The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label minerals. Show all posts
Showing posts with label minerals. Show all posts

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Is the Energy Transition Feasible? The Future as a Garden of Forking Paths


"El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan" (J.L. Borges)

Recently, Simon Michaux argued that the transition to renewable energy is not possible for the lack of sufficient mineral resources. This conclusion was criticized by Nafeez Ahmed in a recent post. As usual in our polarized world, that led to a heated discussion based on opposing views. My opinion is that both Michaud and Ahmed are right but they see the question from different points of view. If you allow me, Ahmed is more right because he shows that the future is not running on a fixed path. Rather, it is a garden of forking paths. If we choose the right path, the transition is possible and will lead us to a better world. 

Do you remember the story of the boy who cried wolf? It tells you that you shouldn't cry wolf too many times but also that the wolf will eventually come. It illustrates how our destiny as human beings is to always choose extreme viewpoints: either we are too afraid of the wolf, or we believe it doesn't exist. Indeed, Erwin Schlesinger said, "human beings have only two modes of operation: complacency and panic.

This dichotomy is especially visible in the current debate on the "Energy Transition" that recently flared in an exchange between Simon Michaux and Nafeez Ahmed, the first maintaining that the transition is impossible, the second arriving at the opposite conclusion. In my modest opinion, Michaud's work is correct within the limits of the assumptions he made. But these assumptions are not necessarily right. 

Models may be perfectly correct, but still unable to predict the future. 

If you really believe that they can, you are bound to make enormous mistakes -- as we saw in the way the recent pandemic was (mis)managed. Let me give an example: the story of the "peak oil" movement.

When I stumbled into the peak oil concept some 20 years ago, I thought it was a great idea. I am still thinking it is an incredibly insightful view of how humans exploit natural resources, and I keep studying the subject, as you can read at this link. But you also probably know that peak oil is unpopular nowadays. I have had referees criticizing our work just because it mentioned the term "peak oil." As if we were submitting a paper to "Nature Astronomy" where we argued that the Earth is flat." Why that? 

There was nothing wrong with the peak oil concept. It was based on sound models, and it was proposed by some of the best oil geologists in the world. The problem was that the models didn't allow deviations from the stated path. They didn't take into account how the oil extraction system could rearrange itself to react to the scarcity of resources. Even oil extraction is a garden of forking paths, and the system can choose one or another depending on the circumstances. In this case, it chose a path that led to the exploitation of shale oil resources and that delayed the peak by more than 10 years. 

Shale oil resources were not taken into account in the input data of the model. So, over and over, the peak was announced to be arriving in a specific year, and it didn't: the earliest estimates had it in 2005. Today, in 2023, we may be finally peaking, but we don't know for sure. Many peakers argue that the peak did arrive, but only for "conventional" oil. Sure, the surgery was successful, but the patient died. No wonder that most people, including the referees of scientific papers, are now convinced that peak oil was a hoax. 

The peakers' mistake is typical of the way the role of models is misunderstood. The peak oil models are great to let you understand the cycle of resource exploitation and that you have to expect the peak, sooner or later. But you are making a big mistake if you think they can predict the date of the peak. Instead, that's exactly how the peak oil models were used. I did that, too, regrettably, but we learn from our mistakes (except in politics, of course). 

Models are there to understand the future, not to predict it. 

The future is a garden of forking paths. Where you go depends on the path you choose. But you still need to follow one of the available paths. 


Now, let me try to examine Michaux's work and Ahmed's rebuttal in light of these considerations. I went through Michaux's report, and I can tell you that it is well done, accurate, full of data, and created by competent professionals. That doesn't mean it cannot be wrong, just like the peak oil date was proposed by competent professionals but turned out to be wrong. The problem is evident from the beginning: it is right there, in the title. 

Assessment of the Extra Capacity Required of Alternative Energy Electrical Power Systems to Completely Replace Fossil Fuels 

You see? Michaux assumes from the start that we need "extra capacity" from "alternative" energy in order to "completely replace" fossil fuels. If the problem is stated in these terms, the answer to the question of the feasibility of the transition can only be negative. 

Alas, we didn't need a report of 985 pages to understand that. It was obvious from the beginning. The limits of mineral resources were already shown in 1972 by the authors of "The Limits to Growth," the report sponsored by the Club of Rome. We know that we have limits; the problem is which paths we can choose within these limits. 

This question is often touched on in Michaux's report when he mentions the need to "think outside the box" and to change the structure of the system. But, eventually, the result is still stated in negative terms. It is clear from the summary, where Michaux says, "The existing renewable energy sectors and the EV technology systems are merely steppingstones to something else, rather than the final solution." This suggests that we should stick to fossil fuels while waiting for some miracle leading us to the "final" solution, whatever that means. This statement can be used to argue that renewables are useless. Then, it becomes a memetic weapon to keep us stuck to fossil fuels; an attitude which can only lead us to disaster. 

Nafeez Ahmed perfectly understood the problems in his rebuttal. Ahmed notes several critical points in Michaud's report; the principal ones are underestimating the current EROI of renewables and the recent developments of batteries. That leads him to the statement that renewables are not really "renewable" but, at most, "replaceable." Which is simply wrong. The EROI of renewables is now large enough to allow the use of renewable energy to recycle renewable plants. Renewables are exactly that: renewable. 

You could argue that my (and Ahmed's) evaluation of the EROI of renewables is over-optimistic. Maybe, but that's not the main point. Ahmed's criticism is focused on the roots of the problem: we need to take into account how the system can (and always does) adapt to scarcity. It follows different paths among the many available. Ahmed writes: 

...we remain trapped within the prevailing ideological paradigm associated with modern industrial civilisation. This paradigm is a form of reductive-materialism that defines human nature, the natural world, and the relationship between them through the lens of homo economicus – a reduction of human nature to base imperatives oriented around endless consumption and production of materially-defined pursuits; pursuits which are premised on an understanding of nature as little more than a repository of material resources suitable only for human domination and material self-maximisation; in which both human and nature are projected as separate and competing, themselves comprised of separate and competing units.

Yet this ideology is bound up with a system that is hurtling toward self-destruction. As an empirical test of accuracy, it has utterly failed: it is not true because it clearly does not reflect the reality of human nature and the natural world.

It’s understandable, then, that in reacting to this ideology, many environmentalists have zeroed in on certain features of the current system – its predatory growth trajectory – and sought out alternatives that would seem to be diametrically opposed to those regressive features.

One result of this is a proliferation of narratives claiming that the clean energy transformation is little more than an extension of the same industrialised, endless growth ideological paradigm that led us to this global crisis in the first place. Instead of solving that crisis, they claim, it will only worsen it.

Within this worldview, replacing the existing fossil fuel energy infrastructure with a new one based on renewable energy technologies is a fantasy, and therefore the world is heading for an unavoidable contraction that will result in the demise of modern civilisation.  ... Far from being a sober, scientific perspective, this view is itself an ideological reaction that represents a ‘fight or flight’ response to the current crisis convergence. In fact, the proponents of this view are often as dogmatically committed to their views as those they criticise. ....

Recognising the flaws in Michaux’s approach does not vindicate the idea that the current structures and value-systems of the global economy should simply stay the same. On the contrary, accelerating the energy and transport disruptions entails fundamental changes not only within these sectors, but in the way they are organised and managed in relation to wider society.

My critique of Michaux doesn’t justify complacency about metals and minerals requirements for the clean energy transformation. Resource bottlenecks can happen for a range of reasons as geopolitical crises like Russia's war in Ukraine make obvious. But there are no good reasons to believe that potential materials bottlenecks entail the total infeasibility of the transition.

... we face the unprecedented opportunity and ecological necessity to move into a new system. This system includes the possibilities of abundant clean energy and transport with diminishing material throughput, requiring new circular economy approaches rooted in respect for life and the earth; and where the key technologies are so networked and decentralised that they work best with participatory models of distribution and sharing. This entails the emergence of a new economy with value measured in innovative ways, because traditional GDP metrics focusing on ever-increasing material throughput will become functionally useless.

If you can, please, try to examine these statements by Ahmed with an open mind because he perfectly frames the problem. And never forget one thing: the future is not a single path toward catastrophe. It is a garden of forking paths. We are bound to follow one of these paths: we don't know which one yet, but not all of them lead to the Seneca Cliff. In the transition to a renewable energy system, we can adapt, reduce demand, improve efficiency, deploy new technologies, and simply be happy with a more limited supply of energy at some moments. It is only the rigidity of our mental models that make us think that there are no alternatives to fossil fuels. 

 This post was revised on May 8th 2023 to improve clarity

Thursday, April 29, 2021

The Future of the Oceans: The two Souls of the Club of Rome


I was very happy when I finally managed to find a copy of the old report to the Club of Rome, "The Future of the Oceans" by Elizabeth Mann Borgese. A book published in 1986, one of a long series of reports that the Club commissioned to various scientists and researchers. And the only one, so far, that dealt with marine resources. Not so easy to find: I finally managed to dig out a used copy from an obscure bookstore in Michigan. But, eventually, it arrived here.

Of course, my interest in that old book was generated by having written a report on marine resources myself, "The Empty Sea," together with my coworker Ilaria Perissi (you see her with our book in the photo.) So, how do these two books compare, at 35 years of distance from each other?

I must say that I was surprised. Our book can be defined as a little catastrophistic: just the title should tell you what I mean. The one by Elizabeth Mann Borgese, instead, is completely different in tone, approach, and contents: you could define it as cornucopian. The first part of the book is dedicated to describing the abundance of the resources that the oceans contain, the second and third part are dedicated to how the international community was going to develop a "common heritage economics," and about treaties, regulations, and laws needed to manage the exploitation of these riches for the good of all humankind. 

Leaving aside for a moment the question of who is right and who is wrong, you may be just as surprised as I was to discover that the Club of Rome could sponsor two books that took such a different approach on the same subject. Actually, though, it is not so surprising if you know something about the history of the Club. 

The origins of the Club of Rome are in themselves a fascinating subject. Today, everyone associates the Club to their 1972 report "The Limits to Growth." A book that was not so pessimistic as it is often described, but that you surely wouldn't call cornucopian. It was the first study in history that quantified the limits to natural resources at the planetary level. It arrived to the conclusion that the growth of the global economy would come to a halt and start declining at some moment during the first decades of the 21st century (BTW, we are there right now!). 

But how did the Club arrive at the idea of producing such a report? The story is nuanced and it has to do with the personality of Aurelio Peccei, the founder of the Club in 1968. Peccei was a person that you would define as "enlightened" in the sense that he was deeply concerned about the future of humankind. But in the 1960s, not only it was not known what the limits to the natural resources could be; it wasn't even clear that such a limit existed. 

So, as you can read in the books he authored, Peccei was far from being a "catastrophist," and he didn't see depletion as an important point in his vision of the world. His main concern was how to ensure that the world's resources were fairly distributed. The 1972 report was commissioned to a group of MIT researchers with the aim of quantifying the available resources in order to plan for their fair exploitation. Peccei, basically, wanted to know how large the cake was before starting to cut slices out of it. 

Peccei, just as other members of the Club, must have been surprised by the results that "The Limits to Growth" reported. Nevertheless, they understood their importance and adopted them as part of the Club's views. But the earlier idea, the one that saw distribution as more important than exploitation, didn't disappear and it remained part of the way of thinking of many members of the Club, including Peccei himself. And there is a logic in that: abundant resources, even if they existed, would be useless if they were not used for the benefit of everybody. And that is an even more pressing necessity if the results are, instead, scarce. 

Now you can understand the line of thought that led Elisabeth Mann Borgese to write the book "The Future of the Oceans" It was part of the more optimistic section of the way of thinking of the Club of Rome that never was a monolithic think tank (and it is good that it wasn't, and that it isn't). 

So, what made Mann Borgese so optimistic? And are her views still valid, today? Here, unfortunately (and perhaps unavoidably), most of the book didn't stand the test of time. Elisabeth Mann Borgese (1918 - 2002) is a very interesting and multifaceted personality: the daughter of novelist Thomas Mann, she was engaged in many fields: psychology, law, anthropology, and even writing science fiction. Among other things, she was the first female member of the Club of Rome and the only one for several years. But compared to the earlier "Limits to Growth" report, she had a very different approach  to the evaluation of the oceans' potential in producing food and minerals.

So, the first two chapters of "The Future of the Oceans" are, well, as a euphemism, I could say that they are a little outdated. The year before, in 1985, Elisabeth Mann Borgese had written another book titled "The Mines of Neptune," dedicated to mineral resources from the sea. I still have to read that book, but its conclusions are summarized in "The Future of Oceans"in the section titled "Ocean Mining." 

Here, Mann Borgese was clearly influenced by one of the periodic waves of technological optimism that sweep the memesphere about the possibility of extracting minerals from the sea. So optimistic that she even says that these minerals are "renewable" because they are continuously replaced by the volcanic activity at oceanic ridges. Alas, that's really too optimistic. 

I wrote about that subject in a paper that I published in 2010. Basically, it is easy to be led astray by the huge numbers associated to marine resources, but if you do an energy analysis, you see that the costs of extraction are outside the realm of practical possibilities. That's why people have been discussing about that for decades but, today, we are still extracting only those minerals that our ancestors extracted centuries ago, mainly sodium chloride, table salt. Minerals from the sea are like minerals from the Moon or from the asteroids: an incredible abundance that always remains decades in the future.

Something similar in terms of excessive optimism can be said about the chapter dedicated to aquaculture, but here Mann Borgese did identify the remarkable growth potential of a technology that has been, indeed, growing at a bewildering speed: think of a growth of 527% from 1990 to today  (!!) and you will be impressed. A lot. Nowadays, aquaculture produces an amount of food that compares with that produced by conventional fishing. 

So, Mann-Borgese was right on aquaculture, but was that development a good thing? What she missed is that farmed fish is fed mainly from wild fish, so when you sum the production of the two industries you count the same food twice. And the damage done to aquaculture to the environment is gigantic, as we discuss in detail in our book, "The Empty Sea.

The other two sections of "The Future of the Oceans" are a complex story that would need an in-depth discussion. I am not an expert in economics or international law, so I won't attempt to do that. I can just say that I have the impression that much of what was said in the 1980s on this subject was very optimistic. Over the years, the world of fishing became much more competitive, and the various actors engaged in the effort became much less interested in sharing a scarce result and engaged in defending it aggressively, even by military means

So, that's the story of this book. Even though it didn't stand so well the test of time, it is still a remarkable book. Part of the human effort to live in harmony on a planet that's becoming smaller and poorer every day. And, after all, in half a century from now, how many of the books that we are writing today will have passed the test of time?