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Synthesis/Regeneration 49   (Spring 2009)

Energy, Environment and Exhortationism

Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society, by Ted Trainer
Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change, by Pat Murphy

reviewed by Don Fitz

The 21st century opened with twin crises barely known a hundred years before: climate change and the impending collapse of energy resources. Both necessitate a social reorientation toward local and global communities that are based on vastly smaller economies. Ironically, it is environmentalists (and those claiming to be environmentalists) who have thrown up major barriers to the community solution. First, the worship of green gadgetry aims to expand production of everything from mercury light bulbs to wind mills, oblivious to the fact that expansion of production is itself the problem.

Ironically, it is environmentalists who have thrown up major barriers to the community solution.

Second, "exhortationism" is the belief that environmental Jesuits must convert individuals to piously consume less, a belief which ignores the economic, political and social realities which force us to consume more.

Ted Trainer's Renewable Energy and Pat Murphy's Plan C document the absurdity of schemes to buy our way out of ecological catastrophe. Yet, despite their enormous contribution to understanding the potential of living a simpler way, both authors fall prey to the illusion that individual acts of conscience can substitute for igniting social movements.

Debunking green nirvana

To adherents of shallow green consumerism, images of solar and wind power exude a nirvana-like mystique. The title of Trainer's book smacks this eco-naivetā between the eyes and its content gives the coup-de-grÉce. Trainer poses two intertwined questions: Can renewable energy be produced in sufficient abundance to meet current demand? and, Can renewable energy satisfy an unlimited expansion of greed? After exhaustively demonstrating that an answer of "yes" to the first question is highly unlikely, he renders the second question inane. He notes that if the rest of the world consumed like the US, all coal, oil, natural gas and uranium would be exhausted in 20 years.

Solar and wind power share similar limitations that prevent a corporate society from utilizing them for more than a small fraction of expanding power needs. Optimal sources are often not near the points of greatest need, meaning a large quantity of power will be lost transferring them from one place to another. And both are unavailable during several vital times - solar during darkness and wind when the air is still.

...both solar and wind power require backup energy sources which would become highly inefficient in a society relying on renewables.

Thus, both solar and wind power require backup energy sources which would become highly inefficient in a society relying on renewables. A coal plant is most efficient when operating at maximum capacity continuously. If coal was used as a back up to renewables, it would have to be running inefficiently at minimum capacity and then revved up when the renewables were down.

The only way to resolve the "fluctuation problem" of solar and wind would be to store their energy. But this doesn't work. Solar batteries are far too costly and there is no way to store energy from wind power in anything like the quantities corporate economics demands. Even if this could be resolved, large amounts of energy would be lost transferring renewable energy to storage and back again, meaning that even more energy would be required to construct and operate a much larger number of solar panels and wind mills.

Solar and wind enthusiasts claim that there are vast untapped sources for both. Trainer cites considerable data demonstrating that sources are, in fact, very limited. The best locations for both solar and wind have already been utilized, meaning that future sites will have less wind speed, less sunlight, or be further from population centers and involve greater loss of energy during transference.

The fluctuation/backup problem is severe. Trainer calculates that an expanding economy would need one new coal (or nuclear) plant for an equivalent amount of energy supplied by renewable sources.

The dynamics of a market economy make it unlikely that solar and wind will ever provide much more than a few percentage points of global energy. Large wind farms cannot be cheaper than coal because wind cannot operate continuously at maximum capacity as do coal plants. When subtle costs are taken into account, a photovoltaic solar system would be 34 times as expensive as a coal system providing an equivalent amount of energy.

...an expanding economy would need one new coal (or nuclear) plant for an equivalent amount of energy supplied by renewable sources.

Could hydrogen storage save the day? Even more unlikely. Largely because it is the smallest element, hydrogen escapes from containers even more easily than does oil. For every unit of electricity stored as hydrogen, four would have to be generated. Trainer calculates that only 7-18% of windmill energy stored as hydrogen could actually be used.

Hydrogen is so bulky that transporting it as energy would require that 1 in every 7 trucks on the road be a hydrogen tanker. To even get it to a form where it can be transported, hydrogen must be compressed so intensely that a hydrogen truck would explode with 100 times the danger of an oil truck.

Trainer is not suggesting that renewable energy would play no role in a downsized society. He points out that dynamics are totally different if the economy decreases by 90% or more. He claims to have changed his lifestyle to using only 2% of the energy of that typical of his Australian countrymen - and since he regularly sends email, he can accomplish that while maintaining computer access.

Shrinking the economy

In providing the data to shoot down the idols of green gadgetry, Renewable Energy is thorough, but often tedious to plough through. In contrast, Plan C is an "easy read." With intriguing facts and tables, Pat Murphy pulls his reader into an understanding of the obscene wastefulness of corporate society.

Murphy calls the business-as-usual denial of problems "Plan A." "Plan B" is the shallow green approach of searching for techno-fixes (which should include renewable energy). His own "Plan C" is curtailing to a smaller economy. And "Plan D" is despondency and despair.

Perhaps the single greatest contribution of Murphy's work is his compelling argument that an expanding economy has failed to produce a better quality of life. Homes, for example. Having three times more space per person in the average US home (since the 1950's) squanders enormous energy without any evidence of increased happiness. The alternative is moderately sized homes based on passive heating, and Murphy's book provides one of the best brief descriptions available.

The huge increase in the number of cars has been accompanied by more fatalities, traffic frustrations and toxins. The "smart jitney" (similar to a private taxi) system that Murphy outlines would decrease the environmental tragedies associated with cars as a city moves away from reliance on private automobiles.

Plan C data for food in America reveals a system that devotes just 4% of cropland to fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes while using 62% of corn for CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). The sharp increase in the agricultural and food sector of the economy is due almost entirely to non-nutritional food, chemicalization of agriculture, packaging, processing, transporting and meat. Almost none of the increase in the sector can be attributed to an increase in good food.

Two by two

Renewable Energy and Plan C brilliantly demonstrate that green technologies, including solar and wind power, can be positive only if they are part of a solution based on building local communities which require much, much less energy. But their plans to create those communities contradict their original hypotheses. It is as if each author is writing two different books. The first book is an exposā of green capitalism. The second book advocates individual lifestyle changes, and is, in essence, a call to build a new society without building social movements.

...an expanding economy has failed to produce a better quality of life.

Their proposals for ultra-individualistic solutions are totally out of sync with what they outline as a social problem. It brings to mind Ronnie Cummins' description of Libertarian Narcissism:

Libertarian Narcissism (noun), promoting individual solutions for collective problems; believing that market pressure alone can bring out-of-control corporations under control; ignoring the plight of the poor; pretending major problems can be solved without serious grassroots organizing and government reform.[1]

I prefer the term "exhortationism." It reminds me of the early attempts of the Bolsheviks to build a new economic system by exhorting the population to sacrifice more and work harder. It failed miserably, just as latter-day eco-saints will fail in attempts to browbeat the public to suffer for a greater glory.

Trainer's approach to problem resolution is odd. Throughout the first part of his book, he repeatedly demonstrates that problems with renewable energy which might seem solvable when addressed by themselves become insurmountable when conceptualized as part of the big energy picture. His argument assumes that a system is different from the sum of separate components. But he forgets his own premise when confronting human social systems. Trainer is like the Gestalt psychologist who teaches that a perception is not the mere summation of various stimuli but cannot imagine that a society is different than the sum of isolated individuals.

In his opening chapter Trainer cautions his readers against relying on tech-fix approaches to community problems. But instead of offering policy changes that would downsize the economy, he offers his own lifestyle change as the sine qua non of a new society. He insists that "there is no other possible way" than personal choice (p. 154). Warning against attempts to alter governmental policy, he asserts that a "transition cannot be imposed." (p. 153).

Murphy's contradictions are even more extreme. After a profound and clear demonstration of the need to change from a growing to a contracting economy, he tunnel visions on paths that have no possibility of accomplishing his goal. Murphy coaches his reader "Big changes begin with personal changes" (p. 119); ".there is little energy use that does not come down to the individual" (p. 138); "The most straightforward way to reduce climate change . is to . eat differently" (p. 219) and "It is necessary to begin with personal change - national change will follow." (p. 218) He even cautions readers that without personal sacrifice ".group action will have little effect." (p. 229)

Nowhere is libertarian narcissism better exemplified that in the two authors' treatment of militarism. The word "military" does not appear in Trainer's index and he peeps not a word explaining how lifestyle choices will slay the military-industrial Grendel. Murphy, on the other hand, has an outstanding chapter detailing exorbitant military spending, which, for the US, exceeds military expenditures of all other nations combined. Yet abolishing militarism is absent from his proposed solutions.

Just what would they suggest? Readers are left scratching their heads wondering how oil depletion, greenhouse gases, and toxic emissions from military production are caused and can be corrected by choices of average citizens.

Exhorting a little mountain

Let's take a look at fallacies of exhortationism, which plague not just Renewable Energy and Plan C but a small mountain of environmental writing. The belief that badgering people to change their lifestyles can substitute for a program of national and global environmental action is every bit as damaging as faith in unlimited growth.

First, exhortationism accomplishes little more than the widening of the gulf between the exhorter and the exhorted. After a few condescending lectures from more-environmental-than-thou lifestyle enthusiasts, most people stop listening to them. They may also stop listening to well reasoned arguments about the social change necessary to make individual changes possible. Exhortationism may actually harm the overall goal.

Second, focusing on personal change bolsters reactionary social ideologies. Those wishing to preserve the status quo fondly advise "Free your mind instead." Remember the US civil rights struggles of the 50s and 60s. Racists like Strom Thurmond preached that integration should be an individual responsibility for whites who chose to make lifestyle changes. He warned against the horrors of forcing whites to do anything. Had the civil rights movement abandoned struggles for legal action and focused on exhorting individual whites to do the right thing, the US would still have segregated lunchrooms, buses, schools and rest rooms.

Readers are left...wondering how greenhouse gases from military production can be corrected by choices of average citizens.

Third, exhortationism aids corporate environmentalism. Though Renewable Energy and Plan C are not at all hesitant to finger corporations as the source of problems, they vehemently insist that solutions lie in the hands of individuals. "Corporate environmentalism" can be defined as any attempt to resolve ecological problems that lets corporations off the hook.

Trainer's argument that changes must not be "imposed" through the legal system goes beyond implying that civil rights laws should be repealed. It means that there should be no prohibition on smoking in public, no penalties for driving on the wrong side of the road, no restrictions on toxic emissions or clearcut logging, and no limitations on personal or corporate ownership of nuclear weapons. Exhortationism and laissez-faire environmentalism share much in common.

Fourth, volunteerism trivializes whatever problem it claims to address. If spouse abuse is frivolous, it requires nothing more than an optional discussion with a pastor or counselor. If spouse abuse is important, it can earn jail time. Advocating that environmental changes should be brought about voluntarily is an announcement that such problems do not merit much attention. Corporations gleefully endorse the lifestyle approach because it diverts attention from challenging social power.

Fifth, exhortationism fails to recognize limitations on choices. Exhorting people to ride buses is pointless to those who live in cities which are massively cutting back on mass transit routes. Exhortations for people to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables can come only from those who do not frequent low income neighborhoods where there is an absence of quality food within walking distance. Exhorting people to heat their homes more efficiently reflects a blind eye to those who have nothing more than space heaters available.

Sixth, exhortationism is just plain silly. If pontificating that people should stop being bad and start being good was an effective way to alter mass behavior, then no one would smoke or drink. No one would have casual sex without a condom. Obesity would disappear. Environmental authors: It's time to grow up. Climate change and oil depletion are far too serious for Pollyannaish flights from reality.

...the lifestyle approach...diverts attention from challenging social power.

Seventh, exhortationism is economic nonsense. Calls for people to "do without" and "sacrifice" are pointless not just because they will fall on deaf ears but also because, if, in some mythical world, 90% of the population followed the exhortationist call, it would have no effect on levels of production or greenhouse gases. It is a no brainer that if 90% of society did the right thing, the gluttonous 10% remaining would hog up their consumption and offset any decrease.

But 90% of society would not be able to do the right thing because they need something called a job. I've yet to see an employer who says, "Oh, you've figured out how to get by on working one day a week. Fine, I'll cheerfully give you full health coverage and retirement benefits while you slash your hours." If, instead, people decided to not spend 80% of what they make, what would happen with their savings? Into the bank it would go, so someone else would invest it and grow the economy, maybe even more than would have happened if the person had spent it her/himself.

What makes a shirt environment-friendly?

For another economics example, visualize shirts. Suppose that a typical man owns 30 shirts at any one time and that each lasts 5 years, meaning that he must purchase 6 per year to maintain 30. What is an environmentalist to do about the cotton plantations, manufacturing and transportation that requires? The solution is relatively simple. Require all shirts to be manufactured to a 10 year standard (so everyone can maintain 30 shirts while buying half as many) and reduce the work week a little so no one goes without a job.

But, uh-oh, the exhortationist will have nothing to do with such a solution because it would "impose" social justice on the shirt manufacturer, who would make less profit. Instead, let's blame the victim, tell shirt-wearing men that they are the source of the problem and exhort them to get by with only 24 shirts. What would shirt manufacturers do? What manufacturers have been doing studiously ever since WWII - produce worse quality goods to force an increase in purchases.

The new line of shirts lasts for 4 years instead of 5 and the typical man must buy 6 shirts each year to keep 24 in his closet. What, exactly, has been accomplished? The same number of shirts is produced; the amount of greenhouse gases and land damage are identical; and the manufacturer has the same profit. The only thing that has changed is that, thanks to exhortationism, men now have fewer shirts. And one other possible result. The shirt manufacturer funnels some money into the exhortationist's non-for-profit so he can continue to preach that people must make lifestyle changes rather than explore legislative options.

This brings up a central error that both Renewable Energy and Plan C make but actually applies to virtually all environmental and social justice writing. It is the assumption of a strong connection between production and consumption - the belief that if society produces more then it has more to consume. This equating of production and consumption results in "consumption-side environmentalism" or the theory that resolving environmental problems means reducing the amount that people consume. [2]

In contrast, "production-side environmentalism" recognizes that since roughly the time of WWII, economic growth has had very little to do with anything that increases the quality of life. Growth has been due to production that is dangerous (military), luxurious (private planes), wasteful (plastic bags), intentionally obsolescent (most consumer goods) or unnecessary (houses with three times as much space per person). Since economic growth has not increased consumption (in any meaningful sense of the term), it follows that the economy can be dramatically reduced with little to no decrease in useful consumption.

...the economy can be dramatically reduced with little to no decrease in useful consumption.

If this seems abstract, think of militarism (which neither Trainer nor Murphy does in their proposed solutions). Decreasing military production by 99% would have an enormous effect on global warming and would produce no decrease in consumption.[3]

When Trainer equates production and consumption throughout Renewable Energy, he misses the critical fact that the vast majority of the decreases he advocates could best be accomplished by redesigning cities, consumer goods, food production, etc. Instead, his consumption-side environmentalism has the convoluted implication that corporations should be allowed/encouraged to produce whatever junk they feel like and people should then be exhorted not to buy it. A mistaken focus on consumption is the essence of what Murphy describes as Plan C: "The key action is to curtail. That means buying less, using less, wanting less and wasting less." [p. 113, emphasis in original] [4]

Reading Renewable Energy and Plan C is an intellectual roller coaster. This idea is fantastic. Then, the next page is in outer space. Followed by an unforgettable insight. And then, "What is this guy thinking?"

Hopefully, as both authors ponder the contradiction of advocating individual solutions to social problems, they will consider the massive squandering built into the structure of corporate economics. Maybe then they would collaborate on developing a legislative agenda to halt production processes that are at the root of environmental nightmares. That would be a book well worth reading.

Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society, by Ted Trainer. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2007, 197 pp. $66.06. ISBN-13: 978-1-4020-5548-5 (HB)
Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change, by Pat Murphy. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2008, 317 pp. $19.95. ISBN-13: 978-0-86571-607-0

Don Fitz edits Synthesis/Regeneration and produces Green Time TV in St. Louis.


1. Cummins, R. Beyond progressive malpractice, Synthesis/Regeneration 48, Winter, 2009, p. 35

2. Fitz, D. Production-side environmentalism, Synthesis/Regeneration 47, Fall 2008, pp 2-7

3. Actually, reduction in military production would result in an increase in consumption since fewer consumer goods and social infrastructure would be blown up.

4. Murphy's argument that most waste occurs during the use (rather than manufacture) of goods is specious, since goods are designed to waste energy during their use phase.

[26 sep 09]

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