"The Long Emergency": Alternative Energy?

My larger point is that the high-tech gadget-oriented vision of “renewable” energy, as imagined by the most wishful, rests on the quicksand of diminishing returns. There would seem to be a parallel belief among a pragmatic subset of the wishful that the tactic of using the remaining fossil fuels to prepare for a post-fossil fuel future is a matter of buying time until “they,” the scientist-nerd-innovator-geniuses, come up with a new and superior energy source. For all I know, this miracle will occur. Weirder things have happened in human history. (What would Ben Franklin have thought of Adobe Photoshop?) However, this idea of buying time until the tech demigods deliver a technology miracle is just another way of describing a cargo cult. From the standpoint of group psychology, it puts the human race into a jam, cramming for a final exam that it can’t afford to fail. And as if this were not enough, other forces and circumstances that I’ll discuss presently, such as climate change and the spread of disease, also beg the question as to just how bad this jam is—whether we’ve exceeded (and actually violated) the carrying capacity of the planet so egregiously that no ventures into alternative energy will allow us to keep the current game going.

In fact, we will surely have to resort to one particular form of “biomass” use in the future, but not in any way resembling the fantasies proposed by the corporate and environmentalist tech-meisters. That is, we’ll probably have to burn a lot of wood to stay warm in the Northern Hemisphere, which means that many of us in advanced industrial societies will be returning in some respects to preindustrial modes of living. In this event, I think we can expect a fairly massive devastation of forest in those places—such as America east of the Mississippi—where forests had been able to recover during the many decades when coal, oil, and natural gas reigned in home heating. The future deforestation of North America (and Europe) could be as rapid and dramatic as the extermination of the American bison in the decades after the Civil War.

… social stability has been an indirect benefit conferred to us by cheap oil, and in the absence of that oil we can’t assume the complex social organization needed to run nuclear energy safely.

Perhaps the least obvious aspect of the nuclear conundrum is this: Atomic fission is useful for producing electricity, but most of America’s energy needs are for things that electricity can’t do very well, if at all. For instance, you can’t fly airplanes on electric power from nuclear reactors. The U.S. trucking transport system as currently operated won’t run on electricity alone. In the current American mode of living, only about 36 percent of the energy consumed is in the form of electric power generated by one means or another: coal, natural gas, hydro, nuclear. This fraction has remained fairly constant for decades. The rest of our energy comes in the form of burning hydrocarbons. This speaks to the tremendous versatility of petroleum and natural gas. So, as the twenty-first century proceeds, the amount of nuclear-generated electricity is likely to rise, but it will not necessarily make up for the losses incurred by fossil fuel depletion (and the costly conflicts over the remaining supplies). It means we can have the lights on at night and refrigerate our food, but without the benefit of artificial fertilizers made out of natural gas, and diesel-powered farm machinery to till the soil at industrial scale, we will have to completely reorganize agriculture. The implication, of course, is that we will have to reorganize virtually everything else in the way we go about our daily lives. But nuclear power may be all that stands between what we identify as civilization and its alternatives.

There are other ways of using the sun and the wind that don’t rely on high-tech gadgets such as solar arrays and turbines, and we will rely on them much more in the years ahead. A draft horse is a solar-powered farming implement that is capable of reproducing, i.e., a self-renewable. It implies, however, an entirely different system of agriculture. Home gardening is a solar-powered activity that produces food at the family scale. In our time, home gardening has degenerated to little more than exterior decoration. We’ll surely have to grow more of our food closer to home in the Long Emergency, and those of use who have any land at all, even a yard in a city house, will do so. Wind, solar, and water power can do a lot of useful work at the small and medium scale, unmediated by fossil fuels. We will certainly have to do more with them at the small, local scale in any kind of plausible future.

Fossil fuels have allowed the human race to operate highly complex systems at gigantic scales. Renewable energy sources are not compatible with those systems and scales. Renewables will not be able to take the place of oil and gas in running those systems. The systems themselves will have to go. Even many “environmentalists” and “greens” of our day seem to think that all we have to do is switch inputs. Instead of running all the air conditioners of Houston on oil- or gas-generated electricity, we’ll use wind farms, or massive solar arrays; we’ll have super-fuel-efficient cars and keep on commuting over the interstate highway system. It isn’t going to happen. The wish to keep running the same giant systems at gigantic scale using renewables is the heart of our illusions about solar, wind, and water power.]

—James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency

Kunstler actually paints quite a rosy picture of nuclear energy: how safe it has been so far (except for that little incident in the Ukraine), how little uranium is actually required, and how little waste is generated, and how practical it is to stow the waste in salt caverns under old nuclear testing sites that no one is going to live on anyway. But he is clear: you can only build a large-scale nuclear energy industry on a fossil fuel economy platform, and it would only be a parachute to soften the fall to local, low-tech living. (The same would apply to hydro.) Better to make that transition with the lights on, Kunstler would say.

He is not so sanguine about coal, even though the information he presents suggests that it will be the next big thing for producing heat, electricity, and running large, mostly stationery, steam engines. It is also possible to synthesize oil and gas from coal, but it requires huge energy inputs which make it uneconomical, or at least too expensive for anyone but the elite and the military. The downside of burning coal, of course, is the deadly pollution (including mercury), the dangers of mining, and sheer the inconvenience of heating your home with it. Needless to say, you can’t run a car or fertilize a field with coal, and how long the remaining coal would last is a big unknown.

My beloved island has both coal and trees, and it is conceivable that both will be exploited for energy as oil gets prohibitively expensive, leaving behind polluted, treeless wastes, at least near settled areas. On the other hand our farmland is limited, so the demand for these “alternatives” may be mitigated by population decline through migration or starvation. Perhaps, without oil, humanity and nature will get back on a level playing field and ecological balance will be restored (albeit with many fewer species and many more toxins). It’s just getting there that will be ugly, and sad to see.