Magical mathematics

Recently I got into a spot of bother on Twitter (it’s easily done) after I wrote an essay criticising an astonishingly bad newspaper article by one Leigh Phillips. The thing is, I hadn’t read his book and, silly me, I didn’t realise that you’re not supposed to criticise people’s newspaper articles until you’ve read their books. Well, now I have, and, er…it was astonishingly bad.

I know that some readers of this blog get bored by my engagements with the ecomodernists, whereas others find them interesting. So I’m going to try to keep everyone happy. I feel the need to recoup the wasted weekend I spent reading Phillips’ book by writing a few things about it, but I’m mostly going to do that elsewhere. The interesting task that Phillips sets himself, but makes a dreadful fist of tackling, is a socialist critique of left-green ‘small-is-beautiful’ relocalisation thinking. So I’m hoping to have an article about that on soon. He also makes quite a mess of trying to critique the local food movement, a subject dear to this blog’s heart, and to be honest he’s not the only one to get in a tangle over this so I plan to write a little post about that on here soon. I’ve written a wider critique of some of the magical mathematics associated with ecomodernist thinking, including Phillips’s, which has just been published on the Statistics Views website. This post is essentially a brief summary of parts of that article, plus a foray into Mr Phillips’ enchanted world of geophagy, which I hope might be of wider interest even to people who don’t much care to follow all the twists and turns of ecomodernist tomfoolery. It falls into three parts.

Part 1: The future’s orange

…or at least it is if you believe this graph:

Energy capacity graph


Let me explain. A rising tide of voices is calling upon environmentalists to ‘do the math’ and embrace nuclear energy for the sake of the climate – though, as in this article the ‘math’ is rarely spelled out. So this graph is my attempt to do so. Certainly we need an urgent shift away from fossil fuels in order to prevent runaway climate change. The ecomodernists think that we can switch from fossil fuels to clean energy without disturbing the basic parameters of the energy-intensive economy. But most of our clean energy sources are ways of producing electricity, most of the energy we use isn’t electric, and most of the electricity we do produce employs fossil fuels. So this vision requires two big shifts – from fossil fuels to electricity and from fossil fuel electricity to clean electricity. Mike Shellenberger of the ecomodernist Breakthrough Institute says that we need 1-2 GW of new clean electric energy installed daily until 2050 in order to keep both the climate and the existing economy on track, which sounds to me like it might be an underestimate. Anyway, in the graph I’ve projected electricity generation at 2 GW per day of new clean capacity from now to 2050, assuming that hydro will only be able to double, that nuclear will furnish double the capacity of non-hydro renewables, and that new clean energy will substitute for old fossil energy. I’ve set these projected developments against what’s actually happened with new generating capacity over the last 35 years, using data from the US Energy Information Administration.

I think it makes for an interesting graphic, and perhaps I should let others interpret it as they will. But let me offer a few thoughts of my own. Current global nuclear energy capacity is 379 GW, of which China possesses 23 GW. According to Phillips, China aims to have up to 500 GW of nuclear capacity by 2050 – which is about 22 times more than it currently possesses, and 32% more than the entire world’s present capacity. Phillips says there is ‘ample hope’ that China can do this and decarbonise its power production. Well, if anywhere can, China can, I guess. But even if it does, that’ll only be about 3% of the total global nuclear capacity needed, which at over 18,000 GW will be an increase in nuclear capacity of 4,800% over the next 35 years. To put that into context, over the last 35 years it’s increased by 281%.

Well, we’re taught that you can’t project past trends into the future, which is just as well for the ecomodernists when you look at the graph. But even so, the math that I’ve done here leads me to think that building this amount of nuclear capacity globally within the next 35 years is such a tall order as to be pretty much beyond the bounds of possibility – and that’s to say nothing of the other transitions that would be necessary to put the energy properly to work. Or of what the resulting society would be like. Or of how countries a tad poorer than China might fund the transition.

But leaving all that aside and just focusing on the math – or the maths, as we say here (why is British maths plural, and American math singular?) – I’ve heard plenty of people saying that greens need ‘to do the math’ on nuclear, but I’ve rarely seen anyone spell out what the math is, as I’ve tried to do here. The casual reader may conclude that the energy transition is simply a matter of overcoming public misgivings about nuclear power and building some more nuclear installations. The reality, it seems to me, is that ecomodernist nuclear math is a fantasy mathematics – a magical mathematics, and not in a good sense. So I present my graph as Exhibit A in the case for energy descent.

Part 2: It’s not my fault…

Phillips argues that carbon emissions can be laid disproportionately at the door of the rich, so that, in his words,  “phrases such as “the greenhouse gas emissions of the average American” or “per capita consumption” contain absolutely no useful information” (Phillips, Austerity Ecology, p.56).

His evidence for this mostly comprises a list of the impressively carbon-intensive features of Roman Abramovich’s luxury yacht, but he does also state that the top 20% of income earners account for roughly 70% of consumption in the USA. So perhaps we could run a quick plausibility check on his argument by allocating out emissions in the same proportions. According to the World Bank’s latest world development indicators, US carbon dioxide emissions stand at 17.5 tonnes per capita (the 10th highest in the world, out of 193 countries). If we allocate 70% of those emissions to 20% of the population and recalculate the figure with that 70/20 omitted from numerator and denominator, we get a figure of 6.4 tonnes per capita, which would then place the US 50th out of 193 and still more than double the median emission figure of 2.5 tonnes per capita.

Or we could consider the recent analysis from Oxfam suggesting that the richest 10% of Chinese citizens have per capita emissions similar to the poorest 40% of Europeans, and the richest 10% of Indian citizens have per capita emissions only a quarter the level of the poorest 50% of US citizens, while the emissions of the poorest 50% of US citizens are 20 times higher than those of the poorest 50% of Indian citizens.

The thrust of Phillips’ argument is that ordinary working people around the world sit on the same side of the carbon footprint fence, in contrast to the rich who deserve all the blame for the climate crisis. It seems to me pretty clear that that isn’t the case – the emissions of poor people in rich countries vastly outstrip those of poor people in poor countries, or even of rich people in poor countries. I don’t propose to discuss the policy implications of that right now. All I want to suggest is that, as it turns out, phrases such as “the greenhouse gas emissions of the average American” or “per capita consumption” do contain some useful information after all. Unless you wish them away with magic mathematics…

Part 3: The myth of the myth of carrying capacity

The third chapter of Phillips’ book is entitled “To infinity and beyond! (Or: the myth of carrying capacity)”. You can pretty much tell from the Buzz Lightyear mathematics of its title that this chapter won’t be too good, and so it proves. Nevertheless, I’m nothing if not tireless in my pursuit of dodgy ecomodernist arguments so below I offer you a deconstruction of Phillips’ logic in this chapter, which runs something like this:

(1) There is no precise and objectively quantifiable point at which we can say that human activities have exceeded the earth’s capacity to support them.

(2) Therefore there is no limit to the earth’s carrying capacity…

(3) …well perhaps there is a limit at some point – if all the carbon on the entire planet was embodied in human beings, the earth’s carrying capacity would be around 1020 people. “To be fair,” Phillips concedes, “these hundred quintillion people would all have to be cannibals”. (Yeah, that’s right Leigh, that’s the only problem here…). But, he continues, these “back-of-the-envelope calculations do at least appear to tell us that Earth has the capacity to carry such a load” (p.63). Yes, he did actually write that sentence. The blurb on the back of the book informs us that Leigh Phillips is a ‘science journalist’ who writes for Nature. Nice work.

(4) Thomas Malthus was a 19th century clergyman who thought that human population growth would outstrip the capacity of the earth to provide sufficient food. He further thought, pessimistically and misanthropically, that no actions should be taken to lessen the plight of the starving poor. But his predictions have so far proven incorrect.

(5) Anybody who claims that there may be any biological or physical limits to human growth or expansion is thus a Malthusian, who is therefore…

(6) …wrong

(7) …and also pessimistic

(8) …and also misanthropic.

Now then, there are various problems with these lines of argument. To begin with, the…oh God, did I say that I was tireless in my pursuit of dodgy ecomodernist arguments? I suddenly feel overwhelmed with fatigue. Much as I’m prepared to waste a certain amount of my time arguing with ecomodernist nonsense, even I have my, ahem, limits (excuse the misanthropy). So I’m going to stop right here. Let me just say this: if you’re puzzling over where the chain of logical inferences in the numbered list above breaks down, I’ll leave you with this clue: it’s a whole number which is bigger than one and smaller than three.

14 thoughts on “Magical mathematics

  1. Very enjoyable Chris.

    I actually was at Leigh Phillips’ book launch in Victoria, BC,Canada. Based on his comments about the 100 Mile Diet, it seemed very clear he had not read the book, as his arguments are specifically addressed within.

    On nuclear, we are watching the carnival at Paris COP21. An agreement of any merit would require a decarbonization of between 85 and 100%.

    And yet this massive buildout of nuclear and wind and solar will require millions upon millions of tonnes of highly refined metals, plastics, concrete and steel. Robert U. Ayres calculates that only 6% of the extracted material makes in into finished products, so that means billions of tonnes of extraction, plus the refining and manufacturing.

    Not to mention the transport, and in the case of nuclear, the ongoing extraction and refining of a NONrenewable fuel.

    So at the same time we are supposed to reduce carbon, we will dump billions of tonnes of it back into the atmosphere as we build the new infrastructure.

    Personally, I don’t find it credible that the massive transition to an economy that actually produces acceptable absolute amounts of carbon is going to happen. Which means we should be planning for consequences, not unicorn poop and fairy dust.

    • Thanks for the lowdown on the book launch, Ruben – very entertaining. Must’ve been an interesting event to attend…

      Yes, I didn’t look at any of the attendant carbon costs to the installation programme. I guess I thought that it looks so improbable even in its own terms that it wasn’t necessary. But of course it needs acknowledging that building 18,000 GW of nuclear capacity won’t be carbon free. If anyone has some sound figures for the carbon costs of establishing new nuclear and other low carbon facilities I’d be interested to see them.

      • The always enjoyable Do the Math blog looked at nuclear. He doesn’t address GHGs, but does touch on the unhinged fantasia of fuel demands. That is, the build out of nuclear at this scale would burn through all known fuels sources in an eyeblink.

        Which puts us back in magic wand territory, needing a technology that so far has escaped notice.

        Nuclear Options | Do the Math

        Do the Math does talk about social concerns, which none of the technofantasiests like. I think there are four realms of possibility that all must be satisfied:

        Physical—do we have the engineering capacity
        Material—do we have the raw resources
        Economic—do we have the money
        Social—do we have the social skills and structures.

        For conventional nuke, I would say Yes, No, No, NO. And for fantasy nuke I would say No, No, No, No.

        But the devotees of the Religion of Progress don’t see that because they think science and engineering is the only barrier, and as soon as that is taken care of all of the silly people will fall in order behind the great white lab coats. Didn’t work for Global Warming, and I don’t expect it tow work for nuclear power.

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  3. Thank you for your criticism and particularly for this:

    which is a fine piece illustrating exactly the issues I’ve been attempting to bring into discussion for years, and the reasons why I’m now involved in the (Finnish) ecomodernist movement. (Unfortunately it lacks a comment option so I’ll write here.) In that capacity I’d like to point out that the Ecomodernist movement is still finding its way and making strong assumptions about what it is based on texts of few early thinkers might be premature. After all, we’re not judging the Green movement based on those thinkers who actually called for the active culling of Earth’s human population – even though such thinkers were influential in the early movement, at least in Finland.

    I have no argument with the poverty figures and analysis you present there. The view that problem is more in inequality than growth is a view almost uniformly shared by Finnish ecomodernists (currently more than 100 due-paying members and growing rapidly, even though only advertising has been word of mouth) and a reason why our own Charter specifically includes text about “social” and “regulatory” “solutions” (of course, these would be only partial ones) to problems of poverty and environmental degradation.

    However, compared to traditional environmentalism, we tend to be more accepting about what is likely to happen. We think it’s difficult if not impossible – in both practical and ethical sense – to prevent the world’s poor from pursuing more material comforts, while getting the rich in the world to give up theirs in the timeframe available seems also rather unlikely. However, we hope – and of course this is only a hope, as we’re talking in future tense – that a judicious combination of imperfect partial solutions might still be enough to preserve a livable planet for all of us. Degrowth may very well be one of those partial solutions to us.

    In your otherwise excellent article at Statistics Views, it seems you disparage the “all-in” approach in favor of your own “small is beautiful” approach. To me, the prevalence of such “one solution only” thinking has been a major reason why I can’t work within existing environmental organisations or movements. Given the circumstances, I have grave doubts about eschewing any potential solutions. As you correctly note, the scale of the problem is vast. Therefore, shouldn’t we be a little more accepting towards potential, if imperfect, solutions?

    And that leads us to the old nuclear debate. Your observation that nuclear/anti-nuclear debate takes a lot of space compared to actual importance of nuclear power is perfectly correct. However, it has become the battleground for the traditional and modern wing of the environmental movement, and seems to have acquired great symbolic value on both sides.

    I’ve been personally guilty of waging this war in the past, but I’ve now come to realise that our civil war within the environmental movement is destructive and benefits no one (except fossil fuel interests). This is another reason why I’m involved in ecomodernism and actively try to shape the ecomodernist thought through my writings. Instead of trying to blackball traditional environmentalists, I will be concentrating more on attacking fossil fuel interests (take this as my new year’s promise) and on organising into environmental movement those who feel strongly for the environment but feel they cannot work within the confines of traditional environmentalism. In this way I hope to add to the environmental movement instead of dividing it, and this too is a view nearly uniformly shared among Finnish ecomodernists at least, if very active discussions in our Facebook page are any indication.

    Nevertheless, I would like to point out that you make an unsubstantiated leap in your argument. A buildup of nuclear power to proportions you project is indeed a tall order, albeit probably achievable (we know this from history: it would require less effort per unit of GDP than what the French were able to do in the 1980s). Fuel might become an issue, but there are solid reasons to believe the current uranium reserves can be expanded through increased prospecting; and then there’s thorium and fast breeders, one of which just came online in Beloyarsk.

    But these are minor points. The major point is this: it doesn’t matter whether we end up scaling down our economy or expanding it. No matter what the final energy demand in 2050 or 2100, it is almost certainly easier to reach with less fossil fuels if we use nuclear as one low-carbon tool among others. Even one reactor means a power output nearly equivalent to all wind turbines in Denmark put together, and you wouldn’t disparage Denmark’s wind turbines I believe? Discounting nuclear power entirely – as the traditional wing of the environmental movement is wont to do – because it might only provide some percentage of world’s energy, and using this as a rationale for total opposition to nuclear power, is like discounting and then opposing wave power because it only can provide so much, or wind power because there are limits, or small scale farming because not all people can do it… I guess you get the point.

    And this is the root of the dispute I have with traditional environmentalism. I simply can’t see a point in opposing any single imperfect partial solution. There are, after all, no perfect solutions.

    Of course, criticism is welcome. But we again see from the tone of the comments you’ve received that many people seem to take this (again) as a reason to be totally opposed to nuclear power. Or some other partial solutions ecomodernists might find more acceptable.

    Furthermore, if it so happens that the degrowth-as-ultimate-solution advocates cannot get required majority of world’s population to accept the idea of stopping economic growth, then having more low-carbon options means we have a slightly better chance of pulling off what admittedly now seems a daunting task. Foreclosing this one option, or any option, before we know the alternatives will work (and this is something we really shouldn’t base on predictions of future) only increases the risks.

    But I digress. For some odd reason, the question of how to produce electricity seems to be deeply rooted in issues of identity – on both sides, as you say, ideology cannot be really separated from anything – and I believe it’s unlikely this debate will really go anywhere. There are good reasons to oppose nuclear power and even better reasons to oppose particular nuclear projects (the “doesn’t do enough” just isn’t one of them in my opinion), and the traditional wing of the environmental movement will continue to flourish. I have no wish to forcibly convert anyone to ecomodernist thinking; it would be impossible anyway. But I genuinely believe ecomodernism is a welcome addition in the environmental field, as it provides safe space for many more people outside the traditional environmentalist niche.

    In closing, I’d like to remind you and everyone else that it’s most likely just as diffficult to convert people to degrowth and small-is-beautiful thinking (for example) as it is to convert people to accept nuclear power. I believe we need to accept that there are multiple partial solutions, and try to promote cooperation among environmentalists of different persuasions on matters where we can agree and work together.

    PS. I believe what the world needs is more and more local environmental movements with more nuance and less cookie cutter solutions. Consider the problem we’re facing for example: right now in Finland, installing solar PV panels might actually increase total emissions, even though we need a lot more power for the winter months.

    • J.M. – thanks for your comment, I appreciate your attempt to build dialogue. I’ll respond to your comments soon but I’m going to be offline for the next week or so, so I’m afraid it’ll have to wait until the new year. Thanks for visiting here, though – I WILL respond!

      • J.M. – only time for a quick response at the moment, but it’s nice to find someone identifying with ecomodernism who’s also open to polite dialogue, so thanks for your comment. I wrote another piece about COP21 which touches on nuclear power and possibly helps to clarify my position, available at In brief, I’d say – yes, I’m not opposed to nuclear power in any conceivable situation, so if it were being proposed as part of a programme to transition rapidly out of fossil fuels and to greatly reduce total energy use then I’d be more comfortable with it. But that’s not the way it’s typically presented by the ecomodernists – their position seems to be that we should aspire to MORE gross energy availability, and that nuclear energy is a realistic means for achieving it. I think these are basically unattainable goals, and are not in any case desirable ones. So I remain sceptical about the case for nuclear made by ecomodernists until I see it framed within a wider energy descent or degrowth case. On multiple partial solutions, yes I think you have a point – but since the large-scale, techno-fix, business-as-usual approaches get vastly more attention, I aim to continue doing my best to provide an alternative narrative. The problem is that it can be difficult in practice to mix solutions because they’re premised on radically different ideologies which can’t really coexist. So for example capitalist production can be quite flexible in terms of the labour regimens it works with – slavery, peasantries, free wage labour etc, but it only really allows one logic of production, namely maximising net present value. So while I’d like to do my best to build bridges with anyone proposing solutions to poverty, climate change or a host of other problems, and to try to understand their take on the issues, ultimately there are likely to be sharp ideological dividing lines which can’t easily be transcended.

        • Chris,

          many thanks for your reply, and a happy new year! Unfortunately I don’t have time to be brief, but I’d like to continue the discussion in the future.

          The text you linked was interesting and I think I understand your point: that techno-fixes are not going to work, in your opinion. You may well be right: I hold considerable sympathy for “de-civilising” and degrowth ideology, and have been thinking along similar lines as well.

          However, I also think that there is a chance we can avert the worst environmental disasters while providing the means the world’s poor might need to lift their material lifestyle to a level closer to ours. The key reason I’m personally advocating for “all in” approaches and promoting all the ideas I know that might reduce environmental footprint is because I simply don’t believe the degrowth or decivilisation idea will make sufficient inroads to public consciousness, particularly not in developing nations.

          (There’s also another reason I’m skeptical of low-energy societies: transformation to a worldwide low-energy society and hunkering down here on Earth might buy us some centuries or millennia, but would almost certainly ensure human/intelligence extinction relatively soon – geologically speaking – and likely also doom Earth’s life to eventual total extinction. I’m not saying these are preventable with any certainty, but all chance to prevent them would probably be lost in a low-energy society. To me, allowing intelligence or life extinctions to happen if they could have been prevented would be environmental crimes of monstrous proportions. I’m aware many will ridicule my thinking as science fiction, but I’d be delighted in detailed rebuttal making the case why it is important to protect life, biodiversity or “sapiodiversity” – diversity of intelligence – for a hundred years, but not for a hundred million or a billion years. Just to stave off the laziest counter-argument: I’m not thinking it will be necessarily humans as we understand them who might be living in space or living in general for a hundred million years from now.)

          Nevertheless, the linked text also suffers from the unsubstantiated logic I criticised here earlier: even if nuclear power isn’t the total solution to all our ills (and few if any serious people really present it as one), it still does not follow that nuclear power should be opposed, any more than any other imperfect partial solution. I think you do make that distinction but many people seem not to.

          I too would be more comfortable with low-carbon energy schemes – not just nuclear power schemes – if they were accompanied with demand reduction measures, for example. (To me, it seems the same arguments you’ve used against nuclear power apply equally well to renewable energy systems – even more so if one accepts one of the most common current arguments against nuclear power, that renewables are cheaper.) I also think we should have more explicit and more ambitious plans to exit fossil fuels. Where we differ seems to be that I’m in favour of low-carbon energy projects even if they are not accompanied by such measures.

          However, I may be wrong in many things and certainly hold no monopoly on truth. I think you are perfectly right in focusing on what you have concluded is the right way to go: as I said, I can sympathise with many of the things you’ve said. You are definitely not part of the problem, but working in your own way to promote a solution. I’m doing the same in my end; only time will tell which solutions turn out to be less wrong-headed than others. And even if it should happen that humanity reaches the broad, sun-lit highlands envisioned in the most optimistic ecomodernist visions, I would still think you’re doing and have done valuable work exploring and promoting an alternative. An insurance policy, if you will – one that also raises important questions about issues such as the assumptions about the necessity of economic growth, and therefore likely contributes to reducing demand for superficial things.

          Of course, should it turn out that your prognosis of our predicament is correct, what you are doing would be most valuable. This is certainly a possibility that no thinking person should ignore, and I applaud everyone who’s actually doing something to increase the resilience of themselves or their local communities. I’m just wary of all ideologies and thinkers that present themselves as having monopoly to truth and to “correct” solutions while those who disagree are labeled dumb or ignorant; the world is big, after all, and claiming to know how to run (or not to run) the entire world is a fairly large claim.

          I totally agree that there is also the ideological divide that may, at some point, prove to be difficult to transcend totally – very likely my thinking for example runs totally counter to thinking of many who comment here. But being this messy pragmatist that I am, I don’t necessarily see it as a show-stopper.

          Why? Lately, I’ve been fascinated by possible analogues between “new” forms of environmentalism and what happened within Socialist movement around the turn of the last century. My reading of history may well be provincial (I’m Finnish after all) and flawed, but for what it’s worth:

          When the Social Democrats separated from the radical Socialists, the former were loudly proclaimed as traitors to the cause, and much invective was hurled to their general direction: “lap-dog of the capitalist” was one of the less insulting ones. There were jeremiads about how the Socialist cause was now dealt a dire blow, and that the Social Democrats – who appealed to a broader base than radicals – and their strategy of working and cooperating within the democratic system could win some superficial window-dressing at best, but no real improvement for the working man.

          Fast forward to 1980s: in all the Nordic countries, the “welfare state” reforms had been undertaken by Social Democrats who had fairly pragmatically worked together with those elements of the Right – and those from the Left – who could work together with them. And what is still the major criticism against the Nordic model?

          That the socialist reforms went too far.

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