The Fallacy Of Alternative Energy
By Peter Goodchild
14 November, 2009
The term “alternative energy” starts its life as something like an oxymoron. A “source of energy” either exists or it does not. If it exists, it is being used, and the word “alternative” is therefore at best confusing if not deliberately misleading. If it does not exist, it is not being used. There is no mysterious borderland between those two states of existence and nonexistence.
It is not possible for an “alternative energy” to exist somehow in a virginal state, to be utterly undetected and unused. Refusing to deal with overpopulation directly, humans live in a world of ubiquitous destitution, and they have incessantly tried to find ways of relieving the pressures of resource consumption. In such a milieu, the search for an untouched form of “alternative energy” is irrational.
There is an air of both desperation and credulity in the quest for such an elixir, a mad scrambling for something that is basically an object of blind faith. To “desperation and credulity” could even be added “intemperance,” replacing “elixir” with “elixirs”: How many forms of “alternative energy” would humans need to find and utilize before they were happy?
The above principles can be extended even further. There is a rough positive correlation between the “sustainability” or future longevity ― as well as the practicality ― of a “source of energy” and the number of years to which this source has already been put to use. A thousand years from now, firewood will no doubt be harvested to some extent, but uranium is unlikely to be a major item of trade.
As with “source of energy,” I am putting the words “alternative energy” in quotation marks to emphasize that it is a highly problematic term, perhaps one that should be avoided. As a close cousin to an oxymoron, “alternative energy” is in the same league as “sustainable development [or growth]” and “eco-village” or “transition town” (which, contrary to my previous understanding, is not a town where donkeys are ridden). In terms of logic, or the lack thereof, the use of the term “alternative energy” can also be seen as incorporating a petitio principii, which Webster’s defines as “the fallacy of assuming in the premise of an argument the conclusion which is to be proved.”
Something else resembling an oxymoron, in the same class as the others above, and used for similar fallacious purposes, would be “cutting-edge technology,” as the term frequently appears in my email in-box: “Peter, you’re ignoring the exciting trends in cutting-edge technology.” As is often said, it’s curious how these exciting trends only pop up when human beings are suddenly facing the reality of expensive cars with no gasoline. But I generally just refer my correspondent to Dmitry Orlov’s statement in “Our Village”:
“There is an element to American culture that never ceases to amuse me. Even when grappling with the idea of economic disintegration, Americans attempt to cast it in terms of technological or economic progress: eco‑villages, sustainable development, energy efficiency and so on. Under the circumstances, such compulsive techno‑optimism seems maladaptive. I love the new advances in organic farming, which I find fascinating and very useful, but why do people seem incapable of doing the simplest things without making them into projects, preferably ones that involve some element of new technology? Thousands of years of happy composting using heaps and pits are behind us: now we need bins ― and plastic, oil‑based ones at that!”
Plastic compost bins are the tip of a gigantic pyramid, the summit of a vast infrastructure composed of government, education, and extensive division of labor. When that huge edifice is no longer in place to create those plastic compost bins, we can stop dreaming such back-to-nature dreams. Piling garden refuse into such containers might be pleasant, and it may even have a purpose, but by using these things one is hardly following the precepts of Rousseau and Thoreau. A high-tech solution is precisely no solution.
Let us return, however, to the term “source of energy.” As it is generally used, it suffers from a lack of scientific rigor. Is there any objective, unprejudiced collection of empirical evidence that the planet Earth, or parts thereof, should be looked upon as “sources of energy”? From what perspective do we derive this term? The geologist’s? The astronomer’s? Certainly it is not that of the physicist. Yes, a physicist might use such a term, but not as if it were a universally recognized label meaning “coal, oil, natural gas, and so on.” The label might suit the purposes of the historian or sociologist, but only with the understanding that these disciplines are those of the humanities, not of the sciences. The label would also suit the purposes of the engineer, but again only in terms of human goals. “Source of energy,” in other words, has meaning from the perspective of human needs, but as it is now used it is questionable as a term reflecting an objective event in external reality.
The planet Earth, if I may be forgiven for belaboring the obvious, was not designed and built with “sources of energy” as parts of its structure. (I would be inclined to say that it was not designed and built at all, but that would be a digression.) If, by some quirk of geology or biology, there was plant material, or falling water, or uranium, that could, with human ingenuity, be used to produce heat and light, then that was lucky for humanity, but it says nothing else.
The major “sources of energy,” using the term in that subjective and non-scientific sense, are fairly obvious: oil, coal, and natural gas, as well as ― much further down the list ― nuclear power and hydro. These sources now allow us to “produce energy” (in the humanistic sense) at the rate of about 16 terawatts. All other sources of “energy” amount to far less than 16 terawatts, and that will always be the case. (Yes, solar energy reaching the Earth is considerable, but it is spread out so thinly that it is not very useful.)
Descending from these Aristotelian heights, what grand conclusions can we draw? Perhaps the most important deduction is that the Earth is not an infinite repository of “sources of energy” for the delectation of mankind. The Earth is just a rock, floating in space. If a “source of energy” was not there at the beginning of the Earth, then all the “cutting-edge technology” with which we are so enamored is not going to put it there.
We, as humans, are not in a position either to create or to redesign a planet that has an equatorial diameter of about 12,756 kilometers but is, in essence, nothing more than an accident of Nature. If anything appears on Earth that is of use to us, then we are fortunate. If such a thing does not appear on Earth, perhaps contrary to our expectations, then we must be resigned to the fact.
I sympathize with those who, since about the 1960s, have been putting all their money into the bottomless pit of the “alternative energy” industry, but my compassion does not extend to prevarication. There is really no sense in devoting vast amounts of time in trying to prove that 2+2=5. But the case is worse than that: unfortunately, so many people who get into discussions over “alternative energy” have simply never bothered to do their basic homework.
The kind of writing I look for could be roughly described as follows. We might consider the 11 points listed below. Then we might ask: What would points 12 and 13, etc. be? At the same time, of course, we should not be brooding perpetually over points 1 and 2, or acting as if 1 and 2 were great new discoveries.
1. The entire world’s economy is based on oil and other fossil fuels. These provide fuel, lubricants, asphalt, paint, plastics, fertilizer, and many other products. In the year 2000 alone, about 30 billion barrels of oil were consumed.
2. In 1850, before commercial production began, there were about 2 trillion barrels of oil in the ground. By about the year 2008, half of that oil had been consumed, so about 1 trillion barrels remained.
3. By the year 2030, oil production will be down to about half of its peak production.
4. “Unconventional oil” is not very useful. Oil can be produced from tar sands, for example, but 2 barrels of conventional oil must be burned as fuel in order to produce 3 barrels of tar-sands oil.
5. The amount of energy that can be derived from “alternative energy” is not sufficient to replace that of 30 billion annual barrels of oil ― or even to replace more than a small fraction of that amount. In addition, “alternative energy” itself requires “oil energy,” even if only as an infrastructure.
6. “Alternative energy” has a host of other problems. Fuel cells require hydrogen derived from fossil fuels. Biofuels require enormous amounts of land. Hydroelectric dams are reaching their practical limits. Solar, wind, and geothermal power require prodigious amounts of equipment, a self-defeating process. Nuclear power faces a shortage of fuel, and it creates serious environmental dangers.
7. Modern agriculture depends on fossil fuels for fertilizers, pesticides, and for the operation of machines for harvesting, processing, and transporting. Without fossil fuels, it will be impossible to feed a global population of several billion people. Widespread famine is inevitable.
8. The global economy is highly dependent on metals, including iron, copper, and aluminum. The mining industry faces two problems: huge requirements of energy (derived from fossil fuels), and a shortage of high-quality ore.
9. The global economy also uses enormous amounts of electricity. (Electricity is not a source of energy; it is just a means of carrying energy.) Electricity is almost entirely derived from disappearing sources: fossil fuels, water power, or nuclear energy.
10. Without oil, metals, and electricity, modern forms of transportation and communication will disappear. Without transportation and communication, the social structure in turn will disappear: government, education, and large-scale division of labor.
11. Small human communities will survive, but they will be relying on primitive technology, since their daily needs will have to be provided mainly by resources in the immediate environment. These communities may need to defend themselves against — or isolate themselves from — groups that are less able or less willing to be self-sufficient.
To say that the coming centuries will be a challenge would be an enormous understatement. Perhaps in a future scriptorium, when the facts and legends about the present era are being scratched onto parchment, there will be a chance to reflect on the foolishness of spending time on electric toys and magic tricks, when so much of more practical value could have been done to mitigate the ravages of famine, plague, and war.
Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is email@example.com.