Life is full of tough choices…

…but this isn’t one of them. Or is it? The trouble is, of course, that removing all the subsidies and tax breaks given to the fossil fuel industry (which are delaying the creation of a free market in power generation) will make fossil fuels even more expensive. In the USA, the fiscal cliff was narrowly avoided by last-minute agreement on budget cuts (hence the above choice). However, the fiscal cliff arose out of over-spending and economic stagnation; and both of these can be blamed – at least in part – on rising fuel prices. In the UK, fossil fuels are already more than twice as expensive as they are in the USA (as they have been for decades). However, as a result of a weakening currency, they are now expected to reach an all-time record next month. Even if we ignore the impossibility of perpetual growth in resource consumption and waste generation on a finite planet — and the consequential reality that we cannot rely on perpetual economic growth to pay-off the massive debts denying it has caused — we all need power to heat and light our homes; and get us to and from work. The end of the era of cheap energy is therefore cited by many as the reason for the end of growth. This is a reality the World urgently needs to take on board. This will require radical thinking; and radical changes in policy in all areas of government policy. Thus, Richard Heinberg has been proven right: Is it time to go “cold turkey”? Sadly, electric cars are not going to be the answer; unless the electricity is generated from renewable or nuclear energy. Therefore, since the latter will take decades to become a reality – and our governments are still not doing as much as they could to invest in renewable energy – power generation capacity is clearly developing into a serious problem. Here in the UK, we are facing a double-whammy: Record-breaking high fuel prices and the EU-enforced early-retirement of 10% of our oldest (and most-polluting) coal-fired power stations. Therefore, unless we, as individual consumers, invest in renewable energy, we will soon be paying more than ever for something whose supply will be more uncertain than ever. Believe me, if I could install solar PV panels on my roof I would. Sadly, without a job, I cannot. Sadly, too, opposition to the radical solutions needed for us to resolve our problems is unwelcome irrespective of its origin: Denying that we have a problem is just as much an impediment to implementing solutions as is disregarding potential solutions for ideological reasons. For example, if our governments had not given up on fast breed reactor programmes in the 1980s (as a consequence of the campaign for nuclear disarmament mutating into ideological opposition to civil nuclear power generation) we would probably by now have solved the technical problems and be extracting uranium from sea water (wherein there is more of it than there is beneath our feet). Must we embrace nuclear power? In the long-run, yes, I think we must. The only thing that will make this unnecessary is the increasing possibility that Nature will soon intervene – and reduce the global human population to pre-Industrial levels (i.e. 1 billion). However, in the meantime, an awful lot of poor people need low-tech solutions. The good news is that such solutions definitely exist and, as Stephen Leahy pointed out over the weekend (reposting an item from over 3 years ago): “Bringing clean energy to billions costs far less than fossil fuel subsidies”. Will we choose to fail or choose to succeed? Just how long, I wonder, until expensive energy (and therefore expensive food) causes social instability? What will our governments do then? Admit they were wrong and make radical changes, or send the Army on to the streets to maintain order? Sadly, I think we know the answer to that one – Jared Diamond gave it to us several years ago:


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
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9 Responses to Life is full of tough choices…

  1. It is early spring so I’m busy cultivating ground for a big investment in food production. Got a new rotorvator to help me and cheap: a honda with 40% off RRP, and why is that? All those parts are currently using cheap energy to manufacture [it’s actually made in Japan so its not cheap labour]. And to cultivate an acre I have gone through a few gallons of fuel, about £25. So to give you an idea of how cheap UK petrol really is that’s 5 horses or 20 men working a couple of days: in comparison £25 for fuel is very cheap. I would pay 4 or 10 times as much as still get a better deal. The landrover is not so much fun: £25 will take me about 75 miles which is fine if I am towing half a house but poor value to go to the supermarket 3 times. But at even twice the price which I reckon will be in about 2016 [say Oct] [my prediction!] fuel is cheap. As for nuclear the UK stopped doing it because of cost not campaigning: it is still a very expensive route but uranium is relatively cheap. Nuclear disarmament was not caused by CND there was that little thing with the fall of the USSR, and besides the problem with fast breeders is they will remain experimental for decades to come. Sure, the UK may have cracked some of the issues if it had been given decades of public funding but the track record of British nuclear was poor. UK nuclear ended up being more expensive and more problematic than the competition. I’m not dismissing nuclear but I want to see the figures. We do have technology and the world’s 2nd largest tidal flow in the Bristol Channel and if we went with the mega project that could be 10% of uk supply twice a day for a 100 years. I would also prefer to see the kind of subsidies seen in Europe on UK rail rather than nuclear. Now is a great time to go shopping for the future- we still have a few gigatonnes of co2 credit [even some oil left over] and borrowing is cheap. We are also in a permanent recession [peak oil 2008!]. Nuclear seems poor value for money so if I ruled the UK then it would be mass transit systems, tidal and wave research [I mean £billions] a subsidised rail, bus and bike and put more duty on fuel to help pay for it. [oh and lots of education]. Solar and wind are in that goldilock zone where they are still cheap to make because of cheapish fossil fuels and twice as efficient as they were just 10 years ago. [they won’t get much better or cheaper] The government bails out the financial system effectively to enable voters to borrow more and go shopping. We are really screwed when the strategy for the future is to encourage shopping! And sadly it is the only future politics can sell, my brilliant plan is a vote loser. People only want what they can deal with which is just like the American dream of some 50s golden age and for us pre 2008. I just made myself depressed!


    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks for some very interesting perspectives, Jules. I am sorry that providing them has made you depressed. I think the Industrial Revolution made it possible to do things faster and on a grand scale (using water then steam then fuel). Therefore, your rotavator will save you time as well as money. However, for most people, transportation costs are now becoming a significant proportion of total expenditure, prompting many to change their behaviour and/or where they live. Surely it is self-evident that cheap energy (i.e. fossil fuels) made the Industrial Revolution possible? Such cheap energy was also used to mechanise agriculture, making it far more productive and far less labour intensive. Taken together, fossil fuels made it possible for the planet to support much greater numbers of humans and for the living standards of a significant minority to improve rapidly. The “trickle-down” effect was, however, a notable absentee. Therefore the end of the era of cheap energy will not be good news for living standards or many billions of people – especially if we fail to plan for the transition and/or fail to preserve fossil fuel use for those processes where its use cannot be substituted. One thing is for sure; there are many far more productive things we could do with fossil fuels than simply burn them. I am not dismissing renewables; I just think that, if by some miracle, billions of people do survive the environmental catastrophe humanity has brought upon itself, we will need nuclear to work in the long-term. However, if the worst-case predictions of the consequences of fossil fuel depletion are right (interruptions to power, food and water supplies) then, I agree with you, we will have neither the need nor the time for high-tech solutions; low-tech solutions will be essential for all: Even your rotavator may be useless if you have no fuel for it. Listening to UK politicians on the television, yesterday, going on and on about the need for growth depressed me too: It simply serves to further validate the “growth is history” message of Richard Heinberg. Therefore, I think we must hope and work towards a better future where, as you say, fulfillment is not found in consuming resources.


  2. Thomas Foster says:

    For some time now the definition of crude oil as “fossil fuel” has disturbed me. All civilizations being based upon combustion we have seized upon this most bountiful of materials with the avidity of the addict. Not until recently was attention paid to the advantages of utilising this substance as a source of chemical compounds. Instead we have squandered it with the recklessness of a wastrel. For all the fine talk of preserving the world for our children’s children (etc) we were and are not prepared to suffer a drop in that hallowed, sacrosanct shibboleth of the 20th Century, the standard of living. In view of the fact that we are all completely, utterly and irretrievable addicted to electricity, there is only one source, for the foreseeable future, which can supply that need, and that is nuclear power. Despite the opposition of the Greens and their compatriots who were and are opposed to this method of power propagation on, it seems to me, mainly emotional grounds. All this, of course, is one of the results of “democracy” where the policies of the day are decided, when all is said and done, by mob choice. Or as it is known in the West, the ballot box. Thank you, Mr. Altman.


    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks “Thomas”. Many interesting points made there; especially the observation that populism has supplanted democracy in our modern world: In ancient Greece, the elders of the community got together to discuss what would be best for their society. It was a very long way from being universal suffrage but it did mean that the power to make decisions was vested in those best-suited to do so. Sadly, in our modern world, the only societies with such an elitist system are also the most corrupt – such as North Korea. However, driven by the fallacy that all opinions are equally valid, universal suffrage has instead bequeathed to us a system wherein we are ruled by professional politicians: People who either do what vested interests tell them to do (i.e. corruption) or do what they think will get them re-elected (i.e. populism). As you correctly imply, I think, neither would be recognised as democracy to by the people of ancient Greece. No system of government is perfect, however. But neither is any inherently evil. For all its faults, the government of Cuba has – borne out of the necessity of needing to be energy efficient – created a highly sustainable society. Sadly, though, many of those in South America that have tried to copy Cuba’s example are still mired in the corruption and intractable inequality that they claimed to be seeking to eliminate.


  3. pendantry says:

    Life is indeed full of tough choices. Sadly, electric cars are not going to be the answer… True, but if one treats idle vehicles as a power source in a smart grid they can go a very long way to help, as they have the potential to spread the base power load. The trouble is, of course, that removing all the subsidies and tax breaks given to the fossil fuel industry (which are delaying the creation of a free market in power generation) will make fossil fuels even more expensive. This is only a ‘trouble’ if one believes that it is fine to go on squandering our remaining resources of ancient stored sunlight. The price must rise, to discourage our continuing mad waste of the precious stuff. While I agree with you that fossoil subsidies hinder the development of renewables, the very fact that we subsidise fossoils in the first place puts the lie to the so-called ‘free market’ economy. […] if our governments had not given up on fast breed reactor programmes in the 1980s […] we would probably by now have solved the technical problems and be extracting uranium from sea water […]. … in which case we would piling up toxic radioactive residues at an even faster pace than we are now, and praying for another technological breakthrough so as to deal with that problem. Oh, and of course ‘fast breeder reactors’ themselves are still just a glimmer in the eye of the wishful thinker. I used to be a credit controller: there’s this concept in that field of ‘not throwing good money after bad’. Technological breakthroughs are impossible to predict. And here you are effectively wishing for not one, but three of them. Have you seen the film ‘A is for Atom‘?


    • Rick Altman says:

      Thanks for commenting Pendanty. I have not watched the embedded video but will do so. In advance of that, I have a few responses to your remarks. Firstly, you appear to be cherry-picking my remarks and turning a conditional statement (about electric cars) into a definitive one. This is what climate change deniers do; and I really think you should be more careful. If you did not mean to do this, can I suggest the use of ellipsis (…) to indicate you are not doing a contextual lobotomy on what I actually said. 🙂 Secondly, as I am sure you are aware, I am 100% in agreement with you regarding the predicament humanity is now in. Therefore, when I use the word “trouble” I am merely acknowledging that the required solution is going to be painful for us all to bear. However, I think you would agree that, if people really understood the nature of the trouble we are already in they would be demanding that fossil fuel use was brought to an end faster than was even the life on Louis XVI. Thirdly, unlike fairies at the bottom of the garden or man-made nuclear fusion vessels, FBRs exist(ed); and their widespread use would solve our nuclear waste problem. I am not be-littling the technical challenges; only lamenting the ideologies that resulted in the abandonment of them. For reasons already stated at length in response to Jules, I am not rabidly pro-nuclear; but neither am I ideologically opposed to it.


      • pendantry says:

        Apologies if my words seem ‘cherry-picked’. I did use ellipses; sorry that you think I didn’t use enough of them. “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” — beginning paragraphs with ‘sadly’-this and ‘the trouble is’-that can give a message other than that which you wish to promote. We’ve agreed before, I think, that concerning nuclear power, you and I are on two sides of an uncrossable ideological divide. I believe that the nuclear power industry lies to us continually and cannot be trusted — not least because the military relies upon some of its incidental side products for some of its more obscene weaponry (I seem to recall we went to war over WMDs, once. Particularly strange that, since it turns out we had them and the other side… didn’t.)


      • Rick Altman says:

        So you did…! Apologies from me also… I think we can agree that the second Iraq War was a disgraceful episode… As I have said to Jules, I too have examined the history of civil nuclear power and concluded it is very murky… However, since I have already explained myself fully in response to Jules’ comments, I will say no more now… other than to suggest that we may not be as far apart on this issue as you might suppose.


  4. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, March 3, 2012 – A Few Things Ill Considered

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