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.