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Synthesis/Regeneration 44   (Fall 2007)

Consume, Consume, Consume
Can Efficiency and Renewables Stop Global Warming?

by Don Fitz

Would someone please tell the Sierra Club Exec Board that the idea of an “environmentally friendly car” makes as much sense as a “non-violent death penalty?” While the vast majority of those concerned with global warming consider reduction of unneeded production to be at the core of a sane policy, the Sierra Club has endorsed a plan that includes virtually no role for conservation.

In January 2007, the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) released the 180 page document, Tackling Climate Change in the U.S. [1] Typical of big enviro analyses, it assumes a corporate dominated growth economy. Its novelty is its highly technical studies which claim to compute how much CO2 emissions can be offset by energy efficiency (EE) and renewable energy.

Typical of big enviro analyses, it assumes a corporate dominated growth economy.

Teaming up with ASES to present the study to Congress, the Sierra Club enthusiastically wrote that “energy efficiency and renewables alone can achieve a 60–80% reduction in global warming emissions by 2050.” [2] Adding the key word “alone” in the first paragraph of its release indicated that the Sierra Club wanted to be sure that politicians and corporate donors understood that it has no intention of criticizing the large quantity of unnecessary junk created by corporate America.

The ASES/Sierra report presents global warming as if to downplay its dangers. The introduction documents the need to limit greenhouse-induced temperature increases to 1 degree C above 2000 levels, which means limiting atmospheric CO2 to 450–500 parts per million. Otherwise, there will be massive sea level rises and species extinction.

Those who do not read appendices might get the impression that global warming could be stopped once it reaches this point and people see how bad it is. Of course, this is not so. The most insidious aspect of global warming is that rising temperatures and CO2 levels will reach a point of no return. It is only in the appendix that the reader learns that once those levels are reached, the earth will be so changed that temperature rise will be self-perpetuating even if industrial activity were to grind to a halt.

What ain’t there

Solar power, wind power and energy efficiency (EE) play vital roles in reducing CO2. The rub is the role of conservation, or reduction of total production. For “deep greens,” the most basic goal is social change that would foster the reduction of energy. For “shallow greens,” conservation is, at best, something to give lip service to while tunnel visioning on eco-gadgets.

More blatant than the typical big enviro analysis, the ASES/Sierra report trivializes conservation as “doing without” or “deprivation.” [3] It presents a vast array of technological playthings, some of which are quite good and some of which are less than environmental. What is most revealing is what it does not include. It discusses transportation without using the word “bicycle” or “walking.”

For “deep greens,” the most basic goal is social change that would foster the reduction of energy.

It looks at efficient building design with no discussion of using empty buildings or designing buildings to last longer than 50 years. The report that Carl Pope boasts is “now the official Sierra Club global warming strategy” has an extended discussion of home heating and cooling without mentioning the word “tree.” [4] Descriptions of wondrous ways to make EE buildings don’t let on that manufacturing a ton of cement creates a ton of CO2. [5]

In the analysis of energy efficiency, the phrase “organic agriculture” never appears, there is no mention of the massive use of petrochemicals or factory farms and there is zero concern with the fact that the average American food item travels 1300 miles from farm to plate. [6] The strange approach to EE does not question the cancerous growth of household appliances, planned obsolescence, or corporate creation of artificial desires for unneeded products.

The authors have no comment on enormous waste in medical care or huge insurance buildings which drain energy while creating nothing of value. The chapters on transportation, such as plug-in hybrid electric cars, ignore the fact that air traffic in the United Kingdom will double by 2030, at which time it will have more effect on global warming than automobiles. [7] The call for a 10-fold increase in biomass says nothing about effects of monocultures, deforestation, genetic engineering or pesticide usage.

Those approaches left out of the big enviro plan for energy efficiency share something: they are common sense low tech or no tech solutions which involve reducing the quantity of production and energy use with no decrease in the quality of life. They have something else in common: they do not involve the swelling of corporate profits via increased manufacture.

When is energy efficiency not efficient?

Almost as much as solar and wind power, energy efficiency is becoming the unquestioned mantra of solutions to global warming. Refrigerators that use 75% less energy are a plus. Even better would be the German-designed Passivhaus, which is so well insulated that it has zero heating and cooling systems. [8]

EE is good. But projections about what it can offer are sometimes hallucinogenic. This is the case with the ASES/Sierra claim that EE can offset global warming by 57%. [9]

The first limitation on EE is the old maxim that the more parts there are to a system, the more parts there are to break. The ASES/Sierra report reads like an encyclopedia of techno-fix gadgets for buildings, cars and holes in the earth. Each item involves increased industrial interdependence. As resources come to be in short supply from exhaustion or wars or hoarding, the future is likely to see a decline in the ability to patch up interconnected systems. Becoming more dependent on them begs for industrial breakdown.

Another factor that works against EE is the law of diminishing returns. Joseph Tainter [10] explained that societies begin to collapse when resources are drained to meet the needs of increasing complexity. Similarly, the biggest impact of discoveries comes when they are first introduced. That’s when there is the greatest energy return on energy invested. Additional refinements tend to cost more and yield less.

Oil was cheap and easy to obtain when it oozed to the surface. As time goes on, oil becomes more expensive to pump, the available quantity decreases, and the quality worsens. The biggest impact of drugs came with antibiotics. Now we are bombarded with ads for new drugs that cost more to research but have fewer advantages over the previous generation of drugs.

Technocrats tend to have faith in unlimited potential for EE. The truth is that we have probably seen most of the largest efficiency impacts and future changes will mainly be refinements that offer less and less improvement.

… we have probably seen most of the largest efficiency impacts and future changes will mainly be refinements that offer less and less improvement.

The greatest difficulty for EE is the market economy, which corporate environmentalists love so much and understand so little. Corporations do not compete to make less money. They compete to increase their profits. Market forces compel each corporation to expand production as rapidly as possible. When more efficient heating is available, corporations selling it will encourage customers to turn up their thermostats and run around in their underwear in the middle of winter.

People live commuting distances from work. The automobile has lengthened that distance. Fuel efficient cars will do nothing to affect that distance or the expanding miles of road, the loss of habitat that accompanies road construction, space for parking or energy used in manufacturing cars.

It is not hard to visualize yuppies feeling so smug about their EE apartment in New York that they buy an EE home in Phoenix, an EE condo in Chicago, a hybrid car for each city, and a helicopter modified to run on biofuels for shuttling between cities. Energy efficiency is not efficient when some individual items are more efficient, but the overall quantity of items increases so much that the total mass of energy used goes up instead of down. Like it or not, that is the irredeemable compulsion of market economics.

This is not to say that EE plays no role in preventing the planet from frying. It is to say that EE must be accompanied with an intense program of conservation, economic redesign and governmental regulation. Without these, EE in a market economy is not merely worthless, but will likely result in expanded production and increased global warming.

Invasion of the techno-babblers

Anyone who has ever fought an incinerator, cement kiln or coal plant knows that you’ve lost the struggle if you ever let industry suck you into an argument about which pollution control device should be tacked on after toxins have been created. The only genuine solution is the easy one — to prevent the creation of the poisons in the first place.

If someone tries to sell an incinerator or an EE system that’s too complicated to understand, that could indicate it’s a bad idea. Making things simple is typically the route of greatest efficiency.

A narrow focus on technology seeks to replace a gew-gaw with a doo-dad, and when that doesn’t work, come up with a gizmo. Techno-babble sputters forth from the belief that social problems can be solved in a quest for the ultimate gadget. Oblivious to social reasons for global warming, the ASES/Sierra report claims that whatever greenhouse gas problems remain after EE can be solved with six renewable technologies: concentrating solar power, photovoltaics, wind power, biomass, biofuels and geothermal power. [11] The last three of these are techno-babble.

“Biomass” is largely an effort to turn whatever wildlands remain on this planet to energy crop monocultures. Not surprisingly, the word “ecology” does not appear in the ASES chapter on biomass. What is surprising is the subsection on “Urban residues” which discusses the use of municipal solid waste as feedstock for heat conversion to electricity. This is a polite way of saying that environmentalists should endorse spewing incinerator poisons into city air and abandon the notion of not generating waste.

“Biomass” is largely an effort to turn whatever wildlands remain on this planet to energy crop monocultures.

“Geothermal power” does not have such offensive associations. But less than 0.1% of geothermal energy is within three kilometers of the surface, which makes it currently recoverable. [12] Suggesting that yet-to-be-perfected techniques of recovery might allow geothermal to provide 20% of US energy is pure speculation. It cannot be part of a serious energy strategy.

One of the more shameful chapters of the report concerns “Biofuels.” It has nothing against corn ethanol. It only rejects using corn grain to produce ethanol on the basis that the 10 million gallons of ethanol which could be manufactured from US corn would represent only 5% of this country’s gasoline demand. It pays no attention to issues brought up the same month in a Scientific American article that (1) refining ethanol uses more energy than it produces, and (2) ethanol requires “robbing food crops to make fuel.” [13] The lack of concern with either ethanol efficiency or world hunger renders the Sierra-endorsed report less ecologically-minded than Scientific American, the prototype of techno-hype publications.

The chapter clings to the hope that ethanol could be produced if, instead of using corn grain, “residues from corn and wheat crops” made up the feedstock. [14] There are several problems with this “cellulose” strategy. First, as with geothermal, making ethanol from cornstalks is so highly speculative that it has no place in long term projections. If it could be done, it would be from genetically engineering corn to make it more amenable to separating sugars from lignin. There has already been plenty of genetic contamination of foodstocks. Additional genetic engineering is exactly what agriculture does not need.

The biggest problem with cellulosic ethanol is that it assumes that soil should be nothing more than a sterile medium for growing crops and that “residue” has no part in replenishing soil. Just as the Forest Service under Bill Clinton brought us “salvage logging” based on the belief that decaying wood has no significance for forest ecosystems, Hillary Clinton might usher in the concept that decaying cornstalks have no contribution to soil ecosystems.

… cellulosic ethanol … assumes that soil should be nothing more than a sterile medium for growing crops and that “residue” has no part in replenishing soil.

Those who fixate on biofuels don’t seem to grasp that keeping natural fertilizers out of the soil means relying more on petrochemical fertilizers. With a straight face they are proposing to reduce oil use in cars by increasing use of oil-based fertilizers.

Nine million percent increase?

Once the fads have been pitched, energy from solar and wind remain as the tried and true brakes on global warming. No one denies that they are essential. The question is: Are they enough? Can solar and wind energy allow the world, especially the US, to continue uncontrolled growth in production? Or must there be a massive redesign of the economy for them to work?

The belief that solar and wind technology can provide sufficient energy tends to overlook several factors:

Let’s combine these to get an idea of how much solar and wind would need to increase to meet energy demands by 2050.

First, the US consumes about 25% of the world’s energy while having only 5% of the world’s population. [15] This suggests that for the rest of the world to consume at the rate of the US would require global production to increase by a factor of 6.33.

People in the US constantly hear the message that they need to be unhappy if they do not consume like the wealthiest. The rest of the world does not look to skid row as their model for consumption — they also look at the wealthiest in the US. Though it’s not clear what level of wealth should be used, let’s use the 5% figure. This means that the value of 6.33 should be squared to give 40.0 as the amount that world production would have to increase for everyone to consume at the level of the wealthiest 5% of the US.

Population will probably slow its growth rate but still increase by 50% between 2007 and 2050. [16] By 2050, production would need to increase by a factor of 40 x 1.5 = 60.

The market economy must grow or die. An average 2% growth rate would mean an increase by about 2 1/3 times between 2007 and 2050. A 3% growth rate would result in an increase over 3 ½ times. A 2.5% growth rate would result in slightly less than a tripling of production by 2050. Using the 2.5% average growth rate projects that production would need to grow by 60 x 3 = 180.

During that time, solar and wind would need to replace other energy sources. According to the US Energy Information Administration, renewable energy accounted for 6% of all 2003 energy, and of that 6%, only 1% was from solar and 2% from wind (the rest coming from biomass, geothermal and hydroelectric). This means that solar and wind comprise .06 x (.01 + .02) = .0018 of US energy. [17] Accounting for less than 0.2% of energy, solar and wind would have to increase by a factor of over 500 to replace other energy. Multiplying the 500-fold increase in solar/wind by the 180-fold increase in production means that energy from solar/wind would have to increase by a factor of 90,000 by 2050 for people throughout the world to consume at the rate of the richest 5% in the US.

Replacement of non-renewables with solar/wind power would be a bit more than a weekend retrofit. Wind power requires 1.1 years of use to generate as much energy as used in manufacture and the figure for solar is 2–4 years. [18] The price of solar power is falling, but it would need to plummet to replace fossil fuels. Though it takes 25–35 years for PV cells to pay for themselves, their life expectancy is only 25 to 30 years. [19]

Total energy use in the US is currently about 100 quads. A quad is equivalent to a quadrillion (a one followed by 15 zeroes) Btu. In his classic The Party’s Over, Richard Heinberg observes that

… to produce 18 quads of wind power in the US by 2030 would require the installation of something like half a million state-of-the-art turbines…That is five times the present world production capacity for turbines...[M]ost of the energy needed for that undertaking would have to come from dwindling fossil fuels. [20]

An even bigger problem is that people would be consuming voraciously at the same time they were constructing a massive new energy infrastructure. Where would the energy for this gargantuan orgy of consumption/construction come from? Would it mean pumping every drop of oil out of the ground to move the new equipment across the globe? Would it require blowing the top off of every sacred mountain that had coal in it? Would it demand mining enough uranium to melt down nukes in every country? Would it mean extracting every cubic foot of natural gas so there was none left for heating by the time 2050 arrives?

… people would be consuming voraciously at the same time they were constructing a massive new energy infrastructure.

Switching to solar/wind by 2050 might involve the most intense use of fossil and nuclear fuels the world has ever seen. That’s not a good way to prevent global warming.

If they don’t have Nieman-Marcus cards, let them eat bullets

Squeals of the techno-freaks pierce the calculations of the previous section. “Those numbers don’t make sense! No one advocates the rest of the world living like the US. Certainly not like the richest in the US.”

There does seem to be a contradiction here. Projections for energy use in 2050 do not include Africa, Asia and Latin America consuming like the US. But big enviro likes big business and big business cannot survive without broadcasting across the globe that everyone should “Buy, buy, buy” as they sink into the void of US-produced TV.

This brings up yet another energy hog that is notably missing from the ASES/Sierra report: the military. According to the February 2007 Energy Bulletin, the Pentagon is the single largest consumer of oil in the world. Only 35 countries consume more oil. The official figure of 320,000 barrels of oil per day used only includes vehicle transport and facility maintenance. [21]

It does not include oil for manufacture of vehicles, oil for building and dismantling military facilities, oil used in rebuilding foreign buildings that the military blows up, oil for construction of roads, or lost ability of plants to sequester CO2 when green space is destroyed by the military. It does not include oil involved with the military’s partners, NASA and the nuclear industry.

… the Pentagon is the single largest consumer of oil in the world.

It may not be an accident that a report which totally ignores the military in discussion of EE makes projections based on the assumption that the rest of the world will never be able to consume like the US. The only way the shallow green fantasy of solving CO2 emissions by EE and renewables makes any sense whatsoever is by assuming that the military will continue business as usual to keep third world levels of consumption starvingly low.

Though it is conceivable that big enviro could look at EE for the military, it might prove a bit embarrassing. They would have to present data that the kill rate for Serbs, Afghans and Iranians could be as high with tanks based on wind power as petro-power. Imagine that yuppie who takes his biofuel helicopter from New York to Phoenix to Chicago suddenly jet-setting off to Israel to demonstrate how effective solar powered bulldozers can be for leveling Palestinian homes.

Hard questions/Tough reality Perpetual motion machines, biomass and biofuels will not halt species extinction caused by climate change. Again, efficiency and solar and wind power are critical components of a sustainable society. But focusing on them diverts attention from the real issues that need to be addressed — how to dramatically reduce energy production while improving the quality of life. This is the basis for the hard questions that big enviro avoids.

For example, the US needs to reduce the number of cars on the road by at least 95% and make sure the few that are manufactured are hybrids. How can the US economy be reorganized so that auto workers and refinery workers have jobs comparable to jobs that they now have?

Many poor countries depend on destructive industries such as oil. How can the world economy be reorganized so they increase their standard of living while altering what they produce?

It is well known that greenhouse gas reduction requires population reduction, which can best be accomplished by reducing the gap between rich and poor and achieving equality for women. How do we reverse the right wing pattern of increasing disparity?

The global economy is increasing production of high-energy goods such as roads, cars, airplanes, fast food, meat and endless mountains of consumer crap. How do we change this to production of low-energy goods that people actually need, such as locally grown organic food, preventive health care and clothes and homes that endure?

The creation of artificial wants for new objects is exploding like genetically engineered diseases in a bio-defense lab. How do we convince big enviro that it is not “sacrifice” or “deprivation” to focus on manufacturing items that people actually need and that will last?

We all want to believe that our checks to the Sierra Club or Nature Conservancy do some good in the long run and that they are just a little slow to do the right thing. The tough reality is that big enviro is doing bad things that lead in the wrong direction.

The most basic task for stopping global warming is having a moral, ethical and spiritual revolution based on the belief that excessive crap is bad. Reduction of unnecessary production is the antithesis of what corporations are all about. However destructive it is for the planet, corporations must seek to convince people to consume more and more.

Enter big enviro telling people that excessive consumption is not bad at all because it gives the consumer the ability to effect change with purchasing power. The erudite techno-magician waves his wand, uttering “Don’t look at the mounds of discarded junk that go into landfills. Look over here at the fabulous eco-gadgets of our corporate friends.”

Big enviro may be doing more to preserve the ethos of self-devouring consumerism than big corporations could ever do. What a surprise to learn that the Sierra Club has a history of obtaining funds from Chemical Bank, ARCO and British Petroleum. [22] Big enviro just may deliver to big oil what it most needs — faith that a market economy can protect the planet.

Karl Marx once said something to the effect that if there were only two capitalists left, they would compete to see which would sell the rope to hang the other one. A modern version might be that if the planet was so roasted that only two big enviro groups remained, they would compete to see which could get a grant from big oil to show that what was left of the world could be saved by consumer choices.


1. Kutscher, C.F. (Ed.) Tackling climate change in the U.S.: Potential carbon emissions reduction from energy efficiency and renewable energy by 2030. American Solar Energy Society, 2007. http://www.ases.org/climate change

2. Sierra Club, Renewable energy experts unveil report. Sierra club press release, January 31, 2007. Contact Josh Dorner, josh.dorner@sierraclub.org

3. Swisher, J.N. Overall energy efficiency, in Kutscher, 41

4. Sierra Club, 1.

5. Monbiot, G. Heat: How to stop the planet from burning. South End Press, 2007, 198.

6. Heinberg, R. The party’s over. New Society Publishers, 2003, 195.

7. Monbiot, 171.

8. Ibid, 68.

9. Kutscher, 3.

10. Tainter, J. The collapse of complex societies, Cambridge University Press, 1988.

11. Kutscher.

12. Vorum, M. & Tester, J.W. Geothermal energy, in Kutscher, 150.

13. Wald, M.L. Is ethanol for the long haul? Scientific American. January 2007, 44, 49.

14. Sheehan, J.J. Biofuels, in Kutscher, 138.

15. Stix, G., A climate repair manual. Scientific American, September 2006, p. 47.

16. World Population Information. http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/world.html

17. Heinberg, 153.

18. Monbiot, 125, 248.

19. Ibid, 130.

20. Heinberg, 155–156.

21. Karbuz, S., US military oil pains. Energy Bulletin, February 17, 2007 http://www.energybulletin.net/26194.html

22. Tokar, B., Earth for sale. South End Press, 1997.

[2 jan 08]

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