(Image Credit: ‘BlackRockSolar’ on flickr.com; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons Licence)
If past is any guide, humans will transition from fossil fuels as the main source of energy at some point. But the current push for transition suffers from 4 crucial shortcomings: ideological zeal, greed, NIMBYism & cognitive dissonance.
GOING IN CIRCLES
In the last few days of 2021, I was in conversations with several proponents of alternative energy. Sometimes such discussions may seem like exercises in futility to most people, but they are fruitful for me because I seek derive new insights into what causes the issue to be so hopelessly divisive.
As I noted in my earlier article ‘Dying Fish’, one major stumbling block when discussing energy transition with the proponents of alternative energy is that:
“… only wholehearted and unquestioning acceptance of the sanctioned narrative is expected. Any attempt to ask for details (technical, atmospheric, logical, environmental or economic etc.) suffices to brand the questioner as ‘climate denier’ (and other, more unsavory epithets).”
What I would like to add here is that such intransigence only serves to make the task of the said proponents more difficult. Nobody likes to be fobbed off when they have genuine questions, and most people like it even less to be called names. The approach is, therefore, counterproductive in the extreme.
These most recent discussions gave me some very valuable clues for understanding why some people have an intuitive or inchoate aversion to the whole enterprise of transitioning to alternative energy. I boiled these clues down to four main points, viz., ideological zeal, greed, NIMBYism and cognitive dissonance. Let me explain these in detail.
It was in the spirit of the season that I came upon several posts online, including a video, where the message for non-Christians was to refrain from saying ‘Merry Christmas’. The underlying reasons for this advice fell in two categories: cultural and religious.
The cultural argument posited that the impact of such small acts accumulates to take non-Christians away from their own culture. This is, of course, a weak argument because over the last several centuries, Christianity has become interwoven with different cultures around the world to the point that, as a festival, Christmas is not from an alien culture anywhere. I remember my childhood Christian friend Jimmy (his real name was ‘Amit’) whose family used to celebrate Christmas by making the same sweets and fried snacks that Hindus make for Diwali. We used to joke with him that the only effect of the family having become Christian was that they were celebrating Diwali after a lag of a couple of months.
The stronger argument against saying ‘Merry Christmas’ was religious (for those who are inclined to take it seriously). Its main theme was that saying Merry Christmas amounts to accepting that God has a son. To hardline Islamists, this is anathema. In the video that I saw, the preacher was quite firm in saying that this amounts to leaving Islam. Of course, this is a minority opinion (perhaps of a very tiny minority); in my life, I have never come across, in person, a Muslim who thinks like this.
But what I am driving at is the ideology rather than its prevalence. That ideology demands undeviating adherence. Using words & thoughts that lie outside of the approved ones causes a person to be outcast.
In my experience, this is the case with ‘energy transition’ as well. If I point to the environmental degradation or human rights abuses that occur in pursuit of alternative energy, I get instantly labeled as a ‘climate denier’ or ‘apologist for fossil fuels’. Ditto when I want to know the end-of-life disposal of windmills and solar panels. And God forbid if I say that Oil & Gas keep us warm in a cold climate. Just as in religion, one must unreservedly condemn the reviled entity in order to be considered a member. Fossil fuels are to green energy activists what the Satan is to religionists.
Any school of thought that discourages and/or punishes inquiry is an ideology, not science. If the green energy proponents decide to start answering genuine questions, they might win over more converts than they are doing currently by their hostility to curiosity. But they have boxed themselves in on this front, by contending that anything other than unquestioning acceptance of their gospel amounts to climate apostacy.
THE NEXT BIG THING
In ‘Dying Fish’, I explored how the financial appeal for renewable energy projects is interwoven in the lives of individuals. But that becomes possible only when there are large financial institutions playing the game. And almost as a rule, these institutions are constantly chasing ‘the next big thing’, the latest idea that promises a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
A quick look at the financial history of the last few decades should suffice to tell us that the collection of financial institutions, pension funds and other large investor entities (we can call them Big Money for short) is always looking for a new area of investment that can yield higher than average returns on investment. The same education would also suffice to educate us about the devastation that their unbridled ambition wrought on the world.
In the last quarter century alone, we have had the dot-com mania, the sub-prime frenzy, the housing bubble and the alphabet-soup of derivatives which almost brought the world economy to collapse. Each time, they were chasing ‘the next big thing’. Each time, there was an area of investment that promised to yield dizzying returns, and everybody was rushing in. In colloquial terms ‘The smart money is on ____.”
The key factor – or one of the key ones – that enabled this reckless behavior was ‘moral hazard’. In layman’s language, this term means that the people pushing an investment idea were insulated from the downside in case the idea didn’t pan out and the investment crashed in value.
What is different with the rush for ‘green energy’ projects is that it has the sanction of the State. This development stands the State’s role on its head – normally, the State is supposed to provide a regulatory framework and oversight to ensure that economic players stay within such boundaries as to protect the people at large from excesses committed out of greed. However, for ‘green energy’, the State is firmly, loudly and enthusiastically on the side of the economic players. The entire push has the blessings and patronage of the powers-that-be. The referee is a player for one of the two sides.
Crucially, the concept of ‘moral hazard’ applies to those holding political power as well – they are insulated against the risk of the whole push for ‘green energy’ – or any individual project therein – being misguided. The proposed timelines for achieving certain targets are well beyond what will be their time in politics, so they will have safely retired to a cushy life by the time the results of their policies can be measured. Plus, given that governments change periodically in democracies, any failures can always be blamed on the other party’s government. “If only they hadn’t messed up our policies, we would have achieved the policy objectives.”
The crucial difference in this case, of course, is that the biggest risk with the ‘green energy’ movement is that it may cause more harm to the environment – and thus climate – than it alleviates. Equally grave is the issue of human rights violations in the pursuit of a supposedly noble goal.
Given these two factors and the colossal financial stakes, therefore, my opinion is that we need a set of rules in place to ensure that politicians cannot benefit from ‘moral hazard’ on the front of their climate policies. But because the people who are supposed to make these rules are also playing the game, there is well nigh zero chance that the rules will be made.
The result of this apathy will be devastating.
OTHER PEOPLE’S SUFFERING
The final two aspects of the ‘green movement’, viz., NIMBYI’ism and cognitive dissonance have considerable overlap between them. But there is one point that I need to explain before we proceed to explore them:
Normally, we use the term ‘NIMBY’ to denote people who are opposed to having certain things done around them. In this article, I am using it to mean that many people are in favor of certain projects because they are located far away, so the people in favor are insulated from the downsides of these projects. This is but another instance of ‘moral hazard’.
Secondly, when such people are told about / confronted with stories of largescale environmental degradation and/or human rights abuses taking place as a result of the push for ‘green energy’ they choose one of the following reactions:
- Deny that these are happening (usually by challenging – without basis – the veracity of the reports),
- Blame it on the ‘corrupt government / officials’ of the (usually Third World) country,
- Seek to justify the damage on cost v/s benefit grounds,
- Deflect by claiming that the extraction of Fossil Fuels also causes the same damage (seemingly unaware that by this argument, they lose the moral upper hand),
- Promise that at some point in the future, these damages will cease to occur.
Depending on the intensity of one’s opinion on these matters, one can classify these responses as disingenuous or hypocritical. But in my view, the most egregious hypocrisy occurs when the damage is seen to be occurring in relation to the Indigenous people (anywhere). The same people who would be screaming at the top of their lungs in opposition to an oil or gas project on / around a First Nations territory become studiously silent when a ‘green energy’ project is in the picture instead of fossil fuels one. Let’s see a couple of examples of such projects:
Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility in western California was opposed by the Quechan tribe of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, after the bulldozers started ripping up cacti, damaging sensitive wildlife habitat and threatening ancient graves of the tribe.
A tropical thorn forest was threatened by a windmill project in the desert district of Kachchh in the state of Gujarat, India, drawing protests from the local villagers.
The key question here is this: If we aren’t discussing the harmful effects on Indigenous people of such projects with as much interest as we discuss oil / gas projects, is it because they aren’t located in our backyard? Or is it because the harms are being caused by something that we have decided cannot be attached to anything negative?
As I said at the very start of this article, at some point, humans will end up replacing their main source of energy away from fossil fuels. In my view, the issue is this:
Unless we stumble upon a new energy source in a serendipitous manner, we will have to combine our resources (natural, or human as well as financial) to devise a new one. We may also opt to increase the share of nuclear energy in the mix, where deemed safe. Regardless of the course of action that we choose, it behooves us to derive as much financial resources from our natural resources. So that we are better placed to fund the search for a new source / increase our nuclear power capacity. As we know, demand for oil & gas will be with us for some decades at the very least, simply because there are no viable alternatives at present. Even afterwards, the demand for the myriad resources that we extract from oil & gas will remain. Prudence dictates that we use what we have at hand to get the funds for pursuing what we want. Punishing or demonizing the resource that will fund its replacement – not to mention our comfortable lifestyle – is (to put it mildly) the opposite of prudence.
What we need to realize collectively – and especially in the corridors of political power – is that human existence is always a race for competitive edge. As long as there is demand for a vital resource, other countries will supply it and reap the benefits. Enlightened self-interest demands that we remain committed to benefiting from the value of the resources that we are blessed with while we try to navigate a way to the future that, hopefully, will be better on all the fronts. In order for us to do that, the deeply entrenched self interest of the political class and the financial sector will have to be neutralized. That can only be done by ordinary folks.