On Environmentalism

(I’ve written this off-line after missing a train, so some of the facts may be off. Sorry. It is also the longest post so far.)

Environmentalism has been a major talking point for roughly half a century, certainly with a lot of justification. While concern for the conditions of the environment people are living in certainly wasn’t new and certainly isn’t strictly a 20th century phenomenon, it has certainly reached unprecedented significance.

Especially the preservation of forests in Japan and Germany has a long history, but so does concern about excrements (whether from human or horses) and other waste products.

However, the scale of industry and the proliferation of ever new poisonous chemical substances in the course of the industrialization, the relative ease with which large parts of the environment could be altered (through levees, dams, canals, strip mining or what have you) certainly brought a new quality to those concerns. In fact, they were raised to the level of becoming an “ism” – an ideological construct.

Unfortunately, this has not spared environmentalism from the downside that practically all ideologies share. Namely, that their decisions are formed from a set of certain preconceived ideas that are not being questioned when making decisions.

The main failing of environmentalism is that it is not an organized effort, has become almost completely reactionary and demonstrably fails consistently to keep the big picture in view – despite claiming the very opposite.

Some examples may make this clear. When Brazil announced that it wants to use nuclear reactors to provide electricity to the country, environmentalists went to great lengths to point out what a fall from grace this was in a country that currently generates some 75% of its electricity from hydro. However, now that a new hydro dam is planned in Brazil, environmentalists suddenly point out the huge impact such dams have on the environment.

If Brazil were next to announce that energy was going to be provided by coal power stations, environmentalists would be up in arms because of the CO2 emissions and the destruction of rainforests in Columbia, where the coal would probably come from. Using biomass might be advocated instead, but this overlooks the fact that biomass (beyond the use of waste products) will require more agricultural land – which directly competes with the preservation of rain forests, which is something environmentalists won’t compromise with.

Solar power and wind power might get advocated as well, but disregarding the cost argument, it is easily overlooked that such intermittent energy sources can at best provide a certain share of the total electricity use – roughly 20%, if we are generous – beyond which both land-use (in the case of solar) becomes an issue and energy storage is needed, commonly in the form of pumped hydro. But we already know that environmentalists don’t like to see land being occupied in Brazil or dams being build for hydro-electricity (and pumped storage is even worse is some regards).

And that’s all before we consider some of the environmental impact that the production of windmills and solar panel have. The former usually use neodymium, a rare-earth mineral that is mostly extracted in China, because its extraction requires the use of some noxious chemicals that would require expensive filtering and recycling mechanisms to use in an environmentally friendly way. But both the Chinese and the environmentally conscious elsewhere in the world tend to look the other way.

The production of solar cells is a similar story, requiring equally noxious chemicals that are known to be discharged in Chinese rivers, leading to increased cancer rates and other such niceties like cheap prices for environmentally minded westerners who would like to brag about some shiny blue solar cells on their houses.

Alternatives to pumped storage are – again – problematic for other reasons.
Such as, once more, requiring the use of rare resources and noxious chemicals as in the case of batteries or being extraordinarily inefficient, as in the case of hydrogen (and all derivative fuels).

Producing hydrogen from electricity and storing it (as liquid, highly pressurized gas or some of the proposed derivative chemicals such as methane, methanol or ammonia) has an efficiency on the order of 66% give or take a bit. The most efficient turbines have efficiencies on the order of 50% in generating electricity (fuel cells are more elegant, but worse in efficiency). The result is, that two thirds of the “stored” energy are wasted and proportionally more capacity must be added to wind or solar power generation.

Solar thermal electricity generation, often touted by environmentalists as an alternative to fossil fuels, has a set of problems of its own. Namely that it suffers from the unique combination of requiring a dry and cloudless climate to perform well (scattered light from a slightly cloudy sky is no problem for photovoltaics, but solar thermal needs concentrated light to work) – while requiring prodigious amounts of cooling water.

The prototype for the proposed solar-thermal power stations of Desertec (Andasol) needs 5-6l of cooling water per generated kWh of electricity. But of course, this prototype is not in the African desert, but in Spain, under much more benign conditions – requiring somewhat less cooling, getting its cooling water essentially for free and receiving 0.27 Euro per kWh.

Andasol is using as much water as three 18-hole golf courses in arid climate, while covering the area of six such golf courses with solar collectors and generating less than 20MW. If you regard golf courses in the desert as an expression of human hubris, you should have second thoughts about Desertec. Mind you, Desertec plans to install a capacity of several 100,000 MW in Northern Africa and the Middle East.

You can easily see environmentalist protesting against an airport, praising the merits of railroads, finding themselves in a demonstration against railroads themselves, when they are supposed to be build through their backyards – or under them (when a tunnel is seen as the better solution). And so on and so forth.

That is not to say that environmentalists always get things wrong. When the problem is local and well-defined, they usually do good work. A factory releasing toxic waste into the environment against regulation is just one classic example – and we’re surely indebted to environmentalists for enforcing such rules better than state oversight usually can. I am very aware of this.

But in the grand scheme of things, wherever trade-offs are unavoidable, the local action of environmentalists can do great damage to the environment or the society.  Because very often, the protests against all options in such trade-offs only lead to the continuation of the status quo – doing more damage than any of the options being protested against which would do their own share of damage, but less of it.

And there are those cases where avoiding local damage entails dire non-local consequences in areas with lesser environmental standards. As, for example, in the case of photovoltaic cells, batteries or rare-earth minerals produced and mined in China. In the latter case, China has achieved a monopoly only after all other countries stopped their production, as complying with environmental standards made prices uncompetitive. Protests against imported rare-earth minerals or products made from them were not forthcoming or ineffective – because they were needed.

What would have been the right course of action? To demand that such products are being produced in the countries where they are supposed to be used, under adequate environmental protection rules. Despite the name, deposits of rare-earth minerals are quite widespread, although concentrations are universally very low (hence the name).

And this is exactly the one element that the public action of environmentalists is lacking. Critical consideration of all alternatives and support of the least bad alternative. Germany is currently facing protests against power lines throughout the country. Greater capacities are necessary, because capacities of wind power are concentrated in the northern and eastern parts of the country, while electricity is being used mostly in the western and southern parts.

Yet, not one of the environmentalist groups has sat down to find an acceptable compromise, with the least environmental impact. Instead, only the energy grid providers have presented any plans – which are always discarded by environmentalists outright, because those grid providers and all their suggestions are seen as suspect by the environmentalists. The result is, that both wind and solar energy is being wasted, because it can’t get from where it is generated to where it is needed – and no end of the gridlock is in sight.

Environmentalism, the way it is practiced, needs to change. It is no longer sufficient to protest against X because X is bad – because in the real world there is not just X, but a whole alphabet soup of options and consequences that need to be considered.

All options must be held to universal standards. And those options include the status quo.

If environmentalists think that dams are damaging the environment, then certainly dams ought to be torn down and the natural environments restored. Of course, it takes many decades (sometimes centuries) to restore an area to something resembling the natural state. But as some French general supposedly said to his gardener, who asked why he should hurry to plant a tree, as it would take 50 years to grow anyway: If it takes so long, you better start right now.

But would that be satisfactory (or even possible) in the case of Brazil?

If environmentalists see every forest being cut or burned down to make room for agriculture as a loss, doesn’t that mean that as much agricultural land as possible should be restored to a more natural condition? Furthermore, doesn’t that mean that using biomass grown in agriculture, is the same as not allowing a forest (or whatever the natural environment is) to exist for the time you are doing it?

Imagine you were to let a forest grow on former cropland and it takes 50 years for it to return to a somewhat natural condition. Imagine now, you were to do the same on the same patch of land, but only after growing biofuels for another 20 years. Then by the year 2101 this patch of land would have been a forest for 40 years in the former case, but only 20 years in the latter. Growing biofuels did 20 years worth of environmental damage.

It is this kind of thinking that is utterly missing from most things being done under the banner of environmentalism.


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