Michael Hoexter: The Only Way Forward: A Pedal-to-the-Metal Plan for Energy System Transformation – (Pt. 1 of 3)

By Michael Hoexter, a policy analyst and marketing consultant on green issues, climate change, clean and renewable energy, and energy efficiency. Originally published at New Economic Perspectives.

Lambert here: NC Readers may wish to consider the implications of Hoexter’s plan for the financial system and the FIRE sector generally, as well as its fiscal aspects.

* * *

The largest-scale, most important and time-sensitive challenge facing humanity is the climate crisis.  The capitalist industrial societies of the last two hundred years and the command-and-control industrial economies of mid-20th Century Communist regimes are and were both premised on the idea that the environment is an infinitely capacious dumping ground for the physical by-products of industrial production and consumption.  One class of those byproducts that was overlooked in the first waves of concern about the environment in the 1960’s and 70’s, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, has turned out to be the most potentially damaging in the longer term and among the most difficult to bring under control. 

One of the main difficulties in controlling greenhouse gases relative to other byproducts of industrial civilization is that greenhouse gases are not directly noxious to humans in concentrations that are dangerous to the stability of the climate.  Furthermore, over the course of two centuries, most of the newer consumer desires and the supposed efficiencies of the modern economy were built upon activities that with current technology rely on free-to-the-consumer-and-producer greenhouse-gas emissions, enjoyments which are not impaired by inhaling the gases themselves.  By contrast smog and soot were from early on considered noxious byproducts of fossil fuel use in industrial production (“the infernal mills”) and environmental regulation of these was, over a period of years, embraced by many as an unalloyed good.

Now the Holocene climate that has been so favorable for humanity is rapidly buckling under the effects of the heat trapped by the odorless and invisible greenhouse gases that humanity has pumped into the atmosphere and into the oceans.  There are signs that a far more unstable climate regime is taking its place with significant sea level rises endangering much of civilization and commerce.   Much more extreme heat waves are of course expected and have already occurred.  Extreme droughts and in other areas flooding are already a growing feature of weather reports throughout the world; what we consider to be extremes are becoming the new “climate”.   In addition, increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have led to the acidification of the ocean as carbon dioxide becomes carbonic acid when dissolved in water.  With ocean acidification comes the high likelihood of extinction of many of the sensitive flora and fauna of the ocean, life that has already adapted to millions of years of lower acidity.

The call has gone out from 350.org, one of the principled actors on the world stage with regard to climate, to keep at least 80% of the known fossil energy reserves in the ground, in order to avoid the catastrophic scenario of 4 to 6 degrees Celsius warming, a trajectory upon which we are now headed.  350.org has called this campaign “Do the Math”. The 80% figure is based on a calculation regarding how much more carbon can be emitted before atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide cross the 450 parts per million barrier.  Achievement of this objective would mean an end to the fossil fuel business as we know it as that industry would need to write off most of its known assets as well as the eternal hopes it entertains of still more fossil fuels to extract and sell.  This call to face the fossil fuel industry directly contrasts with two decades of focus upon cap and trade as a seemingly non-confrontational way to address climate change.  “Do the Math” and allied campaigns, in choosing various forms of direct action over a game of carbon “musical chairs”, is on the right track to preserving something like a human civilization.

But keeping fossil fuels in the ground and the focus on the fossil fuel industry alone leaves one with the impression that our energy problem is largely limited to a number of bad actors in the world, most of whom work for, support, or lobby for the fossil fuel industry.  I believe this focus oversimplifies the ethical, political and economic challenge facing humanity.  In the broadest sense of the word, all people who live in the developed world and many in the developing world are “supporting” the fossil fuel industry as long as fossil fuels remain the major means by which civilization is powered and which enables most of our enjoyments.  By being a customer, directly or indirectly, of a fossil fuel company, creating demand for their products, we are supporting that industry as well as contributing to warming and therefore disrupting the climate.  The fossil fuel industry has the most at stake and has abundant financial and political resources, but it also relies on our passivity, our intent and exclusive focus on our own pleasures, and our ignorance about what must come next.

To complete the mission of “Do the Math”, another set of calculations is required, a math that replaces much of the primary energy derived currently from fossil energy with clean non-emitting sources, which will largely be renewable energy (I am in favor of research into supposedly cleaner, more advanced forms of nuclear power but I am skeptical of the wildly optimistic claims made by their advocates).  In addition and crucially important, there are ways to use less energy overall with the same or greater convenience to humanity, by deliberate, energy-conscious design of mechanical equipment, buildings, cities, and transportation networks.  Major non-governmental organizations and private companies, have researched and calculated where these “tranches” of clean energy, energy savings, as well as reduced emissions from land use changes may come from.

Beyond these research efforts that are ongoing, what is indisputable is that this transition MUST happen for there to be a fair chance that the earth will remain habitable for humanity as we have evolved over the millenia.  With the knowledge that the fossil fuel age must end soon, to dwell upon the contrary or to deny the possibility of achieving these goals is to either give in to despair for future generations, to defend the privilege of the few and the current generation’s wasteful ways, and/or to engage in (indirectly self-defeating) baiting and back-biting of those who are trying to save a recognizable civilization for humanity.

Working on a rapid transition to a post-carbon economy is therefore an imperative for all people of good will.  It may in fact have something close to the status of Kant’s “categorical imperative” upon which he thought all morality should be based.  Firstly, it is clearly immoral for the current generation to destroy or greatly diminish the habitability of the earth for future generations.  Secondly, our societies and conceptions of the good life have come to be predicated on the use of large amounts of non-food energy by various machines, powered by the wind, sun, water, geothermal heat, biomass combustion or metabolism (by work animals), fossil fuels, and nuclear energy.  Even if a simpler life than the current “ideal” life of the comfortable and the wealthy in the developed world is a better life, still it would make sense to rescue at least some of the good that mechanized, supplemental-energy-powered civilization has achieved or might achieve in the future.   That mechanized and now digitally-connected world provides us with the means, at least, to communicate over vast distances, bringing more of humanity into dialogue with each other and potentially a more inclusive view of and more effective cooperation within the human community.

Conceptions of the Good Society and Technological Change

The required transformation of society to one based on a post-carbon technological infrastructure is an enormous undertaking that must happen speedily and has inspired some to impose their own pre-existing social utopias upon their vision of the future new clean-energy order.  While the carbon gradualist approach of some sectors of our current elite is inadequate to the task of the needed rapid transition to a post-carbon energy system, it avoids to some degree the imposition of a very specific social vision of an ideal future state upon the present.  If carbon gradualism has a utopia it is a technocratic utopia where leisurely adjustments in carbon pricing policy will master the hard problem of transitioning to a post-carbon energy infrastructure.   In the gradualist utopian scenario, these adjustments will avoid direct confrontation with an intransigent fossil fuel industry as it struggles to defend its privileged position.  This technocratic vision does not sketch out the goal but simply makes “tweaks” to the existing economy along the way.

With the rapidity of the transition required, as I have argued previously, we will need to start with a basic sketch or “design” for the zero-carbon society based on existing technologies and plausible developments of those technologies.  This requires then some form of vision or plan for the future.  However, many with pre-existing visions of a social utopia have congregated to the climate issue and present versions of their utopia as the standard vision that we all should pursue.  Technological utopians are also attracted to the issue as well, and sometimes they compel or distract with their visions of plausible and not-so-plausible future technologies.

In the category of social visions, one common set of approaches might be called “neo-primitivism”, within which there is a broad spectrum of views.  When I use the word “neo-primitivist” I do not mean to be dismissive out of hand of these ideas, but only to point out that they seek their inspiration in the human past.  Some of the most common and milder forms of neo-primitivist ideas are versions of E.F. Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” idea.  In the past, the dimensions of society were “smaller” and thus Schumacher and those who carry on his ideas may be viewed as engaging in direct or indirect forms of nostalgia.  The conviction, for instance, that distributed energy is superior to large-scale energy generation, is one such neo-primitivist idea (and not necessarily “wrong”).  The idea that being a “locavore” is of necessity more virtuous than eating foods from further away, is another example of mild neo-primitivism (it is easier to be a locavore in California rather than in more inhospitable climate zones).

More radical neo-primitivists are those who promulgate the idea of a necessary collapse of civilization or even a “die-off”, after which a more small-scale, more “primitive” society would develop.  These people are pessismistic about the prospects of large-scale civilization and maybe are actively hostile to it, inclusive of advocating or committing terrorist acts in the name of “Nature”.

While neo-primitivists are justified in asserting that earlier societies used less natural resources and emitted less greenhouse gases, their insistence that modernity in all its forms is necessarily a dead end for humanity is a product of personal and social preferences.  They are fatalistic about the adaptability of human beings to the energy and climate challenge, even though those humans have adapted themselves in the last hundred years to the modern society they criticize.   Why would human adaptation and human abilities be frozen in such a way as to support neo-primitivist preferences and not someone else’s preferences?  The climate crisis or other large-scale environmental issue becomes an excuse to talk about and argue for their social utopias which remain largely unchanged by the massive, new challenge of climate change for society as a whole.  In other words, this is a matter of asserting “the old time religion”, which may or may not address reality as it unfolds but offers reassuring guideposts for adherents.

Capitalism, the Growth Imperative and Socialism

While the command-and-control state-run economies of the former Eastern bloc were wasteful of natural resources, capitalism’s growth imperative and the current hegemony of capitalism within the world economy are now the predominant drivers of continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions.  In addition, capitalism’s need for growth to survive is also a driver of other forms of reckless disregard for the planet’s regenerative capacity.  Anyone who thinks for long about sustainability realizes that capitalism’s drive for unending growth will run up against the limits of a finite planet.  In addition, the growth imperative for capital, will require that forms of human conviviality and natural systems that cannot be accumulated in their current forms as private capital be disorganized so that they can then be assimilated into capital.  We are seeing this now in the mad rush to privatize public institutions.

The characterization of this process as “creative destruction” via Schumpeter is all-too flattering of this aspect of capitalism as it excuses each instance of destruction of natural systems, an existing way of life or business as necessarily “creative” and therefore a form of progress.  Because of the long-lived and mounting effects of greenhouse gases emitted now and in the past, the carbon emissions and global warming challenge is just the most critical of a number of challenges related to uncontrolled growth of the human footprint on the face of the earth, driven in part by our capitalist economic system.

But we also cannot expect to transform our entire social and economic system in the span of a few short years, especially as we do not have a social blueprint for a complete, different and better social system.  Currently neither intellectuals via the creation of new discourse nor non-intellectuals via “voting with their feet” are showing the way to a new more sustainable society.  The Marxist formulation of a working class that leads the way has not turned out to be the case in most actual and not particularly successful revolutions in the past.  Revolutionary takeovers of society have overturned existing social orders but have not been successful at building new vibrant “means of production” and reproduction of social life.  This suggests that a simple negation of the current status quo or inversion of social pyramid without a further understanding will not lead to a sustainable and just society.  We have not arrived at an adequate grasp of the dynamics of our society, of the human animal, of the critically important instrument of government and the design of our economy to enable a full-scale social transition within the span of time in which we need to act.  Furthermore even if this formulation of what constitutes a better, functional society were ready-made, this leaves out the task of making such an understanding, once created, a broadly shared vision among the populace.

The traditional opponents to capitalism, socialism, Marxism and/or Communism, have only seen a slight revival in the form of calls for eco-socialism as a solution to the ills of society. While the current market-fundamentalist neoliberal order is decaying into a grotesque form of corrupt neofeudalism, a purely socialist alternative has not emerged with a clear vision, appreciable strength or following.  The Communist state-run economies of the mid-20th Century generally were able to provide for a bare minimum of basic set of human needs but allowed very little room for individual freedoms, leading to an oppressive political system and a deformation of interpersonal relationships on a microscopic level and of political life on a macroscopic level.  While “socialism” is a broader category than just the Communist command economies, there are, as of yet, no compelling and data-grounded solutions to the current impasse emerging from self-proclaimed socialists.

Despite the critical edge of the above description of how social utopian ideas, both neo-primitivist and traditionally left-wing, drive discussions of the near- and long-term technological future, it is also not wrong to expect and even demand fundamental socio-economic change accompanying the large-scale technological transformation required to create and arrive at a post-carbon society.  Technologies, especially large complex ones inclusive of built infrastructure, have embedded within them a certain set of social institutional arrangements that are required for their operation or the enjoyment of their products; technological change will change social arrangements.   The scale of transformation to a post-carbon society, let alone a completely sustainable one, is enormous: this will not be a “surgical strike” into existing, for the most part, capitalist societies, a technological “implant” or “transplant” that leaves social relations and hierarchies intact.

I will present then the below plan for technological transformation as offering various affordances (i.e. “handles”) for social and economic change but not allowing a particular set of social preferences to dictate the exact terms of the plan.  Some will then argue that I am putting forth a to-them “non-ideal” element or plan, if what I present doesn’t conform to their favored solution either on a technological or social standpoint.  Alternatively what I am presenting here might not favor their immediate economic interests or their perception of those interests.  I will risk that for the sake of offering the plan behind which many can unify, with the highest likelihood of success and with the least amount of distracting “baggage”.

The Pedal-to-the-Metal Plan


1)    No revolutionary technological innovations required but evolutionary improvements expected

2)    Self-interested economic actors (people, businesses, government representatives) with some interest in community well-being and well-being of future generations (modification of Homo Economicus)

3)    Government as the primary force that has the potential to represent and institutionalize community/national/international values in the economy

Physical Principles:

1)    Base as much supplementary,  non-food (“exosomatic”) energy on renewable energy flows as possible

2)    Reduce energy required per unit effective work that serves human ends (energy efficiency and conservation)

3)    Use electricity as the energy carrier of choice (as opposed to biofuels or hydrogen) for most applications

4)    Where applicable for energy system applications, increase growing biomass and therefore carbon fixing capacity on cultivated and uncultivated lands.

Technological Goals:

1)    Electrify land-based transportation and machines

  1. Shift long-distance freight transport to electrified rail or electrified grid-charged or powered trucks.  Build out rail infrastructure to allow modal shift to rail versus road.
  2. Shift freight and passenger fleets to battery electric transportation with battery swap or in-motion inductive charging capability.
  3. Build high speed rail, electrified express rail or equivalently rapid electrified public transit between major cities to replace much short and middle distance air travel.
  4. Shift high traffic public transportation routes to electrified commuter rail, light rail, subway, elevated rail, trolleybus, street car or electric bus.
  5. Build electric vehicle charging infrastructure in multifamily, single family residences, office parking facilities and public streets
  6. Build rapid charge, roadway charging, and/or battery swap infrastructure to facilitate electric vehicle travel over middle and longer distances.
  7. Increase electrical energy storage performance by a factor of 2 per decade
  8. Facilitate transition from self-driven to programmable computer driven autonomous vehicles (increasing capacity of existing road infrastructure and reducing emissions)

2)    Generate electricity via renewable energy

  1. Build rooftop and building integrated solar
  2. Build transmission infrastructure to internetwork wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric facilities across regional boundaries to balance energy flow
  3. Build large scale renewable generation plants in areas where renewable energy flows correspond with electricity demand while minimizing impacts on vistas and natural habitats where possible.
  4. Build distributed and centralized electrical energy storage facilities

3)    Explore potentially safer, alternative nuclear generation designs

  1. Build and test prototypes for cleaner and (weapons) proliferation-resistant nuclear energy via alternative designs to light water reactors (Thorium reactors, etc.)

4)    Reduce energy demand with equivalent useful work or outcome

  1. Build new buildings to the passive house standard reducing or eliminating the need for space-conditioning energy
  2. Retrofit existing buildings to the passive house standard where possible.
  3. Build suburban and urban areas more densely, reducing the required number of passenger-miles and vehicle-miles traveled, facilitating walking, biking and public transit use via appropriate street design.
  4. Encourage, by design, shared infrastructure and durable goods use, to increase capacity utilization.
  5. Decrease demand for transportation by increasing Internet broadband capacity to enable high bandwidth virtual (eventually holographic) communication to become more visually more realistic and accessible to the public.
  6. Facilitate the development of novel energy efficient solutions via energy pricing policy (see below).

5)    Eliminate petroleum fuel in air travel and freight

  1. Transition to biofueled or hydrogen-fueled air transport

6)    Transition to non-fossil fueled marine propulsion

  1. Implement hybrid marine propulsion systems that reduce fuel consumption by implementing modern sail technology
  2. Transition to hydrogen and biofueled mechanical marine propulsion systems

7)    Store atmospheric carbon in buildings, durable goods and infrastructure

  1. Encourage engineered wood use in buildings and manufactured goods.
  2. Reduce concrete and steel components in durable infrastructure and buildings where structurally possible

8)    Build fossil fuel-independent food production, processing and transportation infrastructure

  1. Develop, manufacture and distribute mechanical cultivation and harvesting equipment powered by on-farm or near-farm renewable energy
  2. Develop non-fossil-fuel powered freight system that enables timely transportation of foods to market.
  3. Develop locally grown food production where feasible to increase variety of food species and food system resilience.
  4. Build water efficient irrigation systems

9)    Reduce, reuse and recycle society’s waste and waste water stream

  1. Reduce packaging where possible
  2. Encourage use of recyclables and recycled materials for single use products
  3. Develop compost waste infrastructure and collections to minimize methane release from waste stream.
  4. For remaining waste stream, build high temperature waste to energy power plants that do not form dioxins or emit toxic gases.
  5. Reduce water use to lowest feasible levels in sanitation systems/build black water to potable water systems where water is imported or desalinated
  6. Build grey water systems for sanitation systems in buildings
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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. anon y'mouse

    so, make everything electric and build nuclear. give some nods to efficiency, and pray that biofuels and other renewables can pick up some slack here and there.

    this sounds like it was written by a “marketing consultant”.

    why do I suspect that this is exactly the plan for moving forward? yep, it’s probably what we’ll get, given who is running things.

    1. Michael Hoexter

      And your prescription for solving the climate crisis is…what? Your comment is contentless and seems like a courageous attempt to spread cynicism on the Internet…anonymously.

      1. anon y'mouse

        i’m not saying a lot of your steps are incorrect. i’m saying that, as many of the later comments reflect, the underlying assumptions don’t do anything to change the logic of the current system, and who benefits from it and will continue to do so (meaning, most of us here in the first world).

        in other words, it amounts to sounding a lot like having one’s cake and eating it simultaneously. as if the solution is just to sell everyone electric cars and give tax breaks for installing solar panels on one’s homes and doing a sound “enviro-retrofit”.

        in the section where you discuss shipping and aviation, it exemplifies this. the problem/question posed is NOT why should we be shipping things that could be made locally (it seems to me you even take the opportunity to come close to slandering “locavorism”). the solution given implies that we can continue obtaining our goods from the global south, just not on the scale that we are used to and by using biofuels which are themselves problematic, as you downthread acknowledge. a locavore would question that assumption. if the inputs most likely have to be transported to the manufacturing base and then transported to the end user, why not just create fibers more locally? food transport is an even bigger and more important issue, and although you acknowledge it the tone used seems to imply that it is not as big of a problem (read: energy waste) as is commonly believed.

        I think your solution is highly likely to happen. it doesn’t alter the ownership and therefore profitability in any serious way. we probably WILL get nuclear, simply because inevitably it will be seen that –TINA–. your solution also implies strenuous efforts, but no real sacrifices, which is psychologically soothing and therefore palatable to most. so, I think your solution is eminently practical, and even contains logical steps, and yet is still socially undesireable.

        as a “neo primitivist”, i would say that these ideas are appealing to myself because we have a ready example of people actually surviving (if not thriving, but that might have been in part because of the power structures involved) in the less energy-sucking past. it is easy to convey to others because we somewhat know what the it looked like. if the easiest solution is to de-complexify our technology, seeking what worked in the past seems reasonable. your solution appears not to de-complexify to any substantial degree. it seems to reduce the scale, but not significantly alter the intent or the kind of technology we’re using.

        1. Michael Hoexter

          Oh, I see…you are a neo-primitivist. And in your comments you seem to have magnified everything in the plan that contradicts your pure ideal vision and have ignored everything else that might be less offensive to you. The nuclear portion of this plan is small in comparison to everything else in it…yet your comments continue to focus on that.

          The news is that this plan is not a pure endorsement of your favored neo-primitivist vision of the world but it actually is workable…meaning we might be able to prevent climate disaster…

          Just because I am not supporting your utopia doesn’t make this plan, to say the least, challenging to our current way of doing things in this society. You make some very interesting logical jumps which I summarize thusly: “not my ideal plan, therefore easily implemented and part of the horrible status quo”. I got news for you, you ain’t the only “rebel” out there and this plan will take a very large social movement to get implemented.

          Re: locavorism
          Along these lines, you seem to have ignored section 8.3 which explicitly sets out to encourage local food production. However, I am not calling for the utopian version because I also think that food transport and importation will and should continue. Regional variations in climate and agricultural productivity make this desirable and, if something like a civilization still exists, inevitable.

          1. Michael Hoexter

            Got caught up in double negatives… I meant to say above that this plan is challenging to the status quo, requiring substantial reform if not a complete overhaul of our political system, as well as a sea change in the actors involved in leading government.

          2. anon y'mouse

            hey, you like to play vituperative word games against the poster and not deal with the content. I have no “pure” utopian future in mind. my vision, if I have any at all, is to focus on what humans absolutely need, how they can be obtained, and let the rest go by the wayside as it represents “waste”.

            what if the simplest solution to the problem really IS just to accommodate to a 3rd world standard of living, and an attempt to simply preserve the higher-tech things we really obtain more benefit than cost from (i’m thinking weather and communication satellites are heavy priorities here)? what if that provides for everyone’s necessities at sufficient quality of life that can be equitable and sustainable. I think you dismiss “neo primitivist” and locarvorism in the same knee-jerk way that most dismiss nuclear.

            I dismiss nuclear because it is a system that is highly dangerous, and even if done “safely” is highly dangerous. in human systems, it doesn’t seem rational to me to design something that implies that we just have to make sure that errors aren’t ever going to happen. they’re going to happen, even if just to ensure we have a learning curve with sufficient examples of what doesn’t work. really, it is because of the downsides of what will happen with nuclear that I am against it. no one can say those downsides just won’t happen. perhaps some of them can be designed out, but failures are inevitable and, what about the waste stream?

            and since your system seems to be mostly about electrification, I don’t see how we can avoid large scale nuclear under that scenario. efficiencies and alternative energy systems only get you so far. perhaps locavorism and neo-primitivism can get you the rest of the way, and perhaps even without nuclear, electric cars (not totally against them for moderate-distance occasional travel it is probably rational, but not at the same scale cars are used today to drive 1.3 miles to get a pack of cigarettes).

            you’re more dismissive of me, and those like me than I am of your ideas. perhaps YOU are suffering from a problem with purity of vision.

          3. JTFaraday

            “Oh, I see…you are a neo-primitivist. And in your comments you seem to have magnified everything in the plan that contradicts your pure ideal vision and have ignored everything else that might be less offensive to you.”

            You say that the problem with what you are calling “neo-primitivism” is that it looks to the past.

            It seems to me that you also look to the past, only you’ve chosen a different historical period.

            You look more to the more recent industrial revolution and the 1950s highway build out. Your solution lies almost entirely in a better technical/ industrial infrastructure and a better transportation system.

            I also think Anonymouse is correct in saying that you don’t want to disrupt the TINA path of capitalist globalization and its overly long and complicated, and therefore wasteful and environmentally damaging, supply chains.

            As for what people are willing to see happen, to some extent some groups of people at least, seem very much ready for something else.

            People who go off on their own to form new communities and ways of life are not going to transform the industrial infrastructure or amend the global supply chain, this is true.

            But you seem to have a persisting tendency to pee on people, even broadly sympathetic people, with views that differ from your own.

            You’re not alone in this. This seems to be a repeating problem we see with almost everyone offering up public policy ideas for–apparently passive–consumption on the internets.

            What is so threatening about people who believe there is more than one right way to live? Especially if that one right way to live gestures in a direction that challenges the industrial rat race that has dramatically deskilled the populace in the developed world, rendering it almost entirely dependent on mega-corporate structures for everyday survival?

            Was that really such a smart move? Is it a bad thing to have groups of people dedicated to correcting it that we have to piss on them?

            We should be enabling them, not pissing on them.

  2. kimyo

    if you start here:

    No revolutionary technological innovations required but evolutionary improvements expected

    i don’t see how you can end up here:

    Build and test prototypes for cleaner and (weapons) proliferation-resistant nuclear energy via alternative designs to light water reactors (Thorium reactors, etc.)


    A number of advanced reactor technologies are presently under investigation or development, including high energy “fast reactors” that produce less waste, reactors that can use more abundant and cheaper thorium as a fuel, and “pebble bed” designs that promise improved safety. None of these technologies are commercially available (and are unlikely to be within the next decade or two), so they have not been incorporated into the model.


    Thorium is nothing new; people have been trying to develop it for 5-6-7 decades, if not more. To no significant avail.

    also, if my modest memory serves, only brazil is producing bio-fuels with a positive eroei. the production of corn-based ethanol consumes more energy than it provides (plus, your car doesn’t go as far on a gallon of ethanol as it does on ‘real’ gasoline.)

    conservation is something we can do right now. as was noted here recently, the u.s. consumes 11 times as much energy as great britain, while our population is only 5 times larger.

    i applaud the goal of eliminating fossil fuel use. but hoexter’s plan calls for an enormous amount of development. building 200 million electric cars or vast, modern public transport systems is not viable. the energy required to mine the resources is not on hand.

    1. Michael Hoexter

      The dimensions of the climate crisis are such that we cannot exclude the possibility that nuclear plants in the past have been designed in a way that does not optimize their safety and their function to produce power for peaceful uses. I would be happier with a 100% renewable solution, which can come about. But I am not against further investigation of nuclear power options if we have much greater transparency within the nuclear industry.

      Different designs of uranium/thorium fission reactors are not “revolutionary” but evolutionary adaptations. I would call a fusion reactor “revolutionary”. And I am aware and I note in my presentation that new nuclear advocates tend to be an optimistic bunch regarding their technology. The Oil Drum folk, on the other hand, have tended towards pessimism in their discussions of alternatives to fossil fuels.

      The area of marine and aviation fuels is an area which will require the most technological advances including in the area of biofuels or some other high energy density fuel. EROEI is a critical parameter and the length of this Internet presentation did allow me to go into detail about what would be sustainable versus unsustainable biofuels production. Much current biofuel production is unsustainable and also leads us into a macroethical trap (mechanized equipment for the wealthy vs. food for the not so wealthy).

              1. Lambert Strether Post author

                I’m sorry, I couldn’t think of how to say it. I’m thinking “fallacy of composition” (government is like a household) and wondering if the same sort of issues crop up when considering micro- vs. macro-ethics. “Read the answer at this link” is a perfectly OK answer…

                1. Michael Hoexter

                  The concept of macroethics is an attempt to avoid a fallacy of composition in the area of ethics. If you think of reality as a nested hierarchy of systems from the microscopic to the macroscopic, humans interacting with those different levels of reality (if they can have an impact at all on them) will lead to different sets of rules and best practices.

                  The piece I wrote and linked to was pointing out that the austerity drive is based on an ideological confusion (fallacy of composition) between the microethics of repayment of loans and the macroethics of government managing an economy/currency system. Austerians try to reduce the idea of financial “right behavior” to a microethical vocabulary while those who oppose austerity must introduce a distinction between microethics and macroethics when it comes to finance. That austerians are hypocrites is part of the picture, as when large banks are in trouble they endorse the use of the tools of government finance to save them. But they have won their ideological position of power based on a fallacy of composition that denies that there is a financial macroethics and reduces all of finance to microethics.

    2. anon y'mouse

      another problem i have with the nuclear aspect:

      even if we were to limit its usage to the absolute minimum, once we electrify everything and build the system such that it is possible to rely upon nuclear for near-everything, we will collectively somehow justify to ourselves its continued use and expansion.

      it doesn’t appear to matter “who” is in charge. that kind of system can be run by the most “pure” socialist utopia, or a money-grubbing financial class for profit. under either, or any other scenario, i see that system being built will become infinitely accomodable (is that a word?) to further use. it can be justified to save the whales, the children, the development bonds, whatever. and once it is there, even if we are being efficient and conserving like good little greenies, the danger lurks that we will go the route Japan has.

      there location was never meant to sustain that level of population or industrialization. nuclear has largely provided it. now that they are faced with their mini-catastrophe, they still can’t turn off the nuclear spigot.

      once the entire system is electrified and the plants built, even if we are getting a substantial portion of our needs from alternatives initially, there’s nothing stopping us from continuing the grow-out.

      this is all nearly beside the point. we’re going to do whatever it takes to keep comfortable. if that means making sure no other government/economy is stable enough to compete with our oil consumption in the short term, and building mass nuclear in the long term then that is what will happen. no prole-class pseudo intellectual like myself is going to do anything but live with the consequences.

      1. anon y'mouse

        “their”…blind mouse.

        Japan isn’t even a society as driven by mass consumption and individualism as ours is. by its very differences from us, and the direness of its current predicament, it should serve as a large warning example to us who will justify burning the house down to keep our toes warm and well-shoed.

      2. craazyboy

        If you are worried about cheap energy growing the population of the world to 17 billion – don’t be.

        For one thing, “safe nuclear”, which is presently (sort of safe) Gen 3 design, or the safer Gen 4 design (which they won’t be done designing ’till 2020 something, then 8 years to build) are very expensive. So no cheap energy there.

        I hear great things about Thorium, but they need real companies to start designing and prove out the whole thing, methinks. Wonderful things can always be done with magic marker on a white board.

        But we’ll long run out of the simple things like food and potable water first.

        The basic problem is very likely to be that the petri dish is full.

        Of course, conservation is the easiest way to ease the situation and buy time.

        1. anon y'mouse

          yes, your points are well made. the current population is probably already too many, if we want to preserve as much as possible for the other life forms here and grow enough food to feed everyone as well. but a turn to dependence upon nuclear would allow us to put of most of the day of reckoning. we’d still be drinking soda in cans that travelled the world 3 times over without a thought about the wastage, because hey—nuclear is practically “free” energy, right?

          1. craazyboy

            Not exactly, “safe nuclear” would be more expensive than anything we have now. Then we would have to jump all the way to Gen 4 to get the waste problem down significantly, and we still haven’t even paid for or solved the waste problem we already have from Gen 2 plants.

            So my vision of conservation includes “de-globalization” and we don’t go shipping silly stuff to the moon and back being part of the plan. May even be some jobs in it.

  3. tulsatime

    Sounds like a nice plan, if one is scripting a play or a movie. Unfortunately, in the real world, we can already see the path sloping downward. Summers in the fed chair means we are nowhere close to the end of feeding the financial class. The credit cancer will continue to be nurtured until the technologies or the social fabric that support it collapse.

    Financialization has overcome the profit margin of the global economy. The greed factor will have us eating the seed corn, burning the last stand of trees, polluting the last clean water source, in the quest for more return. Earth will be like the petri dish in high school that filled, went black and died, because there is no off switch for human grasping.

    1. Michael Hoexter

      I am putting forward here an action plan…this assumes that one wants to act. Pessimism and cynicism such as those expressed in your comment will work against any impulses someone might have to act.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        I have difficulty viewing your plans as actionable. For example, many of your bullets would require substantial changes to local zoning ordinances and I suspect could entail substantial modifications to the Uniform Building Codes pushed at the state and national level. To make the bullets actionable requires a plan detailing what zoning and ordinance changes are needed, and how to organize the necessary political ‘umph’ to start having the ordinances changed. It means detailing the changes to the Uniform Codes and planning how to get those changes adopted at in state legislatures and at the Federal level.

        I’m not a primativist but I disagree with the notion that continuing ‘growth’ is unsustainable. I think a problem with ‘growth’ is a problem with accepting the neo-liberal understanding for what ‘growth’ means. To me we can grow in knowledge and grow in culture, and grow in the fullness of our lives and in doing so the economy will grow. Adopting neo-liberal speak — knowledge, culture, and well-being, e.g. medical care, are all part of the GDP.

        1. anon y'mouse

          changing the paperwork is the least of the problem.

          how about “massive rebuilding project”= potentially oxymoronic “sustainable growth” technosolution.

          1. Jeremy Grimm

            Changing the paperwork is the first step in acting on many of the changes in how houses and business are built. We need to use more wood in construction — fire codes for commercial building would not allow that unless the builder can demonstrate that the wood or wood product used will provide the same or better fire protection than the steel and concrete in the code. Builders learn what’s in the code and build to it, they have little or no incentive to change from the code and typically incur greater costs trying to locate workers skilled in areas that lie outside the code. The paperwork you disparage is more important than just this — even what is manufactured and readily available to builders follows code and runs to specification. Perhaps you intend some upheaval that changes these mundane realities. I’m old and prefer my upheavals on paper, and besides changes to paperwork are often more effective than such upheavals as I believe you envision.

            1. anon y'mouse

              a lot of assumptions about “what I envision”.

              I have no vision. I am a future minimum wage service slave trying to pay off my debts.

              the codes write themselves after it is determined what the safest AND most sustainable (from the entire stream, from production to use to repair to replacement/disposal) practices are. not the currently-most-financially-justifiable and “easiest” to implement perspective.

              a lot of the building industry, as far as my limited knowledge of it reveals, is that it gives a nod to the safety aspects, when really it is about financial viability of mass production.

              what if safety and sustainability can be found in adobe bricks (given geological considerations)?

      2. Stephen Malagodi

        Life (and death) is what happens while you’re making other plans.

        “I am putting forward here an action plan…this assumes that one wants to act. Pessimism and cynicism such as those expressed in your comment will work against any impulses someone might have to act.

        A fine action plan it is. Lots of words, good logic. That is not how the world works ~ ever.

        To suppose you can ‘plan’ the future is academic at best, and the height of hubris at worst.

  4. psychohistorian

    I agree with other commenters that while this might be good direction, it seems like it includes too much about questionable next steps and not enough about stopping the current plutocratic directed Empire machinations.

    There is not going to be a smooth transition, unfortunately. We are too far down the rabbit hole and need to focus on stopping the current insanity before we can come together to will ourselves toward a better world.

    Laugh them out of control…… to their face, as we march them off to the Hague….it only takes collective will to end the madness.

    1. Nell

      I disagree. Those of us who think it is vital that we fight the rentier class, need to have a vision of what the future might be like without this gangrous class infecting the world polity. Without a vision of the future, people can legitmately turn around and say what is the point? Without a vision of the future then we could end up in a no better place than we are now. A bit like the War on Afghanistan and Iraq. No plan for after the battle is won, is dumb. Finally, if we want wide scale action, purely negative motivation, won’t cut it.

      1. skippy

        “purely negative motivation, won’t cut it.” – Nell

        Observation is neither negative or positive, that’s more of a marketing perspective.

        Skippy… As an ex military wacko I can attest to the influence and success of the pejorative influence, if you want to play that game.

      2. Lambert Strether Post author

        +100. If we end up with TINA, it really doesn’t matter how anti-rentier singing in chorus there is. There has to be an alternative. That’s what this post is about.

        There are plenty of other blogs and bloggers doing excellent takedowns of our rentier class, many of which are linked to here, or cross-posted here. There’s no particular reason I can see why this post has to duplicate their work.

        Adding… If what people are saying is “You can’t get there from here,” then it might be helpful, given acceptance of the alternatives presented by the plan, to suggest ways ot implementing it, rather than to complain that the implementation is not present, and then implicitly demand that others do that work!

      3. Dr. Noschidt

        Nell, just so. Now it’s time to re-visit the Old Timers and RE-FRAME the “Civil War” if not the cotton plantation anglo-south altogether, within the Financial Lebensraum agenda of the Eternal Elite .01% from age to age.

        “FRUITS OF MERCHANT CAPITAL: Slavery and Bourgeois Property in the Rise and Expansion of Capitalism” by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese;

        “I’LL TAKE MY STAND: The South and the Agrarian Tradition” (orig. 1930);

        “THE FUGITIVES: A Critical Account” by John M. Bradbury (1958).

        Comprehend the real motives of Wilberforce. Contemplate Rhodesia’s roots.

    2. sufferinsuccotash, stupor mundi

      “…it includes too much about questionable next steps and not enough about stopping the current plutocratic directed Empire machinations.”

      Cut the guy some slack, will ya? This is only Part One, which presumably is intended to lay out the essentials of a future energy policy. Strategy–implementing the policy–is the necessary followup and I hope our author provides some guidance here. But I’m already gagging at the prospect of dealing with implementation–see Oscar Wilde’s comment that the major drawback of socialism is that one has to attend so many meetings. Gack. Still, consider the alternative, which is barbarism.

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          The trouble with waiting for Parts II and Parts III — which I believe are already posted on New Economic Perspectives — is that it argues for making no substantive comments to Part I. It can’t hurt to hear good arguments repeated, once for the impatient and once for those who read ahead or wait.

          1. jonboinAR

            But all the critical comments amount to saying we’ll never successfully pull something like that off as a society because we’re too corrupt. They say we would have to reduce our consumption first and learn to share better with the developing world, I guess to demonstrate our sincerity, I’m not sure. I don’t see how the gloom-and-doom “It’ll never happen. What are you thinking?”, is helpful criticism. It’s a little more like Eeyore moaning. Why not the technocratic solution, if you want to call this that, AND the “sharing” solution (can’t think of a name) together. They’re hardly mutually exclusive.

            1. JTFaraday

              Because Hoexter presented them as mutually exclusive rather than trying to accommodate and win over the only serious audience he has with a humanely and strategically appropriate pluralism, rather than narrow mindedly trying to shove everyone in one narrow box.

              You never know. Some day some foolhardy neo-primitivist may save his meaningless life.

  5. Will

    “Why would human adaptation and human abilities be frozen in such a way as to support neo-primitivist preferences and not someone else’s preferences?” – This is crucial to understand. Humans are really bad at keeping psycopaths out of power when the group size gets past 50-100. At nation sizes of hundreds of millions, the vast majority are utterly powerless to keep themselves from being continuely fleeced (sound familiar?) As a result, they can’t protect the natural environment they depend on and cannot protect their stored wealth.

    The other reason neo-primitives prefer small group-sizes is that small groups are the only ones which have been shown to last thousands of years, whereas larger groups (civilizations) collapse from their own mistakes. This is in part because smaller groups keep everyone, including all decision makers, face-to-face with their resources, each other and natural environment. Social controls are sufficient to make sure the group takes care of its landbase and community for the long term. Larger societies lose these social control mechanisms, and so tend to disintegrate (collapse) relatively soon.

    This affects another falsehood in the piece – that no other viable social model has been shown to work. Many nations have created (or were on a promising path to creating) more equal societies until they were subverted by external imperial powers. Examples: Guatmalala: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1954_Guatemalan_coup_d%27%C3%A9tat (CIA coup after the leadership redistributed land to the peasants) Chile: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1973_Chilean_coup_d%27%C3%A9tat (CIA coup after socialist leader tried to increase labor/workers rights among other things) Iran: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1953_Iranian_coup_d%27%C3%A9tat (CIA coup after very popular Iranian leader nationalized the oil company and generally didn’t want to be a US/British client).

    None of the suggestions in this piece discuss how to fix the social problems which should be top priority.

    1. anon y'mouse

      this is the “out of sight, out of mind” problem that he openly discusses above with regard to invisible, and not overly dangerous (to us), carbon.

      this is another reason i favor local solutions. abstractions (and anything you can’t really see, feel or personally deal with tends to become one) appear to increase the problems of externalities rather than decrease them.

      1. jonboinAR

        But how do you propose to replicate your local solution global-wide, because that’s the scope of the problem, given the global-sized corruption you describe? How successful have hunter-gather or subsistence-farmer groups proven against the behemoth? I believe they’re batting about zero, to date. I think that this more macro problem requires a somewhat more macro solution to be proposed besides simply a back-to-the-land movement or the upheaval is going to occur while you’re trying to farm your plot and overwhelm you and it.

        1. anon y'mouse

          well, yes. that is a problem. how about we don’t design yet ANOTHER system that is so large, and so complicated, and relies upon technologies which could potentially devastate the entire planet, and requires a fragile political system potentially run by sociopathic madmen in the first place after “we” (whoever that would be) stage the takeover.

          but I see your point. I haven’t thought about those things, except to say that it would have to rely upon real democracy and real choice. perhaps quorums of quorums of quorums, with constantly rotating membership? I don’t see representative government, as we have it now, doing anything but letting the wrong people get too much power.

    1. Cassiodorus

      “Halting immigration” has nothing to do with an energy solution. No narrow, nationalistic “solution” is really going to address a problem caused by global political economy.

      1. LucyLulu

        Actually, when a nation has immigrants coming from low-consumer, low-energy use cultures (i.e. poor…. frequently don’t own cars, no electricity in homes, esp. outside urban areas) to be acclimated into our high-energy consumption society, there have been claims made that overall GHG emissions are affected. These claims have been disputed but to me (who has a pro-immigration bias) seem to be grounded in common-sense. If the US is #1 globally in energy use per capita, thus producing more GHG than any other nation, then anything that increases the US population would contribute to global warming. In addition, the Latin American countries that the majority of our immigrants come from are low in GHG emissions.

        Table here:

  6. Jefemt

    Reading at The Oildrum this AM (RIP) regarding energy inputs versus finished product in modern agriculture. We have a big food crisis looming. Interesting to see how far down the list ag/food was in this NC submission. Thorium? (or not…) In light of Fukushima, Chernobyl, TMI, Hanford, and our inability to move forward on yucca mountain (just here in the US), No Nukes is good nukes. Hard to swallow, but it seems that I am part of a species that is the punch line of a cruel cosmic joke, an asterisk and doomed limb on the great tree of life. Time to go indulge my hedonistic itches, mindful of the Hippocratic oath…

    1. They didn't leave me a choice

      You need to remember that the fission power plants were designed to breed fuel for bombs. That is not to say that there aren’t safer alternatives, or that all reactor designs are equal in safety. Also, how many times does this have to be said: chernobyl was a human caused disaster, they intentionally disengaged safety systems and ran tests on the reactor. This kind of knee-jerk reactionism helps nobody and solves no problems.

    2. LucyLulu

      Thorium (molten salt form) isn’t ready for commercial applications….. still. The reactor widely touted by thorium enthusiasts as run at Oak Ridge in the late 1960’s was an experimental reactor and used uranium, not thorium. They didn’t yet have the technology for a container vessel material that could withstand the high temperatures necessary to burn thorium. Other issues have since arisen. Researchers have remained frustratingly close to a final solution for many years.

  7. DanB

    World light sweet crude oil production peaked in 2005 and a financial crisis ensued two years later. If one reads geologists such as Ken Deffeyes, prof emeritus of geology at Princeton, and Colin Campbell, this financial crisis is what they predicted, as did Frederick Soddy (Nobel laureate in chemistry) many decades ago. The assumption in this piece is that somehow the economy keeps humming along as humans grope towards weaning themselves from fossil fuels. In fact, the economy is enabled by energy inputs, which everyone knows but few really take into account. So here we have an article that gives no mention to peak oil or the concept of net energy (hence the reference to Bill McKibbon’s views), which is arrantly absurd given that we are entering the post-peak oil world. We have three options re energy choices: efficiency, which is the typical status quo response and totally inadequate; conservation, which is a bit extreme because it hints at limits to consumption; and technological decomplexification, which places us squarely at the realization that the world has entered degrowth due to the loss of net energy inputs. IOW: we cannot keep things going as is for wont of net energy. Neoliberalism cannot even entertain loss of complexity and it is designed to transfer wealth upwards come hell or high water. Things will get decomplexify chaotically until (if ever) we accept that we have reached the limits to growth -this includes mounting scarcities of water, fish, and so on.

    1. Michael Hoexter

      I think Peak Oil thinking and, in particular, analysis can be helpful. However there are “Peak Oilers” who are simply doomsayers and have latched onto Peak Oil as means of expressing their own personal social outlook: they WANT civilization to fail. They have a rather mechanical conception of human beings as “naturally” voracious energy hogs without any self-control. I think human beings, though not entirely pro-social creatures, are more adaptable and social than many in the Peak Oil community assume.

      Your assertions in your comment are straight out of Peak Oil “doomerism” and while we may need to scale back the energy intensity of our civilization there is a lot of room in there for a plan such as this one to succeed.

      Certainly in a transitional period to a post-carbon energy system, there will need to be voluntary conservation efforts in the area of energy use. Voluntary conservation, where there are social rewards for doing so, has worked in the past and is not part of the “doomer” vocabulary.

    2. Crazy Horse

      Michael Hoexter’s presentation should be viewed as a hopeful dream: The question is how closely it corresponds to any conceivable future reality.

      There are three main possibilities that will play out over the next century:

      1- A technological future based upon a new source of primary energy and radical increases in the ability to manipulate the characteristics of materials and genetics.

      2- The transition to a renewable energy based society based upon rational choices by actors within existing social and political systems.
      3- Worldwide social collapse and devolution of population to a level sustainable within the remaining climate and resources of a depleted world.

      Technological Future
      Hoexter’s primary assumption, “No revolutionary technological innovations required but evolutionary improvements expected” Is simply unrealistic. In only the past few decades: Nano materials with radical new properties constructed atom by atom, Mapping of the genome having gone from a nearly inconceivable task to a routine computer operation, Alteration of life itself with the capability of inserting genetic material from one life-form into another radically different species, Increase in computational power from the ability to punch holes in cards to the ability to monitor the entire world of personal communication and use it for surveillance.

      Knowledge is to a large extent non-reversible. The only scenario wherein present and future technological innovations will not shape future society is one of collapse back to the state where human populations consist of a few disconnected hunter/gather tribes.

      Any future technological society will not be powered by fossil fuel energy– that is a simple mathematical reality. And any future technological society with a population anywhere near the present population of the earth will require a primary energy source with a far greater energy density than the sun can provide. So that energy source will be from atomic reactions. Either the ongoing reaction at the earth’s core that will continue for as long as the earth is habitable, or from man-made designs to capture the energy locked in the atom.

      So far mankind has demonstrated a complete inability to use atomic energy rationally or safely. Instead of choosing the relatively safe molten salt thorium reactor, we built the engineering nightmare of the General Electric light water reactor with the semi-spent fuel still containing 95% of its reactivity stored in swimming pools on top of the reactors. And then compounded the idiocy by building them on top of earthquake faults and at sea level in areas of frequent tidal wave impact. And this is only the most glaring example of the pitfalls of a technological future managed and directed by humans that often seem to have acquired less wisdom than their hunter/gather tribal ancestors.

      Transition to a renewable energy future:

      One of the many problems I have with the dream implicit in Hoexter’s wish list is the absence of any realistic analysis of what the transition will cost– not in bundles of fiat currency but in time, energy and materials. The time frame in which it must be accomplished is critical, and determined by the pace of global climate change. As a reality check, get on a plane and fly into Mexico City. As you circle in the smog over endless streets and sprawl, try to envision what it would take to change just this one overgrown maze into a rationally planned, energy efficient city powered by electricity sourced by intermittent solar power. And then expand that to China, India, Africa, and Chicago or LA. The entire infrastructure of the industrial world was built upon cheap and inexhaustible fossil fuel energy. We can’t just assume that because we need to change, the energy and capital resources to do so will just materialize in a world that has always preferred to fight wars rather than plan for the future.

      When I read articles about our renewable energy future I can’t help but noticing how rarely the implications of low energy density of the renewable sources are really considered. At the top of the pyramid is the energy that binds the atom together. Many orders of magnitude below that is oil, and below that the brown coal from Wyoming that we are now burning to generate the majority of our electricity. And at the very bottom is the wind or sun that we hope to rely upon to power a renewable energy future. So yes, a society can run on wind and sun, but not one with ten billion people driving electric cars from their suburban homes to work in the city.

      Societal Collapse:

      If one looks at the future from the point of view of the Observers monitoring the human experiment from afar, some form of this scenario seems the most probable. Problem is, our technological genius has progressed at a pace far more rapidly than our species capacity for wisdom of action.

      1. LucyLulu

        You’re assuming that there will be no significant increases in efficiency in renewables as technology advances. Solar technology, for example, has been advancing by leaps and bounds in the last few years. The energy from the sun that enters the earth’s atmosphere is 10,000 times the amount of energy the world currently consumes. Spectrum IEEE just published a report from NCSU about a stacked cell technology advance that was achieving 45% solar power conversion at high levels of solar energy without voltage loss. This is one of many competing solar technologies. Similar advances have been made in thermal storage and cost reductions to levels competitive with and beating fossil fuels. This is not the solar technology from a decade ago, not even close. I also have been reading of 100% energy self-sufficient homes using solar energy being sold in the desert SW.


        Personally, I’m also optimistic that we’ll see fusion energy ready for commercial application in the next decade or two. The US was leading the world globally in green energy endeavors until the anti-climate change meme hit the airwaves and fiscal austerity was ushered in. The US pissed away its market share to Asia. Even if Americans weren’t ready to accept global warming and switch to renewables, the rest of the world was….. And the US sure could have used the manufacturing base, exports, and GOOD JOBS that the global market would have brought us!

        1. craazyboy

          The stacked cell sounds really great when they say they can get 45% effy, but you are still using the same number of cells as standard 15% PV, just stacking them vertically.

          This is nice of course when you need to put some panels on your roof and have limited roof space(facing the right direction), but you still are buying the same number of cells, so I don’t think the price goes down.

          But anyway, I think we need a standardized rooftop solar payback calculator from the EPA – like MPG ratings on cars – where we can plug in our geo location and calc the payback. The solar data is available for everywhere, but as far as I can tell the rest of the calcs and assumptions are made up anyway a industry installer wishes to do it, and I don’t really trust that.

        2. Crazy Horse

          Far from it, Lucy,
          I stated that technological advances WILL take place. Among them will be nano-structured materials that enable increases in per square meter capture of solar energy— perhaps to the level of the very best multi-junction sells currently used on space stations. What they cannot do is increase the amount of solar energy that falls on that square meter. And there will always be much more energy in the nuclear forces that hold a single atom together than in the solar energy that falls on a square meter of the earth’s surface.

  8. TC

    This is pessimism better sold to national socialists rather than right thinking Americans. If capitalism ever is to be rescued from today’s imperial masquerade, then limitless abundance existing at its foundation had better inspire its advocates to cease their slavish obeisance to irrational, unfounded limits imposed by a self-annointed scientific mafia. These today still claim the sun is powered by a nuclear fusion reaction, when rudimentary measurements reveal that, the sun’s surface temperature is far, far cooler than its stratosphere, thus defying their assumption a nuclear fusion reaction is powering it. What should we make of this perplexing temperature disparity? Is some kind of greenhouse effect being displayed on a sun where there is neither mankind living, nor even carbon dioxide present? How about we stop pretending mankind is any more surely in possession of truth about the physical reality in which we are situated than was the case a mere few centuries ago, when the common view held the earth the center of the universe!

    If some would rather prefer adhering to this whore-like, scientific mafia’s dictates, then either they come up with solutions in no way impeding inevitable growth–indeed, their cure need necessarily promote it, as is the very purpose of capitalism–or face the judgement of history revealing their cause today is nothing but part of a continuum of a death cult’s promotions. Truth is there will be no reducing fossil fuel use employing outdated, inefficient technologies today’s mafia promotes, without profoundly degradating life, liberty and happiness.

    So, now we see where true science and political economy meet in a Declaration of Independence, the likes of which a so-called “Syrian opposition” has yet to produce, while a so-called American ruling class who otherwise should recognize and uphold this Declaration’s profound virtue busy themselves supporting bearded cannibals who are widely present among this so-called Syrian opposition, thereby exposing the full breadth of influence of today’s death cult, who long ago (August 15, 1971) nailed shut capitalism’s coffin in the United States of America, and put forward ghouls of imperialism flush with pure, unadulterated sophistry rationalizing their killing everything they touch.

    1. Crazy Horse


      Once upon a time there were two yeast cells living in a petri dish. One was named True Believer and the other Science is Bunkum. One day while wandering around they happened to meet and immediately dug each other. “Let’s Grow, they said.”

      Can you calculate how many population doublings took place before True Belief and Science is Bukum and all their offspring died off along with the last traces of their belief system? Oh, that’s right—you don’t believe in mathematics either.

  9. Sleeper

    This is off base and way to complicated –

    There is no mention of methane a far more potent greenhouse gas. Simply stopping natural gas pipeline leaks, capturing and utilizing land fill gas emissions (see LMOP for more info)and capturing sewage treatment plant emissions has the potential of significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
    And note that methane is some 14 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

    And second there is no mention of the condrum of renewable energy – the supply can not be gamed – i.e. no possibility of a futures market for wind, hydro, or solar.
    This means if there is a large scale shift to renewables the financial markets will take a large hit.

    Can anyone imagine a futures market for solar radiation ? Contango for wind ? and so on.

    1. Michael Hoexter

      Worrying about the fate of the bloated finance sector is not a top concern of mine and nor should it be for most people not employed by that sector. If given the choice between having a civilization at all and a livable climate or sustaining the finance sector as it is…which would you choose?

          1. Cassiodorus

            Not really “moving on” so much as preparation for catastrophe. From Gopal Balakrishnan’s piece “Speculations on the Stationary State”:

            We are entering into a period of inconclusive struggles between a weakened capitalism and dispersed agencies of opposition, within delegitimated and insolvent political orders. The end of history could be thought to begin when no project of global scope is left standing, and a new kind of ‘worldlessness’ and drift begins. This would conform to Hegel’s suspicion that at this spiritual terminus, the past would be known, but that a singular future might cease to be a relevant category. In the absence of organized political projects to build new forms of autonomous life, the ongoing crisis will be stalked by ecological fatalities that will not be evaded by faltering growth.

            I can’t really see how anything good is going to come out of the existing power structure, nor can I see any force to challenge it in what Gramsci called a “war of manouevre” just yet. In the US context, the “progressives” are wedded to Democratic Party neoliberalism, the two or three “socialists” remaining are wedded to sectarian groups, and everyone else has chosen at least one of thirty-one flavors of ideological infantilism.

            1. Lambert Strether Post author

              The “war” is not won at the map table, but on the ground. This plan is about making things happen on the ground — if people buy into it because it matches their values and interests.

              Is the plan is to pursue a sort of Fabian strategy and pick up the pieces after collapse? Seems risky, not least because historical moments aren’t always recognized as that in real time.

  10. Gerald Muller

    Is NC and the majority of its readers really convinced of the fact that man is responsible for non-existing global warming? To be more precise, the earth warmed until 1997 and, since then, has been stable as measured by satellites. More and more scientist are doubting the IPCC conclusions. Doubt does not mean negate, only that the contribution of carbon dioxide to the climate is not a proven undisputed fact.
    Furthermore, it is saddening to read such drivel as that the sun surface temperature, which is around 6000°C, disproves that the source of the sun energy is nuclear fusion. Please read any elementary physics textbook on the matter.

    1. Michael Hoexter

      Show us your refereed, peer-reviewed datasets that support your denialism and disconfirm AGW…otherwise your comments are simply self-soothing blather…

    2. anon y'mouse

      even if you don’t believe that climate change is either happening or made by us, you have this to deal with:

      approx. 50 years of oil at current usage rates
      approx. 25 years of natgas (pre-fracking bonanza estimate)
      approx. 200 years of coal.

      should we substitute one for the other in turn, we might end up with Dicken’s London all over again and then run out of fuel at the end of it all, and revert to burning every tree on the planet, which will reduce our oxygen levels.

      so, shouldn’t we be working on some other solution now? while we still are ‘at leisure’ to do so?

    1. anon y'mouse

      ok, this is where i’m in favor of the technological solution.

      we need to brainwash them into playing something like the stock market version of Second Life or something, all day and every day. heck, keep them as semi-pampered pets to foster the illusion that what they’re doing proves they are Masters of the Universe.

      that way, they can manipulate their “credits” in their account without affecting the real world or its real people.

  11. Cassiodorus

    No serious solution to the problem of impending energy system collapse will be attempted under the current system of political economy. “Solutions” as such will be limited to public relations defenses of existing energy industry economic interests. Even the Bill McKibben “attack the oil industry” strategy relies upon the vast expansion of natural gas as a “transition” energy source.

    What happens, of course, is that the energy transition “movement” becomes just powerful enough to support the expansion of natural gas production, while the oil companies continue along their merry ways.

    Moreover, energy “solutions” as such attempt to replicate the existing, vastly wasteful, pattern of energy consumption so that the existing system of political economy can continue with “enough” energy (whatever that is) to go on with its merciless exploitation of nature and society. The problem is that when production per se is production for a market, and not directly to satisfy human need, energy “needs” are in fact infinite.

    With a system of political economy based on the subordination of people to market production, which is what we have today, all entrepreneurs (and everyone is potentially an entrepreneur under this social form) seek to “make it” through the market, which means out-producing competitors and grabbing market share from them, as they in turn seek to grab market share from one’s own business. The limits to energy “need” under such a system, then, are physical limits to the system’s ability to convert all energy resources into energy as immediately as is physically possible, in order to sustain an infinitely-voracious market process.

    Even the sun, a vastly productive source of energy even when considered from the standpoint of world-society’s 85 million bbl./day crude oil habit, has to be converted to electrical energy via solar power units — a process which itself runs up against physical limitations.

    Since there is never enough energy, the resources of the whole society are marshaled toward the production of ever-more energy. This prohibits said societies from restraining their impulses to develop dangerous energy sources, such as (in this era) oil and coal. Restraining those impulses means restraining the market society, something not discussed in Hoexter’s piece. In fact, throughout the whole public discussion of energy “solutions” there appears to be no concept of “keeping the grease in the ground”:


    In fact, Hoexter starts with an assumption as follows:

    “Self-interested economic actors (people, businesses, government representatives) with some interest in community well-being and well-being of future generations (modification of Homo Economicus)”

    Without changing what counts as “self-interested economic actors,” however, no energy solution at all will be possible. The physical actors themselves aren’t the problem; the political and economic definition of “self-interest” is.

    1. Michael Hoexter

      I don’t know if you follow 350.org’s tweets or not but fracking is as much a concern as oil and coal at least lately there. The “Do the Math” campaign refers to all of the fossil reserves, coal, oil and natural gas, 80% of which must remain in the ground.

      Re: human nature and profits
      I am making conservative assumptions about what motivates human beings here. It would be a mistake to call for a revolution in human nature in which suddenly we are entirely pro-social creatures. I do however make space for our natural pro-social impulses, which are in the current neoliberal era, treated as exceptional characteristics of saintly but unrealistic people, if they are noticed at all. In the areas of government and political life, these pro-social impulses, in particular ethical concern for future generations, need to be concentrated and focused on the task of solving the climate crisis.

      1. Cassiodorus

        Human nature can stay as it is. Human beings are already “pro-social creatures” in every way imaginable, though what this means is that we are also “pro-ideological creatures” in that we create an ideological or mythical or religious unity to explain the social unity of the world. This social unity extends, more specifically, to the various peoples (the classical Greeks referred to “ethnoi,” whence our word “ethnic”) of the world, their internal relations with one another, and their “foreign relations” with outsiders.

        The historic expansion of the capitalist system over the past five centuries, moreover, has required a reorganization of that ideological unity, to favor a social order based upon entrepreneurs, markets, and consumer life based upon sales. If we are to survive the coming crises, it is that particular ideological unity, and not “human nature,” that needs to be changed. My recommendation is that an ideological unity based upon the science of ecology be universally adopted, and that we reorient culture toward ecological stewardship one ritual at a time.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          This is why practices like gardening, Slow Food, permanculture, etc., are important. One hopes (acts in such a way as to make come true) that these are harbingers of the kind of cultural shift you describe.

          1. Cassiodorus

            Yes, but such practices have to be defended via a thoroughgoing resistance to capitalist discipline. Ideally people could opt out of capitalism altogether, and take others with them.

            1. JTFaraday

              I think that’s exactly what Hoexter is afraid of with reference to his attack on “neo-primitivism.”

              In fact, the whole “‘New’ Economic Perpectives” site is littered with people who positively relish the idea that there is this whole army of economic dependents, who have been deskilled by the industrial and post-industrial corporate economies who can now be turned to their purposes, as opposed to potentially defining their own purposes.

              You know, “pursuit of happiness” and all that.

              It is just this total dependence on industry and industrial mass employment that the “neo-primitivists” attack.

              It is an economically and ideologically motivated attack, not an ecologically motivated attack. Ecologically, it makes all the sense in the world to accommodate them.

              1. Lambert Strether Post author

                I think “neo-primitivism” is necessary (although in my own life I don’t experience it as reversion, but as an advance toward beauty, knowledge, etc.) And it will clearly save some lucky individuals. But I don’t see it as being sufficient and to that extent I accept Hoexter’s criticism.

            2. Lambert Strether Post author

              Well, I don’t know what words like “thoroughoing resistance to capitalist discipline” mean in concrete terms. Guys in the woods with guns? Occupy? Move your money? Strikes? What? These words strike me very much as drawn from the bookshelf (though not a bad bookshelf) or the map table. There is nothing actionable here.

              On another note: Posing a clearly framed and obviously beneficial non-TINA Alternative is one very obvious way to delegitimize a system that cannot meet that demand. Which, to me, is one very obvious benefit of plans like this.

      2. F. Beard

        It would be a mistake to call for a revolution in human nature in which suddenly we are entirely pro-social creatures. Michael Hoexter

        Well, if government-backing for the banks had never existed then it is likely that corporations would be much more broadly owned and thus more pro-social.

        Instead, we promote an anti-social, false notion of “credit worthiness” – as if anyone is worthy of stolen purchasing power from a government-backed credit cartel.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      It seems to be that “changing the definition of self-interest” translates quite easily into “politics is the art of the possible” with the caveat that what is possible can be changed, with a level of effort. So I’m glad you support Hoexter’s plan; it seems to me that the idea that our political economy will have to change in order to implement it is a truism.

      1. Cassiodorus

        The thing is that, unless we open a space for a new political economy, the “politics as the art of the possible” stays the same, and we stay with capitalism and ecosystem death until the system crashes.

        Issues of political economy are at this point joined at the hip to any and all humanistic political sentiments. The capitalists know that government is the ultimate protector of profit in an economic era which has experienced four decades of progressively declining economic growth, which is why they dominate it and force its every move, to the detriment of those who are no longer beneficiaries of what shrinking economic growth has actually occurred. A sea-change in this process is the least prerequisite to humanistic politics.

        1. Dr. Noschidt

          LS and C — Step 1 is to eliminate all cliches. Honest speech is the sine qua non. Time to asset-strip the market-driven vocabulary of 100 years.

          Such as “the art of the possible” is zombiespeech. Dead is as dead says.

        2. Lambert Strether Post author

          One obvious way to “open space” in the discourse is to promote clearly beneficial plans that the current political economy cannot meet.

          Like — in my view, though perhaps not Hoexter’s — this plan.

          “Peace, land, bread” was another such plan, since the Russian people had none of that. We aren’t at that point yet, and I hope we don’t get there. I’m not a worse is better kind of guy, because I try not to treat human suffering instrumentally.

  12. Susan the other

    All of Michael’s suggestions are good. But I’m not getting the sense of “pedal to the metal.” If we had public control of our sovereign wealth we could go a lot faster. Allowing the “free market” to adjust at this suggested pace (above) to a no-growth world is an oxymoron. We need to be a non-profit nation. All of our financial institutions will be at odds with an ecologically sustainable society.

    We should go forward as fast as we can toward all of these goals. But if want a little shock and awe, we should do something drastic like ban all automobiles, maybe even electric ones because electricity is still as bad as petroleum. To take one big action and decline it down into all the spinoffs like a Marshall Plan for public transportation and distribution, and various recycling industries which could eliminate the need to produce new steel and plastics, rubber, glass, etc – one big action could really jump start our new engine. And if we ban automobiles the air will be instantly fresh. So we would even have immediate positive feedback.

    1. Cassiodorus

      It’s good to call for an immediate end to the profits system. But I think that an obsessive focus upon the physical implements of destruction (e.g. automobiles) distracts from the problem of what production is for. The spiraling-out-of-control problem is a byproduct of the universal induction of the human race into “market society.” Eventually we want to see the end of the society of “market actors.” Thus there must be (as a start) alternatives to “market activity” as the exclusive mode of survival, for everyone.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        Well, again, the underpants gnomes. For:

        1. Collect underpants

        2. ???

        3. Profit

        We have:

        1. It’s good to call for an immediate end to the profits system.

        2. ???

        3. ???

        Pardon my skepticism.

  13. craazyboy

    Joule Unlimited is very promising in the biomass to liquid fuels space.

    The main problem with biomass is you have to collect it, or grow it(corn, sugar cane, algae, etc..), then refine it somehow to produce fuel. Joule has developed engineered green-algae that metabolically convert CO2, sunlight and water to what the little critters think is their waste product – liquid fuel. This is then useable fuel with little further processing.

    They have various algae strains they have developed which can produce ethanol, gasoline, diesel or jet fuel that will work in engines we have in use now.

    Joule is in what they call “late stage development” and “commercialization”, so potential roadblocks yet to come, but they have partnered with Audi, so that is a sign that someone is taking their technology seriously, and also has financial muscle.


  14. Pelham

    Too complicated.

    How about pushing for Thorium-fueled molten-salt reactors? It’s a proven nuclear technology, poses no danger of meltdowns and produces a tiny fraction of the nuclear waste of conventional plants. Thorium, by contrast with uranium, is abundant (the U.S. has a 400-year supply) and easily mined, while its waste products are much less potent and cannot be used to make weapons.

    But the chief advantage is that these plants can be plugged right into the existing energy grid and will supply energy at considerably lower cost than anything we have now with no need for imposing enormously unpopular conservation mandates.

    This is something everyone — even climate-change denialists — could get behind because:

    A) It means true and lasting energy independence and security;

    B) No need for further left-wing tree-hugger picky-picky lectures about sustainability and conservation (no matter how correct this hectoring happens to be);

    C) It’s cheap.

    Alternatively, any system, such as the one suggested by Michael Hoexter, that is endlessly complex and demands further sacrifice from an American populace already on a knife’s edge of tension and frustration after 40 years of rising debt and decimation at the hands of shadowy globalist forces is unlikely to generate much enthusiasm. No matter how meritorious the plan by its own measure, it won’t have a ghost of a chance if the public can’t get behind it.

    And for that, we need an entirely different plan, one that’s narrowly focused, promising rather than punishing, capable of appealing to a broad public, including a patriotic America-first element that wins over conservatives and not just the environmentally enlightened.

    Thorium-fueled molten-salt reactors fit the bill.

    1. Michael Hoexter

      Works wonderfully as a thought experiment…except none of them have been built for commercial production.. So your assertions in this comment are purely faith-based. If we want faith-based, we can turn to the right-wing of the GOP for faith-based solutions to a whole host of social problems.

      This plan would embark on a program of determining whether new nuclear designs have in fact the benefits you ascribe to them…but maybe that data-driven process in itself is threatening to you…

      I’m noticing a trend with Internet nuclear fanboys like yourself that their primary targets are “left-wing” environmentalism, renewable energy etc, and not the fossil fuel generators that supposedly your solution will replace. Guys, if you want new better nukes built you are first going to have to convince people that they should give up fossil fuels (and countenance the risks associated with nukes)…I don’t see many of you at the frontlines of that struggle…what’s up with that?

    2. LucyLulu

      The thorium is cheap, as is the power production. Building the reactors that burn the thorium is not cheap. Factor in the government subsidies for power plant construction and later decommissioning, and thorium power would be more expensive than coal or natural gas generated electricity.

      Handling the spent fuel during reprocessing also poses significant risk, which is a primary reason why it doesn’t present a proliferation risk. But granted, a liquid thorium salt reactor would be a major improvement over uranium and plutonium in terms of safety, assuming the remaining engineering issues could be resolved (then another 10 years for approvals and construction).

  15. Stalin

    this guy has no clue about the socialist alternative he continually strawmans away. he toes the ideological line of average high-school educated american.

    like he claims in order for socialism to work he needs a `compelling and data-grounded solution`. Typical pragmatic anglo! like socialism will come with a HowToBasic guide. ✓!

      1. Stalin

        I prefer a materialist-scientific analysis than the pragmatic (capitalist) american ideology that permeates the above article.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          Well, I don’t believe in supernatural beings either. That said, cliches are cliches because they express certain truths. One such is “You can’t beat something with nothing.” So I’m seeing a plan on the one hand (presumably with numbers to back it up to come) and I’m seeing a lot of yammering about socialism on the other. Decisions, decisions….

          1. Stalin

            I’m anxiously awaiting his `plan` as well. I think we should continue this conversation once his `revolutionary` `savior` `plan` has been released.

            in the meantime, i would encourage you read about soviet history; how socialism transformed a modern day afghanistan (agrarian, backwater) into a nuclear superpower that rivaled the united states in within a few decades. along with having worker controlled companies (with strong recallable mechanisms to displace unruly managers) and a near egalitarian society.


    1. Stalin

      the entire article summarized when we look at his ideology:

      `we have these major energy problems that have resulted from capitalist market ideology, allow me propose a solution that is within this same ideology, because A) white middle class liberal (good material conditions at the author’s (probably unknowingly) expense of millions of starving and dead humans. (the author’s ideology is showing)

      B) cannot imagine socialism other than an exact, rigid replica of history. (again, here we find the author’s ideology)

    2. Michael Hoexter

      Do you have a clue about socialism?… First step: don’t name yourself after a paranoid mass murderer who massacred peasants in the name of the proletariat and instituted a decades-long reign of terror in the Soviet Bloc.

      After you’ve shown that you’re not stupid by figuring out a better name, maybe then we can talk about your philosophical preferences…

  16. Another POV

    This plan might have been a practical first step 20 years ago. Now, it’s just so much whistling past the graveyard, not that it will ever be adopted in the first place. And the reason that we “doomers” harp on collapse so much is not that we necessarily hate current society (although most of us certainly hate its effects), its that we’ve rightly concluded that that’s the only thing that will break the current logjam of capitalist self-interest and allow us to get on with things in earnest. And 7B+ people are not even remotely sustainable without the current industrial infrastructure, so unless you’re in complete denial (perhaps understandable, given the magnitude of what will be unfolding over the course of the next century), you simply must conclude that we’ve got some painful times ahead. Nonetheless, the plan’s at least an attempt to remain positive about our impending fate, and the value in that should not be completely discounted either. Faith in anything is likely to be in exceedingly short supply for the foreseeable future.

    1. tiebie66

      Though I appreciate the author’s efforts to sketch out a plan of action, I’m afraid that I’m in the pessimistic camp too. IMO, it is unlikely that any sufficiently large-scale changes in behavior will occur before more severe conditions make them unavoidable (and too late). And I honestly hope that we run out of exploitable fossil fuels before then to make ‘technological solutions’ pursued under duress or under unfettered capitalism or under both impossible. I have come to fear such ‘solutions’ because of their externalities.

      A more realistic focus may have to be on smaller scale systems and groups that can implement proven and sustainable older and newer technologies locally so as to provide ‘seeds’, widely distributed geographically, to maximize the probability that some groups will survive. The focus now should be on providing the lifeboats, not on saving the ship, as the latter I no longer think possible.

      Some people will object to a return to older technologies, saying that this is unlikely to happen. It is for exactly this reason, this unwillingness to make the requisite drastic changes, that I fear the ship will hit the iceberg.

  17. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

    Institutional science is a tool completely in the hands of a vicious, predatory psychopathic elite that selfs elects according to the ideology they created to get the masses to internalize their own servitude as “natural law”, a platonic Truth. With this kind of total insanity at the top and all this whip kissing at the bottom, why does anyone have any hope at all?

    I recommend ten years of liquor, sex, drugs and silliness because after that it’s a boot on your face. Forever.

    1. They didn't leave me a choice

      Do you have any clue how clueless you sound? Why don’t you just crawl back under the rock from whence you came.

  18. docg

    Michael’s post is very thoughtful and imo contains some excellent ideas. Some may be overly “utopian,” but others not so much, and all deserve careful consideration. The post has also generated some very interesting and potentially useful responses, both positive and negative, so that’s another point in its favor.

    As I see it, however, the whole problem of climate change has been misconceived from the beginning. It strikes me as naive in the extreme to expect that the world is going to suddenly turn away from fossil fuels — for ANY reason. The brutal reality is that there are now billions of humans living on this planet and that the survival of each and every one of us depends on the health of the fossil fuel industry — whether we like it or not, whether it’s corrupt or not, whether its prime movers are motivated by greed or not.

    And I’m not talking only about the survival of our nice cozy “Western” lifestyle, but the survival of the hundreds of millions of the most desperate and needy among us, who are just getting by at present with the absolute minimum income, people who would surely perish if the cost of fossil fuels were to increase by any significant amount. We have already seen the devastation caused by the thoughtless introduction of biofuels as a fossil fuel alternative, a folly that has driven up the price of food so drastically, and will continue to do so for many years.

    While I see no reason to dispute the science behind the present concern over global warming, there does seem to be a certain amount of exaggeration and even hysteria behind the urgent calls to “do something, and do it NOW BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE!”

    For one thing, while it’s true that ocean levels are rising, much of the rise is due to long term effects predating our modern over-reliance on fossil fuels. See, for example, this graph (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Trends_in_global_average_absolute_sea_level,_1870-2008_%28US_EPA%29.png) revealing a steady and almost uniform increase in water level since 1870. What this tells us is that water levels would most likely increase steadily even if we did without fossil fuels entirely. Our actions would probably slow things down a bit, but it’s hard to see how they could reverse that long-term trend.

    As far as droughts are concerned, “a new study of lake sediments in Ghana suggests that severe droughts lasting several decades, even centuries, were the norm in West Africa over the past 3,000 years. The earlier dry spells dwarfed the well-documented drought that plagued West Africa in the late-20th century . . .” http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-04/nsf-wad041309.php

    As I see it, what is needed is NOT a poorly thought through, overly hasty attempt to turn the Titanic around on a dime, but an effort to 1. gradually and systematically foster the development of sustainable energy sources and 2. adapt to the new conditions, whatever their cause, whose worst effects will take place, after all, far in the future, giving us plenty of time to think and plan.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      In a sense, the issue of whether climate change is caused by human activities is a red herring from the stantpoint of whether action must be taken to respond to that climate change. [Note: I think the evidence for human activity being the cause of this climate change is plain as day and not really a matter for serious discussion.] My point is that even one who continues to deny the cause can no long deny that climate is changing, and changing in ways that will be disasterous for humans. [No I’m not talking about a disaster movie disaster — I’m talking about simple old fashioned disasters like food shortages, water shortage, wars, tropical diseases moving into new ranges, all disasters that are starting now with the existing levels of CO2 in our atmosphere.]

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      I am not sure whether you feel the approach in this post is “poorly thought through, overly hasty attempt to turn the Titanic around on a dime” or not. If you don’t, why the comment? If you do, where’s your argument? This commment feels perilously close to strawmanning to me.

      1. docg

        Lambert: As I said, I think Michael’s post has a lot to recommend it, because it contains many good ideas that should imo be taken seriously. My problem is not with the ideas per se, but with the notion that measures of this sort must be undertaken immediately, in order to avert “imminent disaster.”

        While I agree with much of what Michael is suggesting, I obviously do not agree with the implication that we need to do something drastic to reduce our use of fossil fuels, or all will be lost. That aspect of his post, and that aspect only, is what I see as a “poorly thought through, overly hasty attempt to turn the Titanic around on a dime.”

        1. craazyboy

          Then again, I just had a brand new humongous (6000Lb curb weight?) Toyota SUV park next to me. I walked past it trying to find my car and at near eye level on the rear of the SUV it said “hybrid”, and whatever else the name of the beast was.

          This makes me think we are not serious about “turning” at all.

  19. coboarts

    Two books have already spelled it out:

    Third Industrial Revolution – Jeremy Rifkin
    Reinventing Fire – Amory Lovins (Rocky Mountain Institute)

    Let’s just do what has already been written…

  20. Jeremy Grimm

    I recall from a few days ago a post (can’t recall exactly which! and worse where — ugh!) that described the energy footprint for citizens of different countries. Each U.S. citizen has a very large, gigantically disproportinate footprint compared to that of people in other nations. Yes China and India generate a large and growing part of the CO2, though less than us. The disproportion is so great that it’s not entirely foolish or pointless for individuals in this country to each, on their own, find ways to reduce their footprint. This won’t solve the problem of global warming but I believe it could help enough to be worthwhile. More importantly, movements grow from individual actions and beliefs.

    Besides efforts to halt CO2 production I believe it’s also time to examine actions required to mitigate the harm that’s coming to our country and to other countries of the world. In spite of the optimism I’ve spouted here, I tend to believe that C02 emissions will continue getting worse and worse for some time. We don’t know exactly what impacts will hit what particular areas, but we have a good idea what impacts to expect and a reasonable idea of where. In this country, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect dustbowl conditions in the Southwest in the not too distant future. What are we going to do about the impacts of climate change? Say what you will about American exceptionalism, we are still the one country that can and should be leading the world to reduce the coming harm predicted due to the already released CO2.

  21. F. Beard

    In addition, capitalism’s need for growth to survive is also a driver of other forms of reckless disregard for the planet’s regenerative capacity. Michael Hoexter

    Money can be issued as Liabilities (debt) or shares in Equity (common stock). The former requires exponential growth (to pay the interest), the latter allows but does not require growth.

    Guess which method is subsidized by government?

  22. F. Beard

    Faith-based? How about ethics-based? It doesn’t take a supernatural Being to realize theft is wrong yet our money system is based on systematic theft of purchasing power for the benefit of the so-called creditworthy and the banks. Who says the ability to repay it with interest makes one worthy of his neighbor’s stolen purchasing power?

  23. American Slave

    Lol ive never heard anything more un intelligent than that it takes more energy to make ethanol than it uses.

    A local farmer can plant and harvest and acre of corn for less than 5 gallons of fuel and make around 500 gallons of ethanol and that’s not even considering the dried distillers grains it produces that is used as animal feed.

      1. craazyboy

        I sped read a summary of a recent scientifically valid study, and IIRC, results where geographically dependent.

        The best areas got 80% energy input, the worst were something like 110% energy input.

        I believe they also said much more volume of ethanol came from the 80% energy input areas than the bad areas.

        So there are some Utility Maximizers around.

      2. skippy

        Not only that but, per previous comments in early post, there is a lot more going on than just numerical values on said acre of land and not all agents have a equal say in that conversation.

          1. skippy

            Yeah… I would wager the orb has an appendix and once an infection was overcome… it would replenish.

            skippy… to bad about that time scale thingy.

  24. allcoppedout

    I’m for a pedal-to-the-metal approach to global warming, finance, income and consumption. The post is full of decent recommendations and no doubt a few things in need of ironing out.

    One can hardly speak in this area without the misconceptions of the anti-lobby. More and more scientists disagree with the IPCC – well, where are they? I don’t meet them. Lambert points to a good critique of the misuse of the tragedy of the Commons model. I’d never seen the right-wing misuse before!

    I really want to ‘leap’ to renewable energy and sustainable systems whether carbon dioxide is the devastating global warming thingy or not. We need to start doing things because they are right. The whole point of understanding a model like the tragedy of the Commons is to avoid the ecocide by building sewage systems or restricting the number of ponies that can be kept on Dartmoor. If we had no coal, oil and gas we’d have to find other energy. Are we so dumb we need to burn them to exhaustion and ruin the whole Commons before we take action, given plenty of alternatives?

    1. skippy

      I think the sticky part – is – you have to make look like “Get Rich Scam” in order to get any traction these days…

      skippy… its the only bait the neoliberals et al cant resist… hard wired~

  25. steve from virginia

    First of all, these sorts of ‘brute force’ regime reorganization articles are old-hat. “All-out efforts, like the US did during WWII …” The status quo is making an all-out effort now! During this period of diminished returns how is more of an effort going to gain anything other than some more money ‘wealth’ for some racketeers?

    The idea behind these mental exercises is to devise a happy ending first then make assumptions that appear to assure that outcome => TED Talk. Events underway suggest this form of curve fitting is naive at best, destructive/misleading at worst

    Pedal to the metal means using more fossil fuels rather than less, as the use (waste) of fuels and other capital (resources) is collateral for our money system. What ever is ‘pedaled’ must be in addition to the existing current output or the effort is pointless. If output is diverted toward one endeavor it is diverted away from another => money loss => enterprise failure => cessation of the effort due to funds starvation.

    An example is electric cars that are internally subsidized by auto company sales of SUVs and gigantic pickup trucks. No SUV sales = no electric cars.

    Adding energy inputs defeats the purpose of the exercise which must be to use less. As it is the analysis is backwards: less is being pressed upon wasting economies due to the previous decades’ success at wasting => resource exhaustion. Keep in mind exhaustion appears w/ low not high prices, affordability is the issue and expansion of poverty in both advanced and developing countries..

    Shrinking output and exploding costs are the cause of our current economic crisis: there is more pressure on credit, the obligations increase geometrically as both interest and principal — needed to retire maturing loans — compound exponentially. Once the market in its wisdom … or its reading of Reinhart and Rogoff … notices the debt cannot be serviced or retired, no more loans are forthcoming. The outcome? Greece …

    Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Egypt, Yemen, Syria … Japan, China … etc. This cost acceleration dynamic is underway right now, it cannot be ‘fixed’ or set aside long enough for any metals to be pressed into pedals … vice versa.

    The US clings to the tallest mast on the sinking credit ship. Asking for energy system reconstruction in the US at scale has to consider Detroit reconstructing its energy system … with the credit available to Detroit.

    Article ignores soil fertility depletion as if it is unimportant … 90% of the world’s civilizations have failed due to soil depletion.

    Article ignores Peak Oil even though its effects are underway right under everyone’s noses. Peak Oil is a cost phenomenon rather than a matter of resource stocks- or flows. If one cannot afford fuel it does not flow, it stays in the ground and so do fuel-dependent natural resources: gas, uranium, gold, coal. phosphates, potash, ammonium-nitrate, potable water. The stocks may as well not exist.

    Yes, there are electric cars but no such thing as an electric highway: steel, asphalt and concrete: both massive energy and credit hogs, so are houses, car factories, office towers, militaries, fuel extraction and distribution systems, insurance companies, lithium mines, nuclear reactors, retail malls, etc.

    The apotheosis of modernism is vast majority of human race living in gigantic slums. The world’s slums now contain 2 billion and the population therein is exploding. One does not need imagination to see the future, one only has to look to squalid mega-cities in the present.

    Humans don’t understand civilization b/c we don’t have one, we run like rats in machine habitats. Ancient civilizations did not have mobility: slaves and masters lived in the same buildings, in the same towns and cities. There was no way for masters to live well and slaves to live like animals when both were in close proximity w/ each other.

    Slums are the product of trains, ships, trucks, automobiles and transport, the vermin live and die out of sight.

    Only way out: for individuals and societies; get rid of the cars and the TVs, all of them, at once. Pay young girls not to have babies. The world is overpopulated w/ guzzling machines … and by humans as well by 3 orders of magnitude.

    BTW: 350.Org and Climate pimps are discreditable they drive and fly everywhere: let them lead by example and be taken seriously.

    1. Nobody

      “Article ignores soil fertility depletion as if it is unimportant … 90% of the world’s civilizations have failed due to soil depletion.”

      YES. This is the “elephant in the room” that no one seems to notice.

      Agriculture is insanity. It will end and any civilization based upon it will end too.

      From a Toby Hemenway talk…

      a civilization based on agriculture:

      • makes nature the enemy
      • relentlessly destroys ecosystems
      • is based on scarcity
      • is much harder work
      • makes us less healthy
      • requires and fosters hierarchy
      • creates the tame/wild dichotomy
      • was promoted by religious elites
      • promotes a culture of fear
      The “radical neo-primitivists” shall inherit the Earth. Will there be anything left to inherit?

        1. Nobody

          I am not sure if we are collectively able to do “sufficient,” Lambert, even if we could agree on what that is. It seems to me that “sufficient” is defined as preserving large-scale civilization, large-scale human populations and all the energy-guzzling gizmos of modernity. I think that is a pipe-dream. It seems energetically impossible. Humanity must learn to live with real-time energy flows because living on fossilized energy is not only unsustainable, but is seriously fouling the nest, making us more dependent on the fossilized energy (or some techno-fantasy replacement) to make up for the ongoing destruction of the foundations of the life systems which we are ultimately dependent on. Biofuels, with the possible exception of algae farming, means more agriculture. And you know what I think about that.

          I think there are some very commendable ideas in the piece, but c’mon, do you really think we can continue to fly humans and freight rapidly all over the world and consume large amounts of energy to do a lot of unnecessary work? Do you or Mr. Hoexter realize how much energy the internet with its millions of servers and millions of broadband connections consume in toto? Where is all this non-fouling electricity going to come from?

          I am also quite familiar with MMT which is where Mr. Hoexter is coming from and I am glad to see someone from that camp facing and thinking about these issues. I get the whole thing about how government has immense capability to serve public purpose. The snag is agreeing on what public purpose really is and pursuing it in the context of where we are now in the midst of empire, energy-addiction and industrial-financial-rentier capitalism. I am not sure we, collectively, can sufficiently distance ourselves from our reality to actually see it’s pathology until it is too late and the disease has become fatal. I would be overjoyed to be proven wrong.

  26. John-Albert Eadie

    I congratulate Michael Hoexter on the article -it’s seriously good- , and on answering many of the comments. I can’t understand and really can’t forgive the folks that assume we can just go forward on our current tracks.

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