My previous post on insects in the garden led, naturally enough, to an interesting debate about optimism and pessimism in the environmental movement and about peak oil and energy futures. In fact, I’d been meaning to write something about energy futures and eco-optimism anyway. Really, I’m not quite ready to do so yet, but in the blogosphere you gotta ride the news and since the government has this week announced the building of a big new pressurised water nuclear reactor just down the road from me at Hinkley Point, I thought I should make a few preliminary points about the topic. Sorry if they sound angry – it’s been a stressful week, and this topic always pressurises my water anyway.
Point #1: it must be pretty embarrassing for all those ‘eco-pragmatists’ who’ve been extolling the virtues of nuclear technologies to find the UK plumping for expensive, toxic PWR. Watch the likes of Mark Lynas crying ‘I blame the government’ for not embracing clean, cheap thorium. But there’s only a handful of thorium plants worldwide, and the technology is unproven. ‘Eco-pragmatist’ idealism brought to earth by the government’s ‘eco-pragmatist’ realism?
Point #2: perhaps there’s a general lesson here: the techno-fix optimism of ‘eco-pragmatists’ like Lynas, Stewart Brand, Matt Ridley etc always overreaches itself. The refrain ‘Hey look, this cool new technology can solve all our problems’ is an old one, but its promise always seems to recede into the (near) future. I propose to call eco-pragmatism eco-panglossism from now on.
Point #3: here’s an example of what I mean from Graham Strouts, an aggressive eco-panglossian: ‘Fifty years is a loooong time in the world of energy’. Well maybe, but it just got a lot closer now that the government has committed to Hinkley Point for the next 45 years (actually, 45 years plus a few thousand more to look after the spent fuel). But what does Strouts really mean? That people sometimes underestimate energy reserves? For sure, but then 50 years is a blink of the eye in human history. I think what he and the other eco-panglossians actually mean without caring to say so explicitly is ‘we don’t know how it will be possible to sustain our existing massive energy demands long-term, but somebody’s bound to think of something’.
Point #4: …and they could be right. There’s a lot of energy knocking around in the universe. I wouldn’t be hugely surprised if people figure out how to harness a good deal more of it cleanly in the future. But let’s be clear that this is really just a speculative punt, with little supporting evidence behind it. In his dreadful (albeit nicely written) book Whole Earth Discipline Stewart Brand chastises greens for their arrogance in worrying about the world we bequeath to the future, for how can we know what technologies and what concerns future generations will have? Nice trick, but not convincing. Since indeed we can’t know, it behoves us to try to leave the minimum amount of mess for them to have to deal with.
Point #5: If we did come up with vast supplies of clean energy in the future, many of the problems we currently face would become a lot simpler. Or maybe they wouldn’t. A point that the eco-panglossians generally ignore is that when technological innovation overcomes a potential resource limit it stimulates activity that then re-encounters the limit (the Jeavons paradox, rebound effects etc) or runs into other resource limits. You can take the panglossian view that all these will be solved in their turn, and humanity will always manage to keep one step ahead of the horsemen. But I don’t see much of a sound basis for this view. If people sort out clean energy, there’s still a raft of issues such as water scarcity, phosphate scarcity, soil loss, past carbon emissions, anthropogenic nitrification, oh and social justice, to keep us eco-realists worried.
Point #6: Therefore there are ultimately no purely technological solutions, there are only social solutions. Though technology can certainly help with them.
Point #7: Anyway, there’s no prospect of a clean energy solution on the near or far horizon at the moment. Our whole civilisation remains massively dependent on fossil fuels. Yeah, they’ll string out for quite a while – peak oil disaster scenarios are often overplayed (though the relative unavailability of flexible fossil energy to a huge swath of the world’s poor is a disaster scenario we’ve got right now). The energy expert Vaclav Smil is pretty scathing about peak oil doomsdays in his books (and he laughs at the Victorians for worrying about ‘peak coal’, before they hit upon oil). Then again, he’s also pretty scathing about electric cars, biofuels and most other alternatives to fossil fuels. The fact that the Victorians got off the peak coal hook by discovering another limited fossil energy source doesn’t seem all that cheering to me in the long run. Especially as we’ve torched the climate in the process. Perhaps the post-peak reckoning will be delayed by fracking or Albertan tar sands, but why should anybody find that comforting? The easiest supplies are going or gone and we’re starting to chase dirtier, unconventional reserves. Only in the fairytale world of neo-classical economics can it be assumed that price signals enable resource limitations to be endlessly deferred.
Point #8: Nobel economics laureate Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, which everyone’s raving about at the moment, has a nice bit of analysis about optimism and pessimism, showing how routinely over-optimistic people are about future outcomes. I think this may be compounded for us rich Westerners by the fact that since World War II we’ve experienced almost a whole lifetime of substantial economic growth, peace and lack of major infectious disease, which has led us to suppose that life is always like this. Not so. One person on Strouts’ website as I recall actually commented that life for humans had just got better and better over the last 100,000 years. Yes, seriously. It’s time for us eco-realists to reclaim the word ‘pragmatic’ from the eco-panglossians!
Point #9: as I mentioned in a comment under my previous post, we really must stop projecting our idealised social-political schemes onto history. I’ll post on this at more length another time. Strouts has called me a ‘retro-romantic reactionary’ which is just so, well, so…unfair. But in my view eco-panglossism is the mirror image of this – it’s futuro-romantic reaction. ‘Futuro-romantic’ because it projects a whiggish narrative of increasing technological mastery and perfection into the future, and ‘reaction’ for various reasons – because it falsely presents itself as the ‘synthesis’ to capitalism’s thesis and the left/green’s antithesis, because it has no theory of ideology (other than supposing itself non-ideological), because it therefore has no critique of economic reason (other than supposing that markets are natural and optimising), and because it offers no mechanism for social justice other than supposing that more access to technology and free markets will enrich the poor people of the world. It’s pure let them eat cake, or maybe let them eat broccoli.
Point #10: energy futures for eco-realists summarised: Be afraid, be a little bit afraid.