Wednesday, May 09, 2012
Is It Too Late for Environmentalism?
Peak oil, the energy crisis and the "climate hurricane" with expert Robert Rapier. Then green law professor Michael M'Gonigle explains "Exit Environmentalism" - leaving the old campaigns, and maybe society, behind. Radio Ecoshock 120509 1 hour.
Give up hope and exit out of environmentalism? In the UK, deep greener Paul Kingsnorth says he's leaving the climate movement, which is lost anyway. Who else is on the way out the door?
This week we'll hear a challenging interview with one of the co-founders of Greenpeace International. Michael M'Gonigle has been battling since the late 1960's. He teaches environmental law at the University of Victoria in Canada. Two hosts from the podcast "The Extra Environmentalist" interview Michael for Radio Ecoshock - about his new strategy which he calls "Exit Environmentalism". Just in case, we'll top that off with a shot at techno-optimism.
But first, I'll talk with chemical engineer and biofuels specialist Robert Rapier
We go at the fundamentals of the energy crisis - peak oil, Asian demand, speculation and all that. Rapier compares greenhouse gas emissions from Asia to an unstoppable hurricane. I don't agree with everything all our guests say, but Robert takes me closer to "exit environmentalism" with his clear cold logic about the real world we live in.
Brain stimulation from Radio Ecoshock. I'm Alex Smith.
Download just the Robert Rapier interview (CD quality 22 min)
Download just the Michael M'Gonigle interview (26 min CD Quality).
ROBERT RAPIER: IS THE CLIMATE CHANGE DEBATE JUST "ACADEMIC"? WILL AMERICA BECOME AN ENERGY GIANT ONCE AGAIN?
How realistic are biofuels as a replacement for oil? Are we headed for energy independence - or an energy crash?
Power Plays, Energy Options in the Age of Peak Oil".
I called up Robert after reading his article "Why the Debate Over Global Warming Is Academic". It's a new perspective, and I grilled him on it. Here is part of Robert's reply in the Radio Ecoshock interview:
"What is likely to happen is our emissions will probably continue to decline somewhat from here. But Asia-Pacific's emissions are going to continue to grow unabated.
It's not only Asia-Pacific. Africa, the Middle East, South America - all these developing regions are rapidly increasing their fossil fuel consumption. I say it [climate change] becomes "academic" because while we debate and debate how we're going to get our emissions down, the emissions just continue to climb.
The reason I liken it to a hurricane - you know we can talk about whether climate change is going to be really bad and disastrous and so forth, just like when we watched hurricane Katrina come in. The night before it came in, I told my wife, I said 'I'm afraid this is going to destroy New Orleans.' But one thing we didn't talk about is 'Well, how do you stop the hurricane?'
And that's what I see in Asia-Pacific right now. The reason I say it's "academic", I don't see a viable way to stop them from increasing their fossil fuel consumption because they are already at such a low level per capita. So I've likened it to a rich person trying to tell a poor person to live within their means. The poor person is just trying to scratch out a living and increase their standard of living, while the rich person has already done that. We've already increased out emissions from a very low level, and we've gotten to a very high level. We just don't have nearly as many people as they do.
The technology does not exist. No country has developed to a high level of development without fossil fuels. So to imagine that it can be done, we are imagining something that has never been done before."
I offer two points of minor disagreement. First, the people of China and other countries are suffering terribly from air pollution. They may begin to demand clean energy just to preserve their health and their lives. Second, there is a limited amount of oil, and even coal, left. Eventually the pressures generally known as "peak oil" may limit the amount of fossil fuels, and make them uneconomical to use.
I could have offered more reasons, such as an utter economic collapse - which always cuts emissions, or severe and continuing damage from a destabilized climate, which either convinces people and governments to change, or again destroys the infrastructure required for supporting the food system and or industrial society.
Finally, there is always the dreamer's hope that humans will come to understand they are wrecking the future and make a choice to do otherwise.
Robert Rapier offers us some tough realities though. The average American uses 22 barrels of oil a year. To give up one or two barrels may not be that difficult, with some not too painful lifestyle choices. The average Chinese person uses two barrels a year, Rapier tells us. That second barrel may be used for things like the tractor, the irrigation pump, or heating a home. Nobody is going to want to give that up, almost no matter what the cost is. Low fuel consumers are going to be willing to pay much higher prices per liter or gallon, and keep burning it, because they need it so badly.
Frankly, it's very discouraging news in the context of fighting climate change. Rapier is not alone in feeling that battle is lost. I begin the program with a quote from Paul Kingsnorth, the UK deep green thinker behind The Dark Mountain Project.
"And also coming to the conclusion, and it was a very difficult conclusion to admit to myself, but I think lots of people are starting to admit it to themselves now - coming to the conclusion that a lot of the problems that we are facing can't be solved, in the sense that we would like to solve them.
For example, we're not going to stop the climate changing. We're not going to stop the mass extinction event that we're in at the moment. Hopefully we can prevent it from getting any worse than it has to get but we're in it, and it's happening and it's too late to do a lot of things about it."
Is that realism or pessimism? The quote comes from an Orion magazine podcast that I hope to play for you later this season on Radio Ecoshock.
As I have a grandchild that I love, I cannot give up. We are in it. It is happening. But we must do all we can to prevent the worst from happening, and I believe we can.
Continuing with Robert Rapier, I draw on his expertise in biofuels. Can biofuels replace fossil fuels? Absolutely not, he says. The maximum we can expect is ten to twenty percent replacement. Rapier isn't shy about discussing the negative trade-offs with some biofuels, like corn ethanol. He suggests the "holy grail" of biofuels is algae production. That doesn't use up land space, and may be biologically sound. However, so far algae production is not economical on any meaningful scale. More research and development needs to be done.
We also discuss the difference between methanol and ethanol. Methanol is derived from natural gas, so it is not a substitute for fossil fuels. It was tested fairly widely in California a couple of decades ago, and found to be a good fuel. The industrial production methods for methanol are well known. But methanol had less political support. Ethanol has the widespread support of the farm lobby, so politicians like it.
Both ethanol (which is derived from plant material) and ethanol are more corrosive than the gasoline we use now.
At one point, U.S. taxpayers were subsidizing European fuels containing ethanol. The subsidized fuel was blended in the U.S. and then exported to Europe. That ended when the subsidies for ethanol expired at the end of last year.
I ask Robert Rapier about the media hype that America will re-emerge as a world energy giant, due to the "trillions of barrels" of reserves in places like oil shale. Rapier says the U.S. will always be an oil importer, as long as it is able. The so called "reserves" are really rocks containing the beginnings of oil, left unfinished by geological processes. It takes a lot of energy just to finish the process.
Rapier compares these "reserves" in the oil shales of the West, in places like Utah and Wyoming, to the gold in the sea. Yes, there are trillions of dollars’ worth of gold flakes in the oceans. No, we don't have any economical way to retrieve that. Ditto the inflated dreams of billions of barrels of potential oil locked up in the stones of the West.
I highly recommend the Robert Rapier interview. Here is his regular column at Consumer Energy Report.
EXIT ENVIRONMENTALISM, WITH PROFESSOR MICHAEL M'GONIGLE
University of Victoria You tube "Exit Environmentalism" Part 1 61 minute delivered October 27, 2011.
Part 2 Critique and answers 63 min
Be sure to check The Extraenvironmentalist web site for an extended version of this interview with Professor M'Gonigle.
In the interview done for Radio Ecoshock, M'Gonigle questions several aspects of the green model of expectations. For example, we protest and lobby for legislation to be enforced by governments. But that regulation seldom happens - because the legislators depend on the polluters for campaign donations, but even deeper, because governments themselves are the biggest spenders on the growth model that needs to be kept in check. It's pretty profound when a University teacher of green law says the legal system can't work to save us from environmental catastrophe.
I've known Michael M'Gonigle's work for some years. He was one of the founders of Greenpeace International, and then Chair of the Board of Greenpeace Canada. We interviewed Michael about his push to green universities around the world, as models for our next generation of leaders. But M'Gonigle might be the first to say, despite his lifetime of work, we have failed. Mass extinction is already developing, and the climate is already spinning up, possibly out of any control. He works his way through our fallacies, trying to reach new answers. Check out this powerful interview.
In this Radio Ecoshock show we had time for just a quick sample from another podcast from The Extraenvironmentalist. Seth and Ritchie interview Dr. Michael Huesemann author of the book "Techno-Fix". That is Episode number 37.
The Techno-fix podcast runs 1 hour 54 minutes, and I've sliced out a couple of sample running less than 10 minutes. It's definitely just a scratch of the surface, a teaser to encourage you to hear the whole thing.
Still wondering what to think? Is it realistic and cool to hope? Even if the ship is sinking, I must keep on bailing. We'll have more dialogs on the way forward in coming Radio Ecoshock shows, plus news about the three crises: climate change, the energy crisis, and the fragile economy. Keep tuned to Radio Ecoshock at our new web site, at ecoshock.org.
I'm Alex Smith, thank you for listening.