The Myth of Technological Salvation

The following is an excerpt (and rough draft) of a chapter I’m working on about sustainability. I have a limit of 2000-4000 words. As usual I’m trying to cram as much as possible into that limit. Much of this rehashes (and in some cases pillages) other writing I’ve done on the blog, but hopefully the synthesis brings out something new. I will be posting excerpts here for feedback and your reading pleasure as they are finished. My working title is “Why Recycling Doesn’t Matter”.

If agriculture had been the only discovery that attempted to “free” us from nature, we as a species would have quickly run into the same problem as any other species which overruns its ecosystem. We would have destroyed the very things upon which we depend. More likely, we would have been forced to find a balance between the agriculture required to support settled human populations and the needs of the ecosystem to maintain wild game, domesticated livestock, topsoil and fertility.

What made it possible to temporarily overcome the limitations of ecosystems once more was the discovery of abundant hydrocarbons in the form of fossil fuels. This discovery mad possible innovations which powered automobiles and factories. Today the fingerprints of oil are everywhere. If a product has plastic in it, it is dependent on oil. The electricity that power our light bulbs and devices as well as what drives our vehicles, transports our products and mows our lawn are dependent on oil. Oil permeates our modern life. The process to create petroleum takes millions of years, yet our consumption of fossil fuels continues at a rate well beyond any possibility for renewal. The use of fossil fuels as the primary source of energy which makes our current global civilization possible is the very definition of unsustainable.

The typical response to the problem of oil as a finite resource is that some technological innovation or new energy source will allow us to continue life as we know it. The critical question when considering new technologies and energy sources is to ask what the net energy output of these technologies is. If it takes more energy to extract new sources of petroleum or some other energy source, then that is a net loss of energy and therefore not sustainable by definition. The oil extracted from Alberta tar sands, natural gas deposits found in shale and extracted through hydraulic fracturing as well as ethanol and biofuels made from crops are all examples of alternatives that take more energy to produce than they create.

Many look to what are called “renewable” energy sources to solve our energy problems. The sun, wind, waves and geothermal heat produce energy every day with no inputs from human beings. The theory goes that if we can capture enough of this “free” energy then we will be able to fuel our current lifestyle forever. These solutions do not always account for all of the inputs and maintenance required to build the technologies that capture these renewable energy sources. What are the parts for solar panels and wind turbines made from? If the extraction of materials, maintenance and replacement of solar panels or wind turbines requires more than the energy that these technologies produce, then we are continuing to operate at a net energy loss. Perhaps renewable energy technology will be able to provide us with a certain level of sustainable energy, but probably not at the current rates of consumption.

Because of the incredible technological leaps made possible by the discovery of hydrocarbons, many people continue to believe that new technological discoveries will make it possible for us to continue on the same trajectory by simply substituting new sources of energy. The idea that we will find new sources of energy comparable to the energy density of hyrdocarbons is not a matter of science, but one of faith. It is certainly possible that we will make a discovery that will allow us to continue our current patterns of massive energy consumption. However, given what we know about the nature of energy and the laws of physics it seems unlikely. Furthermore, the question persists, “How long can we continue down that path?”

Unfortunately a lot of energy and resources are also spent promoting solutions such as recycling as the answer to our environmental problems. There are several problems with this. First, putting primary emphasis on recycling as something everyone can and should do to save the environment often has the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of leading to more sustainable lifestyles and criticism of the systems that create such waste of resources and energy, the small act of recycling assuages our guilt and allows us to ignore our own complicity in the larger systems that continue to pollute and degrade our environment. This doesn’t mean we should stop recycling, but we should recognize what it actually accomplishes and what it doesn’t. There are also major questions about the net benefit of recycling. While it is true that recycling takes less energy than producing products from new materials, this does not address the problem of the energy required for us to continue the rate of consumption demanded by the growth economy. This leads us to the final myth that continues to perpetuate our unsustainable practices.

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4 thoughts on “The Myth of Technological Salvation

  1. Gary

    For now I only ask: Where are the references and sources for:

    1: The oil extracted from Alberta tar sands, natural gas deposits found in shale and extracted through hydraulic fracturing as well as ethanol and biofuels made from crops are all examples of alternatives that take more energy to produce than they create.

    2: If the extraction of materials, maintenance and replacement of solar panels or wind turbines requires more than the energy that these technologies produce, then we are continuing to operate at a net energy loss. Perhaps renewable energy technology will be able to provide us with a certain level of sustainable energy, but probably not at the current rates of consumption. (because this is just an assertion as is. Do you have evidence that it probably won’t provide the same energy levels?)

    3: The idea that we will find new sources of energy comparable to the energy density of hyrdocarbons is not a matter of science, but one of faith. It is certainly possible that we will make a discovery that will allow us to continue our current patterns of massive energy consumption. However, given what we know about the nature of energy and the laws of physics it seems unlikely. (again, an assertion that any possible new energy technology won’t meet our current consumption levels because it violates the laws of physics. How can that claim even be true? How would we know? Isn’t it on level with thinking we will find a new energy source? But if true, source?)

    Some of these claims seem pretty big or consequential, so sources would be nice (unless you have provided them elsewhere in the chapter). If I were reading this chapter and came across the claim that alternative energies might not cut it, I’d like a reference.

    Interesting stuff so far.

    Reply
  2. lucas

    If I had more time i would have been able to source some things better. As it is, I am partially trying to be provocative without being dishonest. I do believe the things I wrote. I list references at the end to books i draw from. One very helpful resource that cites a lot of data is Valuing the Earth (http://www.amazon.com/Valuing-Earth-Economics-Ecology-Ethics/dp/0262540681). I no longer have a copy of the book, but particularly in terms of the impact of entropy on how we think about energy production and consumption I found it very enlightening.

    1. I wanted to find a source for all of these in one place, but that’s pretty impossible. A google search will easily find you people on both sides citing evidence that they are right. I tend to be skeptical of the data and studies coming from the companies and lobbying groups that promote them. They have a lot to lose if their product is shown to be a net energy suck.

    Sorry I don’t have links for you. It seems pretty logical to me though when you consider all of the aspects of what is required to turn tar sands, for example, into usable petroleum. The carbon footprint of all machines, trucks, pipeline etc. to get it out of the ground across the entire United States and turned into a usable product? It seems highly unlikely in my mind that it is producing more energy than all of that activity consumes. The burden seems to be the other way around. Prove to me that it is producing more energy than all of that consumes.

    2. Again, I am simply logically thinking through the process from manufacture to energy storage and usage. All of the components involve have to first be accounted for, before you can say what the net energy return on investment is. Here’s one interesting article i just found on the topic: http://www.resilience.org/stories/2011-11-26/energy-return-investment-threshold. My assumption is that the second law of thermodynamics makes it pretty difficult to magically create energy. The reality is usually that we operate at a net energy loss when we involve a lot of technology, because of all the extraction and maintenance required to make that technology possible. If it depends a lot on technology, My assumption is that a lot of energy is being consumed in order to “produce” or extract energy.

    3. This assertion follows the same logic above. It is based on what we already know about science, ecosystems, physics, etc. It makes more sense to me than the belief that we will infinitely be able to find new sources of energy. That kind of thinking defies what we know about entropy. Are we going to mine other planets? Where does the fuel come from? I love science fiction as much as you, but I’m asking for evidence that the fairy tale will come true. You’re asking me to prove that the fairy tale isn’t real.

    We know that oil is a finite resource and we will run out of it, even with recent surges in natural gas, etc. These are ALL finite resources. We cannot continue to depend on them indefinitely. Renewable sources may be able to provide a certain level of energy, but because of what I said above I am skeptical that they will be able to produce the amounts of energy we currently consume and will consume in the near future. If there is no oil, how do you produce solar panels or wind turbines? There’s no such thing as free energy and I’m just following the trail of logic.

    I will think about editing the statements to reflect my lack of sources, but I’m not making the argument solely based on studies. Studies are often too easy to refute. Logic and physics are more difficult.

    Reply
  3. Gary

    Here is the answer to all our energy problems: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dyson_sphere
    😉

    I wasn’t really trying to debate, but more suggesting that I think citations would be a good idea.

    But, to your points about entropy and the 2nd law of thermodynamics, we are not a closed system. The sun pours energy into the Earth everyday. So the ultimate energy question is whether we can develop technologies that harness and store that energy faster than it dissipates and whether our daily energy consumption exceeds the amount of energy pumped in and needed to run our biological systems. Maybe some of your articles address that, and I don’t have numbers off the top of my head. I’ll take a look at the ones you provided.

    Reply
  4. lucas

    What I am mainly talking about in this myth is the idea that another finite resource will solve our problems and that we don’t have to ruthlessly account for all of the energy used in our systems.

    E.F. Schumacher gives calculations for the sun’s output in his book _Small is Beautiful_. The sun’s output is massive and way more than the planet uses every day. The question is capturing and storing it also requires energy and we would need to be able to capture and store more energy than we are using in order to continue to produce the technology to capture and store it.

    There is still no more efficient way to capture solar energy and use it than by eating plants. It involves zero inputs from human beings (for things that grow wild) and relatively low to no inputs in agriculture on diversified farms where energy is cycled from plants to animals and back again. Mimicking these natural processes is actually the most energy efficient way to produce calories to feed people, because there is less energy lost and natural systems produce the energy needed.

    Reply

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