Do not conflate environmentalism with technology advocacy: a response to the Ecologist

As ordinary citizens with long interest and concern for environmental issues, we were gratified to see our book, Climate Gamble, being noticed on the pages of the Ecologist (Nuclear lobbyists’ epic COP21 fail. Our next job? Keep their hands off climate funds, Jim Green, 16th Dec 2015). We believe it is high time these issues are mentioned in a magazine that claims to have been “setting the environmentalist agenda since 1970.”

This is because the world is changing and the established environmental agenda is no longer the only game in environmentalist town. We understand this upsets some members of the entrenched environmentalist elite, but feel that we have no choice in the matter. For close to half a century now, the traditional environmentalist movement has been trying to convert the world’s peoples to its vision of “sustainable” future. We are the first to acknowledge it has enjoyed considerable and most welcome successes here and there. But so far, everything that has been tried has failed even to stop the growth of CO2 emissions, let alone drive them down to sustainable levels.

We in the new ecomodernist movement believe this state of affairs will unfortunately continue as long as being an “environmental activist” implicitly means the acceptance of the strictures of this traditional movement. The party line of traditional environmentalism is dominated by Western-centric discourse of apocalypse and redemption, Leftist political thought, and extremely black and white views on specific technologies and of people. Technologies in particular tend to be seen either as wholly good or wholly bad, while strictest censure seems to be reserved not to people who oppose environmental action, but to people who agree with traditional environmentalism on many but not all issues: witness, for example, a related vicious attack calling James Hansen of all people a climate denier — simply because he’s afraid we do not have enough tools to stop dangerous climate change!

We believe that in order to have a chance against climate change, biodiversity loss and other pressing environmental problems, the environmental movement needs to break out from its traditional self-righteous, self-congratulatory and ultimately self-defeating niche. Me and Rauli, the writers of Climate Gamble, both agree with approximately nine tenths of what the traditional environmental movement is preaching: but we also recognise that there are many who, for various reasons, cannot see themselves supporting the creed of traditional environmentalism.

The irony is that many of these people are genuinely concerned about the environment and the future of our planet. There are obviously those who couldn’t care less, and others who benefit from environmental degradation; but among those who view traditional environmentalism with suspicion are also thoughtful and concerned people who can be mobilised for the environmental cause. However, to do so we need to provide them with alternative environmental movements.

In our case, we have been building the new ecomodernist movement to unite those who care deeply about the environmental and social justice but disagree with traditional environmentalist party line on some of the methods used to reach those goals. What Jim Green and the Ecologist got entirely wrong in their article is the idea that our goal is to split or divide the environmental movement. In fact, we have been among the founders of the Ecomodernist Society of Finland precisely because we wish to avoid such a split.

For years now, there has been a budding civil war between environmentalists who have come to question some of the tenets of traditional environmentalism — the unflinching opposition to nuclear power being one example — and the traditional environmental establishment. We, who feel the threat of climate change outweighs the disadvantages of nuclear power, have tried to influence traditional movements with facts and argument. However, we now realise this strategy has been predicated on a fundamental error. Certain cherished stances such as opposition to nuclear power tend to be deeply rooted questions of identity, and many individuals are unlikely to ever change their stance on the matter. There are good arguments against nuclear power, and undoubtedly there will be in the future.

We believe that trying to “split” the traditional environmental movement is futile. What’s worse, it’s counterproductive: at this hour, everyone concerned about the environment or the future of humanity needs to work together. Time spent on internecine attacks is time not spent on fighting the real enemy, the fossil fuel interests. Therefore, we are not even trying to split the environmental movement: we are trying to add to it. By providing a platform for people who care about the environment but for some reason or another do not care about the existing environmental organisations, we mobilise more people for the environmental cause. In a recent Facebook poll, nearly 60 percent of Finnish Ecomodernists (the most rapidly growing environmental movement in Finland, by the way) had never been active in any environmental movement whatsoever. Some of those marched for the environment for the first time in the 29th November Climate March in Helsinki. Is bringing more people to environmental activism really a bad thing?

Only by conflating environmentalism with anti-nuclear activism and uncritical renewable energy boosterism — which unfortunately seems to be fairly common — can one sustain the false belief that we aren’t environmentalists. We care about our common planet just as much and sometimes more than traditional environmentalists: for me, for example, one key reason to promote nuclear as well was the insufficient ambition of traditional environmental movement’s decarbonisation scenarios. Other reasons include concern about huge land areas that would be harnessed for human use in more ambitious renewable energy scenarios (WWF, for example, suggests using more acreage to energy farms alone than the world currently uses for wheat, its most important cereal crop), concerns about sustainability of large-scale biomass use, or worries about the impact of dams or vastly increased mining activity required to supply materials for the spread of the “windustrial complex.” We are deeply alarmed how the traditional environmental movement has become, in effect, an uncritical advocate for a very particular techno-political regime, one with potentially major environmental and social impacts.

In summary, we believe things are not as black and white as the traditional environmentalist establishment seems to want us to believe. We also believe in cooperation and in healthy debate and want to work harder in the future to avoid painting anyone as “enemy” — particularly not those who already agree with us on most things. This is no time for making enemies: there are already plenty enough among those who’d benefit from continued fossil fuel use.

We also believe in evidence-based policy making. As of now, evidence still suggests that even the best achievements of renewable energy, laudable as they are, have come nowhere close to achieving the carbon cuts now needed. In fact, as we make clear in Climate Gamble, the decarbonisation records are still held by countries who decarbonised by accident, with nuclear power.

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Best 10-year per capita decarbonisation rates achieved. From CDIAC data.

Furthermore, evidence also suggests that scenarios where world energy demand is to be met with renewables alone make heroic assumptions about reducing total energy demand, while simultaneously assuming even more heroic increases in build rates of new energy generation.

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Sustained energy efficiency increase and new energy build rates that are required for 100% RE and technology neutral climate mitigation. Based on Loftus et al. (2015), A critical review of global decarbonization scenarios: what do they tell us about feasibility? Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 6(1), 93-112.

Had Jim Green bothered to read our book or check the statistics himself, he would have learned that our assertion he ridicules is perfectly correct. Even the much-maligned Olkiluoto 3 nuclear project in Finland turns out to be very fast way of adding low-carbon energy production, when this is compared in any meaningful way to any real-world combination of alternatives. In terms of kilowatt hours of generation added per capita (a comparison that actually downplays what nuclear energy has historically done: a GDP- or PPP-normalised comparison would have been even more relevant), Olkiluoto 3 turns out to be some 50% faster (or better, depending on your viewpoint) than the entire wind power project of Denmark, for example – and well over two times faster than the oft-lauded accomplishments of Germany in both wind and solar combined. Granted, we believe and earnestly hope that these renewable records will be broken in the future, but it is still clear that even badly managed nuclear projects can add substantial chunks of low-carbon energy generation reasonably rapidly. Nuclear is no silver bullet, but it is a powerful tool we shouldn’t dismiss lightly. What’s more, we believe we should work towards solving the problems of nuclear power, not just point them out: for example, developing new reactor types to deal with long-lived waste should be a priority for everyone concerned about nuclear waste.

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We are not as arrogant as to claim to know how exactly the world is powered in 2050, 35 years from now. Questions such as these are highly complex and there are no exact answers. We only believe that it is far too early to entirely foreclose some options for the entire planet. We also believe that the desire for some to do so has more to do with all too human tendencies for ex post rationalisation, confirmation bias and groupthink than with genuinely balanced appraisal of alternatives.

If we now oppose nuclear power yet fail to prevent dangerous climate change — a future that seems uncomfortably likely — future generations will continue to ask for as long as humanity survives: might the rising seas have been stopped in time and the deadly heat waves been avoided, or at least mitigated, if only nuclear power hadn’t been opposed so strenuously?

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Environmentalists need to focus on what we can agree with

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Finnish Ecomodernists at a Climate March, 29.11.15. Photo by Meri Tuuli Lauranto.

Greetings from Paris! Despite considerable logistical difficulties, we’ve managed to hand out nearly 2000 copies of Climate Gamble to interested people around COP21 climate conference; many thanks to everyone who’ve supported our campaign so far.

As expected, there has been some criticism. Many people sincerely believe nuclear power has unacceptable risks or drawbacks, or that nuclear industry is part of the problem rather than the solution.

This line of reasoning is entirely valid and supported by strong arguments. Nuclear power is far from the problem-free solution it is sometimes portrayed as, and nuclear industry hasn’t been exactly the shining paragon of good corporate citizenship. While there are some bad arguments against nuclear power (CO2 emissions, for example: lifecycle emissions are broadly similar to lifecycle emissions of wind power), there are also good arguments and very smart, sincere people behind the anti-nuclear position.

We obviously disagree with some of the conclusions that are made from the same premises. Our chief disagreement is in whether we need nuclear power or not, and whether the benefits outweigh the risks. We believe it may be possible to power the global society with renewables alone, but we are afraid that without nuclear, we are taking more risks in the climate fight than we should take. This is not an isolated opinion: among others, some very influential climate scientists are saying the exact same things. Furthermore, reviews of non-nuclear climate mitigation scenarios find consistently that they are dependent on a large set of hopes and assumptions becoming reality.

While it is far from certain that we can do the job even with nuclear, the amount of lucky breaks humanity needs is almost certainly smaller if we allow ourselves to use all the options. If we fail to mitigate climate change while denouncing nuclear power, our descendants – if there are any – will forever wonder whether the crisis might have been averted or at least its worst impacts mitigated if nuclear energy had not been opposed so strenuously. We think we owe it to future generations human and nonhuman to at least keep an open mind regarding potential solutions to one of humanity’s greatest challenges so far.

But even more important, in my opinion, is that we allow those who are concerned about our common home to join forces. It seems highly improbable much progress will be made if those concerned about the environment or social justice devote one hand to fighting those who agree with the broad goals, but disagree over some specifics of the strategy. This is one of the key reasons why I’m involved in the fledgling Ecomodernist movement: I want to help provide a platform for those who have felt excluded from traditional environmental activism, because they happen to be in some disagreement with some of the values and premises of the traditional environmentalism.

This year’s Climate March was advertised with the words “if we want to change everything, we need everybody.” There is much truth in these words. If the label “environmental activist,” for example, is reserved for only those who subscribe to the tenets of the traditional movement, it is painfully clear we will fail. In the timeframe we have available at least (less than 35 years), there are simply no prospects whatsoever for “converting” the required majority of world’s population to accept a set of values and premises that are highly Western-centric, Leftist, and make some very strong assumptions about particular technologies for example.

Instead of hoping a mass conversion and adoption of traditional environmental values hook, line and sinker, I believe environmental activists need to reach out to those who’ve been excluded so far. This year, the Ecomodernist movement brought about dozen people to march for climate in Helsinki. Only a dozen, because we organised our participation on a very short notice; but dozens more indicated they would like to participate in the future. With one or two exceptions, not one of them had ever demonstrated for the environment: most hadn’t ever been in a demonstration of any kind.

Perhaps you believe the environmental movement can do without these people. Perhaps you even believe it should do without. If you think so, I think you are wrong. In the aftermath, there were obviously some who questioned why we carried banners supporting low-carbon energy – nuclear power. But the wisest comment came from a self-described opponent of nuclear power: this is a time when we should concentrate on what we have in common, rather than focusing on what separates us.

I heartily agree. These words, among others, have already influenced my thinking. In the past, I’ve been highly critical of traditional environmentalists and sometimes attacked them rather viciously for being “dumb” in their opposition to nuclear power, or in their support for highly destructive practices such as widespread bioenergy use just because it’s nominally “renewable.” I apologise for being such a jerk and try to rein it in, preferably stopping it entirely. We really do need to focus on what we have in common: our concern for our common home and those whose home it is.

It is true, as several critics have pointed out, that many “new” environmentalists have been highly aggressive towards existing environmentalism and environmentalists. I’ve been one of those aggressive people, after all. I think this needs to stop, if we want to change things rather than flaunt ourselves to the small circle of like-minded people. There is no joy nor hope in trying to convert traditional environmentalists to wholeheartedly support nuclear power, for example: the goal is just as futile as the goal of converting the majority of the world to the values of traditional environmentalism. For the most part, all such efforts will achieve is a pat in the back from those who already agree.

Instead of scoring points among the already converted, I think ecomodernism and future environmental movements, which I believe will emerge, should focus on those who care but haven’t been able to work within existing platforms to channel their energy towards the overall goal: of building a better world for everyone.

An aside about heresies

Nevertheless, I think it is instructive to try to think why there have been so vicious infighting between people who call themselves environmentalists. In Monty Python’s fantastic Life of Brian, there is a brilliant scene where hapless Brian mistakes the activists of anti-Roman People’s Front of Judea for the activists of Judean People’s Front. As explained by Reg, the leader of the People’s Front,

The only people we hate more than the Romans are the fucking Judean People’s Front.

The scene is hilarious because it is firmly based in reality. We humans seem to have a tendency to reserve most scorn not for those who disagree with us in everything, but for those with who we have more in common. The one who disagrees with us in everything is simply an implacable, inhuman enemy, not worth a dialogue. He must only be destroyed; once every enemy is destroyed, a Final Victory will occur for those who share the True Faith.

But the one who agrees with many things yet disagrees on some points is worse: he is a heretic, or a traitor. Heretics may be reconverted to the True Faith and their souls saved; traitors have a reserved seat in Hell.

As you may have guessed already, much of this dichotomy may stem from the Western cultural tradition that is heavily influenced by Abrahamic religions. These religions have clearly defined “us” against “them” and very black and white visions of “good” versus “evil.” (Thanks to the thoughtful student of Hindu environmental activism for pointing this out to me. If someone ever again says there’s no benefit from studying different cultures, I’m going to be quite angry.)

It just may be that such deep, unconscious, culturally embedded frameworks of heretics and traitors may explain some reasons why many environmental activists in the West at least have lately been bashing each other. I, too, shared this worldview: the traditional environmentalists are so much like me in almost every respect that I have hoped to convert them to the One True Faith of atomic powered future. In effect, I’ve been trying to persuade what I see as heretics in order to save their souls. Likewise, many have tried to convert me to renouncing the Atomic Devil.

And when these efforts fail as they usually do, we’re billed as traitors and enemies to the movement, to be excommunicated from the presence of the faithful. To many, it seems to be hard to accept one may be very much for environmental and social justice while still supporting nuclear power. To others, not supporting nuclear power at this juncture seems the very epitome of stupidity or worse. Witness, for example, the regularly surfacing insinuations that those who disagree must be in the pay of some nefarious organisations. It is probably far easier to believe the disagreement stems from selfish motives than to face the fact that there may be persons who agree with you on most but not all things.

That said, there are also legitimate corporate lobbyists interspersed among both “new” and “traditional” environmentalism. There really are people employed by the nuclear industry PR departments, for example. Likewise, the traditional environmental movement works closely – in my opinion, somewhat too closely – with renewable energy industries and their lobbying groups, taking their claims a bit too uncritically. In accordance with the rest of this article, I think we need to be in speaking terms with these lobbyists as well: based on my experience, most of them are decent people who want to do good. But we must not let them define what we want to do. Personally, I believe one reason to support the inclusion of nuclear power within climate change efforts is to keep the renewable industry on their toes: if we exclude potential competition, we increase the risk that these very large and powerful industries may capture the climate mitigation movement entirely. There are a lot of good people in the renewable industries; but they are still companies, still obliged to make a profit, with all the potential consequences this brings in our current form of economic system.

(The same text is published at the web site of our book, Climate Gamble.)

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The gamble gamblers won’t take

Anti-nuclear activists say we should bet the fate of the planet on the assumption their energy scenarios are correct and everyone else is wrong. But when pressed in private, even they do not believe themselves.

This is the realisation I had after listening to Robert Stone, director of documentary Pandora’s Promise, debate an anti-nuclear activist at the screening of Promise in Paris during the COP21 climate negotiations. In the debate, Stone deftly argued that future generations will not forgive us if we do not try everything we can to avert dangerous climate change. Particularly if we fail, our children will curse us if there is any doubt we could have averted the horrors by trying just one more thing. In response, the anti-nuclear activist from WISE, an organisation adamantly opposed to giving nuclear power any role anywhere, argued that renewables could do everything — provided we are very careful about how much we use energy. In the energy scenarios he preferred, world energy use stays at current levels, even as the world population grows to nine or ten billion and the poor aspire to higher standards of living.

No matter that aside from anti-nuclear activists and reports commissioned by them, not one credible scientific assessment believes the world energy use is even going to stagnate, let alone fall. As Robert Stone pointed out, in every other scenario the world energy use will grow as we get closer to 2050. The “WISE” activist nevertheless argued that we should not use all the means at our disposal, finally pleading that we need emission reductions in the next five to ten years and that can only be delivered from energy efficiency and renewables.

After the audience had departed, I remained with few others to hand out free copies of our book, Climate Gamble. It was then when I overheard a remarkable conversation: Robert Stone asked the departing activist to make a simple bet. In ten years, would the world energy consumption rise or fall from current levels?

The activist refused with the following words: “It will rise, though it should fall.”

This was, I reiterate, a stunning admission. The activist had just spent nearly an hour arguing that there is no need to use all the low-carbon energy options we have, because we can reach our goals if only we lower our energy consumption enough. Furthermore, the next five to ten years are when the important things need to happen.

Yet when pressed in private, the activist flatly refused to believe himself the only hope he was giving to humanity at large. He directly admitted the future he wants isn’t going to happen, yet he still opposes any alternatives.

I’ve heard similar duplicity before in this matter, as have many others. Robert Stone in fact cited the disparity between public and private statements as a reason why a previously anti-nuclear filmmaker would make a strongly pro-nuclear documentary. His previous project had been a documentary about the history of the environmental movement in North America. During filming, he had spoken to nearly every person of importance in the movement. These were the people who are publicly optimistic about the progress of renewable energy and flat out refuse to consider any need for nuclear power even as climate pledge after pledge fails to produce meaningful results. Yet without exception, Stone said, in private conversations they believed the humanity is doomed. Many have chosen not to have children.

There were some optimists, though. A minority believed there was hope, even if it might require us to thread a very careful path through the future. These people had seen what nuclear energy could do.

I well recall my own Damascus moment in this matter. After doing the math myself, it became apparent the lofty promises of renewable-only supporters were at best a gamble with extraordinary low odds and stupendously high stakes. Despair resulted; I seriously considered quitting the civilisation and moving to a lakeside cabin to practice fishing. Finally, I began to take a serious look at nuclear energy and realised the very same gamblers have been distorting, omitting and simply refusing very important facts about it. These gamblers are the heirs of the successful environmental movement of the 1980s, a movement where opposition to nuclear power is an unquestionable axiom. As someone with graduate studies in organisation science, I perfectly understand how these values continue to influence and distort decision-making today.

But if the end result is that even the outspoken activists do not believe what they are saying would ever happen, I’d say any person seriously concerned about the environment should take a very hard look at their beliefs and ask the simple question: are there any alternative strategies that give us more options, more hope?

I ask the readers: when in a debate about the energy/climate question, please ask the anti-nuclear side the same question. Does he or she believe the world energy use is going to fall in ten years? If not, how he/she then can believe what s/he is proposing?

 

EDIT: On a suggestion from a friend, I’d like to make perfectly, abundantly, 100% crystal clear the outcome of my own analysis of this matter: we definitely need at least almost every option we currently have. This means we must use renewables, we must practice energy conservation, and we must continue using and developing nuclear energy. We very likely are going to need carbon capture and storage (CCS) and probably we should also look into geoengineering, for insurance at least.

I’ve stated numerous times in writing that I actually think renewables will and should be in the first line against climate change. But nuclear is such an important source of low-carbon energy that when we can build it, we should. I’m not for nuclear power; I’m against climate change, for the environment, and pro-humanity. Not to use all the options is an irresponsible gamble with the future of the planet at stake. Not even to consider some of the options is even worse.

Finally, I believe the activist from WISE is wrong: we have more than five to ten years to make a difference. Furthermore, if that’s all we have, the goose is cooked and so is everything else. The meme “we need only those options that we can build in five to ten years” seems to find support mostly because it conveniently allows one to discount nuclear power entirely, no matter that in just slightly longer timespans it can make a huge difference. This is illustrated by France, for example, which went from 20% to 80% low carbon electricity in 11 years. Contrast to Germany, which seeks to achieve the same goal by 2050. That’s 60 years after France.

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Finnish Ecomodernists marching for climate solutions

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Helsinki Climate March, 29th Nov 2015. Photo (c) Meela Leino. One Ecomodernist banner is visible on the right; another one was attacked, unfortunately.

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Ecomodernists on the move. “Lisää ydinvoimaa” = “More nuclear power.” Photo (c) Meri-Tuuli Lauranto

Last Sunday, members of the Finnish Ecomodernist Society participated in the worldwide Climate March in Helsinki. This was probably the first time ecomodernists took part in a demonstration, and as such, a historical moment.

The ecomodernist message is clear: we need all the options at our disposal to stave off the climate crisis. This means, among other things, support for all low-carbon forms of energy, including nuclear power. With the future of our one habitable planet at risk, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Even though renewable energy is showing great promise, it and energy efficiency alone may not be enough. At minimum, we need an insurance policy, a “plan B,” in case the great promises now made of renewables do not pan out.

After all, we’ve heard great promises before. In the 1950s discussions, nuclear energy was treated very much in the same way renewable energy is touted today. Unlimited nuclear energy was supposed to solve almost every world problem imaginable, from providing cheap power to desalinising seawater and making the deserts bloom (!). As late as in the 1970s, serious analysts suggested that by 2000, there would be little need for any other energy source than nuclear.

Then, reality intervened. Things rarely go as smoothly as the ardent promoters of new technologies hope for. Unexpected and ignored problems crop up. To the dismay of those who make their predictions by placing a ruler on the exponential phase of an S-curve, growth slows down and eventually stops. It is all but certain this will happen with renewables as well: the sixty four billion trillion dollar question is when this will happen.

Possibly it will happen only after the world economy has been decarbonised to the extent required. But possibly it will happen much earlier. The signs are ominous: new renewable energy installations are already slowing down in countries with the largest amount of wind and solar power already installed. This is bad news. For in these countries, “new” renewables account for no more than a fraction of total energy demand. Decarbonisation goals are still far away, and the required growth is slowing down, not accelerating.

In the Climate March, ecomodernists asked a question: For the love of our planet, what if the vocal proponents of 100% renewable energy are wrong? If they are wrong only in timing of renewable revolution, the results could still be very bad. If they are wrong in both timing and extent of the revolution, the outcome could well be catastrophic.

What if the IPCC median forecasts of world energy use and renewable potential are closer to the truth?

Plenty of good discussion followed afterwards, particularly on the Facebook page of the event. Even many who disagreed whether we need nuclear energy agreed that the climate problem is so vast we now need to work together and focus on what we have in common: the desire to retain a living, vibrant world for future generations human and nonhuman. It is easy to agree with the sentiment: after all, we’re not opposing any low-carbon energy form nor advocating against other climate change solutions.

Yet as expected, this question ruffled some feathers. Ecomodernists were challenged and one of our banners forced down; hence, it isn’t visible in the group photo. This was to be expected. But we cannot, we should not, and we will not be prevented from asking the question.

Far too much is at risk.

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Press release: Thousands of Climate Gamble books to be handed out in Paris

If you’re in Paris for the COP21, come find us (or drop us a line) and get your free copy of Climate Gamble, special COP21 edition!

Climate Gamble

About five thousand free copies of Climate Gamble will be handed out to negotiators and activists gathering in Paris for the COP21 climate negotiations. The authors behind this independent book phenomenon on climate gamble and its solutions, Rauli Partanen and Janne M. Korhonen, collected funds for this unprecedented print run through non-profit crowdfunding campaign. The essential facts are as follows:

  1. The book lays out the scale of climate challenge, as understood by most recent scientific studies, and the scope of solutions proposed to mitigate the dangers. Through IPCC and other studies, the book shows that mitigation plans that rely on renewable energy and energy efficiency alone are highly unlikely to succeed in time: we now need all the options, including nuclear power.
  2. The book also shows how the global anti-nuclear movement has consistently twisted and misrepresented the facts and even resorted to fabricated statistics as it continues its 1980-era battle against nuclear energy…

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The Elon Musk approach to nuclear power costs

Recently, I read an interesting piece about the reasoning process used by the man behind Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk: first principles reasoning. In this mode of thinking, espoused by Aristotle among others, one begins from the “first principles” or foundations of the problem to make the case. Musk himself has used the method to calculate the minimum costs of rockets and batteries respectively based on nothing more than their material costs: if a rocket or a battery contains such and such amounts of such and such materials, and the market prices for those materials are such, then the minimum cost for the rocket or battery can be easily calculated. As a result, Musk says he figured out that in principle a rocket needs to cost only about 2 percent of what it costs now; and battery packs could be had for $80 per kilowatt hour instead of current $600. In the article, Musk makes an important point: analogies and comparisons to what exist are fundamentally limited approaches, and in analysis they should be supplemented with other approaches, such as first principles thinking.

Which is what I’m now going to do to analyse what nuclear power might cost, Elon Musk style. The accepted wisdom, certainly among anti-nuclear activists, is that nuclear power is expensive and will forever remain so. (No matter that their preferred alternatives are often more expensive, when all the costs for equivalent end result are tallied.) This is somewhat puzzling, since in principle nuclear power shouldn’t be that expensive: while it requires large facilities, these facilities can pump out enormous quantities of energy from very, very small material inputs, with very low volumes of waste that can be controlled relatively easily.

So let’s begin the first principles analysis and start thinking how cheap nuclear power could be. As a starting point, I’ve used a widely available Environmental Product Declaration from Swedish Forsmark nuclear power plant. It conveniently lists the material and energy inputs required in building, operating and dismantling a nuclear power plant, distributing its electricity and disposing of its waste. Furthermore, it provides the details in an ISO 14000 certified manner per kilowatt hour produced (see Table 7 on p. 22). After some hours googling for raw material prices and making some conservative assumptions whenever exact data was difficult to find, I was able to come up with an answer:

Price floor of electricity could be as low as 2.1 US cents per kilowatt hour, or $21/MWh (19.2 €/MWh).

Certainly not too cheap to meter, but even if we throw in something to account for the unexpected, Muskian nuclear energy still comes out as, well, rather cheap. (For the spreadsheet I used in the calculation; Materials required for nuclear electricity and their costs, XLSX spreadsheet. Feel free to play around with it, although dropping a comment here would be nice if you use it to publish somewhere.)

Now, of course this is somewhat of an absurd calculation, but as Elon Musk himself noted, first principles reasoning is still an informative exercise. It is hard to believe nuclear electricity could be much cheaper than this; and one can suspect prices very much above this are a result from factors not inherent in the technology itself. Indeed, as a research review commissioned by none other than Friends of the Earth UK found out (PDF link), nuclear electricity costs are heavily dependent on terms of financing: using lower discount rates that Her Majesty’s Treasury recommends for decisions that have long-term societal implications — like climate change mitigation — the cost of nuclear electricity could possibly be halved from current estimates. Although policies required for this to happen are not realistic right now, such calculations illustrate how electricity costs are very much influenced by factors other than technology itself.

Furthermore, first principles reasoning provides a valuable comparison to figures thrown around by Elon Musk and others. If batteries have a price floor of $80 per kWh, and — I’m making assumptions here — solar electricity has a price floor of $10 $0.1 per kWh produced, the lowest possible cost for equivalent service from a solar panel-battery combination would still be anything from $30 to $90 $20 to $80 or more, depending on assumptions on how much energy storage is required. (Thanks to Proteos for catching this very dumb mistake.)

Without technological innovation, these price floors are unlikely to budge and about as unlikely to be reached in practice. When unabated coal electricity can be had in practice for $30 per megawatt hour, it is easy to see why there is still need for more innovation so that even poor countries can provide enough power for their peoples without having to resort to fossil fuels.

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Songs from the Hungerland: reflections on Ecomodernism, history, and Nature

Songs from the Hungerland

in response to 21.10.15 The Guardian opinion piece: The Brave New World of Ecomodernism

Legs at Nuuksio

My feet, enjoying a rest at one of the natural parks Finland was able to set aside in the 1900s as a result of more scientific forestry and increasing energy surplus that freed the majority population from having to work the land, no matter what they would have wished to do.

During spring and summer 2014, I spent many nights under the Finnish sky. Early the next morning where the picture above was taken, I was awakened not by an alarm, but by a deep, incessant honk-honk-honk of a whooper swan coming closer. I woke up just in time to see the majestic white bird, still honking like an organ pipe stuck on repeat, pass low over the glass-calm waters of the lake less than hundred meters from where I had set my camp. Unperturbed by my presence, he — or possibly she, since with swans it’s difficult to tell — seemed to hoot his pleasure for the coming of the spring and the thrill of flying so low over the smooth, mirror-like surface.

It was not always this easy for the whooper swans. Despite being widely recognised as one of the symbols of Finland and considered holy in some parts of the country, in 1949 only fifteen pairs were left alive. Swans were hunted, their habitats destroyed and fragmented by human encroachment, and environmental poisons threatened their young. In the South, the species was already extinct. As a kid in the 1980s, I once made quite a trip for nothing after hearing a whooper swan might have been sighted in an island near our summer cottage. Now, I see swans regularly everywhere in Finland. Nearly exactly one kilometre from where I used to live for some years, among the tall reeds framing a tiny Baltic beach, a familiar pair nursed a few “ugly ducklings” every summer. The pair, cygnets in tow, was manifestly unconcerned by the local kids who also frequent the beach. At most, the swan family retreated a bit towards the sea if a human child became too inquisitive.

A honking swan flying low over a placid lake is what I was thinking after a recent commentator writing for The Guardian displayed considerable skills in reading incomprehension by arguing that the goals of the new Ecomodernist movement require humans to move to vast, centrally controlled city states where they will be forcibly kept from birdwatching or other ways to enjoy a connection to the great outdoors.

It is somewhat difficult to argue against a misunderstanding of such magnitude; there seems to be no common ground where even to begin. Suffice to say that the text is simply a crude mirror image of those tedious accusations of eco-fascism levelled against the traditional environmentalism, with one important difference: as far as I’m aware, no ecomodernist has proposed radical culling of the world’s human population. Even so, one would have hoped we’d have advanced beyond such crude caricatures.

Therefore, I won’t be engaging with the caricature directly. Instead will simply produce some reflections on the reasons why I decided to be one of the founding members of the Ecomodernist Society of Finland. From the ten chapters below, one may also gain some idea why Ecomodernist ideas have been warmly received in Finland, and why the first official Ecomodernist association in the world has been founded here.

I: A Song of Fire
II: A Song of Ice
III: A Song of Change
IV: A Song of Choice
V: A Song of Silence
VI: A Song of Confusion
VII: A Song of Land
VIII: A Song of Belonging
IX: A Song of Fairness
X: A Song of Dreams
Footnotes


I — A Song of Fire

To me, the key reason why I try to spend as many nights as possible under my lean-to shelter in remote locations is that I wish to enjoy nature undisturbed by human activity. Granted, strictly speaking this is very difficult if not impossible: even the national parks I frequent have, until very recently, played active roles in the global economy. The Nuuksio national park, the location of the encounter above, was created only in 1994. Although its broken terrain had protected it from the worst excesses of human use, a perceptive eye that knows where to look will spot the foundations of a sawmill and stumps left by loggers long gone.

For not long ago, merely surviving Finland’s sub-Arctic climate took its toll on the forests. Recent studies[1] estimate that in the 1800s, inhabitants of Finland might have used from seven to up to ten kilograms of wood per person per day on average. In terms of land area, every man, woman and child required between two and four hectares of forest just for firewood supply. Buildings, too, consumed considerable quantities of large, old-growth trees. Besides domestic use, Finnish lumber was shipped to Europe from the 1700s onwards. Even earlier, pine tar distilled in crude and inefficient tar kilns had been exported across the world. This sludge of aromatic compounds, sold as “Stockholm” tar, kept afloat the great sailing ships that formed the wooden walls and highways of the Empire and brought such wealth — still evident whenever I visit London — to ancestors of the publishers of The Guardian. Between domestic and export uses, forests were cut down to such an extent that Sakari (Zachris) Topelius, the Finnish national poet, despaired as late as in 1875:

“No other country needs forests like Finland, and no other nation abuses the forests like the Finns. A slash-and-burn farmer comes and cuts down the forest for a few good harvests of grain and poor grazing. A farmer’s wife with her children comes to gather fresh boughs for their sheep: without concern she cuts down young saplings to reach their leaves more easily. Then come the firewood choppers, tar makers, charcoal traders, loggers; they cut down everything they can, leaving not even a single tree to seed the ground. No one cares that livestock devours saplings bare, or that millions of young trees are sacrificed to make fences. […] In this manner Finland’s precious forests are kept in poor health and allowed to diminish.”

Topelius was not alone with his warnings. Deforestation had been notable as early as in the late 1600s, even though, or more precisely because, almost everyone in Finland practiced what we would today call “low intensity” agriculture. Most of the paintings depicting Southern or Western Finnish towns and villages in the 1800s show vistas almost denuded of trees. Having to obtain firewood from ten, twenty, or even thirty kilometres from home was simply a part of life for many, just as it is today in places where firewood is still used for everyday fuel.

Raatajat rahanalaiset

“Raatajat rahanalaiset:” Low-intensity slash-and-burn agriculture in practice, in a painting by Eero Järnefelt from 1893. Image from Wikipedia.

The contrast to Finland of today is remarkable. One of my enduring memories is a descent to Kuopio airport one bright summer day more than a decade ago: from horizon to horizon, all one could see was an endless expanse of emerald green highlighting the deep sapphire of the lakes, until mere seconds before the plane touched down in a canyon of spruces, reaching for the skies from immediately beyond the runway perimeter.


II — A Song of Ice

Logged and burned forests were converted to farmland, feeding my ancestors; that is, when the dreaded night frosts or cold summer rains did not kill the crop and expose the population to periodic famines. In 1867, second bad harvest in a row coincided with early onset of sea ice. Grain ships could not reach Finnish ports until ice lifted in May 1868; at the same time first traffic lights were being installed in London, eight percent of all Finns died. In some areas, starvation and attendant diseases took one in five. It took seven years for the population to recover, a record (of sorts) not remotely approached even during the vicious industrialised killing that characterised the first half of the twentieth century.

Naturally, the hungry ate what they could. Elk, whooper swan and other large animals were hunted close to extinction. Forest reindeer was already long gone, and the last Eurasian beaver was shot — perhaps not coincidentally — in 1868. But species diminished from centuries of hunting and destruction of their natural habitats could not provide for the populace. Almost universally in some districts, people took to the pine forests, felling what trees remained. They sought the pettu, or phloem, the somewhat digestible inner layer of pine bark. This was an age-old practice that had provided some calories even during the “good” years: in the early 1800s, more than half of Finns were found to supplement their diets this way regularly. “There’s never going to be a year so good we  won’t eat pettu; never a year so bad we’ll starve,” was the hopeful saying in the Northeast frontier highlands. But this year was different.

Even today, this part of the country is informally called the Hungerland.

alue, jossa syötiin normaalivuosinakin pettua. Perustuu Suomen Talousseuran tiedusteluihin 1800-l alkupuolelta. Korhonen 1987, Kuisma 1997142_1

Hatched: areas of Finland where pettu was a staple food, based on surveys from the early 1800s. From p. 142, Kuisma (1997). Tuli leivän antaa. Suomen ekohistoria. Gummerus, Helsinki.

In such circumstances, no one was much interested in conserving forests or other natural features simply for conservation’s sake alone. Even long afterwards the mere thought was absurd: I well recall the attitudes people my grandparent’s age had towards “tree huggers” who dared to propose that perhaps not all land should be harnessed to agriculture, industrial forestry or mining to the extent physically possible. To these people in a small agro-forestry community in Eastern Finland, where weather is even more severe and whose rolling hills are even more barren than around relatively benign and fertile Nuuksio, to people who had lived the years when everything was rationed and whose own grandparents had lived the Years of Great Hunger, not putting one’s hand to the plow or not pitting the axe against a tree were abominations.

When the government eventually sought to curb agricultural overproduction by introducing subsidies for farmers who left some of their land fallow, taking the money was viewed like a character flaw: something the community might somehow tolerate, provided the perpetrator did not brag about it openly.


III — A Song of Change

Fortunately, attitudes can change. The first inklings of a conservation movement came in guise of “rational” forestry: particularly since forests had value in international trade, they should not be thoughtlessly wasted. Trained foresters ranged the land, dividing the remaining forests to plots that were to be managed like wood farms they were. Anything that was harvested had to be replaced. Deforested areas were to be seeded again. Near the Arctic Circle, growth is slow, and necessity breeds patience: 150-year plans were used as exemplars to follow. The creed of these men — and some women — was enshrined in the almost Biblical opening line of the 1886 Forest Law:

“The forest thou shan’t destroy.”

My grandfather was an ardent believer. Even after his eightieth birthday, he kept on planting trees. But for him, and most others his age, the forest had no value in itself: it was an extension of his farmland, a field of trees no different from field of grain except that it grew far more slowly.

My grandfather was born in the early 1920s to such abject poverty that his parents couldn’t afford to build a chimney in their home. Whenever the house had to be heated, the children would be sent outside until smoke from large stone “oven” could dissipate through open door and window holes. If it was twenty degrees below zero outside, no matter; too bad only some of the eight children could be afforded proper shoes.

In brightly-lit New York and London, jazz was all the rage. Automobiles, moving pictures and radio proliferated, and fashion from the Roaring Twenties looks hip even today. In a little hamlet of about five farms tucked between moraine ridges, the fundamentals of daily life were not that different from the time my grandfather’s ancestors had followed the herds of elk and reindeer, themselves following the retreating glaciers, to this remote corner of the world.

“Savupirtti” — a house without chimney — and its inhabitants in Lieksa, Eastern Finland during the 1930s. Picture from the Collections of the National Board of Antiquities.

Yet before he was fifty, my grandfather had seen how the internal combustion engine took over from the horse and oxen, synthetic fertilisers supplemented manure, and finally electricity made petrol lamps and stationary engines mostly obsolete. (He had also seen in real time, from the hamlet’s first television, how the first humans crossed the void and walked on the Moon. But that’s another story for another time.) These injections of external energy to an ecosystem previously dependent on the ability of photosynthesis to capture the short periods of sunlight interspersed between long months of cold and darkness finally banished the spectre of famine from Finland. From time to time, frost or summer rains would decimate the fields again, as they had since agriculture began. But giant steel icebreakers endowed with power to crack meters-thick sea ice now guarded the ports of Finland from General Winter’s blockade. To the farthest reaches of the Bothnian Bay, sea lanes would now be kept open. Affordable, abundant steel — essentially affordable, abundant energy refined to a physical form — made pettu finally obsolete. Hungerland is today an allusion, not a description.

Make no mistake: These achievements were not due to any inherent qualities of the Finnish people, hardy as they were. Simply, energy was now available where it previously hadn’t been, in quantities only dreamt of before, at prices below the wildest expectations.

“Ice bulletin for seafarers follows. New ice is forming in all areas. Northern Bothnian Bay has forty to forty five centimetres of fast ice… […] Icebreakers Otso and Kontio stand by to assist ships in Bothnian Bay and Urho in the Northern Quark. Sisu, Voima and Fennica assist in Eastern Gulf of Finland.” Probably every Finn recognises these radio announcements, even though they may not always appreciate their significance. Ice bulletin for seafarers is one of the oldest programs broadcast by the Finnish national broadcasting company. From 7th January 1927, it has been served several times every day whenever there is ice on sea lanes. Picture borrowed from World Maritime News.


IV — A Song of Choice

As these energy injections increased the productivity of the human-biological ecosystem, another change took place. A new, more distinctly human ecosystem developed, intermingled with but somewhat separate from the old.

There was now an energy surplus. Fewer and fewer people had to work the fields simply to survive. Furthermore, there were now many other livelihoods available to those whose aspirations for life did not include farming, forestry, or the very limited number of professions ancillary to these two. As more people entered these new professions, the new human-technological ecosystem grew in size and importance. As this ecosystem grew, more niches and opportunities opened within it for humans who did not want to practice agriculture.

This ecosystem was fed with two energy flows. One, ultimately based on photosynthesis of sunlight and limited by land (and sea) area available, produced all the energy required for human consumption. The other, from new energy sources, produced energy for running everything else. To some extent, these two flows were interchangeable: more energy from fossilised hydrocarbons, dammed rivers, and atomic nuclei generally meant less demand for energy from photosynthesis.

In 1993, my family moved to a new house. It was heated with a combination of electric heaters and two fireplaces (three, if you count the wood-fired sauna). Being thrifty and having inherited a small plot of forest — actually an old farm overgrown — my parents used firewood a lot. But let’s consider for a moment what it would have meant if we had used only electric heating. For the environmental best case, let’s assume the electricity would have been generated at Olkiluoto, one of Finland’s nuclear power plants. On average, electricity from the two 1970s reactors at Olkiluoto could furnish space heating, warm water, weekly saunas, cooking, and dishwashing to about one million Finnish homes.[2] Using conservative assumptions for the size of uranium mine required to supply the reactors, the nuclear plant and associated mines and infrastructure claim about 1500 hectares of land at most. Assuming four persons per household on average, supplying each person with plentiful electric heat from atomic fission would demand about 0.000375 hectares of land.

Let me remind you that in the 1800s, merely surviving in Finland might have required the harnessing of up to four hectares of forest per person. Even at warmer latitudes, providing energy for cooking and winter warmth from photosynthesis needed one to two hectares per person.

This is the importance of energy density. This is where E = mc2 cannot be beat.

Besides: In 1993, whenever I felt the cold creeping in, I simply flipped a switch on the heater. Only forty years earlier, had I felt cold, I’d have to stoke the fireplace. If there were no firewood ready, I’d have to run outside to wood shed, collect some split logs, and return. I’ve spent enough time in our 1906 vintage unelectrified cottage to know in my bones what this means in practice. Sawing and splitting logs is certainly nice exercise if done as a hobby on occasion; it’s brutal, back-breaking and dangerous work if it’s the only way to avoid freezing in the depths of Finnish winter, where temperatures of –30°C are not uncommon.

What

What “running water” means when it’s winter at latitude 63 degrees 12 minutes N. Picture taken at 12:46 two days after winter solstice; iPhone’s camera could not cope very well with the midday dusk. Outside temperature –27°C before wind chill.


V — A Song of Silence

With the rise of the technological ecosystem fed from the second energy flow, the needs and wants that had driven the exploitation of the biological ecosystem diminished. It was no longer necessary or even desirable to hunt everything that moved or compel every square meter of uncooperative land to produce something humans could use. Forest reclaimed fallow field and abandoned yard; elk, whooper swan, brown bear, wolverine and even once-hated wolf returned where they once had been driven to near extinction. Extinct since the 1800s, forest reindeer and beaver were reintroduced. Elk returned in such force that they now have to be culled by hunters, as other apex predators like wolves and bears are still scarce in many parts of the country. I don’t hunt — for me, there is something unsporting in shooting anyone who doesn’t know how to shoot back — but some members of the rapidly expanding Finnish Ecomodernist Society do, among other acquaintances of mine, and I can attest that elk is among both the most ethical and tasty of meats.

Even the wolf is returning after centuries of persecution: last July, a remote camera captured this image of four cubs following their mother in an area where wolves had not lived for a hundred years. The forests are so dense with elk and deer that there have been no reports of wolves attacking livestock. Image: Suomen metsästäjäliitto.

Most importantly, people whose livelihoods were supplied from the surplus of the second energy stream could now afford to say “no” to logging or mining operations. For example, with the exception of what little we use whenever we visit, most of the cottage island my father inherited is now a natural reserve in all but name. Last summer, whooper swans flew tracks around our island, and a backpack-sized great grey owl (Strix Nebulosa) built her nest in one of “our” trees. She kept us from straying too close with alarming whooo-ooo-oos and even occasional mock attacks; we respected and avoided her and her mate, for there was no real need that would have driven us into conflict.

In many ways, my distance from the biological ecosystem is far greater than any of my ancestors. My parents were among the lucky ones: they could afford four or five years of tertiary education, albeit firmly aimed at practical professions. In contrast, the vast energy surplus rich countries currently enjoy has enabled me to spent the last few years after taking my Master’s in reading, writing, and conversing. Hopefully next year I will be awarded a doctorate in an obscure topic of very little practical value to anyone, but of significant intellectual interest to me personally. I have no pressing need to chop firewood, except for exercise, and I even don’t have to sweep my yard for we have none. But the energy surplus I enjoy means I have time to think about the environment, and the distance means that I’m less likely to come into direct conflict with other members of our natural family. Although I do enjoy goods and services whose manufacturing is likely to cause some damage somewhere, at pinch I can at least get my energy surplus without having to damage too many trees.


VI — A Song of Confusion

And this is where I discard the traditional environmentalism and join the Ecomodernists. It is clear that the humanity needs to quit its addiction to fossil fuels, no matter what boon they had been to people my grandfather’s age. To do so, we must develop alternative energy sources. There are essentially three sources that can supply energy in quantities a world of 9 to 11 billion people will require to uplift the remaining pockets of poverty: the sun, the wind, and the atomic nuclei. These may be supplemented by other sources, such as waves, geothermal heat, or biomass. But the question is, what is the energy density and hence the footprint of these alternatives?

Primarily because opposing nuclear energy is so deeply ingrained in their organisational DNA, traditional environmentalists in Finland and elsewhere are in practice advocating for or at least silently condoning the harnessing of the entire planet for human needs and wants. Whether they admit it or not, their visions for low-carbon future would in all likelihood mean that low energy density wind and solar power plants would spread their webs across the globe, while their intermittency would be dealt with by even more extensive use of bioenergy. “Energy revolutions” and “100% renewables” are in fact euphemisms for a radical industrialisation of the remaining wildernesses of this planet.

I’m not against renewable energy: far from it, I even own shares in a wind utility where we purchase our electricity. But I’m concerned about plans where renewable energy is the only option. Before writing me off as another Green- or renewable-hating demagogue, I urge you to take a hard look yourself at the plans traditional environmental organisations are proposing. One of the more respected organisations, WWF, suggests[3] that in 2050 the humanity would be using purely for energy 30% more forest wood than is currently used for all purposes put together. In addition, around 250 million hectares of fertile land would have to be found for energy crop monocultures. To gain a sense of how bold — or insane — these plans are, consider that the food crop using the most land area, wheat, is currently cultivated on some 240 million hectares. No wonder WWF studiously avoids the question: where will all that land be found?

In Finland, the local chapter of WWF has even produced an assessment that concludes sustainable bioenergy use can be increased only by about three million cubic meters per year. No matter: the very same organisation still argues elsewhere for “renewable, domestic energy” (in Finnish discussion, euphemism for massive increase in bioenergy) and is one of the backers of an anti-nuclear energy initiative whose key figures refuse to acknowledge any problems whatsoever with increasing biomass energy use by as much as 40 million cubic meters per year.

Greenpeace, traditionally more hostile towards logging than WWF, spouts boilerplate criticism against the government’s plans to increase biomass extraction by 15 million cubic meters per year, but is perfectly happy to promote its own “Energy revolution” plans that would even by Greenpeace’s own calculations increase biomass use in Finland by about 12 million cubic meters per year. Going five times over the limit is bad, but breaking it only by four times is okay? Green politicians, on the other hand, don’t see any problem with the proposed 15 million cubic meter increases. On the contrary, they have welcomed the news.[4]

All this charade revolves around traditional environmentalism’s opposition to nuclear power. It is clear from any published “alternative” to nuclear power that in Finland at least, the main alternative would be vastly increased biomass use. To keep just one proposed reactor from being built, the Greens would happily burn the amount of biomass WWF considers the limit of sustainable increase — and reduce taxes on fossil natural gas to boot.[5] No word about how to replace the rest of Finland’s energy demand. Similarly, in Germany biomass, fancy name for energy source that predates modern humans, will even in 2020 make up two thirds of the country’s “new” energy consumption.[6]

All this happens because of a fear of radiation doses far smaller than what the average citizen of Earth would gain by moving to Finland.

To be fair, traditional environmentalists are only one of the groups pushing for or condoning increases in bioenergy. Forestry companies and many landowners stand to profit from increased demand for forestry products and from subsidies that are inevitably required to make slow-growing Finnish biomass competitive. But this is the first time ever these have joined forces with organisations most people still associate with the protection of Finland’s forests.

Despite forest industry’s decline — according to our former prime minister, due to iPad — it is still an important part of the Finnish economy, and this dependency is a reason why official Finland (alongside Sweden) is now exerting her utmost effort to lobby against proposed changes in EU’s bioenergy carbon accounting. If these changes come to pass, as science seems to warrant, the myth of bioenergy’s carbon neutrality would finally be busted. Finland’s bioenergy sector is already teetering on the brink of uncompetitiveness: it’s very doubtful whether it would even survive, much less expand, if bioenergy plants have to pay for the pollution they create.

Yet even if they succeed, the plans of the traditional environmentalists would still leave many of the world’s poor almost certainly with only rudimentary access to energy. Low energy density sources simply do not seem to be enough on their own, even according to their most enthusiastic proponents. How else should we explain that even after renewable energy has been growing just as fast as Greenpeace predicted, Greenpeace’s most recent energy scenario would still limit the average African of 2050 to only about a quarter of useful energy now enjoyed by the average Chinese?

Even in the developed world, strict energy savings measures would have to be undertaken. It is probable that we could lead good lives with less energy use than we use today, but make no mistake: it would also mean that there would be many things we couldn’t enjoy any longer. In fact, the required rates of energy efficiency improvement in non-nuclear energy scenarios are so large[7] that it’s hard to see how the very society wouldn’t be affected by this relentless focus on efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. Alongside bean-counters, we would get watt-counters.

Required new energy generation build rates and sustained efficiency improvements in renewable-only and technology-neutral climate mitigation scenarios. From Loftus et al. (2015).

Required new energy generation build rates and sustained efficiency improvements in renewable-only and technology-neutral climate mitigation scenarios. Comparison to record short-term rates. From our book Climate Gamble, based on research by Loftus et al. (2015).


VII – A Song of Land

And what of agriculture, or the harvesting of the products of photosynthesis for human use? Return to organic agriculture is the mantra of traditional environmentalism. I’m the first to admit the current agricultural industry is broken in many ways, and that more “holistic” and ethical approaches are to be warmly welcomed. With modern knowledge and tools, a lot can probably be done even while reducing the need for external energy injections. But in general, organic agriculture means lower yields per land area. Elementary thermodynamics tells us that this is only to be expected, if the Sun alone is providing energy to the ecosystem.

Lower efficiency is not necessarily bad. If many other forms of life can interleave their lives with agricultural production, less efficient fields are probably a boon. But if the end result is nevertheless monoculture albeit with larger land area requirement, there is a possibility of moving from bad to worse.

Whether a move to organic farming would in fact mean destruction of nature in order to save it remains to be seen. But studies so far indicate that the issue is at the very least not as clear-cut as advocates for organic industry would have us to believe. Furthermore, what qualifies as “organic” is more or less arbitrary anyway: there is no organic elk meat nor organic cloudberries, since obtaining the label would require that their production to be — for a lack of better word — industrialised. The irony is palpable.

Of course, the question is not only about the quantity of energy produced, but perhaps even more about the fairness of its distribution. I believe it is fairly self-evident that we in the West should leave more for the Rest. Within affluent countries, income inequalities — fundamentally, energy flow inequalities — are undermining the very fabric of society and making it difficult to find a common ground necessary for solving the great problems of our age. But if global inequalities are not solved this time either, the plans to move towards less energy dense sources and methods might simply mean that we continue to produce and use roughly similar amounts of energy while industrialising even larger areas of land and sea.


VIII – A Song of Belonging

In theory, perhaps all this re-encroachment of industrialisation to lands already almost liberated from human use could be done in a responsible manner that leaves enough wilderness for both nature and humans to enjoy. In theory, and if everything goes perfectly, relentless focus on efficiency and renewable energy might be enough in itself. In practice, it is also all but certain that supplanting wonderfully energy dense fossil fuels will require the appropriation and re-appropriation of more land for human use, irrespective of what technologies we choose for the task. But as long as traditional environmentalists do not gain simple majorities in elections, in democracies at least it is unlikely that everything will go as smoothly as the optimists hope. Even now it is already apparent that renewable energy plans are beginning to clash with even current, fairly lax environmental protection standards. For just one example, many majestic fells and moraine ridges in Finland will almost certainly be harnessed for the rapidly growing windustrial complex.

Spread of the windustrial complex.

Straitjacket of the windustrial complex. Displayed are only turbine sites and necessary power lines and access roads. From our book Climate Gamble.

Some of this is sadly necessary: we are already late in our attempts to prevent dangerous climate change and we probably cannot afford to say no to any development that reduces our dependency on fossil fuels. But some of this encroachment is so unnecessary it hurts to even think about. Every plan where renewable energy is proposed to replace that most dense of all energy sources we have — nuclear fission — is a plan for completely unnecessary industrialisation of nature. To be sure, right now there are still already-developed areas where new wind turbines, for example, will have minimum impact. But the scale of the energy challenge is so vast — currently more than 80% of world’s primary energy comes from fossil fuels, and coal is the fastest growing energy source — that it’s hard to believe these already despoiled areas will get us very far. Sooner or later, the pressure to open up new areas will begin to mount.

This is one of the reasons I’m an ecomodernist. Whenever I enjoy my communion with the wider nature, I wish to do it not as a master, not as a servant, but as a family member. As a family member, I might have my own room or at least an area where I can do my own stuff; but I do not presume to wantonly spread my tools and projects to rooms of other members and then behave as if that’s in their best interest.

To me, as long as we have alternatives that are more dense yet don’t spew carbon to atmosphere, it seems absurd that we could or even should “save the planet” by girding even larger areas of it in a straitjacket of smart grids, generator sites, access roads, energy farms, logging operations and mines to dig up the raw materials required for all this. It makes little difference how many times we call the resulting energy flow “renewable,” if it nevertheless requires us to act as masters of nature bound with wires and fragmented by access roads and energy crop plantations.

Similarly, it seems absurd to believe that dispersing humans from their rooms — so to speak — to all over the house of Creation would somehow help reduce conflicts between humans and other members of family Earth. Cities are great inventions for all but the most hopelessly misanthropic; urbanisation and decline of small-scale farming are the major reasons why there is now room for elk, deer, wolf, bear, wolverine and beaver in Finland’s newly regenerated forests.

Yet it would be absurd to claim I would want to force everyone to cities, and utterly hilarious to claim I’d want anyone to cut off their connection to the great outdoors. What I want to do is to increase options available for the whole Earth family. This, I believe, is another way how ecomodernism subtly differs from traditional environmentalism. In the traditional environmentalism, environment is to be saved by drastic limits on options: even in the more optimistic scenarios, energy use per individual is to be drastically limited. In the most deranged visions, humans would be forced to little more than subsistence agriculture — which, of course, could not possibly support nearly as many people as now are living, and hardly any in pursuits that do not have immediate practical value. For it is precisely the availability of energy surpluses and slack — not having to think everything through the constricting lens of maximum efficiency — that open up options to do something else beyond simply scraping by.

In fact, I would even argue that energy surplus is essential for closer and healthier connection with the outside world. After all, one needs to enjoy an energy surplus to be able to enjoy what nature has to offer. To take just one example, it is energy surplus in form of energy-dense foods and lightweight materials that enables even non-experts to enjoy hikes in the forests even though they cannot afford a pack horse or teams of porters to carry their food and shelter. To be sure, one can survive with the more “old-fashioned” equipment as well: hiking and camping with vintage equipment is a hobby of mine. But thanks to modern equipment, far more people can, in practice, exercise the option to head out to the great outdoors — and return with great experiences instead of memories of cold-soaked misery.

Reed bed

My bed for one April night on a skerry near Helsinki. The bed was warm enough, unfortunately woolen greatcoat wasn’t.

As far as I’m aware, my grandfather never simply wandered around in the forest. He was the epitome of efficiency traditional environmentalists are implicitly preaching. If he had to go out, he had a specific purpose for going out. Almost always, he was either harvesting something or preparing something for harvest. He was the master who visited forests and lakes when he needed something from them, not a family member who visits simply for the pleasure of seeing his relatives. He might have been an enlightened master, as far as masters go, but a master nevertheless.

As a rough rule of thumb, the larger the energy surplus, the more options there are. Energy surplus and availability of slack frees one from having to hunt, gather, or farm, and enables one to be a PhD student, an author, or an environmental activist. Energy access means freedom to choose. If some choose to lead rural lives, by all means let them, provided they do not needlessly harm other members of life’s family; if others choose to pursue other things, they should have the opportunity to do so as long as they are not harming others by their choices. Power to the people, say I.


IX – The Song of Fairness

Obviously, just having a surplus of energy does not automatically translate to more options for everybody. As I already noted, equitable distribution of surpluses is a necessary condition for maximising the options available. Equitable means, among other things, that we leave energy surplus for other family members as well: if we have other options for generating human-usable energy surpluses, we as a rule shouldn’t appropriate what photosynthesis generates.

Although I’m critical about the relentless drive for more and more efficiency, I believe it is also obvious that humanity in general should learn to be more prudent. Critics of our consumption-oriented culture rail constantly against excesses of frivolous consumption and wasteful use of resources. I’m probably not as smart as these people, for I find it is surprisingly difficult to define a priori what exactly constitutes obviously and unquestionably frivolous consumption. Perhaps some parts of “defence” expenditures would qualify? Nevertheless, as I have mentioned, I generally agree with these critics and believe that the inhabitants of rich countries could certainly lead meaningful (possibly even more meaningful) lives with much less material and energy use than is currently the average.

But who gets to decide what is necessary and what isn’t? To me, snowmobile would be frivolous; to a reindeer herder in Lapland, it is a necessity. Furthermore, fifty years ago the snowmobile, alongside environmental protection legislation, would have been considered frivolously unnecessary by many reindeer herder as well. Who is correct: this generation or the earlier one? If earlier, which of the earlier generations? In which particulars were they correct?

The only conclusion I’ve been able to reach is that focus on individual instances of consumption is at best a red herring. What we should be concerned about is not consumption in itself, but the effects of that consumption. I don’t understand why anyone would want to purchase a jet ski; but if using the jet ski didn’t pollute the environment or disturb others, I couldn’t see much reason to oppose anyone from enjoying one. Even in the more realistic scenario where jet skis nevertheless cause some pollution and some inconvenience, I would be perfectly happy to allow jet skis to others, provided the condition of equitability is met. If someone wishes to use his or her energy surplus for jet skiing around instead of doing some other things, who am I to presume to know better what they should do? The key caveat is that this energy surplus needs to be produced and distributed in a manner that is equitable, or at the very least not inequitable, to the entire Earth family.


X — The Song of Dreams

I even believe that demand for energy itself will eventually abate, and that another mantra, unlimited growth is not possible in limited space, will turn out to be an empty truism. It will remain logically true, but may well turn out to be irrelevant: there are already signs that energy and material demand are peaking in rich countries. People simply do not have the time nor inclination to use that much more energy. Who among us would want to shuttle to the Moon every weekend, even if energy required would be cheaply available?

Yet perhaps energy surpluses of the sort we the rich enjoy these days cannot be produced equitably in a world of nine to eleven billion humans. Then so be it: but as long as we’re arbitrarily limiting our options, no one can honestly say whether this is true or not. After all, there is good reason to suspect technology in itself might not limit us in this regard. From an engineering point of view, envisioning a world of ten billion people enjoying rich-world energy access from breeder reactors alone is not difficult. Envisioning the same end result from vast fields of solar panels isn’t that difficult either, although raw material requirements may be formidable and one cringes at the thought of land area such projects with their associated infrastructure can demand. Of course, life is more than engineering, and these utopian daydreams need to be recognised for what they are. The perfect should not be used as an argument against good enough.

But we nevertheless need to dream of a world where energy surpluses are abundant enough so that we can think thoughts other than maximising our efficiency. Besides opening more options for everyone and everything, surplus and slack mean our attitude towards our family of Life can be more relaxed. Incentives for conflict between humans and between other members of our family will be lessened. With proper emphasis on efficiency — efficiency as a servant of Life, not master and tyrant — we can begin to gather our tools and toys from the rooms of other family members inhabiting this grand house. Perhaps, some day in the future, millions more may be able to enjoy the great outdoors the way I’ve been privileged to do.

After the swan had woken me up on the rocky shore of lake Iso-Holma, I boiled some lake water for my morning coffee. Thoroughly rested and refreshed, I struck camp and set towards the civilisation. Forty minutes later, I was sitting in a bus on its morning run, among kids going to school; two hours and two public transport exchanges after the swan, I was at my office in central Helsinki, writing my PhD thesis.

After not so warm night


Footnotes

  1. Kander, A. et al. (2015) Power to the People: Energy in Europe over the Last Five Centuries. Princeton University Press. Page 56 onwards.  ↩
  2. Vattenfall estimates of average household electricity use in Finland. http://www.vattenfall.fi/fi/omakotitalo.htm Accessed 26.10.2015.  ↩
  3. WWF (2011). The Energy Report.  ↩
  4. Kaksilla rattailla ajamista. Blog post at Passiivi-identiteetti (Jani-Petri Martikainen): https://passiiviidentiteetti.wordpress.com/2015/05/29/kaksilla-rattailla-ajamista/ 29.5.2015. Accessed 26.10.2015.  ↩
  5. Kotimainen energiaratkaisu – Vaihtoehto Fennovoimalle. Green League of Finland, 2014. Page 9.  ↩
  6. D-Biomass. Energy Transition blog, http://energytransition.de/2012/09/e-biomass/ Accessed 26.10.2015.  ↩
  7. Loftus, P. J., Cohen, A. M., Long, J. C. S., & Jenkins, J. D. (2015). A critical review of global decarbonization scenarios: what do they tell us about feasibility? Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 6(1), 93–112. doi:10.1002/wcc.324  ↩
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