Everybody has biases. The Republicans have biases. The
Democrats have biases. Oil and coal company executives are
biased. Environmentalists are biased. The P.C. contingent
[spit] on the campus of my alma mater will deny they are biased
because "multi-culturalists make no judgements and cannot be biased",
but that in itself is a bias against the values of the majority society.
I'm biased. There, that's out of the way.
There are differences between biases. One can have biases
which are based on (ranked from noble to ignoble) honest disagreement
about the meaning of the facts, ignorance, or disregard for the facts.
The biases one carries are part and parcel of where one stands in the
various conflicts in life: which side you're on.
Biases can be overt. I hope I've been honest if not
completely explicit about my biases against
foolishness like perverse incentives and counterproductive subsidies,
dependence on foreign oil and our gas-pump financing of radical Islam, and
efficiency, nuclear power, alternative energy where appropriate,
and better ways of doing things in general. If you've missed this
before, here it is; if you see me appearing to argue contrary to one
of my positions above it's almost certainly because the devil is in
the details and it's often very easy to miss one little thing and get
the big thing badly wrong. (See CAFE
Hidden biases are another thing. They are one of the
trademarks of propaganda, and are often used to mislead. They
come in a dozen styles, but one is to gloss over or ignore facts which
would lead others away from the propagandist's desired conclusion.
The desired conclusion may be one to compel action where none is desirable
or warranted; contrarily, the desired conclusion may be that action is
futile, inducing paralysis in the believers when something can and ought
to be done.
Which brings me to the
most recent newsletter
of the Association for the Study of Peak
("Life after oil", article #524, pp. 7-9). This
piece, excerpted by C.J. Campbell, appears to be largely taken from a
2003 book by William Stanton; it paints a future of England in 2050
which is powered by biomass in the form of wood. According to the
author, the maintenance of a "passable standard of living" would require
about 230 tons of wood per person per year. The resulting economic
and social organization would yield a lifestyle which is "attractive for
Survivors, you say? Yes, survivors. How many survivors?
About 2 million: one-third of England's population in 1750, and one
thirtieth of the population today. Consider this carefully: if
one quarter of England's current population is now under the age of 20,
of those people will have to be gone before
the age of 65 for the population to drop to 2 million. The alternatives:
leave the country (for where?) or die. And there could be no births
in the whole country for the next forty-five years, because for each baby
somebody else would have to go.
The transition to a peaceful, stable and sustainable society would have
to be done carefully. A smooth evolution is essential; serious
instability would destroy many of the resources that the future economy
would depend on. Does anyone in their right mind think that
eighty-seven percent of the population is going to accept deportation or
early demise quietly? Can anyone believe that the kind of crisis (like
a plague) which could do this without explicit violence would leave much
behind? Yet this kind of mess is left, implied but unstated, in
What conclusion is the reader supposed to draw? How about "Oh my
god, sustainable society is just code for MASS DEATH! We can't even
think of going down that path!" Or, "We can't live through the
changes coming. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die."
In other words, action is futile. The product: paralysis.
Might as well go along with the status quo... enriching the current crop
of oil barons. They can't take it with them either, so it doesn't
matter. Does it?
Well, yes. It does.
To avoid paralysis, it's essential to notice that the conclusion is
only valid given the premises. Minor premises are that there are
no low-energy or renewable substitutes for steel and concrete, but the
key premise in this case is that biomass (in the form of wood) is the
best sustainable power source for a post-fossil society.
I'm going to take Stanton's key premise and examine it. Is 230
tons of wood per capita per year a reasonable assumption, what would it
take to get its energy equivalent without burning fossil fuel, and how
much land would be required?
Assuming elm wood at 20 million BTU/cord (128 cubic feet), 23% void
space and 35 pounds per cubic foot yields a heat product of ~5800 BTU
per pound or ~3750 kWh per metric ton. 230 tons per capita per
year comes out to 862,500 kWh/capita/year or an energy consumption of
98 kW equivalent. That's average, not peak. This is clearly
a very high number, leading to an extremely pessimistic conclusion.
Is it warranted? The average household in the US uses about
1 kW average, and industrial and commercial uses are only a few times
that. Net consumption of energy by cars and trucks is about 1/5
of total electric generation capacity. It seems reasonable to
set the actual per-capita energy needs of a decent society, not
particularly optimized for efficiency, at 10 kW or less. Boom,
the sustainable population of a wood-burning England rises to something
closer to 20 million. You'd have to stop immigration yesterday, make
sure the NHS doesn't keep old people alive too long and get birth control
to everyone, but none of the under-20's have to go anywhere.
They can even have a few kids.
But is the assumption of a wood-burning England reasonable, even
remotely? I don't believe so. Forests are not particularly
good converters of solar energy to biomass; they use a great deal on
housekeeping. Grasses are certainly better. But is biomass
even among the top contenders? Stanton's productivity figure of
8 dry tons per hectare per year leads to an average power capture of
30,000 kWh/ha/yr or 3.4 kW/ha. This is a pitifully low figure.
If the average house has a footprint of 80 square meters, the roof is
covered with PV cells at 15% efficiency and each square meter receives
an average of 4 kWh of sunlight per day, the roof would produce 48 kWh/day
or an average of 2 kW. A hectare of these roofs would average 250 kW,
or more than 70 times Stanton's assumption. A city-full of solar
roofs could easily be twenty times as productive as Stanton's proposed
energy farms; a hectare could support the complete energy needs of 25
people, and the land Stanton would devote to a hamlet of 100 would be
able to support the energy needs of 7500 people using a mere 10% of
its 3000 hectares - much of which could be met by the light falling on
buildings and roads. (Boom, the sustainable energy production
could support 150 million; food, fiber, materials and crowding would
come into play first.) It is clear that the assumption of
a wood economy is not just unreasonable, it is ridiculous.
Stanton looks at materials as a difficulty; steel and concrete are
big energy-hogs. Well, maybe. If iron oxide is available it
can be reduced using carbon monoxide, which can be made from most
anything carbonaceous; a net consumption of 50 kg/person/year could
be satisfied with roughly the same weight of wood. A
population of 50 million would consume 2.5 million tons, using the
wood grown on 312,000 hectares of tree farms. (Electric reduction
of iron salts to metal would slash this number immensely.)
And steel is not necessarily an essential material; composites made of
carbon or organic fibers (graphite or Kevlar) in organic (epoxy)
binders can replace it for many purposes, including the wind-turbine
blades and towers that Stanton is so certain are non-renewable.
Building materials? Consider structural insulated panels.
A house made of SIP's with 6 inch (~15 cm) foam cores and 5/16 inch
(.8 cm) plywood or OSB skins would use about 11 kg of material per
square meter of wall; a comfy 2 story 200 m^2 house might use about
700 m^2 of panels including floors (but no interior walls), or about
7.7 tons of wood and foam. If all of that material comes from
tree farms, that's about 1 house per hectare per year; if one person
uses 1/80 of a house per year, the housing needs of 50 million people
could be met from 625,000 ha of tree farms. Between steel production
and housing, tree farming would need roughly 1 million ha out of a
total area that Stanton appears to count as 60 million hectares.
Is there cause for such pessimism as Stanton's? I see a renewable
future just as populous as the present, and a whole lot more technological
and dynamic than he seems to. The road there need not and should
not involve any die-offs (warfare against dysfunctional societies bent on
the conquest or destruction of the rest of the world being a possible
exception). It just requires the application of good science and
a lot of cleverness.
Science and cleverness that Stanton and his fellow travellers paint as
futile, and thus not worth the effort.
Which makes their scenario a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What side are they on, anyway?