fossil fuels

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We need to use less fossil gas rather than increase supply: demand-side answers for gas regulators

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 01/10/2020 - 3:00am in

Gas-industry lobbyists are pushing hard for politicians and policy makers to open up more fossil gas supply. This push needs to be resisted strongly. As I’ve previously argued, fossil gas is way more polluting than the gas industry would have us believe. It is as dirty as coal, once methane emissions are taken into account. Moreover, it is outmoded and more expensive than renewable energy. Australia has feasible options for a rapid transition to renewables in order to meet and go beyond our Paris targets. Reducing gas use is critical to climate emergency planning.

The regulators

After the state-based gas transmission and distribution systems were privatised in the 1990s, responsibility  shifted to national authorities. They have shown no interest in managing demand for fossil gas, in response to climate change or for any other reason. If anything, they have sought to expand the industry.

The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) operates the system. AEMO’s 2020 Gas Statement of Opportunities is focused on markets, and supply solutions. The major sections in the report cover consumption forecasts, gas supply and infrastructure, supply–demand balance, increasing uncertainty, and the evolution of the gas industry. The report does not focus at all on the economic alternatives to fossil gas that are available today.

AEMO’s Victorian Gas Planning Report Updates focus heavily on augmenting supply, storage and transmission to avoid shortfalls, running to twenty-nine pages in 2018. The quantity of gas demanded each year receives much less discussion:  five to six pages in 2018. Economic opportunities to reduce fossil gas use are not investigated in the updates for 2018, 2019 or 2020.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has also essentially ignored demand management. In 2015 it held one inquiry into the east coast gas market, and then in 2017 began another, which is continuing. The ACCC has identified many market failures, and has recommended many actions to the government about the gas market. All its focus is on the supply side, while no attention is given to the potential to reduce demand.

Other key bodies with gas-market responsibilities include the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC), the Australian Energy Regulator and the Energy Security Board (ESB).

The AEMC sets the overarching rules for energy markets, following objectives set out in national law. The national energy objectives are broadly the same for gas and electricity. . The National Gas Objective is:

to promote efficient investment in, and efficient operation and use of, natural gas services for the long term interests of consumers of natural gas with respect to price, quality, safety, reliability and security of supply of natural gas.

The long-term interests of consumers are paramount. This is repeatedly emphasised by the AEMC in its 2019 document Applying the Energy Market Objectives. There is clearly scope to address demand management. The AEMC guidelines deserve close consideration. The AEMC also advises government on the implications of broader policy changes, including those relating to climate.

Demand management for electricity

After many years of ignoring it, energy regulators are tuning into the possibilities of demand management for electricity. These same bodies regulate gas.

With electricity, the national regulators are playing catch-up given the rapid expansion of renewables and battery storage. Demand management is seen as a tool for regulators  having to manage centrally produced energy, battery and hydro storage, and distributed wind and solar energy sources.

As of 2020, wholesalers can buy electricity in five-minute units, which will prevent price gouging by fossil-fuel generators and allow renewables to be more competitive. In its 2020 Integrated System Plan, AEMO also expects demand to become increasingly controllable as battery storage and charging of electric vehicles come on stream. Behind-the-meter management will allow supply to be finely tuned to the needs of households. In its 2019 assessment of international energy systems, AEMO envisages that the demand side offers ‘huge potential to increase system flexibility’.

Coal use for electricity has been in the spotlight for many years, and has been the primary focus for the climate movement. Fossil gas has largely escaped scrutiny until recently, and its alternatives have received little attention. Pressure will mount on the regulators to act on the demand side for gas, instead of simply calling for expansion of supply.

Reducing demand

There is mounting evidence of feasible steps that can reduce demand. Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), ClimateWorks and most recently Environment Victoria have produced highly relevant reports. Government policy makers and regulators have no excuse for continuing to ignore demand-side management.

In its report for Environment Victoria, consultancy firm Northmore Gordon (2020) identifies measures that can reduce demand in Victoria by approximately 100 petajoules (PJ) or more over ten years. It criticises AEMO forecasts, which are for a much smaller reduction. Across key sectors and in a 10-year period, annual demand could fall by these amounts or more:

  • residential           73.5 PJ
  • commercial         7.75 PJ
  • industrial             17.1 PJ

Residential demand is obviously the most critical. Key measures include replacing ageing ducted-gas space heating (48 PJ saving), using existing reverse-cycle air conditioners for winter heating as well as summer cooling (5-15 PJ saving), and using heat pumps instead of fossil gas for hot water (10 PJ saving). Improving building insulation also offers potential savings of over 10 PJ, though this saving is not strictly additional to the above savings.

The potential for gas savings is reinforced by research conducted by BZE in its 2013 Buildings Plan and its 2020 Million Jobs Plan. The latter proposes 500,000 deep energy retrofits for homes each year for five years; 12,000 people alone would be employed replacing gas heating equipment with electrical alternatives, while 50,000 would be employed in improving the thermal efficiency of dwellings. Each renovation would cost $25,000 on average and would be paid off under Managed Energy Services Agreements. Such agreements are increasingly common for businesses, but they require government backing.

These proposals make sense for the household when over a lifetime the costs of using renewable energy are lower than for fossil gas. Key barriers are the capital cost, the effort required to search out the best solutions, and lack of preparedness ahead of gas appliances breaking down.

Community groups are leading the way in providing information to households about reducing fossil gas consumption. They include the My Efficient Electric Home Facebook group, RENEW, the Australian Energy Foundation, Environment Victoria and many more.

Peak demand

Peak demand is not an issue. During very cold days and nights in winter, gas demand peaks in the southern states and the ACT as households and businesses turn on their gas-run space heaters.

Peak demand for gas is only on some days, in some seasons, and in some regions. These peak periods are manageable with a concerted focus on reducing demand and providing alternatives to fossil gas.

During scorching summer days and nights, air conditioners drain electricity from the system. Gas-powered generators have been used to fill some of the gap. However, this is totally unnecessary. Hydro power and batteries can meet this need, along with behind-the-meter demand management. Moreover, as Ross Garnaut points out, gas companies have profited enormously, with the price of gas at peak times setting the price for all electricity.

Making the argument

Gas is managed in fundamentally different ways to coal, being delivered to millions of households and businesses, where it is used on-site to produce energy. The regulators may well argue that the demand-related instruments that they are beginning to apply to electricity markets are not relevant to gas, and that there are no other mechanisms within their powers.

If so, let the regulators argue for governments to act in other ways to reduce gas use. The Reserve Bank of Australia emphasises the need for governments to use fiscal policy to address Australia’s economic situation (there are over 2000 search results on its website). The gas regulators can and should make a similar case publicly, and repeatedly. Whether or not the regulators can act to reduce gas use will then be open to scrutiny and possible challenge.

Finally, our aim should be to reduce overall energy use, whether gas or electricity, as rapidly as possible. The imperative to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions means that renewables will play a much bigger role if overall energy use is declining rather than increasing. From this perspective, we can question if the energy regulators are capable of stepping into this space. Perhaps even more changes should be on the table: rewriting the national energy laws, restructuring energy regulation, ending the fixation with solutions to market failure that repeatedly do not work, and even returning to nationalised energy systems.

Conclusion

Demand management of fossil gas has huge potential for win-win gains in reducing greenhouse emissions, lowering energy bills and saving investment funds for other purposes.

Demand management is relatively cost-free, will be publicly acceptable and should be pursued with urgency. There are many measures that governments can take to get households and businesses off fossil gas. A gas-led recovery is a furphy. Fossil gas is not needed as a transition fuel. Fossil gas is not needed to meet peak demand, for either cooling in summer or space heating in winter.

The southern states do not need more fossil gas. Energy needs can be met with existing resources, if smart demand-side tools are employed. Corporations should not be allowed to build new infrastructure to explore, process, store and transport fossil gas. More exploration onshore or offshore is not necessary.

Corporate expenditure on fossil gas and, more importantly, support from governments are a diversion of funds. During and after the COVID-19 pandemic, all public and private resources should be mobilised around the many gaps in public infrastructure, education and other services that are being identified.

Trump’s Climate Change Record Is a Threat to the Planet

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 12/09/2020 - 8:22am in

Now seems like a good time for a reminder that the official Republican Party platform for 2020 — recycled from 2016 — barely mentions climate change, except to say that market forces and innovations will solve it. In a bulleted … Continue reading

The post Trump’s Climate Change Record Is a Threat to the Planet appeared first on BillMoyers.com.

The Steady Stater Stance on Renewable Energy: A Clarification

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 03/06/2020 - 2:14am in

By Brian Czech

Ever since my review of Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans, some misunderstandings have come to light about the stance of myself, and by extension CASSE, on renewable energy. One such misunderstanding—spread far and wide—is that we are “against renewables.” A clarification is definitely in order.

CASSE and steady staters at large are all for renewable energy. Of course! Along with the steady state economy as the sustainable alternative to growth, renewable energy is the sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. What we oppose is the fallacious notion of “green growth” that has come to dominate pro-renewable political discourse. We also oppose the wholesale, automatic acceptance of any and every wind and solar project; not everything touted as “green” turns out to be ecologically economic. Along those lines, we certainly don’t support the liquidation of biomass stocks that otherwise provided crucial ecosystem services.

We also suggest putting the political horse before the technological cart. As I, Herman Daly, and Bill Rees have each pointed out independently, a sustainable shift to renewables must follow a conscious, intentional adoption of the steady state economy (entailing a phase of de-growth) as a policy goal. Otherwise, with the goal of economic growth ruling the policy arena, renewables and nuclear plants will be used to supplement rather than replace fossil fuels, and the resulting amount of destructive economic activity will only increase. Adding insult to injury, not only will the destruction on the ground increase, but greenhouse gas emissions as well!

renewable energy and nuclear power plant

As long as GDP growth is the goal, renewable energy will add to—not replace—fossil and nuclear plants. (Image: CC0, Source)

That said, a certain amount of respect is due those who are so passionate to save the planet that they’ll do just about anything, as soon as possible, for a transition to renewables. As with passionate people in other walks of life, they can be obsessive and zealous. It’s hard to blame them, because climate change is a current psychological threat as well as a mounting existential one. They lose sleep at night (well-documented especially in children) and develop ulcers over the relentless forcing of greenhouse gases into the precious atmosphere of our common home. They are ready to go to verbal war (and maybe more) with anyone who detracts—or who they think detracts—from the transition to renewable energy. They are in some ways heroic and tragic figures, as haunted by the fossil-fueled world as steady staters are by the pro-growth world.

Furthermore, some are doubly haunted. That is, they fully acknowledge the need for a steady state economy as well as renewable energy. Yet, not abiding the wisdom of Daly that “sequence matters,” their days are spent not in advancing the steady state economy but rather in developing renewable energy technology, designing renewable energy projects, or pushing politically for renewable energy. Maybe they hope that others will prevail in advancing the steady state economy, such that solar and wind actually replace rather than supplement fossil fuels.

The decision for any one person or organization about what to prioritize—advancing the steady state economy or advancing renewables—entails a number of factors. One such factor is the technical background of the individual. All else equal, someone whose expertise is primarily in renewable energy is better suited to advancing renewables. If the background is in ecological economics, then advancing the steady state economy is a better fit.

Another factor is age. A young renewable energy scholar who concludes that advancing the steady state economy is the first order of business may find it feasible to steer further academic and professional development toward advancing the steady state economy. An elder statesman of renewable energy may not.

As other factors come into play, almost all steady staters conduct a mix of advancing the steady state economy and renewable energy, but with a decided emphasis on the former. Indeed, it would seem to be the emphasis on advancing the steady state economy that makes one a “steady stater.”

Aside from one’s expertise and age, two other prioritization factors warrant a closer look. One is the marginal benefit of “steady statesmanship” vs. renewable energy action. Which offers the biggest bang for the buck? Another is an overlooked ecological footprint; we’ll follow it among the technological trees while remaining cognizant of the sustainability forest.

Biggest Bang for the Buck

How many people and organizations support renewable energy? Could we even stop counting? We could go on and on, starting with steady staters and moving into ever-widening circles of sustainability scholars, environmental activists, professional scientific societies, little environmental NGOs, big NGOs, and even many corporations, utilities, and politicians. Most importantly, it includes a substantial share of the general public, and even most nations!

Now, how many people and organizations support the steady state economy? Again we can start with the steady staters. Next, we can include a fair number of sustainability scholars and environmental activists, plus a tiny number of environmental NGOs and a handful of professional scientific societies. That’s about where it stops. So far we haven’t been able to get a Pew researcher, much less a Roper poll-taker, even interested in the steady state economy, so we have only a vague idea what the general public thinks. This is one of the main reasons we strive to obtain signatures on the CASSE position on economic growth; to demonstrate public support for the steady state economy, empowering NGOs to tell it like it is about limits to growth, and empowering politicians to support steady-state policies such as the Full Seas Act. While the current number of almost 15,000 signatories is nothing to sneeze at (especially given such notable signatories) it must be millions if not billions less than the number of people who support renewable energy.

So, if you are a student, scholar, activist, or philanthropist wondering which activity—advancing the steady state economy or promoting renewable energy—needs more help and offers a higher marginal benefit from your studies, scholarship, action, or philanthropy, consider the proportions above. Unless you believe in “green growth,” it should be more obvious by the GDP-bloated day that the bigger bang for the sustainability buck comes from advancing the steady state economy.

Technological Progress: The Forgotten Footprint

There is room for disagreement about how much additional, destructive GDP will transpire as renewable energy is added to the mix of fossil, nuclear, and (semi-renewable) hydrological sources. Clearly there will be additional destruction as long as GDP growth is the overriding domestic policy goal, but the destruction can be lessened to the extent that steady statesmanship prevails. Moderate success in steady statesmanship reduces the GDP growth rate. Full success is when the steady state economy is recognized as an a priori goal and deliberately accomplished with effective policies. With fully successful steady statesmanship, the ecological footprint from renewable energy may be offset by a reduced footprint from non-renewable energy. How will this happen, though, if advancing the steady state economy is the exercise of such a small minority?

Meanwhile, arriving at ever-higher proportions of renewable (as opposed to fossil) energy entails its own ecological footprint. This is an ecological footprint quite beyond that of the activities fueled by renewable energy. For starters, we have the obvious ecological and economic costs of retrofitting the fossil-fueled grid and the energy system at large. These costs includes the surveying, excavation, construction, and circuitry entailed in the development of wind and solar harvesting and delivery facilities. It also refers to the demolition of fossil-fueled plant and infrastructure, plus the disposal and replacement of fossil-fueled implements and appliances en masse. For example, approximately 40% of American homes have gas stoves, which means about 50 million stoves must be replaced or retrofitted in the USA alone to convert (on a one-to-one service basis) from fossil-fueled power to renewables.

Now let’s dig a level deeper. What about all the analyses, presentations, meetings, conferences, slideshows, websites, videos, magazines, community relations campaigns, planning, lobbying, negotiations, settlements, legislation, subsidies, loan assistance, bureaucratic reorganization, personnel management, tax reforms, and regulations that have been and must be devised and performed for purposes of moving the energy system toward renewables? These were, are, and by no means will be cheap. We might loosely call these “transaction costs.” Don’t take the wrong point from this; the transaction costs might be worth it, especially if the transactions are actually effective. The point, however, is that resources are required—energy and other natural resources—to fund all the transactive activity, because in our triangular economy money originates as a function of the agricultural and extractive surplus that frees the hands for the division of labor, all the way to presenting, meeting, conferencing, etc.

Every single expenditure, in other words, takes an ecological footprint. No such footprint can be overlooked if we want a thorough understanding of sustainability. This is why we consistently point out at CASSE that GDP is the single best indicator of environmental impact in the aggregate. Expenditure entails environmental impact. That’s Ecological Macroeconomics 101, trophic levels and all.

So, let’s go to a deeper level still. No one woke up one morning decades ago and said, “Let’s replace the fossil-fueled system with solar and wind. We already have all the technology to do it.” Instead—and as part of a bloating GDP—vast amounts of research and development had to be conducted in order to arrive at a point whereby wind and solar technology was capable of significant coverage of our energy needs, such as in oft-cited Germany. Vast amounts more are required to accomplish full powering of national and global economies, assuming that is even possible. “Full powering” means not just the electricity grid but transportation (including the manufacturing of the fleet), off-grid building management, and what Jeffrey Sachs calls the “hard sectors” such as aviation, ocean shipping, steelmaking, cement, and petrochemicals.

For almost a decade now, global investment in renewable energy has exceeded $200 billion annually; it now approaches $300 billion! This is higher than the GDPs of Greece, Iraq, or most African countries combined. In fact, less than a quarter of all nations on the planet have the dubious distinction of “achieving” the $300 billion level—and many will drop below it post-COVID.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory.jpg

National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden, CO. Excavation of the site is an obvious footprint. But what about the forgotten footprint? That is, how much agricultural and extractive surplus was required at the trophic base of the economy to generate the money required for planning, excavation, and construction? How much more agricultural and extractive activity is required on an ongoing basis to generate the money for conducting the research programs managed therein? (Credit: CC0, Image: Dennis Schroeder)

Now, much of the renewable energy technology availed to us via already-conducted R&D should of course be employed, especially if replacing fossil fuel plant and infrastructure. The ecological footprint of the R&D expenditure has already transpired. Why let it go to waste, assuming the transaction costs are not prohibitively destructive. But does anyone think that moving from, say, 40 percent renewable energy to 80 percent will be as easy as the original 40 percent? Not me. I expect diminishing returns to scale as the lowest-hanging thermodynamic fruits (such as Sonoran Desert sunlight) are picked and siting becomes ever more competitive—and ever more biodiversity-busting—in a bloated global economy. Therefore, I expect the R&D needs to increase substantially, and I’m not alone in this opinion. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IREA) says we need “accelerating research for a low-carbon future.”

On several major fronts, we’re nowhere near any kind of renewable solution. As the IREA describes, “For one-third of the world’s anticipated energy use in the coming 20-25 years, no practical decarbonisation solutions exist today. Nearly all of this relates to energy demand for end uses, such as buildings, heat and transport.” They conclude that R&D “needs to happen faster to make renewable solutions viable in these areas.” Not that they think we are out of the woods already with wind and solar technology for the grid, either. “The share of wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) in power systems can increase significantly to cover half of all generation by 2050. Effective integration of these variable sources will depend on accelerated innovation.” For additional insights on the extent, complexity, and expense of renewable energy R&D, check out what the US Department of Energy is up to, including a coupling of nuclear power to wind and solar in the name of “clean energy.”

I also expect the transaction costs to mount as the efforts required for full transition become more apparent to consumers, rate payers, utilities, and politicians. While I find it hard to appreciate pro-growth analyses that fail to acknowledge the profound perils of climate change, some are proficient at pointing out the conventional costs, at least, of transition to renewable energy. Note that they’re not even addressing the ecological costs of generating and expending money on R&D and transactive struggles.

So, when we recognize the ecological footprint of expenditure, we see renewable energy transition in a whole new light. It’s as if we were tracking in the forest, looking for “unsustainability varmints.” While we saw the typical tracks of well-known varmints such as fossil fuels, plastics, and Roundup, one ecological footprint was hard to spot; that is, the footprint of renewable energy transition. Now that we see it in light of the environmental impact of generating money to invest or in any way expend, the ecological footprint seems quite big! In fact, it’s been a bit like running into a dinosaur track. We didn’t see it because we weren’t looking for an outline so large, but there it is for the tracking.

What’s Next?

At the end of the day, those who are passionate about promoting renewable energy—especially those with expertise in the subject and a little late in the game for re-tooling a career—will continue emphasizing renewable energy. Hopefully more of them will start explicitly acknowledging the need for a steady state economy as well.

Degrowth protest

Renewable energy is an important alternative to fossil fuels. But if we are to establish renewable energy as a solution, then we must also pursue a steady state economy through degrowth. (Image: CC BY-SA 3.0 DE, Credit: Klimagerechtigkeit Leipzig)

That leaves a large number of younger students, scholars, professionals and activists to reconsider, if not their career path, then at least the emphasis of their activism. With a recognition of the prohibitive costs and heavy ecological footprint of a full-fledged transition to renewables, plus the coupling of renewable energy interests with the “green growth” paradigm, they may decide their time is better spent in advancing the steady state economy. Hopefully this personal decision-making is also reflected at the organizational level, starting with the emphases of environmental NGOs and foundations.

Coming full circle, yes, steady staters support renewable energy as the sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. Yet we cannot support the notion of “green growth,” and we’re not even convinced that a full-fledged transition to renewables at the currently sized global economy can be ecologically economic, all ecological footprints considered. On the other hand, we do realize that the fossil-fueled economy at the current level is an existential threat. The common theme here is the “current level” of the economy. The current level just doesn’t allow for sustainable options. Therefore, we conclude that the most salient emphasis to have at this time is the transition from the paradigm of economic growth to that of the steady state economy, via a phase of de-growth.

Brian Czech

Brian Czech is the Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

The post The Steady Stater Stance on Renewable Energy: A Clarification appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.


Fossil Gas Is Explosive, Leaky and Increasingly Dirty

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 02/06/2020 - 5:00am in

In order to limit global warming by 2050 to 1.5 degrees Celsius, IPCC scientists in their consensus report set out four scenarios; in the most ambitious, global use of fossil fuels must fall for coal by 97 per cent, for oil by 87 per cent, and for gas by 74 per cent. The climate crisis demands that emergency plans incorporate rapid reduction in fossil fuels. It is simply mind-boggling that over half the emissions since the Industrial Revolution have been released in the twenty-eight years to 2015.

The world is now awash with fossil gas, commonly known as natural gas. The volume of exports from Australia dwarfs the amount of gas used domestically. Yet our gas industry is premised on growth and continues to explore and open up new gas fields. The major energy corporations, industry associations and some scientists campaign for the use of fossil gas as a green solution until at least 2050. The Morrison government is relentlessly pushing the case, with cavalier disregard for the future of humanity and the planetary systems that we depend on, and is now offering more subsidies to the industry. State governments are reluctant to limit the industry’s expansion, except when under intense political pressure.

Fossil gas is predominantly composed of methane (CH4). Burning it creates carbon dioxide (CO2), resulting in significant emissions at least of half those associated with the burning of black coal. The impact of drilling for fossil gas is however magnified when methane leaks are accounted for. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas with a global-warming potential eighty-four times higher than carbon dioxide over a twenty-year period. This methane escapes very easily into the atmosphere, especially where gas fields are tapped by many wells, as on the Darling Downs in Queensland. Research shows that methane leaks are far more significant than previously claimed by the industry.

Like coal and petroleum, fossil gas was formed deep underground in ancient times when plant and animal matter was subject to great forces of heat and pressure. The fossil gas is now spread out through porous rock, where it stores the energy once given by the sun. Lower-quality reserves of fossil gas are ‘dirtier’ in that they have significant quantities of carbon dioxide in the mix as well as methane. Bass Strait has been the main source of gas in south-eastern Australia; its main reserves are running out, but its lower-quality gas will be processed into the 2030s at a new plant at Longford in Gippsland, and the carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere.

The gas industry has a 2050 vision developed by or for five of the seven associations covering different aspects of the industry. According to this vision, gas is essential to keep energy costs low; gas is needed to balance peak demand and supply of electricity; and gas provides the only pathway to a renewable future.

These arguments are patently weak. Firstly, gas prices aren’t driven by supply; they went ballistic once the international market opened up and set the benchmark price. In 2018, analyst Bruce Robertson explained the role of corporations in the gas industry’s problems:

Australia’s high gas prices are the result of high oil prices and price fixing by a group of producers on the east coast of Australia—Shell, Origin, Santos, BHP and Exxon—which we have no hesitation in calling a cartel. These producers sold out Australia’s domestic supply in 2012 when they locked in 15-year export contracts tying the price of Australian gas to the price of oil. At the time, the price of oil was over US$100 a barrel. But oil prices subsequently fell below US$50 a barrel, and suddenly these gas companies were in a lot of financial trouble.

Secondly, demand is taken as a given, when there are many opportunities for businesses and households to greatly reduce their usage, as Tim Forcey and others argue. The shortages argument is endorsed by the influential Rod Sims, head of the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC), who is trapped in the neoliberal logic of setting rules within which the market operates freely. The market might operate relatively freely when retailers compete to sell gas to the 130,000 businesses and six million households that use it, or when households call around for a plumber to replace a gas hot-water service. The ACCC and the four other ‘managers’ of the electricity and gas systems in Australia struggle to introduce, implement and enforce regulations that limit the power of the big gas companies and monopoly pipeline operators to control supply and prices.

As renewables supply an increasing proportion of electricity, some fossil gas will be needed for some time to help manage peak periods of demand, along with large batteries, ‘spinning machines’ and pumped hydro. But new supplies of gas are not needed. Based on official figures, gas generation of electricity used about 10 per cent of all gas produced in 2017, and even less in 2018. Just 15 per cent of the gas that is currently exported is enough to supply this. Demand management can deal with winter shortages, which are now expected within a few years in Victoria.

Gas-industry players are actively working in every possible way to secure their own commercial advantage as well as the industry’s future. The seven industry associations lobby hard, even on seemingly peripheral issues such as standards for domestic hot-water appliances—they recently ensured that the standards treat gas and electricity neutrally. Many have a foot in the renewables camp, especially in relation to hydrogen as a fuel source. Trials in which small amounts of hydrogen are added to gas mains are under way. Supposedly to help overcome shortages, AGL is proceeding with plans to import gas via a new port and liquification plant in Western Port Bay. Winning the PR war is crucial, hence the sponsorship of sporting clubs, and the funding of buildings and research hubs at Monash University and elsewhere. Not least, of course, the industry’s many lobbyists are skilled at spruiking fossil gas as a transition fuel to politicians, advisers and officials.

Fortunately, the environmental movement is increasingly focused on gas. We won’t win unless the peak groups lead a war of position in the same way as the gas industry is prepared to do—on every conceivable front. The industry’s social license to operate can be challenged if we find collective approaches to ending the continued daily use of gas by millions of households, cafes and other businesses. Surely we can design institutions to help anxious families with a broken gas hot-water service to replace it with an electric one, and go further by installing electric stoves and reverse-cycle heating? Without this, millions of new gas-run hot-water services will be installed across Australia in the next fifteen years as most old ones break down. How about retraining gas-industry workers as green plumbers and electricians to do this work as part of a just transition? We could make great headway by identifying and challenging all the nodes within state institutions and civil society that are geared to supporting the gas industry. Too often the peak environmental groups have only a single focus—for a long time it was the Adani coal mine—perhaps because they are reluctant to embrace the system-wide change we need to stop runaway economic growth. We could link climate action to system change, as in the more radical versions of the Green New Deal that are focused on social rather than technological answers. Such an approach would create openings for the environmental movement to forge stronger connections with the majority of Australians who are deeply concerned for the future of the planet.

Crossroads for Planet of the Humans

By William Rees

 

[Editor’s Note: The Steady State Herald first published a review of Planet of the Humans on May 1. The following review adds valuable information to the dialog.]

“It stands to reason…”

Who hasn’t heard this expression in everyday conversation? Humans tend to think of themselves as rational beings, and many people sincerely believe they are being reasonable all the time.

However, human reason invariably operates in a straitjacket. Even the most elevated of human thought is constrained by life experience and the unquantifiable set of beliefs and values, as well as facts and assumptions, that every individual acquires by growing up in a particular cultural environment. Life experience determines a person’s perception of reality. Unsurprisingly, people are most comfortable when the universe unfolds in harmony with their culturally preset notion of how things ought to be.

Of course, in complex societies there are many potential versions of “truth” on any particular subject. “Reality”—or rather, our socially-constructed perception of reality—comes in many guises.

Herein lies potential chaos. It starts when a line of thought taken for granted by a group of people who share the same cultural narrative is disputed by another group who observe a different set of beliefs, values, and assumptions.

Renewable energy

Politicians, corporations, and big environmental NGOs claim that renewable energy can support the economy. Really? At what level and at what cost? (Image: CC0, Credit: Kenueone)

Consider the dilemma of modernity. Propelled by fossil fuels, our increasingly global techno-industrial (mainly capitalist) society has generated unprecedented material prosperity for hundreds of millions of people. This extraordinary progress leads us to believe an endless energy bounty will support the ten billion humans expected on the planet by mid- to late century. The catch is that this same success is already well on the way to depleting and polluting the seas, denuding the continents of forests, displacing the world’s wildlife, and triggering climate change.

This is not a problem according to the cultural mainstream. Radiating self-confidence and buoyed by unquestioned past material success, the political and corporate leadership seem confident that human ingenuity (our greatest resource) will prevail. They argue that we have already found economically viable renewable substitutes for fossil fuels such as biomass, wind turbines, and solar photo-voltaic arrays. These alternatives should enable economic growth to continue indefinitely, bringing the affluence needed to “fix” the ecosphere. The big environmental NGOs have climbed on board for pushing the techno-fix narrative, and most citizens are only too happy to go along for the business-as-usual ride.

Not everyone is jumping on the pro-growth bandwagon, however. A surge of scientists and citizens has written a competing narrative. This renegade group reasons that wind and solar technologies are quantitatively insufficient to power modern society, contribute to ecological destruction, and are heavily subsidized by fossil fuels and not really renewable. To them, the only reasonable “solution” to the ongoing climate and eco-catastrophe, difficult as it may be to achieve, is adapting to much lower levels of energy and material consumption, sharing existing income/wealth, and learning to live within the biophysical means of nature.

Michael Moore

Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs challenge the notion of “green growth.” (Image: CC BY-SA 2.0, Nicolas Genin)

This new movement has been growing steadily and waiting to catch fire politically. While there has been a deepening discussion about the impacts of the economy on the environment, there has also been a significant lack of media coverage about it. That was, however, until a few weeks ago, when one documentary ignited the argument against economic growth: Planet of the Humans.

The Gibbs/Moore production has ignited a conflagration of competing worldviews unparalleled by any debate about alternative energy sources in the history of the environmental movement. As a human ecologist, I’ll admit up front that I am in the renegade camp, but I am not blinded to certain weaknesses in Gibbs’ take on our dilemma. This film contains many pros and cons when framing the conversation of environmental protection. Let’s explore what Planet provided.

The Underbelly of Environmental Organizations

Planet of the Humans does a great service in eroding faith in renewable energy, particularly the travesty of broad-scale biomass energy. It achieved less than it could in undermining wind and solar power. This is a shame since the loudest screams of “foul” come from wind/solar advocates, and there are plenty of recent analyses and data which the film could have drawn on to cut them off. It’s an ironic weakness, because the films critics are most adamant about how “dated” the wind/solar information is. Yes, it’s dated, but on both sides of the argument about whether wind/solar is capable of replacing fossil fuels at the current size of economy.

The film also succeeds in skewering several environmental organizations and popular heroes in the process. Though it’s difficult to watch the hypocrisy of environmental champions unveiled, investigating into these advocacy groups is important and necessary. For instance, Gibbs reveals the large and mainstream environmental organizations are highly dependent on the corporate sector for their financing, either directly or indirectly. This certainly compromises what they can say about the (corporate) values of society and helps to explain why so many environmental NGOs support capital-intensive (i.e., profit-oriented) approaches to energy supply and climate change—e.g., electric cars, solar photovoltaics, wind turbines, carbon capture and storage, etc. These organizations make us think they are saving the planet by introducing “green” tech; yet they are supporting—and enjoying the support of—the corporate giants that contribute to destroying the earth. Even the Green New Deal is a false-promise approach that suggests all we have to do is invest in techno-fixes to continue on our growth-bound path.

A Better Refute Against Renewables Replacing Fossil Fuels

As noted above, up-to-date data are important, and accurate data even more so. Planet of the Humans relies excessively on old research and off-the-cuff comments from interviewees. Gibbs/Moore could have better supported their case by referencing current issues with “green” technology, including extended net energy analysis from mine-shaft through operation, as well as the decommissioning of commercial wind turbine and solar installations.

Solar panels in Germany

Germany: Powered by renewables? (Image: CC BY-SA 3.0, Andrew Glaser)

However, Gibbs does bring a critical question to light: Are renewables effectively displacing fossil fuels?

Let’s look first at the case of Germany, a leader in green energy investment. According to Clean Energy Wire, while wind and solar make a significant contribution to German electricity production (21 percent and 8 percent respectively) these two sources supply a mere 5 percent of German primary energy consumption (3.5 percent and 1.5 percent, respectively). Biomass—largely green trees as Gibbs pointed out—supplies a full 7.6 percent. Meanwhile, fossil fuels still account for about 78 percent of primary consumption, and carbon emissions have been more or less plateaued for a decade. (Yes, carbon emissions did drop in Germany in 2019, by about 6 percent, but 2019 also marked a sharp slump in German GDP growth, especially in the industrial sector). All this despite hundreds of billions invested in wind and solar energy. Furthermore, keep in mind that wind and solar require full backup power, either domestic or imported. (Note this well: It is a common error to conflate electricity generated with total energy demand/consumption. The former is typically only about 20 percent of the latter.)

Then there’s the global picture to consider. According to BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019, in 2018, fossil fuels supplied 11,743.6 Mtoe (million tonnes of oil equivalent) or 85 percent of the world’s primary energy, while non-hydro renewables (mostly commercial biomass, wind, and solar) contributed only 561.3 Mtoe (4 percent).

Are renewables catching up? While the contribution of non-hydro renewables to global primary consumption has expanded by 437 Mtoe since 2008 (16 percent per year), consumption of fossil fuels increased by about 1,750 Mtoe (about 1.5 percent/yr) in the same period. This marginal increase is over three times the total supplied by non-hydro renewables in 2018. This same year, consumption of non-hydro renewables increased by 71.1 Mtoe (14.5 percent), but fossil fuels were up by 276.3 Mtoe (2.4 percent).

Bottom line? Starting from a much larger base, the pre-pandemic annual absolute growth in fossil fuel production/consumption continues to outpace that of renewables, especially non-hydro-renewables, by a wide margin, despite the higher relative growth rate of renewables. Nothing suggests this will change while economic growth remains the goal, especially since new technology requires economic growth based on current levels of technology.

Bountiful Energy Could Do More Harm Than Good

Gibbs underplays (and the subsequent criticism I have seen entirely misses) a critical point: Even if renewables were “the answer”—i.e., even if our techno-industrial, capitalist growth succeeds in contriving any cheap, plentiful substitute for fossil fuels—it would be catastrophic. Without a sea change in expansionist values and our anthropocentric approach to the natural world, humans will simply use the energy bounty to complete their dismemberment of Earth. (Planet’s horrific sequences of stranded orangutans—their habitats destroyed for palm oil and sugar cane for “green energy”—is perhaps the most illustrative example of this potential destruction.)

In short, it’s really beside the point whether “100 percent renewable energy” is possible because any techno-fix would be disastrous given the prevailing cultural narrative and macroeconomic goals.

The Bottom Line

Planet of the Humans is far from inaccurate in undermining today’s overconfidence in renewables and mainstream environmental NGOs but is arguably a bit unfair to some individuals. Gibbs engages people on both sides of a complicated issue, selectively goring some. Wherever one stands on the issue of sustainable energy, though, Planet of the Humans is proving to be a deeply moving and motivating production.

And now there is a complicating—but possibly complementary—factor. The COVID-19 pandemic provides an unscheduled opportunity to rethink our energy and economic futures. The real planet of humans is at a crossroads: Pre-pandemic trends will not simply resume as if nothing had happened.

Homo sapiens is an allegedly rational species. Virtually everyone agrees that we must avoid an ecosystem collapse and reverse global warming. We also recognize that if civilization is to persist, we must have energy sources. So, what is the solution that balances these two issues?

CASSE’s push for the steady state economy is certainly one of the most rational answers to that question. It really ”stands to reason” that we need an economy that fits on the planet, using a reasonable amount of energy from renewable sources and with processes that don’t destroy our ecosystems. Reducing energy use to that reasonable amount surely entails real (not just political) degrowth. “Degrowth toward a steady state economy” summarizes the solution quite well.

William Rees is a human ecologist, ecological economist, Professor Emeritus, and former Director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning, best known for ecological footprint analysis.

The post Crossroads for <em>Planet of the Humans</em> appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.


Sequence Matters

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 08/05/2020 - 2:11am in

By Herman Daly
Nuclear power plant and Planet of the Humans

When prioritized over sustainability, techno-fixes are often dangerous. (Image: CC0, Credit: Not available)

The main message of the controversial documentary, Planet of the Humans, is that unrestrained economic and population growth should be the target of environmentalists’ efforts, not technological fixes. Techno-fixes can be helpful, but belong in second place. If put in first place they are often dangerous (e.g., nuclear power, green revolution, biomass fuel, space colonization, etc.). Technocrats enjoy usurping first place and are not humble about it.

In reviews some have alleged that Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs (producer and director, respectively) must be misanthropists, eco-fascists, racists and sexists, as well as shills for fossil fuel interests. Maybe they are just filmmakers who sometimes overstate an important truth that they are trying to present to an unreceptive audience. When the ideological dust settles maybe there can be a reasonable debate on the proper sequencing of limiting growth vs. accommodating growth by technical fixes.

Michael Moore and Planet of the Humans

Michael Moore, inveterate challenger
of the status quo; suddenly a shill for
fossil fuel interests?
(Image: CC BY-SA 2.0, Credit: Nicolas Genin)

Big Environmentalism had a reason to put techno-fixes in first place—to avoid confronting the Great God of Growth, and thereby offending wealthy contributors, politicians, and technocrats. Big Green suggests that a policy of complete substitution of fossil fuels by renewable energy is viable. It would surely be viable at some smaller scale of population and per capita resource use, but not at the present scale, not in a reasonable time period, and certainly impossible at the continually growing scale advocated by most economists and politicians. But neither Big Money nor Big Green can accept an end to economic growth, much less a decline.

However, technocrats should be given a chance and encouraged to prove their worth—in the proper sequence. Let us first limit growth in resource throughput, and then encourage the technologists to grow our wealth by increasing resource productivity, rather than growing the volume of resources depleted and transformed into polluting wastes. Sequence makes a difference. First put on your pants—then your shoes.

Tsonga

Big environmental NGOs: Time to change a losing game? (Image: CC BY-SA 2.0, Credit: Carine06)

A further challenge raised by the documentary is to recognize that the environmental movement is failing. We are losing the game—just read the newspapers! As my high school tennis coach frequently had to remind me, the first rule of strategy is to “always change a losing game.” The documentary invites us environmentalists to change our losing game. The invitation was dramatic, poignantly graphic, and forceful. It was also rude, ungenerous, and sometimes unfair. But if it had been polite and technically impeccable I’m afraid we would still be sleepily trying to pull our pants on over our shoes.

Herman Daly

Herman Daly is CASSE’s Chief Economist, Professor Emeritus (University of Maryland), and past World Bank senior economist.

The post Sequence Matters appeared first on Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.


Planet of the Humans Puts Sacred Cows Out to Pasture

By Brian Czech

Planet of the Humans is a once-in-a-decade documentary for all concerned with the environment, the economy, and life on Earth. Directed by Jeff Gibbs and produced by Michael Moore, Planet is especially important for advancing the steady state economy. It is reminiscent of Pope Francis’ Laudato si’ in that it makes the case for a steady state economy—resoundingly—while never quite uttering the phrase “steady state economy.”

When viewing a documentary, a political scientist will mind whose ox is being gored. In Planet, entire teams of oxen are gored, including sacred cows. Wind, solar, and biofuels industries are gutted, exposing rotten cores of corporate greed, co-opted NGOs, and an all-too-prevalent intellectual laziness of “green energy” groupies.

Big Environmentalism takes a heavy hit, too. The Nature Conservancy? Gibbs calls it “The Logging Conservancy.” Union of Concerned Scientists? “Union of Concerned Salesmen.” The Sierra Club comes out looking like some environmental Madison Avenue, dazed and confused about what side(s) it’s even on.

Gibbs doesn’t spare environmental heroes, either—not if he catches them with their fingers in the pie or their minds muddled with money. The heaviest hit are Bill McKibben and Al Gore, but Van Jones, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and various heads of the Sierra Club are pummeled as well.

Planet isn’t exclusively a downer with regard to leadership, though. In addition to Gibbs himself, Vandana Shiva comes out clean, and a star is probably born in the form of Ozzie Zehner, a visiting scholar at Northwestern University. Zehner’s mastery of the “green energy” terrain, along with a natural ease in front of the camera, should bring him to the forefront of planning and policy for our energy and environmental futures.

Let’s take a closer look at the sacred cows, their fresh wounds, and the lasting lessons from Planet of the Humans.

Green Energy—“It wasn’t what it seemed.”

While Planet is pitched as a Michael Moore production, it’s really the brainchild of director and narrator Jeff Gibbs, a long-time student and activist in environmental affairs. Gibbs has taken a deep dive into the technics, economics, and politics of energy extraction and marketing. As with most environmental activists, he was naturally inclined to support the movement toward renewable energy development. Surprises laid in store, however. As Gibbs put it, “Everywhere I encountered green energy, it wasn’t what it seemed.”

You’ll see exactly what he means as he canvasses the various businesses, industries, and environmental organizations assembled at “green” energy conferences. The mini-interviews he conducts with folks staffing the booths are full of cringe-worthy moments. Many of the sales representatives and industry spokespersons have no clues whatsoever about what their products are made of. Neither they nor the activists get it about energy return on investment or the net environmental effects of “green” energy.

Few of them know, for example, that a single wind tower requires over 60 truckloads of concrete at the base and needs its own acre to operate in. One tower takes hundreds of tons of steel and several tons each of copper, aluminum, and rare earth elements. It takes around $4 million to install one, and the net energy savings of wind projects are very much in doubt. Factoids and lists such as these make little impression on paper; Gibbs’ genius is bringing us to a site of “mountaintop removal for wind.” Pay keen attention to the ratio of environmental destruction to electricity served up, noting that the site you are visiting vicariously will seat only 21 turbines!


Ivanpah Solar Power Facility: ecologically economic? (Gibbs, Jeff, director. Planet of the Humans. YouTube, uploaded by Michael Moore, 21 Apr. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zk11vI-7czE&feature=youtu.be&t=10)

Folks at the “green” energy conferences might also tell you that solar panels are made of “sand”—easy to come by, cheap as dirt! Yet it’s not the sand of vacant lots or empty backwoods (if you can find any such woods) that goes into solar panels, but rather highly refined quartz, plus the sodium hydroxide and hydrofluoric acid required in manufacturing the panels. And how much space does a solar array require? The Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, which opened in 2014 at a cost of $2 billion, required 3,500 acres and was supposed to power 140,000 homes, but already shows ominous signs of wear and tear.

The dull surprise behind these wind and solar follies is the constant idling (as opposed to shutdown) of fossil-fueled, base-load power plants. The sun goes down predictably, but clouds are less predictable, and winds literally come and go. Not so with the appliances, computers, entertainment paraphernalia, and “green” cars plugged into the grid, much less the pumps, generators, and communications infrastructure at the local and regional utilities and manufacturing plants. So, the grid is kept running, and not by “green” energy. As described by an energy consultant interviewed in Planet, “You’ve got to have a fossil fuel power plant backing it up and idling 100% of the time. Because if you cycle up or cycle down, as the demand on the wind comes through, then you actually generate a bigger carbon footprint than if you just ran it [the fossil-fueled power plant] straight.”

As Zehner put it, we would have been “better off just burning the fossil fuels in the first place, instead of playing pretend.” Taken out of context, such a statement might sound flippant, yet it was more like the bottom line of a thorough analysis of costs and benefits, including, for example, how much fossil fueling is required for the construction, maintenance, and de-commissioning of “green” energy projects.

Now please, don’t even think of accusing me, of all people, of pandering to fossil fuel interests. I wrote, for example, “BP: Beyond Probabilities” and that was ten years ago! Solar and wind projects have clear environmental advantages over coal-fired and nuclear power plants as well as fracking and tar sands mining. The point, though, is that the “green” energy industry is a charade if we think it will solve the sustainability problem without ever addressing the unsustainable demands of the human economy.

The take-downs of wind and solar power are persuasive and resonant, but Gibbs saves his goriest goring for the oxcart of biofuels. For a conservation biologist like me, biofuels have always seemed like a sham, especially as a form of “green” energy. One of my roles while serving at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters was “biomass coordinator” for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Frankly it was an unwelcome role, and I can tell you that the only green aspect of biofuels is the color of the leaves headed for the chipper. As Gibbs points out in his plain-spoken but insightful way, “Wood chips, which is just a euphemism for trees, are being exported to Europe from America, British Columbia, Brazil and Indonesia.”


Logs headed to the wood chipper; thence the incinerator for “green” energy. (Gibbs, Jeff, director. Planet of the Humans. YouTube, uploaded by Michael Moore, 21 Apr. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zk11vI-7czE&feature=youtu.be&t=10)

In the USA, too, entire groves, woodlands, and forests are headed for the incinerator in the “green” attempt to fuel the economy. That’s in addition to all the trash, dead animals, and even shredded tires that somehow qualify as “biofuels.” But the incinerators need any kind of fuel they can get to put a dent in the energy demand that comes with a $20 trillion GDP. Does any of that sound like “sustainable yield?” It’s another reminder that sustainability is first and foremost about size—in particular the size of the economy—and then about technological efficiency.

It’s hard to do justice to the comprehensiveness of the biofuels take-down in Planet. An entire review could be done just on that component, which addresses a plethora of technical, economic, and political nuances. I’ll leave it at this: If you are inclined to support the notion of biofuels as a significant energy source, you really must watch the film.

 

 

Fair to Gore and McKibben?

For steady staters, the world is no oyster. Ask yourself how many prominent figures you’ve heard explicitly advocating the “steady state economy.” Now contrast that with the multitude of figures and followers crowing for economic growth. Steady staters swim straight upstream in the river of political economy, with Big Money rushing relentlessly over us. Therefore, when a prominent figure comes along and signs the CASSE position on economic growth, we’re reluctant to take part in the bashing thereof. Friends are hard enough to find.

Bill McKibben signed the CASSE position in 2009 at the Powershift conference in Washington DC, where he and Gus Speth greeted enthusiastic young students following a session. When McKibben signed the CASSE position, he said, “I love what you guys are doing,” and it was apparent from the pages of Deep Economy (2007) that he’d been aware of CASSE for years. After the Powershift conference, with the signatures of McKibben (and Speth) in hand, the CASSE network was encouraged by the prospect of wider acceptance. Surely McKibben, who ‘loved what we were doing,’ would be a powerful ambassador for the steady state economy. But disappointment followed as news about McKibben never mentioned— because McKibben never seemed to mention—the steady state economy at all!

It’s hard not to notice, then, that numerous clips in Planet suggest McKibben got too far in bed with Big Money. His 350.org movement picked up steam—and for that he deserves credit—but naturally it attracted tempting suitors. McKibben found comfortable rafting in the river of political economy, as powerful corporate and political interests sidled up to him to get their slice of the “green” energy pie. By the time he was involved with the Green Century Fund, he was a de facto collaborator with mining corporations, oil and gas infrastructure companies, McDonalds, ADM, and Coca-Cola, along with a laundry list of banks. Advocating a steady state economy in that crowd would be like pushing for gun control at an NRA convention.

Fortunately, the verdict (for whomever may judge) is far from in on McKibben. People get in over their heads all the time; the best of them get back out and onto the solid ground they came from. Our bets are on McKibben. Going forward, he will have plenty of opportunities to clarify—as he once did by signing the CASSE position—that there is a fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. He can clarify, in other words, that sustainability is not some newfangled energy technology but rather a steady state economy with stabilized population and per capita consumption.

Al Gore will forever remain a mystery with regard to the net effects of his politics. During my Ph.D. research in the 1990s, and especially with my minor in political science, Gore was one of my biggest heroes. Earth in the Balance (and later An Inconvenient Truth) probably did more to raise awareness of environmental perils than anyone aside from perhaps Rachel Carson. Eventually, however, I caught on to the fact that Gore was also one of the world’s leading proponents of “sustainable growth,” the oxymoronic bane of the steady-state program. Along with Bill and Hillary Clinton, Gore favored the win-win rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”

The CASSE network, myself included, has tried on many occasions to reach Gore and encourage him to come clean on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection. Not that it’s easy to contact vice presidents while you’re swimming for your life in the river of political economy, trying not to drown while Big Foundation Money is funding all the win-win rhetoricians, keeping them more than afloat. But we’ve tried when we could, given the contacts available to us. Our guess is that Gore is quite familiar, by now, with the steady state economy as the sustainable alternative to growth. His intransigence in sticking with the win-win rhetoric tells us plenty.

Orangutan

Orangutan in a clear-cut rainforest. Reality, analogy, and sadness. (Gibbs, Jeff, director. Planet of the Humans. YouTube, uploaded by Michael Moore, 21 Apr. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zk11vI-7czE&feature=youtu.be&t=10)

In Planet, then, we see the sad demise of a surely well-meaning but ultimately corrupted, win-win politician. The segment on “Blood and Gore” is most telling. Gore teamed up with David Blood (who spent 18 years at Goldman Sachs) to establish Generation Investment Management, known most notoriously for its investment in Brazilian sugar cane, where the industry creates severe pollution problems and pushes indigenous Amazonians straight out of their very cultures. The last scene of Gore, cynically defending the hypocrisy of his financial life, has to be one of the saddest clips in the film, albeit not as sad as the very last scene of the film, with the orangutan down to one last tree in a rainforest devastated for logs and biofuel and to make way for more sugar cane.

Big Environmentalism—Why Keep Our Memberships?

Unlike the big environmental NGOs, Gibbs and his guests “go there” on population and consumption issues. They both plop out of the bag a little over 19 minutes in, when an environmental consultant, skeptical about “green” energy, says, “Not being judgmental and not playing God, but we’ve got to deal with population growth and sustainable resources. We’ve all got to cut back.” From then on, population and consumption become the underlying—and eventually the overarching—themes.

The most prominent coverage of population and consumption appears in the alarming graphical display of these two variables skyrocketing since the industrial revolution. Reflecting on the rapidity and enormity of these trends, Gibbs states, “And that is the most terrifying realization I have ever had.”

We wish only that Gibbs had connected these themes of population and consumption with the single most policy-relevant phrase: GDP. Over the years, this has been one of our top priorities at CASSE; to get well-meaning activists and scholars to move beyond relatively impotent (and frankly obvious) warnings about population and connect it with the metric—GDP—that is central to the policy maker’s mind on Capitol Hill, in the White House, at the Fed and in the World Bank. We can lament population growth until we’re blue in the face, but as long as the fiscal and monetary levers are all set for GDP growth, incentives will be devised, installed, and maintained for population and consumption growth. That’s how public policy works: Incentives are provided to accomplish goals. And the #1 domestic policy goal, perhaps of all time, is GDP growth!

GDP

Gibbs’ population × consumption graph (top). Same graph with CASSE’s GDP Stamp, and with ten times the policy implications (bottom). (Gibbs, Jeff, director. Planet of the Humans. YouTube, uploaded by Michael Moore, 21 Apr. 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zk11vI-7czE&feature=youtu.be&t=10)

Not that Gibbs is oblivious to the connection. Approximately 70 minutes in, while skewering billionaire Michael Bloomberg and his supposedly “Beyond Coal” campaign, Gibbs does hit the nail on the head by recognizing, “the reason we’re not talking about over-population, consumption, and the suicide of economic growth, is that would be bad for business. Especially the cancerous form of capitalism that rules the world, and now hiding under a cover of green.” We only wish he had driven home that singular point about economic growth—coupled with “GDP” as the measure thereof— again and again and again.

Speaking of “bad for business,” now is the time to remind Big Environmentalism of a challenge it has thus far skirted. On September 18, 2018, I challenged the presidents of the Big 10 American environmental organizations—The Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and others— to a debate on the topic: Is there a conflict between economic growth and environmental protection? While none of them stepped up to the plate, we have certainly noticed some decline in the win-win rhetoric, at least around the Washington, DC beltway.

On the other hand, some NGO representatives and board members have stubbornly stuck to the destructive nonsense that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.” And, not a single one of the big NGOs has proactively handled the responsibility of raising awareness of limits to economic growth. Some do at times vaguely reference population, and even more vaguely consumption, yet “economic growth” and “GDP” are treated like elephants in the room. This is simply not good enough for NGOs who collected billions of dollars over the years from millions of members.

So, I have an idea. Let’s drop our memberships in these time-wasting, “green” energy pushing, corporately connected “environmental” NGOs and join, instead, organizations that explicitly raise awareness of limits to growth and call just as explicitly for the steady state economy! Or even “degrowth toward a steady state economy.” As the founder and now executive director of one such organization, I may be biased, but I may be right, too.

But don’t just listen to me. Listen very carefully to Jeff Gibbs and the cast of Planet of the Humans. You’ll be brought to the very doorstep of steady statesmanship!

Brian Czech

Brian Czech is the Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

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Quakers Divest from ‘Big Four’ Banks

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 14/01/2015 - 10:04am in