EcoMind Thought Trap #3

EcoMind: changing the way we think, to create the world we want. Frances Moore Lappé. New York: Nation Books, 2011.

In EcoMind, Frances Moore Lappé sets out seven “thought traps” which she seeks to defeat and replace with better ways of thinking.  Earlier, I dealt with Thought Trap #1.

Lappé is an engaging, chatty writer with some considerable influence.  I agree with a lot of what she says in this book.  That’s why I’m giving her a hard time about the few points on which we do not agree.  Thought Trap #3 is a case in point.

The Thought Trap Exposed

EcoMind Thought Trap #3 states (p. 61):

We’ve hit the limits of a finite earth. We’ve had it too good! We must “power down” and learn to live within the limits of a finite planet.

What’s going on here?  We HAVE hit the limits of a finite earth.  We DO need to “power down” (an allusion to Richard Heinberg’s book Powerdown).  How is this a “thought trap”?  Inquiring minds want to know!

The biggest drawback of the “we’ve-hit-the-limits-of-a-finite-earth” idea is this: It frames the problem out there — in the fixed quantity that is the earth. Its limits are the problem. . . . But, more accurately and usefully, the limit we’ve hit is that of the disruption of nature we humans can cause without catastrophic consequences for life. (p. 63; emphasis in original)

What does this mean?  Lappé doesn’t spell it out exactly.  It sounds as if she means that if we transitioned rapidly to a renewable energy economy, and established social justice, that we would continue to have economic growth.  It wouldn’t be “business as usual,” but a green version of “business as usual” that incorporates social justice and sustainability.

Since she wants to change the way we measure progress from GDP (gross domestic product) to something like the GPI (genuine progress indicators), she has some wiggle room in defining what this means.  Does she mean that both GDP and GPI will increase — “green growth”?  Or does she mean that GDP will shrink, but GPI will increase?  (Like, we’ll have greater leisure time and solve climate change, which will more than compensate for fewer flat-screen TVs and SUVs?)

If it’s the second view (less GDP, but more genuine progress), then she is agreeing with Herman Daly and others arguing for “limits to growth,” and this is essentially a semantic dispute about how best to “pitch” ecological reform.  Alas, though, she seems to be leaning towards the first view.  She seems to be saying that with correct alignment and enough solar panels, shortages disappear, and we’ll have “green growth” and the best of both worlds.

Lappé wants to focus on the disruptive aspect of the human economy, rather than on shortages. Actually, both problems are real. We are disrupting the planet (through greenhouse gas emissions), but we also face resource shortages (peak oil).  We need to address both.

How About Renewables?

So why can’t we just go to a renewable energy economy, and forget about all this talk about shortages?  This is closely related to her problems with thought trap #1.

Here is what Lappé says about dealing with fossil fuels in the context of climate change:

Given all we now know, why, I often ponder, aren’t we in the midst of exciting national discussion about how quickly we can leave fossil fuel behind? One obstacle might be an unspoken notion that if we’re not doing something “we should be,” the reason has to be that it costs too much. . . . This “the-party’s-over” thought trap [an allusion to to the book by Richard Heinberg, The Party’s Over] might reinforce these perhaps less-than-conscious assumptions, blocking us from realizing that cutting greenhouse gases can enrich many aspects of our lives. (p. 77)

Well, guess what! Even though cutting greenhouse gases could enrich our lives, there are several excellent reasons we aren’t in the middle of an exciting national discussion about how quickly we can leave fossil fuel behind. Let me spell them out for you!

1. Solar and wind provide electricity, which doesn’t help us at all with our oil problem. Yes, there are electric cars, but these are substantially more expensive, require huge infrastructure changes, and require metals (such as neodymium) which are themselves in short supply or which pose other problems.  Peak oil will wreck the economy before we even have a chance to make the transition.

2. Solar and wind are lower-quality energy resources than oil, coal, and gas. That is, they are “lower quality” in terms of energy return.  (In terms of the environment, though, they’re great, since they substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions.) The energy return on energy invested (EROEI) for solar and wind is less than what we’ve come to expect, and certainly less than historical oil wells and coal mines. Why should we be surprised? If solar and wind were a better deal, private enterprise would have dealt with the problem already.

3. At the present time solar and wind depend on fossil fuel energy.  They are fossil fuel extenders, not replacements.  There are no wind turbine plants, powered by wind power, with metals mined with electricity from wind power.  In fact, how we would get to an all-electric economy (including transportation and mining as two sectors totally powered by electricity) presents a lot of really challenging problems, and at best would require extremely expensive infrastructure costs.

4. Unlike coal and natural gas plants, solar and wind require up-front investment of energy. While a lot of the total energy costs of a coal plant are simply the ongoing cost of buying the coal, in the case of solar and wind almost the entire energy cost must come before a single kilowatt is generated.  This poses serious transition costs.

In rebuttal, Lappé cites a study (p. 78) saying that “the costs of transitioning to a low-carbon economy are not [economically] all that daunting.”  However, the problem is not the costs themselves, but the fact that most of them must be made in advance.   Moreover, the study Lappé mentions discusses the economic costs, whereas what we really need is energy investment. The government can print money, but the government can’t print oil, and it is oil that is in short supply.

5. While we are trying to sort all of this out, we will likely be facing declining supplies of oil because of peak oil, a subject which Lappé seems to be unfamiliar with and never mentions.  So just when the economy is hurting due to the decline in oil supplies, we’ll have to divert even more energy to the new renewable energy infrastructure.

So, no, renewables will not come to the rescue, at least not right away. It will be a very expensive proposition in conventional economic terms; it will move our economy to a somewhat lower level in physical terms, and will take decades to implement. In fact there are a number of technical challenges for which we don’t have the complete answers. We could speed up the implementation process, but only by dramatically increasing the temporary economic pain of the transition.

Climate Change Action Means a Revolution

I mention this not because I am opposed to renewables or to getting rid of fossil fuel use, by the way. I believe we need to do it anyway, in spite of the huge economic difficulties.  How comfortable are you with the extinction of all life on the planet?  Or should we allow the economy to gradually slide back to the economy of Middle Ages as we run out of oil, coal, and natural gas over the next century or two?  We just need to be honest about what specifically this is going to involve.  Even with everyone cooperating, how in practical terms could we make the transition away from fossil fuels?

I don’t think any single person really has the answer to this.  We’d have to completely restructure the economy.  My best guess is that it would go something like this.

The first step is to establish a sustainable scale for the economy — how big, physically, we could allow the economy to get.  This likely involves setting upper limits on coal, oil, and natural gas, which would progressively shrink.  The second step would be to establish a just distribution, so that the burden of this transition does not fall on the lower and middle classes.  We would need to have some sort of basic income guarantee so that everyone could be fed, housed, and clothed, with a steep progressive income or property tax.

This in itself would shrink the economy, which relies on fossil fuels, quite a bit.  Just a slight decline in oil supplies in the 1970’s created havoc in the economy. The failure of oil supplies to increase and the resulting rising oil prices during the runup to the 2008 financial crisis sent the entire global economy into a tailspin.

And these were all temporary reductions in fossil fuel use. Imagine what would this would do if there were a deliberate and permanent reduction in fossil fuel resources.  The impact of such a decline in energy use would not just be huge, it would be colossal. Huge amounts of debt (mostly private!) depend on an expanding economy, and a lot of it just wouldn’t be repaid.  Banks would fail, businesses would fail, unemployment would soar, and we would sink into an economic depression.

If we then planned to divert further huge amounts of the remaining energy supplies into building some sort of renewable infrastructure, it is highly doubtful that the “business as usual” economy would survive.  The faster we want the transition to be, the more painful the energy diversions would need to be.  Eventually, decades from now, the renewable infrastructure would supply enough energy so that it outweigh the energy invested, but in the meantime this would not be an easy or quick process.  Or, rather, it will be either easy or quick, but not both; and if it is not quick, declining oil supplies will wreck the economy.

When we finally did get to a fully renewable economy, it would likely be at a much lower physical level.  Doubtless, there will be some compensations in a low-energy society, perhaps greater leisure time.  Some people, such as Gail Tverberg, argue that a sustainable steady-state economy would be like the economy of 1750.  I doubt whether it’s quite that bad, but it almost certainly would be less than that enjoyed by the U. S. today.

I agree with Lappé that in many ways, both environmentally and socially, we will be better off. But we will be living in a world as different (or more different) from our present world, as our present world is from the world of the nineteenth century.  There will simply be no comparison.  People need to understand this.

We really have hit the limits of a finite planet. Lappé’s discussion contains many important insights, but we need to take it one step further to understand our needed course of action.

Allan Savory and company

I also have a more minor issue with her discussion of grazing and carbon absorption.  In discussing her ideas about alignment, Lappé says that we do not simply need to decrease carbon emissions, we could also increase carbon absorption. This is a nice insight, and she is right that we certainly could increase carbon absorption through better land management. But then she cites cattle grazing as a possible helpful environmental activity. She uncritically swallows Allan Savory’s holistic resource management idea of grazing to argue that cattle can actually play a positive role in carbon absorption.

Grazing, historically, has been extremely destructive environmentally.  Overgrazing has turned many parts of the world into desert.  It may be that properly maintained pasture is a carbon sink, though this point is unclear. But there is no debate that forests are a huge carbon sink, and forests are what we really need. In many parts of the globe grazing land left untended would naturally return to forest; forests were leveled to create the pasture land in the first place.  To the extent that forests regrow, grazing land will be reduced.  So the first problem is that while pasture land might, just might be a carbon sink, forests definitely are a huge sink.  We should, therefore, let grazing land revert to forest land as much as possible, and that means greatly restricting grazing, not expanding it.

In the second place, Lappé is evidently completely innocent of the fact that Allan Savory is a highly controversial figure, even among grazing advocates, and many people have plausibly questioned his statements. Savory proves that if you include enough references to “holistic,” that you can convince some environmentalists somewhere that you are on to something. Lynn Jacobs (Waste of the West), George Wuerthner, and Jeff Burgess have cited abundant research refuting many of Savory’s claims.

Thirdly, this analysis completely ignores the problem of methane emissions. Methane emissions from grazing cattle actually make grazing a worse alternative than factory farming in terms of climate change effects. Emitting methane is something natural for cattle; it is only when cows are placed in the unnatural situation of a feedlot that they are brought to market so rapidly that they never have a chance to emit as much methane as their pasture-fed cousins.

Finally, the yield of grazing is abysmal. Grazing cattle has one virtue only; it is efficient with regard to human resources. But per acre of agricultural land, the caloric or protein returns on grazing land are far less than that even of feedlot beef.

We should certainly be eager to find innovative uses for land that will improve our ecological balance, but we should not be taken in by these vague and unsupported assurances that cattle grazing is somehow better for the environment. Anyone could declare any wasteful practice to be “holistic,” it seems, and attract some sort of uncritical audience among environmentalists.

P. S.

I agree with much of what is in the rest of the book.  She is perfectly right on Thought Trap 2 (“out of control shopping is the problem”), 4 (“Humans are selfish”), 5 (“humans naturally hate rules”), 6 (“we are so disconnected from nature that it’s hopeless”), and 7 (“it’s hopeless!”). In each case, the trap really is a trap. The human condition is a social product, not something inherent either in our nature or out of our control.