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Synthesis/Regeneration 57   (Winter 2012)

The Great Divide

by Henry Robertson

Greenhouse gas emissions set a world record last year. This is a planetary emergency. We may have hit peak oil. This is an economic emergency. More and more people are trying to do something about these crises, either in their personal lives or in the public arena, but the forces that profit from destruction are too strong. Effectively nothing is being done.

It would help if the environmental movement could get its act together. All these groups and individuals need to agree on a common energy platform and push it relentlessly. It shouldn’t be that hard. Just about all of us can agree that energy conservation, efficiency and renewable energy are the essential planks in the platform.

In fact this consensus is only apparent. It’s split by a chasm so deep that most environmentalists don’t acknowledge to others or even to themselves that it exists. The people on either side belong to the same organizations, are on the same listservs and conference calls, yet the conflict never seems to come into the open. This divide runs through individuals as well as through the movement.

Our choice is between industrialism and de-industrialization.

We’re at a fork in the road where it seems we must choose one path or the other with no turning back. One fork is a broad highway, the other a dirt track. Our choice is between industrialism and de-industrialization. We children of the industrial age know our own era well. Even if we profess to hate it, we are part of it and it is part of us. We know the de-industrial only as the pre-industrial we read about in history books, although it’s still going on in many parts of the world. We fear it or idealize it.

The future of industrialism as envisioned in carbon-free scenarios comes in two flavors, nuclear or non-nuclear. Explicitly or implicitly, it includes growth. Even anti-nuclear organizations like the Sierra Club harbor many members who cling to nuclear power as the last hope for a low-carbon industrial future. Their support is often prefaced by much hand-wringing and protestations that, yes, nuclear is terrible, but at least the energy is carbon-free. But nuclear power, as a way to perpetuate the growth economy, is a false solution to climate change.


Never fear, there are plans to go “carbon-free and nuclear-free.” [1] To take one example, Jacobson and Delucchi have published a demonstration that all the world’s energy needs in 2030, allowing for projected economic growth, can be met with WWS—wind, water and sunlight. [2] I’ll make a few points about this admirable and well-intentioned effort.

The authors give justifiably short shrift to energy efficiency, assuming it can reduce demand for energy by a modest 5–15% by 2030. They seem to realize, without saying so, that economic growth with its demands for ever more energy will eventually swamp the retrenchments in energy use wrought by efficiency. After 2030, when the easiest and cheapest efficiency measures—the “low-hanging fruit”—will have been done, growth will forge ahead.

This is the first study I’ve seen that suggests an alternative to fossil fuels in industrial processes. You can’t run a blast furnace on solar panels. Their answer: use renewable electricity to electrolyze water and get hydrogen to burn for concentrated heat. But they only “assume” this will work. In fact, this assumption is a false promise. I spent hours googling the subject and found almost nothing. It’s on no one’s radar. Universal Industrial Gases, Inc., would seem to have every reason to hype the technology if they could, but this is what they say:

Much has been said about hydrogen being the “fuel of the future” due to its abundance and its non-polluting combustion products. Less has been said about the fact that other forms of energy must be used to produce the hydrogen which will be used as fuel…Widespread production, distribution and use of hydrogen will require many innovations and investments to be made in efficient and environmentally-acceptable production systems, transportation systems, storage systems and usage devices. [3]

This is an essential point. If we’re going to replace one vast energy infrastructure with another, it’s going to take a lot of steel, cement, aluminum, etc. As Jacobson and Delucchi point out, not all these things can be made with WWS. With climate tipping points at hand, if they haven’t already been passed, we can’t afford the carbon emissions to get to WWS.

New forests of wind turbines, centralized solar power plants and transmission lines would be an inescapable presence.

Even if we could do it with WWS, it would be another huge demand on renewable energy, on top of electricity, heating and transportation. Jacobson and Delucchi assure us that WWS would take only 1% of the Earth’s land surface. They allow for spacing between wind turbines so they don’t interfere with each other and assume that 50% of wind will be located offshore. Space for transmission lines is dismissed as insignificant. One percent is a small number, but 1% of the world’s land surface is a huge area. Considering that large expanses of land are unsuitable for wind generation, new forests of wind turbines, centralized solar power plants and transmission lines to link them to population centers would be an inescapable presence for most of us. If growth continues, these forests would have to expand. How much energy do you want, or need? It would be in your face all the time.

Jacobson and Delucchi preface their report by saying, “we select technologies based on the state of development of the technology only rather than whether industrial capacity is currently ramped up to produce the technologies on a massive scale or whether society is motivated to change to the technologies.” That’s the trouble with all these demonstrations of technological feasibility—they’re so neat and clean, but human behavior is messy.

I’ll listen to any argument that industrialism is compatible with the end of growth. The leading steady-state economist, Herman E. Daly, has never rejected capitalism. I’ve never seen him produce a coherent program to reach the steady state. He ends up preaching morality instead. Maybe that is the way to go. Materialism has to be wrung out of our culture.

The socialist alternative of participatory economic planning is impossibly cumbersome.

As for the socialist alternative of participatory economic planning, in which everyone has a say in what to produce, the whole process is impossibly cumbersome. Most people will not want to participate. It will be taken over by those who are interested enough or greedy enough. It will have to be supervised at some higher level to ensure that the right mix of products emerges from the planning of myriad communities. The whole enterprise is bound to degenerate into the usual hierarchy and elite control. That, pardon the expression, is human nature.


Those who gaze down the low-energy path think they know what they want —a decentralized energy system, which results in a localized economy. Rooftop solar, community wind, geothermal and micro-hydro are presumably acceptable to most. Biomass is much more controversial, and some reject any kind of combustion: “Ban the burn!” A few purists seem to reject any form of energy at all. I’ve even heard a couple of them say the solution hasn’t been invented yet—an odd meeting of minds with the technological optimists in the industrial camp. Let’s just call this path SSW—small solar and wind.

In a local, low-energy economy industrial manufacturing gives way to artisanal production. There are no factories bringing together diverse materials and specialized skills at the center of a web of long supply lines. Under these conditions it’s impossible to make the goods we’ve come to expect—electronic appliances and gadgets of all kinds, cars and planes, medical and dental equipment, maybe even the solar panels for the SSW society. These things can’t be made in a village smithy.

In a local, low-energy economy industrial manufacturing gives way to artisanal production.

Richard Heinberg points out that in a low-energy economy production inevitably declines, since high “worker productivity” is really the result of fossil energy. Less production yields less money to service loans and invest in further production. [4] To avoid this becoming a death spiral, we need a plan to put a floor under the decline.

Under SSW the intricate division of labor that’s enabled many of us to carve out customized career niches will disappear. We’ll have to be self-reliant and cultivate basic skills that have been almost forgotten in industrial societies. There will be no jet travel—the well-heeled environmentalist’s chief climate sin. Another thing that will not grow is money. Pensions and welfare will be supported by a much smaller economic surplus. The three-generation farm household will return. Do the SSW folks realize what they’re asking for? With a few modern add-ons, it’s the traditional pre-industrial economy. Our ancestors lived in it, but they had the immense advantage of not knowing anything else was possible.

Decision time

The pro-growth industrialists chart their course with their eyes fixed on carbon, ignoring all the other limits to growth like fresh water, arable land, biodiversity, waste, pollution and nonrenewable resources. This view is pragmatic and quixotic at the same time.

The low-energy dissidents wave vaguely in the direction of a future so unacceptable to westerners that it can only be reached by the catastrophe of complete civilizational collapse. They have a lot to teach the industrialists, but they need to clarify their own vision.

Somewhere between hubris and despair we may be able to plot a third way, a low-energy, steady-state society with a manageable modicum of industrial production. Environmentalists had better come together and find it. Then, with a firm resolve, we can start persuading the great majority who never think about it. We have not even begun to reach them. First we have to settle our own differences.

Henry Robertson is an environmental lawyer and activist in St. Louis.


1. Makhijani, Arjun, Carbon-free and Nuclear-free. RDR Books/IEER Press, 2007.

2. Jacobson, M. Z. and M. A. Deluchhi, Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Energy Policy 39:1154, Elsevier, 2011.

3. http://www.uigi.com/hydrogen.html

4. Heinberg, Richard, The Party’s Over, New Society Publishers, 2003, p. 171.

[2 dec 11]

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