In the last year there has been a sudden and dramatic upsurge in activism associated with the issue of climate change, most obviously in the shape of the Extinction Rebellion movement. People who oppose the agenda of this movement are often accused of denying the reality or severity of climate change when in reality there is a wide range of positions among critics of the radical agenda ER is pushing. What has only just begun to get attention is a kind of denialism found among many environmentalists (though not all, to be fair).
This kind of denial is not self-consciously dishonest, a matter of knowingly asserting an untrue argument (which is the false charge levied against those sceptical of standard climate change models). It is a matter of refusing to confront certain facts and, more important, the implications of those facts for the consequences of the policies they advocate. Some environmental thinkers do honestly confront them and have worked out what this means but they are a minority. This issue has suddenly attracted attention because of a film that has recently been made available and which, it is fair to say, has put the cat among the proverbial pigeons.
The heart of this denial is holding two beliefs at the same time. The first is that climate change is an existential crisis that will destroy modern civilisation, maybe even human life, unless something drastic is done. The second is that there is however a way of dealing with climate change that will certainly require some changes but which will in most ways leave our present way of life intact.
In particular it will not require or lead to changes in our way of life that most of the people in the climate change movement find agreeable – such as the internet and the modern welfare state for example. This is a refusal to explore and face up to the inevitable implications of the first belief, if it is taken seriously. It is in other words a classic case of trying to have one’s cake and eat it as well.
The key belief that enables people to do this is to think that modern civilisation can stop using fossil fuels, and not use nuclear power, and yet still keep a high energy civilisation and economy going. This matters because a very high level of energy usage is one of the most important features of the modern world, perhaps the most important. Our way of life and all of the institutions of the modern world depend on that fact and any reduction in energy usage will require fundamental, structural changes.
The concrete assumption that is the foundation for believing this is that we can simply replace fossil fuels and nuclear power with renewable energy. We can still have a high energy economy and society but the energy will come from a different source. Very recently a film has come out, from a radical environmental perspective, that shows this up for the self-serving nonsense that it is.
That is of course Planet of the Humans, produced by Michael Moore. This film has provoked a firestorm of criticism, with many going so far as to demand that the film should be banned as ‘dangerous’ or at the very least pulled from channels such as YouTube (where it is available for free). There is a strong element of pained surprise of the “Michael, how could you?!” variety because this is the first time Moore has made a film that attacks the views of people broadly on the left. The common reaction is that he has somehow betrayed his cause and gone over to the dark side (the right and the climate change sceptics).
This is both inaccurate and deeply unfair: Moore is as committed to the belief in the severity and urgency of a man-made climate crisis as ever and remains strongly supportive of a radical green agenda. He is however too honest to go along with the deluded belief described earlier (People who use his film to attack the idea of climate change and the need for a response are therefore also mistaken – have they watched it?).
Moore and the makers of Planet of the Humans are not alone in their position, which combines a belief in the reality and severity of climate change with deep scepticism that our use of fossil fuels can simply be replaced by renewable energy. There are several prominent environmental thinkers and activists who share that scepticism. These people are prepared to explore what moving from a high energy economy and society to a low energy one would be like and the kinds of changes it would entail.
The fantasy of a high energy society powered by renewable enables others to avoid confronting those tough choices. Planet of the Humans threatens to destroy that fantasy. There are, as the film and the writings of others such as Alex Epstein, four reasons why this cannot happen. Any one of them is enough to derail the fantasy but taken together they are a complete barrier.
The first is that renewable energy is in all kinds of ways not a feasible replacement for other kinds of energy. The main problem here is that renewable energy is very diffuse whereas fossil fuels and nuclear fuels such as thorium and uranium are very concentrated – you get a lot of usable energy out of a small physical quantity of oil or uranium.
By contrast, if you tried to power a large metropolitan area such as Los Angeles entirely from solar power you would have to cover an area several times the size of LA with solar panels. This is not a matter of monetary cost so the accurate response that the price of solar energy is falling is irrelevant – it’s still too diffuse. This means that there are several things you can do with fossil fuels in particular that you simply cannot do with renewable energy.
One example is transport. There is no way that heavier than air transport can use renewable energy. There is much glib talk of electric cars but studying the details shows that even making electrical vehicles capable of replacing petrol-powered ones in a dense urban environment will be very difficult. It will not be possible to do that for longer distance travel – quite simply the trucks will not run if they rely on renewable energy. It is also impossible to use renewable energy for things such as steel manufacture (industrial heating as it is called). These are not luxuries but core features of modern civilisation.
The second reason follows from that. Renewable energy sources such as solar power and wind will always depend upon the concentrated energy of fossil fuels and nuclear power. The first reason for that is another of their essential features which is their intermittency – the sun does not shine all the time and the wind is not always blowing. That means there has to be a backup of other kinds of energy sources.
The other reason is that the concentrated energy of fossil fuels is needed to produce the solar panels and wind turbines – unlike trees these do not grow naturally but have to be made and maintained (windmills in particular break down regularly) and this requires concentrated energy inputs. That leads to the third reason for renewable energy not being a solution to problems of global warming caused by carbon emissions – they and their associated infrastructure inevitably have significant environmental impacts, not least high levels of carbon emissions because of the need to use fossil fuels in their manufacture and transportation.
Finally, there are other uses for oil in particular that would have to be replaced, above all the use of fertilisers and pesticides in agriculture (both of these are derived mainly from oil).
The film has great fun pointing this out and showing that many environmentalists are, not dishonest but wilfully clueless. As said though, the makers of the film accept the radical green agenda; they are prepared to think about what that means. Even they though do not really go into detail about what the worked-out implications are. If climate change caused by high levels of energy use is a desperate problem and if in addition, we cannot simply replace our current energy sources with renewables then the only logical conclusion is that to save the world we as a species will have to drastically reduce our consumption of energy. We will have to move from a high energy-capture society to a low one – the kind of society our ancestors lived in.
That does not mean that we will simply revert to living like our eighteenth-century ancestors and that is an unfair criticism. We can though work out what would be inevitable features of the world we would have if energy use was reduced in the way that would be needed. Indeed, the current pandemic is giving us a faint taste of what it would be like. I might not mean abject poverty although it would mean a massive reduction in living standards for the majority of the world’s population. Certainly, it would mean the end of economic growth and a reversion to the constrained Malthusian economy of our ancestors. It is the inevitable social changes that would be striking.
There would obviously be a massive decline in travel, and also in long distance trade – if fossil fuels were eliminated there is no way to switch ships to renewable power apart from reverting to windjammers and sail. This would be a much more localised world and the idea of a global community would become part of the world that was renounced. There would be far less migration and movement and almost certainly a sharp rise in nationalism, with a return to national or even local identity as the basis for political order.
A common fantasy is that the internet would survive and keep us all together but is exactly that – a total fantasy. Already the internet produces as much carbon emissions as the airline industry and its energy use is massive and constant – it will be prohibitively difficult to maintain this with renewable energy. Even if that were possible, the physical infrastructure of computers and transmissions requires massive expenditure of energy to mine and refine rare minerals and turn them into products. None of this would be possible. You can also kiss smartphones and laptops goodbye, for the same reason.
Another change would be a big movement of labour into agriculture and the reappearance of the peasantry as an important social class. You can achieve high levels of agricultural output without relying on fossil fuel inputs such as fertilisers and machines powered by them and manufactured using them but this is done by transforming much agriculture into horticulture, intensive hands-on farming. This is by its nature very labour intensive.
One environmentalist who has faced up to this, Richard Heinberg, estimates that around 30% of the labour force would have to become farmers, a new peasantry in fact in his pamphlet “Fifty Million Farmers.” There would also be a revival of the household as an economic unit and with it, almost certainly, a revival of traditional gender roles.
One of the things that high energy capture has made possible is to move many activities out of the household or domestic sphere and into the market one. This, along with high energy devices such as the washing machine, has transformed the lives of women in particular and made possible a relocation of much female life away from the domestic. It is hard to see how this could possibly continue in a low energy society.
These are all outcomes that the social justice warriors who make up much of the climate emergency movement would find very unwelcome, as they conflict with their political ideals and values. Yet, they will happen if we follow their urgings and abandon fossil fuels and eschew nuclear power because, given that renewable energy is not going to replace those sources, there is no alternative to reducing energy use dramatically, if we give up the sources we now rely on. Interestingly these changes should be very welcome to traditionalist conservatives and the question is why more conservatives do not realise that and drop their opposition to green politics.
There is actually a more natural fir between a certain kind of conservatism and radical environmentalism than between that and modish socialism. In the United States genuine conservatives are rare birds however and most who fly by that name are fully fledged fans of modernity. In Europe though things are different and there are already signs that the more traditionally minded right here is realising this. In the aftermath of the pandemic we may yet see radical green politics start to migrate back to what was its original home – the anti-modern right. This would at least be consistent.