To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle – Orwell
ASPO Ireland was invited to return this year (last year) to Cultivate‘s Rethink Tank at Global Green, a part of the Electric Picnic festival, to participate in a panel discussion on How green is Ireland? The panel was chaired by Davie Philip of Cultivate, and participants, along with yours truly, were Gavin Harte, Taja Naidoo, and Eamon Ryan.
Gavin kicked off proceedings with a ‘lively’ talk, so lively in fact he had the audience squating up and down for 5 minutes to let them ‘feel’ what 40W of power was like (think of a light bulb). He then told them that to power Ireland requires about 20GW – imagine the entire population of Europe squating – ALL THE TIME – to power just the Irish economy. I put the graph below together to give you a sense of the scale of our dependence on mostly imported fossil fuels. We shouldn’t expect to be able to replace all of that with wind (that blip at the bottom of the graph), wave, biomass, etc. in any meaningful timeframe, so our challenge is as great to reduce demand to a level that supply can meet. If we have ambitions to continue to enjoy something approaching the relatively high standard of living we currently enjoy, then that will require a complete re-engineering of Irish society to operate on a much lower energy demand basis.
To this end, Eamon Ryan, former energy minister and now leader of the Green Party, warned that the way to engage the general public in this transformation was not to scare them with dire warnings about Peak Oil and Climate Change and called for a massive investment in the Smart Grid. I suspect trying to resurrect your political career on the back of a spent political force in Ireland is a daunting task. And no politician has ever been elected for promising bad news. The economic risk posed by peak oil is not being managed by anyone at a government level, and the NAMA project, a 50 billion euro bet on going back to a paradigm that peak oil makes impossible, is what we’ve got instead of a Smart Grid. Admittedly, his analysis is correct, but it’s a lot easier to shout from the sidelines than get it done at the cabinet table.
And so to another fool wasting his sweetness on the desert air… and the general trust of my comments on the day, namely paradigms are funny things. I opened by describing the challenge Copernicus faced trying to convince us that maybe we were the ones going around the sun, rather than the other way around. Copernicus only saw a pre-publication draft of his work on his death-bed, waiting 20 years to release to the world the results of his study of the motion of the planets. His acolyte, Galileo, was threatened with excommunication for teaching his students Copernicus’ work. It’s often hard to appreciate how much of what we believe to know is simply socialised knowledge, what everyone believes without question, a paradigm. And to question it is to question the legitimacy of a whole network of beliefs that build up around it. The happy belief that we are at the centre of our universe ties in quite conveniently with our creation myth as recorded in the Book of Genesis. To challenge that story means taking on the whole of society in a pervasive belief network that is stable for all the reasons that society is generally stable.
So too Darwin, who sat on his theory of evolution for 20 years before being forced to publish it to beat a competitor to the printing press. He was acutely aware that he was taking on the Church and everyone who believed in it when he suggested man had descended from the apes rather than, per the Book of Genesis (again), had life breathed into him by God on the 6th day.
Similarly, it is now a generation since Dr. Colin Campbell, founder of ASPO, published his first study of oil depletion, The Golden Century of Oil. In that generation, in which he forewarned that global oil production could peak as soon as the year 2000, consistent with M. King Hubbert, leaving industrialised society with, at worst, just a decade to take appropriate steps to prepare, all his warnings were wilfully ignored. Much worse, he was denounced as a heretic by his colleagues in the oil industry and the economics profession, who pointed out that higher prices will induce us to find new and alternative sources of energy.
Now, 20 years later, we have casual announcements by the International Energy Agency (IEA), that conventional oil peaked in 2006 and that governments would have been well to have started preparing ten years ago. The challenge that Dr. Campbell faced in proposing his peak oil theory is the threat it posed to the unquestioned faith in the paradigm of economic growth. There is no energy source that we’re currently aware of that can replace the one third of the global economy’s energy supply that comes from liquid petroleum: not wind, not nuclear (fission). 84 million barrels per day (mbpd) equates to 5,600 GWs of wind power or 17,000 GWs of turbines (we installed 40GW last year globally to bring the total to 200GW). Very soon (“there is a significant risk of a peak before 2020”, UK ERC), global oil supply is going to start declining, ASPO’s best estimate is 3% per annum, equivalent to 2.5 mbpd (500 GW of turbines). The green establishment rhetoric is calling for an orderly transition to non-fossil fuels. Given the numbers above, the transition is unlikely to be anything but orderly. And the biggest transition to be made is in our belief systems, in our very paradigm of living.
So to the panel’s question – How green is Ireland? For many tourists who visit our shores each year, very! Yet our new Fine Gael/Labour government are probably sympathetically described as ‘struggling’ with the green political agenda, less clear is whether they’re struggling to dismantle it completely. Not only that, there is an agenda being pushed by certain quarters to eschew the virtues of wind energy and continue the dash for gas, or as we heard recently from the IOOA, the opportunity to develop the massive but untapped oil/gas potential off the West coast of Ireland. The desperate claims of a society in need of its energy fix. Just like digging up the tar sands and defining the borders under the arctic ice so that we can exploit the expected natural resources underneath once the ice melts. The behaviour of a rational and well informed society acting with a social conscience or the nihilism of a heroin addict in need of their next fix?
In an era when the green agenda is largely disenfranchised, it’s easy and convenient to attack the straw men that are our new Minister’s for Energy and Environment. However, to do so is to forget that they were elected by the majority to sweep away those previously filling our Dail and get our economy ‘back to growth’. The legal contract between mortgage holders and their bank managers is that they will repay their loan, the social contract between parents and their children is that they will enjoy, at the very least, the same standard of living as their parents. And so the general public’s demand for a return to economic prosperity (and therefore growth from our current dire predicament) is premised on a return to something that no longer exists in our future, cheap energy. To understand why that is so, is to understand the peak oil argument. Encouragingly, the upcoming ASPO/SEAI event (Oct 10th) with the IMF on their recent study of the impact of oil scarcity on the global economy offers fresh insight from a very credible source into this enormous challenge, and more importantly, a challenge that fundamentally undermines our socially constructed understanding of the world we live in and our expectations for the future, much as Copernicus and Darwin did in their time.
We should learn from them and better appreciate how societies can be blind to the reality staring them in the face. We should also be mindful that, while Copernicus and Darwin’s theories undermined the faith of entire societies, whether one believes that the sun goes around us or vice versa would have little material impact on the day-to-day life of the average medieval citizen. To suggest that the remarkable standard of living that the fortunate among this planet’s 7 billion and growing homosapiens enjoy, only made possible by our exploitation of Nature’s stored reserve of ancient sunlight, a reserve we’re extinguishing in but the blink of an eye, is threatened by a decline in that energy supply, is to shake the very roots of our secular beliefs in as profound a way as Darwin threatened our religious beliefs in a different time.
Modern society is as fraught with conflicts of secular dogma as was medieval society with religious dogma. To acquire a new world view, a change of paradigm, is comparable to a religious experience. (Cotgrove, 1982)
In which case, don’t be surprised if mainstream society doesn’t want to hear your story about Peak Oil or Climate Change. Do what you can to build a safety net. Do what you can to keep yourself sane while you exist in a paradigm that most of the people around you simply cannot see or comprehend. Much like the rebels in The Matrix awakening people from their machine induced dream, try to find open minds and help release them, but understand that others will see you as a threat to the legal and social contract they have with their bank manager and children, and their hopes and expectations for the future.
How Green is Ireland? Very. Now get on with the job at hand.