Monday, September 10, 2007

Negative on Alternative Energy?

An explanation and a Rebuttal

I want to preface this article with a lament. Being a regular writer on the issue of peak oil and the associated implications, the one constant I must deal with is the lack of feedback, of not knowing how my words, opinions, and assumptions are being received. This article deals with a reader who was sufficiently motivated to e-mail me, an act that led to a brief exchange of e-mails. Many people do not wish to have their comments appear in a public forum as they would in posting a comment to the blog. There are two solutions to that. 1) All comments to the blog are reviewed by me before posting. Anyone who wishes to express a comment to the blog but does not want that comment to be shown on the blog need only request that it not be shown and I would be happy to oblige. 2) Those who wish to make comments off-line are most welcome to do so. I can be reached at any one of three e-mail addresses; or or . Any comments or feedback are most sincerely welcome and appreciated. Thank you.

A gentleman (who shall remain nameless) who runs a bio-fuel company (which shall also remain nameless) e-mailed me recently to chastise me for being so negative toward alternative energy options like hydrogen, methanol, ethanol, bio-diesel and so on. On the one hand I am flattered that he thinks my opinion on the matter will have enough impact that he feels the need to try to convince me of the error of my ways. On the other hand I am curious why, out of all the voices criticizing these options, he felt a need to e-mail me. Or perhaps he e-mails everyone who expresses a negative opinion on the subject. That I do not know but a quick google seems to suggest he makes a regular practice of doing so.

Essentially, I believe, this gentleman's point was (and I am sure he will correct me if I am wrong) that if one energy option doesn't pan out (while at the same time not accepting that my criticism of them is valid) there is always another one waiting in the wings. I can only assume that in that he means to suggest that we shouldn't worry, that he sees that as a plus. I see it as the core of the problem.

I politely e-mailed the gentleman back and suggested that our different perspectives on the issue legitimately gave us different and irreconcilable opinions and that if he was looking for support the mainstream media was full of much more visible people than myself lauding all of the energy options I am being negative about. I clarified my position that the only viable, long-term objective is powering down and learning to live within the sustainable energy budget of the planet. I reject the continuous, mindless pursuit of one new energy option after another to keep our unsustainable lifestyle running as long as possible. I also suggested that if he had read enough of what I had written to become sufficiently motivated to send me an e-mail he should also have gleaned from those writings what my basic and consistent point of view was.

My suspicion, rightly or wrongly, is that the gentleman and his company are having difficulty finding a market for their particular energy panacea. Again a quick google seems to also suggest that is the case. Under current conditions setting up as a competitor to corn and cane ethanol, I am sure, doesn't get you many financial backers nor the support of many highly-visible politicians. That lack of support, however, is not, in my opinion, the result of the few voices of opposition like myself. It is, more specifically, the result of the powerful, insidious ethanol lobby that haunts the halls of government. The gentleman should save his energies for the real fight he has to win. Convincing me of the legitimacy of his claims (were that remotely possible) would not help in that battle in any way.

To be brutally honest, I don't give a damn if there are a thousand alternative energy options out there and if they are all economically viable. as we approach and pass peak oil economic viability becomes increasingly irrelevant. Economics is increasingly manipulated in support of that increasingly unsustainable global system. "It's the economy, stupid," is increasingly becoming the way cry of those remaining economists who believe we still live in a world of reality. They have yet to recognize that they are programmed EconoTRONS in a man-made, virtual world that is increasingly divorced from and a poor substitute for reality.

In the end the massive energy resources which support our globalized society are truly unsustainable and in the end we shall have no choice but to learn to live without them. In the interim they subsidize the worsening of the REAL problems such as overpopulation, climate change and global warming, infrastructure collapse and more that we are eventually going to have to deal with. They don't eliminate the problems. They just stave off the day when we have run out of options, but continue to make all of these problems worse in the delay.

I we know that our current global lifestyle is unsustainable and the vast quantities of energy needed to support it are soon going into irreversible decline, where is the logic in carrying on "wasting" those precious resources while ignoring that eventuality? Knowing that the problems will be increasingly serious the longer we wait? Especially when we know that our global lifestyle itself, and our profligate energy use, are prime causes of those problems? Especially knowing that a major, but as yet unknown, amount of those remaining energy reserves are going to be NEEDED to prepare for the real world in which we will be obliged to live sustainably?

Our current global lifestyle is unsustainable. Our current global population is already in overshoot. Our global carrying capacity diminishes each year while the population continues to climb. The life-supporting topsoil of this planet is disappearing before our eyes. What freshwater remains is becoming increasingly and severely contaminated. Human-mitigated species extinction proceeds at a faster clip than any natural extinction in earth's history. Countless finite resources are being pushed rapidly toward depletion through our overabuse. We are a species of consumers. Consumers consume! Consumption is unsustainable. We are, as a species, unsustainable.

It does not have to be that way, of course. the negativism that permeates my writing is not meant to convince people that it is hopeless, that all is lost, that we should simply give up, sit down and wait to die. I am not, by nature, a negative person. But I refuse to view the world through elitist-supplied, rose-colored glasses. Throughout my life I have been a roll-up-my-sleeves-and-do-it kind of person. But I can not personally save the world, even if I would like to.

When I paint things in the negative it is my expression of hope. I have always believed that to solve any problem you must first be prepared to admit there is a problem that needs solving. If the mere mention of the problem of unsustainability of the current global lifestyle is perceived as negative, as doom-n-gloom, how are we ever to solve that problem? If not that, then what is the problem that we are trying to solve? If it is how to keep the current, unsustainable lifestyle humming (derivative of the verb "to hummer") along for as many more decades as possible, that is not a "problem" I am willing to address. Let me put it more assertively. It is a problem I refuse to address. the solution to THAT problem simply perpetuates and exacerbates the real problem. It cures the symptom while strengthening the disease.

The problem before the house is this: How do we move the human species toward a long-term, sustainable footing? No qualifiers! No ifs, ands, buts, what-ifs. How do we do it? Period!

How do we best assure that there is a human species, a human society on this planet at the beginning of the next millennium? And the next after that? Because everything we are currently doing as a society, as a species, strongly suggests we believe that to be irrelevant, that the only real goal worth pursuing is a healthy, corporate, financial balance sheet.

Am I negative? Until we start individually and collectively acting like the survival of the human race has some meaning to us and until we start to demonstrate that we are prepared to commit whatever necessary effort it takes to assure that, whatever the personal and collective economic cost, then perhaps I am. There is a very serious problem. When I see that we are collectively and individually prepared to admit that in order that we begin the effort to solve it then I will be the first to climb on to the roof and wave the banner. Until then I will continue in my negative ways of pointing out that the problem is still there.


Anonymous said...

Last week I tried to post a response to your blog entry on
Monday, September 10, 2007
Negative on Alternative Energy?
I didn't receive any confirmation that you had received it. Perhaps there was a technical glitch or perhaps it was not worthy of a review but at a minimum, I think, if you did receive it, it warranted some acknowledgement. If you received it but simply did not respond, maybe that is some hint as to why you suffer from a lack of feedback. On the other hand your comment that you Google checked the guy who had sent you a critical e-mail might scare off those who would like to think that their comments will be received at face value without a background check. Anyway, here is my comment, again:

Almost three years ago I was stricken with peak oil fever. Sounding the
alarm I began a series of urgent e-mails to immediate and extended family
members. Apart from a flurry of mixed responses at the beginning, my
missives, commentary and links alike, soon seemed to fall into a black hole
of indifferent silence. After about two years I simply stopped writing.
Nowadays at the occasional family gathering there appears, at least to me,
the unspoken apprehension that crazy old Uncle Leon might be off his meds
and start in again on the hell of a depression that's coming down the pike.
So let's just talk about the good times we had way back when and nobody
mention that which must not be named.
Meanwhile, of course, the storm clouds continue to gather but no one wants
to look at the horizon. My wife tells me that the reason no one wants
to talk to me about peak oil is because I offer no solutions, no hope that
we can kick the can down the road and live the good life for at least
another generation.
I encountered your blog today via a Google alert for peak oil; global
warming. Normally I read as much as I can on the topics daily and have a
few websites I frequent including James Kunstler's. It appears you and
Kunstler share - along with many others, including myself - the view that
there is no "solution" to be had other than to power down and learn to
inhabit the planet in a sustainable manner. That's advice along the lines
of eat less and exercise more, when what the patient really wants to hear
is that he can eat as much as he wants and as much of what he wants as he
wants and still bring back that slim athletic figure of his younger days.
What I do think, and this relates more directly to your lament, is that an
ongoing dialog is essential for us to prepare ourselves, individually and
collectively for the coming storm. So for what it is worth, I have marked
your blog and will read it regularly. I hope my occasional comments will
at least contribute to the discussion, even if they might substantively
amount to little more than an understanding nod from the old geezer
listening at the back of the room.
Thanks for writing.

Anonymous said...

In the absence of some magical solution, where do you stand on the building of personal "lifeboats" of alternative energy? I recently removed money from conventional RRSP's to purchase a solar system large enough to ensure refrigeration and running my well pump in the case that things do get really bad. If my forecast is wrong, the energy that is produced offsets purchased energy, that I would have bought anyway. What sort of personal actions do you recommend, since waiting for higher powers to intervene is not a route I want to take.

Richard Embleton said...

The key to me, whether now or later, is changing one's energy expectations, meaning changing our attitudes about what electrical devices we "need" in our lives. This invariably involves doing many things manually we have become accustomed to doing with electrical appliances. I fully agree, however, that waiting for TPTB to initiate the changes that are going to be needed is not the way to go. The best you can hope for is that they will "get out of the way" and let us get on with building lifeboats (See "The Right to Pursue Powerdown" in this blog.) I strongly favour, however, continuing to try to get our communities to move toward a survivable community footing. I don't believe the lone-wolf hunter/gatherer is a model that can work in our wilderness-depleted world. The thing t6o keep in mind about sustainable energy lifeboats is, though, that regardless how simple the energy technology is it must be maintained. It is, therefore, temporary in my mind. Eventually the infrastructure that produces the technology and the parts to maintain it will not be there. It should, depending on your age, probably still be there for most of your remaining life, in some form.
Richard Embleton

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