Recently, thanks to a YouTube-fiend friend, I was introduced to a new genius. Ordinarily, I’d reserve that qualification for someone that agrees with me lock, stock and barrel. But my capacity for self-delusion doesn’t stretch quite that far, and sometimes one runs across people that just see the world better, if differently; they just have better vision, and are better able to condense the madness swirling around us (not just energy, everything). It is fun to have beliefs challenged by such people because that can only enhance one’s own views.
This newly-discovered (by me) genius, Nate Hagens, is a very big picture thinker. As noted, I do not necessarily agree with him (he is an advisor to something called the Post Carbon Institute, which is populated by some serious activists whose thinking, to me, borders on delusional), but that doesn’t matter – he understands fundamentals of energy in a way that I’ve rarely seen, and is at the forefront of statements like this (from the PCI website): “[Fossil fuels] are energy-dense, portable, and storable sources of power. Accessing them changed nearly everything about human existence. They were uniquely transformative in that they enabled higher rates of harvesting and using all other resources—via tractors, bulldozers, powered mining equipment, chainsaws, motorized fishing trawlers, and more.”
Even if he participates in an organization with diehard activists that want to kill the hydrocarbon industry, it is awesome to see a simple reflection of reality like that, and then to discuss what he calls “Reality 101” – humans combine labour, energy and resources into products, which help create dollars, which we spend to generate feelings, and a byproduct of this process is waste and environmental impact. It may sound strange to say we do all this to generate feelings, and that often isn’t exclusively so (we generate products and then money to fill our stomachs and put roofs over our heads), but his point is correct insofar as travel and leisure and sports cars and expensive cocktails do fit into the positive feelings bucket.
But beyond quibbling over feelings, his grand assertions are correct and wise: “The amount of surplus energy we have dictates how much leisure time, and how much we can accomplish…” He notes that fossil fuels add “energy armies” that do nearly unbelievable things for us. In energy equivalents, one barrel of oil does about 4.5 years worth of a person’s human labour. “Our current global industrial infrastructure has specific requirements and constraints, and is particularly dependent on energy-dense liquid fuels.”
Hagens flags how many industrial processes must be changed or eliminated if we want to eliminate hydrocarbons, and that there is no simple or cheap alternative to the goods provided. What’s more, he doesn’t just suggest that that is a viable path; he acknowledges that to remove or greatly reduce industrial processes that make our lives better is to act against human nature, we will vote out/riot against anyone that tries, and that to do that is to make such challenges often insurmountable. We rarely if ever voluntarily relinquish comfort/convenience unless absolutely forced to.
The framework of this thinking is logical, coherent, and complete, in large part because he does not try to carry it forward into a series of simplistic solutions. In fact, in another video, he describes part of the problem involved in trying to do just that. He describes a global conversation that has descended into “islands of expertise…separated by oceans of incoherence.” He notes that “society has rewarded reductionist expertise” – meaning that we give a full ear to those that wave around simple solutions. We like those. Simple sounds doable.
From here on, I can only degrade the quality of the conversation, because it needs to get more specific, which means descending into that ‘ocean of incoherence’ to understand what is happening all around us.
The drive to reduce emissions and the human ecological footprint is a very good one. Without natural habitat we are doomed. But the parties that have taken the reins in the strategies have arisen from the oceans of incoherence, and have not aligned themselves with the islands of expertise.
We have entire industry of Net Zero specialists, who know the ending target because politicians have told them what it is. They start at the end and work backwards, in the most overly simplistic and, yes, reductionist terms.
“We need to stop burning fossil fuels immediately (IEA Report) to prevent a climate catastrophe.” Really? Even the countries furthest along the ‘energy transition’ are building new natural gas infrastructure, and/or increasing coal usage. Oil demand continues to rise year after year after year. As Robert Bryce notes, we’ve (globally) invested over $4 trillion in wind and solar, and yet the world’s energy mix remains at 82 percent fossil-fuel-derived, and all three hydrocarbons – oil, natural gas and coal – are seeing record demand.
“We need to massively upgrade the grid to handle renewables.” Sure. How? With what? What does that even mean in terms of scale, timing, regulatory hurdles and material availability? How do we deal with intermittency and the fact that wind/solar fail most spectacularly precisely when needed most? (And beware the likes of Bloomberg, who are attempting to paint natural gas fired power the same way, as unreliable in bad weather, because wells/facilities sometimes freeze. The very existence of Canadian society proves this to be a massive falsehood designed for nothing but obfuscation and mischief-making.)
“We need four times the amount of metals/minerals by 2040, which will have to come from hundreds of new mines.” From where? How? What does that even mean in a world where the easiest deposits have been dug up, remaining reserves are of lesser quality, and in a world where an increasing number of governments and constituents don’t want to see mountains ripped apart?
All these platitudes and ‘strategies’ are the product of short-circuited thinking, of defiance of reality, of decision-making in the ocean of incoherence instead of on the islands of expertise, of the belief in the superiority of policy over anything else.
I can say so conclusively because I’ve been there myself. A few decades ago, watching the gloriously insane ‘war on drugs’ being played out in the US, it became evident to me that the best solution would be to legalize soft drugs, which would free up endless policing time and they might really get somewhere – instead of busting some clown with a joint, they can spend their days going after the kingpins! That’s how we as a society will bring the drug problem to heel.
I mentioned this theory to someone with expertise in law enforcement, and I can’t remember if they actually laughed in my face or were more polite about it, but I do recall hearing the firm opinion that that was a bad way to go. I thought wow, you’d think someone in the business would be able to comprehend the simplistic brilliance of my plan, and that it was a bit of a shame that they were apparently more concerned with job security than solving the drug problem (cynicism is hard to keep at bay).
Turns out, of course, that person was dead right, and I am forced to acknowledge the superiority of their argument every single time I must step around a prone drug aficionado on the transit train, or disembark when a cluster of them embarks, or when I happen to catch some tragic fentanyl statistic or familial survivor in the news. The only thing I know for sure about the drug trade is that it is far more complex a problem than I can even imagine, never mind lobbying for some overly simplistic strategy. Maybe no one knows the answer, but some people have a far better idea of what will not work, and we should listen to them.
The same holds true for energy, and as frightening as it sounds, to even a far higher degree. Current active proposals are to dismantle the existing energy system because some armchair quarterback is following the policy, and has observed some overly simplified suggestion of how it all will work. “Electrify everything!” “Just stop Oil!”
It is imperative that we take care of the environment, but it is also imperative that we walk before we run, that we understand exactly what we are planning to do (and test it) before ripping down the existing structure that keeps 8 billion people alive. They won’t stand for it.
There is always the potential for new technological breakthroughs that will upend everything. Most recently, Toyota has announced plans to begin using solid state batteries by 2027, a move which could revolutionize battery tech if it becomes commercially available at mass scale (and Toyota, as one of the pioneers of hybrid cars with the Prius some 20 years ago, has credibility on the subject). Their battery tech has the potential to offer up to 900 miles of range and a full charge in 10 minutes. I’d sign up for that, subject to cost.
But there it is again, a potentially overly simplistic sounding solution. What would that mean with respect to demand for the special sauce metallic compounds that Toyota will use to make all this work? Will it be something exotic (they’re not saying, not that I’ve found anyway)? Will it be plentiful? Or will it mean some cross-threaded new mining strategy that will see us become even more dependent on China for processing?
If anyone is serious about reducing global emissions, there is a very clear pathway: Replace coal with natural gas first and foremost – the lowest hanging fruit. Build out nuclear plants, either the big ones or small modular reactors. Develop a serious global recycling effort to utilize all that we have produced so far. Accelerate development of new technology that works best with the existing infrastructure, as this is surely the most probable success-path going forward. Stop listening to villain-seekers.
Listen to experts that will be responsible for the critical pathways, not nouveau-experts that simply tell you what the target is. We all know that. We know we want a drug free world. We know we want everyone to be healthy to reduce medical burdens. We know we want lots of things. But that doesn’t mean anything, in isolation.