Consume Like There’s No Tomorrow
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
these, EE in a market economy is not merely worthless, but will likely
result in expanded production and increased global warming.
Invasion of the
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.
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
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.
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.
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
environmentalists should endorse spewing incinerator poisons into city
air and abandon the notion of not generating waste.
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.
the more shameful chapters of the report concerns “Biofuels.” It has nothing against corn ethanol.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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
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 email@example.com
R. The party’s over. New Society Publishers, 2003.
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
G. Heat: How to stop the planet from burning. South
End Press, 2007.
Club, Renewable energy experts unveil report. Sierra club press
release, January 31, 2007. Contact Josh Dorner,
J. The collapse of complex societies, Cambridge
University Press, 1988.
B., Earth for Sale.
South End Press, 1997.
M.L. Is ethanol for the long haul? Scientific American.