Peak Oil News: Delighting in Energy Poverty

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Delighting in Energy Poverty

Resource Investor

By Tim Wood

MIAMI ( -- Paul Mobbs has written an earnest pamphlet-cum-text book that successfully commingles Peak Oil, climate change, thermodynamic absolutes, and a lot of half-baked politics.

Don’t get us wrong. Energy Beyond Oil belongs on serious reading lists, though its “100% post-consumer recycled paper” won’t wear well if you share the book. The book does read quickly despite the density of the subject matter, which is ironic because I got done with it in about 5 hours in the course of 8 hours of flying in a carbon dioxide liberating machine, otherwise known as a jet airliner.

Mobbs has a gift for lucid distillation of technical subjects which makes his book valuable as a primer on energy; from geology to the formulae for establishing your wind farm (less is more – a cluster of small wind turbines produces more energy than a cluster of large ones though a large one has a better return on investment).

The book does a fine job laying out the case for the imminent decline of traditional energy sources, and more or less succeeds in demonstrating that it is improbable that we can maintain current per capita energy consumption, never mind expect China and India to mimic the US or Europe.

Unfortunately, the book has a glaring structural failure in the way it polarizes sustainable energy use and consumerism, essentially rendering them mutually exclusive. Now some may see this as a simple fact, but there is a na�ve projection that somehow this position is devoid of selfishness and harm, or that radical energy conservation somehow negates war and conflict over fuel.

The duality presented is exactly the “black and white” absolutism he later disclaims.

There are also crippling contradictions. For example, Mobbs says ramping up nuclear power is a “non-starter” because the sequestration of radioactive waste cannot be made safe beyond a reasonable doubt.

However, he backs down from this yardstick when it comes to issues close to his heart. On page 166 he motivates for inducing energy poverty with this statement: “…if you can’t act upon knowledge based precaution, and you must wait for certainty, how can you act until it is too late?”

Similarly, Mobbs has no problem with the lack of beyond a reasonable doubt ‘science’ that revolves around anthropogenic climate change, and is excessively casual about the inconsequential debris called the Kyoto Protocol.

This is Mobbs’ politics speaking, and he’s entitled to it. But the bias disturbs the intent of the message; a secular John the Baptist crying “make low the shopping malls”. This politics also fertilizes a conspiracy mentality, and you just know that Paul Mobbs has a mental image of industrialists as the top-hatted, coat-tailed and mustachioed man who graces Monopoly boards.

One conspiracy set forth is that the evil genius George Bush trashed Kyoto at the behest of an extremist think-tank that commanded him to hire from an approved list of enviro misfits who wreak havoc for corporate pleasure. So if you’re a climate skeptic, you’re bought and paid for by lobbies. If you’re Bjorn Lomborg (The Skeptical Environmentalist) then Mobbs says, falsely, that you propose a “burn it all” policy.

Why has “human consciousness”, as Mobbs might fashion it, become so resistant to the fact that the Kyoto protocol was killed by the United States Senate long before George Bush claimed the presidency? Or that environmentalism is oppressively corporatist and susceptible to financial inducement?

It’s an intellectual fetish that cannot resonate with the masses Mobbs seeks to convert to his philosophy of voluntary energy poverty.

Indeed, this is the most curious aspect of the book. Mobbs is essentially making a moral appeal which does imply and require an absolute. He repeatedly urges obedience to the iron laws of energy supply and resource abundance. Yet when it comes to the iron laws of economics he says the government should defy them for a greater good.

Yet what is this higher principle? If you disclaim an absolute morality, as Mobbs does, then you cannot invoke one morality over another. You are left with the Hobbesian world we do inhabit, and Mobbs is better off dealing in raw politics, which is the art of getting things done, not wish fulfillment.

And the reason radical environmentalism is not politically successful is because it treats humans as alien to this planet. Hence, the policy recommendations in the book, such as they are, are hopeless.

That said, please read Energy Beyond Oil. It is an important work insofar as it hints at the extreme instability facing the globe in an energy deficient but dependent environment.


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