The future of green thinking


I have been uneasy for some time about current long-term green thinking. In Herefordshire and elsewhere.

A recent article by Megan Selbert and William Rees., ‘Through the Eye of a Needle: An Eco-Heterodox Perspective on the Renewable Energy Transition’, has provided insight into my unease.

I have been following Prof Bill Rees for some years. He thinks outside the box, which is badly needed now that the UK is in such a muddle.

Their article has many more related matters than I can cover in this piece – all are significant for green thinking. A link is at the bottom of this piece for those who wish to read and save the article.

The essence of the author’s controversial narrative about the ‘Green New Deal’ (GND) – so crcuil to theBiden administration = is that it ignores the long-term future. By long-term, I mean more than 20 years ahead.

I have lived through the consequences of not thinking about the long-term. In the 1960s and 70s, I was Head of Transportation at Southampton City Council, responsible for planning the city’s road network. Our planning horizon was 20 years ahead.  It didn’t occur to us to wonder what would happen then. Our city streets are still congested!

Another consequence of not thinking long-term hit my wife and me last year. Our air-to-air heat pump reached the end of its life. After 20 years, we should have had it replaced for £15,000. Instead, we had heat recovery ventilation and infrared heating installed at a third of the cost.

Green thinking has the same problem. As the authors of the article suggest:

GND proponents are appallingly tolerant of the inexplicable. They fail to address how the gigatons of already severely depleted metals and minerals essential to building so-called renewable (RE) technologies will be available in perpetuity, considering typical five to 30-year life spans and the need for continuous replacement.

The manufacturing processes used today to make solar panels, high-tech wind turbines, batteries, and all other industrial products involve very high temperatures that are currently generated using fossil fuels (FFs).  Despite the critical importance of heat in manufacturing, there is scant information on whether or how it can be generated with RE alone.

“Solar panels have a life span of only 20 to 30 years, making for a massive waste management problem. Solar PV has a low energy return on energy invested (EROEI)—too low to power modern civilisation. Batteries have a life span of around 5 to 15 years, creating an additional, significant waste management problem.  They cannot be disposed of in landfills due to their toxicity and are one of the fastest-growing contributors to e-waste streams.  Only 5 per cent of all lithium batteries are recycled.

Am I right to be uneasy about the long-term?

Prof Rees has forewarned us about the unavoidable waste management problems ahead. Does this imply that the government will eventually have to phase out solar panels and wind turbines?

If I were a younger man (I am 85), I would advocate preparing for a future where fossil fuels will cease to be financially viable. And replacement solar PVs and wind turbines will no longer be available.  

Preparing for survival seems more logical than assuming that renewables will enable the present post-industrial culture to be maintained. Such a future might be a not-too-bad if FF energy is no longer available.  

Not unlike what I remember in the 1950s!

In the meantime, whilst the current culture prevails, we should switch our attention from generating additional electricity to reducing our energy use: installing renewables has the effect of making us think we can maintain our growth-based mindset.  

We should be planning to do the opposite.  

Also, solar power is too low to power modern civilisation.  So we are heading towards a smaller economy – this should be part of local green thinking.

Finally, these views differ from conventional thinking, with their vested interests.  As far as I know, the traditional view on renewables does not look beyond 20 years.  

We live in a world of vested interests – which often denies how things are.

To read and download a copy of the article by Megan Selbert and William Rees.

Video of William Rees in conversation with Nate Hagens.

his post first appeared in the Herefordshire Green Network Newsletter.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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