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 transition. Show all posts
Showing posts with label transition. Show all posts

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Renewables are not a cleaner caterpillar, they are a new butterfly. A Discussion with Dennis Meadows


Dennis Meadows (left in the image) and Ugo Bardi in Berlin, 2016

A few days ago, I received a message from Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of the 1972 study "The Limits to Growth," about a previous post of mine on "The Seneca Effect." I am publishing it here with his kind permission, together with my comments, and his comments on my comments. I am happy to report that after this exchange we are "99% in agreement."


I read with interest you review of the Michaux/Ahmed debate. Normally I greatly benefit from your writing. But in this case it seemed to me that your text totally avoided addressing the central point - replacing fossil fuels as an energy source with renewables will require enormous amounts of metals and other resources which we have no reasonable basis for assuming will be available. It is not true that peak oil was presented principally as a prediction. Rather critics of Hubert's original analysis misrepresented it as an effort to predict in order to ridicule it -  just as Bailey did for the Limits to Growth natural resource data from World3. I was struck that your critique of Michaux did not contain a single piece of empirical data - the strong point of his research. Rather you engaged in what I term "proof by assertion."

I am personally convinced that there is absolutely no possibility for renewables to be expanded sufficiently that they will support current levels of material consumption. I attach the text of a memo I recently wrote to other members of the Belcher group stating this belief (*). 

Best regards Dennis Meadows


Dear Dennis, 

first of all, it is always a pleasure to receive comments from you. It is not a problem to be in disagreement on some subjects -- the world would be boring if we all were! Besides, I think our disagreement is not so large once we understand certain assumptions. 

Let me start by saying that I fully agree with your statement that "there is absolutely no possibility for renewables to be expanded sufficiently that they will support current levels of material consumption." Not only is it impossible, but even if it were, we would not want that!

So, what do we disagree about? It is about the direction to take.  The fork in the path leads in two different directions depending on the efficiency of renewable technologies: Path 1): renewables are useless, and Path 2): renewables are just what we need

I strongly argue for Path 2) in the sense that we definitely do NOT need to "support current levels of material consumption" to create a sustainable and reasonably prosperous society. But let me explain what I mean by that.  

First, in my opinion, the problem with Michaux's report is that it underestimates the efficiency of renewable technologies. He says that renewables are not really renewable, just "replaceable." He, like others who use this term, means that the plants that we are now building will not be replaceable once fossil fuels are gone. In this case, creating a renewable infrastructure will be a waste of resources and energy (Path 1). 

This view may have been correct until a few years ago, but it is now obsolete. The recent scientific literature on the subject indicates that the efficiency of renewable technologies (expressed in terms of EROI, energy return on energy invested) is now significantly better than that of fossil fuels. Furthermore, it is large enough that the materials used can be recycled using renewable energy. There is a vast literature on this subject. On the specific question of the EROI, I suggest to you this paper by Murphy et al. You can also find an extensive bibliography of the field in our recent paper,  "On the history and future of 100% renewable research." 

Of course, not everything is easy to recycle, and a future renewable infrastructure will have to avoid the use of rare metals (such as platinum for fuel cells) or metals that are not rare, but not abundant enough for the task (such as copper, that will have to be largely replaced by aluminum). That is possible: the current generation of wind and PV plants is mostly based on abundant and recyclable materials. Doing even better is part of the natural evolution of technology. What we can't recycle, we won't use. 

There is a much more fundamental point in this discussion. It is the very concept that we need renewables to be able to "replace fossil fuels," in the sense of matching in quantitative terms the energy produced today (in some views, even exceeding it in order to "keep the economy growing"). This is impossible, as we all agree. The point is that renewables will greatly reduce the need for energy and materials to keep a complex civilization working. If you think, for instance, of how inefficient and wasteful our fossil-based transportation system is, you see that by switching to electric transportation and shared vehicles, we can have the same services for a much smaller consumption of resources. This concept has been expressed by Tony Seba in a form that I interpret as, "Renewables are not a cleaner caterpillar-- they are a new butterfly"

That doesn't mean that the geological limits of the transition aren't to be taken into account; the butterfly cannot fly higher than a certain height. Then, it may well be that we won't be able to move to renewables fast enough to avoid a societal, or even ecosystemic, crash. On this point, please take a look at a paper that I co-authored, where we used the term "the sower's strategy" to indicate that the transition is possible, but it will need hard work, as the peasants of old knew. But staying with fossil fuels is leading us to disaster (as you correctly say in the document for the Balaton group) while moving to nuclear fission simply means exchanging a fossil fuel (hydrocarbons) for another fossil fuel (uranium). Going renewables is a fighting chance, but I believe it is the only chance we have.   

There is an even more fundamental point that goes beyond a certain technology being more efficient than another. Going renewables, as Nafeez Ahmed correctly points out, is a switch from a predatory economy to a bioeconomy.  Our industrial sphere should imitate the biosphere that has been using minerals from the Earth's crust on land for the past 350 million years (at least) and never ran out of anything. As I said elsewhere, we need to do what the biosphere does, that is:

1. Use only minerals that are abundant.
2. Use them sparingly and efficiently.
3. Recycle ferociously. 

If we can do that, we have a unique opportunity in the history of humankind. It means we can build a society that does not destroy everything in order to satisfy human greed. Can we do it? As always, reality will be the ultimate judge. 


The answer from Dennis Meadows


Thank you for sending me your article. I agree that the main difference of opinion lies in the direction to take. I am reminded of the defining characteristic of professors - two people who agree on 99% and spend all their time focusing on and debating the other one percent. Because I largely agree with you, my only relevant comment on what you say is that you have overly limited our options: 

So, what do we disagree about? It is about the direction to take.  The fork in the path leads in two different directions depending on the efficiency of renewable technologies: Path 1): renewables are useless, and Path 2): renewables are just what we need

I would not choose either path; rather I believe it is time to quit focusing on fossil energy scarcity as a source of our problems and start concentrating on fragility. The debate -renewables versus fossil - is a distraction from considering the important options for increasing the resilience of society.

Dennis Meadows


A minor point. You say, "It is not true that peak oil was presented principally as a prediction." I beg to differ. I have been a member of ASPO (the Association for the Study of Peak Oil) almost from inception and part of its scientific committee as long as the association existed. And I can say that one of the problems of the approach of peak oilers was a certain obsession with the date of the peak. That doesn't disqualify a group of people whom I still think included some of the best minds on this planet during that period. The problem was that few of them were experts in modeling, and models are like weapons: you need to know the rules before you try to use them. By the way, you and your colleagues didn't make this mistake in your "Limits to Growth" in 1972; correctly, you were always careful of presenting a fan of scenarios, not a prediction. Later on, Bailey and his ilk accused you of having done what you didn't do: "wrong predictions." But that was politics, another story. 


(*) Statements about being realistic about technology, alternative energy, and sustainability
Dennis Meadows

April 11, 2023 message to the Balaton Group

Dear Colleagues,

I have often described politics as the art of choosing which of several impossible outcomes you most prefer. It is important to envision good outcomes. It may be useful to strive for them. But it is important to be realistic. The recent discussion about technology, alternative energy, and sustainability are based on several implicit assumptions, which I believe are unrealistic. At the risk of being an old grump, and recognizing my own limited vision, I list here some statements that I believe from the study of science, history, and human nature to be realistic.

#1: There is no possibility that the so-called renewable energy sources will permit the elimination of fossil fuels and sustain current levels of economic activity and material well- being. The scramble for access to declining energy sources is likely to produce violence. 

#2: The planet will not sustain anywhere close to 9 billion people at living standards close to their aspirations (or our views about what is fair).

#3: Sustainable development is about how you travel, not where you are going.

#4: The privileged will not willingly sacrifice their own advantages to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor (witness the US.) They will lose their advantages, but unwillingly.

#5: The rapidly approaching climate chaos will erode society's capacity for constructive action before it prompts it.

#6: Expansion and efficiency are taken as unquestioned goals for society. They need to be replaced by sufficiency and resilience.

#7: History does not unfold in a smooth, linear, gradual process. Big, drastic discontinuities lie ahead - soon. 

#8: When a group of people believe they must choose between options that offer more order or those affording greater liberty, they will always opt for order. 

Unfortunately so, since it will have grave implications for the evolution of society’s governance systems. Dictators will always promise less chaos than Democrats.

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

Friday, April 23, 2021

Everything is Illuminated: The New Middle Ages

 The Enlightened Middle Ages: Prepare for a New Way of Running Society

The concept of "back to the Middle Ages" is becoming more and more widespread. Indeed, we must begin to think seriously not so much about a "return" to the Middle Ages but a "New Middle Ages" that takes its best features from the old, in particular the management of society based on justice and not on violence, the decentralization of governance structures, the economy based on local resources, and economic stability (although not of the population). That's why I have renamed my Italian blog "Electric Middle Ages." Here is a translation of a post that Luisella Chiavenuto published first in "Humanism and Science", where she goes to the core of the problems we face nowadays. (boldface highlights are mine).


By Luisella Chiavenuto

Despite its success and power, the credibility and dignity of science are at an all-time low. It is no longer a question of opposing only the management of the covid crisis, but also - and at the same time - opposing a scientistic and dehumanizing technocracy that in the absence of opposition will not step back - regardless of the covid and its variants. In a context of evaporation of jobs, the social order will most likely be based on an extended citizenship income - and subordinated to certain social behaviors. This is to maintain minimum levels of consumption and consensus - and combined with further development and updating of the current economic model - which is destroying the web of life everywhere.


The perspective is therefore long-term: resistance and elaboration of new models of thought and social organization, aimed at rediscovering the cultural roots of the past, and at the same time oriented towards a future with a human face - in which theoretical and practical knowledge intertwine and they evolve freely, without space-time preconceptions.

It is also important to support the political transversality of intent, which to a small or large extent already exists in people, within every organization. This is to slow down systemic collapses, thus giving time to the emergence of organizations that are radically different from the current ones. And remembering that this transversality exists above all outside parties and institutions - in the majority of the "politically desperate".

To allow maximum flexibility - and "ontological" confidence - in responding to the systemic collapses in progress, one can perhaps think of a sort of "enlightened Middle Ages" in which - to quote A. Langer (note: Langer was an Italian ecologist and intellectual) and others before him - all this is sought which is "slow, sweet and profound" - in a context of material poverty that will be for many an obligatory and painful condition, but at the same time an opportunity for a different rebirth.


In summary, one could speak of resistance against a Technoscience devoted to the bioinformatics and bioengineering reprogramming of nature, and of life, in all its forms - a techno-knowledge in the grip of a delirium of omnipotence and exaltation, in its dark and desperate background,

A new Humanism of Complexity can be opposed to this Reductivist Technoscience, which also includes the best of scientific thought - but on a level of equal cultural and political dignity. And with the awareness both of the greatness, and of the dark side, and of the crimes, which are woven into all cultures and all cultural currents - obviously including all contemporary ones. A Humanism of Complexity, therefore, based on a Wisdom that can be defined as non-dual, as it is oriented to the recomposition of the fractures that cross and fragment our life, our psyche, reality in all its interconnected levels.


Therefore, the clash between opposing cultural paradigms must be, at the same time, also a human and intellectual encounter between people where possible - and beyond the impossible - to overcome and recompose the lacerations. This also means supporting both the freedom of movement for everyone in every place, and the freedom to remain in their land and culture of origin. Ultimately, it means striving to radically overcome the friend/enemy dichotomy, and having the courage to speak of empathy and universal fraternity, as an ethical and political ideal - within a horizon of collaborating bio-diversity.

Ethical ideal, but also intellectual acquisition, unifying and not naive - capable of attempting global and local responses to problems that can only be faced on both interconnected sides. Are we up to these tasks? Obviously not, nobody is, it is useless to insist .... and then we can be - and do - what we can and can, accepting our limits.  But also considering that we are a mystery to ourselves and that therefore our individual and collective resources are ultimately unfathomable, like life itself.

Luisella Chiavenuto April 2021