Hard Questions and Sustainable Solutions

August 23, 2009 at 12:17 pm
Contributed by: Chris

For my Energy and Capital piece last week, I took a hard look at what “sustainable” really means, and questioned the sustainability of realistic energy solutions. Perhaps human nature, not technology, is the real challenge that we face.

Hard Questions and Sustainable Solutions

Human Nature, Not Technology, Is The Challenge

By Chris Nelder
Friday, August 21st, 2009

The more I probe the hardest questions about the future of energy and our best shot at sustainability, the more I am convinced that the real questions are not about technology, but about human nature.

We have all the technology we need to make homes that produce their own energy. We know how to build high-efficiency rail and sailing ships. We know how to grow food organically and sustainably. We have the science to create economic systems that internalize all effects and operate in a beneficial manner. We’ve had the quantitative knowledge for decades that we would eventually go into resource and environmental overshoot.

We certainly have the technology to build an all-electric infrastructure entirely powered by renewables. We will crack the storage problem and all the other technical problems. I have no doubt that the technology also exists to build an all-nuclear solution, or even an all-hydrogen solution.

We have the technology to recycle all our water and reclaim all our waste. We could even control our population if we had the will.

We also know what real sustainability means. I don’t think I have ever seen it better put than by my friend Paul Hawken in his book, The Ecology of Commerce:

Sustainability is an economic state where the demands placed upon the environment by people and commerce can be met without reducing the capacity of the environment to provide for future generations. It can also be expressed in the simple terms of an economic golden rule for the restorative economy: Leave the world better than you found it, take no more than you need, try not to harm life or the environment, make amends if you do.

The real problem is we don’t want to act that way. Virtually no business in existence meets that standard.

Technology and knowledge simply aren’t the issue.

We don’t want to think about having to put CO2 back in the ground after we burn fuels. We don’t want to worry about the waste from our consumption. We don’t like to hear about limits to anything we want to do. We don’t want to rearrange our stuff, our lifestyles, so that they are truly sustainable. And we certainly don’t like anybody telling us we can’t have more kids.

In fact we don’t even like to think about it, so when the subject comes up, we dismiss it with a flip comment like, “So I suppose you want us all to be living in caves and working by candlelight?”

The upwelling of emotions that this topic inspires—especially fear—usually makes a neutral and scientific discussion out of the question.

And from fear, most people leap to faith: faith in the perfect wisdom of free markets, faith in technology, faith in human ingenuity. No rational discussion needed.

Nor is this aspect of human nature a news flash. ‘Twas ever so. At the suggestion of a smart hedge fund manager buddy, I recently put Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War in my reading queue for clues on how humanity actually performs when presented with serious fiscal and resource challenges.

I know some very smart people who are fully armed with the data on resource depletion and peak oil, and who still choose to believe in a cornucopian future where humanity acts wisely, humanely, justly, and in concert with a view toward long-term planning, solving all of our problems without any serious hardship.

This time, they contend, it will be different. After all, aren’t we entering the Age of Aquarius, when humanity finally embraces unity and understanding?

Well, forgive me for being skeptical. The degree of cooperation they envisage has no precedent whatsoever in human history, and there are thousands of examples to the contrary.

In fact I was a bit shocked today when I looked back on my first opus on sustainability (“Envisioning a Sustainable Future”), published in my online magazine Better World 13 years ago, and realized that all of the problems are the same now as they were then, only worse: population, energy, water, extinction, environmental destruction, flawed economic theory, global warming, and humanity’s problem with long-term planning.

It gave me pause. A long pause. Are all my efforts, and those of my fellow agitators for sustainability, simply battling human nature? And if so, what good is it?

Tantalizing Technologies and Hard Questions

At this point, 13 years later, the questions are even less tangible: How will people respond to the coming changes? Can the political support for truly sustainable solutions be marshaled? Will the economy hold out long enough to accomplish the transformation? And how will declining energy supply impede our efforts?

Certainly, in theory, we could replace 220 million light ICE cars and trucks with electric models, and heavy transport trucks with a combination of biofuels, natural gas, and hydraulic storage technologies. The technology exists. But will we have the investment and primary energy supply to build them, if we simply let the market and politics guide us?

Consider “Cash for Clunkers.” Using data and estimates from the New York Times, I calculate that the program pays off in nine years at $70 oil, and in five years at $120 oil. In terms of effective investment in the future, that’s really not too bad. (The photovoltaic systems I designed and sold in my previous career typically paid off in more like 20 years, before incentives.)

Even so, Cash for Clunkers was reviled for swapping out over a quarter-million cars for more efficient ones at a mere cost of $1 billion. What are the chances we’ll have the political support to do 220 million vehicles that way? Especially if oil gets more expensive and we start having shortages and more heavy industry failures when oil goes into decline a mere two years from now?

Sure, we can run airplanes on “renewable” synthetic diesel fuel made from green waste such as yard clippings, and early investors in such technologies will make a bundle. Rentech’s (AMEX: RTK) recent announcement that it had signed a deal to provide as much as 1.5 million gallons per year of the stuff to eight major airlines sent the stock soaring over 360% in two weeks.

But 1.5 million gallons per year is nothing, and thanks to the transport and handling cost of green waste, it doesn’t scale. If it requires transporting massive amounts of the feedstock with diesel-powered trucks, it isn’t sustainable either. Need we even discuss recycled fryer oil?

Similar problems bedevil the alcohol fuels and biofuels, including algae. There are many interesting approaches to both in the lab, but for a long list of reasons (including water availability and the net energy of the processes), they don’t scale well. I don’t see any of the biofuels making more than a 50% gain from their current paltry levels for a good many years yet — and then we’ll be having so many other problems with energy, water, food, and the economy, that the long-term outlook gets very murky.

Sure, we can try to turn to Canada’s tar sands and deepwater heavy oil as the good cheap stuff runs out, but a cursory look at their net energy tells us that doing so is an attempt to play the oil game into overtime, not an attempt to do something sustainable. Thinking otherwise is simply denial.

A straightforward analysis of the data suggest that once we take peak oil, peak gas, and peak coal into account, there may not be enough time left to use cheap fossil fuels for the decades it would take to accomplish a transformation to true sustainability, let alone the human will to do it. And the experience of the last year gives me no confidence at all that the world can smoothly transit this inflection point in economics.

Yet I want to foster inspiration, not desperation. For most people, hope is as essential to survival as food, water, and air. And there is hope — not for business as usual, but for a much better kind of business. Not for endless growth, but for a more sustainable future.

But I am not one for false hope. I have endeavored to bring a dose of realism to this column for three years now, and I will soldier on. The opportunities to create sustainable solutions and profit from them are probably greater now than they have ever been. It’s our task to find them, promote them, invest in them. . . and beyond that, hope for the best.

Until next time,



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  1. Hi Chris

    Interesting thoughts. Changing human paradigm – extremely hard unless compelled.

    As for RenTech – That 1.5 million gallon news was not for the planes as such – but just for the ground service truck fleet.

    Airline travel is doomed long term.

    Changing human expectations is where plenty of work needs to be done.


    Comment by Blair Rogers — August 23, 2009 @ 7:54 pm

  2. You might want to consider that this is a very US perspective — when you’re talking about a global issue, it might be good to consider other cultural perspectives as well. In many parts of the world societies are used to working together toward a common goal. The US is almost unique in the amount of power it places in the hands of individual people, combined with the degree to which people are encouraged to act primarily in their own best interest. The environment is a “common good” problem and as such fundamentally a social problem, clearly not a technical problem. That this is so may come as a surprise in the US, but certainly not elsewhere.

    Comment by Anonymous — August 24, 2009 @ 10:25 am

  3. I don’t think human history is entirely devoid of sustainability examples, though the magnitude of the present unacknowledged crisis utterly dwarfs anything since the “dinosaur-killer” asteroid. For example, there are numerous localized examples of reforestation and sustainable harvest (though I know of no sustainable “old-growth” class reforestation). Collectively, we have some long-view reflexes; some hope that they can be activated seems still possible.

    Comment by jrep — August 24, 2009 @ 10:47 am

  4. Good article. One aspect I take issue with is the whole population overload theme. Most developed economies are not currently reproducing at replacement rates. Developing economies are transitioning towards this state as well. Long-term trends indicate a population peak of about 9 billion around 2050, barring disruptive technologies which could alter these trends. What is needed, in my opinion, is for educated, charitable and thoughtful people to have more children and provide them with the means and inspiration to improve their world, not leave the reproducing to those who will only make things worse.

    Comment by Carl Youngblood — August 24, 2009 @ 11:40 am

  5. I believe that human beings will need to evolve to a greater level of compassion before sustainability will be achieved. We can think of three major stages of moral development illuminating this: Egocentric, Ethnocentric and Worldcentric. The first is concerned with itself, the 2nd its tribe, and the 3rd with all of us. Everyone starts at stage 1 while questions of world sustainability can’t even really be entertained until stage 3. A critical mass of evolved human consciousness is what’s holding this back, so I wouldn’t say human nature exactly more like a traffic jam in our unfoldment! 🙂

    Take a look at spiral dynamics and integral theory for more thinking along these lines.

    Kind Regards,

    -Siri Dhyan

    Comment by Siri Dhyan Singh — August 24, 2009 @ 2:02 pm

  6. We need a much better word than sustainable…how about compassionately enduring?

    Also, what is not taken into account is how much energy was used to make the new cars? How much valuable resource depletion? Where is the money going to come from to pay for road maintenence when no one is able to afford gas? What is the ‘next’ play to get people who cannot afford cars going to be? And how will we keep our ‘clunker’s’ going when we have little to spend on repairs and new cares require expensive diagnostics and a PHD to work on.

    Keep up the good thoughts Mr. Get REal…

    A. Farmer

    Comment by A. Farmer — August 24, 2009 @ 9:47 pm

  7. The initial paragraph leads me to this:
    Assuming that being rutting pigs is a requirement to edification or fulfillment in life, at least to the effect of some sort of substantial institution, a capacity to compartmentalize consumerism (based on wellness) and otherwise legitimize it (by hammering aggrandizement-based banking ploys) is a requirement for sustainability. This suggests a shift in focus on recreation & wellness as one economic prime mover, away from cosmopolitan preferences of entertainment and “culture.”
    We do have the capability to automate the commuter roadways, thereby ensuring freedom of association and a high degree of lawful free enterprise. Travel transactions should be authenticated biometrically; a function which the courts should use to cloak travellers in privacy. This is in contrast to the traditional approach of considering railways and urbanization as somehow compatible with Libertarian ideals. Rail is already extremely energy efficient at effecting wholesale trade, for that is what rails are: a piping network.
    Corporations know how to grow food organically and sustainably, and they ain’t doin’ it. As for those who could reasonably commit to such a career, they are generally disenfranchised by the sanctioned increasing cost of living that defines consumerism and corporate capitalism.
    By engineering products from the molecular level, and producing them with molecular control, instead of bulk methods which gurantee a certain level of waste, negative “unintended consequences” can be quantized and regulated by external controls, up-front, instead of after-the-fact, when public health and other commons have already been further depleted. This allows for legitimate political decisions, instead of degenerate leadership based in “buy-in” and pay-offs.

    The “…all-hydrogen solution” paragraph elicits this:
    Nature provides staggering amounts of immediately recoverable highest-grade energy (electricity) with the only obstacle being consistency of supply. Ultracapacitors fix this problem neatly, as do supercapacitors, although the cost structure is fundamentally differnet for each of these and supercaps seem to have chemical considerations which limit its applications.

    On “population control,”
    “Control our population” is a logical identity with “create a negligable basic cost of living”. This leads immediately to feminist empowerment.
    I would add that we need to relieve ourselves of our expeditionary military and have a job corps which conscripts youth to build such products as modular (manufactured) housing and portable “total” energy solutions so they are compelled to buy these, and continue to be punished for buying into urbanization/militarism.

    “Virtually no business in existence meets that standard” of avoiding reductionist economics. (Money = the capacity to force one’s will on others, including the unsuspecting)
    YES!!! The french physiocrats found this out at the business end of a pitchfork –wielded by Lockian Liberals (capitals intentional.) Very old stuff. Spending our way to success doesn’t work. Efficiency doesn’t sell, sex does, and force can be sexy!

    “we certainly don’t like anybody telling us we can’t have more kids.
    Huh?!? Women LIKE wrecking their health??? (what am i MISSING here?!!???)

    About “living in caves and working by candlelight”…
    How many Americans have a say in ending up with their career in an end-state recognizable as that which they planned when starting out as adults –and (the Musical Question) is this in direct inverse proportionality to the popularity of rock-inspired pop music??? How abusive an economy is enough for people (and their hairdo’s)???

    As for faith, rationality, and motivation:
    Advanced, capital-intensive methods can be a powerful salve for the ego. Maybe Americans are way too good at competing with each other, and need to excel at competing against their preconceptions of what resources actually enhance individual strength and independence. No such subtlety can follow timidity toward the problem, but the first step is a Time-Out on all material aggrandizement. Now, you can castigate me for my transhumanism, but what purpose to life might you get everyone to agree upon? The improvement of our own genomes and physical (including the brain) robustness is what we should be keeping an eye on. Humanity’s average life span, outside of perpetual hospital treatment, is sharply decreasing.

    In short — we need systems integration innovations. The internet is far more relevant than a media platform. (airplanes on biodiesel? let the jumbo jets and big cities die! use the FAA’s “highway in the sky” — adopt efficiency, not more tacky doodads. Be Bold. Or die.)

    Comment by Doug Sayler — August 29, 2009 @ 8:54 am

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