Infinite Regress

In a recent post, we looked at some of Green MEP Caroline Lucas’s arguments for action on climate change. One of them has stuck with us as especially absurd, and merits further attention:

this planet has finite resources. You cannot go on growing indefinitely on a finite planet. 

This appeal to ‘physics’ pops up frequently in environmental debates. Interestingly, it’s a tactic also popular with Creationists and their ilk, who cite Newton’s second law of thermodynamics to suggest that evolution contradicts fundamental physical truths. In each case, a woolly argument about how the world should be is patched up with sciency-sounding facts, figures and laws. This is not the tactic of groups confident about their political position; it is a sign of the desperation of groups that are failing to capture the imagination of the world’s population.

In Lucas’s world, the appeal to physics is used as an argument against economic growth and technological development. It is principally a criticism of capitalism, which requires growth and is, therefore, inherently environmentally destructive. It is worth repeating a point we made at the time. The objection to capitalism on the grounds that it contradicts physical laws is a departure from prior objections to capitalism from the Left and is not a criticism of the kind that we would expect the Left to produce. Instead of offering a description of social problems – for example poverty – arising from the social relations produced by capitalism, Lucas seeks to explain social phenomena in terms of geological and biological processes. This is similar to James Garvey’s claims in The Ethics of Climate Change, which appeals to scientific authority to make a case for environmental determinism. In Lucas’s argument, there is a causal chain, from capitalism, via the natural world, to social problems such as poverty, which can be described ‘scientifically’.

Lucas might argue that she could hold both positions simultaneously. But if that were the case, why would it be necessary to emphasise the environmental aspect, let alone mention it at all, given that the social, human-centric perspective is a lot more powerful? The major reason is that the two perspectives are irreconcilable. One looks at social problems as the product of social relations, the other looks at social problems as the consequence of exceeding ‘natural’ limits – ‘unsustainability’. They are further contradictory because we can conceive of non-capitalist growth which is, in the green lexicon, ‘environmentally unfriendly’, but which produces a social good – we could build dams, relocate cities away from coasts, reclaim coasts, create ways for the developing world to have much cheaper access to energy and industrialise agricultural production, and so on. We can also conceive of capitalist growth that is environmentally destructive and yet produces a social good. After all, it’s not as if cars and labour-saving devices and all that stuff have no utility and have been foisted upon people against their will. And it’s not as if economic and technological growth has occurred against a backdrop of lower living standards and declining indicators of social progress. On the contrary, things have got better and better. Lucas – who is unable to make the argument that things are worse in order to challenge capitalism – needs to make the argument that things are about to get worse, and that development of any kind is necessarily environmentally destructive, and so creates a haunting spectre of ‘unsustainability’ and imminent social, ecological and economic collapse.

In this respect, Lucas does not offer us a principled objection to capitalism – she claims that it is wrong in the same way that arguments against gravity would be wrong. Whatever your thoughts about capitalism happen to be, and even if you still believe that environmentalism is a continuation of socialism, it is worth recognising environmentalism’s distance from the traditional Left. It highlights the Left’s political exhaustion, and the environmental movement’s intellectual bankruptcy.

On a similar note, it is not true that notions of sustainable development are antithetical to the economic Right or capitalism. After all Malthus, on whose ideas Lucas’s are based, was a classical economist, whose ideas were debunked by Marx himself. More contemporary conservatives have also embraced the rhetoric of ‘sustainability:

The Government espouses the concept of sustainable economic development. Stable prosperity can be achieved throughout the world provided the environment is nurtured and safeguarded. Protecting this balance of nature is therefore one of the great challenges of the late Twentieth Century 

The second problem with Lucas’s argument is that her conception of ‘resources’ is itself flawed. Malthusians – especially environmentalists – misconceive resources as ‘substance’. In a finite universe, never mind a finite world, all substances are of course finite. If our ‘dependence’ on Earth’s resources are ‘unsustainable’ because they are finite, then so too would our much more real dependence on solar, wind and tidal power, be ultimately unsustainable. They are not merely unsustainable in the sense that one day the sun – which drives all renewable sources – will collapse, they are also unsustainable because continued and increasing dependence on this form of energy itself cannot be sustained against growing numbers of people – there is only a limited amount of recoverable energy entering the system at any time. According to environmentalists, this is why we must therefore limit the number of people and ration the amount of energy they are entitled to. We are in favour of some of the large projects which have been conceived of as part of a ‘post-carbon economy’ for their own sake, particularly the idea of large, solar energy collecting arrays. Covering the uninhabited land of the Sahara with solar panels, for example, might provide 50 times the power used currently across the globe. But such projects, including hydro-electric, are met by environmentalists with anxiety about the environmental destruction that large scale developments necessarily cause. And, as we have seen, Environmentalists are against environmental destruction, even where it produces a social benefit.

And anyway, development itself is not intrinsically bad for nature. First, as economies develop, they are inclined to pay increasing attention to the environmental effects of development as wealth allows. Compare the once filthy development in the West to the comparatively cleaner industries of today. Even the destructive process of open-cast mining reinstates wilderness. Indeed, yesterday’s open cast mines are today’s nature reserves. They are clean ecological slates on which Mother Nature can work her magic of colonisation and succession, and are often home to rare, specialist species that are not found elsewhere. Similarly, landfill sites are recovered and repopulated with trees, and what’s more, nobody would want to develop on top of them, whereas nature hardly cares. Second, technological development allows for the possibility of moving away from a dependence on natural processes, resulting in a reduced industrial footprint as both science and economics permit. It would not require a leap of imagination to consider the shifting away from rural agriculture, to an indoor process, under perfect conditions. The reason for not doing that now is that ‘solar power’ makes using fields for crop production far cheaper. But a more abundant form of power would render such forms of production obsolete and inefficient. Of course, organic food faddists would baulk at the idea of lentils grown indoors. But such a step would create the possibility of safer, healthier, more plentiful food, protected from pests and other natural problems, and, of course, would be environmentally non-destructive. This would be a ‘green revolution’ second to none, as agricultural land would be freed up for other uses, including, if we so wished, nature conservation. What environmentalists should be calling for is a world-wide push for new ways of producing more and more energy, and more wealth, not arguing that it should be rationed and limited. Rationing is a guaranteed way to cause environmental problems. That they don’t reinforces the idea that Environmentalism is less about saving the planet per se and more to do with a discomfort with human aspirations.

Access to substance and its existence in sufficient quantities are only part of what constitutes a resource. The remainder is intellectual. Lucas herself must recognise this to some extent, because, as she knows only too well, methods such as domestic solar panels are not currently economically viable alternatives to centralised, fossil-fuel power generation. She argues that huge investments and massive infrastructural changes are needed to develop technology, and for the economics to be adjusted to make alternatives viable. So in this respect, solar energy and other renewables are not yet the ‘resources’ that she hopes them to become. So Lucas’s argument for renewable resources to be exploited in place of fossil fuels is predicated on a transformed relationship with a substance, and the development of the technology to make that exploitation possible. She cannot deny, then, that politics – as much as physics – are what determines which substances are resources.

Back to Lucas’s blind faith in the laws of physics… 500 years ago, oil was not a resource. Neither was uranium. People around at the time didn’t know how to use them. Things that weren’t resources became resources. Our ability to use new resources made old resources obsolete. Now, no home in the UK needs to burn wood for heat, for example. Or, as Bjørn Lomborg has put it, the Stone Age didn’t come to an end because we ran out of stones. What Malthusians forget is that development begats development. After all, you don’t make a jump from rubbing twigs together to atomic energy. Critics of this perspective on this site suggest that this represents some form of contemporary Lysenkoism – that blind faith in science’s ability to rescue us from future resource depletion is a dangerous, politically-motivated folly. They argue that science will not be able to continually provide ‘techno-fixes’ to the problems which emerge from our ways of life. We must come up against some ceiling sooner or later, the logic goes.

But anxiety about ‘growing indefinitely on a finite planet’ forgets that our abilities to make use of the finite space and finite resources increases the effective space and amount of resources that are available. And there is a colossal amount of space, and an abundance of resources out there. For example, we hear a lot about the looming ‘water wars’ that are to be fought because of apparent shortages. A quick look at any map will reveal that the Earth isn’t running out of it any time soon. The problem is simply technological. Instead of concerning themselves with how to provide for a growing population by coming up with desalination, distribution and irrigation schemes, the environmental movement instead uses the prospect of conflict to arm its arguments in favour of restricting development and of rationing what water comes our way through natural processes. What better way could there be of guaranteeing a ‘natural’ disaster than limiting the supply of resources – super abundant resources, never mind oil – to human populations? Environmentalists simultaneously warn of shortages, yet stand in the way of developing any alternatives that might not last ‘indefinitely’. There is only one way out of the resource-depletion scenario that is presented, they say, reduce the number of people, and the amount of resources they are entitled to.

What environmentalists refuse to consider is what a resource- and energy-abundant society might be like. What if stuff in the world just got cheaper? What if access to water and energy wasn’t an issue for anyone in the world? Perhaps, just perhaps, it is this very democratisation of resource use that the environmental movement is a response to. The possibilities that are opened up by technological development for our way of life and our politics are the real locus of anxieties about the future.

Environmentalists demand an impossibly high standard. Nothing the human race has ever done to improve its conditions has been ‘sustainable’. As technologies have changed our lives, and created new problems, so too have new politics arisen out of these changing conditions. If this process had been stalled during any era on the basis that it was unsustainable, we would still be living in stone-age conditions, with stone-age politics – at least, that is, until we really did run out of stones.

The Blue/Green, Upside Down, Left/Right, Inside-Out, Three-Bags-Full Agenda

Leader of the UK’s Conservatives, David Cameron, is at it again… Here he is, unveiling the latest installment of the ‘resurrection’ of the Tory Party, by announcing his continued commitment to Environmentalism, in spite of the prospect of an economic downturn, and rising fuel costs, by mixing the Green Party Manifesto, and a nod at the market, and some straightforward opportunism.

The Labour Party are on their knees. The Lib-Dems are barely registering. Cameron could say whatever he liked, or nothing at all. Yet here he is, wrapping himself in green cloth, telling the UK that there is no alternative, ‘cos the ‘era of cheap oil is over’, so we have to go Green. Well, we do now. Thanks to Dave.

The new ‘Blue Green Charter’ aims to ‘reconfigure our whole economy’ with horse feathers, and ‘overturn our hydrocarbon dependency’ by powering the country with rocking-horse shit.

This biodegradable policy commits the country to taxes, and the construction ‘positive social norms’ (no, we’re not kidding) to ‘induce behavioural change’. With Labour’s position becoming increasingly limp, Cameron now seems to be recycling ideas from the Green Party, wrapped up in the ‘greatest challenge facing our generation’ rhetoric which screams far louder about Cameron’s inability to speak to the current generation than it defines any realities that it faces.

The Green NGOs seem to be loving it.

Keith Allott, WWF-UK’s climate change spokesman said it would “avoid the risk of locking the UK into a high-carbon future” and could boost investment in carbon capture technology.

John Sauven, of Greenpeace, said: “The Tories’ proposals should have been more ambitious given what today’s technologies can deliver but, by ruling out the proposed old-style coal plant at Kingsnorth in Kent, today’s announcement puts Cameron way ahead of Brown when it comes to cleaning up our energy system.”

There you have it… David Cameron, doing as unelected, undemocratic, self-appointed NGO puritans tell him, whilst making a promise to commit you to reducing your energy bills or face punishment, embarrassment and high prices, rather than him taking responsibility for the construction of a functioning energy infrastructure.

Environmentalism According to Lucas

Over the last year, we have looked at some of the words and ideas coming from the environmental movement through the Green Party’s MEP for SE England, Caroline Lucas. With her breathless, urgent catastrophism, Lucas epitomises Environmentalism and its hollow vision, shallow intellect, and deep misanthropy. In these respects, Lucas never disappoints us.

However, we are never very successful at getting Lucas or her press office to account for anything she has said. Luckily, she was on BBC TV’s Question Time last week, and has been appearing at a number of public events of late. So here is another opportunity to subject Lucas’s political ideas to some scrutiny.

The Question Time panel were asked if the Labour Party were suffering from a leadership crisis, to which Caroline Lucas replied that Labour’s problem is that it lacks values, that it no longer knows what it stands for, that it has abandoned its traditional values such as equality, and that Gordon Brown is a man who doesn’t know what he wants.

[youtube j8t-0mynExg]

We agree with Lucas that the Labour Party is in crisis because it doesn’t know what it stands for. As we say in our first ever post, “Environmental concerns are serving to provide direction for directionless politics”. That is why Blair and Brown were keen to be seen to be acting on climate change, and that is why, in response to that action, the Tories committed themselves to a policy of an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, against Labour’s 60%. And that is why, not to be out-done, the Liberal Democrats upped their bidding to a 100% reduction by 2050. But are Lucas and the Green Party offering anything so different?

As we have also pointed out, Environmentalism thrives in this atmosphere of political vapidity, not because it represents an alternative, but because it captures the nervousness caused by a lack of political direction. Environmentalism nurtures a general sense of doom with ideas about societal and ecological collapse. Without that sense of doom, environmentalism would be nothing.

As political movements across the political spectrum have increasingly found it difficult to generate ideas through which to connect to the public, so they have had to turn to other ways to achieve their legitimacy and authority. As Lucas points out, the Labour Party is suffering from a ‘crisis of direction’. But Lucas and the Greens have not found a direction by locating a new political vision to steer towards, but a nightmare to claim to be steering away from. Lucas attacks Brown for having no values, yet her arguments for social and economic change are not formed out of her principled objections to the way in which people relate to one another through social and economic structures. Instead, Lucas’s philosophy depends on a conception of humanity’s relationship with nature. She is, in terms of values, as poverty-stricken as any of those she attacks. Lucas doesn’t have some great store of values, with which she can create a positive view of how the world could be. Here is Lucas, speaking at a recent debate held by the World Development Movement, setting out her case for carbon rationing, trading and ‘equality’ and selling her argument for ‘equality’ in such (pseudo) scientific terms.

[youtube htTOxudmjvY]

Notice that, in that speech, Lucas is using the word ‘resources’, not in the sense of stuff that we have, but in terms of the biosphere’s ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

It seems that, in order to make a case for equality, Lucas needs there to be a finite world, as if, were there no such limits (to the absorption of CO2 by natural processes), there would be no case for equality. This prevents her from conceiving of a world in which equality is achieved, not by rationing and people having less, but by people having more, and having their expectations raised. Lucas doesn’t have ‘values’, and hides the fact behind science. ‘Science’ is being used in place of values. ‘Science’ is Environmentalism’s fig leaf. It is being used to create the idea of limits, so that Environmentalism doesn’t have to commit itself to providing anything more than less and less. And just as science is used instead of values, doom is a stand in for political vision. If we don’t do as ‘science’ (environmentalism) says, then catastrophe awaits. Here, for example, Lucas tells us that unless we put up with high fuel prices and tax, we wont adjust our behaviour, and society will collapse.

[youtube mBTE4w3qIaw]

It is an ‘interesting’ argument that says we need to artificially keep oil prices high because… err… the days of cheap oil are over because… err… of peak oil. For someone who lectures us about ‘science’, the logic of the causal world seems to have escaped Lucas’s understanding. Scarcity would do Lucas’s work for her. Obviously, what is at issue is not rescuing humanity from a looming catastrophe, but the legitimacy of a political movement bent on creating a behavioural and cultural change for its own benefit, on the premise that only it can save us from the terrible chaos that awaits us.

[youtube XsCfzjqeTPE]

As much as Lucas tries to make her ideas sound positive, they are underscored and sold by a vision of catastrophe. She may talk of progressive ideas such as ‘equality’, ‘justice’, and ‘liberty’, but all of these ideas are mediated by, and through the environment. Our freedom is limited, not guaranteed by the environment. Equality is measured in environmental, pseudo-scientific terms of resource distribution. Social justice, according to Lucas, is equivalent to ‘environmental justice’. But what a pale imitation of justice that is; it doesn’t right any wrongs, or create the possibility of a better standard of living. And where Lucas promises that there will be less unemployment under a Green Government, it is because a ‘zero carbon economy’ is far more labour-intensive than its fully-powered counterpart. In such an economy, the job that oil did will be done by people. Fancy a job as a serf? How about a career as a treadmill operative? This will be the ‘equality’ and the ‘social justice’ that Lucas has designed for us.

The use of science to limit political possibilities, and lower our horizons by constructing plausible catastrophic scenarios is the everyday language of environmentalism. But, surprisingly, the failure of this unremittingly negative view of the world hasn’t escaped Lucas’ attention.

[youtube -JfDb4K4GUU]

What? Caroline Lucas is against climate alarmism? The same Caroline Lucas who, in July last year, compared climate scepticism to holocaust denial? The same Caroline Lucas who said in July last year that,

… if you look at the implications of climate change, of runaway climate change, we are literally talking about millions and millions of people dying, we are literally talking about famines, and flooding, and migration and disease on an unprecedented scale. And so yes, I know these are sensitive words that I’ve used, but I feel so strongly that we urgently need to wake people up and stop this march towards catastrophe that I very much feel that we’re on.

Is the Caroline Lucas who is now against catastrophism the same Caroline Lucas who said in November,

… when you hear scientists say that we have about eight years left in order to really tackle climate change, I don’t think what the public actually want is cautiousness, what they want is real leadership, and that is what
the EU is promising to give, and yet that’s what we’re failing to do here.

Is it the same Caroline Lucas who said in February,

Around 75 per cent of all cancers are caused by environmental factors, mainly chemicals…

Is the Caroline Lucas who doesn’t believe that alarmism works, the same Caroline Lucas in this video?

[youtube Higin1kY3PM]

Lucas appears to be very confused about what she is selling, and how she is selling it. She claims that we must change the way we live, to expect less, and to make do and mend, but that, somehow, this will make us all happier. She claims that she doesn’t depend on catastrophic visions to connect with the public, yet without it, there is no imperative to give her ideas a second thought. She claims to be part of a democratic movement, yet demands that the state regulate our behaviour. She claims to speak on behalf of the poor, yet would deprive the poor of the material means to change their lives; cheap goods, fuel, and mobility. She claims to have science on her side, yet she campaigns against the benefits of science; she is against animal research, and against evidence based medicine, favouring instead ‘alternative’ therapies; she campaigns against the use of agricultural and industrial chemicals; and she campaigns against anything which might have the charge of ‘unsustainable’ thrown at it. She claims to be against the coercive influence of big business, but in its place, she would put an authoritarian government that would regulate your freedom to travel, to buy things, and coerce you into observing an ‘environmentally friendly’ lifestyle.

A loss of values in politics is a bad thing. But the Green Party is far far worse. Give us disorientation over deeply confused misanthropy, any day.

Off the Grid: Microgeneration – the Spark of Endarkenment

John Vidal, Guardian Environment Editor, claimed yesterday that

British buildings equipped with solar panels, mini wind turbines and other renewable energy sources could generate as much electricity a year as five nuclear power stations, a government-backed industry report has shown.

It wasn’t news. The other green-activist newspaper, the ‘Independent’ On Sunday leaked the report ahead of its publication, to create the idea that it had discovered a choice between a “Brown future” (a reference to the Prime Minister) illustrated by a dirty, industrial landscape, and a “Green future”, illustrated by a picture of some low-profile solar panels under some fluffy clouds in a deep blue sky.

The government-backed report, to be published tomorrow, says that, with changed policies, the number of British homes producing their own clean energy could multiply to one million – about one in every three – within 12 years.

It seems unlikely that there are only 3 million homes in Britain. Anyway…

These would produce enough power to replace five large nuclear power stations, tellingly at about the same time as the first of the much-touted new generation of reactors is likely to come on stream.

In his most pro-nuclear announcement to date, the Prime Minister indicated that he wanted greatly to increase the number of atomic power stations to be built in Britain. And he met oil executives in Scotland to urge them to pump more of the black gold from the North Sea’s fast-declining fields – even though his own energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, admitted that this would do nothing to reduce the price of fuel.

The equivalence to “five nuclear power stations” isn’t mentioned in the report. We looked hard for it. What were we missing? Where had it come from? We decided to ring Element Energy, the group who were commissioned to write the report, to see where the figure in the Independent had come from. Director Shane Slater told us that such a comparison was “outside the scope of the study”, and that it was an “unhelpful comparison”, with which he wouldn’t necessarily agree.

So where has the figure, published in both the IoS and Guardian come from?

The factoid is also mentioned in a press release from Monday, by Micropower, a group established by Liberal Democrat Lord Ezra to “represent the whole microgeneration sector”.

The report concludes that as many as nine million microgeneration installations could be in place in the next twelve years with an ambitious policy support framework. If this was to happen, microgeneration could produce as much energy as five large new nuclear power stations and by 2030 we could be saving as much carbon as if we were to take all HGVs and buses off our roads.

The IoS article predates press release, but we thought they might know where the figure came from. We spoke to them, and were told that “it wasn’t in the report”, which we knew already, but that it had “come out of the steering committee press release”, which said,

With ambitious policy measures, up to 9 million microgeneration systems could be installed by 2020, producing as much energy as 5 nuclear power stations. This would require an estimated cumulative cost of at least £21 billion

According to them, a comparison in a press release was intended to be illustrative, rather than make a case against nuclear energy. The calculation was achieved by adding together the equivalent gigawatt hours heat and electricity generated under this theoretical scenario, and dividing it by the output of a large nuclear power station. [Report]

But the result is that a headline that bears no relation to the study, and which has been picked up uncritically by many others:

Home-made’ energy will match output of five nuclear plants.

An injection of 21 billion pounds ($41.22 billion) over the period could see nine times as many installations in place by the same time and generating as much power as five nuclear power stations, the independent report said.

A report backed by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has claimed that microgeneration could prevent the need for new nuclear power stations if enough people adopt the technology.

The study, which was compiled for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, found that technology such as solar panels and wind turbines on buildings could produce as much energy a year as five nuclear power stations.

The report concludes that microgeneration through the likes of solar panels or mini-wind turbines for homes could produce enough energy by 2020 to generate as much output as five nuclear power stations.

Microgeneration could rival nuclear power, report shows

Would 9 million microgneration installations, which would cost upwards of £21billion for 1% of our energy needs, even be equivalent to 5 nuclear power stations?

No. for a start, 9 million microgenerators would require millions of man-hours of maintainence a year. The Independent continues,

Even more embarrassingly for the embattled Mr Brown, the report closely mirrors policies announced by the Conservative Party six months ago to start “a decentralised energy revolution” by “enabling every small business, every local school, every local hospital, and every household in the country to generate electricity”.

Here is the Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, announcing that ‘decentralised energy revolution’.

But when was a ‘revolution’ ever about a mere 1% of our energy needs being met at an astronomical cost of £21 billion? What kind of ‘revolution’ is it, where instead of centralised power, we rely increasingly on what comes our way ‘naturally’? That’s only a revolution in the sense of going full circle and ending up where you started.

Speaking of which… In the same edition of the Independent On Sunday, in a story about the discovery of a previously isolated tribe, the headline told us:

Road to oblivion: new highway poses threat to Brazil’s uncontacted tribespeople

The article carried a picture of two, painted members of the tribe, attempting to fire arrows into the aircraft of the photographer. The caption warned that

…tribes face danger from ‘civilisation’.

Notice the scarequotes.

The Independent – and perhaps many others – have forgotten that civilisation is all about roads and centralised power generation. They free up our time, and allow society to become more sophisticated. They create the possibility of liberation from mundane existences, scraping a living from what nature provides. Yet the fashionable desire for off-grid living supposes that it is more rewarding, or more ‘ethical’ – to live as primitive, isolated an existence as possible. Both the romantic fantasy that the Independent routinely concocts out of primitivism, and the nightmare it constructs out of mis-interpreted press releases are fictions. If this fiction remains unchallenged, going off-grid will represent not a neat, efficient idea, but the first steps back into basic lifestyles and lowered horizons. What the Independent seems to want is an endarkenment.

Imminent Shortage of Stories for "New" Scientist

(Or “Global Production of Alarmist Story-Lines Past Peak” or “Gloom-Mine Reserves Increasing According to Demand” or “New Scientist in Search of Renewable Sources Of Gloomy Stories” or [INSERT OWN HEADLINE HERE])

An editorial in last week’s (19 Jan) New Scientist magazine claims that “there is a case for nuclear power, but the future is with renewables”. Gone are the days of scientific optimism. The new scientists are now pessimists. The editorial concludes, following some seemingly intractable political problems with nuclear energy that “… don’t let’s delude ourselves that [nuclear power] still has a long-term role to play”.

This miserable theme is continued on page 38 by David Strahan in his article The Great Coal Hole (available in full here), in which he reports that the world is facing an imminent shortage of coal. “And not only because of logistics”, warns Strahan, “but also because of geology”. This runs counter to many previously held studies which have attempted to estimate how much black stuff we have left. One 1996 study even suggested that there may be as much as 7.8E12 tonnes (7,800,000,000,000) of coal – enough for around 1200 years at today’s rate of consumption.

According to the article, however, even the World Energy Council’s far more conservative 2007 estimate of 847 billion tonnes of known coal reserves world-wide (enough for 140 years at present consumption) may be vastly over-inflated. Known reserves of economically recoverable coal are actually shrinking faster than coal is being consumed, says Strahan.

Another less noticed reason is that in recent years many countries have revised their official coal reserves downwards, in some cases massively, and often by far more than had been mined since the previous assessment. For instance, the UK and Germany have cut their reserves by more than 90 per cent and Poland by 50 per cent … Figures for two of the world’s biggest coal producers are particularly hard to glean. Russia has failed to update its numbers since 1996, China since 1990. “There is really nothing very certain or clear-cut about reserves figures anywhere,” Clarke says. Even senior officials in the coal industry admit that the figures are unreliable. “We don’t have good reserves numbers in the coal business,” says David Brewer of CoalPro, the UK mine owners’ association.

A more sobre analysis of Britain’s coal situation, from 1993, is available from the New Scientist’s own archive. It reveals that the true size of the UK’s coal reserves has never been certain.

The nature of the real problem is well illustrated by the deceptively simple question of ‘How much coal is there in Britain?’ A great variety of answers has been provided over the years. A report of a Royal Commission in 1871 estimated the figure to be 149 billion tonnes. Reserve figures based on coal workable for the following hundred years were estimated in 1942 at 21 billion tonnes. In 1973, ‘operating reserves’ were estimated at 4 billion tonnes and in 1979 to be about 7 billion tonnes. Also in 1979, British Coal estimated ‘coal in place’ at 190 billion tonnes, of which about 45 billion tonnes might eventually be shown to be a reserve, a figure that has been taken to indicate that there is enough coal for the next 300 years at the prevailing rate of mining. Recently the British Geological Survey has suggested that the true operating reserves may be as little as 3 billion tonnes. So, over the years we have seen an extraordinary range of figures for Britain’s coal reserve/resource.

Evidence from the Coal Authority to a 2001 House of Lords Select committee suggested that the UK had even less coal.

The CA has consulted with the British coal industry and have advised the Cabinet Office Energy Review that estimated established reserves amount to 222 million tonnes with a further known potential of 380 million tonnes; in addition currently un-accessed deep mine and open cast resources potentially (see para 11 below) provide many years of future production at present levels. 

These increasingly conservative figures appear to support Strahan’s thesis, albeit while detracting from its newsworthiness. But, as the evidence points out:

Section 5(6)(b) of the Coal Industry Act 1994 specifically prevents the CA from exploring for new coal or proving known occurrences. It is also barred from obtaining planning permission or any other authorisations required for carrying on coal mining operations. In today’s circumstances, this prevents an overall approach being adopted in the public interest. Equally important, known reserves of coal are universally in danger of being sterilised by non coal related surface developments. There is little, if any, effective planning policy to prevent the sterilisation of coal which may be required for working in the future. Unlike the situation with aggregates for example, there is no land banking policy for opencast coal embedded in the formalities of the Town and Country Planning system. Even if Britain’s considerable opencast and deep mine coal resources are not to be extensively worked under the existing planning regime, it is important that they should be kept available to facilitate any future change in policy which might favour their exploitation. 

Uncertainty remains, even in the UK – a small island, one of the richest countries in the world, and one of the most comprehensively surveyed, by some of the keenest geologists and geographers. Nonetheless, the gloominess in the New Scientist continues…

Taken together, dramatic falls in some countries’ reserves coupled with the stubborn refusal of others to revise their figures down in the face of massive production suggest that figures for global coal reserves figures are not to be relied on. Is it possible that the sturdy pit prop of unlimited coal is actually a flimsy stick?

This seems to imply that something nefarious is going on. This “stubborn refusal” is presented as though it were a deliberate attempt to deceive, when in fact, as is clear, the truth is that there are no such data, even for the UK. How can we expect it to exist in Russia, and China, given their comparatively vast sizes, and arguably more limited human resources? The article goes on to explain that we know that coal is running out – in geological terms – in spite of the conspiracy to keep us misinformed, because price increases would have the effect of increasing known reserves, as geological reserves became economically viable.

Problem is, the real world seems to have forgotten this piece of economic lore. Although the price of coal has quintupled since 2002, reserves have still fallen. This is similar to what is happening with oil, where fresh reserves have not been forthcoming despite soaring prices. To a growing number of oil industry commentators this is because
we have reached, or are just about to reach, peak oil – the point at which oil production hits an all time high then goes into terminal decline.
 

That is to say that we know that prices have risen, and reported reserves have fallen, indicating that prices are rising because of depletion, not confounding economic factors. But Strahan has already explained that reserve reporting is unreliable. Now that they are being downgraded, he seems sufficiently confident in them to make some alarmist statements.

Yet we know that the downgrading of reserves has political causes. For example, one reason for the UK downsizing its reserves might just be because of Britain’s recent history. Coal mines in the UK were shut down amid a historic dispute between the Government and miners, and the declining cost of importing coal from elsewhere against the rising costs of domestic production, not because Britain had run out of coal. In the case of oil, the rising price has much to do with uncertainties caused post-9/11 and by the War in Iraq and tensions in the Middle East. Reluctance to invest in exploiting new reserves might reflect the fact that global economic forecasts are currently as gloomy as the New Scientist. With economic downturn comes a reduction in demand. Who would invest in bringing new sources online in the face of economic uncertainty? Furthermore, it is not true that known geological reserves can switch on and off according to the price. Mining is an expensive business, even more so when mistakes are made.

As the 1993 article tells us, in the wake of two economic recessions:

But recent years have seen the opposite trend, with a progressive decrease in the price of most fossil fuels. Variations in the price of a barrel of oil have resulted in oilfields being brought into production or ‘mothballed’ as the price has gone up, or down. In the short term, price variations of a commodity have little to do with available resources or reserves and everything to do with Gulf crises, new environmental legislation, the state of the economy or perceptions within the commodity market. In the longer term, however, the price must be related to the availability of resources and reserves and the ease and relative potential cost of transferring estimates from the resource category to the reserve category. 

ie, politics not geology. But what is behind this idea that the super-abundance of coal is a fragile illusion, and that the truth is in just two decades we will run out? The first thing is a need to create stories about the future. This is no bad thing in itself. After all, the good news that we’ve got a millennium of coal left is as uplifting as the news that we’ve only got two decades left is depressing. But Strahan does not report about new research about the actual, physical amount of coal in the ground, but a fairly old and clunky way of divining that same data from proxies. In the process he forgets that both the downgrading of reserves and the current high price of energy can be explained by political forces rather than geological ones. Downgrading merely reflects a lack of any meaningful data, and the peculiarities of geopolitics and the market explain high prices. Second, the bigger storyline is the New Scientist’s editorial agenda, which seems bent on pursuing alarmism, and taking environmentalist political positions on matters which it really ought to be shedding light on. Strahan’s thesis also relies on the (controversial) work of M. King Hubbert:

To forecast coal production Rutledge borrowed a statistical technique developed for oil forecasting known as Hubbert linearisation. M. King Hubbert, after whom the method is named, was a the Shell geologist who founded the peak oil school of thought. In 1956 Hubbert famously predicted that US oil production would peak within 15 years and go into terminal decline. He was vindicated in 1970. 

So what’s the truth? How much coal is there really left? Probably somewhere between the highest and the lowest estimate. Which still gives us good time for finding out how much is left, and developing alternatives. Hubbert said some interesting things about those, too:

… it appears that there exist within minable depths in the United States rocks with uranium contents equivalent to 1000 barrels or more of oil per metric ton, whose total energy content is probably several hundred times that of all the fossil fuels combined. The same appears to be true of many other parts of the world. Consequently, the world appears to be on the threshold of an era which in terms of energy consumption will be at least an order of magnitude greater than that made possible by the fossil fuels. 

Not if the “new” scientists have their way, it isn’t. But even Strahan and New Scientist can’t help looking on the bright side, just a little bit:

The sliver lining to this gloomy scenario is its effect on climate. Forecasts by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assume more or less infinite replenishment of coal reserves, in line with traditional economic theory. Less coal means less carbon dioxide, so the impact on emissions could be enormous. Using one of the IPCC’s simpler climate models, Rutledge forecasts that total CO2 emissions from fossil fuel will be lower than any of the IPCC scenarios. He found that atmospheric concentration of CO2 will peak in 2070 at 460 parts per million, fractionally above what many scientists believe is the threshold for runaway climate change. “In some sense this is good news,” Rutledge says. “Production limits mean we are likely to hit the general target without any policy intervention.” 

Hurrah for not having enough energy.

The Treachery of Speeches

Surrealist politics from UK Conservative Party leader David Cameron:

The issue we’re discussing today, and the subject of the policy document we’re publishing, is decentralised energy – again an issue on which Greenpeace has a distinguished campaigning track record. 

But decentralised energy is just one component of a much bigger issue: man-made climate change and our response to it.

And our plans for a decentralised energy revolution in our country are just one component of our vision for Britain’s future.

So before outlining the plans we’re publishing today, I’d like to place them in the context of the big picture: our vision for the country, and the fight against climate change…

Decentralised energy provides a clear example of how this virtuous circle can work.

By enabling people to generate their own electricity, we are literally giving them more power over their own lives.

This really is power to the people.

Once people start generating their own electricity, they will become far more conscious of the way in which they use it – they will become more responsible about energy use and their own environmental impact.

And the overall effect of these changes will be to make Britain greener – to help reduce our carbon emissions and thereby contribute to a safer country and a safer world…

Our plans will help create a mass market for micro-generation.

The current framework inhibits innovation.

Today, anyone wanting government help to install micro-generators has to grapple with pages of regulations.

We need clear and simple rules to make it easier for households to generate electricity.

Supermarkets and other commercial enterprises with premises could also become generators and suppliers.

Schools, hospitals and community groups too.

This is not a pipe dream: it is tomorrow’s world.

Speaking of pipe dreams,

Magritte’s apparent contradiction in “The Treachery of Images” is not a contradiction if we take the view that the image is just an image, not the object it represents. Magritte’s pictures depicted ‘juxtaposed’ objects and statements in reality-defying configurations to reveal the superior reality of forgotten or repressed thoughts, unconstrained by the tyranny of false reason and morality. Cameron’s approach to policy making is little different, albeit unintentional. Indeed, it is not a pipe dream, because Cameron was not smoking a pipe as he uttered the words. He delivered the speech (we must assume) sober, sane, and after having thought about it. That makes it much, much worse. He was, nonetheless, as high as a bat on something which caused him to believe that the reality which governs power generation, distribution and use is somehow negotiable. As even George Monbiot observes, “Small Is Useless“:

Last year, the environmental architect Bill Dunster, who designed the famous BedZed zero-carbon development outside London, published a brochure claiming that “up to half of your annual electric needs can be met by a near silent micro wind turbine”. The turbine he specified has a diameter of 1.75 metres. A few months later Building for a Future magazine, which supports renewable energy, published an analysis of micro wind machines. At 4 metres per second – a high average wind speed for most parts of the UK – a 1.75 metre turbine produces about 5% of a household’s annual electricity. To provide the 50% Bill Dunster advertises, you would need a machine 4 metres in diameter. The lateral thrust it exerted would rip your house to bits. 

Micro-generation cannot produce the energy demands of even the most basic of contemporary lifestyles, let alone feed electricity into the grid. Cameron is running with this policy because he is more interested in demonstrating that he’s in tune with the anxieties that people suffer in today’s chaotic world than in developing an energy policy fit for the 21st century. In this way, he is more like an artist seeking to prove that he has captured an understanding of contemporary experience than he is a politician. And he’s not even any good at that. Because people are actually far more discriminating and sophisticated than Cameron, his new friends Greenpeace, and for that matter everyone else on the green bandwagon, give them credit for. Which is why they end up trying to make environmentalism cool rather than persuading us with careful argument. A case in point (and continuing with the pipes theme) is Greenpeace’s viral marketing campaign that they like to think will convince ‘lads’ (UK vernacular for young men whose thoughts are dominated by beer, football, scantily-clad women, and disregard for seriousness) to reduce their CO2 emissions:

Greenpeace and Cameron may not wish to claim that the sun shines out of their back pipes, but that doesn’t stop them speaking out of them. In fact, Cameron is the arse through which Greenpeace speak.

Monbiot's Partial Epiphany

George Monbiot took us by surprise last week. Reflecting on the housing problems facing many people in the UK, George appears to have realised that putting the environment first can be bad for humans, and that that is a bad thing.

Is the housing crisis as acute as some people have claimed? Or has it been whipped up by the House Builders’ Federation, hoping to get their claws into the countryside? To find out whether these homes are really needed, I asked the charity Shelter to take me to meet some of the people it works with in London. I had no idea. I simply had no idea.

Credit where credit is due, George has finally grasped the fact that human and environmental interests are at odds with one another, and that the consequences of putting humans second are squalor and misery.

I find myself, to my intense discomfort, supporting the preposterous housing target. There’s a legitimate debate to be had about where and how these homes are built. But – though it hooks in my green guts to admit it – built they must be.

The problem is that in order for Monbiot to do the moral arithmetic, he needs a crisis. In this way, environmentalism will defeat itself… We know that Monbiot isn’t in favour of localised power generation. We know that he is not in favour of biofuels. We know that he is not in favour of atomic power. And we certainly know that Monbiot is not in favour of fossil fuel use. This doesn’t leave us humans many options. We’ll have a real crisis on our hands – an energy crisis, which will certainly produce the squalor and misery and worse that will make the housing situation look like a picnic, and at which point, naturally, we’ll have to put our own interests first.

It is true that much more could be done to mobilise empty houses, help elderly people to move into smaller flats and stamp out Britain’s ugliest inequality: second homes.

But there is another way to look at the problems Monbiot imagines, without crisis. What if it is a moral good – rather than a necessary evil – to build houses? What if it is a moral good to build sufficient houses for everybody so that there are plenty, even if people want two houses? What if it is a moral good to have cheap, abundant energy? Don’t expect George to come round to that one quite so easily. Because if you can only see the future as a series of crises, then you cannot imagine the world ever being a good place.