Thermodynamics, Fossil Fuels and Renewables, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly[*] — Part I
A romp with a whole heard of “elephants-in-the-room” in search of how to get out of deep trouble climate, energy and much else wise
By way of introduction…
Every day, global media pour an avalanche of news, controversies, debates about what is now recognised by a majority of people as a Climate Emergency, commingled with a mass extinction of species, global water stress for a major part of the human population, loss of aquifers, extensive global soil degradation, ever increasing urban air pollution, all pervasive plastics pollution, deforestation, ocean acidification and pollution, myriad other ecological, social and financial issues, challenges and threats all interrelated with perennial energy matters, especially concerning fossil fuels, notably oil, the urgent need to develop so-called “renewable” alternatives, move to sustainable ways of living, working, doing business, abundant talks about “Green New Deals”, and much more.
Since late last year, the unfolding global drama has been compounded with a Covid-19 pandemic with no end in sight, its impacts and the impacts of responses to it… The amount of “stuff” published is bewildering. Making sense of it requires drawing from a wide array of scientific backgrounds that very few master, even remotely. Scrutinising the endless opinions expressed on “social media” as well as statements made by politicians, heads of government, and captains of industry, it would be fair to say that almost no one, ordinary citizens and members of the global decision-making elites alike, actually has any accurate, clear and reliable understanding of the matters involved. This is most particularly the case concerning the fate of fossil fuels, the development of renewable alternatives, related policies, strategies and investments. At least since the first oil shock of the early 1970s, all have remained in a sterile ongoing quandary about the “Good” and the “Bad” of it all that has led to absolutely nowhere but the present Climate Emergency.
We call this avalanche of closely interrelated energy, ecological, social and financial problems tumbling through the globalised industrial world the Energy Seneca — Energy because energy flows are a core driver of that avalanche and because our ability to manage them, or not, preconditions our fate regarding all the other issues that we can no longer escape facing — and Seneca because this notion characterises accurately the present situation. Seneca is a term coined by Prof Ugo Bardi after the eponymous Roman philosopher who first singled out generic dynamics involving long processes of growth, reaching a peak and followed with an abrupt fall.
Indeed, central to the mass of media “stuff” are endless controversies about “growth”, “recession”, possible “depression” even,“growth recovery” in the wake of the pandemic, the prospects of “voluntary” versus “involuntary de-growth”, and even “collapse”of the industrial world as we presently know it, or engineering a “reset”, as the World Economic Forum is now touting… The sheer mass of that “stuff” acts as a distorting mirror where the only things people are able to see are reflections of themselves and the world around them made of what’s mostly taken for granted, commingled with countless prejudices, preconceptions and beliefs, mostly with tenuous connections with what is demonstrably the case.
In classical Greece, theoria referred initially to an assembly of spectators contemplating intensely an unfolding drama performed on stage, tragedy or comedy, from which they could derive insights beyond their minds’ previous reach. In the following briefing, I invite you to a “walking through the looking glass” experience that will take us behind the distorting mirror of “stuff” to reach new insights about what is going on. We will do this safely, without smashing our faces in the process, by staying at a distance and, like Greek spectators of old, watching critically the doings of the main protagonists of the Energy Seneca drama, on a the Good, the Bad and the Ugly mode. Although the global situation is undoubtedly tragic, we consider that it is better to be light hearted about it. A bit of irony may help to maintain some distancing and see matters more clearly, hence the tone of this briefing, which nonetheless could not be more serious.
Meet the cast
Few people know or understand the “thermo-whatsit” word. Even fewer understand why it could be cast in the role of the “Good”. Still, aware of it or not, understand it or not, like it or not, thermodynamics has become a crucial matter. So long as all abide by its principles, it will remain the “Good”. If not, it will turn ruthlessly into something much worse than “Ugly”, lethal… We will look at the Good without the complicated maths most can’t understand.
Now, in turn, after over 50 years of denials and procrastination, bar a few die-hard deniers, the consensus has finally emerged casting Fossil Fuels as the “Bad”. The climate is heating so we have to “decarbonise”, it’s obvious… Surely there cannot be any more doubt about this? But… is it that so simple? Well no, as we will see.
Then, casting Renewables as the “Ugly”? How could that be? After decades of call to action on the part of “Greens”, countless marches and protests by environmentalists and kids worried about their lack of a future. Is it not the case that more and more Central Bankers, financiers, investment bankers, fund managers, venture capitalists, and investment analysts, as well as endless NGOs, governmental bodies, United Nations bodies, and politicians, contrast the dangers of “stranded assets”, the wealth destroying potential of climate change, and the loss prospects in the trillions of dollars, Euros or whatever currencies, on the one hand, with, on the other hand, the potential of huge returns from investing in businesses tackling the Climate Emergency, developing sustainability, building an “energy transition”, in short “greening” everything? In many countries, hundreds of pundits marvel about “renewable power” being now “cheaper than coal” … They talk of the Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) investing “megatrend” and investing in “renewables” disrupting fossil fuels and the automotive sectors, meaning photovoltaics (PVs) and wind turbines (WTs), with their complements in Li batteries and electric vehicles (EVs).
Yet, after some three decades of developments since the 1992 Rio Summit, followed by 25 COPs (Conference of Parties), “renewables” have hardly made a dint into fossil fuel uses that keep growing and still represent 84% of all primary energy use. At 4.3%, “renewables” have essentially compensated for the decline of nuclear (now down to 4.1%). Could it be that the fate of Renewables is not simply a matter of the Bad preventing their development as a Good? That “green” actually casts a dark shadow?
Oh, yes, the recent film, Planet of the Humans, by Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore, has stirred a fair bit of controversy by daring to question the “triumphant long march of Renewables in shiny armour”… “Greens” of all feathers were prompt to fire back red hot cannon balls, metaphorically of course, as they tend to do against anyone daring to critique the now “obvious” “ecological gospel”… Sadly, in my view, Gibb’s film turned out to be full of holes, obsolete footage, and rather superficial. It missed the core issues, making it easy for Greens to deny that Renewables could be the Ugly…
Instead, in what follows we will discover how and why the Good, the Bad and the Ugly drama is not at all what it is construed to be, due to a whole herd of “elephants-in-the-room” that have remained invisible to the world’s decision-making elites for over 270 years… and that have begun rampaging through the industrial world with likely lethal consequences — as summarised in Figure 1.
Figure 1 — A tale of “elephants-in-the-room”
Let’s begin with the beginning… and “in the beginning” was Thermodynamics. This is how it all started. Well over 270 years ago, bit by bit, a few bright people developed knowledge of thermodynamics, as the physics underpinning the whole of our world as far as energy is concerned as well as the whole of the remainder of science. Many of their names are now used to designate thermodynamic units, Carnot, Watt, Joule, Kelvin, Fahrenheit, etc. Their pioneering work made the first Industrial Revolution and what ensued ever since possible.
Nowadays, every single aspect of our modern lives is built on the knowledge of thermodynamics. Without that hard won knowledge, there would not be home appliances, cooking hobs and ovens, microwaves, dishwashers, washing machines, dryers, air-conditioning heat pumps, fridges, freezers, space heating boilers, hot water supplies, electric lighting, TVs, computers, smart phones, the Internet, cars, buses, trucks, railways, planes, maritime shipping, roads, motorways, airports, power grids, water and sewage systems, nor also pharmaceuticals and the drugs and vaccines that extend our lives to unprecedented life expectancy levels, nor hospitals, educational campuses, entertainment facilities, nor modern agriculture, safe food, and healthy diets. The enormous growth in wealth that has taken place over the last 270 years is built on the knowledge of thermodynamics. Even more to the point, without that knowledge, global population would be no more than about 800 Million. In turn, keep ignoring its dictates and global population is bound to plunge back rather abruptly from the present, approximately 7.8 Billion to about that same level of 800 Million, mostly eking out a bare subsistence in abject squalor.
Viewed in the above fashion, it is easy to see why thermodynamics could be cast as the Good while at the same time being the largest of our herd of “elephants-in-the-room” — having remained invisible to global elites for some 270 years and still remaining invisible today, even to “green” elites. We will come back to Thermodynamics in its potential future role of the Good after looking at the Bad and the Ugly.
The Tooth Fairy’s discreet charm
Until recently, elites’ ignorance of thermodynamics apparently did not matter too much — that is, if one casts aside the deaths and suffering brought about by the slave trade, umpteen colonial wars, two world wars, a Cold War, decolonisation wars and assorted ongoing guerrillas, the various Gulf Wars and ongoing Islamic conflicts, various genocides, plus a number of major and minor famines and pandemics… well over 300 millions deaths since the very early days of the Industrial Revolution, and counting — plus extensive suffering and exploitation of Billions of people. All along, the globalised industrial world in the making (GIW) kept “ticking”, growing, growing and growing relentlessly…
Here is the Tooth Fairy paradox outlined in Figure 1. For over 270 years, decision-making has taken place in terms of economics and finance thinking, concepts, practices and rituals, in total ignorance of, and most often in complete contradiction with, the thermodynamics involved, that remained invisible and unheard of. Going against thermodynamics means death: “The laws of thermodynamics have no mercy. Equilibrium is inhospitable, sterile, and final.” So, how come all this unabated growth of the GIW has been able to take place, till recently?
When scrutinised carefully, the whole spectrum of economic, monetary and financial thought, amounts to no more than the fantasy of an enormous perpetual motion machine, a complete thermodynamic impossibility. Yes, however hard to take it may be for many believers in economics, this is so regardless of the school, classical, neoclassical, Keynesian, Schumpeterian, Austrian, Marxist of any kind, MMT and whatever else they may abide by. This is no news. The irremediable flaws of economics began to be identified by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen in the 1950s. They have been analysed further and corroborated ever since, well beyond doubt, in particular by Emeritus Prof. of Economics, Serge Latouche, throughout most of his extensive works, and by numerous others in a variety of less systemic ways. One may note also the entire publications of Jean Baudrillard, one of the most prominent social scientists and critical thinkers of the 20th century, from The System of Objects, 1968, through Symbolic Exchange and Death, 1976, to his last work, The Agony of Power, published posthumously, 2010. In the light of a large body of research encompassing thermodynamics, epistemologies of the natural and social sciences, sociology, anthropology and psychology, the whole of economic and finance thought appears as being no more than a weird concatenation of magical thought and beliefs in various myths, with associated rituals, all dressed up with a semblance of rationality, mimicking science, with much mathematics added — nothing actually scientific in any of that, notwithstanding the so-called “Nobel Prizes” that the Sveriges Riksbank keeps attributing.
To perhaps clarify further, in 1981, US anthropologist Laura Nader and I met while guest speakers at the 51st ANZAAS Congress, University of Brisbane, Australia. We were both working on how societies actually deal with energy matters and crises, how decision-makers form opinions and attitudes, how they think and decide about courses of action. We discovered that our findings overlapped and recouped fully. The title of her paper, “Magic, Science and Religion Revisited” was spot on. The committee she was on at the time, CONAES, had been established in the wake of the first and second oil shocks. As an anthropologist, she was taken aback by what she observed around her and proceeded to apply her anthropological skills to try and understand the weird “tribe” she had landed into.
Her paper’s title was a wink at Malinowski’s famous 1925 work. He had pointed out that: “There are no people, however primitive without religion or magic. Nor are there… any savage races [sic] lacking either in the scientific attitude or in science though this lack has been frequently attributed to them.” Both Nader and I had observed that, among our energy sector peers, among people who were viewed and who viewed themselves as rational and making scientifically-grounded decisions, prevailing decision-making was the outcome of a weird mix of magical and mythical thought rather badly cobbled together with bits of science and apparent rationality.
Nearly 40 years later, our observations and analyses still stand. The near total absence of decision-making grounded in sound thermodynamic analyses of the industrial world as a complex system operating far from equilibrium while that very world nonetheless entirely depends on viable thermodynamics for its existence demonstrates it. The point is, magic and mythical thinking did not stop “magically” with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. People moved from pre-industrial to industrial societies without substantially altering their modes of thinking and decision-making, merely shifting from overtly religious to secular versions. In fact, what I have subsumed as the Tooth Fairy syndrome has grown much worse over the years. Paraphrasing Malinowski, we can summarise some 50 years of observations of decision-making within the GIW as:
There are no societies, however modern and benefiting from advanced science, who are free from believing in matters wholly disjointed from reality, and who are not systematically commingling bits and pieces of scientific knowledge with mythical and/or magical thinking… though rational decision-making has been frequently attributed to them.
In Jean Baudrillard’s terse summing up, it all boils down to asserting relentlessly that “A dollars is a dollar”, pure tautology and absolute ridicule, summarised in Figure 1 as the Tooth Fairy syndrome.
In Part II we will meet the Bad, aka fossil Fuels.
This will lead us to look closely at the Ugly, aka Renewables in Part III.
This romp with “elephants-in-the-room” will end in Part IV where we will examine the energy trap we are now locked in with no possibility of exit, short of radical change, and where this may lead to if, by any chance, we do manage radical change: the Fourth Transition.
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[*] Figures based on BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy 2020.
 With a wink towards Sergio Leone’s famous eponymous spaghetti western, 1966, and Ennio Morricone’s music, possibly even more famous.
 Schramski, J.R., Gattie, D.K., Brown, J. H., 2015. Human domination of the biosphere: rapid discharge of the earth-space battery. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. Doi: 10.1073 / pnas.1508353112. Schramski et al. provide a simple, lay language definition of energy and thermodynamics: “Energy is how far a property (e.g., temperature, chemical, pressure, velocity) is from equilibrium. This distance, or gradient, can be harvested to perform work, in the process moving the property closer to equilibrium. Thus, whereas the capacity to perform work is often used as the simplest definition of energy, ultimately this capacity requires an out‐of‐equilibrium system, a gradient, which is available to be harvested.”
 Nader, Laura, 1981, Energy and Equity, Magic, Science and Religion Revisited, 51st ANZAAS Congress, Brisbane. Nader was a member of the National Academy of Science’s Committee on Nuclear and Alternative Energy Systems (CONAES). I was managing the programme of the New Zealand Energy R&D Committee.
 Malinowski, Brownislav, 1948, Magic, Science and Religion and other essays, Glencoe, Illinois.
 Symbolic Exchange and Death, 1976.