Sunday, March 11, 2012

The dreams that failed

It is difficult to avoid a sense of gloom these days, especially in Europe. Quite a few big dreams the drove many souls forward in the past few decades have turned sour or have lost their elan. Europe, the euro, a just society everywhere.. even the great democrat Putin (Schröder dixit) does not seem to be loved by his own folk as he used to be 10 years ago. Technology should be the last bulwark to fail against impending doom. Not even that.

The Economist, not precisely a journal suspect of being a staunch supporter of the anti-nuclear movement, has declared nuclear energy in this special report more or less moribund. I think there are some silver linings though. When Japan virtually shut down most of its nuclear reactors last year, most pundits predicted widespread blackouts over the summer, which did not come to pass. Is it therefore possible that we may actually muddle through with much less energy than we currently use (or waste) ? 

What happened to solar energy, the banner of the anti-oil movement ? It seems that solar energy and nuclear fusion have indeed something in common: they will always be the energy of the future. The problem is what energy are we going to use now ? Perhaps we should have asked Steven Jobs, as the Breakthrough Institute and the Hartwell paper would suggest, but that dream is also gone.
 Solarworld, share price (€),  last 10 years
Apple, share price ($), last 10 years


Georg Hoffmann said...

"When Japan virtually shut down most of its nuclear reactors last year, most pundits predicted widespread blackouts over the summer, which did not come to pass."

true, but Japan imported so much energy in 2011 that the first time since about 30 years Japan had a negative balance of trade. Would be interesting to know if the consumption per capita went down once corrected for the halted industrial production.

Roddy said...

Superb article. Almost perfectly descriptive of the situation. Thanks for posting it.

Heber Rizzo said...

What energy are we going to use now?

No problem there, Eduardo.

Coal, shale gas, and shale oil, of course.

Europe has plenty of them, and if we don´t artificially raise their prices by way of stupid green taxes, we could recover and be rich and happy again.

Reiner Grundmann said...

Many thanks for this post.

Yes, utopia has run out of steam some time ago, especially after the disillusionment with social utopias like socialism or communism. But what have got to look forward to? Perhaps just a better version of what we used to have (welfare state, rule of law, human rights)? This was Francis Fukuyama's thesis about the end of history, written in the wake of the collapse of communism. In a strange kind of way, we still seem to be stuck with this situation. We are now looking for a capitalism which can deal with financial crises better. And perhaps manage environmental problems, and climate change.

Regarding climate change, there has never been a utopia; from the beginning, this was framed as a dystopian discourse. It was the "end of the world" (if we don’t cut emissions drastically now). On the other hand, the proposed life-style changes would be equally dystopian. As Frederic Jameson put it, "It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism."

There is an interesting article by the geographer Erik Swyngedouw who expands on this idea, “Apocalypse Forever? Post-political Populism and the Spectre of Climate Change”, Theory, Culture & Society March/May 2010 vol. 27 (2-3): 213-232 doi: 10.1177/0263276409358728

Regarding technologies, some optimists believe in geo-engineering. How utopian would this be? Imagine we could invent an efficient and cheap technology of CO2 air capture. Would we then have solved any of the pressing problems? Or wouldn’t we still be struggling with all the major environmental, social and political problems we faced all along? (BTW: Such a machine would pose the additional problem of how to set the global thermostat. But I guess the UN could agree on that during a coffee break).

eduardo said...


Actually I do believe that, if push comes to shove, we would be able in 50 years to control atmospheric CO2 concentrations. It is just my believe though, but I think it would easier than nuclear fusion, for instance. As you shrewdly suggested, the real problem would be to agree on the optimal level.

I often tend to think about the quite strong changes that inadvertently creep in our way of life, apparently without any Klein-style command from above. Notable examples are mobile phones, which actually require quite a coordinated action from providers, manufacturers, governments, regulators, etc. But somehow, transparently for the user, they are there and are used by virtually all, independently of religion, political convictions and cultural background. That was the background of the graph on the price of Apple. CO2 emissions is of course a different problem, but I would tend to think that indeed , if you give customers innovative cars or housing technology, they will adopt it immediately.

eduardo said...

@3 Herber,

well, that my worry. Apart from carbon emissions, coal is a quite inefficient and pollutant way of recovering energy.

Georg Hoffmann said...

It seems that there are first principle reasons to doubt that this will be ever achievable:

"Before we go into details of how to capture carbon from thin air, let’s
discuss the unavoidable energy cost of carbon capture. Whatever technolo-
gies we use, they have to respect the laws of physics, and unfortunately
grabbing CO2 from thin air and concentrating it requires energy. The laws
of physics say that the energy required must be at least 0.2 kWh per kg of
CO2 (table 31.5). Given that real processes are typically 35% efficient at
best, I’d be amazed if the energy cost of carbon capture is ever reduced
below 0.55 kWh per kg.

Now, let’s assume that we wish to neutralize a typical European’s CO2
output of 11 tons per year, which is 30 kg per day per person. The energy
required, assuming a cost of 0.55 kWh per kg of CO2, is 16.5 kWh per day
per person. This is exactly the same as British electricity consumption. So
powering the giant vacuum cleaner may require us to double our electricity
production – or at least, to somehow obtain extra power equal to our
current electricity production."

Werner Krauss said...


Your cell phone example is fascinating and convincing. I totally agree that technology indeed is a main factor that can change much more in energy policies than political revolutions or the like. Smart technologies, smart grids, there is enormous potential for Apple-like ingenuity.

On the other hand, when you mention that technological solutions are not "from above" like Naomi Klein's suggestions, I had to think. First, it is somehow strange to call an anarchist grassroots movement "from above", especially in context with a multi-billion industry like Apple; instead, I think Apple is more "above" in a very practical and concrete sense:

Apple technology is not without social, political and environmental costs. iPhones etc are produced in China under conditions which are not very comfortable for the workers (they are cheaper than machines, maybe this says it all); the natural resources needed are not from the Silicon Valley, and the waste apple products sooner or later are (mostly sooner, as we know) is also not buried there. Instead, the global South provides the cheap work force, their natural resources are owned and extracted by China or the global North, and they are the global garbage dump in the smart Apple world.

Thus, I am not sure whether it is possible to keep politics completely out of future energy production. Maybe one should add some smart politics to the smart technologies. Power politics - power understood both in its meaning as energy AND as politics.

Roddy said...

Georg - that's a great book, the David Mackay one. I've been suggesting it to people on the Heartland thread who seem to think decarbonising will cost sixpence.

Eduardo - did you see the 'nuclear powers ahead' article in today's WSJ Europe which seems to differ sharply from The Economist?

Reiner Grundmann said...


you miss my point - is was talking about Utopias.


I would not dismiss Naomi Klein's call for state intervention completely. Could it be that both activists and scientists have a broad brush view of regulation?

Of course every government sets the boundaries for private enterprise. These differ across countries and time. Creating incentives for specific branches of industry is business as usual for policy makers. We need to find the right mix. The question is not IF government intervenes into the economy, but how, when, with what aim and with what instruments.

eduardo said...

@8, @10

Werner and Reiner,

Indeed nobody can discuss away the role of the state, in infrastructure in education, in health services, etc, etc. An important part of trick is to strike the right balance between state and individual. Well, I am not going to give a political speech here and now...

An essential point is, however, the legitimacy. As I understood what Klein proposed- contrary what Werner says, is the opposite of anarchism. She claims that a world authority is required, and even an imposed authority if necessary - what did I get wrong ? Klein's proposed solutions are the easy old ones: the situation is so dire that we need a central dictator to save us from doom. The smart solutions - and that why I think Klein is not smart at all - is to design a policy that takes people voluntarily, that convinces and entices. It is very easy to blame the oil industry and climate deniers when the most of the real fault lies on the own camp.

Yes, life in Western Europe is more comfortable than in China. Private companies are not charities, the world is ugly . Am I discovering something new ? The question is rather if it is improving ? I think yes, definitively, it is improving. Imagine asking the Chinese population if they would like to return to Mao times. Imagine to ask the world population if Apple should be destroyed. What do you think would be the result ?

eduardo said...



yes, thank you for the info.
I am probably not the best informed person, but I would remain sceptical, at least in Europe.
The EPR reactor of new generation that Areva is buidling in Finnland is really delayed and over budget. For me this is a sign that it wont be plain sailing. Siemens also sold its share of the joint venture with Areva a few months ago. They wouldnt have done so if they thought there was a bright future for nuclear energy in Europe. It is not only about technological development. European opinion is strongly against nuclear energy, for better or worse. And there are alternatives that are cheap in the short-term, coal and gas.

Werner Krauss said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Werner Krauss said...

sorry, 2nd try, forgot something to add:

@Eduardo #11

Sounds reasonable. I have no objections to your optimistic interpretation of things going on. You can say it like that.

I am tired of defending Naomi Klein; I don't know that much about her. A few words instead about the social movements she is related too, maybe you can agree on that.

Some people say that without the hippies, there would have been no Apple. Maybe the same is true for the "anti-globalization" movement, the "climate camps" and the "Occupy Wall Street" movement. They show that there are always alternatives, possibilities, and that it's about diversity and people.

The development of smart solutions / smart technologies and social movements such as Occupy Wall Street are not mutually exclusive, quite the contrary. Those movements are social laboratories; instead of putting them into jail (or blaming them routinely), we should closely listen, discuss and observe to learn something for the future. New technologies need new forms of decision making, of democracy, of global relations. This future is not only prepared in administrations and in science; it happens on the street, too.

It's like with democracy, which doesn't just exist; it needs permanent input, here, in the US, and especially in Russia and China. Without resistance, this does not happen. We should not blame those who resist, but those who oppress and deny opportunities.

(That is, in my opinion, why the nuclear dream failed: it never developed a positive vision of democracy; instead, it turned out to be a permanent security, observation and control problem. Maybe the title shouldn't be "the dream that failed", but "the nightmare that comes to an end").

Roddy said...

eduardo, I agree, I've been watching it for a few years, and made some money (sorry!) from the uranium boom back then having looked at supply/demand and so on, and none of it came true. The WSJ article seemed less true than The Economist.

Certainly in the UK there is no chance imho of building new nuclear without a strict change in government policy to support/guarantee it, and that's with the quadruple play of decent public support, existing sites, stable political environment, and need for new low CO2 generation.

Reiner Grundmann said...

Eduardo -11

As a sociologist I find it interesting that we are talking about utopias in 2012 and the only positive things we can imagine are related to material wealth, democratic institutions, health care etc. These had been taken for granted in the past, to such an extent that social scientists came up with the term of "post-materialist world-views", allegedly held by the postwar generation. Where has this gone? Or has it gone?

What I am trying to explore is the content of utopias today. From anecdotal evidence I know that a lot of children watch or play computer games which to a large extent contain end-of-world-scenarios. Has utopia become commercialized and discredited through Hollywood's happy endings? Why do young people today prefer dystopias? Have climate scientists subconsciously tried to tap into this culture?

Heber Rizzo said...


"Apart from carbon emissions, coal is a quite inefficient and pollutant way of recovering energy"

Yes, but it is cheap, and we have plenty of it. Regarding pollution, there are ways to tackle with it (Chinese coal power plants show that).

I´d prefer nuclear, though. And as a second, shale gas.

Poverty and cold kills, and against them we need energy, as much and as cheap as possible.

And, by the way, my name is "Heber".

Menos pobreza, más bienestar, más civilización. Esos son mis sueños, Eduardo.

Georg Hoffmann said...

"Yes, but it is cheap, and we have plenty of it. Regarding pollution, there are ways to tackle with it (Chinese coal power plants show that)."

And it costs about 1000 dead miners per yr in China alone (Paul Scherrer Institute) and about 100000 fatalities per yr as a consequence of open fire cooking in India, and and and .... and finally it is a greenhouse gas.

Heber Rizzo said...

@ Georg Hgoffmann
And in China 400 000 died for a hidroelectric broken dam...

Because China is a dictatorship, and hundreds of thousands die manufacturing shoes or bycicles or many other things that we buy in Europe.

And Indians have no cheap electric energy, but they need to cook with what is available for them, specially manure, by the way...

But there are no dead miners (except accidents, of course) in Australia, or EE.UU., or Poland.

And besides that, CO2 is food for plants, so it is food for us. It is good.

Georg Hoffmann said...

you should try to get the numbers right. 171000 dead at the Banqiao
dam, 24000 directly, not 400000.

I was talking of accidents.

That everyone is rich and beautiful might be an objective but it is not a solution. If one recommends coal to China today then it is under the actual conditions.

"And besides that, CO2 is food for plants, so it is food for us. It is good."

Heber Rizzo said...

Sorry. Post above was to Georg Hoffmann. Sometimes, my fingers get too clumsy.

Anyway, as Girma said at (noblesse oblige):

"What a sad time in the history have we come to when some want to do away with cheap energy when billions live in the dark. Something has really gone wrong."