Nothing but flowers

There aren’t too many out there – I know none – who don’t enjoy nature and want to be good stewards of the earth.  But they also want electrical power after a storm, modern transportation, unspoilt food, and to not have to live in fear of assorted pests and venoms.  I’ve survived hurricanes, white-outs, rip tides, sandstorms, and fire ants.  Nature isn’t cute talking animals – it’s droughts and floods and poison monkeys.

Talking Heads might have meant it ironically, in which case I mean it double-reverse ironically.

There was a factory/now there are mountains and rivers
We caught a rattlesnake/now we got something for dinner

There was a shopping mall/now it’s all covered with flowers
If this is paradise/I wish I had a lawn mower

I dream of cherry pies, candy bars, and chocolate chip cookies
We used to microwave/now we just eat nuts and berries

This was a discount store/now it’s turned into a cornfield
Don’t leave me standing here/I can’t get used to this lifestyle

There’s an energy revolution underway (underfoot?) and I don’t mean wind and solar. From a recent tour de force on the energy future from Via Meadia:

On the whole, this news is about as good as it gets: trillions of dollars of valuable resources are now available to power the US economy, cut our trade deficit and reduce our vulnerability to Middle East instability. Hundreds of thousands of well paid blue collar jobs are going to reduce income inequality and help rebuild a stable middle class. Many of the resources are exactly where we would want them: in hard hit Rust Belt states.

World peace is also looking more possible: the great powers aren’t going to be elbowing each other as they fight to control the last few dribs and drabs of oil. Nasty dictatorships and backward-facing petro-states aren’t going to be able blackmail the world as easily.

But there is one group (other than the Russians and the Gulf Arabs and the Iranians) that isn’t sharing in the general joy: the greens…

Mead goes on to contrast the environmentalists’ faith in their own intuition of limits with the proven ability of human creativity to solve supply problems, as it did when we moved from wood to whale blubber to coal to oil to…

Industrial civilization is, as far as he can now see, unstoppable. Gaia, that treacherous slut, has made so much oil and gas that her faithful acolytes today cannot protect her from the consequences of her own folly.

He cites a leading environmentalist’s despair over our ‘habit’ in an interview in Wired magazine in the fall of 2011.

Here’s why the tar sands are important: It’s a decision point about whether, now that we’re running out of the easy stuff, we’re going to go after the hard stuff. The Saudi Arabian liquor store is running out of bottles. Do we sober up, or do we find another liquor store, full of really crappy booze, to break into?

…and then demolishes it with a simple truth:  any shortage of oil would simple result in more coal usage (unless the greens suddenly warmed to nuclear power…):

The shale boom hasn’t turned green success into green failure. It’s prevented green failure from turning into something much worse.  Monbiot understands this better than McKibben; there was never any real doubt that we’d keep going to the liquor store. If we hadn’t found ways to use all this oil and gas, we wouldn’t have embraced the economics of less. True, as oil and gas prices rose, there would be more room for wind and solar power, but the real winner of an oil and gas shortage is… coal. To use McKibben’s metaphor, there is a much dirtier liquor store just down the road from the shale emporium, and it’s one we’ve been patronizing for centuries. The US and China have oodles of coal, and rather than walk to work from our cold and dark houses all winter, we’d use it. Furthermore, when and if the oil runs out, the technology exists to get liquid fuel out of coal. It isn’t cheap and it isn’t clean, but it works…

It’s a simple proposition:  energy consumption creates prosperity which in turn creates the means and political space to properly care for the environment.   Forcibly reducing sources of energy will have the opposite, perverse effect.

A poor society near the edge of survival will dump the industrial waste in the river without a second thought. It will burn coal and choke in the resulting smog if it has nothing else to burn…  An age of energy shortages and high prices translates into an age of radical food and economic insecurity for billions of people. Those billions of hungry, frightened, angry people won’t fold their hands and meditate on the ineffable wonders of Gaia and her mystic web of life as they pass peacefully away. Nor will they vote George Monbiot and Bill McKibben into power. They will butcher every panda in the zoo before they see their children starve, they will torch every forest on earth before they freeze to death, and the cheaper and the meaner their lives are, the less energy or thought they will spare to the perishing world around them…

A world where more and more basic human needs are met is a world that has time to think about other goals and the money to spend on them. As China gets richer, the Chinese want cleaner air, cleaner water, purer food — and they are ready and able to pay for them. A Brazil whose economic future is secure can afford to treasure and conserve its rain forests. A Central America where the people are doing all right is more willing and able to preserve its biodiversity. And a world in which people know where their next meal is coming from is a world that can and will take thought for things like the sustainability of the fisheries and the protection of the coral reefs…

A world of abundant shale oil and gas is a world that will start imposing more environmental regulations on shale and gas producers. A prosperous world will set money aside for research and development for new technologies that conserve energy or find it in cleaner surroundings. A prosperous world facing climate change will be able to ameliorate the consequences and take thought for the future in ways that a world overwhelmed by energy insecurity and gripped in a permanent economic crisis of scarcity simply can’t and won’t do…

These new sources are concentrated in places where it can be extracted more safely and competently, and closer to where it’s needed:  the US and China.  That is unlikely to satisfy the green movement, which “has been more of a group hug than a curve bending exercise.”

If their understanding of the future of the earth’s climate is anything like as wish-driven, fact-averse and intellectually crude as their approach to international affairs, democratic politics and the energy market, the greens are in trouble indeed.  And as I’ve written in the past, the contrast between green claims to understand climate and to be able to manage the largest and most complex set of policy changes ever undertaken, and the evident incompetence of greens at managing small (Solyndra) and large (Kyoto, EU cap and trade, global climate treaty) political projects today has more to do with climate skepticism than greens have yet understood. Many people aren’t rejecting science; they are rejecting green claims of policy competence. In doing so, they are entirely justified by the record…

And there’s one more reason why greens should thank Gaia for shale. Wind and solar aren’t ready for prime time now, but by the time the new sources start to run low, humanity will have mastered many more technologies that can used to provide energy and to conserve it. It’s likely that Age of Shale hasn’t just postponed the return of coal: because of this extra time, there likely will never be another age in which coal is the dominant industrial fuel. It’s virtually certain that the total lifetime carbon footprint of the human race is going to be smaller with the new oil and gas sources than it would have been without them.

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