The Left vs The Climate

I’m still in the process of moving house (I’ve now arrived in Tassie, but my furniture is still in transit…). But I have my Notebook computer, so I’m set, right?

Anyway, on the weekend I had time, over a large coffee, to read through Will Boisvert‘s essay on pastoral fantasies and the alternative ‘high energy planet’ (a critique of Naomi Klein’s new book). It is absolutely brilliant, and I immediately thought it was a perfect exposition of the philosophy that developed on BNC over the last 5 years, in reaction to the global sustainability challenge.  Anyway, I asked Will, and Michael Shellenberger from The Breakthrough Institute (who published the original article) if I might reproduce it here on BNC, and they graciously agreed. So here it is.

Read this (please!), and think carefully. We must all think and act rationally to tackle this challenge. There is no room for cognitive dissonance or denial, whatever ‘side’ you feel you are on.

Why Progressives Should Reject Naomi Klein’s Pastoral Fantasy — and Embrace Our High-Energy Planet

Liberal and progressive politics used to embrace energy, technology, and modernity for human liberation and environmental quality. Today it embraces a reactionary apocalyptic pastoralism epitomized by Naomi Klein’s latest, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. As such, Klein’s book is symptomatic of the Left’s disturbing turn against progressive, pragmatic action for people and the environment.

Ever since Marx’s day, leftists have been straining to spy the terminal crisis of capitalism on the horizon. It’s been a frustrating vigil. Whatever the upheaval confronting it — world war, depression, communist revolution, the Carter administration — a seemingly cornered capitalism always wriggled free and came back more (and occasionally less) heedless, rapacious, crass, and domineering than before.

Now comes global warming, a cataclysm seemingly so dire that it cannot be finessed with reformist half-measures, so all-encompassing that capitalism would have to leave the planet to dodge it. For many on the Left, capitalism is at the heart of climate change: the crisis of over-combustion stems from the capitalist dynamic of overproduction and overconsumption, all driven by the logic of over-concentration of profits in the hands of the wealthy few. And nothing will resolve the crisis, the Left hopes, but the transformation of every aspect of the world capitalism has made — to pull consumerism, waste, hierarchy, competition, trade and alienation up by the roots and replace them with a political economy of sufficiency, recycling, egalitarianism, cooperation, localism, and nature.

It was almost inevitable that Naomi Klein, the Left’s preeminent celebrity journalist, would make herself the mouthpiece of this mind-wave. The Canadian writer-pundit and Nation columnist is a master of broad frameworks and far-reaching implications. She has already written two books — No Logo, on the corporate takeover of culture, and The Shock Doctrine, on the neoliberal take-over of economies — that crystallized huge clouds of progressive discontent into catchy memes. Her trademark blend of light wonkery, sardonic prose, sharp-eyed reportage and fist-waving militance appeals to every left constituency from academics to Occupiers. Most important, her penchant for tying absolutely anything she can think of into her thesis du jour feels tailor-made for climate change, the most omnipresent and multifaceted of subjects.

Her new manifesto, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is a wide-ranging synthesis of Left-green doctrine on the entwinement of ecology and economy. It’s about belching smoke-stacks, thickening carbon dioxide, melting icesheets, acidifying oceans, shattering hurricanes, and searing droughts. It’s also about callous oil companies, preening billionaires, corrupt politicians, environmental groups subborned by corporate cash, hard-pressed farmers, desperate workers in dirty jobs, and downtrodden natives defending their land. This is all of a piece to Klein: the fight for a sustainable economy is also the fight for a fair and humane one, a furtherance of struggles for labor rights, civil rights, welfare rights, and land reform, for grassroots democracy against elite power.

By aligning these immediate struggles for justice with the collective battle to save the planet, she writes, climate change can “bring together all of these still living movements” and “right those festering wrongs at last — the unfinished business of liberation” [459].

For Klein, that alignment will spark not just programmatic clarity and mass mobilization, but spiritual redemption as well. Coal, in her view, is the dark heart of industrial capitalism and its mania for “total domination of both nature and people,” [173] and has turned us into “a society of grave-robbers” feeding off buried fossils. In abandoning it we will forge a new bond with the natural world and “[derive] our energy directly from the elements that sustain life” [176].

Even more than in her previous books, Klein advances a grand vision of “changing how we live, how our economies function, even the stories we tell about our place on earth,” [4] along with a sensibility that combines apocalyptic dread with utopian yearning to stimulate revolutionary determination.

Unfortunately, the result is a garbled mess stumbling endlessly over its own contradictions. Her understanding of the technical aspects of energy policy — indispensable for any serious discussion of sustainability — is weak and biased, marked by a myopic boosterism of renewables and an unthinking rejection of nuclear power and other low-carbon energy sources. Having declared climate change an “existential crisis for the human species,” [15] she rules out some of the most effective means of dealing with it.

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Short hiatus (gone south…)

Well, it’s come at last — I’m currently in the throes of my move (southwards retreat!) to Tasmania. Such is the upheaval involved in a large inter-state move (from the mainland to an island, no less!) that I will be unlikely to be in a position to post any new material on the BNC blog for a few weeks. But be assured, once I’m settled in my new deep-austral abode, I should once again be able to give due attention to this domain!

Destination: southern Tasmania!

In the meantime, a few interesting things to read, in case you’ve not already caught these:

  1. Think we’ll ever run out of nuclear fuel? Think again…
  2. Prescription for the Planet book is now FREE (the whole book as one PDF):

  3. “Technical rationale for metal fuel in fast reactors” — read this to better understand why the IFR offers such outstanding benefits for sustainable energy. Despite the title, it’s actually quite readable (!), and lots of useful diagrams:

  4. The Australian Academy of Technology Sciences & Engineering has released an action statement on nuclear power. There is also a WNN editorial that discusses it in some detail.

See you when I get to the other side of ‘The Ditch’!

Deep Space

Now for something different…

I’ve always been an avid astronomy hobbyist, ever since I spent my teen years at Siding Spring Observatory — Australia’s largest professional site for optical observations. My Dad worked (and we lived) onsite, as an electronics technician keeping the critical equipment running. As a consequence, I got to live on a mountain, in a national park, and be exposed to real science from an early age!

Anyway, I’ve recently had a chance to take up my amateur astronomy pursuits again, and this time to try my hand at some astrophotography. I own good-quality but relatively inexpensive equipment right now (most of my imaging to date has been done through an 80mm ED refractor and either a Sony NEX-3 DSLR camera or an Orion StarShoot G3 monochrome CCD). Apparently astrophotography is a bottomless money pit — there is always the next upgrade to look to! But one step at a time.

Anyway, here are a few of my recent images that I thought you might enjoy — or want to critique. They were taken in the relatively light-polluted skies of suburban Adelaide, but I’ll soon (in one month, in fact) be moving to a much darker site in southern Tasmania. Did I tell you all that I’ve taken a new job at the University of Tasmania?

Here is the selected gallery, with full capture details and higher-rez versions in the link to the Astrobin AP hosting website.

NGC 253, the ‘Silver Coin’ galaxy in Sculptor (


M42, the Orion Nebula (details here:


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The Catch-22 of Energy Storage

Pick up a research paper on battery technology, fuel cells, energy storage technologies or any of the advanced materials science used in these fields, and you will likely find somewhere in the introductory paragraphs a throwaway line about its application to the storage of renewable energy.  Energy storage makes sense for enabling a transition away from fossil fuels to more intermittent sources like wind and solar, and the storage problem presents a meaningful challenge for chemists and materials scientists… Or does it?

Guest Post by John Morgan. John is Chief Scientist at a Sydney startup developing smart grid and grid scale energy storage technologies.  He is Adjunct Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at RMIT, holds a PhD in Physical Chemistry, and is an experienced industrial R&D leader.  You can follow John on twitter at @JohnDPMorganFirst published in Chemistry in Australia.

Several recent analyses of the inputs to our energy systems indicate that, against expectations, energy storage cannot solve the problem of intermittency of wind or solar power.  Not for reasons of technical performance, cost, or storage capacity, but for something more intractable: there is not enough surplus energy left over after construction of the generators and the storage system to power our present civilization.

The problem is analysed in an important paper by Weißbach et al.1 in terms of energy returned on energy invested, or EROEI – the ratio of the energy produced over the life of a power plant to the energy that was required to build it.  It takes energy to make a power plant – to manufacture its components, mine the fuel, and so on.  The power plant needs to make at least this much energy to break even.  A break-even powerplant has an EROEI of 1.  But such a plant would pointless, as there is no energy surplus to do the useful things we use energy for.

There is a minimum EROEI, greater than 1, that is required for an energy source to be able to run society.  An energy system must produce a surplus large enough to sustain things like food production, hospitals, and universities to train the engineers to build the plant, transport, construction, and all the elements of the civilization in which it is embedded.

For countries like the US and Germany, Weißbach et al. estimate this minimum viable EROEI to be about 7.  An energy source with lower EROEI cannot sustain a society at those levels of complexity, structured along similar lines.  If we are to transform our energy system, in particular to one without climate impacts, we need to pay close attention to the EROEI of the end result.

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An open letter to the ABC about Catalyst’s latest Fukushima piece

Mark Horstman travels to Fukushima Prefecture in Japan to investigate where the radioactive fallout has travelled since the Daichi nuclear power plant accident over three years ago.

This was the profile of a recent ABC Catalyst documentary investigation on the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear event. You can watch the 17 min report here.

Below is a critical reply by Geoff Russell, framed as an Open Letter. Comments welcome below — and write to ABC if this motivates you!

An open letter to the ABC about Catalyst’s latest Fukushima piece

Geoff Russell, August 2014

Dear ABC,

Can anybody imagine ABC’s Alan Kohler without his graphs?

Can anybody imagine him leaving the units of measurements off his axes? Instead of ‘$’s, ‘percent’s or something similarly meaningful, what if he started labelling his X or Y axis as ‘wiggles’ or ‘puds’. I’d reckon the ABC would get more than a few complaints.

So why can Catalyst’s Mark Horstman cite radiation units, which are about as meaningful as ‘wiggles’ to most of the population, without explaining what they mean? Isn’t explaining stuff what science communication is all about?

Horstman recently presented a Radiation fallout Catalyst story about the long term radiation impacts of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear meltdowns. He opens with a statment about forest areas having a radiation count of 7 micro Sieverts per hour (uSv/hr).

Horstman could have explained what 7 uSv/hr means. I’m sure he knows. But the closest we got to any kind of information about this level was his claim that 5 uSv/hr was “50 times the maximum dose rate considered safe for the general public”. Without information about how risk changes as the dose changes, this is vacuous at best and misleading at worst. Taking a teaspoon of wine a day may be safe, but what about half a glass a day? That’s 50 times more than a teaspoon, but does it matter? Does raising a safe dose by 50 times make it low risk, high risk, deadly, or perhaps even make it beneficial? Maybe 50 times safe is still just safe.

And Horstman didn’t even get the numbers right. Let’s go through it slowly. Horstman could have got the Catalyst graphics team to do a nice little image. I’ll rely on words.

First, let’s convert the hourly rate to an annual rate so we can compare it to normal background radiation, which averages about 2.4 milli Sieverts per year (mSv/year). Background radiation varies from place to place but usually ranges from 1 mSv/year to around 7 mSv/year. If you were to lay on one of Brazil’s black monazite beaches 24×7, you could get a hefty 800 mSv/year. So 5 micro Sieverts per hour (uSv/hour) is 5 x 24 x 365 = 43800 uSv/year and since there are 1000 micro Sieverts per milli Sievert, this is 43.8 mSv/year. Divide this by the global average background level of 2.4 mSv/year and you get 18.25. So 5 uSv/hour is 18 times the global average background radiation level. Is Horstman telling us that the global average background level is dangerous? If he is, he’s simply wrong. How wrong? The background level of radiation in Finland is 7 mSv/year, much higher than in the UK where it’s below 2 mSv/year, but the cancer rate in Finland is actually a little lower than the cancer rate in the UK. So it seems reasonable to regard the Finnish background radiation rate as safe. Then since 5 uSv/hour is about 6 times higher than the Finnish background rate, I’d say it’s only 6 times higher than a safe rate.

But Horstman’s arithmetic mistakes are a minor matter. Whether it’s 6 times or 50 times greater than something that’s safe doesn’t tell us anything at all about how safe it is.

Is there any evidence that a level of radiation 18 times the global average is dangerous? Not that I know of. But there is certainly quite good evidence that it is harmless.

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