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 pollution, economic foolishness like perverse incentives and counterproductive subsidies, dependence on foreign oil and our gas-pump financing of radical Islam, and for 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 regulations.)
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 Oil&Gas ("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 the survivors".
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, eighty-seven percent 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 the text.
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?
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