Minority report – for now? Finnish Green candidates call for nuclear power

This is my translation of a statement made by four Finnish Green party (Green League) candidates today, calling for the use of both nuclear power and renewables to combat climate change. It illustrates quite nicely how more and more thoughtful people are beginning to accept what should be, in my opinion, quite obvious: it’s well past time we had the luxury of choosing only low-carbon power sources we like. Note though that this is the opinion of these four party members, not an official recommendation. Some notes have been added to provide context for those who, for some reason, don’t follow closely the Finnish energy policies. Any mistakes in translation are my own.

A green energy vision acknowledges the facts

The Finnish Green party is well known for its history of strict opposition to nuclear power. On the other hand, the party also strictly enforces the principles of open discussion. Nuclear power is a topic that divides opinions very strongly, but it is not an issue that would split the party. Even within the party, nuclear power is at the end a question of opinions, not of values. The three guiding values of the party are responsibility for the environment and the future, freedom for all, and caring for other people. These are loose and often ambiguous values. On the other hand, the newly accepted strategy of the Green party demands that the party “Reduces … the demands for unanimity – both in relation to other party members and in relations with potential partners.” As such, there exists a broad diversity of opinions, and an open discussion.

While precise and recent statistics are lacking, the party veteran Osmo Soininvaara estimated in 2012 that approximately one third of the party members could accept nuclear power, at least under some conditions. Current acceptance is not known, but for example, the latest Green energy vision does not demand the closure of the currently operating Finnish nuclear power plants. [Note: Four reactors dating from late 1970s and early 1980s currently provide about one third of our electricity and about 18% of primary energy] In the Green party political platform, nuclear power is handled as follows: “The role of expensive and old-fashioned nuclear power in Finland’s energy supply shouldn’t be increased. Retiring capacity should be replaced with renewable energy sources.” Our interpretation is that this platform does not necessarily rule out modern and possibly more economical nuclear technologies, such as small modular reactors. [Note: In the link, another Green party candidate, the chairman of the Greens’ Climate and Energy committee Antti van Wonterghem, proposes a small modular reactor to provide heat and power to the city of Kotka.]

The party has been strictly negative regarding the Fennovoima nuclear power plant under construction, but this particular project divides opinions even among those Greens who support nuclear power. The project involves undeniable geopolitical and economic risks. [Note: The Fennovoima plant, scheduled to be online by 2025, is to be built by the Russian state company Rosatom, which will also hold a 34% share in it and provide financing to the rest of the owners. In the current geopolitical situation, the project certainly increases the risks of undesirable Russian influence in Finnish affairs.]

The Finnish Government’s current bioenergy policy is nevertheless a disaster for both the climate and the Finnish nature. Increasing wood harvests will destroy our valuable forests without clear climate benefits: wood chips that are burned emit their carbon dioxide to the atmosphere right away, while similar quantity of carbon will be sequestered in newly grown forest only 50 years later. We need to get rid of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now, not 50 years hence. Currently, it is completely clear that getting rid of fossil fuels is the most important goal. Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power work very well, up to a point, but the practical limits of these sources will be reached surprisingly quickly. For example, wind power plants require large land areas and considerable quantities of raw materials. Solar power, on the other hand, would demand electricity storage systems that would, again, demand huge quantities of raw materials. Relying solely on renewables would demand, among other things, a lot more mining activity. All energy sources have their drawbacks from the environmental point of view.

The German Energiewende serves as a sad example of what can happen if ideology trumps reality. The German decision to shutter their nuclear plants has led to renewable energy replacing nuclear power, not fossil fuels. As a result, emissions have been reduced only marginally. In Finland, the Greens have quietly but firmly stayed on a different course from the Germans, and therefore, as Olkiluoto 3 nuclear power plant becomes operational [in 2018, it is hoped], we have a real opportunity to produce the most of our electricity with very low carbon dioxide emissions – behind the schedule and with a high price tag, but nevertheless cleanly. For us, heating and transportation pose larger challenges. Biodiesel [currently, there is much talk about biodiesel in Finland] is not a sustainable solution on a large scale. Electric cars are more sustainable, but require very drastic increases in electricity supply. For this, it is hard to see alternatives to building more nuclear power.

We are already too late in our efforts to stop climate change, and we no longer have the luxury of choosing between nuclear power and renewables. Many propose that we should put our limited resources to developing renewables, rather than nuclear power. This opinion is problematic however, as it assumes that climate change can be stopped only with those limited resources. For all practical purposes, this is not the case. Unless we spend a lot more money in all clean energy sources, we are certain to be doomed. This is caused above all by the fact that the world’s energy demand grows rapidly as the living standards in developing countries increase. Therefore, it is not enough for us to replace our coal power plants with other solutions. Someone has to replace also the coal plants that are otherwise inevitably built in China and India, for example. Therefore, in practice our starting point must be that we increase the resources available for both nuclear power and for renewable energy sources. Views like these are still within a minority in the Greens, but the acceptance for an open discussion of these views is broadening.

Signed,

Jakke Mäkelä (vice-chairman of Viite, the science and technology subgroup within the Finnish Green party)
Tuomo Liljenbäck
Markus Norrgran
Heidi Niskanen

Green party candidates in the municipal elections in Turku, and members of Viite.

[Note, again, that this is the opinion of the signatories, not an official recommendation of the Viite or the Finnish Greens.]

Posted in Ecomodernism, Nuclear energy & weapons | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

“Environmental NGOs knew the truth about climate change”

Note: This text from 2043 has been delivered to me through a curious spacetime anomaly. Hopefully it only represents one possible future, not the future.

Multiple self-styled “environmental” organizations issued stark warnings of the catastrophic risks of their energy plans more than a quarter of century ago in prescient documents that have recently been rediscovered.

However, the organizations had been deeply invested in their opposition against many necessary clean energy technologies and helped lobby against their deployment, leading to accusations that these organizations knew the grave risks of global warming but did not act accordingly.

In one documented instance, an energy expert from one “environmental” organization admitted after a 2015 debate about energy plans that the highly optimistic plans he had defended as the only possible ones just minutes earlier were extremely unlikely to be put into practice or lead to necessary results. In another example, a long-time energy specialist in a major global organization openly admitted in 2011 that the key data in their hopelessly optimistic energy scenarios came directly from renewable energy industry, whose lobbyists also wrote the scenarios marketed by the organization as “the” solution to climate change problem. Similar frank admissions of the inadequacy of their plans were given to the author of this article by numerous other individuals in these organizations, albeit under cover of anonymity. Moreover, documents from organizations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth UK reveal that these organizations knew that the risks and drawbacks of certain clean energy technologies, including nuclear energy, were far lower than what they led the public to believe. As a damning research report commissioned by the Friends of the Earth UK in 2013 clearly states, “overall the safety risks associated with nuclear power appear to be more in line with lifecycle impacts from renewable energy technologies, and significantly lower than for coal and natural gas per MWh of supplied energy.”

But, despite being fully aware of the risks of runaway climate change, these organizations invested hundreds of millions of dollars in decades-long disinformation and scare campaigns against clean energy technologies, such as carbon capture and nuclear power, that worldwide scientific consensus believed either important or nearly irreplaceable in the climate fight. The environmentalist organizations also funded and supported outlier research that sought to undermine this consensus opinion and present the climate problem as solvable with renewable energy and energy efficiency alone, despite such scenarios being rejected by the IPCC and other expert bodies as unrealistic outliers.

According to both current and contemporary observers, these organizations had become prisoners of their history, continuing the policies they had adopted during their founding in the 1970s (when the organizations even went as far as to propose coal as an alternative to nuclear power) despite clear and mounting evidence that they were inadequate for the challenges of the 2000s.

Janne M. Korhonen, a Finnish historian and environmental activist, notes that in some ways this intransigence was understandable: “For these 1970s institutions, opposing nuclear power in particular was not only a major reason for their existence in the first place, but also an issue that continued to motivate their supporters to donate time and money to these organizations. They had their own, very effective but nevertheless misleading propaganda to thank for a lot of that grassroots inertia, and changing course would’ve meant both an admission that they had been wrong – something organizations are never good at – and a probable collapse in revenues.”

However, Korhonen also lays some of the blame on media and academic research community, noting that the self-styled “critical” researchers and media of the time were almost completely uncritical towards these organizations and their proposals. “It was naive then and it is naive now to believe that precisely the same energy policies that these organizations had championed since 1970s just happened to be the best option for avoiding runaway climate change as well. These organizations had in effect decided in the 1970s that they would support only what they somewhat arbitrarily labelled ‘renewable’ energy and energy efficiency, and it’s no surprise the emergence of climate change as a major problem did nothing to change these policies.”

“Nevertheless, for years these organizations could continue to distribute energy scenarios made by renewable energy lobbyists, from data supplied by renewable energy industry, without any criticism. They also faced no questions whatsoever about the details of their plans, such as WWF’s 2010 energy plan where bioenergy monocultures were envisioned to cover greater swathes of land than what was used for wheat at the time, without the slightest explanation of where this land was to come from. Very few questioned them about why their plans would condemn the Africans of 2050s to energy access far below the average Chinese of 2010s, and whether it was either realistic or ethical to make such plans. Finally, media and researchers continued to present these organizations as credible voices in energy debates, particularly in ones concerning nuclear energy, even long after their tendency to omit key facts and even forge statistics to make their case had been documented.”

“They really ought to have known the truth about climate change but couldn’t change their own thinking, even though they publicly demanded everyone else to change their thinking. In the end, it’s just sad that despite their good intentions, these organizations became de facto opponents of effective climate policies just when such policies might still have made a difference.”

Posted in Energy, What they aren't telling you about nuclear power | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Hey Greenpeace, could you find us Finns a warm place to live in?

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Pictured: Finland. Not pictured: radiation levels exceeding those Greenpeace deems “emergency radiological situation” and “an unacceptable radiation risk.” (Picture credit: SeppVei/Wikimedia)

A recent Greenpeace news release leads to an inescapable conclusion: that us Finns need to be evacuated immediately, because radiation hazards of living in Finland exceed those encountered in Fukushima evacuation zones. I therefore humbly ask Greenpeace to find a place for 5.5 million Finns, or at the very least for those 549 000 of us who now have to live in a radiated wasteland where annual radiation doses are at least two times higher than what Greenpeace deems “emergency radiological situation” and “an unacceptable radiation risk” in Japan. If possible, could we also find a place that’s warm and without slush?

According to Greenpeace’s press release, “2017/02/21 Greenpeace exposes high radiation risks in Fukushima village as government prepares to lift evacuation order”, radiation levels measured in Iitate village would equate to an annual dose of 2.5 millisieverts per year (mSv/a), and levels as high as 10.4 mSv/a have been measured indoors. Since millisieverts are a measure of radiation danger that already accounts for the differences between different sources of radiation and for the differences in exposure pathways (e.g. internal or external), we can use these measurements to compare directly the risks of living in Iitate to risks of living in Finland. The comparison is simple: for the purposes of radiation hazard, higher millisievert count means greater risk.

According to Finnish estimates, the 5.5 million people living in Finland are at a greater risk than inhabitants of Iitate, receiving on average 3.2 millisieverts per year.

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The mean annual radiation dose for Finnish people. Source: Finnish Radiation Safety Authority (STUK), Muikku et al. (2014) p. 6.

But this is not the whole truth, oh no! In many places in Finland, actual radiation doses are far higher than that. The ice ages scraped our soil down to bedrock, and bedrock contains considerable quantities of uranium. As it decays, one of the decay products is an odorless, invisible and radioactive gas known as radon. With little soil above to hold it, radon tends to rise into air and collect within our dwellings. As the pie chart above shows, radon and its decay products are a major factor in the radiation dose of an average Finn, but radon exposures can vary widely, from almost zero to as high as 340 (yes, three hundred and fourty) millisieverts per year (Muikku et al. 2014, p. 12).

According to measurements conducted by the Finnish Radiation Safety Authority (STUK), there are about 549 000 Finns who receive at least 5 millisieverts per year from radon and other sources. Of those, perhaps 70 000 receive annual doses that exceed the highest doses Greenpeace managed to measure at Iitate (10.4 mSv/a) (Muikku et al. 2014, p. 15). (Note: it is unclear whether radon might in fact account for the high indoors radiation doses Greenpeace measured in Iitate. It is well known from Finland and other areas with high radon concentrations that without very good basement ventilation, radon can easily collect in houses and result to very high dose rates.)

Even though extensive studies have failed to find any clear links between these dose rates and incidence of health problems (a link likely exists, but is so weak that clear connection cannot be established), it should be by now clear to anyone that if anyone deserves an evacuation because of radiation hazards, it is us Finns. (See also the picture at the top of this post.)

Preferably to somewhere warm.

The Fukushima disaster was a needless tragedy that sundered apart entire communities. It is despicable for any organization to continue to prolong this tragedy and exploit people’s understandable fears for the purposes of propagating its outdated, probably disastrous energy policy that puts opposition to nuclear power at front and center even when evidence of the dangers of runaway climate change becomes clearer by day. It is especially despicable to use utterly misleading propaganda like Greenpeace currently does – to solicit donations.

References

Muikku et al. (2014). Suomalaisten keskimääräinen efektiivinen annos. STUK publication A259. (PDF link)

Posted in Nuclear energy & weapons, What they aren't telling you about nuclear power | Tagged , , , , , | 39 Comments

Stall warning for renewable energy?

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A model that estimated the plateauing of nuclear and hydropower to within 20 percent of reality suggests that absent a technological breakthrough, the growth of new renewable energy – that is, wind and solar – will saturate and end when these new power sources, taken together, amount to no more than about ten percent of the world’s energy supply. This is the startling and fearsome conclusion of recent study by Hansen et al. (2016).

I previously wrote in length about that nemesis of optimistic prognosticators, the technology S-curve, and noted that there are no reasons to believe renewable energy revolution won’t be subject to the same forces that so far have stalled every previous energy revolution before they’ve been complete. In that article, I showed how the still unmatched initial growth spurt of nuclear power convinced many reasonable observers up until late 1970s that the age of cheap atomic energy was inevitable and that other energy sources would soon simply vanish before this juggernaut of unlimited power and potential. The similarities to today’s discussion and hype about the potential of renewable energy sources, largely based on their relatively rapid initial growth rates, are direct and worrisome: the nuclear revolution entered the steady phase of the S-curve and stalled long before being complete, and there are many signs the renewable revolution is in danger of stalling.

Now, Hansen et al. provide some further evidence for my claims. They used a simple logistic model (“S-curve”) to estimate the final plateau of various energy sources, including hydropower in Europe and nuclear power globally. Using data from the growth years of these power sources, they found that the logistic model predicted the ultimate extent of both nuclear and hydropower generation to within 20 percent of reality. Then, using the same model with similar data about the recent growth of renewable energy, and factoring in optimistic estimates until 2020, they concluded that the similar flattening in growth rates would occur with renewables by about 2030, resulting to global power generation of about 1.8 terawatts (TW) at most.

Because global energy use exceeds 17 TW at the moment and is projected to increase until 2050 at least, this presents a very stark warning to everyone interested in stopping dangerous climate change and weaning the world from the scourge of fossil fuels. The idea that we can stop dangerous climate change, and particularly the idea that we only need renewable energy and energy efficiency to do so, are almost entirely predicated on the assumption that renewable energy growth will be exponential rather than logistic, and/or that the plateau of slow growth will take decades to achieve. However, every technology has followed the logistic S-curve in the past, and Hansen et al. note that the observed data fits the logistic model better than it fits an exponential one.

This is potentially a very serious issue indeed.

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Logistic fit for energy sources growth, from Hansen et al. (2016)

Hansen et al’s warning echoes what we’ve been saying for some time now: there is a troubling slowdown in new renewable energy installations in precisely those countries and regions that have been the most advanced in this respect. In other words, RE installations are slowing down in places that have installed the most RE – long before installation rates, let alone total capacities, that decarbonisation requires have been achieved. These slowdowns could be an early signal that renewable revolution is stalling, although it’s still too early to say for certain. However, renewable energy faces some unique challenges, the chief among them being probably the tendency of additional installations to cannibalise the revenue streams of all the similar generators after the penetration roughly equals the average capacity factor of the generators in question. (See this excellent treatise by Alex Trembath and Jesse Jenkins for more detail about this problem.)

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Solar PV installation rates in forerunner Europe took a plunge after a peak in 2010, even though global installation rates increased. This could be a troubling signal. Figure from our book, Climate Gamble (see sidebar).

It’s still too early to say for certain whether Hansen et al. are right. I sincerely hope they’re wrong, and that renewable energy revolution continues as the optimists hope. This may well be possible, if – and that’s a major if – energy markets are restructured to truly value low-carbon energy, and price decreases for both renewable generators and storage systems continue unabated. Still, we’re likely to need more subsidies (implicit or explicit) for our energy systems, not less, and as the authors note, the trend is unfortunately towards phasing out the subsidies.

Despite fervently hoping that the authors are seriously in error, I cannot, in good conscience, ignore the extremely troubling similarities to previous hype cycles about energy revolutions, nor can I ignore the potential early warning signals that may indicate that renewable revolution isn’t going to be such a smooth sailing as its proponents still often claim it to be. We need more effort to promote clean energy, and more alternatives. Consider that even if Hansen et al’s prediction turns out to be wrong by a factor of 7, we’d still require more than just wind and solar power. Ignore warning signs such as this only at our peril.

As a bonus: my previous article about S-curves did not include data about the growth of new renewable energy sources, but thanks to a helpful table in the aforementioned study, here comes. It represents an estimate of total power generated by each source during the first 30 years of their expansion, i.e. installed power corrected by (estimated) capacity factor. The capacity factors used are as follows: hydro, 0.8; solar, 0.1; wind, 0.27; nuclear, 0.5 from 1965 to 1980, rising to 0.8 by 2015. You can access the data from this Google Sheet and view the interactive version of the graph below here. As you can see, the nuclear energy revolution is still unprecedented (and particularly so if we’d look at growth relative to existing generation), although wind power growth shows some signs of catching up.

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Actual power generation (installed capacity * capacity factor) from different energy sources during up to 30 years of expansion. Data from Hansen et al. (2016), capacity factor estimates my own.

References

Hansen, J. P., Narbel, P. A., & Aksnes, D. L. (2016). Limits to growth in the renewable energy sector. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 70 (October 2016), 769–774. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2016.11.257

Posted in Energy, History of technology | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Climate shouldn’t be used as a political sledgehammer

A real problem hindering climate change fight is that for too many, climate change is just another blunt rhetorical instrument with which to hammer in their favored policies.

As this article discusses, it would be utterly naive to believe that noted critics of capitalism, for instance, could’ve somehow impartially studied the climate change problem and only then conclude that preventing dangerous climate change requires the downfall of current capitalist world order. In Finnish context, it shouldn’t be surprising if people who’ve made their career in promoting bioenergy will promote bioenergy as a (or even THE) solution to climate change, no matter what science might have to say about the subject. The same of course applies to those deep in mainstream economic thought: no one should be surprised if a devout free marketeer sees climate change as a problem that should be left to the markets to solve.

However, the problem is probably particularly acute for those who’d actually want to prevent dangerous climate change. Far too many organizations and individuals who promote climate change awareness also have a deep, long-standing vested interest in or attachment to particular solutions. In the case of environmental NGOs, it would be only fair to say that their commitment to a world shorn of “excessive consumption” and powered only by renewable energy has far longer roots than their commitment to fighting climate change. As this article notes, this makes conservatives naturally very suspicious when these organizations now just have happened to find a global, serious problem that just happens to vindicate the policies these organizations have proposed for decades before climate change became a mainstream issue.

It’s for this reason why I’ve long said that one of the most powerful symbolic messages the traditional environmental organizations could possibly send would be to issue a statement saying that we now need all potential solutions to this problem, not just those the organization has happened to promote for decades. This is a credibility issue for the whole climate fight. I’ve heard numerous climate skeptics and outright deniers over the years ask the simple question: if climate change is the existential problem the environmental NGOs claim it is, how come they still oppose nuclear power so vehemently?

If environmental NGOs really believe what they’re saying about nuclear energy – that it’s too costly and generally uncompetitive against renewables – they shouldn’t have anything to lose by issuing such a statement. If they’re right, then nuclear is on its way out regardless of what they can say about it. However, such a statement would go a long way towards emphasizing the urgency of the climate fight, and just might convince some of those who aren’t motivated to act because they feel the leftie environmentalists are just using a made-up threat to push their pet politics.

DISCLAIMER: I’m definitely a liberal-leftie environmentalist myself – but I try to figure out how to make environmental issues matter in politics. I’m also involved in the fledgling ecomodernist movement, which just might provide a home for those concerned about environmental issues but incapable of acting within the boundaries of traditional environmentalism.

Posted in Ecomodernism | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

I’ll also ban travel to the United States.

Dear friends in the United States and elsewhere,

With regret I need to inform you that I will not be able in good conscience to attend any academic or other events in the United States. Obviously, I also can’t consider any job offers either.

This decision pains me because ever since I was about six, I’ve held the United States and her citizens in great regard, and have always enjoyed my visits there. However, I have no desire to support, aid or abet the proto-fascist regime that is now trying to take power in that once-great country. Even more so, I cannot just pretend nothing happened as my colleagues and fellow humans are so unfairly discriminated against. Among other outrages, just last weekend five PhD students from Aalto University, my own academic home, were denied entry to a long-planned study trip to the United States.

Furthermore, I shall direct my academic and other work towards publications outside the United States. I currently have one manuscript forthcoming in an US-based journal, and I shall not withdraw it at this late stage; however, I shall prioritize all further works to outlets whose taxes do not support a proto-fascist regime. I shall also endeavour to shift the focus of our research group towards non-US outlets. It is high time for top scholarship to return to Europe, from where the predecessors of Mr. Trump once drove it away. Fortunately, we are now in a position to offer similar sanctuary to scholars from other countries, and if you or anyone you know needs any help relocating, please let me know. Right now Finland is unfortunately not the best place to do research due to budget cuts, but other European countries might be.

I understand these actions will have little impact on actual politics and may greatly harm my career prospects. However, to quote another scholar, Stu Marshall, I’d rather have a conscience than a career.

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Atomic mail rockets, and how monocausal predictions are particularly dangerous

The new, shining age of information delivery was briefly at hand on June 8th, 1959. A Regulus cruise missile – designed for delivering a nuclear warhead to a Soviet city or port – landed neatly at the naval base at Mayport, Florida, twenty-two minutes after being launched from a U.S. Navy submarine. Instead of a city-busting “bucket of Sun”, its payload bay held 3,000 letters; the first “missile mail” had arrived. According to Postmaster General of the United States, who witnessed the missile’s landing, “before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”

While the Regulus experiment was no more than a publicity stunt advertising the missile’s accuracy to the Soviets and the world, rocket mail was a staple of futurist predictions about soon to be realized innovations up until the late 1960s. According to Wikipedia article, rockets or artillery shells were proposed as mail-delivery systems from as early as 1810. After a widely-publicized lecture by rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth in 1927, at a time when rockets were little more than experimental toys, the United States ambassador to Germany even discussed the practical legalities of transatlantic rocket mail in anticipation of future service. Even though the transatlantic rocket mail service did not materialize, individual inventors and hobbyists kept testing small mail rockets until the advent of intercontinental missiles and the space age seemed to place rocket mail just around the corner.

In hindsight, the logic behind such predictions is easy to understand. From early 1800s, the speed of transport had increased relentlessly. As muddy roads and horse-drawn wagons gave way to railroads and sailing ships, always subject to vagaries of weather, were supplanted with steamships, rates of travel increased significantly. With the coming of the aeroplane, speeds increased even further and faster. In the 1950s, airspeed records were broken monthly, and almost all forecasters expected that the rapid increase in airplane speed would continue until most of the flying – both commercial and military – would happen much faster than the speed of sound. Rockets and missiles would only be the ultimate expression of this trend, capable of traversing the world at Mach 11 or more and hauling time-critical payloads (nuclear warheads, mail, rescue specialists riding manned missiles) to their destinations.

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Furthermore, mail delivery had historically provided an important impetus for increasing rates of travel. Regular steamship service across the Atlantic owed much to desire to speed up mail delivery, and the earliest true commercial use of airplanes was likewise in mail flying. It was not unreasonable to believe that rockets, too, would find civilian use in the same role. As they were only linear extrapolations from history, 1950s forecasts of rocket mail were not (as far as I’m aware) controversial in the slightest.

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Atomic mail rockets, soon irradiating a postal office near you. Thanks to @NuclearAnthro for the picture, original source unknown.

Of course, in hindsight we also know that this didn’t happen. There are no regular postal missile runs, and many see the very idea as just another ridiculous example of 1950s-era belief in inevitable march of science and technology.

To me, however, rocket mail provides another cautionary tale about predictions of technology. Those confident that rocket mail would soon be a thing were not stupid: they made intelligent predictions about future technologies based on observed trends in history. Faster delivery of mail was better than slower delivery, and previously all faster methods of transportation had been used to deliver mail, sometimes – as in the case of steamships and air mail – despite considerable initial costs and difficulties. The advances in aerospace technology during the 1950s made missiles ubiquitous, and the Space Age and the ever-present threat of missiles carrying nuclear annihilation and the attendant media coverage ensured that rockets and missiles were never far from anyone’s minds. In fact, it seems reasonable to believe that the expert forecasters were particularly influenced by the availability of information about developments in rocketry and missiles: after all, these were the state of the art technologies of the day, whose developments the forecasters generally followed with great interest. In this environment where experts could witness technological advances on a daily basis, an expert extrapolation based practically solely on the trends in rate of travel and the general desirability for faster mail service was a no-brainer.

A generous interpretation of the subsequent events would be that the experts were not wrong in the fundamentals, only in the particulars. Faster communication methods were indeed much desired, but these took the form of electronic communications. Instant was even better than fast, and e-mail eventually replaced mail in all time-critical communications. While packages still require physical handling, packages and things that take up much space are not very well suited for rocket delivery, nor can rockets cross the last mile from the sorting center to customer (or post office). As with passenger transport – another area where faster, faster, faster was once believed to be the single trend worth following – “fast enough” turned to be enough for people at large. (And before you ask – delivery drones have very little in common with rocket mail, which was always about crossing great distances from one sorting center to another, not from sorting center to customer.)

Why the fuzz, then?

But we have a problem if we let forecasters off the hook so easily while still permitting their visions to guide politics and other important decisions. Despite all the history of failed predictions based on single variable or world explanation, from Marxism to neoclassical economic theory, many people still desire to predict things based on a single variable or cause. While the fall of communism discredited Marxist world-explanations (even to a too great an extent; Marx’s ideas retain considerable value as an analytical tool, but just as other tools, Marxism falters badly if it is the sole tool in a toolkit), monocausal explanations using crude economic theory are still all the rage. In the energy debate, which I follow closely, fundamentally monocausal explanations are so common that they only rarely even raise eyebrows. Take any sufficiently advanced comment section in a debate piece about energy, and the probability of finding predictions about the energy markets or even the future of the world based on e.g. Hubbert curve, EROEI, energy density, price trend of photovoltaics, or general “inevitability” of sustainable energy approaches unity.

Sometimes predictions may prove to be accurate, but I believe more by accident: given enough projections about the future (and enough interpretative ambiguity or weasel words), some projections are bound to be proven correct, at least if one squints just right. The great authority on expert predictions, Philip Tetlock, has concluded that most “experts” have no better than 50/50 success rate on average, and even the very best predictors he’s been able to find are wrong about 25% of the time. Most notably, Tetlock has pretty much proven that “experts” who are infatuated with a single or very few “key trends” or world-explanations – monocausal predictors, or in Tetlock’s words, “hedgehogs” who have One Big Idea – are invariably the least accurate, often having significantly worse success rates than flipping a coin would produce.

When I consider the possible biases arising from groupthink, obsession with novelty and wishful thinking, all of whom are extremely prevalent in the intersection of tech industry and technocratic green movement from where the more optimistic energy predictions emanate, at least my confidence in most energy predictions drops dramatically. After all, predictions are hard and energy predictions notoriously so: detailing all the past failures would be tiresome, but suffice to say that in the 1950s, nuclear fusion (note: fusion, not fission) was supposed to deliver “power too cheap to meter” in the very near future. Likewise, atomic energy was often supposed to make even oil obsolete by 2000 – but as the eminent energy historian Vaclav Smil once noted, the most reliable energy forecasts have been those that expected little change from the present.

Our assessments of expert predictions are further impaired because failed predictions are generally airbrushed from history books, unless played up for laughs. To take just one example, quite a few people in 1820s and 1830s – just as the steam engine was making its great leap forward – sincerely believed that the prime mover of the future would be water, enhanced and made more reliable by ingenious hydraulical engineering works (including “pumped hydro” reservoirs powered by windmills) spanning entire British counties. These visionaries argued their case with passion and had plenty of evidence to support their predictions: after all, steam engines were easily the more expensive type of prime mover for the burgeoning factories, the quality (“smoothness”) of power delivered from water wheels was unsurpassed, water power avoided the polluting smoke that was already choking some localities, and the great possibilities of water power were only beginning to be tapped (Malm, 2016). Gordon’s meticulous reconstruction of the hydrological history of Great Britain (1983) estimated that even under very conservative assumptions, most English river basins in 1838 – squarely in the cusp of steam engine’s great takeoff – were still practically unused, with even the most used basin having tapped only 7.2 percent of its available power.

Despite having all the advantages on paper, waterwheels lost the race. As Andreas Malm illustrates in his superb study, Fossil Capital (which I’m going to review in more detail later), the reasons why had very little to do with numbers, trends or technology, and much more to do with difficult-to-quantify (or -predict) factors such as ready access to compliant workforce (steam engine permitted siting factories in cities) and insurmountable coordination problems between potential hydropower beneficiaries. By the way, the latter problem, as Malm also notes, bedevils many if not most proposed theoretical schemes for 100% renewable energy systems, while the renewable plans themselves are eerily reminiscent of the grand plans of 1820s water power advocates. Of course, since energy debates (just like most other technological debates) are generally obsessed with novelty and ignorant of the history of even their own field, these worrying similarities are ignored entirely.

Unfortunately, even the best predictors carefully considering the problem from all angles have a considerable failure rate; even more unfortunately, we can’t know in advance who is going to be proven right. Even though there is always going to be a winner in every coin-flipping tournament, it does not mean reliable coin-flippers exist. Likewise, accuracy of a person’s past predictions does not, by itself, tell much about how reliable her current estimates are. Sadly, we lack a rigorous system of tracking expert predictions and assessing and improving their accuracy, and until such systems are in place (if ever), I would advise taking all predictions about the future with significant grains of salt.

Literature cited

Gordon, R. (1983). Cost and Use of Water Power during Industrialization in New England and Great Britain: A Geological Interpretation. Economic History Review, 36(2), 240–259.

Malm, A. (2016). Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. London: Verso Books.

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