Integral Energy: Uniting Mulitple Perspectives on our Thermodynamic World

Obviously the title of this discussion is a playful plagiarism of the book on Integral Ecology by Esbjorn-Hargens and Zimmerman. I do believe that the subject of gross physical energy has been woefully under-discussed in the integral community.

A great place to begin is a recent essay by Richard Heinberg that has been received to high acclaim over on the website, which is operated by the Post Carbon Institute, for which Heinberg is a senior analyst. Heinberg has been writing about energy for 12 years, and is the author of books such as Cloning the Buddha: The Moral Impact of Biotechnology; The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies; Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World; Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Declines; Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis; The End of Growth: Adapting to our New Economic Reality.

In his latest essay, Our Renewable Future, Heinberg demonstrates that he is what I would call an energy realist. He does not demonize the fossil fuel industry, but he clearly lays out the formidable challenges we face as the climate crisis worsens and as easy access to these fuels continues to recede.  Nor does he communicate as would a lobbyist for the renewable energy industry, hyping the benefits and downplaying the problems in this field.

Instead, Heinberg approaches the problems from multiple perspectives and honestly conveys his own biases, and encourages us to broaden our thinking:

I consider myself a renewable energy advocate: after all, I work for an organization called Post Carbon Institute. I have no interest in discouraging the energy transition—quite the contrary. But I’ve concluded that many of us, like Koningstein and Fork, have been asking the wrong questions of renewables. We’ve been demanding that they continue to power a growth-based consumer economy that is inherently unsustainable for a variety of reasons (the most obvious one being that we live on a small planet with finite resources). The fact that renewables can’t do that shouldn't actually be surprising.

What are the right questions? The first, already noted, is: What kind of society can up-to-date renewable energy sources power? The second, which is just as important: How do we go about becoming that sort of society?

As we’ll see, once we begin to frame the picture this way, it turns out to be anything but bleak.

I believe this to be an extremely important essay, and the embedded links provide even more depth, providing a great resource for essential 21st century energy literacy.

- David

Our Renewable Future

Or, What I’ve Learned in 12 Years Writing about Energy

(7000 words, about 25 minutes reading time)

Folks who pay attention to energy and climate issues are regularly treated to two competing depictions of society’s energy options.* On one hand, the fossil fuel industry claims that its products deliver unique economic benefits, and that giving up coal, oil, and natural gas in favor of renewable energy sources like solar and wind will entail sacrifice and suffering (this gives a flavor of their argument). Saving the climate may not be worth the trouble, they say, unless we can find affordable ways to capture and sequester carbon as we continue burning fossil fuels.

On the other hand, at least some renewable energy proponents tell us there is plenty of wind and sun, the fuel is free, and the only thing standing between us and a climate-protected world of plentiful, sustainable, “green” energy, jobs, and economic growth is the political clout of the coal, oil, and gas industries (here is a taste of that line of thought).

Which message is right? Will our energy future be fueled by fossils (with or without carbon capture technology), or powered by abundant, renewable wind and sunlight? Does the truth lie somewhere between these extremes—that is, does an “all of the above” energy future await us? Or is our energy destiny located in a Terra Incognita that neither fossil fuel promoters nor renewable energy advocates talk much about? As maddening as it may be, the latter conclusion may be the one best supported by the facts.

If that uncharted land had a motto, it might be, “How we use energy is as important as how we get it.”...

Read the full essay here.

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I have a slow connection, and I can't really watch videos without spending a big chunk of time downloading them; so it's unlikely I'm gonna be able to watch this soon. Is this some kind of geo-engineering thing?

He talks about fee and dividend, David . Here is a text link:


It sounds similar to the CarbonWA initiative in WA state that I support, which is a revenue neutral carbon tax. Revenue neutral means there would be rebates and offsets for those most affected. Low income households would actually gain with less regressive taxation, and manufacturing businesses would have their B&O tax reduced or eliminated. 

British Columbia is already employing this mechanism. Of course, none of this will "fix" climate change, but they are steps in the right direction.

Hey David, I now call home B.N.C. ( British New China ) . I predicted this on zaadz 10 years ago . That fact that it is China is irrelevant, it could have been a country populated with purple people ; the point being is that the Chinese model of capitalism has won out within ten years of my prediction . An over-arching corporate state that dictates every facet of how we live our lives . No one is allowed to live in any other manner which leaves living on the streets ( or, withdrawing all manner of financial consent ) in protest as one of the few remaining options ( this is one of the few remaining options for non-violent peoples ) . The jihadist's  are fighting this global hegemony in their own way through their own interpretive filters . 

Ha, Resilience has tapped the noosphere and wrote about what i just mentioned :

Greers's intermediary class will have to be hammered by technology before any real revolution happens . We can see Trudeau as trying to do everything possible to prevent this from happening ; but the endeavour  is only delaying the inevitable, IMO. 

This war playing out in America is basically going to continue to attack the shirkers. The Republican's ( once they take power again next year) will only implement vast austerity measures that will continue to line their pockets . IOW's, a transfer of welfare from one group to another . Welfare for the rich where every law transfers more and more of the commons into their hands . 

If the Republican's had any integrity they would create an economic system that created widespread wealth . But that would be a disaster today as Republican's deny pollution and the limits to growth ( as the Chinese do).

Opps , that didn't come out right : Greer's intermediary class will eventually be hammered- as technology fails us- before any large scale revolution happens . In the meantime it's fairies and pixie dust all around . Apparently this is happening in Alberta now with the decline in oil revenue . Many people suffering and being told they didn't pull their boot-straps up . Here is a province that knows exactly how to fix this issue: SOCIAL CREDIT! Although a newer and better and more functional one then what was tried 60 years ago . My suggestion is to link the credit with a agreement to limit use of polluting machines . 

Paris Scherzo: A very good article by Albert Bates, discussing "the elephants in the rooms" at COP21, and includes these lines:

"The new analyses suggest that economic growth is the problem, whether or not the word sustainable is bolted to the front of it.

Sitting spaces in Le Bourget - large plastic animals
It’s not just that we don’t address this contradiction. Scarcely anyone dares even to name it. It’s as if the issue is too big, too frightening to contemplate. We seem unable to face the fact that our utopia is also our dystopia; that production appears to be indistinguishable from destruction."

And another elephant is capitalism, since it is accepted wisdom that there is no alternative. That blinds them to the alternatives already in progress.

Naomi Klein & Jeremy Corbin on the Paris climate talks. Klein starts by noting that the Paris talks take as given the gross crossing of scientific, financial and legal red lines that will lead to the dreaded 3-4 degree increase in global climate. Plus there are no penalties for crossing the limits the talks will merely suggest, thanks to insistence by the US. It's starting to more than seem like the talks are fluff to appease people rather than to actually do what needs to be done. So Klein notes that there will be demonstrations on Dec. 12 in defiance of the ban on demonstrations, the latter yet another indication that this meeting is a sham. There is far more in the video by Corbyn and labor union reps on energy democracy via local community control, trade agreements for labor and the environment, renewable energy jobs, etc., all indicative of the rising neo-Commons.

I'll have to see if I can watch at least part of that video posted above. 

This thread began with a reference to an essay by Richard Heinberg on "Our Renewable Future."  Heinberg's newest essay relates to the Paris climate talks: Can We Have Our Climate and Eat It Too?

He begins:

"As much as world leaders would like to focus attention on their economies, terrorism, or winning the next election, the heat is rising. Each new release of data on melting glaciers and extreme weather seems more dire than the last, and each governmental COP meeting organized to come up with an agreement on what to do about the climate crisis is freighted with more hopes and fears.

Because it is so urgent, climate change is leading to divisions within and among societies.

...Each of these divides is likely to deepen as global warming becomes less of a forecast and more of a harsh reality. But there is one more division of opinion and action that I propose to explore for the remainder of this essay; it turns on the question of whether we can maintain economic growth while stabilizing the climate." 

This is right along the lines of my ITC 2015 paper: "This paper considers current concerns about resource depletion (“energy descent”) and the unsustainability of current economic structures, which may indicate we are entering a new era signaled by the end of growth. "

Heinberg offers a helpful comparison between "The Climate Technofix" and "Managed Powerdown" which I reproduce below. 

In This Corner: Climate Technofix

"On one side of this divide are those who wish to preserve (or who see the usefulness of promising to preserve) the economic status quo while reducing carbon emissions. They are driven by the belief that political realism requires minimal interference with industrial lifestyles and priorities—particularly economic growth. Business as usual can be maintained, it is said, through the deployment of one or more of a suite of technologies.

The first set of these technologies consists of wind and solar electric power generators. Renewable energy technologies comprise a disruptive, unstoppable juggernaut that out-performs fossil fuels and creates growth and jobs, according to their most boosterish advocates. An almost entirely wind-and-solar future is entirely affordable; indeed it will be cheaper than a status-quo fossil fueled future. The energy transition will thus entail only benefit and no sacrifice.

Other technofixers, who think solar and wind are incapable of fully replacing fossil fuels in the time we have for the transition (because they produce power intermittently), instead praise the potential for nuclear power. New versions of atomic reactors (modular mini-reactors, thorium reactors, fast breeder reactors) are now on the drawing boards and, if the promotional literature is to be believed, they will to be cheaper and safer than existing models.

Still others say fossil fuels are so central to our present economy that they cannot be abandoned altogether, or not quickly enough; the technofix in this case is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). We can continue burning coal while catching and burying the carbon released from its combustion before it can do any harm to the climate. The technology has been proven on a small scale; all that’s required is sufficient investment. Other variations on this theme include burning biomass and burying the CO2 underground (BECCS), enhanced weathering (EW), and direct air capture (DAC).

If all else fails, say the technofixers, geoengineering can remove carbon from the atmosphere by seeding the oceans with iron, or it can make the planet’s atmosphere more reflective so as to reduce heating.

Clearly, not all of the groups I have described here see eye to eye: for example, many renewables advocates are anti-nuclear, anti-CCS, and anti-geoengineering. And only some renewables advocates can be described as technofixers (though the lion’s share of nuclear, CCS, and geoengineering boosters fairly can). More on that shortly.

In the Other Corner: Managed Powerdown

The other side of the divide argues that catastrophic climate change cannot be averted without a steep reduction in global energy use, and such a reduction will in turn inevitably mean economic contraction. Technology can assist in our adaptation to a new energy regime and a smaller economy, but it cannot realistically propel further industrial expansion of the kind seen during the 20th century.

Many powerdown proponents see climate change as a symptom of the deeper problem described in the 1972 Limits to Growth scenario studies. As population and per capita consumption increase, a point will inevitably be reached when resource depletion and environmental pollution make further growth impossible. According to this view, climate change is an expression of the pollution dilemma inherent in the expansion of population and per capita resource consumption; low-carbon technologies might be able to slow the trend toward ecosystem collapse driven by unbridled economic growth, but they cannot by themselves prevent collapse; only efforts to reduce population and consumption undertaken sufficiently early in the trend could accomplish that. Ecological footprint and planetary boundaries analysis offer confirmation, showing that current human population and consumption levels are drawing down Earth’s biocapacity and interfering with its natural support systems.

It is important to note that many renewable energy advocates are powerdowners who regard solar and wind power as insufficient by themselves to halt catastrophic climate change, absent fundamental economic change that would see per capita use of energy and materials decline significantly in industrial nations.

Others with a powerdown perspective say that while CCS and geoengineering are unworkable, carbon sequestration could indeed be accomplished via basic changes to agriculture that would enable farmers to build soil rather than destroying it (which is the net effect of current practices). Humanity has removed 136 Gt of carbon from soils through agriculture and other land use during the industrial era. There is the potential to reverse the trend by minimizing tillage, planting cover crops, encouraging biodiversity, employing crop rotation, expanding management intensive pasturing, and introducing properly made biochar to soils. But that would mean rapidly revolutionizing the entire global agricultural system—in effect, partially (and intelligently) de-industrializing it.

According to its advocates, although powerdown goes against the grain of near-universal preference for further industrial expansion, it is a strategy that has one significant advantage: it is a proven way to slow and reverse climate change, since historic economic recessions have correlated closely with slower growth in carbon emissions. If economic contraction were managed, its unwanted adverse human consequences could be minimized, while its environmental benefits could be maximized.

The fact that I wrote a book titled Powerdown may tell you on which side of this divide I personally fall."

For those who like audio books, I've just discovered Michael Dowd's page FULL of links to books and essays that he's recorded as free downloadable mp3s.  Included is Heinberg's latest essay mentioned above.  Dowd's audio here

Check out his webpage:

Here's how Dowd (author of "Thank God for Evolution") describes this page:

"The following are unofficial (non-professional) audio recordings of what I (Michael Dowd) consider to be:

The best and most important books, essays, and blogposts related to inescapable geological, ecological, and thermodynamic constraints to which humanity rapidly must adjust. These constraints I choose to call grace limits. These are the limits that ecologists point to when discerning carrying capacity. When we overshoot Earth's bounty and renewal capacities (upon which we utterly depend) we effectively remove ourselves from paradise and put ourselves on the path to hell. To learn to recognize and then scrupulously honor carrying capacity as Reality's grace limits is a task to which the authors included here are devoted. I think of these advocates as prophets of sacred realism, or factual faith. The reason I've invested hundreds of hours over the last two years recording these books, essays, and blog posts is simply because they are far too significant (for some, utterly life changing) to not be available in audio form."

An excerpt from Sanders on the climate agreement:

"While this is a step forward it goes nowhere near far enough. The planet is in crisis. We need bold action in the very near future and this does not provide that. In the United States we have a Republican Party which is much more interested in contributions from the fossil fuel industry than they care about the future of the planet. That is true all over the globe. We’ve got to stand up to the fossil fuel industry and fight for national and international legislation that transforms our energy system away from fossil fuel as quickly as possible."

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What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity's ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

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