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Saturday, September 9, 2023

Debating Renewables: the Clash of the Straw Men


(image Created by Dall-E)

There has to be some reason why we tend to polarize every issue and divide ourselves into two opposite fields engaged in a struggle of strawmen. And yet, we keep praising the "open debate" even though we know that it doesn't work, it never worked, and perhaps never will. 

Try it with renewable energy. You state that renewables are a good technology to produce energy, and you are immediately submerged by a tsunami of criticism from angry people who accuse you of wanting to destroy the planet and starve people to death in the impossible attempt to keep the economy growing. On the other side of the debate, some people really think that "sustainable development" is really nothing different from the good, old economic growth, except that it is painted in green.

Is it possible to strike a middle way? Marco Raugei, a scientist working on renewable energy, puts forward a plea for understanding each other in a recent paper published on "Biophysical Economics." With the prudence typical of the scientist, Raugei starts with, "There appears to be a growing polarization." My gosh! Marco, did you really say "there appears to be"???  But the paper makes a very simple point, unfortunately almost always obscured in the clash of the titanic strawmen. It is that it is perfectly possible to use renewable energy to replace fossil fuels, but the resulting world will not be the same as it is today. And this possibility doesn't free us from the constraints that a finite world poses on economic growth. So simple, and so impossible to understand!

Let me propose to you a few excerpts from Raugei's paper:  


By Marco Raugei, Biophysical economics, 8, Article number: 4 (2023)

...several academic authors have increasingly positioned themselves (either explicitly or implicitly, but often equally unmistakably) within either of two seemingly ideological “camps.” These may be broadly characterized as, respectively, that of the “systemic pessimists” (i.e., authors who champion concepts such as carrying capacity, overpopulation, overshoot, peak oil, and peak resources, but who often downplay or even dismiss the potential of renewable energies) and that of the “technological optimists” (i.e., authors who mostly tend to focus on the rapid advancements in renewable energy technologies and the promise that these hold to decarbonize future societies, while often failing to address the broader context of other bio-physical planetary limits). While proponents of both camps often bring valid arguments and evidence to the table to support their viewpoints, they often seem to summarily dismiss the arguments and evidence put forth by the other camp, thereby ultimately allowing the discourse to degenerate into an unhelpful and, arguably, un-scientific “us vs. them” contest.

In the 1970s, the Club of Rome (a group of current and former politicians, United Nations administrators, diplomats, scientists, economists, and business leaders from around the globe) commissioned the famous report “The limits to growth” (Meadows et al. 1972), in which the consequences of unconstrained population and economic growth were quantitatively investigated by means of a computer model based on five key interdependent variables: population, agricultural production, non-renewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution generation. Widespread and long-lasting debate and controversy ensued on many details about the model structure, parameters, and assumptions, but the key message was clear, and it was essentially found to still hold by several other authors who reviewed and updated the calculations (Bardi 2011; Herrington 2020; Hall 2022): the Earth’s system is incapable of supporting infinite population and economic growth because of the finite nature of its natural resources.

More recently, a range of authors have taken it upon themselves to reaffirm these fundamental concepts within the specific context of future energy scenarios. But a new dimension to the discussion had been added in the interim, as various independent studies, often based on life cycle assessments (LCA), had started to appear, pointing to high energy return on investment (EROI) of renewable energies, and specifically photovoltaics (PVs). By some, these results were interpreted as undermining the very foundations of the concepts discussed above, for if renewable energy were indefinitely viable then perhaps the “limits to growth” could be postponed indefinitely. As a result, what was originally a discussion about finite resources in a more general sense, started turning into much more specific arguments about issues like what is the proper EROI for PVs and/or other renewables; broadly speaking, the debate on the ultimate possibilities of renewable energies became unhelpfully conflated with whether or not there are limits to growth.

In fact, some of these authors (e.g., Seibert and Reese 2021) have tended to paint renewable energies as a pernicious distraction from the key issue of global overshoot of the Earth’s carrying capacity, therefore also brushing aside any suggestion of renewable energies’ ability to significantly reduce global warming and environmental degradation (vs. the continued use of fossil fuels). ... “technological optimistic” authors may have studiously and rigorously investigated the potential of renewable energies to deliver modern societies from the grip of fossil fuels, but they have failed to consider the wider issues that would continue to affect the world, even in a future world largely supported by renewable energies. In fact, the hitherto dominating paradigm of unfettered growth in material consumption and rampant exploitation of many natural and ecosystem resources is incompatible with fundamental bio-physical constraints (Rockström et al. 2009; Steffen et al. 2015), and it remains ultimately unsustainable irrespective of which energy resources are used to power it.

...the current polarization of views points to a false dichotomy that risks devaluing both positions, and it trivializes what should instead be the most important research questions of all, namely: to which extent a more sustainable future is indeed possible, and which systemic changes (including, but not limited to, phasing out fossil fuels) will be required to achieve it. ... Ultimately, it is high time to admit that both sets of core arguments loosely ascribed in this article to the two opposed ideological “camps” are probably simultaneously true, to some extent at least. And from this simple realization follows what should have been obvious all along, i.e., that adopting a more balanced “middle way” approach is the only truly sensible way forward for a healthy and genuinely scientific debate. 

The complete paper by Marco Raugei is available at this link


  1. Subyacente a la dicotomía observada hay un "sentido" intersubjetivo social-cultural que es la raíz del problema y que, por las características, dificultará cualquier alternativa de solución. Los seres humanos culturalmente están en permanente competencia por los recursos cualquiera sean estos, desde ideas hasta tierra, personas, minerales, etc. Cuando digo "culturalmente" me refiero a una dinámica sobre las comunicaciones que producen comunicaciones en el marco dado por el sentido de la competencia que conforman un sistema autopoietico cerrado. No es posible resolverlo dentro del sistema. La dinámica es, actualmente y siempre probablemente, autodestructiva lo que no asegura que se detenga. La cultura de la competencia prevalecerá luego del fin inevitable de la civilización, aunque éste fin es una oportunidad de cambiar el sentido.

    1. You end with : "The culture of competition will prevail after the inevitable end of civilization, although this end is an opportunity to change direction."

      In my comment below I mention a video in which Bill Rees makes this point. Indigenous people who appear to live in harmony with nature do so AFTER they make all their mega-fauna extinct. Harmony (sing it), is found at a lower level of sustenance than prior generations enjoyed. If anything is learned, necessity and the bitter facts of life is the teacher, and our social bubble is not yet instructed.

  2. Is it possible to strike a middle way?


    No is the answer. If wishes were horses, fools would ride. But in this world, fools can't ride, despite what Marco wants.

    Marco imagines a 'climate debate' to be between two idealists with different ideologies. If such were the case, one side could persuade with superior logic and arguments, but this is not so. One side of the climate argument represents true facts and one side actually does not.

    Marco Raugei dismisses those who champion concepts such as carrying capacity, overpopulation, overshoot, peak oil, and peak resources as people with straw men arguments. It is to his advantage to do so.

    But these are not straw men arguments. Overshoot is real. Overshoot is real, and Overshoot correctly describes the material condition of humanity at this time.

    Marco Raugei knows the number of people who actually think growth will destroy the planet is about 0.01%. How many people correctly believe humanity is in overshoot? In America, I'll guess 10,000 total. Add a few more zeros, and you might have the number of millions who along with Marco think GROWTH IS GOOD.

    This is not a debate between two straw men. This is a debate between power and impotence. Between actual existing material conditions and idealistic bullshit people in power would prefer you believe.

    This video captures the essence of today's post.

    At 27 minutes in, the temperature of the interview gets warm, and lesser people would have started screaming at each other.

    The environmental footprint of green energy in a world of eight billion would be unsustainable. But as there are simply not enough resources to give everyone on the planet the same lifestyle everyone on this blog enjoys, we will not find out. I am sure an average reader of this blog is in the upper 10% of global affluence. The rest of humanity won't get to the same affluence, but wants to. This is a problem. Countries which deny their young men a path to success will find this out first.

    By the time material conditions show a green paradise is unattainable, the world will be in chaos. As Bill Rees says in the video, 'the mainstream' (those not even involved in debate) will bring us all down.

    Actual material conditions, not the quality of argument (or lack thereof) defines our future. Only one man in this argument is made of straw. Historically, humanity grows until limits stop growth. This is the way things play out, there are no exceptions.

  3. K-DOG! I remember that handle... from where? doomstead diner? Or maybe some other forum in the doomspace. Still spewing the same old Malthusian rubbish, I see... carrying capacity, overpopulation, overshoot.

    There is no such thing as "over" population; there is only the population that we have. It is "over" only for that 10-20% of humanity that consumes far more than their share of resources -- which is at this moment more than current technology can provide safely, within planetary boundaries. IOW, it is not an issue of population at all, but rather the consumption patterns of a particular small group of people, and the institutions that they've built.

    Further, terms like "carrying capacity" in ecology are relevant to organisms that lack a developed PFC and are thus incapable of permanently altering their group's carrying capacity. It is silly to speak of "carrying capacity" with respect to humans except as a temporary state, relative to the level of technological advancement. The carrying capacity of Europe in the middle ages was very low relative to today, but that was because the (crappy) technology of that time was only good enough to provide (e.g.) 10 or 20 bushels of grain per acre. Yields are now 10X that and more, and still rising due to superior technology. They will rise a great deal more, provided civilization survives the serious existential risks it faces, and carrying capacity will be greatly expanded once again, just as it has in the past.

    It is too bad that you missed the point of this current article (by Marco, as rendered by Ugo), which wisely councils that there are elements of truth in both positions. Indeed there is. We can and should consider carrying capacity, and planetary boundaries, as realities relative to given (current) levels of technological development. Said realties should constrain us in the short- and mid-term; i.e. right now and for the immediately foreseeable future. But those reality-based constraints ought not imprison us or limit our vision. Ultimately (NOT YET) there are no carrying capacity limits, and planetary boundaries will be irrelevant, because we'll be mining asteroids and etc. But again, this assumes that we can avert catastrophe (climate chaos, nuclear war, etc.), which is by no means assured. I'm not an optimist; I'm a doomoptimist: optimistic about our future IF by some miracle we can avoid blowing or burning everything up before we get to it.