(Swans - October 21, 2013) In his extensive article "The Fossil Fuels War" in Monthly Review, John Bellamy Foster writes about the new expansion of oil exploration and production -- the demise of Peak Oil -- made possible by the development of technology to extract oil from "unconventional" sources, known variously as "shale oil" and "tar sands oil," and he points to the inevitable consequences on climate. (1)
Those scheduled climatic effects are vividly presented in a new scientific report in which:
Scientists from the University of Hawaii at Manoa calculated that by 2047, plus or minus five years, the average temperatures in each year will be hotter across most parts of the planet than they had been at those locations in any year between 1860 and 2005. To put it another way, for a given geographic area, "the coldest year in the future will be warmer than the hottest year in the past," said Camilo Mora, the lead scientist on a paper published in the journal Nature. (2)
John Bellamy Foster also notes that there have been recent improvements in renewable energy technologies, whose use could be expanded to replace a portion of the power generation infrastructures based on fossil fuels. However, he is pessimistic that such replacements could form a prompt and complete transformation of national and global power generation systems.
No less remarkable technological developments, however, have arisen at the same time in relation to renewable energies, such as wind and solar, opening up the possibility of a more ecological path of development. Since 2009 solar (photovoltaic) module "prices have fallen off a cliff." Although still accounting for a tiny percentage of electric-generating capacity in the United States, wind and solar have grown to about 13 percent of total German electricity production in 2012, with total renewables (including hydroelectric and biomass) accounting for about 20 percent. As the energy return on energy investment (EROEI) of fossil fuels has declined due to the depletion of cheap crude-oil supplies, wind and solar have become more competitive-with EROEIs above that of tar-sands oil, and in the case of wind even above conventional oil. Wind and solar, however, represent intermittent, location-specific sources of power that cannot easily cover baseload-power needs. Worse still, a massive conversion of the world's energy infrastructure to renewables would take decades to accomplish when time is short.
I disagree with this pessimism and believe a massive conversion to renewable energy technologies can be accomplished much more quickly than started in mass media and John Bellamy Foster's article. I made my case with numerous suggestions, estimates and examples in an article, "The Economic Function Of Energy," intended to spur positive, creative and practical thinking about such a near-future conversion of energy infrastructure on a national scale. For example, I described a solar-powered system for generating the total electrical power consumed in the United States, which would be publicly owned and thus provide "free" electricity. (3)
Foster notes the foundational motivation of the fossil energy industry as stated by one of its leading CEOs, "my philosophy is to make money." Concerns over possible environmental damage (from exploration or spills) and climate change (from carbon dioxide and methane emissions) are seen as unfortunate collateral inevitabilities to be minimized as possible, but without delaying extractive operations or seriously diminishing profitability.
Foster gives a good general summary of what is required to make a complete conversion nationally (say for electrical power) from fossil fuels to renewables (solar, wind, hydro), but he sees such a conversion as too monumental a project for our time, while I see it as an exciting and feasible technical challenge, an inspiring project for technophiles that would be liberating for society. Foster writes:
It follows that building an alternative energy infrastructure -- without breaking the carbon budget -- would require a tectonic shift in the direction of energy conservation and energy efficiency. However, stopping climate change and the destruction of the environment in general requires not just a new, more sustainable technology, greater efficiency, and the opening of channels for green investment and green jobs; it requires an ecological revolution that will alter our entire system of production and consumption, and create new systems geared to substantive equality, and ecological sustainability -- a "revolutionary reconstitution of society at large."
Yes, developing a mass consciousness of energy conservation and energy efficiency in an American society of unthinking wastefulness may indeed seem like a "revolutionary reconstitution of society at large." But the real revolution here would be in the awakening of greater thought among the masses, to displace the unthinking aspects of behavior that enable wastefulness. That apparent barrier to the energy revolution would dissolve if confronted with forthright and consistent effort by the political leadership. The unappealing aspects of continuing climate change will undoubtedly increase the popularity of the idea of making such a revolutionary transition. As Foster says: "In today's world, the undermining of the lifeworld of the great majority of the population is occurring in relation to both economy and environment."
John Bellamy Foster sees the conversion of most power generation infrastructure from a reliance on fossil fuels to renewables as too daunting a technical challenge for the near term, and he believes that worsening climate change will spur the rise of popular movements that could revolutionize society so that it meets the energy conversion challenge in the long term.
We can therefore expect the most radical movements to emerge precisely where economic and ecological crises converge on the lives of the underlying population. Given the nature of capitalism and imperialism and the exigencies of the global environmental crisis, a new, revolutionary environmental proletariat is likely to arise most powerfully and most decisively in the global South.
I believe just the opposite, that the technical challenge is well within present capabilities and has been for many years, but that the conversion to renewables will never occur because most people operate from mental inertia that is programmed to keep them on the rails of the capitalist economics and environmental exploitation we see today.
People everywhere want to replicate and experience the advantages of the colonial powers of the 19th century (e.g., Britain) and the industrial-consumerist powers of the 20th century (e.g., the U.S.A.). This is why China builds huge dams and burns enormous quantities of coal, fatally fouling its air; and why southern Europe and the southern U.S. are flooded with economic refugees from the "global South."
James Hansen is quoted in Foster's article saying "It is not an exaggeration to suggest, based on the best available scientific evidence, that burning all fossil fuels could result in the planet being not only ice-free but human-free."
And this is precisely what will happen, because "my philosophy is to make money" is the end-all-and-be-all everywhere, whether in rich northern capitalist states or the impoverished global south seeking "to develop."
Foster concludes his article with lyrically wishful Marxist romanticism.
Under these conditions what is needed is a decades-long ecological revolution, in which an emergent humanity will once again, as it has innumerable times before, reinvent itself, transforming its existing relations of production and the entire realm of social existence, in order to generate a restored metabolism with nature and a whole new world of substantive equality as the key to sustainable human development. This is the peculiar "challenge and burden of our historical time."
There is no objective evidence to suggest this is anything other than a fantasy. Instead, it seems realistic to conclude that humanity's conceptual and social limitations will lead to its premature extinction sooner than need be the case because of the onset of hostile environmental conditions due to the sun expanding into a red giant. Such a premature extinction would not be a "bad thing" for Planet Earth, which would continue unperturbed without another of the millions of species that have appeared and disappeared during the course of life on earth. Other forms of life will continue; why should we imagine that humanity is so special that it deserves particular concern as regards continuing to be one of the carriers of life on this planet?
Many people besides archeological scholars have wondered why the Maya people in the southern lowlands of Central America abandoned their splendid stone ceremonial cities and pyramids about 1000 years ago, and which now lie in ruins under jungle vegetation. (4) The basic reason was that the ancient Mayan public dumped the excessive overhead of a top-heavy oppressive and burdensome culture during a time of environmental stress (droughts) so as to better attend to personal survival. Manning wars of rivalry between royal elites did not ultimately satisfy the basic needs of the "proletariate." They did not so much revolt to establish a new social order as simply walk away into the jungle to disappear from the existing order, letting it collapse from lack of support. If a similar disorganized mass movement of abandonment of the organized economy and socio-political class structure were to take hold for most of the "proletariate" today then one could begin to speculate about the possibilities for the emergence of alternative types of post-capitalist societies, and following that to speculate on a new relation of humanity to the environment and the prospects for an extended period of highly developed human culture on Planet Earth.
Humanity is terminally delirious with fossil fuel fever. "Climate change will proceed unhindered, as will the uninterrupted rush by humanity to exploit all sources of fossil fuels. The moral choice between restraint for the good of all life versus gaining an immediate boost to private power will always be won by the latter." My conclusion is not what I want, but what I see as the inevitable consequence of what is. (5)
Matthew Auzanneau has written about one example of humanity's fossil fuel delirium, the necessarily short-lived shale oil boom in North Dakota and the avid involvement of the investment banking firm of Goldman Sachs in it, putting their philosophy into practice "to make money." I see Auzanneau's article as support for my gloomy conclusion, and it was the launching point for my concluding rant. (6)
I think that people will overwhelmingly do nothing in the form of restraint on CO2 emissions and yet be frantic about gouging out every ounce of oil and coal they can get to ASAP (e.g., China, North Dakota), to burn it up and drive whatever power and money schemes they are pushing. As a result, I no longer have any enthusiasm for writing about alternative energy systems. Most people simply want to maintain the inertia of their current thinking and economic activity, to maintain their present forms of exploitation (businesses). They do not want any changes to their existing modes of energy waste and financial accumulation (e.g., fracking for domestic-use oil, mining shale oil and coal for export, big engines in oversized truck-like cars for mindless driving, suburbia, capitalism commodifying and discounting the environment), just more of the same so they can "get their share," especially "before it runs out." Hurricanes, tornadoes, rising seas, droughts, months-long wildfires, the spread of tropical diseases and parasites to temperate latitudes, none of that matters in comparison to keeping on with getting "more." We have a quarterly profits expectation, long-term attention-deficit syndrome, infantile hyperactive, selfish spoiled-brat economic mentality. Nobody but nobody wants to be the first person, or in the first class or generation to "make the sacrifice" to "give up the advantages" of our eco-catastrophic ways in order to shift a nation, and humanity, to a sustainable alternative. Planet Earth could care less, it will shrug us off as just one more ephemeral slime mold, and our dust will be ground into the grains of future rocks over which advanced cockroaches will stride, perhaps as rulers of Planet Earth.
Actually, the disintegration we see and can anticipate fits in well with the trend to be expected from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the relentless increase of entropy -- disorder -- with the widest dispersal of energy and structure (into lack of structure) as the ultimate end.
Any physical system that can absorb and emit energy, and perform work on other physical systems external to it, is a thermodynamic system (e.g., the combustible gas mixture within a piston engine cylinder). The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that any isolated thermodynamic system must ultimately degrade; such degradation is quantified as an increase in the thermodynamic property of the system called its entropy. Consequently, all real engines convert energy (e.g., heat) to work (e.g., torque) with less than 100% efficiency, perpetual motion machines are impossible, and the entropy of the entire universe relentlessly increases.
The great physicist Ludwig Boltzmann committed suicide (in 1906) while in a state of clinical depression it is said after contemplating the implacable increase of universal entropy, his most penetrating discovery about statistical (many particle) thermodynamic systems. Clearly, he had a strong belief that humanity mattered. Perhaps if he had been able to overcome that misconception he would not have fatally despaired. His gravestone in the Central Cemetery in Vienna is inscribed with his famous formula for the entropy of a statistical thermodynamic system, S = k·Ln(W), where S is the entropy of a thermodynamic system, k is Boltzmann's constant (1.38065 x 10^-23 joules/degree-Kelvin), Ln is the mathematical function called the natural logarithm, and W is Wahrscheinlichkeit, a German word meaning the number of (unobservable) "ways" in which the (observable) thermodynamic state of a system can be realized by assigning different positions and momenta to the many molecules of that system. (7)
W can be thought of as the number of ways the system can arrange itself microscopically (its multitude of molecular positions and velocities) so as to exhibit a specific set of values of observable macroscopic properties (a thermodynamic state), like: temperature at 70 degrees Celsius, pressure at 101,325 Pascals or equivalently 14.696 pounds per square inch (psi). A thermodynamic state that can only be achieved by any of a small number of possible microscopic arrangements is one of high order and has low entropy. A thermodynamic state that can be achieved with any of a large number of possible microscopic arrangements is one of low order, that is to say of disorder, and has a high entropy. At the inception of the Big Bang, the universe was a point of energy and its entropy was very low. Today, 13.8 billion years later, the universe is an expanse of perhaps 1.3 x 10^23 km that is largely void with a sparse scattering of matter and radiation, and historically maximum entropy.
Here on earth the black gold rush will eventually burn itself out and bequeath us a state of increased disorder that devoured opportunities for transformation.
Acknowledgment: Gilles d'Aymery brought my attention to Notes 1 and 6, which spurred me to write this article.
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About the Author
Manuel García, Jr. on Swans. He is a native of the upper upper west side barrio of the 1950s near Riverside Park in Manhattan, New York City, and a graduate engineering physicist who specialized in the physics of fluids and electricity. He retired from a 29 year career as an experimental physicist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the first fifteen years of which were spent in underground nuclear testing. An avid reader with a taste for classics, and interested in the physics of nature and how natural phenomena can impact human activity, he has long been interested in non-fiction writing with a problem-solving purpose. García loves music and studies it, and his non-technical thinking is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Jungian ideas. A father of both grown children and a school-age daughter, today García occupies himself primarily with managing his household and his young daughter's many educational activities. García's political writings are left wing and, along with his essays on science-and-society, they have appeared in a number of smaller Internet magazines since 2003, including Swans. Please visit his personal Blog at manuelgarciajr.wordpress.com. (back)
1. John Bellamy Foster, "The Fossil Fuels War," Monthly Review, 2013, Volume 65, Issue 04 (September), http://monthlyreview.org/2013/09/01/fossil-fuels-war (back)
2. Justin Gillis, "By 2047, Coldest Years May Be Warmer Than Hottest in Past, Scientists Say," The New York Times, October 9, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/10/science/earth/by-2047-coldest-years-will-be-warmer-than-hottest-in-past.html?_r=0 (back)
4. "Classic Maya Collapse" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classic_Maya_collapse (back)
6. Matthew Auzanneau, "The short future of oil shale boom seen by Goldman Sachs," October 8, 2013,
[A Google translation of Matthew Auzanneau's blog in French, which focuses on oil. This post is about the Goldman Sachs involvement with the shale oil boom in North Dakota.] (back)