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Friday, February 6, 2009

Is Sustainable Sustainable or not?

It would appear that the scientific community is catching on to the idea that all their wonderful techno fixes to reduce carbon emissions may not be adaptable to mass production because of the rarity of the elements required for the various technologies.

This article in new scientist reports on discussions from the Financial times energy conference in London which showed that the rarity and cost of Platinum will stymie the immediate wide spread adoption of fuel cells. Likewise Indium which is required for today’s highest quality solar cells is also quite rare and is had to find in economically feasible deposits. This trend to base “sustainable” energy research and development around the use of rare or unsustainable resources is a false economy and will just leave us with expensive technologies that still will be unable to meet our needs.

While not mentioned in this article there are many other resource bottlenecks which could dead end the adaptation of various new “Green tech”

The availability of lithium for wide spread use in care batteries has been argued repeatedly over the last couple of years and I’m still unclear if we will ever have enough to make all our cars battery powered. While very common, lithium is a widely dispersed element in small concentrations, the few current viable deposits are lithium salts found in old dry sea beds and don’t meet the projected need to convert even a portion of the world’s cars to batteries. More deposits may be found or made viable at higher prices but at what cost and what will be the political considerations if it is found in a hostile country, or one who wishes to hoard for national use?

Rare earth metals required for permanent magnets used in wind mills, regenerative braking and other high tech fixes are exceedingly rare, hard to find, mine and refine.

Silver, which is now being adapted for diesel catalysts in Japan, super conducting cables for the smart grid and for new Silver-Zinc batteries is also showing signs of depletion and eventual shortages.

(Not that I believe nuclear is Green but)
The uranium required to fulfill the new demand for reactors is also in short supply, while I suspect there is still a lot in the ground and higher costs will increase the viability of resources short term there will be shortages and long term peak Ur has already predicted.

Thorium has been proposed as a substitute for Ur but no commercial reactors are using it. Thorium funding dried up in the 50s when the U.S. realized it could not be weaponized like Ur. Who'd have thought?

It seems each time we look towards a new techno fix to our problems we seem to use rarer and more costly materials than previous technology did. The Power Down scenario where we learn to use less of everything seems far more capable of being sustainable than mining every square inch of the planet, using even more energy we don’t have looking for minute traces of elements just so we can turn around and use that energy to mine some more. This scenario only needs one misstep to cause energy shortages and collapse of the status quo.

While I understand there are other technologies that MAY solve some of these issues without relying on scarce materials such as organic solar cells, I also understand that both energy shortages and food shortage will probably hit us before these solutions are commercially viable, if they ever are. The endless drive to expend more energy looking for ways of generating more energy is far less efficient or sustainable than learning to live with less energy.

Why won't someone in power admitt this?Recommend this Post

10 comments:

JimBobby said...

Good boogin', Lordie.

I figger the concept of living with less of anything goes against the grain of our consumer society. Thrift is discouraged. Excess is celebrated.

We need to be doing a better sales job on the idea that using less energy need not mean freezing in the dark. Too often, conservation and efficiency initiatives are dismissed due to the perception that we are asking people to give up the creature comforts they're accustomed to.

Not only does my new furnace keep the house toastier than the 50 YO beast it replaced, it does so using 60% as much gas. Not only does the new fridge look pretty and keep stuff cold, it does so using half the energy of the 30 YO model it replaced. Ditto LCD monitors, air conditioners, vehicles, etc.

The transition to a low carbon, low energy is inevitable. We can milk every last drop out of the existing unsustainable situation or we can embrace efficiency and conservation.

We just gotta get past the idea that all growth is good.

JB

Glenn Hubbers said...

I'd say the primary reason for no one in power admitting this is that it's a harsh reality no one wants to hear, your political opponents will call you crazy with your outlandish theories, and the voters will vote for them instead.

In short, the voters get exactly what they ask for, even if it's what they say they don't want; politicians who will lie, ignore facts, or tell half truths to win power.

The Green Party is perfect evidence for how far you can get telling the truth. Sad, but true.

GAB said...

I would argue that even the vision the GPC puts forward is often too tainted by those who believe in techno fixes, or who believe we only need to sacrifice a little of our existing way of life. Still better than nothing and a learning tool to begin the modification of expecations.

My own beliefs are much starker then the median Green and much closer to Heinberg or sometimes even Derrick Jensen

Anonymous said...

There are too many people, too few resources and too little space. We have an entire economy that is based on consumption. We are facing a global economic crisis and consumption will be the backbone of the recovery (particularly in Canada given that so much of the recovery budget is focused on tax cuts which are supposed to help fuel consumer spending.

Greens also rely too heavily on the idea that all we need do is create green goods and services and that will be enough.

Given the damning messaging from so many quarters (scientific and political) it seems to be what is needed is a massive slow down in consumption but that will cause a massive economic depression.

So it would seem to me that we are hooped unless we can get past capitalism (not that I think we have any other great option).

Anonymous said...

There are too many people, too few resources and too little space. We have an entire economy that is based on consumption. We are facing a global economic crisis and consumption will be the backbone of the recovery (particularly in Canada given that so much of the recovery budget is focused on tax cuts which are supposed to help fuel consumer spending.

Greens also rely too heavily on the idea that all we need do is create green goods and services and that will be enough.

Given the damning messaging from so many quarters (scientific and political) it seems to be what is needed is a massive slow down in consumption but that will cause a massive economic depression.

So it would seem to me that we are hooped unless we can get past capitalism (not that I think we have any other great option).

The Mound of Sound said...

Not a week passes that doesn't confirm Lovelock's warning to embrace "sustainable retreat" or perish as functioning societies.

We simply have to grow smaller, less consumptive and, in large tracts of Africa and Asia, less populous. Either we cull the herd through reproductive technologies or planet earth will do it for us.

I used to live in big houses and drive big cars and regularly fly to holiday destinations on the far side of the globe.

Today I live in a very comfortable and pleasant small house and, when I must drive it's a subcompact and I take my holidays locally on the back of my motorcycle.

Truth is I've given up a great deal and, at the same time, nothing particularly meaningful.

I think a great part of our society has come to equate pleasure with more. We need to show them that less, a lot less, can be just as pleasurable, often even more so.

saskboy said...

Admitting that everything is a pyramid scheme is a sure fire way to start that house of cards toppling. It's why people like us are marginalized when we talk about reality.

GAB said...

It's sad, the more I've been right the more certain people have been unwilling to even hear me out.

Simple fear that things will all fall apart is driving them to stinking Fantasy Island and for every one that starts taking small precautions 5 others dig in deeper. It seems like a losing proposition.

The Mound of Sound said...

Sadly, GAB, I think you're right.
An environmental lawyer in Vancouver surprised me when he said he'd continue the good fight but had lost faith that our societies would act in time.

saskboy said...

"We need to be doing a better sales job on the idea that using less energy need not mean freezing in the dark. Too often, conservation and efficiency initiatives are dismissed due to the perception that we are asking people to give up the creature comforts they're accustomed to."

We need a freakin' popular genius to popularize frugality. It's unlikely to happen, since people would rather do with a TV or video game or computer, than do without those three if it meant living longer. It's a case of - if you build it, they will come. And much of what we can build is junk, and there's lots of it too.