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May 31, 2007
Focus: Environment
Action Request: Think About
Location: United States

Consume Like There’s No Tomorrow

http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=56&ItemID=12636


Would someone please tell the Sierra Club Exec Board that the idea of an “environmentally friendly car” makes as much sense as a “non-violent death penalty?”  While the vast majority of those concerned with global warming consider reduction of unneeded production to be at the core of a sane policy, the Sierra Club has endorsed a plan that includes virtually no role for conservation.

In January 2007, the American Solar Energy Society (ASE released the 180 page document, Tackling Climate Change in the U.S.  Typical of big enviro analyses, it assumes a corporate dominated growth economy.  Its novelty is its highly technical studies which claim to compute how much CO2 emissions can be offset by energy efficiency (EE) and renewable energy.

Teaming up with ASES to present the study to Congress, the Sierra Club enthusiastically wrote that “energy efficiency and renewables alone can achieve a 60–80% reduction in global warming emissions by 2050.”  Adding the key word “alone” in the first paragraph of its release indicated that the Sierra Club wanted to be sure that politicians and corporate donors understood that it has no intention of criticizing the large quantity of unnecessary junk created by corporate America.

What ain’t there

Solar power, wind power and energy efficiency (EE) play vital roles in reducing CO2.  The rub is the role of conservation, or reduction of total production.  For “deep greens,” the most basic goal is social change that would foster the reduction of energy.  For “shallow greens,” conservation is, at best, something to give lip service to while tunnel visioning on eco-gadgets.

More blatant than the typical corporate enviromental analysis, the ASES/Sierra report trivializes conservation as “doing without” or “deprivation.”  It presents a vast array of technological playthings, some of which are quite good and some of which are less than environmental.  What is most revealing is what it does not include.  It discusses transportation without using the word “bicycle” or “walking.”

It looks at efficient building design with no discussion of using empty buildings or designing buildings to last longer than 50 years.  The report that Carl Pope boasts is “now the official Sierra Club global warming strategy” has an extended discussion of home heating and cooling without mentioning the word “tree.”  George Monbiot’s recently-published Heat concludes that manufacturing a ton of cement creates a ton of CO2 , a fact not emphasized by proponents of EE buildings.

In the analysis of energy efficiency, the phrase “organic agriculture” never appears and there is no mention of the massive use of petrochemicals or factory farms and there is zero concern with the fact that the average American food item travels 1300 miles from farm to plate.  The strange approach to EE does not question the cancerous growth of household appliances, planned obsolescence, or corporate creation of artificial desires for unneeded products. 

The authors have no comment on enormous waste in medical care or huge insurance buildings which drain energy while creating nothing of value.  The chapters on transportation, such as plug-in hybrid electric cars, ignore the fact that air traffic in the United Kingdom will double by 2030, at which time it will have more effect on global warming than automobiles.  The call for a 10 fold increase in biomass says nothing about effects of monocultures, deforestation, genetic engineering or pesticide usage. 

Those approaches left out of the big enviro plan for energy efficiency share something: they are common sense low tech or no tech solutions which involve reducing the quantity of production and energy use with no decrease in the quality of life.  They have something else in common: they do not involve the swelling of corporate profits via increased manufacture.

When is energy efficiency not efficient?

Almost as much as solar and wind power, energy efficiency is becoming the unquestioned mantra of solutions to global warming.  Refrigerators that use 75% less energy are a plus.  Even better would be the German-designed Passivhaus, which is so well insulated that it has zero heating and cooling systems.

EE is good.  But projections about what it can offer sometimes border on hallucinations.  This is the case with the ASES/Sierra claim that EE can offset global warming by 57%.

The first limitation on EE is the old maxim that the more parts there are to a system, the more parts there are to break.  The ASES/Sierra report reads like an encyclopedia of techno-fix gadgets for buildings, cars and holes in the earth.  Each item involves increased industrial interdependence.  As resources come to be in short supply from exhaustion or wars or hoarding, the future is likely to see a decline in the ability to patch up interconnected systems.  Becoming more dependent on them more begs for industrial breakdown. 

Another factor that works against EE is the law of diminishing returns.  Joseph Tainter explained that societies begin to collapse when resources are drained to meet the needs of increasing complexity.  Similarly, the biggest impact of discoveries come when they are first introduced.  That’s when there is the greatest energy returned on energy invested.  Additional refinements tend to cost more and yield less.  Oil was cheap and easy to obtain when it oozed to the surface.  As time goes on, oil becomes more expensive to pump, the available quantity decreases, and the quality worsens.  The biggest impact of drugs came with antibiotics.  Now we are bombarded with ads for new drugs that cost more to research but have fewer advantages over the previous generation of drugs.

Technocrats tend to have faith in unlimited potential for EE.  The truth is that we have probably seen most of the largest efficiency impacts and future changes will mainly be refinements that offer less and less improvement.

The most important difficulty for EE is the market economy, which corporate environmentalists love so much and understand so little.  Corporations do not compete to make less money.  They compete to increase their profits.  Market forces compel each corporation to expand production as rapidly as possible.  When more efficient heating is available, corporations selling it will encourage customers to turn up their thermostats and run around in their underwear in the middle of winter. 

People live commuting distances from work.  The automobile has lengthened that distance.  Fuel efficient cars will do nothing to affect that distance or the expanding miles of road, the loss of habitat that accompanies road construction, space for parking or energy used in manufacturing cars. 

It is not hard to visualize yuppies feeling so smug about their EE apartment in New York that they buy an EE home in Phoenix, an EE condo in Chicago, a hybrid car for each city, and a helicopter modified to run on biofuels for shuttling between cities.  Energy efficiency is not efficient when some individual items are more efficient, but the overall quantity of items increases so much that the total mass of energy used goes up instead of down.  Like it or not, that is the irredeemable compulsion of market economics.

This is not to say that EE plays no role in preventing the planet from frying.  It is to say that EE must be accompanied with an intense program of conservation, economic redesign and governmental regulation.  Without these, EE in a market economy is not merely worthless, but will likely result in expanded production and increased global warming.

Invasion of the techno-babblers

Anyone who has ever fought an incinerator, cement kiln or coal plant knows that you’ve lost the struggle if you ever let industry suck you into an argument about which pollution control device should be tacked on after toxins have been created.  The only genuine solution is the easy one — to prevent the creation of the poisons in the first place.

If someone tries to sell an incinerator or an EE system that’s too complicated to understand, that could indicate it’s a bad idea.  Making things simple is typically the route of greatest efficiency.

A narrow focus on technology seeks to replace a gee-gaw with a doo-dad, and when that doesn’t work, come up with a gizmo.  Techno-babble sputters forth from the belief that social problems can be solved in a quest for the ultimate gadget.  Oblivious to social reasons for global warming, the ASES/Sierra report claims that whatever greenhouse gas problems remain after EE can be solved with six renewable technologies: “concentrating solar power, photovoltaics, wind power, biomass, biofuels and geothermal power.”  The last three of these are techno-babble.

“Biomass” is largely an effort to turn whatever wildlands remain on this planet to energy crop monocultures.  Not surprisingly, the word “ecology” does not appear in the biomass chapter.  What is surprising is the subsection on “Urban residues” which discusses the use of municipal solid waste as feedstock for heat conversion to electricity.  This is a polite way of saying that environmentalists should endorse spewing incinerator poisons into city air and abandon the notion of not generating waste.

“Geothermal power” does not have such offensive associations.  But less than 0.1% of geothermal energy is within three kilometers of the surface, which makes it currently recoverable.  Suggesting that yet-to-be-perfected techniques of recovery might allow geothermal to provide 20% of US energy is pure speculation.  It cannot be part of a serious energy strategy.

One of the more shameful chapters of the report concerns “Biofuels.”  It has nothing against corn ethanol.  It only rejects using corn grain to produce ethanol on the basis that the 10 million gallons of ethanol which could be manufactured from US corn would represent only 5% of this country’s gasoline demand.  It pays no attention to issues brought up the same month in a Scientific American article that (1) refining ethanol uses more energy than it produces, and (2) ethanol requires “robbing food crops to make fuel.”  The lack of concern with either ethanol efficiency or world hunger renders the Sierra-endorsed report as less ecologically-minded than Scientific American, the prototype of techno-hype publications.

The chapter clings to the hope that ethanol could be produced if, instead of using corn grain, “residues from corn and wheat crops” made up the feedstock.  There are several problems with this “cellulose” strategy.  First, as with geothermal, making ethanol from cornstalks is so highly speculative that it has no place in long term projections.  If it could be done, it would be from genetically engineering corn to make it more amenable to separating sugars from lignin.  There has already been plenty of genetic contamination of foodstocks.  Additional genetic engineering is exactly what agriculture does not need.

The biggest problem with cellulosic ethanol is that it assumes that soil should be nothing more than a sterile medium for growing crops and that “residue” has no part in replenishing soil.  Just as the Forest Service under Bill Clinton brought us “salvage logging” based on the belief that decaying wood has no significance for forest ecosystems, Hillary Clinton might usher in the concept that decaying cornstalks have no contribution to soil ecosystems.

Those who fixate on biofuels don’t seem to grasp that keeping natural fertilizers out of the soil means relying more on petrochemical fertilizers.  With a straight face they are proposing to reduce oil use in cars by increasing use of oil-based fertilizers.

Hard questions/Tough reality

Perpetual motion machines, biomass and biofuels will not halt species extinction caused by climate change.  Again, efficiency and solar and wind power are critical components of a sustainable society.  But focusing on them diverts attention from the real issues that need to be addressed — how to dramatically reduce energy production while improving the quality of life.  This is the basis for the hard questions that corporate environmentalists avoid.

For example, the US needs to reduce the number of cars on the road by at least 95% and make sure the few that are manufactured are hybrids.  How can the US economy be reorganized so that auto workers and refinery workers have jobs comparable to jobs that they now have?

Many poor countries depend on destructive industries such as oil.  How can the world economy be reorganized so they increase their standard of living while altering what they produce?

It is well known that greenhouse gas reduction requires population reduction, which can best be accomplished by reducing the gap between rich and poor and achieving equality for women.  How do we reverse the right wing pattern of increasing disparity?

The global economy is increasing production of high-energy goods such as roads, cars, airplanes, fast food, meat and endless mountains of consumer crap.  How do we change this to production of low-energy goods that people actually need, such as locally grown organic food, preventive health care and clothes and homes that endure?

The creation of artificial wants for new objects is exploding like genetically engineered diseases in a bio-defense lab.  How do we convince big enviro that it is not “sacrifice” or “deprivation” to focus on manufacturing items that people actually need and will last?

We all want to believe that our checks to Sierra or the Nature Conservancy do some good in the long run and that they are just a little slow to do the right thing.  The tough reality is that big enviro is doing bad things that lead in the wrong direction.

The most basic task for stopping global warming is having a moral, ethical and spiritual revolution based on the belief that excessive crap is bad.  Reduction of unnecessary production is the antithesis of what corporations are all about.  However destructive it is for the planet, corporations must seek to convince people to consume more and more. 

Enter big enviro telling people that excessive consumption is not bad at all because it gives the consumer the ability to affect change with purchasing power.  The erudite techno-magician waves his wand, uttering “Don’t look at the mounds of discarded junk that go into landfills.  Look over here at the fabulous eco-gadgets of our corporate friends.”

Big enviro may be doing more to preserve the ethos of self-devouring consumerism than big corporations could ever do.  What a surprise to learn that the Sierra Club has a history of obtaining funds from Chemical Bank, ARCO and British Petroleum.  Big enviro just may deliver to big oil what it most needs — faith that a market economy can protect the planet.

Karl Marx once said something to the effect that if there were only two capitalists left, they would compete to see which would sell the rope to hang the other one.  A modern version might be that if the planet was so roasted that only two big enviro groups remained, they would compete to see which could get a grant from big oil to show that what was left of the world could be saved by consumer choices.

Don Fitz is editor of Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought, which is sent to members of The Greens/Green Party USA.  He can be reached at fitzdon@aol.com

Sources

Heinberg, R. The party’s over. New Society Publishers, 2003.

Kutscher, C.F. (Ed.) Tackling Climate Change in the U.S.: Potential Carbon Emissions Reduction from Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by 2030.  American Solar Energy Society, 2007. www.ases.org/climate change

Monbiot, G. Heat: How to stop the planet from burning. South End Press, 2007.

Sierra Club, Renewable energy experts unveil report. Sierra club press release, January 31, 2007. Contact Josh Dorner, josh.dorner@sierraclub.org

Tainter, J. The collapse of complex societies, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Tokar, B., Earth for Sale. South End Press, 1997.

Wald, M.L. Is ethanol for the long haul? Scientific American. January 2007.
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Posted: May 31, 2007 3:54am

 

 
 
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