By Brian Czech
Ever since my review of Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans, some misunderstandings have come to light about the stance of myself, and by extension CASSE, on renewable energy. One such misunderstanding—spread far and wide—is that we are “against renewables.” A clarification is definitely in order.
CASSE and steady staters at large are all for renewable energy. Of course! Along with the steady state economy as the sustainable alternative to growth, renewable energy is the sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. What we oppose is the fallacious notion of “green growth” that has come to dominate pro-renewable political discourse. We also oppose the wholesale, automatic acceptance of any and every wind and solar project; not everything touted as “green” turns out to be ecologically economic. Along those lines, we certainly don’t support the liquidation of biomass stocks that otherwise provided crucial ecosystem services.
We also suggest putting the political horse before the technological cart. As I, Herman Daly, and Bill Rees have each pointed out independently, a sustainable shift to renewables must follow a conscious, intentional adoption of the steady state economy (entailing a phase of de-growth) as a policy goal. Otherwise, with the goal of economic growth ruling the policy arena, renewables and nuclear plants will be used to supplement rather than replace fossil fuels, and the resulting amount of destructive economic activity will only increase. Adding insult to injury, not only will the destruction on the ground increase, but greenhouse gas emissions as well!
That said, a certain amount of respect is due those who are so passionate to save the planet that they’ll do just about anything, as soon as possible, for a transition to renewables. As with passionate people in other walks of life, they can be obsessive and zealous. It’s hard to blame them, because climate change is a current psychological threat as well as a mounting existential one. They lose sleep at night (well-documented especially in children) and develop ulcers over the relentless forcing of greenhouse gases into the precious atmosphere of our common home. They are ready to go to verbal war (and maybe more) with anyone who detracts—or who they think detracts—from the transition to renewable energy. They are in some ways heroic and tragic figures, as haunted by the fossil-fueled world as steady staters are by the pro-growth world.
Furthermore, some are doubly haunted. That is, they fully acknowledge the need for a steady state economy as well as renewable energy. Yet, not abiding the wisdom of Daly that “sequence matters,” their days are spent not in advancing the steady state economy but rather in developing renewable energy technology, designing renewable energy projects, or pushing politically for renewable energy. Maybe they hope that others will prevail in advancing the steady state economy, such that solar and wind actually replace rather than supplement fossil fuels.
The decision for any one person or organization about what to prioritize—advancing the steady state economy or advancing renewables—entails a number of factors. One such factor is the technical background of the individual. All else equal, someone whose expertise is primarily in renewable energy is better suited to advancing renewables. If the background is in ecological economics, then advancing the steady state economy is a better fit.
Another factor is age. A young renewable energy scholar who concludes that advancing the steady state economy is the first order of business may find it feasible to steer further academic and professional development toward advancing the steady state economy. An elder statesman of renewable energy may not.
As other factors come into play, almost all steady staters conduct a mix of advancing the steady state economy and renewable energy, but with a decided emphasis on the former. Indeed, it would seem to be the emphasis on advancing the steady state economy that makes one a “steady stater.”
Aside from one’s expertise and age, two other prioritization factors warrant a closer look. One is the marginal benefit of “steady statesmanship” vs. renewable energy action. Which offers the biggest bang for the buck? Another is an overlooked ecological footprint; we’ll follow it among the technological trees while remaining cognizant of the sustainability forest.
Biggest Bang for the Buck
How many people and organizations support renewable energy? Could we even stop counting? We could go on and on, starting with steady staters and moving into ever-widening circles of sustainability scholars, environmental activists, professional scientific societies, little environmental NGOs, big NGOs, and even many corporations, utilities, and politicians. Most importantly, it includes a substantial share of the general public, and even most nations!
Now, how many people and organizations support the steady state economy? Again we can start with the steady staters. Next, we can include a fair number of sustainability scholars and environmental activists, plus a tiny number of environmental NGOs and a handful of professional scientific societies. That’s about where it stops. So far we haven’t been able to get a Pew researcher, much less a Roper poll-taker, even interested in the steady state economy, so we have only a vague idea what the general public thinks. This is one of the main reasons we strive to obtain signatures on the CASSE position on economic growth; to demonstrate public support for the steady state economy, empowering NGOs to tell it like it is about limits to growth, and empowering politicians to support steady-state policies such as the Full Seas Act. While the current number of almost 15,000 signatories is nothing to sneeze at (especially given such notable signatories) it must be millions if not billions less than the number of people who support renewable energy.
So, if you are a student, scholar, activist, or philanthropist wondering which activity—advancing the steady state economy or promoting renewable energy—needs more help and offers a higher marginal benefit from your studies, scholarship, action, or philanthropy, consider the proportions above. Unless you believe in “green growth,” it should be more obvious by the GDP-bloated day that the bigger bang for the sustainability buck comes from advancing the steady state economy.
Technological Progress: The Forgotten Footprint
There is room for disagreement about how much additional, destructive GDP will transpire as renewable energy is added to the mix of fossil, nuclear, and (semi-renewable) hydrological sources. Clearly there will be additional destruction as long as GDP growth is the overriding domestic policy goal, but the destruction can be lessened to the extent that steady statesmanship prevails. Moderate success in steady statesmanship reduces the GDP growth rate. Full success is when the steady state economy is recognized as an a priori goal and deliberately accomplished with effective policies. With fully successful steady statesmanship, the ecological footprint from renewable energy may be offset by a reduced footprint from non-renewable energy. How will this happen, though, if advancing the steady state economy is the exercise of such a small minority?
Meanwhile, arriving at ever-higher proportions of renewable (as opposed to fossil) energy entails its own ecological footprint. This is an ecological footprint quite beyond that of the activities fueled by renewable energy. For starters, we have the obvious ecological and economic costs of retrofitting the fossil-fueled grid and the energy system at large. These costs includes the surveying, excavation, construction, and circuitry entailed in the development of wind and solar harvesting and delivery facilities. It also refers to the demolition of fossil-fueled plant and infrastructure, plus the disposal and replacement of fossil-fueled implements and appliances en masse. For example, approximately 40% of American homes have gas stoves, which means about 50 million stoves must be replaced or retrofitted in the USA alone to convert (on a one-to-one service basis) from fossil-fueled power to renewables.
Now let’s dig a level deeper. What about all the analyses, presentations, meetings, conferences, slideshows, websites, videos, magazines, community relations campaigns, planning, lobbying, negotiations, settlements, legislation, subsidies, loan assistance, bureaucratic reorganization, personnel management, tax reforms, and regulations that have been and must be devised and performed for purposes of moving the energy system toward renewables? These were, are, and by no means will be cheap. We might loosely call these “transaction costs.” Don’t take the wrong point from this; the transaction costs might be worth it, especially if the transactions are actually effective. The point, however, is that resources are required—energy and other natural resources—to fund all the transactive activity, because in our triangular economy money originates as a function of the agricultural and extractive surplus that frees the hands for the division of labor, all the way to presenting, meeting, conferencing, etc.
Every single expenditure, in other words, takes an ecological footprint. No such footprint can be overlooked if we want a thorough understanding of sustainability. This is why we consistently point out at CASSE that GDP is the single best indicator of environmental impact in the aggregate. Expenditure entails environmental impact. That’s Ecological Macroeconomics 101, trophic levels and all.
So, let’s go to a deeper level still. No one woke up one morning decades ago and said, “Let’s replace the fossil-fueled system with solar and wind. We already have all the technology to do it.” Instead—and as part of a bloating GDP—vast amounts of research and development had to be conducted in order to arrive at a point whereby wind and solar technology was capable of significant coverage of our energy needs, such as in oft-cited Germany. Vast amounts more are required to accomplish full powering of national and global economies, assuming that is even possible. “Full powering” means not just the electricity grid but transportation (including the manufacturing of the fleet), off-grid building management, and what Jeffrey Sachs calls the “hard sectors” such as aviation, ocean shipping, steelmaking, cement, and petrochemicals.
For almost a decade now, global investment in renewable energy has exceeded $200 billion annually; it now approaches $300 billion! This is higher than the GDPs of Greece, Iraq, or most African countries combined. In fact, less than a quarter of all nations on the planet have the dubious distinction of “achieving” the $300 billion level—and many will drop below it post-COVID.
Now, much of the renewable energy technology availed to us via already-conducted R&D should of course be employed, especially if replacing fossil fuel plant and infrastructure. The ecological footprint of the R&D expenditure has already transpired. Why let it go to waste, assuming the transaction costs are not prohibitively destructive. But does anyone think that moving from, say, 40 percent renewable energy to 80 percent will be as easy as the original 40 percent? Not me. I expect diminishing returns to scale as the lowest-hanging thermodynamic fruits (such as Sonoran Desert sunlight) are picked and siting becomes ever more competitive—and ever more biodiversity-busting—in a bloated global economy. Therefore, I expect the R&D needs to increase substantially, and I’m not alone in this opinion. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IREA) says we need “accelerating research for a low-carbon future.”
On several major fronts, we’re nowhere near any kind of renewable solution. As the IREA describes, “For one-third of the world’s anticipated energy use in the coming 20-25 years, no practical decarbonisation solutions exist today. Nearly all of this relates to energy demand for end uses, such as buildings, heat and transport.” They conclude that R&D “needs to happen faster to make renewable solutions viable in these areas.” Not that they think we are out of the woods already with wind and solar technology for the grid, either. “The share of wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) in power systems can increase significantly to cover half of all generation by 2050. Effective integration of these variable sources will depend on accelerated innovation.” For additional insights on the extent, complexity, and expense of renewable energy R&D, check out what the US Department of Energy is up to, including a coupling of nuclear power to wind and solar in the name of “clean energy.”
I also expect the transaction costs to mount as the efforts required for full transition become more apparent to consumers, rate payers, utilities, and politicians. While I find it hard to appreciate pro-growth analyses that fail to acknowledge the profound perils of climate change, some are proficient at pointing out the conventional costs, at least, of transition to renewable energy. Note that they’re not even addressing the ecological costs of generating and expending money on R&D and transactive struggles.
So, when we recognize the ecological footprint of expenditure, we see renewable energy transition in a whole new light. It’s as if we were tracking in the forest, looking for “unsustainability varmints.” While we saw the typical tracks of well-known varmints such as fossil fuels, plastics, and Roundup, one ecological footprint was hard to spot; that is, the footprint of renewable energy transition. Now that we see it in light of the environmental impact of generating money to invest or in any way expend, the ecological footprint seems quite big! In fact, it’s been a bit like running into a dinosaur track. We didn’t see it because we weren’t looking for an outline so large, but there it is for the tracking.
At the end of the day, those who are passionate about promoting renewable energy—especially those with expertise in the subject and a little late in the game for re-tooling a career—will continue emphasizing renewable energy. Hopefully more of them will start explicitly acknowledging the need for a steady state economy as well.
That leaves a large number of younger students, scholars, professionals and activists to reconsider, if not their career path, then at least the emphasis of their activism. With a recognition of the prohibitive costs and heavy ecological footprint of a full-fledged transition to renewables, plus the coupling of renewable energy interests with the “green growth” paradigm, they may decide their time is better spent in advancing the steady state economy. Hopefully this personal decision-making is also reflected at the organizational level, starting with the emphases of environmental NGOs and foundations.
Coming full circle, yes, steady staters support renewable energy as the sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. Yet we cannot support the notion of “green growth,” and we’re not even convinced that a full-fledged transition to renewables at the currently sized global economy can be ecologically economic, all ecological footprints considered. On the other hand, we do realize that the fossil-fueled economy at the current level is an existential threat. The common theme here is the “current level” of the economy. The current level just doesn’t allow for sustainable options. Therefore, we conclude that the most salient emphasis to have at this time is the transition from the paradigm of economic growth to that of the steady state economy, via a phase of de-growth.
Brian Czech is the Executive Director of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.