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Thursday, 14 January 2010

Slouching towards Renwistan. A review of Stewart Brand's new book

A useful unit of energy is the gigawatt: a billion watts. A large coal fired plant generates a gigawatt, so does a dam like the Hoover, and so does a nuclear reactor. Multiple a gigawatt by a thousand times and you get a terrawatt. Global energy consumption is of the order of 16 terawatts.Most of the terawatts we use come from coal fired power stations. 

Coal fire power stations belch out gigatons of carbon dioxide, which is the main contributor to climate change. Currently, there are 387 parts per million -PPM- of CO2 in the atmosphere. This is rising at 2 ppm each year. There  is some agreement among scientists that a realistic number to aim for is 450 ppm.At this level  it is calculated that global temperatures will only rise by about 2 degrees centigrade. A rise of this order will still mean a large loss of species but the odd polar bear and penguin might just struggle through.

The figures I am now going to use come from Saul Griffith, a materials scientist who received a MacArthur “genius” award in 2007. Griffith’s starting point is that 450 ppm. He calculates that, in order to keep atmospheric concentration of CO2 at 445 ppm humanity will have to cut fossil fuel use to around 3 terrawatts a year. He further calculates, taking account of efficiency improvements, that to reach this target we have 25 years to build a new country called Renewistan.  Renewistan is a place where every available inch would be covered by wind, solar and biofuel energy sources. As a guide, he calculates that Renewistan is roughly the size of Australia. Australia; 25 years?  It is not going to happen is it?

Like Marxism, Socialism, Fascism, the environmental movement has become a secular religion. The chief characteristic of a secular religion is that wants take precedence over needs. There may, therefore, be an argument for saying that the dogma of efficient markets is a secular religion as well. Certainly, there are similarities with the environmental movement and the way financial markets and many economists work. The wide use of complex models and the faith in their accuracy is one. The green movement, in common with some fundamental religions, has gone from concerning itself just with the environment  to opposing many aspects of progress. It, rather like a fundamental religion, has become deeply conservative.  

Non Linear 
A handful of senior scientists, both in terms of age and achievement, point out that as the climate is non linear we should guard against placing too much faith in mathematical models.  One of the most passionate critics of these models is Freeman Dyson, who we have quoted several times before. Dyson is one of most celebrated mathematicians and theoretical physicists of the last century, and, as it happens, a splendid writer too.  Another scientist who we follow is Vaclav Smil, who has written numerous books on climate issues, and in his most recent, Global Catastrophes and Trends, also takes the global climate models to task. 

The problem is that in a non-linear system a small, perhaps not even perceivable change, can lead to a dramatic effect. Another scientist who is familiar with the models and has serious doubts about them is  Stewart Brand. He has just written a books that will, we think, become a classic. It is splendidly written and uses a clear, concise argument to demolish a number of the dogmas that the green movement clings to. In Brand’s view the Green Movement is one of the obstacles standing between us and survival.  The books is called,  Whole Earth Discipline. 

I am the age of the average American dam, which means I am in the D to D- minus stage of my life ( see infrastructure piece). In  1978, when I came to London, there was a book shop I used to frequent on Camden High Street, called Compendium,  that specialised in American imports. One of the first books I remember buying was, The Whole Earth Catalogue, which Stewart Brand created and edited. It was published annually for a number of years and won the National Book Award. In its day it was highly influential. When hippies weren’t doing drugs or listening to the Grateful Dead they would read it. Brand studied biology and ecology (back in the days when ecology was a dirty word) at Stanford. The point is, Brand was early to the environmental movement. Like most sane people he can see that climate change is happening, but being a good scientists he prefers facts to dogma. 

In the spirit of Darwin, Brand has no problem confronting new facts that undermine many of his most cherished beliefs. On one level, the Whole Earth Catalogue reads like a coming of age. Brand is over 70 years old now.

Like James Lovelock, the scientist who devised the theory of Gaia with Lynn Margoulis, the noted American biologist, Brand whole heartedly endorses nuclear power. Furthermore, he has marshalled facts and arguments that shoot down the fears of storing the waste from nuclear reactors. 

 He also agrees that cities are to be encouraged. They are efficient users of energy, their existence, as demonstrated by Jane Jacobs, has, over the millennia, resulted in most agricultural breakthroughs. Cities are where innovation and civilisation happens.  Brand loves cities, he would embrace nuclear power and he can see that genetically modified crops have a role to play in an over crowded planet.

That’s the good news. Now for something different. In one of the most alarming parts of the book Brand reports a telephone conversation he recently had with James Lovelock, the doyen of climate scientists. It is worth repeating in part:

I phoned Jim Lovelock after his Royal Society talk to get details on why the gentle optimist I’ve known for three decades is so alarmed. “  The year 2040 is when the IPCC (intergovernmental panel on climate change) is estimating that Europe, America and CHina become uninhabitable for the growth of food,” he said. “They’re grossly underestimating the rate of temperature rise, so that 2040 may be 2025. People don’t realise how little time we’ve got. The planet really is on the move.”
“On the move toward what?” I asked.
He said: “I don’t think there’s much doubt at all amongst those few of us that have worked on the problem, that the stem is in the course of moving to its stable hot state, which is about 5 degrees Celsius globally  higher than it is now.  Once it gets there, negative feedback set in again, and the whole thing stabilizes and regulates quite nicely. What happens is, during that period, the ocean ceases to have any influence on the system, or hardly any.”

To cut to the chase, Brand asked him how many people could earth support in its new hotter, stable state - 1 billion. As we like to say in the stock market, “It’s a view.”