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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James Hansen calls the climate talks a fraud.

“It’s a fraud really, a fake.” It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”

Yes, a very important statement from James Hansen that we ignore at our peril. In fact, I was just going to post a link to a virtually identical article about Hansen by Andrew Nikiforuk: "What Worries the World's Most Famous Climate Scientist?"

Both articles appear to be built around a press release (or "communiqué") from Hansen's website, though when I look at the website I don't see anything newer than a Nov. 27 entry.

At any rate, I think it is important to notice that according to Hansen, the approaches touted by the "Big Green" environmental advocacy groups are not going to get us where we need to go. Caps won't work because we're never going to find the right formula that 195 nations can agree to.  Capture and storage, clean coat, etc. is a mythological technology. And Nikiforuk says "We might also have to abandon the myth of "clean energy," because every form of energy comes with an ecological price tag and a moral quandary." Hansen specifically criticizes Germany's approach on that front, with the end result that "global emissions decline little, if at all."

So what does he advocate? A carbon tax. This is what I'm supporting here in WA state - an initiative that will enact the nation's first revenue neutral carbon tax. This needs to be applied worldwide, with the tax rate increasing until it does the job.  Hansen calls it a carbon levy and dividend.

Hansen: "The valid scientific message is that emissions must be reduced as rapidly as practical. And in turn, that implies the price of fossil fuels must be made honest by adding a rising carbon fee."

Here is a screenshot of the "Key Points" from page 2 of Hansen's chapter (online pdf) on The Imperative of a Carbon Fee and Dividend.

See the video below from Democracy Now. Unlike major media they actually covered the event, including those who are disappointed. In this clip are some of the disappointed about targets being voluntary, the omission of specific dates to reach targets, the weakening of financial access to vulnerable nations, and no mention of military carbon emissions.

Good statement on the climate talks from Lawrence Wollersheim.

James Lovelock thinks we should give up on saving the planet from climate change, as it's going to happen anyway. Instead we should focus our limited resources on preparing cities to adapt to the impending climate disasters.

I smile at this. I like what he says. I still feel a bit uncertain about stopping spending money on trying to control what we can some. Hmm. Provocative.

This is a smiler too:

'However Lovelock adds a cautionary warning. “I must admit an empathetic dread for some unfortunately future person whose body becomes connected to one of more of the ubiquitous social networks.

“I can imagine no punishment more severe than having my still comparatively clear mind overtaken by the spam of hucksters and the never-ceasing gossip of the Internet.”'

From The Telegraph, also, there is a home page article whose title I like. "Politics is the last refuge of the workplace bully." This is probably relative ubiquitous around the world, politics being so connected to the exercise of power, but I also wonder if England for cultural-historical reasons, whatever, can be a little more nasty than the US - of course, I don't know. The reasons and tendencies would probably be quite complex. Whether England is or not, yeah, another common corruption of the journey into politics.

theurj said:

James Lovelock thinks we should give up on saving the planet from climate change, as it's going to happen anyway. Instead we should focus our limited resources on preparing cities to adapt to the impending climate disasters.

If you Google "James Lovelock climate" you'll see that Lovelock has not shied away from controversial statements, and reversing himself numerous times. His maverick, independent style, to me, is something to be applauded, and yet also taken with a grain of salt. He does have a point - many scientists are more and more saying any response to CC at this point is largely too little, too late. But I'm quite skeptical of the idea about moving us all to climate controlled cities, and more than a little hesitant to embrace the singularity or whatever du jour terminology for post-human techno life. Being "overtaken by the spam of hucksters," indeed!

It should be noted that the Telegraph has a tendency to spin news & commentary toward a more conservative view (i.e. delighting in reporting that we shouldn't spend money combating climate change), whereas the Guardian tends to support more liberal viewpoints. 

Speaking of the Guardian, George Monbiot had an interesting interview with James Lovelock, introduced with the comment "Is there anyone as stimulating, infuriating, fascinating and contradictory as James Lovelock?"  The title of his Monbiot's book review

James Lovelock's book shows genius is no defence against being wrong

Good background, DM.

Yes, I thought Lovelock's ideas in the article I linked above were more than a bit off. The Guardian review reinforced my intuitions, especially this one:

"James appears to possess a profound and irrational prejudice against renewable energy. This seems to encourage him to believe almost any rubbish its opponents publish."

Which the author then, unlike Lovelock, provides some examples with legitimate evidence.

On the relationship between Energy and Money.  From an email list I'm on related to the work of systems ecologist Howard T. Odum, here are comments by Charles A. Hall and Kent Klitgaard, co-authors of "Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy" (at Amazon here). 

Charles Hall wrote:

My simplistic rules or observations or something are:

1) money has no value except as we have faith in that it does (Nicole Foss).  Generally we do.
2) mostly we do not want money itself (except maybe for "political" power or prestige)
3) what we want is what money gives access to: goods and services and the potential for that
4) money has no intrinsic value except trivial ability to keep us warm by burning it.
5) gold is not an absolute standard of value as often proclaimed: it is just harder to get more gold than to print more money, hence it is more "conservative". But it too can inflate: In the 1500s the Spaniards doubled the amount of gold in the Old World by importing it from the new world.  But they halved its value.  Likewise silver. 
6) goods and services are generated only indirectly by money -- they are generated by a huge complex of our economy necessarily fueled by energy (but requiring various materials; also labor and capital) 
7) the PER UNIT value of money is dependent upon the ratio of the money supply to the flow of goods and services.
    Alternatively the value of money I view money as a lien on energy to generate desired goods and services.
8) These days a dollar is backed by (on average) 6 MJoules which we are willing to commit (i.e. a lien or promissory note) to whatever the bearer wishes to have.
9) Inflation occurs (and undermines the concept of  conservation of value) if/as the money supply increases faster than either the production of goods and services or , I would say, the rate of use of money.  This concept was put forth in last figure of our 1984 paper (enclosed) [See "Energy and the Biophysical Economy," 1984, by Cleveland, Costanza, Hall, and Kaufmann, published originally in Science, and which can be found at].
10) inflation also relates to the velocity of money, which I understand less.


Kent Klitgaard wrote:

To Charlie’s list of the functions of money I should add a few things.

1.        For most of history money has taken the form of debt kept in account books. The rise of commodity money (gold and silver, etc) was essentially to pay soldiers, so money as precious metal has definite military connections. Donald Graeber’s Debt: the first 5000 years is an excellent source

2.       The (rather foolish) notion that the capitalist economy is self regulating depends on a number of mechanisms, including an international gold standard. When this broke down in the 1920s the world economy did too. Karl Polanyi and Thomas Piketty provide excellent analyses.

3.       Money is an expression of exchange value, not use value. This was an important distinction for all classical political economists, as well as business people. Capitalists start and end with  money. As CEO Shapiro stated when they blew up Lucy, Carnegie’s original blast furnace at the homestead works:  “US Steel is not in business to make steel. We are in business to make profits for our shareholders.”



Here is an abbreviated summary of a post by Chris Smaje, which is a summary of ideas from David Rieff’s recent book The Reproach of Hunger1. Smaje calls this "Of Boomers and Doomers." Read the complete post here. This critique of "techno-utopian thinking" has some parallels in the integral community (see my paper, for example). 

"...I’ve been struck anew recently through various readings and conversations about the nature of techno-utopianism, and the difficulty we seem to have nowadays in breaking out of a boomer-doomer dualism – that is, either the (rather unhistorical) ‘boomer’ notion that human rationality, optimism and ingenuity always overcomes the social, economic and biophysical problems societies face, or the (boldly predictive, and therefore also unhistorical) ‘doomer’ notion that these problems are sure to overwhelm us and destroy civilisation altogether.

One such reading is David Rieff’s recent book The Reproach of Hunger1. ... Rieff’s book has helped me see its outlines more clearly, so with his help here I’d like to describe briefly some of its key elements.... 

So here, for your consideration, are seven elements of TU (Techno-Utopianism) ideology, lightly tossed with a few counter-thoughts of my own:

  1. Ideology: our first characteristic of TU ideology is that it considers itself to have no ideology, but instead merely a pragmatic focus on solving practical problems (such as climate change or extreme poverty) by using whatever methods demonstrably work... 
  1. Engineering and medical metaphors: global problems (climate change, extreme poverty etc.) are conceived as dysfunction in complex systems, after the model of a mechanism (a broken machine requiring an engineer to fix it) or an organism (a sick body requiring a doctor to fix it – as in the pervasive metaphor of poverty as a ‘disease’). These metaphors lack a sense of intentionality. Global problems are also the result of people’s deliberate actions.
  1. Science: TU accords a premier role to science in ‘fixing’ global problems – surely no surprise in view of the preceding points, since scientific enquiry is modern humanity’s most successful example of transcending ideology using non-intentional (mechanical and medical/biological) models. To this way of thinking, global problems arise through technique rather than social power: for example, the contemporary poverty of small-scale farmers is seen as resulting from lack of access to agricultural technologies that increase their crop yields (such as GM crops, denied them by ideologues from wealthy countries) and not from the abolition of marketing boards or import tariffs under global free trade rules... 
  1. Optimism: but paradoxically, TU ideology sets itself against pessimism, cynicism and naysaying. Development guru Jeffrey Sachs, for example, has tweeted “Cynicism is biggest obstacle to challenges such as ending poverty and fighting climate change”4. I’d have plumped for issues like war, skewed economic relations, runaway consumerism or the over-reliance on fossil fuels... 
  1. Millenarianism: the optimism tic of TU ideology suggests that science isn’t ultimately what it’s about. Indeed, TU seems more redolent of millenarian religion than of science. ‘Science’ is merely the vehicle in TU’s secularized form of millennialism (as trumpet-wielding angels have been in other versions) to bringing about human perfection on earth... 
  1. The power of the individual: perhaps this is a stronger feature of TU ideology in the development/hunger field than in ecomodernist environmentalism. It invests the idea that by being optimistic, by giving money to the right charities, by making the right consumption decisions and by supporting big campaigns like Make Poverty History, the wealthy western consumer is individually empowered to help the poor... 
  1. The failure of government: Rieff deftly charts the shift in the development paradigm, which until the 1970s considered the structuring of the global economy in favour of corporate private enterprise to be part of the problem, but since the 1980s has increasingly seen it as part of the solution... 


So much for TU ideology and its ‘optimism’. What’s the alternative? Not, surely, hopelessness or despair. I think rather just an openness to the idea that some of the problems we currently face (like hunger, and climate change) may not be solvable within the parameters of our current political and economic systems, or indeed may not be solvable at all. Perhaps satisfying technological solutions to such problems will appear without the need for major systemic change. But perhaps they won’t. Let us think freely about all possible eventualities, rather than clinging determinedly to a redemptive narrative of business-as-usual solutionism that aggressively silences dissenters. Nobody can tell what the future holds, but there are good reasons for apprehension... 

There’s a conservative politics implicit in TU ideology, which is quite comforting to those of us living in wealthy countries where few go truly hungry and where our use of non-renewable resources is out of all proportion to our numbers. This holds that there’s no viable alternative to existing economic and political arrangements, the challenge then being the essentially technical one of raising the rest of the world up to our level of resource use, while making it sustainable at the same time. But it seems to me that that challenge is most likely insurmountable. And in any case there are more satisfying alternatives...

I can see plenty of reasons to take a pessimistic view that problems like war, hunger and climate change, independently and additively, will result in a lot of misery in the years to come. I can also see reasons to think optimistically that they can be overcome, or at least tolerably mitigated. But it seems to me that the most promising way of overcoming them is to ditch the techno-utopianism and business-as-usual economics currently dominating mainstream policy. And I’m not very optimistic that that will happen nearly soon enough. Still, life never was a fairy story, huh?"


  1. Rieff, D. 2016. The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice and Money in the 21stCentury. London: Verso.


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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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