Hopium for the masses, renewable energy edition

fuel cell car

The hydrogen economy always seems to be 20 years away. Photo: The Chosun Bimbo/Flickr.

As Derrick Jensen points out, this “culture as a whole and most of its members are insane.”

For my part, I continue to be surprised at the number of people who believe in infinite growth on a finite planet. I continue to be amazed at the number of people who believe a politician cares about them, and that their favorite politician will act in their best interests. I continue to be surprised at the number of people who actually believe in the political process.

I continue to be amazed at the number of people who support civilization, knowing it is killing us all. I’m even more surprised, though, at the number of people who claim ignorance about the costs and consequences of industrial civilization.

It’s worse than all of the above, though. There are a significant number of people who believe we can continue the omnicide, and that doing so is a good idea. Consider, for example, proponents of the Third Industrial Revolution.

The five pillars of the Third Industrial Revolution infrastructure are listed below. After pasting a brief description directly from Wikipedia (as blockquotes below), I dismantle each of the pillars.

1. Shifting to renewable energy

Renewable forms of energy — solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, ocean waves, and biomass — make up the first of the five pillars of the Third Industrial Revolution. While these energies still account for a small percentage of the global energy mix, they are growing rapidly as governments mandate targets and benchmarks for their widespread introduction into the market and their falling costs make them increasingly competitive.

“Renewable” sources of energy are derivatives of oil. Oil is the master material. The availability and price of oil control every other “resource.” I’ve pointed out the absurdity and hopelessness of switching the extra-oil sources here, here, here, here, here, and here (in chronological order).

2. Buildings as power plants

New technological breakthroughs make it possible, for the first time, to design and construct buildings that create all of their own energy from locally available renewable energy sources, allowing us to reconceptualize the future of buildings as “power plants.” The commercial and economic implications are vast and far reaching for the real estate industry and, for that matter, Europe and the world. In 25 years from now, millions of buildings — homes, offices, shopping malls, industrial and technology parks — will be constructed to serve as both “power plants” and habitats. These buildings will collect and generate energy locally from the sun, wind, garbage, agricultural and forestry waste, ocean waves and tides, hydro and geothermal — enough energy to provide for their own power needs as well as surplus energy that can be shared.

First, see my comment above regarding “renewable” energy sources. They are a well-promoted myth. Second, consider if you will, the reality of our collective situation 25 years from now. If human beings persist on this planet — and that’s a significant if, based on the various paths by which we are vigorously pursuing human extinction — then it’s difficult to imagine a scenario that includes an industrial economy at the scale of the globe. We can have an industrial economy or we can have a living planet, but we cannot have both over another quarter century.

3. Hydrogen and battery storage

Deploying hydrogen and other storage technologies in every building and throughout the infrastructure to store intermittent energies. To maximize renewable energy and to minimize cost it will be necessary to develop storage methods that facilitate the conversion of intermittent supplies of these energy sources into reliable assets. Batteries, differentiated water pumping, and other media, can provide limited storage capacity. There is, however, one storage medium that is widely available and can be relatively efficient. Hydrogen is the universal medium that “stores” all forms of renewable energy to assure that a stable and reliable supply is available for power generation and, equally important, for transport.

As a carrier of energy — but definitely not a source — hydrogen is neither stable nor reliable. The notion of stability is dismissed with a single word: Hindenburg. The hype about hydrogen is extreme and extremely ridiculous.

Transporting hydrogen is prohibitively expensive and requires distillates of crude oil. In addition, automakers will not make hydrogen fuel-cell cars until the hydrogen infrastructure is in place, and the infrastructure will not appear until there are a sufficient number of fuel-cell cars on the road.

4. Internet-connected smart grids

Using Internet technology to transform the power grid of every continent into an energy sharing intergrid that acts just like the Internet. The reconfiguration of the world’s power grid, along the lines of the internet, allowing businesses and homeowners to produce their own energy and share it with each other, is just now being tested by power companies in Europe. The new smart grids or intergrids will revolutionize the way electricity is produced and delivered. Millions of existing and new buildings — homes, offices, factories—will be converted or built to serve as “positive power plants” that can capture local renewable energy — solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, hydro, and ocean waves — to create electricity to power the buildings, while sharing the surplus power with others across smart intergrids, just like we now produce our own information and share it with each other across the Internet.

Never mind the endless hopium associated with producing “renewable” energy for more than seven billion people. Never mind the war-based industrial economy of the world’s sole remaining superpower. If we’re counting on technology currently under testing in Europe, we’re also assuming Europe will exist as a political entity for a long time. We’re also assuming Europeans will continue to play nice with each other as well as people in other countries. The very idea of surplus power is being revealed as a horrifically bad joke as the Middle East and northern Africa come under daily attack from several more-industrialized nations.

5. Electric and fuel cell cars

Transitioning the transport fleet to electric, plug-in and fuel cell vehicles that can buy and sell electricity on a smart continental interactive power grid. The electricity we produce in our buildings from renewable energy will also be used to power electric plug-in cars or to create hydrogen to power fuel cell vehicles. The electric plug-in vehicles, in turn, will also serve as portable power plants that can sell electricity back to the main grid.

Car culture is a huge source of many of our worst problems. Cheering for the never-ending continuation of car culture is a death sentence for the living planet. In addition, as indicated above, transporting hydrogen is unsafe, expensive, and dependent upon distillates of crude oil. And then there’s that chicken-and-egg issue associated with construction of infrastructure to support hydrogen fuel-cell cars.

When these five pillars come together, they make up an indivisible technological platform — an emergent system whose properties and functions are qualitatively different from the sum of its parts. In other words, the synergies between the pillars create a new economic paradigm that can transform the world.

When these five pillars of sand come together, they make up an undistinguished pile of dysfunctional hopium — a pile of sand whose properties and functions are qualitatively and quantitatively irrelevant to the industrial economy. In other words, the synergies between the meaningless pillars create a new pile of false hope for those who wish to continue destroying the living world. Fortunately, the hopium is running out.

Contrary to conventional wisdom among civilized humans, we don’t need an industrial economy to survive. In fact, all evidence indicates the opposite is true, yet we keep cheering for this culture of death, cheering for continued destruction of all we need for our survival.

Insanity has won, proving Ralph Waldo Emerson correct: “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.”

– Guy McPherson, Transition Voice

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  1. James R. Martin says

    ” … then it’s difficult to imagine a scenario that includes an industrial economy at the scale of the globe. We can have an industrial economy or we can have a living planet, but we cannot have both over another quarter century.”


    As Richard Heinberg puts it in “Searching for a Miracle: ‘Net Energy’ Limits & the Fate of Industrial Society,” a report from the Post Carbon Institute & International Forum on Globalization – September 2009:

    “In the end, we are left with the disturbing conclusion that all known energy sources are subject to strict limits of one kind or another. Conventional energy sources such as oil, gas, coal, and nuclear are either at or nearing the limits of their ability to grow in annual supply, and will dwindle as the decades proceed—but in any case they are unacceptably hazardous to the environment. And contrary to the hopes of many, there is no clear practical scenario by which we can replace the energy from today’s conventional sources with sufficient energy from alternative sources to sustain industrial society at its present scale of operations.”

    The report also says “To achieve such a transition would require (1) a vast financial investment beyond society’s practical abilities, (2) a very long time—too long in practical terms—for build-out, and (3) significant sacrifices in terms of energy quality and reliability.”

    [This report is available online. I'm not posting a link because doing so will cause a delay in posting here.]

    The implications are stark and obvious. Industrial civilization AS WE KNOW IT has had its day and must inevitably be abandoned as an impossibility.

    Ironically, though, the report abstract from which these quotes were taken begins with the statement, “THIS REPORT IS INTENDED as a non-technical examination of a basic question: Can any combination of known energy sources successfully supply society’s energy needs at least up to the year 2100?”

    The irony is in the use of the word “needs”. What the so called “developed world” (and especially the bloated USA) imagines as “needs” is best described as “wants”. Wants and needs are radically different things. And where wants and needs are widly confused we end up with a condition reflected by the astonishing amout of food waste in the United States.:

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that “More food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single material in municipal solid waste (MSW). In 2011 alone, more than 36 million tons of food waste was generated, with only four percent diverted from landfills and incinerators for composting.”

    This is precisely how we consume energy. Wastefully. Outrageously so. Our relationship to energy is principally about wants, not needs. And what is happening is that the era in which energy was relatively cheap — environmentally as well as economically / monitarily — has come to its end, leaving us to wonder “now what?!” We’ve had no plan B. We still don’t — at least not one taken seriously in popular media or public discussion.

    What we COULD choose to do is to radically transform industrial civilization in the direction of vastly less waste and over-consumption — of energy, of food, of all natural resources, of habitat for the rest of our living world…. We could choose to replace most cars with bicycles, reversing the recent trend in China. We could choose to adopt what might be called “simple tech” solar in much of the nation/world — which requires an industrial process: sheet glass productoin (for passive solar home heating)…. We could shrink industrial civilization down to the size in which it could be drowned in a bath tub, if necessary. And all the while we could be increasing quality of life in many aspects of our lives.

    We have the know how to do this — already. There’s no need to wait for some fancy-tech solutions. Welcome to the simple-tech revolution. It won’t make anybody rich, but it will produce some real wealth. And if you doubt me, have a look at the etymology of the world “wealth,” it’s root means “well-being”.

  2. says

    “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.”
    “The end of the human race will be an overdose of hopium.” ;-)

  3. Jeff Strahl says

    Ironically, regarding the report by Richard Heinberg in 2009, nowadays the website Resilience dot org, run by Post Carbon, increasingly runs articles which promote techno-fix, smart power, renewable energy and other forms of hopium, and nothing remotely like this excellent essay, or anything by energy skeptic Alice Friedemann, stuff which used to be sometimes posted at Energy Bulletin (Resilience’s previous name) but can no longer be found there.

  4. godofredo aravena says

    It keeps bouncing inside of my head the issue that we call ourselves an “inteligent” specie. Day after day, now more than before, I have to accept that very few people fall in this category. Unfortunately there are not enough “inteligent” humas to save ourselves. With the same logic, the ancient tribes that lived in the past in all continents, in peace with nature, and keeping a simple way of living, were really intelligent.
    The past recent 500 years have made of us a bunch of illustrated stupids.

  5. James R. Martin says

    Godofredo Aravena,

    If there be any hope at all to increse the intelligence of individuals, I think, it lay in increaing the intelligence of the community / communities in which the individual is embedded. Thus, for example, must what we call “journalism” and “education” be healed of their deathly sickness. Intelligence, like what has long been called “soul” and “psyche” is not quite what modern humans have imagined it to be — a fundamentally interior phenomenon, interior to individual selves. Intelligence arises in social context as a flow connecting persons, institutions, objects…. It is best understood on a relational basis.

    The beginning of the healing of our intelligence is intelligence about intelligence. To heal means “to make whole”. To make whole is to connect, to relate. But things are fundamentally and intrinsically whole already. It is their essential nature: fundamental relatedness. What Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing”. All we need to do in order to awaken intelligence is to see it straight on, just as it is. And then to serve it as the glorious beauty it is. Our failure to love the world is the very act of imagining our distance from it. There is no true intelligence without love. Love and beauty are facets of the same … being.

  6. says

    This article shows how a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The writer clearly does not know the range of technologies that will soon transform the world. Like his counterparts on the opposite side of ideological divide he uses misinformation and disinformation to perpetrate his “NOPEium agenda. Being negative is just as much a phony strategy as being unduly optimistic. It is not that difficult to cherry-pick the most obviously flawed hopium theories and make blanket statements about the “inevitable” failure of these flawed and ignorant solutions. Mr. McPherson could also be called Dr. Doom, so pervasive and strident is his investment in collapse. Maybe collapse will happen and humans will go extinct, but I am suspect of anyone who is trying to make a career from its promotion.

    There are already safe, green, batteries in mass production that can last for 20,000 deep cycles, with no maintenance required. These coupled with photovoltaic generation and micro-power electronics can be integrated in a mass-produced appliance that can produce clean electricity at less than 8 cents a kilowatt-hour. This minimizes materials use, and installation costs and provides energy 24/7 . Coupled with reasonable energy efficiency and low waste strategies such devices can provide a decent standard of living with very little environmental cost. Such systems can provide the energy for their own manufacture, transport and distribution. SunPax is one such system that is now in development. http://lightontheearth.blogspot.com/p/shedding-light-on-solar.html . Coming soon to your local hardware store, it can displace trillions of tons of CO2 in the next 30 years. But not if the professional doomsayers convince the population that its all hopeless. Ironically such a message is exactly the one that fossil fuel companies want to send out. You know, “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow you die”. That is such a pathetic message for someone to base their career on. If you want to look to all the maladies of civilization, one of them is the growth of careerism, a corruption of the work ethic, in which people can distribute a product, no matter how flawed to make their name and their living. The root of our problems is not hopium but corruption at every level of society. The author, in making a career of doomsaying is no less corrupt than a person selling toxic products with disinformation denying their poisonous nature and outcomes.

    • says

      sadly, you’re techno fantasy rescue dream is the truly dangerous thing.
      There will be no superman coming to your rescue.

      You have a laundry list of misconceptions:
      1. that a range of technologies will soon transform the world.
      Hasn’t happened yet even though astronauts will print tools in 3D in space and I can look on my iphone and see what constellation is above me…
      2. You are suspect of anyone who is trying to make a career from “promoting” NTE.
      Really? A career giving talks for free about NTE? You suspect him of what exactly? Please elaborate…
      3. There are already safe, green, batteries in mass production.
      Nope. Metals have to be mined at a cost of quality of life for the people who mine them, and the earth that is raped, even with recycled metals.
      4. devices can provide a decent standard of living with very little environmental cost.
      “Little cost” is still too much. If everyone rode a bike or walked starting tomorrow, it would be too late to change the CO2 levels for 1000 years. Habitat doesn’t care about your standard of living.
      5. it can displace trillions of tons of CO2 in the next 30 years.
      Ummm, we’re not talking trillions of tons, man. We’re talking about 50 or more gigatons a year that needs to be sequestered. Do the math.
      6. “professional” doomsayers.
      Insinuates an exchange of moneys for doomsaying. McPherson, much to the chagrin of his wife, has embraced a gift economy. Go figure. A professional honest man…

      And finally, really priceless:
      7 . “If you want to look to all the maladies of civilization, one of them is the growth of careerism, a corruption of the work ethic, in which people can distribute a product, no matter how flawed to make their name and their living.”
      Yes, this exactly what Dr McPherson is talking about, the corruption of greed, want and ignorance leads men to dream of techno fix “devices,” mass produce them, and distribute them, simply so they will keep them in business as usual, and extend their time of leisure and luxury no matter what the cost to the living planet, i.e. all living creatures. We are not the only living beings here…
      Green washing will not be tolerated.

  7. Jarle B says


    “simple and cheap” rule the world, wouldn’t you agree? If this “SunPax”-thing was such a great idea, wouldn’t it have been all over the place?

    • says

      Yeah, simple and cheap like computers and automobiles. They are not simple in any way. The advantage of solid state electronics is that they do get cheaper as they are mass-produced. SunPax is actually a solid state device like a laptop computer. These have gone from costing thousands to costing hundreds in less than 15 years.

  8. says

    Not many of your readers may know that Rifkin’s Third Industrial Revolution (TIR) was endorsed by the EU in 2007 as the basis for its energy policy, is already being vigorously persued by Germany, and several European cities have invited the TIR team to plan their transition to a carbon neutral future, eg Rome, Utrecht, Calais. The reason why it is being resisted in America is because it challenges the top down, centralised, military industrial complex which rules American society. Rifkin’s project is a way of democratising energy production in the same way as information is produced p2p on the internet. The book is well worth reading. Thank you Guy for helping to publicise it.

  9. James R. Martin says

    Anna Harris,

    Do you believe rifkin’s TIR successfully addresses — and survives — the issues and challenges mentioned in my initial post in this comment section, e.g., the report from the Post Carbon Institute?

    I should mention here that it is my view that if humanity does not very dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a tiny fraction of current emissions — beginning about immediately and with a rather sudden halving of current emissions in the next very few years — it is overwhlemingly likely that catastrpic runaway climate change will be initiated and will probably result in a near complete wipe-out of the biosphere as we know it. Including, of course, humans.

    What I just said may sound extreme and beyond the pale. It may seem that we have more time than I suggest to make a dramatic turnaround. But there are reasonable, educated and intelligent people who believe we’ve already crossed the point of no return into irreversible climate catastrophe of an extinction event scale. And their case is pretty strong! But there is some uncertainty, and so I’m taking the appraoch which would sound the alarm that we’re in a global emergency and need to take dramatic emergency action. I say if we can make it through this at all it would be by the skin of our teeth. We may even have to — beside dramatic emissions cuts — begin, somehow, to draw carbon out of the atmosphere! Just to survive. That is, we may have to get to “negative emissions”.

    Is Rifkin’s approach able to produce such results?

    Don’t depend upon the IPCC overly much in your response. I’m afraid they cannot be trusted to be reliable sources. Their prediction of, for example, when the Arctic sea ice might disappear in summer was off by nearly a century! And their “carbon budget” of 2013 is ludicrous. Simply ludicrous.

    I don’t think it will be enough to attempt to preserve industrial civilization via renewable energy replacement. We must also very dramatically reduce net energy consumption well before such a replacement will be possible.

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