Much Ado About the Laws of Physics
There’s currently a great deal of controversy about the new film, Planet of the Humans produced by Michael Moore and directed by Jeff Gibbs. The film argues that solar and wind are poorly suited and insufficient to replace fossil fuels and that various major environmental organizations are beholden to corporate sponsors. The film may have played fast and loose with some facts, but regretfully, the filmmakers neglected to present other important, cogent information to make their points regarding renewable energy and the messages of environmental organizations.
All the solar panels and wind turbines on Earth will not produce one thimbleful of gasoline, diesel fuel, coal or natural gas. The important thing is to understand the difference between electricity – whether generated by solar, wind, nuclear or coal – and the energy dense fossil fuels listed above.
Try pushing your car the distance you can drive it on one gallon of gasoline. A single gallon of gasoline is so compact and energy dense that you can put it in a red plastic can and saunter down the street with it and yet it contains the energy equivalent of a dozen slaves doing grueling, back breaking physical labor for a day or two. If gasoline went to $5 a gallon, countless indignant Americans would be outraged and yet they think nothing of paying $5 for a Starbucks beverage that will NOT make a 3000 pound car roll for 20 miles.
We are very, VERY far from seeing solar panels, wind turbines and electric cars rolling off assembly lines powered entirely by solar panels and wind turbines. That would have to include mining, extraction and the various intensely thermal industrial processes we use to manufacture things. Furthermore, many plastic parts will ultimately have to be made using something other than fossil inputs.
Oil, coal and natural gas are finite, non-renewable resources; they WILL eventually run out. The same is true of copper, lithium, nickel, etc. There’s only so much of this stuff in the Earth’s crust and the more we take, the more expensive and energy-intensive it becomes to extract what’s left.
Just the battery pack alone in one Tesla car results in 250 tons of mining waste from producing the lithium. All that mining and extraction is done with diesel fuel. The majority of the intensely thermal industrial manufacturing process is also probably powered by coal and natural gas. The shipping of raw materials to the factory is done using diesel. Distributing the finished product is done using diesel. Many of the plastic parts of a Tesla are made of oil. Presently, many electric cars around the country will inevitably be charged using coal and natural gas-generated electricity.
We’ve all seen photographs of steel mills, foundries and forges with huge red-hot pieces of metal and sparks flying. Those images represent STAGGERING amounts of fossil fuel energy. It is not at all clear how many of those various processes are going to be done in a cost-effective way (or at all) using solar and wind generated electricity. To be fair, electric arc furnaces are approaching 50 percent of scrap steel processing in the US. They use a staggering amount of electricity which at this time is very likely coal or natural gas-generated. Meanwhile, the production of virgin steel is still done using blast furnaces burning coal.
We would have to see a five-fold increase in the energy density of lithium ion batteries for there to be electric aircraft flying 150 people and their luggage across oceans and continents.
If and when someone claims to have the renewable energy solution to our problems, I’m all ears. But it’s not intellectually honest to pluck electric cars, solar panels and wind turbines out of a long story of pollution and fossil fuel use and claim to have an answer. Regretfully, given where we’re at, meaningfully addressing Climate Change will have to focus more on dramatically downsizing our lifestyles with a stiff tax on fossil fuels rather than on expecting things to remain the same (except with Teslas instead of Fords).
It has been over 30 years since James Hansen explained Climate Change to Congress. The fact that (before the Coronavirus) we were burning more fossil fuels than ever supports my argument that there are all kinds of things for which fossil fuels are better and more economically suited than wind and solar.
Please don’t take this to mean that I’m anti-wind and solar. By all means, let’s build wind and solar-generating capacity. But let’s not kid ourselves that wind and solar will be able to keep this current capitalist, growth-at-any-cost paradigm going. Let’s build wind and solar only in the context of knowing that we ARE going to still need electricity while civilization is downsizing and wrenching itself off of fossil fuels.
Which brings us to the corporate underwriting of major environmental organizations. I have no doubt that Bill McKibben is a very nice guy with the best of intentions. No doubt various high profile environmental organizations have made serious achievements shutting down coal plants, promoting renewables and achieving fossil fuel divestment. But conspicuously absent is widespread discussion of consuming less, simplifying our lifestyles and limiting our population; or, more to the point, critiquing consumerist capitalism itself! Also absent from the discussion is honestly looking at what a daunting task it will be to continue running a modern industrialized civilization built fully upon fossil fuels with strictly wind and solar energy.
Population Control has been a taboo topic in the environmental movement for decades. Parenthood is viewed everywhere as a fundamental human right. But on a finite planet, growth is unsustainable. Period. If we don’t manage our numbers, nature will do it for us and it won’t be pretty. Nature and the laws of physics don’t care about your fundamental human rights.
Population scientists point out that world population growth IS slowing and will soon level off and perhaps even begin declining, implying that we no longer need to worry about it. But what they neglect to address is that before world population reduces to a more manageable size, the fossil fuels and other resources responsible for ballooning us past the seven billion mark will peak and decline. So a population crash could result more from a collapsing resource base than an ever-burgeoning population. Same outcome from a different variable in the equation.
What is commonly called Sustainability isn’t really sustainable. When looked at through the lens of a more rigorous set of criteria one discovers that genuine, meaningful sustainability is a dauntingly complex, far flung ideal. It IS going to be really difficult to achieve. The good news though is that we WILL achieve it because we have no choice in the matter. Sustainability is not optional. Whatever we don’t do voluntarily, we WILL do involuntarily. I believe it is possible to create a sustainable advanced technological civilization or…. dust blowing on the wind is sustainable. I vote for the former, but it’s going to require some major concessions starting with being honest enough to face and deal with the constraints coming toward us.
Robert Bolman is a high school graduate who has read a lot of books. Having pioneered green building in the early 90’s, he built and now resides at Maitreya EcoVillage in Eugene, Oregon.