Monday, December 13, 2010

(and the readers of Dot Earth)

Covering the protest march at the climate talks in Copenhagen (credit: Andrew Revkin)

One of the persistent themes at Andrew Revkin's NY Times Dot Earth blog is that a new non-fossil fueled, non-polluting, affordable energy is the essential necessity for making our civilization's tenure on earth sustainable. Revkin has given the theme the tag-line of ENERGY QUEST.

Many scientists and no-lesser a techno-light than Bill Gates support this view. Nevertheless, I would like to challenge it. Energy demand is a derivative of both our needs and desires for more and more consumption multiplied again and again by more and more people. Energy facilitates consumption and development; the more it facilitates, the greater the cumulative impact. More energy often exacerbates the problem as in the Jovens Paradox.

The basic Paul Erhlich equation -- PAT=I -- Population times Affluence times Technology equals the Impact on the earth system is firm. Yes, technology can offer cleaner energy or more efficient processes but, like the new lane the the freeway, the benefits are short-lived. The march of more humans wanting/needing more stuffs is inexorable until reaching limits that cannot be transcended. Science and technology can tweak the variables but they can not change the equation. New energy forms are needed, especially as oil peaks, but the techno-optimism that seems as a sub-text of the "energy quest" simply is not justified. We are still analogous to bacteria growing in a test tube (even in the event that new test tubes are discovered).

[Note -- December 16, 2010. Exponential change is real. The Antarctica ice sheet is disintegrating much faster than almost anybody imagined. There's a recent report and full discussion at Climate Progress.]

David Suzuki has portrayed the dilemma brilliantly in a very short video called TEST TUBE. Please take a minute to view it.

Here's my challenge: Please show how the quest for energy can change this. Is not believing that new energy solves issues of sustainability similar to trading in derivatives? Can we wiggle around the limits to cumulative consumption? Who, how, what sets the limits? And when?

At the end of the day, there's only one way...

Photo via Sand in the Gears


richard pauli said...

Great challenge. Great presentation.

The big question is "Do we want our species to survive?"


Sailesh Rao said...

In the I=PAT equation,

"Cornucopians" believe that improved T will always limit human impact, I, regardless of population, P and affluence, A.

The "Population Bombers" believe that increasing population, P, will cause unsustainable human impact, I, regardless of T or A.

Neither side ever delves into affluence, "A" since that is part of the very fabric of the capitalistic society we have constructed.

My contention is that the fundamental systemic problem is really this quest for infinite affluence, A, that our perverted version of capitalism seeks. That is the core issue, since P plateaus with some reasonable affluence, A and technology, T. And, no amount of improvement in technology, T, can outpace infinite greed since that improved technology also provides the capacity to acquire increasing affluence, A.

susan said...

Trouble is, that house is lower middle. For example, in an area I frequently visit, the water table is threatened by manmade large ponds. Who is going to tell the hyperentitled to cut back? I'm almost to the point of giving up being on the front lines at DE (have you seen the regular attacks I received, the regular reframing of what I say, the demands that I provide evidence, as if it were not in plain sight, the claims that I am just an unrealistic spoiler? And all for pointing out that the weather is changing, there are macro effects in the future, and doing things offline like walking are good for the health and soul, as well as enjoyable.

Have any of you watched network morning news lately? Taylor Swift? Black Eyed Peas? and I'm already out of date. The pyrotechnics, the hyperentertainment.

Overheard yesterday: on my day off I couldn't even watch the football game (clearly the most important thing in this guy's life, and of course he doesn't get that the snow is part of the phenom).

Sorry about the rant, but I see no hope when I can't even get my favorite home health aide who "gets" global warming to cut back on her bottled water habit and use some of our wonderful (yes really wonderful) tap water.

Sailesh Rao said...

Susan, the BBC serial, "The Century of the Self." documents how consumerism was developed in the 20th century. It was carefully done by businesses, using the help of psychologists and sociologists, to maximize their revenues and profits. This is why I have nothing but compassion for the home health aide who continues to drink bottled water despite all evidences that you bring to the contrary. He/she is drugged and asleep.

In this century, people will have to wake up to the fact that there is more to them than their selves, which are being manipulated by businesses. This is bound to happen, regardless of whether businesses like it or not, because the current trajectory is certain to lead to a collapse.

Lou Gold said...


Thanks for your elaboration of the I=PAT equation. I agree very much that Affluence is the true elephant in the room. That it knows no limits is more than a simple matter of greed. It is a system requirement.

David Harvey has offered a brilliant analysis of why. See --