the core were resented by people who demanded that they return to the periphery.

      I think our contemporary epoch is probably increasingly characterised by capital desperately turning on the denizens of the old cores and making them peripheral, as violent expropriation becomes more common amongst those who were more used to being exploited within a market economy.

      Thinking about it, I think I’m being influenced here by the Monthly Review crowd, maybe this or something like it:


  9. I once listened to a presentation by the climate scientist Richard Alley where he used the oil saved the whales argument to show how adopting new technologies could both ‘improve’ our lives and benefit the environment – he’s a very good communicator of climate science and I have to say I didn’t give his comments much thought – it wasn’t really what the presentation was about – it was really about convincing those who were uncertain about the science of climate change (as opposed to the deniers). Anyway thank you Chris for doing my thinking for me ;-). As a rule I’m very sceptical of any solution to our problems based on the idea that technology will save us.

    I’m rereading ‘Ancient Futures’ by Helena Norberg Hodge. I’ve heard her speak and she remains remarkably positive which I find amazing given that her book was published 30 years ago and as far as I can see we’ve been moving at ever greater speed in the opposite direction to that which she proposed – which was a return to a ‘Small Farm Future’. What really strikes me as I read is that the change we need is cultural more that anything else and that it’s the culture that makes the world she observed in Ladakh possible – for instance she describes marriage in traditional Ladakhi society as being remarkably flexible – the primary arrangement is polyandry but monogamy and polygamy are also practiced and acceptable but these social arrangements are designed to keep family sizes and population balanced against the strictly limited resources provided by the Himalyan environment – land holdings are never split up and pass to the older brother as a rule – so an older and younger brother may take a wife between them and have a family together. That relationship to the environment is primary and by keeping themselves well within it’s bounds they were able to only really work for 4 months of the year (that was the growing season) and still produce a surplus that could be traded – impressive at 11000 feet and higher and with just a few inches of rain per year.

    Later in the book she describes the impact of ‘development’, with its emphasis on individualism and personal financial gain on traditional Ladakhi society; its not pretty and is accompanied by environmental degradation. Because Ladakh was so cut off until world bank development money started flowing its really possible to see the links between cultural change, economy, environment.

    There’s a documentary based on the book which finishes with the narrator making the observation something along the lines of ‘we can’t go back to living like the Ladakhis but from them we can learn to live more in balance with our environment, each other blah blah blah’. It occured to me that if we want to live more in harmony with our environment, with each other blah blah blah’ then living like the Ladakhis was exactly what that looked like – but all the time we have this double think – that we can both live in a sustainable manner and have all the trinkets (like the laptop on which I’m writing this and the server farm my comments will sit in) of an unsustainable economy, we can have a culture that prioritises the individual and have a cohesive society etc. I can be both aware of my own double think and still allow myself to live within it.

    • I can be both aware of my own double think and still allow myself to live within it.

      Good comment.

      I want to take a closer look at the word “allow” in your final sentence. Those of us who live in an industrial country and have not been born into a centuries-old separate culture, like the Amish, are forced to keep 1 1/2 feet firmly planted in our industrial culture simply because money is required to live here. We are not allowed to live without it, so the realization that market economies are very the enemy of an ecologically sustainable life forces us to live in a permanent state of hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance; we know what our world should look like, but we can’t really make it happen.

      While people in traditional agrarian societies can go for years, if not their entire lives, without dealing with any significant amount of money, that’s not the case in rich countries like the US. Even if a person owns agricultural land, is debt free and physically able, it would be difficult/impossible to live entirely by subsistence farming. Just the property taxes on the land and home require a level of affluence that must come from at least some participation in the money economy.

      And then there is the issue of spacial separation. High energy societies tend to spread everything out. We don’t live in dense clusters of houses like in a traditional farming village, where everything needed for daily life is within walking distance. So anyone living on a small farm in the US still needs to own a car or truck, perhaps both. More money.

      And then there is family. People in rich countries don’t live their entire lives within a few miles of the place they were born. If one wants to interact with parents or offspring, long distance travel is often required. It would be very difficult to tell family that your not going to the reunion because you want to live an ‘authentic’ agrarian life. Do we really want to cut ourselves off from family and friends forever? If not, more money.

      And then there is modern medicine. A lot of us would already be dead without it. I’ll use it as long as it’s available. More money.

      I think the best that we can do is prepare for life after modern civilization, not only for one’s self but for family, friends and neighbors, too, and continue to participate in the culture we were born in. That culture is going to disappear sooner or later, but in the meantime we’re ‘allowed’ to live as moderns (with only a moderately guilty conscience, perhaps). We really don’t have a choice.

      • Hi Joe – I agree with all you say – the structure of modern society is such that we’re forced to participate and it’s not an accident that it’s structured that way – look at how the British used things like hut taxes and salt monopolies to force indigineous populations in British colonies into a monetary economy where their labout could be exploited.

        And I’m deeply pessimistic about the chances of averting collapse or creating a soft landing for ourselves but still believe we’ve an obligation to try. I tried to avoid getting a mobile phone but in the end I was simply excluded from social groups by my refusal to adopt a ubiquitous technology. I’m lucky enough to live in a village with a strong community, a local organic farm etc but the village is way bigger than local resources can probably support – during the WWII the local MP raised the issue of evacuees being sent here when the water supply even then was at times insufficient in the summer – now there are bigger resevoirs and bigger pumps. So it many ways we’re not where we need to be but it might be a reasonable place from which to start as our high energy systems begin to degrade – who knows.

        Maybe what I feel is that I have to constantly be aware of and challenge my own double think and try, to the greatest extent possible, allow that awareness and challenge shape decisions I make (possible not in the sense of what’s absolutely achievable but in the sense of what I can live with – some things, as you point out, ask more than I’m willing or able to offer at this time)

  10. Great post. There’s also an idea we went through energy transitions — from coal to oil to natural gas, but the truth is we have kept on burning them all, especially a lot of coal, essential and not replaceable for making cement and high quality steel and generating electricity.

    And we kept on hunting whales and will always try to capture them, for food if nothing else, and oil in the future.

    Thank goodness peak oil probably happened in 2018 (see my post Will covid-19 delay peak oil? at energyskeptic.com which has the citation for this from the EIA at http://energyskeptic.com/2020/will-covid-19-delay-peak-oil/) We can kill just about any whale anywhere with ships powered by bunker fuel (diesel) today. But as oil declines, at some point, sailing ships will have to come back (we’re at peak coal and soon natural gas too), giving the whales a fighting chance. I hope.

  11. I don’t think the word ‘hypocrisy’ serves the debate too well, but otherwise yes these are all good points. Bruce’s “I tried to avoid getting a mobile phone but in the end I was simply excluded from social groups by my refusal to adopt a ubiquitous technology” gets to the heart of the structural impasse. Relating it back to the debate about capitalism and Marxism, Marxist dialectics (too) neatly avoid the problem: social progress just builds out of and subsumes its earlier and inferior forms. But the rest of us have to juggle with dissonant utopias.

    And thanks for that, Alice. I also find it hard to endorse the notion that humanity has yet been through more than two major energy transitions – biomass and fossil fuels. Enthusing about the latter as an advance on the former, as the oil salvation narrative does, seems like bad timing in view of its consequences … as well as being wrong!

    • Only two energy transitions? Surely you’re forgetting the Atomic Age and the Renewables Revolution? Tongue firmly in cheek…

      Thanks for this post and all the comments. I really enjoy following all the ideas on here, both from Chris and all the others.

      As to capitalism’s uniqueness, I personally take an evolutionary view of societies. Some societies require expansion to maintain their social order, others don’t. Global capitalism requires growth to maintain social stability, so did the Roman empire or the Mongol empire. Other cultures, both big and small, had ways of maintaining social stability without growth – medieval China for example.

      Being an expansionist culture is only a winning strategy if there is biophysical “room” to grow into. Early stage capitalism hit the jackpot with fossil fuels: more “biophysical room” than any previous culture had ever enjoyed.

      A couple of points based on this perspective:
      – Expansionary cultures are not new on this Earth. Indeed, most of the cultures we’ve actually heard of and have written histories were expansionary. Although medieval China’s a bit of a counter-example. Maybe the opposite is more accurate: most of the cultures we’ve never heard of were not expansionary.
      – I maintain that capitalism is not unique in its expansionary drive. It is probably unique in the degree to which it has been able to pursue expansion.
      – Expansionism will not end when capitalism ends. So long as there is biophysical potential for growth – in the form of fertile soils, old growth forests, defenceless “Others”, growth-based societies will remain a possibility.
      – Indeed, more steady-state societies almost create the possibility for expansionary societies to evolve.

      I guess the holy grail of sustainable human settlement on the Earth would be analogous to an old-growth forest: an Earth so densely settled by steady-state societies that expansionist “weeds” can’t gain a foothold. We’ll have probably have to burn our way through most of the fossil fuels first, though, to remove that source of overwhelming biophysical potential. The ensuing climate chaos won’t really allow steady-state-ism either. So it’ll be a few hundred years before we really get a shot at it.

      I guess the problem with steady-state societies is that they don’t grow to soak up newly available resources.

      Anyway, I’m in danger of getting caught up in my own metaphor. Better stop now.

  12. Pingback: Apocalypse never? | …and Then There's Physics

  13. Thanks Joshua for a very thought-provoking comment (and also thanks Andrew for your reply earlier, which bears on this, and made a lot of sense to me).

    I agree that expansionary societies aren’t limited to capitalist ones (incidentally, is it worth distinguishing between expansionary societies, expansionary cultures and expansionary economies? I think this raises interesting issues). But, just thinking out loud, there are some interesting historical differences between different kinds of such society. In some situations, usually where there’s some major social, geographical or ecological dislocation, the expansion is predatory: eg. steppe pastoralists plundering settled agriculturists, or the European conquest of the Americas. In other situations, the predations are mainly battles among aristocracies to decide who’s top dog, while ordinary people live in a more steady state way – for example in parts of later medieval Europe, perhaps? If there was expansion in this latter case, it was more in the form of pacts between lords and peasants to ramp up productivity. Of course, some argue that herein lies the origins of capitalism.

    My hope is that we may soon be in that steady state, ‘old growth’ situation you describe. The USA is no longer the global policeman, and no longer projects global aspirational appeal. There are several centres of power. There are vast multitudes of people, and there are few options for meeting their needs long-term other than through a kind of ‘household responsibility’ approach not unlike those medieval pacts between lord and peasant. There is nowhere for people to walk away to, and not many places to plunder for new and easy resources.

    But of course there are many reasons why that hopeful scenario might not play out, and many more fearful scenarios to contemplate…

  14. I want to respond to Joshua’s post and to Chris’s reply, both of which have really got me thinking. I’m particularly interested in Joshua’s idea that we can classify societies as expansionary or steady-state, and in Chris’s proposals that different kinds of expansion might be distinguished, and that an expansionary part of a society might exist with a steady-state part.

    First, I want to clarify what is meant by ‘expansion’, as it does seem to be used in more than one sense here. Joshua, I’m ignoring the idea of ‘growth-based societies’ for now, because I think you use it as a synonym for expansionary societies, and I don’t want to get terminologically confused! It seems to me that you define ‘expansionism’ as the mobilisation of what you call ‘biophysical potential’, and that you recognise such potential in, for example, old-growth forests, which you also use as an analogy for a steady-state society.

    Now, old-growth forests are ecologically dynamic at the micro-level, for example incorporating the succession of different tree species, but also maintaining a framework of older trees and, perhaps more importantly, a fairly stable suite of ecological niches, enabling the persistence of many other life forms. Against this, ‘expansion’ must mean the conversion of this ecosystem into a substantially new form – the destruction of significant elements of it conversion of their biophysical capacities into new systems.

    In this sense, an expansionary society might be one that, to take a medieval example, converted woodland (not necessarily old-growth, quite probably already managed to some degree) into cropland. The European conquest of the Americas can also be understood in this way, to the extent that ecological landscapes were extensively reformed in many places, favouring, for example, cash crops such as cotton. I get the impression that this is the kind of expansion Joshua has in mind rather than, say, the political expansion of one elite at the expense of another, to use one of Chris’s examples, which, as he says, leaves a more steady-state ecology substantial intact.

    Assuming the above to be a fair representation, we probably are better avoiding the categorisation of capitalism as an expansionary form of society, instead recognising expansionary elements and processes within it, and certainly noting their greater frequency and wider distribution when compared to other historical forms of society. (There is an issue as to whether, for example, the capitalist modification of agricultural practices through the adoption of liming, new rotations, etc., should be viewed as expansionary or as mere intensification. Perhaps a debate to leave to one side for now.)

    Where am I headed with this. I’m not entirely sure! But I’m going to return to the definition of capitalism. Certainly expansionism as defined here isn’t limited to capitalist societies, and likewise elements of capitalist societies are not always expansionary, to the extent that some agricultural systems, once established, might remain fairly stable and are made profitable by the exploitation of labour within them.

    But there is an important sense in which capitalism is very different to other forms of society, and here I want to draw on the interpretation of Marx’s ‘metabolic rift’ given in the article I linked to earlier. Capitalism does not only expand into various ecosystems by converting them into new ones, such as cotton fields. It also, in some places and at some times, entirely dissolves the so-called ‘metabolic’ relationships between people and land through which people maintain and reproduce themselves. This is particularly the case in capitalism’s core regions.

    This is not just about the creation of a landless proletariat, but also the creation of farmers driven to knowingly degrade and destroy their own soils through capitalist imperatives, relying ultimately no the notion that life will persist through the profitable investment of money rather than the husbanding of ecologies. I think most episodes of expansion in the past, capitalist or otherwise, were nevertheless directed towards the cultivation of new ecosystems that would keep the tributes and rents flowing indefinitely, at least from the point of view of individual farmers. So capitalism has been and still is expansionary, but it’s distinctiveness lies in the fact that it is also dissolutionary.

    Sorry about the length, I appear to have gone on a bit.

  15. Thanks Andrew, and thanks again Joshua. This is a very interesting debate. I need to ponder it some more, but I hope to come back to it.

    In my book I discuss alternative agriculture as (bio-)intensification, and I think Andrew’s distinction between intensification and expansion is important. Kind of brings to mind Clifford Geertz’s controversial thesis on agricultural involution and the literature on the Asian rice economies … I wrote something about that here many moons ago: https://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/2012/08/gardening-or-forest-gardening/

    Much as I do tire somewhat of John Bellamy Foster banging on about Marx and his metabolic rift, I think you call this right Andrew. One of the strongest arguments for a small farm future is that it necessarily connects us to a renewable ecological base, whereas extensive tradification permits us the illusion that we can run our ecological base down here and they can do it over there and if we engage in monetized exchange then somehow both parties will do OK.

    The relevant historical approach to capitalism on this point was pioneered by the likes of Immanuel Wallerstein – capitalism as a political system dedicated to maximizing returns on capital through the global connection of trading empires. In this sense, what’s distinctive about capitalism (though maybe Joshua is right that I shouldn’t harp on overly about its distinctiveness) is that its expansion is primarily economic or, in fact, monetary, rather than oriented ultimately to political power and/or public status.

    • Thanks for the link Chris, that’s one from before I discovered this blog I think. I’m interested in bio-intensification (I guess I’ll have to wait for the book!), and also the distinction in the post between the relative fragility of the different ecosystems. It would appear that what we might call a steady-state agricultural ecosystem (the sawah) positively requires a more intense involvement with people. Swidden is less intense but more invasive/destructive of its ‘host’ ecosystem. It’s interesting that a society employing swidden would appear more expansionary if its population increased, converting forest to ‘green deserts’, prompting either the extension of the society into new forest areas or a re-think of its agricultural system.

      Your last paragraph made me think. Certainly capitalism as a socio-ecological formation is usefully conceived as a political network connecting cores and peripheries, as I think you’ve explored in previous posts. I agree that its extension into new areas is all about forging new monetarily-defined connections – specifically the dissolution of pre-existing relationships and connections and the creation of new structures ultimately based around exchange value.

      I would modify your last sentence to suggest that this new economically-defined landscape becomes the arena for power games and status competition rather than an alternative to them. Capitalism relies on exchange to define value, but it defines success as the acquisition of profit through exploitation or expropriation within this context, and the resulting creation of hierarchies. So competition between capitalists is also essential (or at least inevitable).

      I would maintain the sense of global capitalism’s distinctiveness. As per my last comment, only global capitalism enables the complete conceptual divorce of people’s lives from their entanglement with larger ecosystems. Perhaps this is because value, as the central desirable quality, is not something that necessarily represents anything to do with people, and thus with their subsistence. It is actually quite strange that we (as a society) value ‘assets’, ‘property’, which are defined by their detached-ness, their being as objects useful only because they can be valued monetarily, and exchanged or invested in. Most other socio-ecological formations defined power and status by reifying aspects of relationships between people in some way – lordship, patronage, etc.

      I need to think this through again, and it’s getting late! Thanks as ever for providing so much food for thought.

      • Well, likewise thanks on the food for thought front. And likewise on the need for me to go away and ponder. Your qualification to my last sentence is wise – but then we get into the interesting discussion of different kinds of status that you broach. In complexly differentiated non-capitalist societies, the status of economic elites is typically lower than political elites even if the former are the power brokers behind the scenes. The capitalist victory of pure economic status is unusual – and the fluidity of money as a status marker is also unusual. But I’ll stop now for more thinking before I start talking about the necessity for bourgeois revolutions…

  16. I aim to get back to some detailed comments on Chris’s earlier topdown energy post – which I think was prompted at least in part by my assertion that a move to renewables is now technically possible – but I’m flat out finishing off the report I mentioned earlier on moving a sizable community to 100% renewable in the next few years. And if I say so myself the approach is eminently templatable and is attracting attention on that basis.

    But for the moment I’ll put this forwards. I agree that there’s much that could be improved in how developed nation societies are organised and operate. I don’t have the skills to do that. I do have the skills to move sites and communities to much greater use of renewables.

    So should I sit back complaining about what’s wrong with our current social order and refusing to do anything about reducing GHG emissions until the social order is fixed?

    Or should I work with sites and communities to reduce their GHG emissions even if this is within an overall social framework that could do with some work?

    I’ve deliberately presented this as a binary choice as I’m interested to see responses to a very clearly defined pair of alternatives.

    Bear in mind that when I’m presenting technical options – which may be flavoured with various social outcomes – the interest is generally on GHG emissions and cost
    reductions. Both of which are eminently quantifiable. How could I present other considerations in a way that’s attractive to the audience paying for what I propose? I’m interested to hear from anyone who has successfully achieved material outcomes of this nature as against writing position papers etc

    • “Should I sit back complaining about what’s wrong with our current social order and refusing to do anything about reducing GHG emissions until the social order is fixed? Or should I work with sites and communities to reduce their GHG emissions even if this is within an overall social framework that could do with some work?”

      David, I’ll answer your question in a moment. But first of all I’d invite you to look at the non-neutral language you’ve used to frame it, so that your preferred answer is the only conscionable one. It’s a bit like the all-too-common framing of political choices in the media along the lines of “will you support the dangerous ideologues and self-important social justice warriors of the extreme left by voting Labour, or will you support sound economic management and political moderation by voting Conservative?”

      Second, I’d like to say something about the work I do. Some years ago I co-started a farm that provided food for my local community in as sustainable and low impact a way as I could manage, and I’m still here helping to work the farm and deliver its produce to our modest customer base. But I quickly realised that the positive effects of my farm in the world were very small, and this had a lot to do with the constraints imposed on it by wider human institutions. I started writing a blog where I tried to analyse these constraints and construe ways they might be overcome, and I’ve been fortunate that the blog has acquired a modest readership. Which of these two activities will prove more effective in bringing about the changes in the world I’d like to see? I have absolutely no idea. It would be easy for me to say the former, because at least I’m tangibly providing some potatoes for people to eat, whereas the latter is just words. But it’s words that shape the institutions constraining human actions, and a few institutionally-constrained potatoes produced here or there don’t make much difference.

      And so to your question – I think you should do whatever work you see fit to do. Working with communities to reduce their GHG emissions sounds like it’s something that engages you and, who knows, may bring long-term social benefits, so I’d recommend you go for it. Sitting back complaining about what’s wrong with our current social order and refusing to do anything about reducing GHG emissions doesn’t sound so good. I’d recommend not doing that. But analysing what’s wrong with our current social order and discussing with others what the more and less effective interventions to change it might be – that sounds like it might be worth doing. You might consider some of those discussions a waste of time, mere complaining. Fine – no doubt you can find other ways of spending your time than participating in them that seem more worthwhile to you. I’d just caution against sitting back and complaining too much about what’s wrong with those discussions rather than engaging constructively with their terms.

      Bottom line is, I have no idea what the wider consequences of the various kinds of work I do will be. And I’m not convinced that anyone else does of their work, either. And so we just go on, doing our thing, whatever it is…

      • I don’t agree with the way you’ve framed what I said. I’ve put forwards two courses of action. One is to take action towards reducing GHG emissions albeit within a social framework that I think we all agree could do with some work. The other is not to do this work as some might see it as window dressing, greenwash, peppercorn, immaterial, perpetuating the dominant paradigm, propping up a sick culture etc That’s the theme that I detect frequently in criticisms of renewables from some commentators including here. If I have that wrong I apologise. If reducing GHG emissions has value then it’s worth doing although I agree that this needs to be qualified with what’s achievable over what period.

        And the second part of what I wrote earlier is clearly addressed as to how to introduce improved social outcomes as part of the current change of the energy sector to renewables. That’s the subject of a great deal of attention in the energy sector currently as what’s happening is a one in a hundred year sectoral disruption. Vested interests would be happy to see significant parts of the current energy system replicated in 100% renewables. When you see the wealth transfer made possible by distributed energy resources you see why this is topical.

        I am genuinely interested to hear of what success anyone reading has had with respect to introducing material technological changes at various scales and improved social outcomes.

        To pick one, I’d suggest that the focus on building energy efficiency standards over the last 30 years in Europe has led to a wide range of worthwhile social outcomes. I did some academic analysis some years ago of why Europe has tended to lead in renewables and energy efficiency. Energy security and relative lack of local fossil etc energy sources were significant. Europe took quite a whack during the first two oil shocks.

        Incidentally, Europe is increasingly hitting over 50% daily electricity supply from renewables. See:


        • “Incidentally, Europe is increasingly hitting over 50% daily electricity supply from renewables.”

          This sounds impressive at first glance, but, in addition to Chris’s point about the present EU renewables trajectory amounting to too little too late, it’s also worth noting that something like half of the EU’s renewable energy comes from burning biomass (i.e. “the great carbon scam”). Vox published a good overview last year:

          Europe’s renewable energy policy is built on burning American trees

      • David, I took you to be implying that my position was to sit back and complain about the social order while refusing to do anything about GHG emissions until it was fixed. It seems I was wrong, so apologies for that. In that case, it’s easy for me to agree that working with people to reduce their GHG emissions is the better option. But I don’t know of anyone who seriously adopts the former position.

        Yet working with people to reduce their GHG emissions raises some questions. Installing new low carbon technologies doesn’t necessarily do that. It certainly hasn’t done so at a global level – we’ve simply used more energy of every kind.

        Your comments about Europe are interesting. It does seem that European countries are achieving some absolute decoupling of their economies from fossil fuel use, no doubt for the reasons you suggest. But if you take the UK as an example, we’re still using about 50% more fossil energy per capita than the global average of 1.55 TOE per capita, and the global average is about 1.55 TOE per capita more than we need to be using in thirty years time. Meanwhile there are no obvious signs of any transition out of fossil fuels occurring globally.

        So while it would be absurd to argue that installing low carbon energy capacity is a worse option than continuing with high carbon energy, I think one can legitimately ask whether energy policy is on the right track, and ponder alternative tracks.

        Regarding European energy supply, no doubt it’s true that we’re increasingly hitting over 50% of daily electricity supply from renewables, but the latest figures from the BP Stats Review suggest that only 19% of European electricity consumption and 8% of total energy consumption is from renewables. So it seems plausible to me that the present trajectory amounts to too little too late – in which case it seems worth thinking about changes to the social order that might create a more promising trajectory. Or else adaptations to an increasingly heating climate.

        Regarding successes with material technological changes and social outcomes, well there are a few things I could mention on my farm I suppose – but that feels like a different story. I’m interested if anyone else has an offering, however.

        • “only 19% of European electricity consumption and 8% of total energy consumption is from renewables.”

          Not to mention that Europe’s largest source of “renewable” energy is biomass burning, much of it transported overseas from American forests. A case could be made that it’s better to do nothing than to push “renewables” like biomass, if such energy schemes inadvertently make the climate crisis worse.

          Some quotes from this article below:
          Europe’s renewable energy policy is built on burning American trees — Biomass energy is inadvertently making the climate crisis worse.
          By Saul Elbein, Mar 4, 2019

          “There are few bigger players in the biomass industry than Drax Group, whose flagship power plant in the north of England sucks up nearly a quarter of global wood pellet production, about two-thirds of it from the US. The UK has bought big into biomass, and Drax powers 10 percent of the British electric grid, in large part thanks to massive government subsidies: about $1.2 billion a year.”

          “In 2009, as Massachusetts began debating whether to treat biomass as carbon neutral, he dove into the science. By assessing carbon emissions from bioenergy, and the slow regrowth rates of a replacement forest, he concluded that biomass stood to be “a serious problem.” To Moomaw, the question of whether biomass was ultimately carbon neutral was less important than when it balanced out… The analysis was later confirmed by a colleague at MIT, John Sterman, who did the math, and confirmed that burning wood today would worsen climate change, “at least through the year 2100 — even if wood displaces coal, the most carbon-intensive fuel.”

    • How could I present other considerations in a way that’s attractive to the audience paying for what I propose?

      I’ll get to making an attempt at an answer shortly, but I do wish to comment about the binary choice of options you presented. One choice was do nothing concrete but attempt to use persuasion to change society so as to emit less carbon and the other was to forgo political persuasion and apply (sell) renewable energy technologies to communities so that they emit less carbon.

      It is hard to know which path will produce the largest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions overall. A lot depends on your connections to other people who might be in a position to influence policy. A few words in the right ear might make more of a difference than a lifetime of installing renewables.

      And whether the scientist who “merely” produces a study showing the advantages of renewable energy in averting environmental damage is more or less influential than a business person organizing the actual deployment of renewables is hard to know in advance. It may well be that a combination of the two is most effective; deploy the renewables and then publish a paper describing the advantages of the deployment in the hope that leading by example will be persuasive.

      As you well know, I am skeptical that an energy transition to a low carbon supply can be accomplished at all, considering the limited time available for making the transition. If, as I believe, very rapid economic degrowth is the only thing that will save the environment, renewable technologies can still have a big roll to play in preparation for degrowth (might as well prepare in advance and hope it comes along quickly).

      The distributed nature of small scale renewables creates an opportunity for energy security. Microgrids and stand-alone home systems will keep operating even if the grid goes down. With a reasonable number of spare parts on hand, renewable equipment can keep going long after it can no longer be manufactured.

      Even grid-tied renewables can create economic security. Almost all the costs of renewables are paid upon installation. If one can afford those costs, it greatly reduces the future risk of not having enough money to pay the electric bill. Combining significant efforts at energy conservation with off-grid renewables can amplify the protection against energy supply and economic risk. If the grid goes down and gas becomes scarce or the economy craters, your customers won’t freeze in the dark.

      Ideally, off-grid renewable would be combined with access to water supplies and food supplies that can be sourced locally. Create an eco-village where most of the necessities of life, including the advantages of electricity, are provided by the village infrastructure and the residents themselves. Be sure to include proper O&M training courses.

      If your clients need to feel that they are reducing their carbon footprint by buying in, that’s OK, but I wouldn’t try to make the case that they are saving the world by doing so. They might just be saving their lives, but that’s not a great selling point either (makes one look like a doomer). In these uncertain times, try selling the economic and energy security benefits; that should be plenty.

        • I read the post, thanks, and agree that living off grid can be finicky. The author had some issues with his nickel-iron battery charging setpoints that he seems to have resolved.

          My family’s off-grid living started in 1975. We had no electricity at first and burned a lot of kerosene for light. Used wood for heat and cooking. We then put a small hydro plant on the creek near the house and had electricity all winter until the summer dryness dropped the flow too much. We then switched to a small diesel to charge the batteries.

          After moving to Hawaii in 1986 we couldn’t use hydro and solar was expensive, so we still used a lot of diesel. In the last decade or so, since the price of panels have gone down so much, we bulked up our solar array and we rarely use our generator at all. The guy in the article you linked to has a 20kW solar array and is still having problems. We have 4 kW, but live in a sunny place, so we do just fine. We do use propane for cooking, but have a wood cook stove on standby.

          Batteries are still a problem. We just replaced some very old (but nice) Hawker lead acid cells with lithium ion. The claim is that, at the cycle depth we use, they should last about 25 years. Doomer that I am, I have spares for everything, including the inverters, on the shelf.

          All our off-grid equipment is expensive and can’t be reproduced except by a sophisticated industrial civilization. I’m not expecting any of the stuff we use to be around after the end of its useful life in a few more decades, but it will make the transition to a non-electric future (whenever it comes) a little slower and easier on my old bones.

          Renewables won’t save our civilization, but they can help one prepare for the civilization’s end. I doubt that fact will convince many people to switch from grid power, but a few might take it seriously and go off the grid.

  17. I’ve followed the comments where they’ve led with interest, but it occurs to me that there is one more reason why “oil didn’t save the whales” matters.

    That idea seems to me to be one of many examples where the cultural conversation continues to practice apologetics to justify the status quo and denial of our predicament.

    Trying to justify the trend to greater and more intricate technology is less an argument for continues development of new technology than its is a psychological manifestation of our culture’s need to find a way to avoid the needed change of course.

    Another way to say that it’s not the wisdom of technology choices that will determine our fate, but whether we can overcome our inherent drive to maximize energy dissipation. I think it goes beyond capitalism or western culture, and is inherent to the human makeup at deep levels. We just happen to be at that point in history where accumulated technology ( metals fabrication, computers, etc…) have enabled the exploitation of fossil fuels.

    If any other past ( or current) culture had our suite of technologies available, they’d make similar ill fated choices.

    So why does “oil saved the whales”matter? It matters because it’s “truthiness” appeals to us, and that we are unlikely to get beyond our hard wiring and set a sustainable course.

    • Hi Steve,

      I am right with you on: “apologetics to justify the status quo and denial of our predicament”.

      I will diverge at: “If any other past (or current) culture had our suite of technologies available, they’d make similar ill fated choices.”

      I don’t believe we know enough about our “hard-wiring” to assert that.
      It is true that such is now by far the dominant cultural proclivity, and one that I am personally stuck with too, but even in my minimal anthropological reading I have seen accounts of cultures who do not share the values that lead to energy maximization. Even explicit rejection of labor-saving technology.

      I have no idea if such modesty is possible at a scale larger than a small village, but I am confident that it is possible in some certain conditions.
      What strikes me as likely the primary reason such modest societies fail is that they get swallowed by their greedy neighbors. This, I believe is the real problem, and all that is needed to solve it is a complete renovation of our current value system which places personal gain above cooperation.

  18. TFTFC … and for reminding me about Drax. Being reminded of it is a mixed blessing, though … I try to forget about it, along with Hinkley Point…

    The provenance of Drax’s feedstock kind of bears on Andrew’s points about trade. One reason why there’s much to be said for looking at global figures, with such flows cancelled out.

    Regarding Steve C’s points, I agree on oil salvationism as apologetics, something I was also trying to get at above. Whether there’s an inherent human drive to maximize energy dissipation is an interesting question, bearing on some of the issues raised earlier by Joe, Joshua and Andrew among others. I’ll try to expand on that (or maybe intensify it) another day…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *