Wednesday, May 04, 2011

George Monbiot is still in techno-thrall

A moderately interesting article from George Monbiot arguing that "The problem we face is not that we have too little fossil fuel, but too much. As oil declines, economies will switch to tar sands, shale gas and coal...."

This is daft, on several levels. Monbiot ignores:
- the problem of EROEI, meaning that substituting in tar sands and shale gas etc delivers less net energy than light, sweet oil;
- the problem of infrastructure - all the existing petrol stations, internal combustion engines and (to a lesser extent) highways that are geared around the easy availability of light, sweet oil, which can't be rapidly altered;
- the financial meltdown, making long-term finance much more problematic;
- the export-land problem, meaning that exports of oil will decline much more rapidly than production;
- he assumes that the further alternatives he mentions are technologically, politically and financially feasible within a fairly short time-frame;
- he ignores the political melt-down and wars that will be sparked by the inequitable division of resources;
and so on.

I agree that poor people will chop down trees if they have nothing else to go on. Sadly, we're all going to end up with 'nothing else to go on' - in a sense, the future of the environment depends upon how quickly men kill other men as compared to how quickly men kill the trees and the fish.

It's a very weird feeling to have given lectures describing all these consequences several years ago (insights not original to me, for the most part), and to watch things now taking place in the way expected, and to still have people denying the situation. This is why our civilisation is breaking down - it's still too insulated from reality.


  1. I agree that all these factors are important, and that the actual amount of fossil fuels likely to be combusted is lower than what is theoretically recoverable. Still, Monbiot is right to point out that economies are actually switching to these sources of energy, that at least in the short term, it is possible to avoid a liquid shortfall by way of non-conventionals (since it is being done). He accepts peak oil, and is (from memory) aware of EROEI, land export, financial constraints (as evidenced by references elsewhere in his writings). Tar sands don't require conversion of existing infrastructure; internal combustion engines can - and currently do - run on oil derived from tar sand. The further alternatives of tar sand and shale gas already are technologically and politically feasible, given that they are being increasingly exploited. Methane clathrates are still a big question mark (though sufficient Arctic warming could render the question of their exploitability irrelevant if they destabilise in large quantities without our needing to extract them).

    I don't think he is ignoring the political break-down and wars that are the likely result of our present trajectory. He simply points out that not even such breakdown prevents the further destruction of ecology (at least in the short term).

    I disagree with Monbiot on many things, but think that he is right to think that peak oil will not "save" us from climate change (even if it does rule out the most extreme human contibutions).

  2. Byron, it feels a little like someone who has jumped off a tall building saying 'it's alright so far' because he hasn't yet reached the bottom! Tar sands, for example, even with every factor in their favour, will never get to more than about 3mbpd; ethanol etc is likely negative EROEI, at least in the US, and so on. My beef with Monbiot is that he shares - at least in this article - the same techno-utopian framework as the ones who say Peak Oil etc will never be a problem, it's just that he thinks there will be bad consequences rather than good. I disagree with the framework (as do you I think).

  3. Nice image. I agree that the tar sands are not going to substitute for falling conventional supplies in the long term. My point (in partial defence of Monbiot) is that they may well do so for a few years, making their own significant contribution to CO2 levels as they do.

    Have you seen his article today where he takes his argument a little further? You will still be disappointed by the simplifications he employs when discussing non-conventionals, but I think that it is possible to include them in more nuanced ways and still hold the basic outline of his argument.

    It is clear from many other pieces that he's written that he doesn't think non-conventionals will suffice as a long term replacement. I take it that he is simply talking about the shorter term. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe he has actually changed his position on this. But I would be surprised if he now thinks peak oil is not a problem.

  4. Having looked at his second piece again, it seems that he has indeed changed his position.

    "The collapse of accessible mineral reserves has not occurred, and shows little sign of occurring within our lifetimes. "

    I agree that he is likely to be very wrong about this.


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