Earth: The Sequel

I just finished reading Earth: The Sequel, which was a gift from a bright, thoughtful friend. Subtitled The Race to Reinvent Energy and stop Global Warming and authored by Fred Krupp, President of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and Miriam Horn, a writer who now works for EDF, the book is typically optimistic about Empire. Seems readers only want books with happy endings.
As if life’s like that.


The book is fine, really. It’s written well and it presents a compelling set of solutions to global climate change. At the same time, it offers up a host of “solutions” to our energy crisis. Of course, all these “solutions” maintain the project of globalization and the facade of happy motoring through our suburbs and along our interstate highways. Like one of my recent books, though, it fails to take seriously the notion of peak oil.
The book fails, in fact, to mention anything about limited supplies of oil. Or any limits to growth, for that matter. It assumes we can grow our way to happiness, if only we harness the wind and the waves and the sun, grow algae for fuel, and implement a cap-and-trade system for carbon.
That’s the primary thesis of this book: Congress must implement a cap-and-trade system for carbon. Once they level the playing field with this strategy, the world’s innovators will immediately start pumping out ways to squeeze energy from places heretofore unimagined.
If we’d started four decades ago, these strategies might sustain our imperial ambitions for another decade or two. But I strongly suspect it’s too late organize or innovate our way out of the messes we’ve created. I doubt we can “solve” the energy problem, because we’ve entered the period of rapid decline in the master resource, crude oil. Inertia in the world’s climate system suggests we’re far too late to prevent the frying of the planet.
Let’s take a look at a few of the thousands of numbers presented in this book, and compare them to reality.
We’re told, “revenues in the solar photovoltaic industry will grow to $50 billion a year by 2015, reaching a total installed base of 75 gigawatts, a tenfold increase from today” (page 20). Reality check: By 2015 we’ll be halfway to the Stone Age because crude oil will cost three or four times what it costs today. Additional reality check: If the goal of 75 gigawatts is achieved, that will account for 0.5 percent of the electricity needed by 2015.
“The amount of land required to grow enough biomass to displace significant amounts of petroleum with biofuels is daunting” (page 76). Indeed: “Converting the nation’s entire soy crop to biodiesel would meet just 6 percent of diesel demand.” And, by the way, it would meet none of the much larger demand for gasoline.
In this case, the authors realize the monumental nature of the task, but they stop short of calling for real reform: “To fill one 25-gallon tank with corn ethanol requires enough grain to feed one person for an entire year” (pages 77-78). What to do? Develop alternative means for keeping automobiles on the road.
Algae for fuel is one of those alternatives. But huge amounts of water are needed, and massive greenhouses need to be constructed to house the algae (page 105). Who’s paying for this? So far, nobody, because there is no cap-and-trade incentive. And there will not be such an incentive, because Congress has no motivation for implementing it.
About jet fuel to keep the planes flying, the authors quote Amyris researchers who expect “measurable impacts within five years” (page 87). They call it a long shot. I’d call it a miracle, but the language isn’t that important. Generating energy at large scale in a short period of time without using much oil is simply an exercise in imagination, and not necessarily a good exercise.
Venture capitalists are scrambling to get on board, according to the authors. Why? Because biofuels and properly placed silicon chips “could meet between 4 and 20 percent of current U.S. electricity needs” by 2025 (page 149). There is little question we’ll be firmly in the Stone Age by 2025. How are we going to transport those solar panels to suburbia?
In perhaps the most hopelessly optimistic conclusion in a book riddled with wishful thinking, we are told that the price of oil will, with a cap-and-trade system, fall to the price of alternatives: “about $40 to $50 a barrel” (page 230). Never mind that the current cost of sucking the stuff out of the ground is nearly double the lower figure, and I suspect we’ve seen the last of double the latter figure.
In the final chapter, titled “A World of Possibilities,” we are told that “huge leaps of science (and probably of faith)” (page 232) will be required. It’s too late, and we’re far too human.
The basic premises of this book are absolutely correct. As the biggest polluter and the richest nation, the United States should take a leadership role in transforming energy systems and addressing the daunting challenge of global climate change. We should. Even if we did — and we won’t — it’s too late to solve the “problem” of keeping the Empire fueled, and it’s likely too late to address the far more pressing problem of global climate change.
I’m an optimist, but I try to infuse my thoughts with the occasional dose of reality. It’s Endgame for the Empire. And that’s a very good thing.
I’m working on responses to comments on the last two entries. I should have them posted soon.

Comments 19

  • I have not read this book, but took a look at some customer reviews on Amazon.com. A first thought is that something seems completely backward about this mentality that government needs to unleash market forces to solve these problems? Huh? If our situation is so dire, with crude oil at nearly $120 per barrel, gasoline nearing $4/gal in the U.S. and electricity soon to follow to new price highs and lows in availability, why do the entrepeneurs need a stimulus from government to get their products to market? The U.S. government is so in debt and driving up inflation through printing of worthless dollars that one has to wonder what the sanity is of government throwing money at problems any further. And to hear environmentalists talking about economic growth as desirable in a finite planetary survival system is just plain scary to me.
    As a wildlifer, my idea of the right size of national economy (or world economy for our species) is one which allows for simultaneous recovery of all endangered species of all taxa everywhere, which serve as indicators for sustainability.
    So, no, we don’t need to preserve our current system of high energy use and low sustainability — we need to lower our human population, lower our per capita and cumulative human footprint by a large factor, and probably get used to the idea of a worldwide human agrarian society.
    But alas, it ain’t gonna happen on a large scale. Large-scale human dieoff is probably unavoidable and will probably be engineereed (in my opinion) by the powers that be in an attempt to salvage their own sorry assets. And a few prepared souls will probably live on in the shadows of the former civilization as we knew it.
    A good accounting of the why’s and how’s of all of this can be found at http://www.dieoff.org
    Stan Moore
    Petaluma, CA
    stangabboon@sbcglobal.net

  • Ghost Dancing
    Perhaps the most interesting thing about this kind of literature is not what it says about science, technology, and our energy future but what it says about our psychology. Popular science books from the 1950s would have us zipping around in antigravity cars right about now. Is anyone here old enough to remember that when nuclear power first came along we were told that electricity would become “too cheap to meter?” I’ve been informed that human population is not a problem because when we reach the critical mass, “that’s when spaceship Earth gets to take off” as in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. But what really happens? Clarke grows old and dies in a war torn third world country. Something like half of the people in the U.S. sincerely believe we don’t have to worry because Jesus is coming back to take his people home. This is very similar to the belief of the Lakota who thought that by dancing they could make the white man go away and bullets couldn’t penetrate their Ghost Shirts. Very few people in the U.S. can actually do the calculations to see how many square miles of solar panels it would take, how much lead for lead acid batteries, how much hydrogen and the energy infrastructure to make and distribute hydrogen for fuel cells it would take to keep Happy Motoring in the Suburbs going. So why shouldn’t they believe we can run our cars on algae? Basically most of us are soft-headed, simple minded, and easily manipulated. Meanwhile an enormous transfer of wealth is rapidly taking place. Wall Street’s alpha dog, John Paulson, just took home a 3.7 billion dollar paycheck. A return to any semblance of equilibrium from this stage will be painful and dramatic. Get your shovels ready because there will be a lot of bodies to bury and debris to clean up. Books like Earth: The Sequel should be read as Pollyannaish Science Fiction.

  • You don’t have to be a geologist to understand Peak Oil–You just have to know how to read. Russia,
    the world’s largest producer of oil, is seeing a production decline for the first time. In every other place where oil is produced ,the volumn is way off from peak levels.The most suprising aspect from a lay person’s point of view is that the decline is not even more severe. The most alarming thing is that this decline is coming at an exponential rate. The decline is getting greater at an ever greater rate of decline.
    Obviously all solutions proposed by these pollyanna fools for this problem will take many years to implement, years we do not have. Face it people-we don’t have the time.

  • MEMO TO ALL POLLYANNA FOOLS:
    Please turn on CNBC now.Look in the upper left hand corner at the current
    price of the crude oil future. It’s over $119 /barrel.Keep looking and see it rise as you watch.
    Now pick up copies of today’s Wall Street Journal,and the New York Times.In the Wall Stret Journal look at the the front page story on the top right. It’s about Saudi oil. It tells you that even in Saudi Arabia, –“the age of cheap and easily pumped oil is over”
    Now turn to Paul Krugman’s
    story in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times,and read what he has to say about declining oil production.
    Now read what I wrote yesterday just above this.
    PEOPLE THIS IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW–THERE IS NO TIME LEFT FOR WINDMILLS,SOLAR ENERGY,HYBRID CARS OR ANY OTHER POLLYANNA DREAM YOU MAY HAVE.

  • Is the EDF channeling Amory Lovins? Cap and Trade will be as successful as corn-ethanol, which is to say that it’s a fraud. I think solar power in the AZ desert is a fine idea, except that it will be used to power the unsustainable cities built there.
    I wrote a paper at NAU dealing with the CAP. One of my sources was How to Create a Water Crisis by Frank Welsh. It seems to me his work is still quite valid and would be of interest to those reading this blog.
    Another item to have in one’s toolkit in an age of collapse is knowing at least something regarding local ethnobotany. When I was at NAU, we had such a course offered through the Anthropology Department. If there isn’t something like that at UofA, why not?

  • Suppose you were a mid-level passenger on the Titanic. Imagine as well that you know the ship is going to hit an iceberg and sink because you had a convincing dream that this was so. Let’s make a couple of assumptions for this analogy.
    First, the ship has no spare lifeboats that the captain is willing to loan you for an early escape and the water is much too cold and wide for you to simply jump overboard and swim for land.
    Let’s suppose that you go to the people in power and tell them of your dream and they laugh and tell you the ship is unsinkable. Let’s suppose you tell a few passengers, upsetting some of them, and you are warned by the captain that you will be confined if you continue to disturb your fellow travelers.
    What would you do next? Attempt to disable the ship so that it couldn’t get to the ice fields? This may save the ship but will get you put into prison for certain, and there is no guarantee that they won’t simply repair the damage and motor to their deaths at a later time.
    You could meditate. You could drink heavily. Prayer is an alternative.
    In the end, I really wonder if you could say or do anything, not being a person of power, to change the ship’s final destination.
    At the Endgame site I got the impression that the author would chose to enlist as many passengers as possible to either help convince the captain or possibly, if nothing else worked, carry out a mutiny, which would probably result in violence and, once safely in port, prison for the mutineers.
    We can start and stop with point one in the Endgame. Civilization cannot be sustained. Period. So, fire up the SUVs, ATVs, jets, Harleys and live it up.
    It is highly likely that in the end, nuclear disaster will prevail. Anyone who doubts this should reread Carl Sagan’s book, Brocca’s Brain. The reptilian cortex is much more powerful and profoundly more influential than the higher level areas of human brains when threats to survival arise.
    We haven’t learned very much over the years. Our leaders are invested, above all else, in maintaining power. They will fail us and then blame, blame, blame. If there is any doubt of this premise, just review our current pathetic candidates for US President.
    Enjoy your trip to the ice fields. Better to stand on the deck and breath in the last of the clear, crisp ocean air, eat a great meal and follow it with a huge dessert. Have a drink and a cigar. Sleep well and try not to think about the very cold water upon which you’re temporarily floating.

  • Right on Mike Whitt !!
    The headline in my paper for Paul Krugman article in today’s New York Times reads:”Remember the 1970’s We may be in for a rougher time”
    Some excerpts: “—we’re running out of oil –resources are getting harder to find–Don’t look now,but the good timesmay have just stopped rolling”.
    But yes,as Mike Whitt said,
    “–nuclear disaster will prevail”. The Muslims have the nuclear weapons to kill the Hindus in India, and the Hindus in India have them to kill Muslims in Pakistan, and when the fallout falls it will be just like “On the Beach”
    the 1959 classic movie where nuclear fallout wipes
    out tne entire human population.

  • Even more difficult than the question of when to stop warning them of the coming crises is how to prepare oneself. I for one have no idea what to do, and little money to invest in property or foodstuffs.

  • Jeremy L asks the most important personal question. I’ve tried to begin to address it at
    http://teosinte.lhws.net/

  • My first thought upon reading this entry is, WHY anyone would believe that continuing the insanity of our current system with all the destruction it entails constitutes “a happy ending”?

  • Wow! Someone who takes Derrick Jensen seriously!

  • Yes, Guy, people only want happy endings, at least for commercial things, to sell. Nobody would ever buy a book about “polar cities” in 2500 but see my website and images here:
    http://pcillu101.blogspot.com
    My scenario is all humankind who survive in 2500 live in polar cities in norther regions: alaska, vancouver, BC, Baffin, Russia, Oslo. Arizon is a thing of the past by then. What’s your take on polar cities? Too far out or good idea? As an adaptation strategy only, not a prediction, just mere idle speculation…
    sigh
    Danny
    Tufts 1971

  • anybody ever google POLAR CITIES

  • I don’t think that cities are the answer for long-term human survival anywhere in the world. The key will be communities or perhaps “tribes” who find ways to live sustainably with mutual support. This can be in an agrarian setting or in a hunter/gatherer mode. Tribespeople like those in Afghanistan or Borneo or certain parts of Oregon will make the transition, which is more based on attitude and cooperation and adaptability than on any particular mode of food gathering. And the numbers need to fit the carrying capacity of the local ecology.
    Stan Moore

  • As water shortages become more frequent, the price of water resources will go up. This makes the industry a promising investment play…
    How to Play the Coming Water Crisis

  • Although human life has become safer due to advances in science and technology, the future survival of the human race is much more uncertain due to an increase of risk factors, such as catastrophic events or global warfare as the result of the development of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction.

  • Hi Danny, the polar city google search is interesting. Polar cities are proposed sustainable polar retreats designed to house human beings in the future, in the event that global warming causes the central and middle regions of the Earth to become uninhabitable for a long period of time.

  • The first polar city is supposed to begin construction in 2012 in Norway, with “volunteer testing occupancy” starting in 2015.

  • Very cool, I build biodiesel processors which turn waste vegetable oil into biodiesel. It is really amazing how simple the process is, as well as saving the customer $2-3 per gallon at the pumps. Algae biodiesel looks even more promising. As the other poster said, we just need to keep moving in the right direction. Interesting article. I enjoyed it.