How to make renewables case hard to accomplish

Saint Albans Messenger; September 7, 2016

A 2014 study is making the rounds again, giving rise to those who look at the world around them and see little other than self-inflicted chaos. The study, “funded by NASA”, claims society is in danger of collapsing if we don’t get a handle on the inequities that are so prevalent and if we are not able to reverse our consumption of resources.

Sounds defensible. If there are too many of us consuming resources that are finite, then, obviously, that doesn’t work for any length of time.

David Blittersdorf, owner of AllEarth Renewables and a leader of Vermont’s renewable energy initiative, responded to a Facebook post of the 2014 study, writing: “…We have built a industrial society on finite fossil fuels using a economic/financial system based on infinite growth. The crash of these two things occurred about 40 years ago. Read “The Limits to Growth”.”For any halfway livable future, we must cut our consumption of everything to at least 1/4 of what we Americans are presently consuming. Additionally we must convert almost all of our energy to renewables (wind, solar, hydro and some biomass). Oil, gas and coal were one-time gifts that are basically gone FOREVER by 2100. Renewables are electric technologies and we need to electrify as much of our basic needs as possible. We also need to mostly abandon the largest users of fossil fuels which include airplanes, cars/trucks and producing heat by combustion. Heat pumps-YES and electric cars-NO. Change is hard and is not optional. The real, physical world is in charge – not personal opinion or wishes …We are probably going to fail as a civilization over the next few hundred years but let’s do so with the least amount of human suffering as possible.”

From Mr. Blittersdorf ’s perspective, things look pretty grim.

When the 2014 “NASA study” is looked at a little more carefully, one becomes more circumspect of the conclusions.

First, NASA has long since denied it had “solicited, directed or reviewed” the study. The university researchers involved had apparently used some models other researchers had used for an unrelated NASA study. The media added two and two to get five. The story went out as NASA putting its imprimatur on clear cut evidence that the world was about to collapse.

Not true.

Mr. Blittersdorf ignores that and adds to the story by urging people to read “The Limits to Growth” the 1972 book which made many of the same claims based on exponential growth of the planet’s population and consumption of “finite resources.” The book’s predictions have largely been debunked and its conclusions are now regarded as pedestrian observations by many economists. Predicting future behavior based on the present, but extended forward exponentially, offers little other than the expected predictions of calamity.

The weakness in the argument is that we can’t assume that the constancy of the variables. When the 1972 book was written it was assumed the world’s population would continue to grow at a level above replacement rates. That hasn’t happened. We’re now in a position – within the next 50 or so years – when the planet’s population will be in decline, exactly the opposite of what was predicted. Almost all of Europe is in decline now; if current trends continue it’s expected that the population of Western Europe will fall from 460 million to 350 million by the end of this century.

If population trends continue as is, both Russian and China would see even steeper population declines. Obviously, if there are far fewer people then consumption issues lessen as well.

That is not an argument in favor of being more frugal with our resources, or caring less about the environment that sustains us. Both should be ardently pursued for a variety of reasons, Mr. Blittersdorf ’s included; it’s not acceptable to foul the nest one inhabits, nor is it defensible to squander our resources.

What doesn’t work is to use bad information to frighten people into action. When people discover that the information is bad, and when they see that the faulty information is used for someone’s financial gain, then people stop believing. In everything. People then defer to behavior that brings them comfort, an exercise in rationalization. When that happens making progress on any front becomes doubly difficult.

That’s the classic definition of a pyrrhic victory – winning the battle but losing the war.

By Emerson Lynn


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