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Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXII–Differing Opinions on ‘Renewables’

Today’s Contemplation: Collapse Cometh LXXII

October 19, 2022 (original posting date)

Chitchen Itza, Mexico (1986). Photo by author.

Differing Opinions on ‘Renewables’

While I work on a longer (perhaps several part) contemplation regarding the myth of infinite growth on a finite planet that infiltrates and dominates many mainstream narratives — especially economic in nature — I thought I would share a back-and-forth conversation I’ve had with professor Ugo Bardi and another person on the Facebook group Dr. Bardi administers called The Seneca Effect regarding ‘renewables’.

It is a good example of the differing opinions regarding complex energy-harvesting technologies and their potential to offset the energy descent we seem to be experiencing.

First, I’d like to share an introductory statement from a relatively recent ‘essay’ by Megan Siebert and William Rees: “We begin with a reminder that humans are storytellers by nature. We socially construct complex sets of facts, beliefs, and values that guide how we operate in the world. Indeed, humans act out of their socially constructed narratives as if they were real. All political ideologies, religious doctrines, economic paradigms, cultural narratives — even scientific theories — are socially constructed “stories” that may or may not accurately reflect any aspect of reality they purport to represent. Once a particular construct has taken hold, its adherents are likely to treat it more seriously than opposing evidence from an alternate conceptual framework.”[1]

I am well aware that, for the most part, people believe what they want to believe. We defend our beliefs in various ways such as ignoring/denying opposing information, attacking the presenter of contrarian evidence, or confirming beliefs via selective interpretation of data/’facts’. And I am as guilty of such psychological mechanisms impacting my belief systems as the next person. We all fight hard to reduce the anxiety/stress created from the presence of cognitive dissonance and can be easily manipulated into believing certain narratives.

I have shared in previous contemplations my thoughts about non-renewable, renewable energy-harvesting technologies and my increasing belief that they are not the panacea they are being made out to be. You can read some of these here:

And my thoughts on how our beliefs are impacted by various psychological mechanisms:

The post in which the conversation took place shared a media publication[2] regarding a fusion reactor and its potential for providing unlimited, clean energy.


The presentation begins: “Imagine a world where energy was so clean and abundant that it was no longer a limiting factor in the growth of civilization.”

Infinite growth without a need to worry about what is ‘fuelling’ it or our ecological systems. What’s not to love?


My original comment on the link:

Steve Bull
Unlimited, ‘clean’ energy (an oxymoron) may address one ‘problem’ humanity faces (actually, a roadblock to continuation of our chasing of the perpetual growth chalice) , but it would exacerbate the various predicaments we have created — especially ecological overshoot.

Comment by another that kicked off the back-and-forth:

Breton Crellin
Yeah maybe for like a fraction of a second before they run out of fuel.
That’s the biggest hurdle at the moment.
Even if we can figure out how to keep it cool and controlled it still uses up an incredibly rare fuel incredibly fast.
Maybe one day.
But until then it’s a good thing we’ve got renewables.

Steve Bull
Breton Crellin
Despite narratives to the contrary, ‘renewables’ are a can-kicking endeavour. They rely upon finite resources in perpetuity, while that reliance draws those resources down more quickly and exacerbates our fundamental predicament of ecological overshoot.

Breton Crellin
Steve Bull
and how would you recommend we generate electricity without producing greenhouse gases?
Because ‘we can’t have clean energy since one day in the future we could run out of the resources we used to make it’ is a very poor argument that assumes we will use the same materials with no innovation until we run out and it ignores the damage burning fossil fuels is doing right now.
If we don’t stop burning also fuels we won’t be alive to see the end of any resources used to generate renewable electricity.

Steve Bull
Breton Crellin
The laws of physics and biology care not one iota if our species survives. However, humanity survived for millennia without electricity. And, you can’t have non-renewable, renewable-energy harvesting technologies without fossil fuels — and A LOT of it to even come close to replacing what fossil fuels provide…to say little of their import to modern industrial agriculture that supplies our food. This is a predicament without a solution.

Breton Crellin
Steve Bull
Your solution is a non-solution.
I asked you how You would recommend producing clean electricity and your answers to not produce electricity?
You can’t have renewable energy without fossil fuels?
That talking point is straight out of the climate change denial handbook.
Yes I’m well aware that concrete and steel have a carbon footprint and engineers take a gas burning car to work.
But those emissions are only made once and after that it’s decades of clean electricity.
Besides using petroleum products is not the problem. It’s burning them for heat electricity and transportation that is accelerating I possible extinction level event.
A predicament without a solution hey?
Sounds more like a predicament you have where your logic has pushed you in a corner you can’t find your way out of.
Sorry I shouldn’t make this about you.
Seriously though if climate change is a predicament without a solution then what is the harm in using renewable energy if we won’t survive on this planet long enough to use up the materials?

Ugo Bardi
Breton Crellin There is nothing to do, Breton, for some people, denigrating renewable energy is a crusade.

Steve Bull
Ugo Bardi
You and I will have to agree to disagree regarding‘ renewables’. And as I have written before in responding to you: “… it is not that I ‘hate’ renewables or am a shill for the fossil fuel industry (the two typical accusations lobbed at me); I simply recognise their limitations, negative impacts, and that they are no panacea.”

Steve Bull
Breton Crellin
You need to recognize the difference between problems with solutions and predicaments without them. Not only is there increasing data/evidence to point out that there exists nowhere near the mineral/material resources to achieve the ‘transition’ many desire (see this: https://www.thegreatsimplification.com/…/19-simon-michaux), but that the ecological system and environmental fallout from pursuing such a shift would be catastrophic (see this: https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/2022/09/a-climate-love-story/).

Steve Bull
Ugo Bardi
Breton Crellin As physics professor Tom Murphy concludes in the piece I link: “Let’s not engineer a nightmare for ourselves in the misguided attempt to realize a poorly considered dream. It starts by recognizing that the vision many hold as “the dream” is itself utterly unsustainable and thus may even accelerate failure, rather than avert it. The predicament has wide boundaries that reach deep foundations of our civilization’s structure. We only succeed by altering our mental models of how we live on this planet — not by finding “superior” substitutes for the very things that have put us in this precarious position — and thus will only dig our hole faster, better, and cheaper.”

Breton Crellin
Steve Bull
strongly disagree that using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels is a poorly realized dream.
And again to repeat myself those material estimations assume innovations or alternative materials between now and when we run out.
What are the timelines until we are expected to run out anyway?
Or do we have less than that?

Steve Bull
Breton Crellin
First, you cannot have ‘renewables’ without fossil fuels — from the mineral extraction and processing industries to their maintenance and reclamation/disposal, fossil fuels have no replacements for these industries at scale; plus you require fossil fuels to back up renewable systems because of their intermittency. Note that humanity’s energy demand (including that of fossil fuels) has only increased over the past several decades despite the introduction of ‘renewables’. Renewables are best seen as an extension of fossil fuels, not a replacement. As for the mineral limitation issue, I will defer to Simon Michaux as the geologist who has studied the issue extensively. We need to be powering down significantly (plus reducing our population dramatically), not attempting to replace what fuels our energy-intensive civilisation with complex technologies that require significant drawdown of finite minerals that have for some time been encountering problematic diminishing returns (to say little of the ecological damage such a pursuit entails). Our fundamental predicament is ecological overshoot and chasing replacements for fossil fuels does zero to address it; in fact, it makes it worse leading to an even more difficult reversion to the mean for humanity.

Ugo Bardi
You see? It is a crusade.

Steve Bull
Ugo Bardi I view my attempting to point out the deficiencies and issues with renewables no more a ‘crusade’ than yours to push these technologies (and their environmentally-destructive production) as a ‘solution’ to our inevitable energy descent. The repercussions for our planet (and all life) of our continued pursuit of complex technologies are not inconsequential.

Ugo Bardi
Yours is a faith, mine is a scientific investigation based on data

Steve Bull
Ugo Bardi Many would argue that the idea that ‘renewables’ are a ‘solution’ to our energy descent as ‘faith-based’. I guess you missed (purposely ignored?) the links I shared of physics professor Tom Murphy and geologist Simon Michaux? We must agree to disagree over this…

Ugo Bardi
Steve, how many papers on renewable energy did you publish in peer-reviewed journals? I published at least three (actually more) during the past few years. For this reason I say that my opinion on renewables is based on data and facts.

Steve Bull
Ugo Bardi
Yes, you are arguing based upon an appeal to ‘data’ and ‘facts’, as am I when I refer to the work of fellow academics and ‘experts’ in their fields. Simon Michaux, for example, is a geologist with the Geological Survey of Finland and has performed extensive work on the mineral requirement aspects for a transition to ‘renewables’. Tom Murphy is a practising physicist who looks deeply into the numbers and data. And then there are the countless ecologists who are witnessing horrific biodiversity loss and ecological system collapse from the continuing, and expanding, industrial processes required to pursue complex technologies. I am not basing my perspective on ‘faith’ as you have suggested. I am attempting to balance the ecological concerns (that are almost always ignored or rationalised away) with the human need for energy to sustain our current way of existence. The two seem quite incompatible.

I conclude with the notion that we all believe what we wish to believe; ‘facts’ make little to no difference to that human proclivity. And this is particularly so when one is ‘invested’ significantly in the belief. Dr. Bardi seems well invested in the concept of renewables being capable of replacing fossil fuels. Me…not so much.

Might my concerns for the environment and ecological systems because of our industrial processes and pursuit of increasingly complex technologies be overblown or misplaced? Perhaps. But if they’re not and we continue to chase them in our quest for some holy grail to sustain our current living arrangements, the reversion to the mean for humanity will not be very welcome. Not at all.

[1] https://www.mdpi.com/1996-1073/14/15/4508

[2] The media publisher is ‘Electric Future’ that offers the following information about itself on its YouTube channel: “Electric Future® is an independent media publisher that presents optimistic but realistic coverage of cutting edge sustainable technology… The operators of Electric Future may have material connection to organizations mentioned in video content.”

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