Feb 042017
 
 February 4, 2017  Posted by at 2:43 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  


Esther Bubley Boy who rides to school daily on Greyhound bus, Washington Court House, Ohio 1943

 

It’s been a while since the Automatic Earth featured an article from Energy Matters, the site run by our longtime friend Euan Mearns, Honorary Research Fellow at The University of Aberdeen, and his co-conspirator Roger Andrews, a British engineer/geophysicist, semi-retired in Mexico. But I read a piece by Roger yesterday that I like, because it allows me to rant against all the false claims emanating from countries and companies about the share of renewable power in their total energy consumption.

Roger focuses on the railway system in the Netherlands, run by NS, which recently claimed that it operates on 100% wind power. This is of course, if you know anything about electricity generation and the grid, a preposterous claim, and that the company has the guts to make such a claim can only serve to prove how little the general public knows about the topic. Or they wouldn’t dare. Green is still so sexy in certain circles, and actual knowledge so poor, that companies like the NS feel no scruples about stretching their ‘greenness’ into absurd theater territory.

Google does something similar. And you might be inclined to think that the topic is so important for both the companies and the people they seek to please with their claims that grossly exaggerating the numbers would be out of the question, but not so. Instead, “Google announced that it will purchase enough renewable energy to match 100% of its operations in 2017”. And that is not the same as running on renewables, which is what is being suggested (in carefully cherry-picked terms). I like this assessment by electronicdesign.com:

Is Google’s Renewable Energy Plan What It Seems?

“Essentially, Google is contracting for green energy from places that can never reach its data centers. If it were as simple as Google claims, it would be easy to build a renewable power sector. New York City could execute a massive number of contracts with wind farms in upstate New York because they are on the same grid.“ [..]

Google is promising to buy—on an annual basis—the same amount of megawatt-hours (MWh) of renewable energy as the amount of megawatt-hours of electricity that it consumes for its worldwide operations. This approach will benefit the renewable energy market even though it is still generating the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions with or without its 100% renewable energy purchasing plan.

Google ‘buys renewable energy’ in various places around the world, but its servers don’t run on it. It’s exactly like companies buying carbon permits from poorer nations; an excuse to keep polluting. As both the permits and the renewables are traded in markets where prices are low and/or heavily subsidized. As for the scale involved, “In 2015, Google consumed 5.7 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity, which is nearly as much electricity as the city of San Francisco.” And don’t forget it keeps consuming ever more as the company grows. That’s a lot of fossil fuels. The medieval ‘principle’ of absolution inevitably comes to mind.

As for the Netherlands’ railways, Roger concludes below, after explaining why, that “the Netherlands’ electrified railways continue to be powered dominantly by fossil fuel electricity. The “Harried Dutch commuters” who are “travelling on one of the most environmentally friendly rail networks in the whole of Europe, if not the world” are being sold a bill of goods.”

 

I would like to add that because of continuing issues related to intermittency and baseload, which are nowhere near being solved, the very grid itself that is used to deliver the ‘renewable’ electricity couldn’t exist without fossil fuels. Or, in other words, if there were only ‘green’ sources of electricity, there would be no grid. How much can be moved towards ‘green’ sources is still somewhat debatable, but just like solar panels and wind turbines cannot build themselves but need fossil fuels to be produced, there is a limit far far below the 100% both Google and the Dutch railways are (deceitfully?) toying around with. Here’s Roger:

 

 

a target=”new” href=”https://euanmearns.com/do-the-netherlands-trains-really-run-on-100-wind-power/”>Do The Netherlands’ Trains Really Run On 100% Wind Power?

This question generated a number of comments in the last Blowout so I thought I would take a quick look at it. I find that the electrified portion of the Dutch railway network (Nederlandse Spoorwegen, or NS) runs on grid electricity that comes dominantly from fossil fuel generation (natural gas and coal). NS claims 100% wind power because it has a contract with various wind farms to produce enough energy to power its rail system, but this is just an accounting transaction. Only a small fraction of the power delivered to its trains actually comes from wind.

First some details on the Netherlands’ electricity sector. As shown in the table below installed capacity is dominantly fossil fuel, with natural gas making up 61% of total installed capacity and coal 15%. Wind contributes 4,117MW, representing 13% of the capacity mix. (Data from ENTSO-E ):

No details on the current generation mix are readily available, but as shown in Figure 1 gas and coal supplied around 80% of the Netherlands’ electricity between 2000 and 2013 and it’s likely that this percentage still applies.

Figure 1: The Netherlands’ generation mix 2000-2013. Data from Frontier Economics

How much of the Netherlands’ electricity is supplied by wind? According to Cleantechnica
wind power in the Netherlands generates 7.4 billion kWh (7.4TWh) of electricity annually, and according to BP the Netherlands’ total electricity generation in 2015 was 109.6TWh. However, wind power consumption in the Netherlands in 2015 was 12.5TWh, indicating that about 5TWh of wind power was imported during the year. So while wind contributes about 7% to the Netherlands’ electricity generation it contributes about 11% to the country’s electricity consumption. Either figure comfortably exceeds the amount of electricity NS uses to power its electric trains, which is variously quoted as either 1.2 or 1.4TWh/year.

The Netherlands imports wind power basically because it’s falling behind its EU renewable energy targets. But how does NS know the power it imports is wind? Because Eneco, which contracts to supply NS with wind power, gets a “Guarantee of Origin” from the exporter under which the exporter confirms that the power came from wind and assigns the rights to it to NS. As Cleantechnica puts it: “the GoO system allows for the transfer of the rights to call electricity green from those who actually generate renewable energy to those who don’t but want to classify their power as such. The actual amount of green energy produced is unaffected.”

There is, however, a problem. For NS to use only wind power from wind farms to power its rail system the wind farms must be connected directly to NS’s railways. (Figure 2: Note the dotted lines showing non-electrified track. According to LJ Electrical only 2,231km of NS’s total 3,223km of track is electrified):

Figure 2: The Netherlands’ railway network.

And of course no such connections exist. The two Dutch wind farms that have contracted to sell power to NS (Noordoostpolder and Luchterduinen) are both connected directly to the Dutch grid, along with all the other power plants in the country, and NS draws its power from the grid:

Figure 3: The Netherlands’ electricity grid. Grid connections for the Luchterduinen and Nordpoostpolder wind farms (locations approximate) are shown in black.

When wind power is fed into a grid it becomes inextricably mixed with all the vibrating electrons from other generation sources to the point where there is no way of knowing where any power taken from the grid came from. Grid power in fact reflects the overall generation mix, which in the case of the Netherlands is dominantly gas and coal with only a small contribution from wind. How much wind? Over the course of this year the average will be around 11%, equal to wind power’s share of the Netherlands’ annual grid electricity consumption.

And only half of the wind power NS has contracted for comes from the Netherlands. The other half comes from “newly built wind farms in …. Belgium and Finland”. Wind power now supplies about 10% of Belgium’s electricity, so power imported from the Belgian grid will be about 10% wind. Wind power from Finland can be discounted. Only about 2% of Finland’s generation mix is wind, and by the time it passes through the Finnish, Swedish and German grids on its way to the Netherlands it will effectively have disappeared. Imports from the German grid, however, will contain about 14% wind power, although not wind power that NS has contracted for. Putting these numbers together indicates that only 10-15% of the electricity consumed annually by NS’s electric trains will come from wind, with the rest a mixture that includes mostly Dutch gas and coal plus a small amount of Belgian and German coal, nuclear and lignite – and maybe even a little German solar.

The supply of wind power to the Dutch grid will also not be constant. I have no wind records for the Netherlands but P.F. Bach supplies data for Belgium, which should be a close analogy, and Figure 4 shows Belgian wind generation for September 2014:

Figure 4: Belgian wind generation, September 2014

With an installed capacity of around 1850MW in this month the overall wind capacity factor was 11% and there were a number of occasions on which wind generation fell effectively to zero for hours on end. During these periods wind generation in the neighboring Netherlands would also have fallen to low levels. Were these conditions to repeat themselves now, and if NS’s trains were powered exclusively by wind, they would almost certainly come to a halt. (Although Eneco, NS’s wind power procurer, claims that its “wind farm portfolio guarantees sufficient capacity to cover such eventualities” . Apparently Eneco can make the wind blow to order.)

So how does NS justify the claim that all Dutch trains run on 100% wind power? Well, it actually claims that only the electrified portion runs on 100% wind. Only the Guardian has seen fit to publish a correction:

An earlier version said all Dutch trains were now 100% powered by wind-generated electricity, according to the national railway company NS. The company said all electric trains were now powered by wind energy. (my emphasis)

And how does NS justify this lesser claim? According to Railway Technology because it has a:

“green energy contract – thought to be among the largest yet signed in Europe – between power supplier Eneco and VIVENS, an energy procurement joint venture comprising Netherlands Railways (NS), Veolia, Arriva, Connexxion and rail freight firms”, and because

“NS and Eneco have carefully selected a list of wind farms that fulfil their criteria of being traceable, sustainable – or renewable – and additional, or new”, and because

“This partnership ensures that new investments can be made in even newer wind farms, which will increase the share of renewable energy. In this way, the Dutch railways aim to reduce the greatest negative environmental impact caused by CO2 in such a way that its demand actually contributes to the sustainable power generation in the Netherlands and Europe.”

The first two are “feel good” justifications that have no practical impact. The third – that by purchasing wind power that would otherwise have gone elsewhere NS is leaving the door open for more wind projects and more CO2 reductions – is the only one that offers any tangible benefits. But there is no guarantee that the unfilled demand will be met by renewables, and in any event the 1.2-1.4TWh/year consumed by NS represents barely more than 1% of the Netherlands’ annual electricity consumption and a totally negligible fraction of European consumption. This is hardly enough to make a big deal about.

And meanwhile the Netherlands’ electrified railways continue to be powered dominantly by fossil fuel electricity. The “Harried Dutch commuters” who are “travelling on one of the most environmentally friendly rail networks in the whole of Europe, if not the world” are being sold a bill of goods.

 

 

May 132016
 
 May 13, 2016  Posted by at 3:03 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  

Before you raise your voice, please allow me to say that I do indeed know this starts to feel like a set of Russian dolls, and this is a re-run of a re-run. It’s just, I didn’t start it. Got a mail yesterday from the people at OpEdNews.com asking if I would allow them to repost something I wrote over a year ago. And since I’m notoriously bad at remembering anything I wrote even just 24 hours ago, when I read what they wanted to republish, it was almost like a whole new world opened up for me. And I kind of liked it.

And only then I saw that what they had read, which was published May 2, 2015 as Quote Of The Year. And The Next. And The One After, was actually largely a rerun of a January 1 2013 article. But, you know, when someone tells you “Your essay is excellent. And as one who has been closely attuned to such matters for nearly 50 years I can say with confidence that your theme is fresh and current as any other we should be reading and heeding today. In fact, I think it is timeless.”, A) you feel young, and B) you say: who am I to disagree with that?

So this today went up at OpEdNews.com, and is now once again up at The Automatic Earth as well. Because I do still think it’s relevant and important to acknowledge that “we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.”, and that we are nowhere near realizing how true that is, and how much that denial, unfortunately, guides our existence. We’re either not even smart monkeys, or we’re that at best. We need a lot more self-reflection than we are getting, or we’re going down. And my bet, much as it pains me, is on door no. 2. From May 5, 2015:

I very rarely read back any of the essays I write. But maybe that’s not always a good thing. Especially when they deal with larger underlying issues beneath the problems we find ourselves in, why these problems exist in the first place, and what we can and will do to deal with them. Not all of these things can and perhaps should be re-written time and again. Commentary on daily events calls for new articles, but attempts to define the more in-depth human behavior behind these events should, if they are executed well, be more timeless.

Not that I would want to judge my own work, I’ll leave that to others, but I can still re-read something and think: that’s something I would like to read if someone else had written it. Since a friend yesterday sent me an email that referenced the essay below, I did go through it again and thought it’s worth republishing here. It’s from New Year’s Day 2013, or almost 2.5 years old, which should be a long enough time gap that many present day readers of The Automatic Earth haven’t read it yet, and long enough for those who have to ‘enjoy’ it all over again.

I am not very optimistic about the fate of mankind as it is, and that has a lot to do with what I cite here, that while our problems tend to evolve in exponential ways, our attempts at solving them move in linear fashion. That is true as much for the problems we ourselves create as it is for those that – seem to – ‘simply happen’. I think it would be very beneficial for us if we were to admit to our limits when it comes to solving large scale issues, because that might change the behavior we exhibit when creating these issues.

In that sense, the distinction made by Dennis Meadows below between ‘universal problems’ and ‘global problems’ may be very useful. The former concerns issues we all face, but can -try to – solve at a more local level, the latter deals with those issues that need planet-wide responses – and hardly ever get solved if at all. The human capacity for denial and deceit plays a formidable role in this.

I know that this is not a generally accepted paradigm, but that I put down to the same denial and deceit. We like to see ourselves as mighty smart demi-gods capable of solving any problem. But that is precisely, I think, the no. 1 factor in preventing us from solving them. And I don’t see that changing: we’re simple not smart enough to acknowledge our own limitations. Therefore, as Meadows says: “we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.” Here’s from January 1 2013:

Ilargi: I came upon this quote a few weeks ago in an interview that Der Spiegel had with Dennis Meadows, co-author of the Limits to Growth report published by the Club of Rome 40 years ago. Yes, the report that has been much maligned and later largely rehabilitated. But that’s not my topic here, and neither is Meadows himself. It’s the quote, and it pretty much hasn’t left me alone since I read it.

Here’s the short version:

[..] … we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.

And here it is in its context:

‘Limits to Growth’ Author Dennis Meadows ‘Humanity Is Still on the Way to Destroying Itself’

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Professor Meadows, 40 years ago you published “The Limits to Growth” together with your wife and colleagues, a book that made you the intellectual father of the environmental movement. The core message of the book remains valid today: Humanity is ruthlessly exploiting global resources and is on the way to destroying itself. Do you believe that the ultimate collapse of our economic system can still be avoided?

Meadows: The problem that faces our societies is that we have developed industries and policies that were appropriate at a certain moment, but now start to reduce human welfare, like for example the oil and car industry. Their political and financial power is so great and they can prevent change. It is my expectation that they will succeed. This means that we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.

I don’t really think that Dennis Meadows understands how true that is. I may be wrong, but I think he’s talking about a specific case here . While what he makes me ponder is that perhaps this is all we have, and always, that it’s a universal truth. That we can never solve our real big problems through proactive change. That we can only get to a next step by letting the main problems we face grow into full-blown crises, and that our only answer is to let that happen.

And then we come out on the other side, or we don’t, but it’s not because we find the answer to the problem itself, we simply adapt to what there is at the other side of the full-blown crisis we were once again unable to halt in its tracks. Adapt like rats do, and crocodiles, cockroaches, no more and no less.

This offers a nearly completely ignored insight into the way we deal with problems. We don’t change course in order to prevent ourselves from hitting boundaries. We hit the wall face first, and only then do we pick up the pieces and take it from there.

Jacques Cousteau was once quite blunt about it:

The road to the future leads us smack into the wall. We simply ricochet off the alternatives that destiny offers: a demographic explosion that triggers social chaos and spreads death, nuclear delirium and the quasi-annihilation of the species… Our survival is no more than a question of 25, 50 or perhaps 100 years.

Without getting into specific predictions the way Cousteau did: If that is as true as I suspect it is, the one thing it means is that we fool ourselves a whole lot. The entire picture we have created about ourselves, consciously, sub-consciously, un-consciously, you name it, is abjectly false. At least the one I think we have. Which is that we see ourselves as capable of engineering proactive changes in order to prevent crises from blowing up.

That erroneous self-image leads us to one thing only: the phantom prospect of a techno-fix becomes an excuse for not acting. In that regard, it may be good to remember that one of the basic tenets of the Limits to Growth report was that variables like world population, industrialization and resource depletion grow exponentially, while the (techno) answer to them grows only linearly.

First, I should perhaps define what sorts of problems I’m talking about. Sure, people build dams and dikes to keep water from flooding their lands. And we did almost eradicate smallpox. But there will always be another flood coming, or a storm, and there will always be another disease popping up (viruses and bacteria adapt faster than we do).

In a broader sense, we have gotten rid of some diseases, but gotten some new ones in return. And yes, average life expectancy has gone up, but it’s dependent entirely on the affordability and availability of lots of drugs, which in turn depend on oil being available.

And if I can be not PC for a moment, this all leads to another double problem. 1) A gigantic population explosion with a lot of members that 2) are, if not weaklings, certainly on average much weaker physically than their ancestors. Which is perhaps sort of fine as long as those drugs are there, but not when they’re not.

It’s quite simple, isn’t it? Increasing wealth makes us destroy ancient multi-generational family structures (re: the nuclear family, re: old-age homes), societal community structures (who knows their neighbors, and engages in meaningful activity with them?), and the very planet that has provided the means for increasing our wealth (and our population!).

And in our drive towards what we think are more riches, we are incapable of seeing these consequences. Let alone doing something about them. We have become so dependent, as modern western men and women, on the blessings of our energy surplus and technology that 9 out of 10 of us wouldn’t survive if we had to do without them.

Nice efforts, in other words, but no radical solutions. And yes, we did fly to the moon, too, but not flying to the moon wasn’t a problem to start with.

Maybe the universal truth I suspect there is in Meadows’ quote applies “specifically” to a “specific” kind of problem: The ones we create ourselves.

We can’t reasonably expect to control nature, and we shouldn’t feel stupid if we can’t (not exactly a general view to begin with, I know). And while one approach to storms and epidemics is undoubtedly better than another, both will come to back to haunt us no matter what we do. So as far as natural threats go, it’s a given that when the big one hits we can only evolve through crisis. We can mitigate. At best.

However: we can create problems ourselves too. And not just that. We can create problems that we can’t solve. Where the problem evolves at an exponential rate, and our understanding of it only grows linearly. That’s what that quote is about for me, and that’s what I think is sorely missing from our picture of ourselves.

In order to solve problems we ourselves create, we need to understand these problems. And since we are the ones who create them, we need to first understand ourselves to understand our problems.

Moreover, we will never be able to either understand or solve our crises if we don’t acknowledge how we – tend to – deal with them. That is, we don’t avoid or circumvent them, we walk right into them and, if we’re lucky, come out at the other end.

Point in case: we’re not solving any of our current problems, and what’s more: as societies, we’re not even seriously trying, we’re merely paying lip service. To a large extent this is because our interests are too different. To a lesser extent (or is it?) this is because we – inadvertently – allow the more psychopathic among us to play an outsize role in our societies.

Of course there are lots of people who do great things individually or in small groups, for themselves and their immediate surroundings, but far too many of us draw the conclusion from this that such great things can be extended to any larger scale we can think of. And that is a problem in itself: it’s hard for us to realize that many things don’t scale up well. A case in point, though hardly anyone seems to realize it, is that solving problems itself doesn’t scale up well.

Now, it is hard enough for individuals to know themselves, but it’s something altogether different, more complex and far more challenging for the individuals in a society, to sufficiently know that society in order to correctly identify its problems, find solutions, and successfully implement them. In general, the larger the scale of the group, the society, the harder this is.

Meadows makes a perhaps somewhat confusing distinction between universal and global problems, but it does work:

You see, there are two kinds of big problems. One I call universal problems, the other I call global problems. They both affect everybody. The difference is: Universal problems can be solved by small groups of people because they don’t have to wait for others. You can clean up the air in Hanover without having to wait for Beijing or Mexico City to do the same.

Global problems, however, cannot be solved in a single place. There’s no way Hanover can solve climate change or stop the spread of nuclear weapons. For that to happen, people in China, the US and Russia must also do something. But on the global problems, we will make no progress.

So how do we deal with problems that are global? It’s deceptively simple: We don’t.

All we need to do is look at the three big problems – if not already outright crises – we have right now. And see how are we doing. I’ll leave aside No More War and No More Hunger for now, though they could serve as good examples of why we fail.

There is a more or less general recognition that we face three global problems/crises. Finance, energy and climate change. Climate change should really be seen as part of the larger overall pollution problem. As such, it is closely linked to the energy problem in that both problems are direct consequences of the 2nd law of thermodynamics. If you use energy, you produce waste; use more energy and you produce more waste. And there is a point where you can use too much, and not be able to survive in the waste you yourself have produced.

Erwin Schrödinger described it this way, as quoted by Herman Daly:

Erwin Schrodinger [..] has described life as a system in steady-state thermodynamic disequilibrium that maintains its constant distance from equilibrium (death) by feeding on low entropy from its environment — that is, by exchanging high-entropy outputs for low-entropy inputs. The same statement would hold verbatim as a physical description of our economic process. A corollary of this statement is an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products.

The energy crisis flows seamlessly into the climate/pollution crisis. If properly defined, that is. But it hardly ever is. Our answer to our energy problems is to first of all find more and after that maybe mitigate the worst by finding a source that’s less polluting.

So we change a lightbulb and get a hybrid car. That’s perhaps an answer to the universal problem, and only perhaps, but it in no way answers the global one. With a growing population and a growing average per capita consumption, both energy demand and pollution keep rising inexorably. And the best we can do is pay lip service. Sure, we sign up for less CO2 and less waste of energy, but we draw the line at losing global competitiveness.

The bottom line is that we may have good intentions, but we utterly fail when it comes to solutions. And if we fail with regards to energy, we fail when it comes to the climate and our broader living environment, also known as the earth.

We can only solve our climate/pollution problem if we use a whole lot less energy resources. Not just individually, but as a world population. Since that population is growing, those of us that use most energy will need to shrink our consumption more every passing day. And every day we don’t do that leads to more poisoned rivers, empty seas and oceans, barren and infertile soil. But we refuse to even properly define the problem, let alone – even try to – solve it.

Anyway, so our energy problem needs to be much better defined than it presently is. It’s not that we’re running out, but that we use too much of it and kill the medium we live in, and thereby ourselves, in the process. But how much are we willing to give up? And even if we are, won’t someone else simply use up anyway what we decided not to? Global problems blow real time.

The more we look at this, the more we find we look just like the reindeer on Matthew Island, the bacteria in the petri dish, and the yeast in the wine vat. We burn through all surplus energy as fast as we can find ways to burn it. The main difference, the one that makes us tragic, is that we can see ourselves do it, not that we can stop ourselves from doing it.

Nope, we’ll burn through it all if we can (but we can’t ’cause we’ll suffocate in our own waste first). And if we’re lucky (though that’s a point of contention) we’ll be left alive to be picking up the pieces when we’re done.

Our third big global problem is finance slash money slash economy. It not only has the shortest timeframe, it also invokes the highest level of denial and delusion, and the combination may not be entirely coincidental. The only thing our “leaders” do is try and keep the baby going at our expense, and we let them. We’ve created a zombie and all we’re trying to do is keep it walking so everyone including ourselves will believe it’s still alive. That way the zombie can eat us from within.

We’re like a deer in a pair of headlights, standing still as can be and putting our faith in whoever it is we put in the driver’s seat. And too, what is it, stubborn, thick headed?, to consider the option that maybe the driver likes deer meat.

Our debt levels, in the US, Europe and Japan, just about all of them and from whatever angle you look, are higher than they’ve been at any point in human history, and all we’ve done now for five years plus running is trust a band of bankers and shady officials to fix it all for us, just because we’re scared stiff and we think we’re too stupid to know what’s going on anyway. You know, they should know because they have the degrees and/or the money to show for it. That those can also be used for something 180 degrees removed from the greater good doesn’t seem to register.

We are incapable of solving our home made problems and crises for a whole series of reasons. We’re not just bad at it, we can’t do it at all. We’re incapable of solving the big problems, the global ones.

We evolve the way Stephen Jay Gould described evolution: through punctuated equilibrium. That is, we pass through bottlenecks, forced upon us by the circumstances of nature, only in the case of the present global issues we are nature itself. And there’s nothing we can do about it. If we don’t manage to understand this dynamic, and very soon, those bottlenecks will become awfully narrow passages, with room for ever fewer of us to pass through.

As individuals we need to drastically reduce our dependence on the runaway big systems, banking, the grid, transport etc., that we ourselves built like so many sorcerers apprentices, because as societies we can’t fix the runaway problems with those systems, and they are certain to drag us down with them if we let them.

May 052015
 
 May 5, 2015  Posted by at 7:32 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  

I very rarely read back any of the essays I write. But maybe that’s not always a good thing. Especially when they deal with larger underlying issues beneath the problems we find ourselves in, why these problems exist in the first place, and what we can and will do to deal with them. Not all of these things can and perhaps should be re-written time and again. Commentary on daily events calls for new articles, but attempts to define the more in-depth human behavior behind these events should, if they are executed well, be more timeless.

Not that I would want to judge my own work, I’ll leave that to others, but I can still re-read something and think: that’s something I would like to read if someone else had written it. Since a friend yesterday sent me an email that referenced the essay below, I did go through it again and thought it’s worth republishing here. It’s from New Year’s Day 2013, or almost 2.5 years old, which should be a long enough time gap that many present day readers of The Automatic Earth haven’t read it yet, and long enough for those who have to ‘enjoy’ it all over again.

I am not very optimistic about the fate of mankind as it is, and that has a lot to do with what I cite here, that while our problems tend to evolve in exponential ways, our attempts at solving them move in linear fashion. That is true as much for the problems we ourselves create as it is for those that – seem to – ‘simply happen’. I think it would be very beneficial for us if we were to admit to our limits when it comes to solving large scale issues, because that might change the behavior we exhibit when creating these issues.

In that sense, the distinction made by Dennis Meadows below between ‘universal problems’ and ‘global problems’ may be very useful. The former concerns issues we all face, but can -try to – solve at a more local level, the latter deals with those issues that need planet-wide responses – and hardly ever get solved if at all. The human capacity for denial and deceit plays a formidable role in this.

I know that this is not a generally accepted paradigm, but that I put down to the same denial and deceit. We like to see ourselves as mighty smart demi-gods capable of solving any problem. But that is precisely, I think, the no. 1 factor in preventing us from solving them. And I don’t see that changing: we’re simply not smart enough to acknowledge our own limitations. Therefore, as Meadows says: “we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.” Here’s from January 1 2013:

Ilargi: I came upon this quote a few weeks ago in an interview that Der Spiegel had with Dennis Meadows, co-author of the Limits to Growth report published by the Club of Rome 40 years ago. Yes, the report that has been much maligned and later largely rehabilitated. But that’s not my topic here, and neither is Meadows himself. It’s the quote, and it pretty much hasn’t left me alone since I read it.

Here’s the short version:

[..] … we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.

And here it is in its context:

‘Limits to Growth’ Author Dennis Meadows ‘Humanity Is Still on the Way to Destroying Itself’

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Professor Meadows, 40 years ago you published “The Limits to Growth” together with your wife and colleagues, a book that made you the intellectual father of the environmental movement. The core message of the book remains valid today: Humanity is ruthlessly exploiting global resources and is on the way to destroying itself. Do you believe that the ultimate collapse of our economic system can still be avoided?

Meadows: The problem that faces our societies is that we have developed industries and policies that were appropriate at a certain moment, but now start to reduce human welfare, like for example the oil and car industry. Their political and financial power is so great and they can prevent change. It is my expectation that they will succeed. This means that we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.

I don’t really think that Dennis Meadows understands how true that is. I may be wrong, but I think he’s talking about a specific case here . While what he makes me ponder is that perhaps this is all we have, and always, that it’s a universal truth. That we can never solve our real big problems through proactive change. That we can only get to a next step by letting the main problems we face grow into full-blown crises, and that our only answer is to let that happen.

And then we come out on the other side, or we don’t, but it’s not because we find the answer to the problem itself, we simply adapt to what there is at the other side of the full-blown crisis we were once again unable to halt in its tracks. Adapt like rats do, and crocodiles, cockroaches, no more and no less.

This offers a nearly completely ignored insight into the way we deal with problems. We don’t change course in order to prevent ourselves from hitting boundaries. We hit the wall face first, and only then do we pick up the pieces and take it from there.

Jacques Cousteau was once quite blunt about it:

The road to the future leads us smack into the wall. We simply ricochet off the alternatives that destiny offers: a demographic explosion that triggers social chaos and spreads death, nuclear delirium and the quasi-annihilation of the species… Our survival is no more than a question of 25, 50 or perhaps 100 years.

Without getting into specific predictions the way Cousteau did: If that is as true as I suspect it is, the one thing it means is that we fool ourselves a whole lot. The entire picture we have created about ourselves, consciously, sub-consciously, un-consciously, you name it, is abjectly false. At least the one I think we have. Which is that we see ourselves as capable of engineering proactive changes in order to prevent crises from blowing up.

That erroneous self-image leads us to one thing only: the phantom prospect of a techno-fix becomes an excuse for not acting. In that regard, it may be good to remember that one of the basic tenets of the Limits to Growth report was that variables like world population, industrialization and resource depletion grow exponentially, while the (techno) answer to them grows only linearly.

First, I should perhaps define what sorts of problems I’m talking about. Sure, people build dams and dikes to keep water from flooding their lands. And we did almost eradicate smallpox. But there will always be another flood coming, or a storm, and there will always be another disease popping up (viruses and bacteria adapt faster than we do).

In a broader sense, we have gotten rid of some diseases, but gotten some new ones in return. And yes, average life expectancy has gone up, but it’s dependent entirely on the affordability and availability of lots of drugs, which in turn depend on oil being available.

And if I can be not PC for a moment, this all leads to another double problem. 1) A gigantic population explosion with a lot of members that 2) are, if not weaklings, certainly on average much weaker physically than their ancestors. Which is perhaps sort of fine as long as those drugs are there, but not when they’re not.

It’s quite simple, isn’t it? Increasing wealth makes us destroy ancient multi-generational family structures (re: the nuclear family, re: old-age homes), societal community structures (who knows their neighbors, and engages in meaningful activity with them?), and the very planet that has provided the means for increasing our wealth (and our population!).

And in our drive towards what we think are more riches, we are incapable of seeing these consequences. Let alone doing something about them. We have become so dependent, as modern western men and women, on the blessings of our energy surplus and technology that 9 out of 10 of us wouldn’t survive if we had to do without them.

Nice efforts, in other words, but no radical solutions. And yes, we did fly to the moon, too, but not flying to the moon wasn’t a problem to start with.

Maybe the universal truth I suspect there is in Meadows’ quote applies “specifically” to a “specific” kind of problem: The ones we create ourselves.

We can’t reasonably expect to control nature, and we shouldn’t feel stupid if we can’t (not exactly a general view to begin with, I know). And while one approach to storms and epidemics is undoubtedly better than another, both will come to back to haunt us no matter what we do. So as far as natural threats go, it’s a given that when the big one hits we can only evolve through crisis. We can mitigate. At best.

However: we can create problems ourselves too. And not just that. We can create problems that we can’t solve. Where the problem evolves at an exponential rate, and our understanding of it only grows linearly. That’s what that quote is about for me, and that’s what I think is sorely missing from our picture of ourselves.

In order to solve problems we ourselves create, we need to understand these problems. And since we are the ones who create them, we need to first understand ourselves to understand our problems.

Moreover, we will never be able to either understand or solve our crises if we don’t acknowledge how we – tend to – deal with them. That is, we don’t avoid or circumvent them, we walk right into them and, if we’re lucky, come out at the other end.

Point in case: we’re not solving any of our current problems, and what’s more: as societies, we’re not even seriously trying, we’re merely paying lip service. To a large extent this is because our interests are too different. To a lesser extent (or is it?) this is because we – inadvertently – allow the more psychopathic among us to play an outsize role in our societies.

Of course there are lots of people who do great things individually or in small groups, for themselves and their immediate surroundings, but far too many of us draw the conclusion from this that such great things can be extended to any larger scale we can think of. And that is a problem in itself: it’s hard for us to realize that many things don’t scale up well. A case in point, though hardly anyone seems to realize it, is that solving problems itself doesn’t scale up well.

Now, it is hard enough for individuals to know themselves, but it’s something altogether different, more complex and far more challenging for the individuals in a society, to sufficiently know that society in order to correctly identify its problems, find solutions, and successfully implement them. In general, the larger the scale of the group, the society, the harder this is.

Meadows makes a perhaps somewhat confusing distinction between universal and global problems, but it does work:

You see, there are two kinds of big problems. One I call universal problems, the other I call global problems. They both affect everybody. The difference is: Universal problems can be solved by small groups of people because they don’t have to wait for others. You can clean up the air in Hanover without having to wait for Beijing or Mexico City to do the same.

Global problems, however, cannot be solved in a single place. There’s no way Hanover can solve climate change or stop the spread of nuclear weapons. For that to happen, people in China, the US and Russia must also do something. But on the global problems, we will make no progress.

So how do we deal with problems that are global? It’s deceptively simple: We don’t.

All we need to do is look at the three big problems – if not already outright crises – we have right now. And see how are we doing. I’ll leave aside No More War and No More Hunger for now, though they could serve as good examples of why we fail.

There is a more or less general recognition that we face three global problems/crises. Finance, energy and climate change. Climate change should really be seen as part of the larger overall pollution problem. As such, it is closely linked to the energy problem in that both problems are direct consequences of the 2nd law of thermodynamics. If you use energy, you produce waste; use more energy and you produce more waste. And there is a point where you can use too much, and not be able to survive in the waste you yourself have produced.

Erwin Schrödinger described it this way, as quoted by Herman Daly:

Erwin Schrodinger [..] has described life as a system in steady-state thermodynamic disequilibrium that maintains its constant distance from equilibrium (death) by feeding on low entropy from its environment — that is, by exchanging high-entropy outputs for low-entropy inputs. The same statement would hold verbatim as a physical description of our economic process. A corollary of this statement is an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products.

The energy crisis flows seamlessly into the climate/pollution crisis. If properly defined, that is. But it hardly ever is. Our answer to our energy problems is to first of all find more and after that maybe mitigate the worst by finding a source that’s less polluting.

So we change a lightbulb and get a hybrid car. That’s perhaps an answer to the universal problem, and only perhaps, but it in no way answers the global one. With a growing population and a growing average per capita consumption, both energy demand and pollution keep rising inexorably. And the best we can do is pay lip service. Sure, we sign up for less CO2 and less waste of energy, but we draw the line at losing global competitiveness.

The bottom line is that we may have good intentions, but we utterly fail when it comes to solutions. And if we fail with regards to energy, we fail when it comes to the climate and our broader living environment, also known as the earth.

We can only solve our climate/pollution problem if we use a whole lot less energy resources. Not just individually, but as a world population. Since that population is growing, those of us that use most energy will need to shrink our consumption more every passing day. And every day we don’t do that leads to more poisoned rivers, empty seas and oceans, barren and infertile soil. But we refuse to even properly define the problem, let alone – even try to – solve it.

Anyway, so our energy problem needs to be much better defined than it presently is. It’s not that we’re running out, but that we use too much of it and kill the medium we live in, and thereby ourselves, in the process. But how much are we willing to give up? And even if we are, won’t someone else simply use up anyway what we decided not to? Global problems blow real time.

The more we look at this, the more we find we look just like the reindeer on Matthew Island, the bacteria in the petri dish, and the yeast in the wine vat. We burn through all surplus energy as fast as we can find ways to burn it. The main difference, the one that makes us tragic, is that we can see ourselves do it, not that we can stop ourselves from doing it.

Nope, we’ll burn through it all if we can (but we can’t ’cause we’ll suffocate in our own waste first). And if we’re lucky (though that’s a point of contention) we’ll be left alive to be picking up the pieces when we’re done.

Our third big global problem is finance slash money slash economy. It not only has the shortest timeframe, it also invokes the highest level of denial and delusion, and the combination may not be entirely coincidental. The only thing our “leaders” do is try and keep the baby going at our expense, and we let them. We’ve created a zombie and all we’re trying to do is keep it walking so everyone including ourselves will believe it’s still alive. That way the zombie can eat us from within.

We’re like a deer in a pair of headlights, standing still as can be and putting our faith in whoever it is we put in the driver’s seat. And too, what is it, stubborn, thick headed?, to consider the option that maybe the driver likes deer meat.

Our debt levels, in the US, Europe and Japan, just about all of them and from whatever angle you look, are higher than they’ve been at any point in human history, and all we’ve done now for five years plus running is trust a band of bankers and shady officials to fix it all for us, just because we’re scared stiff and we think we’re too stupid to know what’s going on anyway. You know, they should know because they have the degrees and/or the money to show for it. That those can also be used for something 180 degrees removed from the greater good doesn’t seem to register.

We are incapable of solving our home made problems and crises for a whole series of reasons. We’re not just bad at it, we can’t do it at all. We’re incapable of solving the big problems, the global ones.

We evolve the way Stephen Jay Gould described evolution: through punctuated equilibrium. That is, we pass through bottlenecks, forced upon us by the circumstances of nature, only in the case of the present global issues we are nature itself. And there’s nothing we can do about it. If we don’t manage to understand this dynamic, and very soon, those bottlenecks will become awfully narrow passages, with room for ever fewer of us to pass through.

As individuals we need to drastically reduce our dependence on the runaway big systems, banking, the grid, transport etc., that we ourselves built like so many sorcerers apprentices, because as societies we can’t fix the runaway problems with those systems, and they are certain to drag us down with them if we let them.