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On "greening the petroleum economy"

The technofix isn't.

by Jan Lundberg

Many of the designs and dreams for renewable energy systems do take good advantage of present waste of fuel and materials.  For example, wheat straw now burned in fields, to the tune of millions of tons each year in the U.S., makes good paper products which saves trees.  

Certain petroleum uses, such as for vehicles and electric power generation, could be extended for several years if enough residential and commercial windows across the U.S. were properly insulated, freeing up some oil and natural gas used by utilities.  Perhaps the most obvious conservation reform would be to ban hummers and SUVs, so that many more smaller cars could sip gas for many more years. 

However, what appears desirable and simple can turn out to have huge stumbling blocks as well as unintended negative effects even when successfully implemented.  Fortunately, if we closely examine our values and the Earth's conflict in supporting both human domination and life on the planet, it is easier to critique visions of utopian economic and engineering that may be in reality too much of the same-old.  

When we keep in mind scale (e.g., how much wheat straw and other renewable resources would be needed) and question the purpose (e.g., packaging for questionable products), we can better envision what is sustainable and realistic.

Even after most of today's energy reforms being tried or proposed could be adopted, some of the technological fixes to cut back on petroleum dependence -- to sustain anything resembling the present economy -- would require a massive portion of the nation's land to be converted from productive agricultural land or wildlife habitat to "agricultural stripmining."  Unsustainable monoculture of any crop, including biofuels, erodes and destroys the biological content of the topsoil.  Requiring major petroleum inputs to grow and distribute certain products amounts to a huge obstacle that celebrated energy analyst Amory Lovins and other "technofixers" ignore in their promotion of the greener consumer economy. 

What Lovins and almost the entire "funded environmental movement" advocate is not the major means of conservation -- drastic cuts in consumption -- that would save the biosphere and stretch our fast-dwindling resources.  Instead, a continuation of the consumer economy with more efficient technology would hopefully provide for the American Dream to roll along forever on a hyper-light and/or electric vehicle.  However, even if the propulsion and materials for such a vehicle fleet were not an issue, the crash-death externality and the crushing of a million animals a day would not change with such a vehicle-vision (except to go up due to "growth.") 

Growth ensues with worsened energy use, based in part upon successful, recent conserving of energy: a household saves money and fuel by buying and relying on a compact car, but then the family is in a position to drive more or buy another heavier vehicle.  In the aggregate, the improved fuel economy of the 1970s and 1980s allowed the U.S. to start binging on inefficient cars in the 1990s, so "corporate average fuel economy" went down.  Worse, the increased population of humans owning cars canceled out the conservation gains since the 1970s.  There are now more vehicles in a condition to be driven in this country than there are drivers in the U.S. (New York Times, 2004, by Matt Wald). 

This "failure of conservation" has for years demonstrated that a deeper approach was needed, such as getting away from car dependency.  Instead, Lovins, for example, kept pushing for superlight-car dependency.  A movement against urban sprawl gathered steam, but was compromised by funding that did not want to disturb developers and the Wall Street investments of foundations.  Thus, not one major environmental group, except for David Brower's Earth Island, endorsed a frequent call for a national paving moratorium (to halt new road construction). 

Amory Lovins, a Brower protégé, has now fine-tuned his decades-in-development program such that it is seemingly endorsed by the Pentagon.  Lovins put out a press release in September titled "U.S. Can Eliminate Oil Use in a Few Decades."  At first glance, it appears to offer hope, and it was accepted widely.  Without going through it point by point, I offer the following concerns some grassroots environmentalists have with Lovins' assumptions and the technofix approach in general: 

If Lovins' dream-policies can be implemented, assuming that the corporations wedded to current business plans and the critical bottom line just say to the government, "sure, we'll allow Congress to pass this legislation," it makes as much sense to try to get Congress to make other sweeping changes instead or in addition.  For example, personal transport in this nation could be far more bicycle-oriented than it is at present.  What else?  Plastics could be banned because they're toxic and represent petroleum.  People could be taxed on new TVs such that only one boob tube could be allowed per household.  Great ideas, but they're not going to happen under the current political system, and that goes for most of Lovin's program. 

In "Winning the Oil Endgame: Innovation for Profits, Jobs, and Security, a Pentagon-cofunded blueprint for making the United States oil-free," Lovins and his Rocky Mountain Institute call for "revitalizing industry and farming."  What Lovins implies, upon reading his proposal, would have to be the feeding of existing corporate and agribusiness coffers, instead of calling for decentralization of today's unaccountable mega industries.  "Small is beautiful" and providing for our essential needs bioregionally is NOT what the technofix is usually aimed at; rather it is geared toward the massive production and consumption of the status quo.

Renewable energy works almost solely on the basis of using local resources, and can't contribute efficiently to a grid in the quantities desired.  Lovins says nothing about reducing unnecessary appliances and cutting car use, in part because this would threaten Rocky Mountain Institute's funding by corporations and utilities.  What he knows, deep down, is that the peak of oil extraction globally will not allow for a transition to a less-intensive energy diet.  His plan would have made sense three decades ago, perhaps, when global warming seemed just a theory. 

Lovins became a "have your cake and eat it too" consultant after leaving Brower's Friends of the Earth.  He started working with electric utilities and eventually luminaries of Bechtel Corp., Shell, and the Pentagon.  That should be a red flag to anyone who knows about power politics and who places the Earth -- not the growth economy -- first. 

Lovins, his Institute and clients believe we are going to techno-fix our way out of this. What if he is wrong?  What if there are other factors limiting the extent we can abuse the planet?  It is worrying and amazing that so few peoplel even contemplate what will happen if the business-as-usual-lite, techno-fix Plan B of the Amory Lovins/Lester Brown school fails.  

Julian Darley of Post Carbon Institute asks, “Where is our Plan D?  A plan to help us de-automate, de-centralize, de-industrialize, and disconnect from big energy, from big money, and big food so that we can try to start rebuilding local cultures and local economies that will have to provide the food, water, shelter, identity, energy, mobility, and crucially, both the vital stuff of everyday life and employment as the present wasteful system finds that the fuel supply is being choked off.” 

Brown and Lovins tell us what we want to hear: that everything may be okay, and we can continue doing what we are doing and someone else is going to fix everything for us.  

Almost everyone can resonate with the technofixers' call for more windmill power, for example.  Its uses are generally practical and in place, awaiting further expansion.  However, the capability of substituting major wind energy for much of the petroleum infrastructure is low in today's economy.  Even if all renewable and efficiency systems are considered together for maximum implementation, ignoring the time-feasibility factor, we could not fill the tank: a few drops of fuel won't power anything resembling today's Machine.

It may be "doom & gloom" to imagine a lower-tech world that relies on local ecosystems for everyone's needs close to home, but such a course happens to adhere to scientific principles and the historical record.

Sustainability was simple until industry got out of control and population skyrocketed.  To envision a positive future, we must first reckon with the end of abundant petroleum --an historic watershed now at hand.

Then, we can and must recreate society that features a return to cultural values of sharing, saving, cooperating with and celebrating our families, communities and the ultimate source of life: wild, untrampled nature.


Further reading: Culture Change Letter #20: May 15, 2003 — Petroleum culture versus Earth living
— The fallacy of the renewable energy technofix 
This also appeared in
Volume 9 of "World Transport Policy & Practice," a quarterly journal edited by Professor John Whitelegg.

Thanks to assistance from David Room, Communications Director for Post Carbon Institute.

To read the Rocky Mountain Institute report critiqued above, see

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