Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Renewable Bullshit

I've been largely incognito around here the last couple of months, and a large part of that has been preparing for the 96th annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America. It's a big conference, and I was presenting some of my work, so, stress.

But now I'm just back from Austin, TX, where it's more than a hundred degrees outside and, despite Governor Rick Perry's best efforts less than five miles from the world's largest gathering of ecologists, it hasn't rained since late last year.

There is, of course, no scientific explanation for this. Weather's just WEIRD, right?

Anywho. I followed the contributed sections on Sustainability and Climate Change with keen interest this year. I have enough stuff to unpack, I suspect, into several columns. To begin, I encountered a fine example of the myth of miraculous tenchology in the Sustainability section, an incredible example of scientific optimism slamming headlong into impossible realities. I hate to pile on to the speaker, a graduate student at Stanford and thus someone facing the same sort of institutional beating I receive on a daily basis, but the truth is she was laying an impossible line of bullshit on us, and from her prevarication and damn near flinching at some of the worse factoids, she knew it.

The topic was biofuels. Well, "renewable" fuels, but until the figure out how to turn electricity directly into sweet, sweet petrol, we're talking biofuels. Specifically, the talk was touted in the abstract handout as discussing the prospects for biofuels development in the southwestern desert of the United States. I shit you not.

First, consider that at present, 24% of the United States' annual corn crop is converted into bioethanol, around 13.5 billion gallons, or around 8% of fuel requirements.* That, right there, should be enough to indicate that conservation and decreases in consumption, not biofuel, is the necessary response to peak oil; we could convert all of the corn in the country into ethanol and not come close to meeting fuel demand. Alas, the only kind of austerity federal authorities are willing to discuss is the kind that fucks poor people, so I give you the EPA's Renewable Fuel Standard. It's pretty dense, but back in 2005 the EPA passed a regulation requiring that just under 13 billion gallons of bioethanol be produced in 2010. They met this benchmark, though a combination of gigantic subsidies and tax giveaways to producers, and in the process caused convulsive food price fluctuations on the world market that helped spark some minor unpleasantness in the Middle East earlier this year. So the EPA is doubling down, requiring 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel per annum by 2022. An increase of nearly 300% in ten years. Hoo boy.

The speaker acknowledged at this point that there was no way that we could meet this benchmark using current feedstocks and technologies; that we could starve the world and not have enough to fuel our cars. She also quickly glossed over the fact that most feedstocks are not as greenhouse-gas neutral as the EPA likes to pretend, as they ignore the agricultural gas fluxes entirely in their calculations (natch). At this point a reasonable scientist would point out that our current fuel consumption is unsustainable and must be reduced, but instead she gamely suggested that maybe we could make the southwestern U.S., which is not at present what one would call a breakbasket, into a biofuels geyser.

Things got awfully hand-wavey at this point. The speaker conceded that the only thing stopping the southwest from producing great heaping gobs of biofuels feedstocks, with its abundant space and sunlight, is lack of water. I literally had to restrain myself from shouting that that was also why they don't grow much FOOD down there either, incidentally. Even so, something like 75% of water use in the southwest goes to agriculture, and 50% of that goes to grow hay for the cattle industry (you're eating part of the Colorado River that never made it to the ocean whenever you cruise through the drive-through). The speaker also admitted that the aquifers and surface waters of the region are, to avoid putting too fine a point on it, fucked, which I thought would be an excellent point to realize that establishing a brand-new, water-intensive industry in the region would be a Bad Idea(tm). She then outlined a very ambitious plan to build gigantic algae farms in the area, utilizing CO2 produced by coal-fired power plants as a carbon source (clever, actually), and diverting water from the already unsustainable production of hay.

So, let's build a few billion dollars worth of entirely new infrastructure, cut the region's production of cattle by about 7.5 million head per year* (I thought the point was NOT to fuck with food prices?), and continue destroying a regional water table, and she reckons we can ALMOST reach half of the EPA's required benchmark, just in time for kids born today to start middle school.

Sure. Why not.

This talk was a perfect example of what is afflicting mainstream environmental science today. The speaker was not unaware of any of the major issues regarding biofuels production: competition with food production, net positive greenhouse gas fluxes from production, insufficient water supplies, unproven technologies, etc. etc. etc. From her manner, she knew just how unrealistic the EPA's mandate seems, doubling down on a policy that has already destabilized the market for one of the country's key agricultural products. The true solution, reducing consumption, was sitting there like an elephant in the room. But instead of counseling this course of action, she spun a bizarrely optimistic tale of miracle technology, blithely talking about obliterating America's beef production on one hand, while creating and fusing at least a half-a-dozen different industrial technologies on the other, in less time than it takes to age a middle-shelf scotch.

As long as scientists in this country refuse to abandon the fallacy that technology, divorced from the near unlimited energy of the petroleum age, can save us from anything, we have no chance of convincing policy makers and the public that energy austerity is out only choice. It's incredibly ironic to me that we have had such a huge national debate over the debt ceiling recently, when the world's energy budget is the one budget that really CANNOT allow deficit spending.

More from the world's premier gathering of ecologists later. I need a drink.

*figures quoted from Amelia Wolf's talk, "Biofuel Production Potential in the Southwestern U.S."


  1. Wow.

    Did you get a chance to bring up any of your objections directly to the speaker? Especially the elephant in the room, i.e. the need to drastically reduce energy use? Did you find anyone that shared your viewpoint during the inevitable after-event hallway/hotel bar conversations?

    From the way you describe her talk, it seems like she might be amenable to the case you're trying to make -- given enough time and patience. Since she clearly is aware on some level of the inadequacy of her proposed "solutions," maybe she could eventually be brought around to the idea of abandoning "growth" in favor of living within our energy (and water, etc.) means.

    Looking forward to hearing more about the conference.

    One of my big questions about law school is how often I'll encounter people interested in energy/environment issues who hold onto the "renewables based growth" fantasy. I expect more than a few.

  2. Unfortunately I didn't get the chance. A lab mate was giving a talk in another session, so I had to scoot out as soon as the biofuels talk was over. I've been mulling over the possibility of e-mailing Wolf, but haven't decided yet.

    I DID talk to a lot of people at the conference about these issues, and encountered a lot of the same cognitive dissonance. Pretty much everyone was on the page with me about climate change and peak oil; but as soon as I got into my argument that all renewable energy is essentially solar passed through various filters, and that when you consider the requirements of a healthy biosphere and 7 billion hungry humans, the sun's energy is simply not arriving fast enough for our profligate industrial society, I lost almost everybody. The religion of technological progress beats strongly at science conferences, and why not? Professional scientists and engineers are the high priestesses and priests of that religion, and each talk at a science conference is a little sermon to the faithful. To admit that we cannot solve these problems, that they are predicaments instead (as John Michael Greer points out), is to admit that we as scientists will once again become itinerant notebook scribblers, observers of nature rather than the godly titans we've become since Darwin's time.

    It's a tough pill to swallow for people who see themselves in the guild that built the nuclear reactor and the computer, cured smallpox and put people on the moon. It sucks, and they don't want it.

  3. I would be curious to know what Wolf would say, if you decide to email her. Maybe she could do a guest post here, outlining her reactions upon encountering the whacky world of energy-depletion extremists!

    Speaking of which, see my post today for an attempt to engage two of my conventionally minded academic historian friends on these sorts of issues...