Is the Energy Transition Feasible? The Future as a Garden of Forking Paths

"El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan" (J.L. Borges)

Recently, Simon Michaux of the Geological Survey of Finland published reported that the transition to renewable energy is not possible for lack of sufficient mineral resources. This conclusion was criticized by Nafeez Ahmed in a recent post. As usual in our polarized world, that led to a heated discussion based on opposing views. My opinion is that both Michaud and Ahmed are right but, if you allow me, Ahmed is more right because he shows that the future is not running on a fixed path. Rather, it is a garden of forking paths.

Do you remember the story of the boy who cried wolf? It tells you that you shouldn't cry wolf too many times but also that the wolf will eventually come. It illustrates how our destiny as human beings is to always repeat the same mistakes: either we are too afraid of the wolf, or we believe it doesn't exist. Indeed, Erwin Schlesinger said, "human beings have only two modes of operation: complacency and panic."

This dichotomy is especially visible in the current debate on the "Energy Transition" that recently flared in an exchange between Simon Michaux and Nafeez Ahmed, the first maintaining that the transition is impossible, the second arriving to the opposite conclusion. In my modest opinion, Michaud's work is correct within the limits of the assumptions he made. But these assumptions are not necessarily right. In other words, Michaud makes the typical mistake of most of those who try to predict the future using models.

Models are not tools to predict the future; they are tools to understand the future

There is an abyss of difference between these two approaches. If you really believe that your models can predict the future, you are bound to make enormous mistakes -- as we saw in the way the recent pandemic was (mis)managed. Let me give you another example of this problem; this one is closer to the Michaud/Ahmed controversy. It is the story of the "peak oil" movement.

When I stumbled into the peak oil concept, some 20 years ago, I thought it was a great idea. I am still thinking it is an incredibly insightful view of how humans exploit natural resources and I keep studying the subject, as you can read at this link in a study that I published together with my coworkers, Lavacchi and Perissi. But you also know that peak oil is unpopular nowadays. I have had referees criticizing our work just because it mentioned the term "peak oil." As if we were trying to state that the Earth is flat on "Nature Astronomy." Why that? 

There was nothing wrong with the peak oil concept. It was based on sound dynamical models, and it was proposed by some of the best oil geologists in the world. The mistake of the "peakers" was the same one as that of the boy who cried wolf. They called the peak too early and too many times

The peakers' mistake is typical of the way the role of models is misunderstood. They used models as predictive tools. I did that, too, regrettably, but we learn from our mistakes (except in politics, of course). Over and over, the peak was announced to be arriving on a specific year, and it didn't: the earliest estimates had it in 2005. Today, in 2023, we may be finally peaking, but we don't know for sure. Many peakers argue that the peak did arrive, but only for "conventional" oil, whereas the production of fossil fuels continues in the form of shale oil. Sure, the surgery was successful, but the patient died. No wonder that most people, including the referees of scientific papers, are now convinced that peak oil was a hoax. 

Let me repeat the concept: 

Models are there to understand the future, not to predict it. 

The peak oil models are great to let you understand the cycle of resource exploitation and that you have to expect the peak, sooner or later. But you are making a big mistake if you think they can predict the date of the peak. And you are making a much bigger mistake if you think that because some predictions were wrong, the model is wrong. The future is a garden of forking paths. Where you go depends on the path you choose. But you still need to follow one of the available paths. But, since we live in a polarized memesphere, people are bound to make the same mistakes all the time. 


Now, let me try to examine Michaux's work and Ahmed's rebuttal in light of these considerations. I went through Michaux's report, and I can tell you that it is well done, accurate, full of data, and created by competent professionals. That doesn't mean it cannot be wrong, just like the peak oil date was proposed by competent professionals. The trouble is evident from the beginning: it is right there, in the title. 

Assessment of the Extra Capacity Required of Alternative Energy Electrical Power Systems to Completely Replace Fossil Fuels 

You see? Michaux assumes from the start that we need "extra capacity" from "alternative" energy in order to "completely replace" fossil fuels. 

Think about this: coal never was an "alternative" to wood. It was a different energy technology that created a completely different kind of society. Also, oil was not an "alternative" to coal. It was a different energy technology that created a completely different kind of society. In the same way, renewables are not an "alternative" to fossil fuels. They are a different energy technology that will create a completely different kind of society. The future society will adapt to the flow of energy available, not the reverse.

So, given the initial assumptions, the conclusions are unavoidable: We don't have this "extra capacity" and, hence, we can't "completely replace" fossil fuels. Alas, we didn't need a report of 985 pages to understand that. It was obvious from the beginning. The limits of mineral resources were already shown in 1972 by the authors of "The Limits to Growth," the report sponsored by the Club of Rome. We know that we have limits; the problem is what we can do within those limits. 

Unfortunately, the idea that we can't "completely replace" fossil fuels with renewables is used to argue that renewables are useless. It becomes a memetic weapon to keep us stuck to fossil fuels; an attitude which can only lead us to disaster.  It is clear from the summary of the report, where Michaux makes a cryptical comment "the existing renewable energy sectors and the EV technology systems are merely steppingstones to something else, rather than the final solution." This suggests that we should stick to fossil fuels while waiting for some miracle leading us to the "final" solution, whatever that means. 

Nafeez Ahmed perfectly understood the problems in his rebuttal. Ahmed notes several critical points in Michaud's report; the principal ones are underestimating the current EROI of renewables and the recent developments of batteries. You could say that Ahmed's evaluation is over-optimistic. Maybe, but that's not the point. Ahmed's criticism is focused on the roots of the problem. He writes: 

...we remain trapped within the prevailing ideological paradigm associated with modern industrial civilisation. This paradigm is a form of reductive-materialism that defines human nature, the natural world, and the relationship between them through the lens of homo economicus – a reduction of human nature to base imperatives oriented around endless consumption and production of materially-defined pursuits; pursuits which are premised on an understanding of nature as little more than a repository of material resources suitable only for human domination and material self-maximisation; in which both human and nature are projected as separate and competing, themselves comprised of separate and competing units.
Yet this ideology is bound up with a system that is hurtling toward self-destruction. As an empirical test of accuracy, it has utterly failed: it is not true because it clearly does not reflect the reality of human nature and the natural world.
It’s understandable, then, that in reacting to this ideology, many environmentalists have zeroed in on certain features of the current system – its predatory growth trajectory – and sought out alternatives that would seem to be diametrically opposed to those regressive features.
One result of this is a proliferation of narratives claiming that the clean energy transformation is little more than an extension of the same industrialised, endless growth ideological paradigm that led us to this global crisis in the first place. Instead of solving that crisis, they claim, it will only worsen it.
Within this worldview, replacing the existing fossil fuel energy infrastructure with a new one based on renewable energy technologies is a fantasy, and therefore the world is heading for an unavoidable contraction that will result in the demise of modern civilisation. ... Far from being a sober, scientific perspective, this view is itself an ideological reaction that represents a ‘fight or flight’ response to the current crisis convergence. In fact, the proponents of this view are often as dogmatically committed to their views as those they criticise. ....
Recognising the flaws in Michaux’s approach does not vindicate the idea that the current structures and value-systems of the global economy should simply stay the same. On the contrary, accelerating the energy and transport disruptions entails fundamental changes not only within these sectors, but in the way they are organised and managed in relation to wider society.
My critique of Michaux doesn’t justify complacency about metals and minerals requirements for the clean energy transformation. Resource bottlenecks can happen for a range of reasons as geopolitical crises like Russia's war in Ukraine make obvious. But there are no good reasons to believe that potential materials bottlenecks entail the total infeasibility of the transition.
... we face the unprecedented opportunity and ecological necessity to move into a new system. This system includes the possibilities of abundant clean energy and transport with diminishing material throughput, requiring new circular economy approaches rooted in respect for life and the earth; and where the key technologies are so networked and decentralised that they work best with participatory models of distribution and sharing. This entails the emergence of a new economy with value measured in innovative ways, because traditional GDP metrics focusing on ever-increasing material throughput will become functionally useless.

If you can, please, try to examine these statements by Ahmed with an open mind because he perfectly frames the problem. Unfortunately, they go against the polarized views of most of those who intervene in this debate. The two camps include those who are the equivalent of the ancient Medieval penitents ("remember that you must die") and the modern cornucopians ("Scientists will think of something"). 

But never forget one thing: the future is not a single path toward catastrophe. It is a garden of forking paths. We are bound to follow one of these paths: we don't know which one yet, but not all of them lead to the Seneca Cliff. It is only the rigidity of our mental models that make us think that there are no alternatives.