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Climate Gamble: Is Anti-Nuclear Activism Endangering our Future?
- A Very Short And Fairly Understandable Introduction to Models
- What if we really tried to save our civilization? An introduction to Plan B
- Book review: McAfee (2019), More from Less
- Technology in a Post-Growth World: Lessons from the 1970s AT Movement
- What climate strikers ought to know about our economic system
- The possible anatomy of coming climate change trials
- Bitcoin is not a good fit for renewable energy. Here’s why.
- Practical policies for transition towards post-capitalist, post-scarcity society
- Post-scarcity: a research review (in progress!)
- Pragmatic, inclusive energy discussion works
- Would E.Ts try to kill us off? (Nope. They'd be deterred.)
- Graphic of the Week: The hidden "fuels" of renewable energy
- Hey Greenpeace, could you find us Finns a warm place to live in?
- Bitcoin is not a good fit for renewable energy. Here's why.
- Is it OK to record conference presentations? Reconsidering "fair use" and electronic note-taking
- What does research say about the safety of nuclear power?
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The successful launch of the Falcon Heavy is a milestone, and it has raised again the important question: should we humans try to create a spacefaring civilisation, even if we could?
This is a philosophical question, and answers to it are ultimately subjective. However, for those who are interested in such matters, I solved it to my own satisfaction quite some time ago. My conclusion, which obviously is a subjective one, is that we ought to at least try.
For all we know, we are the only tool-making, potentially spacefaring intelligence in the galactic neighborhood, possibly in our galaxy (there is a recent Bayesian estimate that suggests this might have as high as 40 percent probability) and maybe even in the visible universe, though I doubt that. Furthermore, as far as we know, complex life does not exist anywhere except on Earth.
Furthermore, we know for certain that cosmic disasters that are capable of wiping all complex life and possibly all life on Earth are a mathematical certainty. It’s not if they happen; it’s when they happen, and what can be done to prevent or mitigate them.
Normally, most people would agree that letting even one species go extinct if we could prevent it is an environmental wrongdoing, possibly even a crime.
What sort of crime it would be to let all life on Earth go extinct, if we had the opportunity to save at least some of it? To me, this would be a monstrous crime indeed. Even if the nearby stars teem with life, all life is unique and letting Earthlife go extinct from our neglect would be akin to letting an ecosystem on Earth die off. And if life is rare, then letting Earthlife go extinct could even mean the death of life itself.
This is the largest single reason why I don’t see environmental protection here on Earth and a vigorous space program as separate choices, but as complementary approaches to ensuring the longevity of life, experience and memory. The universe may not need curious creatures that are in awe of its wonders, but I still think this is a better place because such critters exist.
I’ve spent the last 15 months researching the implications and possibilities of blockchains and related “distributed trust technologies” from a business and societal point of view. Sadly, I have to say that I don’t quite get the hype, as much as I’d love to believe in a technological revolution that democratises the world economy.
(NOTE: I’ve edited this text a bit to be clear that I’m talking about public blockchains. Private blockchains are a different matter, and they will have applications in e.g. automating many transactions. That said, the effects are hardly revolutionary, at least in the short term.)
As it stands, public blockchain is very much a kludgy solution looking for non-existent problem, namely lack of trusted intermediaries in finance and accounting.
Unfortunately for this central value proposition of blockchain, there is no lack of trusted enough intermediaries in the financial/accounting sector.
Very few people outside so-called crypto-anarchist community are opposed to trusted intermediaries as a matter of principle, and outside this (admittedly vocal) minority and those who for their own personal reasons want to believe in this scheme, I seriously doubt there is going to be a huge market of people who are willing to pay a premium (in time, effort or actual valuables) just for the sake of avoiding one sort of intermediary, only to trust the transactions to a code that may or may not be transparently accounted for.
For who among us can honestly say “yes, I am capable of reviewing the code behind blockchain applications I’m using and I have personally done so to make sure I’m not being scammed?”
How can the people who are now willing to trust their savings to blockchain technologies be sure that the code and its underlying governance structures (that is, how it is being developed and modified) are in any way better than at least nominally democratically governed systems – with at least some possibility for recourse if things go sour – they want to replace?
To me, it all seems another gold craze, stoked not only by the usual crowd of techno-babblers keen on latching on the latest buzzword, but also by certified wingnuts from the long-discredited hyper-libertarian Austrian school of economics, kept buoyant by half-baked comparisons to “unreliable” “paper money” (which is nevertheless very effectively backed by the government’s universal tendency to require said paper money for taxes, not to mention the inconvenient fact that if societal trust erodes sufficiently for paper money to lose its value, it’s highly unlikely an arbitrary string of ones and zeros in an arbitrary hard disk somewhere would fare much better), spotty comparisons of current economic system to few exceptions where hyperinflation was allowed to run rampant, and perhaps most of all, by simple wishes that the persons currently propping up the belief in blockchains will not be the last ones who are blinded by the latest buzzword and get-rich-quick scheme.
Please do not get me wrong. I believe that in the long run, crypto-enabled distributed trust technologies could possibly have significant role in enabling micropayments and microinvestments, effectively by reducing transaction costs related to distribution and bookkeeping. There may also be some very interesting applications in governance and organisation of human work, and these initiatives ought to be followed more closely. Furthermore, private, permissioned blockchains are already quite useful for e.g. automating transactions.
However, the crypto-enthusiastic community loudly ignores that 1) there are absolutely no reasons the current banking system couldn’t reduce its own transaction costs enough to compete very effectively in these lucrative sectors, and 2) the bog standard public blockchain with its Proof of Work scheme (e.g. how Bitcoin burns electricity) is certainly not going to cut transaction costs enough, as throughput rates are simply not even within two orders of magnitude from what is needed. Case in point: a Bitcoin developer conference just announced it won’t be accepting Bitcoin as a means of payment, because it’s too slow and the transaction fees are too high.
So we will inevitably end up with some variation of Proof of Stake protocol – where we will simply have to trust some users more than others – just because Proof of Work, where we don’t have to know or trust other users, is absolutely ridiculous waste of resources and will always have trouble scaling up.
See, for example, how Directed Acyclic Graph (DAG) “tangles” are proposed to work. And once we go down that route, it will become increasingly hard to avoid asking the question: since distributed computing in this sort of record-keeping is always going to be less efficient than centralised computing, what are the precise reasons we should not go the whole route and designate certain nodes as … trusted intermediaries?
So we’ll end up with what is basically a buzzword-enhanced database solution with some redundancy and consensus algorithms built in. These are not new, PAXOS consensus algorithms debuted in 1989 – and there are Reasons why they haven’t been used very much. Namely, performance, and the fact that there is no pressing problem these would solve.
Crypto applications will certainly be useful for verification of various things (again, these are not exactly new ideas) and I could foresee a micropayment and alternative finance systems that could well take off, provided the backbone is something else than blockchain as it is. (My money at the moment would be on DAGs, as both Bitcoin and Ethereum still seem to have grave problems scaling up – but it’s even more likely that someone will come up with something better than current DAGs.) This could develop into a microinvestment vehicle of some sort, and unlocking the investment potential of the world’s poor could well make some people very, very wealthy indeed.
However, there are also Reasons why such “penny stocks” have been regulated everywhere for decades if not centuries: they have always been fantastic vehicles for scamming the credulous. Cryptography is not some magic free lunch that totally changes the rules in investing and finance.
Feel free to call me a luddite or whatever. It’s just that I’ve been studying the possibilities of blockchains for business for over a year now, and while it is certainly possible that I simply lack the imagination (or chutzpah) necessary for bold proclamations, I just don’t see the possibilities the marketers seem to see.’
My advice to all those who are interested in blockchain systems is this: think very carefully whether the problem you are interested in solving will truly be easier to solve, or can be solved better, by distributing the database to the users of the database. If the answer is yes, and if you can also remain fairly confident that the solution will not infringe on privacy or financial regulation, and if you have money to spare, then by all means go ahead and experiment with blockchain technologies – though keep in mind that at this stage, everything is so rudimentary that systems will have to be built from scratch (not a good idea, usually) and that technologies can change abruptly. At this moment, there are already some fairly well established private blockchains, though.
Interesting things are more likely to appear in the smart contracts field, and technologies like blockchain are almost certainly going to be used both to enhance existing systems and to develop new kinds of services that are still hard to envision in detail. Some interesting developments that may point a direction to the future include automating some aspects of insurance markets, such as automating claims processing in more straightforward cases (e.g. when a flight is cancelled and customers need to be refunded) or even selling of insurances automatically based on mutually shared financial data. However, these technologies are still very much immature, and while early adopters could potentially benefit, the risks are also significant.
Very good reads on the topic are becoming more numerous than it is possible to keep track of, but here are some of the best ones I’ve come across lately.
Preston Byrne: The Problem with Calling Bitcoin a “Ponzi Scheme” (“This is no pyramid scheme – our model is the trapezoid!”)
The following is the traditional Lectio praecursoria a doctoral candidate in Finland gives to the audience before his/her PhD defence. This one is mine, delivered on 12th December 2017.
Esteemed custos, esteemed opponent, ladies and gentlemen!
You all are probably familiar with an old saying, “necessity is the mother of invention.” Many may also remember stirring tales of ingenuity, where poorly equipped underdogs come up with brilliant inventions or insights that permit them to succeed against the odds. In fact, those of us who have happened to be born in Finland have been positively marinated in such stories.
What these tales and that old wisdom are telling us is that sometimes, less can be more. Tales of ingenuity tell us that human creativity can overcome formidable obstacles, and that the rich and the powerful do not always win in the end. As such, these stories are important if only from an educational perspective: we certainly need to remain optimistic and dare to attempt even the impossible, or otherwise most things we today take as granted would never have been achieved. Triumph over adversity makes for a good story, and we all enjoy good stories.
Furthermore, the connection between resource scarcities and creativity is not merely a question for academics, but increasingly, for the whole society. As the world population is heading towards ten billion or so individuals, and as the exponential growth of extractive economy shows few signs of slowing down, more and more resources are likely to become contested, if not altogether scarce. While the greatest scarcity is likely to be the capacity of the atmosphere to act as a sink for carbon dioxide, according to some reports we may face even scarcities of sand. Yet, if necessity is reliably the mother of invention, we can rest easy in the knowledge that the invisible hand will always save us in the end.
However, as researchers, our task is to remain professional skeptics. Just how well founded is the belief that necessity, via increased demand and hence increased prices, begets innovation that restores the equilibrium? If necessity is indeed the mother of invention, shouldn’t it follow that poverty is the most effective tool of innovation policy? If less is more, shouldn’t us PhD students simply be grateful that our stipends are so low?
When confronted with dilemmas like these, the usual human response is to believe the truth can be found in the middle of two extreme viewpoints. Perhaps getting the “just right” amount of scarcity produces the best results? Such an answer would be very convenient for today’s society, especially for those who control the purse strings. It would normalize the societal mechanisms that make necessities scarce in the first place, treating scarcities not only as inevitable consequences of inevitably endless demand but also as positive forces that prod humans to even greater productivity. If we live in a world where human ingenuity can overcome all obstacles, scarcities and scarcity-inducing policies are to be welcomed as a force for inevitable progress.
Unfortunately, research findings suggest that as a rule, we do not live in such a world.
Since it is ultimately individuals and product development organizations that would need to come up with solutions to scarce resources, it is useful to look into what research says about individual and team creativity under constraints. Prior research has found that some constraints that limit the options available to the designers are likely to be beneficial to individual and team creativity. These findings confirm a well-known axiom in design business: creativity requires constraints, because constraints help you concentrate. However, once we begin to talk about organizational ingenuity, the beneficial effects of constraints seem to be heavily moderated by situational factors, such as attitudes and interpersonal dynamics prevalent within organizations. In short, members of a well-functioning development team that relishes a challenge may well find themselves invigorated by the challenge posed by constraints, but a dysfunctional team is more likely to simply give up.
That said, given the pressing reality of environmental degradation, one oversight of existing constraint and scarcity research is its focus on financial constraints. Most research so far has studied how organizations cope with lack of money, time, or personnel. Few studies give deep insights into how organizations act when some other resource, such as raw materials or energy access, are in danger. My research seeks to respond to these questions.
In my thesis, I examine closely two historical accounts of technological innovation that resulted to important technological changes in an industry. The first and most important of these case studies is the study of so-called flash smelting furnace, while the second concerns the development of radical jet engine cooling technology.
Both of these innovations had considerable impact in their respective industries. Flash smelting technology, developed immediately after the Second World War, was a breakthrough in energy efficiency in copper manufacturing. It was also a commercial success that at one point responsible for as much as 60 percent of world’s primary copper production. The engine cooling concept examined in the thesis would’ve permitted the wartime German Luftwaffe to build cheaper jet fighters. Fortunately, the Second World War ended before the invention came into widespread use. Both of these innovations are believed to be direct results of a scarcity of some important resource: electricity in the flash smelting case, and nickel metal in the jet engine case.
In both of these cases, I found that the technologies themselves were almost ready to be taken into use when the scarcity occurred. Furthermore, scarcity did not appear to have significant impact in creativity of the solutions. In both cases, competing development teams had considered the exact same ideas, but abandoned them because their chosen solution offered superior performance. In other words, it would be more accurate to say that in these cases, scarcities at most slightly accelerated the adoption of almost ready technological solutions.
Two conclusions follow. First, scarcities may sometimes prod industries into using novel technologies. However, second, there are absolutely no guarantees that scarcities can be reliably overcome through human ingenuity. There may well be goods and ecosystem services we simply cannot substitute, and even if we can ultimately find substitutes, there may be no telling how long the technologies require to develop. Technological development is not a black box where planners pour money and out comes innovation on demand: instead, what can be invented at any given time depends on what knowledge and what components are available at that time.
Since it is extremely difficult to predict just which components are needed for the breakthrough discoveries, it is also very difficult to use simple demand mechanisms to stimulate radical innovation. For example, in my case studies, some of the technological knowledge required for breakthroughs came from entirely unrelated fields – from coal power stations in the flash smelting case, and from manufacture of cups and ammunition cartridges in the jet engine case. Demand for less energy intensive methods for smelting copper or for methods for cooling jet engine turbines could not create incentives for the development of coal burning technology, nor for the development of cartridge manufacturing machines. No matter how large the incentives to develop a breakthrough, these developments could not happen unless the time was ripe. On the other hand, when the time is right, it is more than likely that multiple inventors will be able to realize the idea simultaneously.
Now, an economically literate person could object to my research, stating that so far we’ve overcome all scarcities. After all, we have been able to survive, both as a species and even as a developed society, from a variety of shortages and constraints, even though some have been extremely serious. This is true, but depends on how we define the words “scarcity” and “overcome”. There may also be some selection bias: the businesses and societies that have faced scarcities they couldn’t overcome have ceased to exist.
Even if the business or the society adapts to a scarcity of some resource, the society often needs to change as a result. Change is of course not necessarily bad in itself, and this brings us to what I believe is the more interesting and important question than the periodic, somewhat fruitless and often apocalyptic debate about possible resource crises. This is the question “what kind of specific impacts can result from scarcities we may be facing?”
Perhaps the most pressing scarcity at the moment is the scarcity of nature’s capability to deal with carbon dioxide our society spews into atmosphere. Limiting the production of pollution is going to be mandatory, if we are to survive as a species. However, many existing industries such as fossil fuels industry could not operate under necessary restrictions, and many others, like aviation, would be severely constrained. At the moment, the employees of these industries would pay the highest cost of any serious attempts to curb environmental damages. Even though tight carbon budgets would cause an average person to suffer only very modest reductions in well-being, employees in endangered industries would lose their jobs. Since workers who would lose jobs are also voters, meaningful reductions in carbon dioxide emissions remains difficult, if not impossible. The problem is likely to remain intractable as long as we approach the issue mostly from the viewpoint of standard economic theory, which continues to argue that environmental improvements should bring net benefits to the society. While this is true, the theory fails to appreciate just how much pain and suffering these improvements can cause to the losers.
One reason for this lack of vision may be in the economic theory’s lack of distinction between different types of scarcities. I find some theoretical and empirical reasons to suggest that meaningful talk about scarcities should include at least three distinct types of scarcities. These are, first, relative scarcities, which refers to the so-called normal situation in economic theory where resources are not unlimited and have competing uses; second, absolute scarcities, which refer to resources that cannot be realistically substituted by other resources, such as breathable air; third, quasi-scarcities, which refer to resources that may exist in abundance but which cannot be accessed by the needy, most often because they are not entitled to access.
I believe that most actual situations of scarcity could be usefully conceptualized as quasi-scarcities, or lack of entitlement to give full credit to Amartya Sen’s groundbreaking work which lies at the root of the concept. In our world, resources are more often abundant than they are not. However, for various good and not so good reasons, our access to those resources is limited. Environmental regulation, not physical realities, actually limit how much our factories can release pollutants. Lack of access, not lack of food production, is a major contributing factor behind famines. And lack of political or financial power, not productive capability, is the reason many people even in so-called rich countries have to live without even basic fundamentals of life, from shelter to medicine to healthy food.
In both of the cases I studied, the supposedly hard resource constraint turned out to be something that could very well have been amended through exercise of political power. In both cases, it seems that the key reason the developers did not exercise political power was belief in technology. The developers believed that the technologies would be so useful so soon that political action to increase access to the scarce resource would not be needed. Particularly in the case of flash smelting, it is very difficult to imagine that the company in question – Outokumpu in Finland – would’ve been unable to secure access to more electricity, if flash furnace had appeared to be infeasible. After all, failure to deliver copper the Soviet Union demanded for war reparations payments might have been used as an excuse to occupy Finland.
To sum up my findings, my research cautions against relying on technological miracles to solve the problems caused by diminishing natural resources. Technologies are certainly helpful, but sooner or later we will face a situation where some previously abundant resource is simply not available any longer. Even though our societies may be resilient and unlikely to collapse as a result, the adjustment periods are likely to cause hardships to many. Even though the hardships are usually local, they are not less real to those who experience them. Furthermore, I believe that questions of power and power relations need to gain more attention in research and debate about economic relations, organizations, and the society. Questions such as political power wielded by an organization should no longer be ignored in economic debate simply because measuring political power is difficult, because otherwise we risk obtaining a very biased view of the world we live in.
Finally, far as creativity and ingenuity are concerned, I wish to point out that the solutions developed to these resource constraints were not really novel ones. Similar development was happening elsewhere, and the adopted solutions suffered from problems that caused less constrained developers to use different approaches. However, there is no reason to believe that Outokumpu, for instance, would have developed its flash furnace and gained worldwide commercial success, if the electricity shortage had not forced its hand. In this manner, I believe the answer to the original question motivating this thesis could be formulated as follows:
Necessity is the mother of inventors, not of inventions.
Download my PhD thesis, Constructed Solutions to Constructed Constraints, here.
Footnotes and references
- See e.g. Rosso, B. D. (2014). Creativity and Constraints: Exploring the Role of Constraints in the Creative Processes of Research and Development Teams. Organization Studies; Joyce, C. K. (2009). The blank page: Effects of constraint on creativity.; Moreau, C. P., & Dahl, D. W. (2005). Designing the solution: the impact of constraints on consumers’ creativity; Goldenberg, J., Lehmann, D. R., & Mazursky, D. (2001). The idea itself and the circumstances of its emergence as predictors of new product success.
- Weiss, M., Hoegl, M., & Gibbert, M. (2013). The Influence of Material Resources on Innovation Project Outcomes; Hoegl, M., Gibbert, M., & Mazursky, D. (2008). Financial constraints in innovation projects: When is less more?
- Moskalyk, R. ., & Alfantazi, A. . (2003). Review of copper pyrometallurgical practice: today and tomorrow.
- Särkikoski, T. (1999). A Flash of Knowledge; Habashi, F. (1998). The Origin of Flash Smelting; Gibbert, M., & Scranton, P. (2009). Constraints as sources of radical innovation? Insights from jet propulsion development; Schubert, H. (2004). Turbine – The Hollow Metal Blade as Solution for Material Shortage.
- See also Arthur, B. W. (2009). The Nature of Technology: What it is and how it evolves.
- For simultaneity in invention, see e.g. Ogburn, W. F., & Thomas, D. (1922). Are Inventions Inevitable? A Note on Social Evolution; Brunk, G. G. (2003). Swarming of innovations, fractal patterns, and the historical time series of US patents; Cole, S. (2004). Merton’s Contribution to the Sociology of Science; Sarafoglou, N., Kafatos, M., & Beall, J. H. (2012). Simultaneity in the Scientific Enterprise; Lemley, M. A. (2012). The Myth of the Sole Inventor.
- For prior work, including the concept of quasi-scarcities, see Daoud, A. (2011). Scarcity, Abundance and Sufficiency: Contribution to social and economic theory.
- Sen, A. (1982). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation.
On December 6th 2017, Finland celebrates her centennial as an independent nation. Exactly one hundred years ago, the Finnish Parliament finally voted for the motion to sever all ties to the revolutionary Russian government and assume the highest legislative power in the country. (As an aside, the motion for independence had been introduced on November 30th, but the speaker of the parliament did not want to extend the last parliamentary session before parliamentary break for 30 minutes the vote would’ve taken, instead letting the MPs go to their homes on schedule.)
The century has been a turbulent one, to say the least. Many Internet users know Finland mostly for her wars, and it is true that those six years of conflict had a profound effect on Finland. However, there have also been 72 years of uninterrupted peace, and it is high time Finland becomes known for our more recent achievements.
In celebration of our centennial, various lists of Finnish achievements have already circulated, and more will surely follow. However, today I’d like to tell you about why I believe many of those achievements were possible – why such a small country can punch well above its weight – and explain why I, a cosmopolitan citizen of Finland, wouldn’t want to live in any other country, with the possible exception of other Nordic countries. I will tell you about the reason I believe Finland, and Finnish citizens, have been able to achieve all those things, and why I genuinely believe that despite its faults, our society is among the best on the planet.
To summarise, the key reason I love Finland is because in this barren corner of the world, our forebears created a land of personal freedom for all. Consider this, for example: my granddad was born into a family too poor to afford a chimney or enough shoes for the whole family (!). However, had the war not intervened, he would’ve gotten free secondary education, and several of his children received free university education. One of his grandchildren, namely me, is soon the first of our family to obtain a PhD on top of a master’s degree in engineering. Thanks to regular, universal government stipends (“study money”) and subsidies for housing and lunches, this would have been possible without going into any debt at all. I did nevertheless take about 10 000 euros of cheap student loans during my master’s degree just because loans were so cheap. I’ve been able to repay them during my PhD studies and the debt is now down to about 1000 euros. (I feel sorry for you guys in the United States in particular – having your stipends classified as taxable income must hurt.)
This is freedom to become what you want to be, instead of what you can afford.
When I was finishing my M.Sc. degree in 2007, my financial situation wasn’t exactly stellar – I was a research assistant in the Helsinki University of Technology, supposed to work on my Master’s thesis – yet I was still free to grasp an opportunity of lifetime to become a founding partner of a product design company, a field that deeply interests me still. I knew starting a business would be a serious financial risk, and I did eat a lot of porridge during our first year of operations. But I also knew that if our business failed, I would at least receive some unemployment benefits and wouldn’t be thrown out to the street. And when I made some money, the Tax Administration would simply send me an annual pre-filled tax form where most of the deductions were made automatically. Filling out the tax report takes me some 15 minutes each year; I review the pre-filled form for obvious errors and simply copy-paste my expenses from a spreadsheet to a web form. Just as about one third of Finns, I don’t even mind paying more taxes than strictly necessary, because we all know that we will receive the extra back just in time for Christmas – with decent interest, even. Similarly, other interactions with the government tend to work on a principle that it’s the government’s responsibility to make sure you get what you are entitled to, not your responsibility to game the system. (Although I’m the first to admit that we still have a lot to improve in this regard – but I suspect many critics of the Finnish system don’t have much experience from bureaucracy in some other countries.)
This is freedom to do what you like to do, not what your background affords to you.
I don’t have to worry too much about where me and my wife should live, because there isn’t much difference in terms of e.g. schooling, crime, or public benefits: we can pretty much choose where we live based on what kind of environment we’d like to live in. I know the public health care system will take care of me if something happens, and I know that I don’t need to splurge on a car because public transport and bike lanes make commuting on a budget even more enjoyable than sitting in a car in traffic. I know I could stay in the office until late and be free to walk home without having to fear someone robbing me – or worse – because robbing people isn’t just very profitable compared to living on benefits. (That said, had I been a woman, I probably wouldn’t have been quite as unafraid – unfortunately!) I also know that while I could obtain firearms if I wanted to hunt, for example, it would be very unlikely that a mental case would be able to buy guns: such things have happened, but the loopholes have been plugged as a result.
This is freedom to be yourself, instead of being dependent on your personal networks in case something goes wrong; this is freedom from fear.
In my spare time, I can choose from a variety of public and private services. I can exercise in cheap but well-maintained public sports venues like swimming halls and gyms, or in expensive but fancy private wellness centres. About 500 meters from where I live is a well-stocked public library that these days provides all kinds of services beyond just books. They already have music instruments, art, and tools, and 3D printers may be coming soon – they’re already available in some localities. One of the things I love the most is simply being out there among the nature, and in that, Finland truly excels. From publicly available hiker’s huts in national parks to well-maintained trails, there is no shortage of services to help people enjoy the natural world; and for those who don’t like the beaten trails, our deeply enshrined “everyman’s rights” guarantee that as long as you are not causing any damage or camping directly in someone’s backyard, you have the freedom to roam anywhere, pick berries and mushrooms, and even fish almost wherever you like (provided you’ve paid a modest license whose profits are used to maintain fisheries). In fact, it is illegal for the landowner to put up fences or even signs that forbid trespassing, unless there is a valid reason for that.
These all are freedoms to do what you like.
Now you may be thinking that there are no such things as free lunches, and you would be right. We do pay taxes, and compared to some other countries, we pay a lot. However, Finland is not even the most heavily taxed nation on Earth, and for average Pekka or Maija, the actual tax rates are fairly comparable to other rich countries. In fact, if we calculate what an average American pays in taxes and other fees that are required to gain similar services and standard of living to what a Finn receives from taxes alone, we will find that many middle-class Finns actually pay less: when the municipalities buy goods and services, they can get a volume discount individuals cannot. Most importantly, most of us really don’t mind paying: the majority realises that we actually pay the taxes so that we ourselves can live in a society where most people are highly educated, the sick are taken care of, and even those who are less lucky don’t have to resort to crime. In short, we know taxes are the entry fee to a civilised society and its freedoms for all – and that theoretical freedoms for all would be diminished if people are unfree in practice.
Finland is certainly not an utopia and there are many, many things we need to do better: in fact, I don’t believe in utopias and think that there will always be something any society can improve. However, on this centennial I’d like to tell those people who may never have been to Finland that there is nothing magical about our society, and you too can have what we have if you want.
Do not believe for a moment those who’d like to ascribe the success of Nordic countries to some simplistic explanation, from small population to supposed homogeneity, that provide so very convenient excuses not to even think of the possibility that you too could have greater freedoms. First, our populations might be small, but any human population can be divided into similarly sized chunks, and many administrative divisions in larger countries are already about the same size. Second, the Nordics have never been that homogeneous: a little more than a hundred years ago, the Finnish tribes such as Savonians, Osthrobothnians, and Karelians (not to even mention the Sami peoples, who are even more distinct) were practically isolated from each other, could barely understand each other’s language, and had sometimes wildly differing attitudes and outlooks on life, even different religions. In Finland in particular, the class divide was enormous: before our country was one year old, we had fought a civil war with (then) record-setting brutality, with mass executions of civilians by machine guns, concentration camps, starvation and all the rest.
Just yesterday I heard that one of the wounds of that time had been healed as traditionally bourgeois and traditionally proletarian cooperative store chains (that split in 1917) had decided to merge together. So to anyone who claims we’ve been a homogenous nation: don’t make me laugh, when I was a kid we could still tell whose grandparents had fought on which side based on where they bought groceries and which bank’s savings book they carried – and to cross over to the “other people’s” store was simply not done. People only slightly older than my grandparents could go to their deaths without having spoken to their siblings since 1918, and as late as in the 1970s, those with “unreliable” family background could be discreetly excluded from certain positions. Just because right-wing pundits like to believe Finland has been harmoniously homogenous does not make it so.
What we did was not easy nor fast. The roots of our current society were laid in the 1920s as enough of the winners of the civil war realised they couldn’t turn the clock back to the class divide of 1800s without risking another rebellion, and consequently acquiesced to many of the original demands of the defeated Reds. Slowly, brick by brick, the foundations of a welfare state were laid down – sometimes in a process where two steps forward were followed by one step backward. However, progressive policies tended to prevail, often simply because they made so much sense. For example, even most conservatives realised eventually that the interests of the businesses would be served better if the educated talent pool was broader: by making education free and widely available, we did not squander our human resources the way many countries still insist on doing.
All this was made possible because of social democratic policies – or democratic socialism, if you will. I know socialism is a dirty word to many, but it’s hard to argue with success: all Nordic countries have followed broadly similar policies, and all of them regularly top all the charts that measure quality of life and well-being. At the same time, even our economies grow faster than those of the supposedly competitive dog-eat-dog countries.
But nothing in this was preordained, and nothing in history dictated that only the Nordic countries could make democratic socialism work. Had the Vietnam War been avoided, it’s entirely possible that president Lyndon B. Johnson would’ve found funds to enact legislation much to the same effect – at about the same time as Nordic countries made the transition towards social democracy. This was a wasted opportunity of enormous proportions, but everything is still possible.
After all, few countries today have to deal with the aftermath of a civil war that left one percent of the population dead and two percent imprisoned in concentration camps. (For scale: if the United States had a similar war, three million would be dead and six million would languish in the camps.) If we were able to create a society that maximises individual freedoms to the extent current Finnish society does, anyone can do it.
And that, I hope, is the message one can learn from Finland’s century.
This post contains some thoughts about the history of the anti-nuclear movement and in particular the European anti-nuclear movement as a struggle for power and empowerment; it’s posted here for convenience and as a reference, and as a caution against interpreting the anti-nuclear movement simplistically, such as a movement that is being powered by fossil fuel interests. I’d also hope to illuminate why scientific facts are not enough to dissuade opposition to new technologies, and why those wishing to change the society should strive to understand the power relations, feelings of powerlessness, and empowerment of individuals.
The European and in particular the German anti-nuclear movement has a long and sometimes distinguished history. Fundamentally, the opposition to nuclear energy has been rooted in the perfectly understandable and commendable opposition to nuclear weapons, and the feelings of powerlessness felt by many Europeans during the Cold War.
The Cold War was a conflict waged by the two superpowers outside Europe proper, but it was also a conflict that would have turned Europe into a nuclear battleground and a radioactive graveyard had it turned hot. This was particularly galling to Europeans as until about the early 1970s, it was clear that the Soviet nuclear arsenal was predominated by relatively short-range weapons that could not hope to reach the continental United States, but could and would devastate densely populated Europe if a war broke out. (Remember that a major motivation behind the Cuban missile crisis was the Soviet Union’s desire to even the odds by emplacing some of its short-range weapons within range of the US mainland. One result from the crisis was a very much heightened Soviet emphasis on intercontinental ballistic missiles that could hit US targets, but until the 1970s anything the Soviets could do to American society was dwarfed by their ability to devastate the European societies.)
As a result, in Europe many concerned citizens felt more or less like helpless pawns in a great game of chess that was being played by forces they could not even begin to control. The end of the world was always only thirty minutes away, and there was very little the common people could do about it. I don’t mean to claim that the people in the United States – or in Eastern Europe for that matter – had much more control over their fates or less reason to fear, but it is clear that Europeans had even more reasons to feel powerless than the citizens of the superpowers, who at least in theory had some say about how the Cold War was being waged.
In my opinion, Spencer R. Weart has demonstrated persuasively in The Rise of Nuclear Fear that the origins of the anti-nuclear power movement were very much intertwined with the anti-nuclear weapons movement, and that the movement against nuclear power was to a large extent powered by a sort of displacement activity for people who might have been actually more afraid of the nuclear weapons, but felt they could do very little about the bombs or the risks of nuclear war. Weart’s book concentrates mostly on the anti-nuclear movement in the United States, but I believe its conclusions are even more applicable to Europe. After all, for most Europeans, there was almost nothing they could do about nuclear weapons themselves, aside from protesting against them and their deployment. However, in all European countries, citizens and politicians could oppose nuclear power.
So, the opposition to nuclear power was, to simplify a bit, very much a question of and a struggle for power. The people felt they had too little power over their lives and their future, and that they could feel more empowered if they opposed one concrete manifestation of the energy source that threatened their existence. As sociologists have long noted, power and empowerment are crucial concepts for understanding human social activity, and the sociology of the anti-nuclear movement is no exception.
Furthermore, this power struggle had another aspect besides the tie-in to nuclear weapons. To many people, particularly to those who came to an age during the late 1960s, the technocratic dreams of early nuclear proponents were just another manifestation of the authoritarian, top-down society controlled by almost unaccountable elites. These elites were seen to have been responsible for dragging Europe into two unimaginably destructive wars already – the ruins of which were still being cleared during the 1960s – and there were good reasons to fear that another, final war might break out soon. This alone was a reason for Europeans to feel skeptical about the wisdom of their leadership, but the matters were not helped in Germany in particular by the fact that the post-war political order all too readily accommodated even former Nazis. In this environment, the thinking that equated centralized power structures and political elites with authoritarianism and impeding fascism was, in my opinion, quite understandable.
Nuclear power provided one focal point for this anti-authoritarian criticism. The plans to construct very large centralised power stations (remember that most power plants at that time were very much smaller than they are today, and 400 MW power stations were often seen as excessively large ones) were by themselves seen to concentrate power into the hands of the elites, and the control and governance regimes that were seen to be necessary to contain the nuclear reactions and their waste products were seen in some circles as stepping stones to totalitarian control over the society. Particularly in German-speaking countries, there were influential books that argued that the proposed “plutonium economy” would require total government control and pervasive surveillance to ensure public safety and nonproliferation of weapons material; this is likely the reason why some older anti-nuclear activists in particular accuse modern pro-nuclear environmentalists as “fascists.” Today, the question whether these fears were justified or not is a moot point; the fact is that many people, particularly those of the “1968 generation” felt they were real, pressing issues, or at least symptoms of an outdated, destructive political-industrial complex that was seen to be stripping power from the people.
All this does not in any way diminish other motivations that powered the diverse anti-nuclear movement. By and large, the protesters were not (and are not) motivated primarily by some overarching grand ideological scheme, and local problems and debates were (and are) always at least as important as the broader societal questions. Furthermore, aside from providing an avenue for the struggle for and of power (even for empowerment), the anti-nuclear movement benefited from deeply rooted human dispositions to draw clear distinctions between “pure” and “impure,” and “natural” and “unnatural.” Up until the development of genetic engineering, nuclear power was the prime example of impure and unnatural imposed upon the people by shady powers beyond their control: nuclear waste was seen as the ultimate insult against purity (whether or not that was the reality), and splitting the atom represented concretely the unnatural, even if the first and the most memorable application of the technology hadn’t been in incinerating thousands and ushering in a new era of deeply existential fear about the future of civilization and life itself. In short, nuclear power was very nearly the perfect enemy, and matters were not helped by the grandiose plans and haughty dismissals of all critique by the early 1960s nuclear technocrats. The parallels to the behavior of modern renewable energy technocrats are too painful to list here.
The fact that all this also benefited a traditional, domestic European power source – coal – surely helped matters. However, it would be far too simplistic to interpret the anti-nuclear movement as a fossil-powered special interest group: the declarations that the anti-nuclear activists oppose coal as well are, in my opinion, genuine, even if the results of their activism all too often end up benefiting fossil fuel interests. Instead of such simplistic analyses, the understanding of the forces that oppose new technologies need to be analysed and understood through the one lens sociologists believe is essential to understanding how human societies operate: the question of power relations, the struggles for power, and the feelings of powerlessness or empowerment of individuals and groups.
If nothing else, I hope this note gives some insight into the question technocratically minded often struggle with: why the scientific facts and figures tend to fail in dissuading opposition to some particular technology? In my opinion, the main reason is not the oft-supposed “scientific illiteracy”; rather, it is that the technologies represent different things to different people, and opposing some particular course of action because of the values it or its perceived supporters embodies is – fortunately and unfortunately – a very human trait. No one should feel too smug about this: evidence suggests the “rational” model of decision making, where we first listen to the evidence and then decide our opinions, is simply not how things work out in practice. Instead, we all tend to look at evidence that suits our pre-existing opinions and values, and reject things we don’t agree with.
In a break from my tradition of complaining about things, a positive post and a recommendation – and about a corporation, no less!
Savotta of Finland is one of my favorite companies these days. They make my life better, easier and less stressful by taking away one of the worries of traveling: the fear that I’m in some foreign country and my backpack gives up the ghost. Since I go to great lengths to travel with carry-on backpack only (another habit that makes travel much more enjoyable; heartily recommended), whether my backpack holds up to the stresses of travel is of major concern to me. And considering my luck, should a backpack fail, it would most likely do so just when I’m rushing to the airport or otherwise in a desperate need to move. (This is actually the likely scenario: when we’re in a hurry and stressed out, we tend to make all sorts of stupid mistakes and abuse our equipment.)
There are many good travel backpacks I’ve tried over the years, and I have mostly positive things to say about the MEI Voyageur, for example. But after two decades of backpacking, I’ve come to the conclusion that when you absolutely, positively do not want to live in a fear of failure, you buy Savotta.
This small company has been making ridiculously durable, well-designed outdoors gear in a small village in the middle of
nowhere Finland since 1955. Their forte is in backpacks of all sizes: while the ergonomics and the looks are sometimes couple of decades behind the latest crazes (although both are always good enough) their products are cleverly designed for serious use and built to last. The TL;DR version of this post is that Savotta is to backpacks what Nokia 3310 is to mobile phones: the one thing you just can’t seem to be able to break. In fact, Savotta’s marketing slogan could well be “the user will always fail first.”
I’m not affiiated with them in any way, except having been a satisfied user for 17 years now. I bought my first Savotta rucksack, the venerable classic 906, for a serious need. The reconnaissance platoon I was assigned to had lost all the long range patrol rucksacks we were supposed to be issued with, as they had been needed by troops deployed to Kosovo. As a consequence, we were instructed to bring our own rucksacks instead. The 80-liter, external frame rucksack I eventually bought held up admirably throughout the reconnaissance/ranger training, even after being run over by an armored personnel carrier. This durability was no wonder, as the 906 is close cousin to the military issue “LJK” long range patrol pack, also designed and built by Savotta. The rumor is that in testing, the prototype pack was accidentally airdropped without a parachute; even though the contents were somewhat battered, the pack survived in perfectly usable condition. When Savotta brought out the latest iteration, it was, of course, tested in this fashion. The pack survived 350 meters of freefall without issue, as can be seen in this video.
In this world where most things just aren’t built to last, any exceptions to the rule are heart-warming. That bruised and battered but still surprisingly good-looking 906 is with me still, and I won’t be giving it up before I’m terminally ill and too weak to walk. There are more modern backpacks, and there are lighter backpacks (the 906 weighs about 2.8 kg, which isn’t that bad, all things considered), but there are none that could beat the 906 in durability and versatility. Even though it gets little use these days, as I somehow seem to be too busy to take longer hikes and its 80 liters are overkill for shorter jaunts, the fact that it’s there in the basement storage gives me a sense of freedom: if need be, I could carry everything I need to wherever I have to. They say it’s foolish to own more than you can carry, because then the things you own end up owning you, but with my 906, I can carry more than without.
However, for some time now my go-to pack has been a slightly smaller pack, Rajapartio (Border Patrol). This pack was originally designed for the Finnish Border Guard officers, who patrol the 1300-kilometer long border with Russia. It’s small and simple enough to serve admirably as a carry-on backpack as well (provided one doesn’t go overboard when packing), yet its suspension system is superb and the internal aluminium frame gives it rigidity most other similarly sized packs lack. (Note: I had to hammer the frame a bit to make it fit me better.) In its job as a travel backpack, it could have more pockets, and I’ve added some for extra ease of use, but the basic design is very sound. Now I have a carry-on pack that can truly serve as a serious hiking backpack as well – and take on whatever outrages and indignities the life of traveling academic can possibly throw at it.
Besides making great backpacks, including some truly classic items (where else could you buy a classic Bergen like Savotta 323, or that simple yet excruciatingly useful daypack Savotta 123?), another thing in favor of Savotta is their customer service. In fact, this post was inspired by their recent Facebook update, where they recalled a batch of backpacks with a possible hidden manufacturing flaw that had slipped through quality control. The post is in Finnish, but for those who can read it – this is how you do customer service. Savotta is also known for supporting the users with spare parts when they are (rarely) needed: combined with the fact that the company is already more than half a century old and looks set to continue being in business (they still make most of the Finnish Defence Forces load-bearing gear, for example), Savotta could well be the last backpack you need to buy.
Sadly, there is one thing I need to mention: even though whatever Savotta manufactures in Finland or in its subsidiary in Estonia simply will refuse to fail, the company has outsourced some cheaper items to China. These are at best of variable and often of poor quality, and best avoided altogether. I hope the company has learned its lesson, and focuses on what makes it the company I and many, many others love: the quality that gives its users one thing less to worry about. (Here might be another marketing slogan in the making.)
Savotta packs are not cheap, but as so often in this world, you gets what you pays for. It’s telling something that the main problem for many long-time users is that it’s so very hard to justify shelling out cash for that shiny, new backpack, since that 20-year old Savotta is still going so strong…
My Finnish readers will already know that I announced some time ago that I’m done with energy/climate change discussions. I’ve been following the debate actively since about 2007 and have been writing about it since late 2010. I’ve written two books about the topic, one of which is translated to five languages, and blogged fairly regularly. But now it’s time to do something else.
The main reason why I’m refocusing is because I think the debate is going nowhere, and I don’t want to waste my time on a futile project. We are not going to get a decarbonized energy system by 2050. We are going to fail the climate targets, probably by a large margin, and I suspect that a warming of about 3 degrees centigrade is going to be almost inevitable. It’s perfectly possible that self-amplifying feedback mechanisms under way will amplify this change even more. What this will mean for humans is difficult to assess, but I doubt it’s going to be anything good for the vast majority. The global poor will suffer the most, while we here in the rich North may be able – at least in the short term – to insulate ourselves from the worst effects and retreat to our own virtual bubbles to avoid hearing the cries of the others.
The reason why we’re going to fail is because we’re lulled into optimistic complacency. An occasional follower of the energy and climate news will inevitably conclude that climate change is as good as solved: page after page gushes about the relentless, inevitable progress of renewables and the just about imminent downfall of fossil fuel behemoths.
The reality, of course, is quite different from these uncritical pronouncements.
Despite the very real advances of low-carbon energy sources in the recent decades, fossil fuels are still – relatively speaking – just as dominant as they were in 1980s. Since the global energy use has increased from those days, the problem of replacing practically all fossil fuel and most of the biomass use by 2050 (which would be required to stay at accepted climate targets) is hideously difficult.
However, nothing about this urgency is communicated to the broader audience. In general, people want to hear happy stories that fit their preconceptions; and the looming Ultimate Victory of renewable energy fits perfectly to the preconceptions of almost all environmentalists (who are also the only ones really concerned about the climate change). The people want to hear that the new energy messiah will deliver us from the evil; and scores of people around the world deliver. Very vocal groups argue that accomplishing 100% renewable energy system by 2050 is going to be easy and cheap; I can’t but keep on thinking how long it will take for the optimist groups to begin asserting that THEIR plan can do it by 2049 while giving everyone a pony as well.
Because we’ve been here before. In the 1960s nuclear energy was supposed to be THE energy source for the 2000s. Oil drilling was supposed to become unprofitable by the turn of the millennium, and the only real question was exactly how many nuclear power plants we’d ultimately end up building. The gushing, completely uncritical rhetoric that totally ignored any and all concerns about technical, economic and political issues inherent in such grand, technocratic schemes is almost word to word identical to the rhetoric employed today in 100% RE circles, as I’ve documented in several essays (e.g. here, here, here and here).
I and many others have tried to point out that there are still unsolved issues and potential pitfalls between the rhetoric and the ultimate, total victory of renewable energy. I at least have done this because I’d like to see renewable energy prosper: most if not all of us really are concerned about issues such as RE growth curve being logistic, integration costs, hidden environmental issues and local resistance to massive projects such as wind parks and power lines. We think that these issues have been downplayed or ignored entirely in the optimistic discussion, and that in order for renewable energy industry to avoid making the mistakes the nuclear industry made in the 1970s and 1980s, these issues would need to be addressed – soon. And, yes, we’ve been saying that a prudent climate mitigation strategy should include nuclear power as well, at least for as long as it is ACTUALLY DEMONSTRATED IN PRACTICE – not just in theoretical modeling – that major nations can get most of their energy from renewable sources alone.
All this has been to no avail. Realism never makes for a good copy, as long as there are people who make a living from selling a dream instead. No matter what we do, critical discussion of problems that are likely to crop up when renewable energy use increases has been confined to the blogs and discussions between a small group of like-minded people. Perhaps this shouldn’t have been surprising: after all, this is also exactly what happened with nuclear energy as well. Critics of the nuclear dream were ignored, downplayed and vilified – until at some point, with enough experience, the actual techical, economic and political challenges became too large to ignore.
And that brings me to the last reason why I’m quitting. It’s bad enough that people who claim to be critical thinkers for the environment have swallowed the renewable advocacy hook, line and sinker (to the extent that it is environmentalists who most vocally deny that renewable energy could possibly have inadvertent environmental impacts) and are actively trying to undermine other low carbon energy, such as nuclear. However, the last straw to me is to keep on hearing that those who don’t uncritically buy the wildest renewable energy dreams and have some good questions about the research and thinking behind the dreams are shills for fossil fuels or nuclear power, and therefore the enemies of “proper” environmentalists. (See e.g. this piece.)
The fact that James Hansen, probably the most prominent climate researcher ever, is one of those critics (as are many other climate researchers around the world) makes no difference to these accusations.
I’ve been involved in environmental issues for a very long time now. I was a founding partner of the first eco-design consultancy in Finland in 2007, and I’m one of the founding members of the most recent environmental organization in Finland – the Finnish ecomodernist society. I’ve made major life choices to reduce my personal environmental impact, and have lectured for nearly a decade on how to design products that are less bad for the environment. (I always tell my students that if they want real change, they need to be more active politically – that designing “greener” products is good but a bit like rearranging deck chairs on board the Titanic.) I’m going to continue doing so, and I’m going to continue to advocate for climate change mitigation and clean energy in my own circles if the topic crops up. I may also comment every now and then if I feel like it, but I’m not going to follow the debate closely any longer.
But, since I’m so concerned about climate change that I favor keeping the options open until very high penetration of renewable energy is demonstrated in practice, I’m not welcome to the climate or environmental community, where opposition to nuclear power is a foundational precept of their beliefs and takes priority over practically all other considerations. I have no doubt that if, and probably when, the current wonder energy stalls in a manner very reminiscent of the stall of the nuclear power in the 1980s, I will be one of those people who are going to be blamed for the outcome. The explanation (that is already being practiced as renewable expansion is encountering the first signs of real trouble) will be that naysayers and the fossil fuel industry were in cahoots to stop the perfect energy source of the future. After all, this is the explanation the most ardent supporters of nuclear power have concocted: since they’ve convinced themselves that the technology was already very nearly perfect, the only possible reason for its demise has to be a conspiracy of critics and fossil fuel interests.
This attitude where the echo chambers of the faithful convince the participants to simply ignore the very real limitations of renewable energy, and the complacent optimism bred into the broader public by absolutely uncritical coverage of renewable energy claims and the renewable energy industry (which, by the way, is vastly larger, more profitable and more powerful than “big bad” nuclear industry), are the prime reasons we’re going to fail. We’d need much more effort to climate mitigation, but how on Earth can we persuade the people to vote for more effort and more hardships, when every environmental organization shouts out loud that the victory of renewable energy is just around the corner?
Perhaps we’d be losing even if this wasn’t the case. Fossil fuel interests and the logic of current capitalism are so powerful and they have such a grip on world’s economy (and hence politics) that this may have been a losing battle regardless. Nevertheless, these divisions within the environmental movement critically diminish our influence just when we all ought to be advocating for more clean energy – not less, as many “green” organizations are de facto doing. We ought to fight and defeat the Great Enemy first, and then – only then – resume the old fight between nuclear and renewables. But that’s not going to happen. Some blame for this lies within nuclear advocates, too – too many are nothing but mirror images of the individuals and organizations they claim are anti-science or unwilling to change their outdated thinking. That said, it is only from the ranks of the 100% RE advocates where I keep on hearing that we should exclude some potential solutions just on principle; there is nothing close to similar attitude within pro-nuclear environmentalist circles, few zealots excepted.
Yet nothing changes; we’ve had all these discussions at least a decade ago, and if my stash of old books is any indication, since the 1970s at least. Feel free to continue with this fruitless debate if you want; I’m going to direct my energy elsewhere.
(For those interested, my day job these days is researching the implications of blockchain technologies, the building of trust networks and digital identities, and in place of following the neverending energy/climate debate I’ve recently studied the criticisms of prevailing economic system, and the possibilities of radical left politics that would make “Star Trek socialism” – or Fully Automated Luxury Communism – a topic of serious political debate. Yes, I’m going over to utopianism; after all, based on my experiences in the energy debates, the more outrageous a plan is the more it seems to sell. And maybe it’s also more fun proposing endless pies from the sky, rather than toiling on the details and problems. So many people are doing it in energy discussions, and they must have their reasons.)
The recent publication of an unprecedented critique against the so-called “WWS” 100% renewable energy (RE) scenario has re-ignited the debate about the feasibility of renewable only energy scenarios in the United States and abroad. This is a long-overdue debate the world sorely needs, and everyone who has the slightest interest in climate change mitigation should pay careful attention. At stake is nothing less than whether or not our climate policy measures are based on sound science or pie-in-the-sky optimism.
As many of the critics of 100% RE plans – myself included – have repeatedly pointed out, the problem here is not that 100% RE plans are being developed. We definitively need research that tries to solve the issues related to large-scale deployment of renewable energy sources, and it is a very good thing that such plans are made. Even if the plans themselves never come to fruition, their existence serves to increase the ambition level of other plans and policy proposals; and if it turns out that we can power the planet with nothing else but renewable energy yet limit the environmental and social damages to an acceptable level, I believe we should do so.
But the burden of proof lies with those who assert that we definitely do not need certain solutions, usually nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage. At this moment, no country on Earth has managed to decarbonize its economy even close to the extent required by climate science. Despite encouraging progress of renewable energy sources, the “new” renewables that would have to shoulder most of the burden in renewable-only decarbonization plans are still a minor fraction of the world’s total energy supply. And the fact is that no combination of renewable energy sources and ambitious climate policies has ever been able to reduce emissions even to the levels that the rapid roll-out of nuclear energy was repeatedly able to do – entirely by accident.
In short, it is far too early to state with any confidence that the “best” climate strategy is to use only renewable energy sources. We really don’t know yet whether it is even possible to make the transition to 100% RE sources in time to stave off dangerous climate change, and whether, if it is possible, we can amass the political capital required to do so. These uncertainties can only be resolved through experience and simply cannot be eliminated by energy systems modeling, no matter how detailed and scrupulous – and certainly not by modeling that contains as many dubious assumptions as most 100% RE plans currently do. And even if the current critique results to better models in the future, which I hope it will, the uncertainties remain uncomfortably large. Modeling energy system futures is very different from, say, climate modeling: while the climate can be modeled based on invariant laws of physics, energy system models are essentially predictions (or educated guesses) about how human beings make decisions, how technology develops, and how the economy functions.
We all know, or at least should know, that reliable predictions of future technologies or future economy are very hard, if not fundamentally impossible. As a rule, we should treat all such predictions with considerable skepticism. After all, we have plentiful examples of failed predictions in the energy sector as well: as a historian of technology, I cannot but be amazed by how the 100% RE promoters of today re-enact almost word-to-word the confident assertions and other rhetorical strategies (like framing the debate to be between the forces of progress and the luddites) originally used by nuclear energy promoters in the 1960s. Back then, serious scientists told us that by the year 2000, all the legacy energy companies would be bankrupt and even oil wouldn’t be profitable to pump from the ground, thanks to relentless and inevitable progress of cheap atomic energy. There were only some minor technical details to be worked out, and some irritating but uninformed critics to silence. Just as RE advocates of today, these technocrats were also almost totally ignorant of the political and social aspects of their proposed solutions.
In another striking resemblance to renewable plans of today, nuclear proponents could not think that people might have any reasons to resist the nuclear buildup – after all, it was not only the embodiment of “progress” but also the cleaner and safer energy source that promised considerable economic benefits. (A concrete example of how local opposition is derailing ambitious RE plans comes from Germany, where grid expansion plans have been delayed by a decade by strong and almost entirely unforeseen local opposition. The expansion underway is very modest compared to what 100% RE plans absolutely require.) Another striking similarity is how the methods for dealing with the opposition are again from the “ridicule it” playbook; at one extreme, a Harvard professor whose expertise in energy systems came entirely from the now-criticized WWS study called those who support not only renewable energy but nuclear as well “climate denialists!”
Being usually rather ignorant of the history of their own discipline, the promoters of 100% RE scenarios nevertheless very rarely if ever even admit that there may be some uncertainties or unknowables in their models. After a decade of following the energy discussions, I’m hard pressed to remember a single instance of a 100% RE promoter publicly discussing the caveats of their plans, or the assumptions required to make 100% RE scenarios work. On some rare occasions, the promoters have admitted (usually as a response to criticism) that the plans, while possible in a sense that they do not break any known physical laws, may not be very realistic (see one such case here). More often, though, the promoters seem to be entirely unburdened by doubts and confidently assert that the 100% RE scenarios “prove” that 100% RE future is “possible”, and as a consequence, we should only use renewable energy sources in the climate fight. (The phenomenon where the most confident tend to get the most airtime has been discussed in e.g. Dan Gardner’s book about predictions, “Future Babble.” Gardner also notes that as a rule, the confidence someone has about his – almost always his – prediction unfortunately tends to correlate negatively with the accuracy of the said prediction.) This transition from “possible” to the “only possible” is often subtle, and the difference seems to be lost to many listeners, politicians in particular.
And here lays the greatest drawback of 100% RE scenarios: taking them too seriously. For a politician, the allure of 100% RE can be overwhelming. Almost every single one of the prominent 100% RE scenarios promises that we can lick the climate change easily with nothing else but clever new technologies – and even profit at the same time. Such a plan is bound to attract political attention: promises of free lunches usually do. By following the 100% RE promoters, the politicians are also saved from having to do unpleasant decisions and released from the burden of having to champion deeply unpopular solutions, such as nuclear energy or carbon rationing. Most pleasingly for the politicians, the risks of promoting 100% RE strategies are small: the politicians can always say that they only followed scientific advice, and the long timelines all but ensure that if it becomes undeniable that the plan did not pan out, the politicians of today are likely to be safely retired already. (Furthermore, many politicians sincerely believe that we should use only renewable energy sources, and it is easy to listen to studies that confirm one’s pre-existing beliefs.)
And if all else fails, scapegoats can be found: witness how many nuclear advocates are still claiming that the ambitious nuclear plans of the 1960s were perfectly fine, if only the sinister cabal of pesky environmentalists and fossil fuel interests hadn’t colluded in stopping nuclear expansion. I have no doubt that I for one will be indicted in the future as one of the reasons why 100% RE plans didn’t come to fruition, as one of those “negative thinkers” who now “sow doubts” whether the plans are really feasible. After all, finding people to blame will always be easier than admitting that one’s favored political plan had some inherent technical or political limitations.
What all this translates to is that the aggressive, almost certainly overconfident promotion of 100% RE scenarios and the conflation of “possible” with “the only possible” threatens to shut down support for what may very well be necessary components of effective climate policy. Many towns, countries and political parties are now making commitments to back only renewable energy sources; while quitting fossil fuels is commendable, there is a real risk that such plans exclude e.g. nuclear power and lead to premature closure of what still remains the second most important low carbon energy source in the world. In the U.S. for example, right now the greatest climate risk is in the premature shutdowns of nuclear plants. Committing to renewables only also undermines desperately needed support for research into new energy technologies and climate mitigation tools (e.g. carbon capture and solar radiation management), leaving us to only hope that the Ultimate Victory of renewable energy really is looming just around the corner this time.
Given the history of failed energy predictions, I would not be holding my breath. But if the techno-optimists are wrong this time as well, the problem is that we really don’t have the time to try again. We have one shot and one shot only at decarbonization, and being overly confident we can do it easily with only some of the possible tools is just as dangerous as pooh-pooing the dangers of climate change.
Donella Meadows’s book Thinking in Systems: A Primer (pp. 89-90) contains a rather interesting critique of econometric models and their limitations in explaining and predicting what happens in the world. While Meadows acknowledges that econometric models are more useful than what she calls “event-event analysis” (e.g. explaining event A, such as stocks going up, with event B, such as U.S. dollar falling), but notes that the fundamental limitation of models that strive to uncover statistical links between different types of flows (e.g. income, savings, investment, government spending, interest rates, output, etc.) is that, first, econometrics overemphasizes flows (because that’s where the most variation happens) and underestimate stocks (e.g. total physical capital), and second, there is no fundamental reason to expect that any flow bears a stable relationship to any other flow. While a statistical correlation can be detectable for a brief period of time, feedbacks and changes in the underlying system’s structure would make the econometric model worthless.
The example Meadows uses is trying to predict a temperature of a room based on correlations of heat flows in and out of the room, without knowing anything at all about how thermostats operate. One could probably easily find an equation that tells how the in- and outflows of heat have varied together in the past, because thermostat means that they are being governed by the same stock (temperature of the room). However, the equation would hold only as long as system’s structure changes. If someone opens a window or improves the insulation, or forgets to pay the heating bills, the equation would be worthless.
What’s more, the econometric result would tell little about how to change the system. It would only tell about system’s behavior and how they used to correlate with each other, but very little about the underlying structure.
Hence, Meadows asserts, such “behavior-based econometric models are pretty good at predicting the near-term performance of the economy, quite bad at predicting the longer-term performance, and terrible at telling one how to improve the performance of the economy” (p. 90).
Meadows, D. H. (2009). Thinking in Systems: A Primer. London: Earthscan.