Wednesday, March 05, 2008

There will be no free lunch

One can point to the irrational agendas of global warming denialists, arguments as sick as their whining that "you liberals are making this up because you want to control what cars we can drive and how fast" and wonder why they cling to their claims in the face of massive and unambiguous evidence that we are wrecking our planet. But these dangerously and willfully ignorant obstacles to progress are abetted by a much larger segment of the population in developed and developing countries. The motive that makes the much broader constituencies of foot-dragging consumers avoid going green works just as well and just out of awareness in the empty heads of the denialists and consumers alike: we are spoiled by the externalization of a substantial portion of the costs that our indulgence in energy, water, metals and halogenated everything place upon a limited stock of natural resources. Only real and present financial or physical discomfort will turn our stiff necks towards the future and make us turn off the key, turn down the heat.

There will be no free lunch unless you learn to get by on grass.

Worse, if you do not learn to eat what you yourself can grow, will you go eat your neighbor's? The security sales pitch, favored tool of fascists and the Bush league and now coming into use by Hillary Clinton to revive her candidacy, never progresses logically or ethically beyond the equivalent of "there's bad people you should fear but trust me to shoot them before they shoot you". There may be bad people, there certainly are people who harm others. But I think none of those harmful people, except from the US, represent particularly well fed or prosperous elements of their respective societies. To divorce the issues of precarious and vanishing climate and soil resources from security in the strict political and military sense our politicians can focus upon is harming our policies and leaving us stupid options. I particularly like Stiglitz and will be quoting him in other posts on the economy but on the topic of that divorce, I take his word as vastly more credible than anything said by the palace playboy of Pennsylvania Ave or his would-be successor. Please notice that the sense of security is a feeling, a summation of haphazardly collected facts and impressions used with very little examination. When that feeling is running in its negative range, it has a terrible tendency to become self-fulfilling.

In spite of what the advertisers tell you, there is no way a healthy person can eat ice cream skip exercise and loose weight. In spite of all the commercials that spin the claims faster than the wheels, you cannot drive a 250 horse power car and still keep the planet clean and cool as it was a mere hundred years ago. Despite the drooling avarice of the corn distribution lobby, many studies have shown that ethanol production is a net negative substitute for fossil fuel...using as much as it produces and damaging the environment along the way.

But I had hoped...and Stewart Brand has argued, that nuke power plants could eventually save us. In my case, the hope was based on my rudimentary knowledge of the amazing energy density of uranium as a fission energy source. But the energetics of the key reaction are not enough. To know if a whole system of nuclear energy production will be a net benefit and workable on the necessary scale to replace coal and oil, you have to take many costs into consideration and you have to crunch quite a few numbers. Well someone has done the homework for us and the answer is: we could not make nuclear energy pay off. I think that puts us back where the truly green thinking has always been: use less, use MUCH less. The old math of renwables still stands as the hope for sustainable technologically developed societies.


cul said...

I'm surprised regarding the small favorable ratio of nuke plants over fossils...thought it would be much higher. Unlike my more "back to the earth" friends, I was always in favor of nuclear as an I am somewhat dismayed to see it really offers no long term advantage.

The moon based microwave generation seems unlikely to me because the transmission route would be an incredibly dangerous thing to have to transit near or through.

Why not just use the vast desert areas of China, America, Australia, Africa, etc. for solar arrays of, say, 1000 miles square to generate energy? That would save the 100's of billions a moon based production system and wouldn't involve creating lethal " high energy beam corridors" into which some furry animal might wander.

But, you're right that the best(most efficient) solution is to throttle consumption...if not large numbers of comsumers.

GreenSmile said...

I confess, it was news to me. My degree is in physics. I note that the author says we might yet get a technical fix to our energy addiction but not with the kind of reactors westinghouse and others would like to build for us. Serious science and engineering investment aimed at breakthroughs in TOTAL efficiency [and of course safety] are needed.

But we have an anti-science administration that will buy nuclear weapons with its last nickle before it would send a little money to the physics or nuclear engineering departments of our universities.

The solar will happen first...also agree with you that it is an improvement on "old king coal" as Davo calls it. Not gassing up yet another Hummer is something we can do RIGHT NOW and without any approval or money from washington.