Methane and the disturbed Carbon Cycle

A look at recent studies in climate science

By Phil Harris, originally published by Cassandra’s legacy

  • May 1, 2012

“Ugo… At least I should try. If we understand sufficiently the science story, we should teach and encourage others to enquire.
The importance of the non-condensing gases becomes clearer.
Through our own intellectual struggle we occasionally find a dawning reality.
The mental act of adding modern CO2 and CH4 numbers on to that figure of Hansen & Sato’s was such a moment for me.
It also prepared me for The Kilda Basin Conjecture.
We are becoming already an exhaling ‘Kilda Basin’?
This stuff got a ‘human reaction’ from me, which might be communicable.”

Recently Ugo Bardi raised the matter of methane and the fact that compared with geological history, the present level in the atmosphere of this potent ‘greenhouse-gas’ is exceptionally high. We see methane bubbling from the arctic margins. We know the present level is around 1800 parts per billion (1.8ppm); more than 2.5-fold the pre-industrial level. We know this rise has been sudden and that most of it occurred in the 20thC up to about year 1990, and that interestingly for a rapidly oxidised molecule, this high level has been sustained, and lately has begun to increase again.  After a brief discussion with Ugo, I decided to attempt an update of my own knowledge. I needed also to integrate knowledge of methane with understanding the role of the chief non-condensing ‘greenhouse-gas’, carbon dioxide.

What I have experienced in the last few weeks has not been exactly a ‘Damascene’ moment, but as we all know, if we struggle hard enough intellectually then a new awareness of reality can dawn. Twenty and more years ago I had collected scientific papers that addressed the importance of atmospheric methane. This gas was already well understood to be part of the more general human-induced inflation of radiative forcing in the climate. We have dramatically increased the non-condensing ‘greenhouse’ gases in the earth’s atmosphere. It is a matter of fact that we experience extra radiative forcing (net trapped sunlight) because of these ‘trace’ gases released by industrialisation and in the case of methane also arising from the recent large extension of agriculture. We have for decades been able to watch the ongoing rise of carbon dioxide (CO2) measured continuously by NOAA Observatory in Hawaii. Methane (CH4), the second most important of the non-condensing gases was known to have increased even more dramatically from pre-industrial levels. All this we knew decades ago. And, already twenty years ago the ice and sediment records were beginning to tell their stories of past climates.

Where has the relevant science gone over the intervening 20 years? Can I interest you, the reader, in my recent journey of discovery, and particularly in what for me were the illuminating and I hope insightful moments?

I wrote a longer article in order to convince myself that I had sufficiently grasped the later scientific evidence and scientific arguments, and I used many quotes from and references to scientific papers: this longer article is available at the ASPO website if you want to engage more with the details. I would value additions, comments and corrections.

Toward the end of this present shorter article I draw your attention tothe ‘Kilda Conjecture’. Nisbet et al Nature 2009, see below, make the case that repeated exhalations of methane and carbon dioxide from an ancient ocean basin they name ‘Kilda’, could 55 million years ago, have kick-started the profound disorder in the carbon cycle seen in the geological record; a disorder known to have lasted about 100,000 years, the PETM. These authors draw parallels with the present extended exhalations of greenhouse gases from modern human society.

Firstly I familiarised myself again with the carbon cycle (‘sources and sinks’) and then with the way it has changed over geological time, so that I could better place in this context the vast “meta-stable” reserves of solid methane gas hydrates, otherwise known as ‘clathrates’. These are sequestered but potentially gaseous carbon deposits, which have been part of the earth’s carbon cycle for hundreds of millions years; maintained possibly continuously, if dynamically, over this unimaginably long history. More recently, clathrates have been part of a relatively stable, though oscillating, carbon cycle and climate[1]. These oscillating cycles have been ‘normal’ for a million or more years. As the climate oscillates, so does the carbon cycle along with the consequent hydrological cycle. The earth during this period has oscillated from glacial era to part-glacial era and correspondingly the sea level has gone up and down by some 120 to 130m. Our kind has become used to the latest extended warm period since the sea level last rose by about 120m about 10,000 years ago.

 We can ask, though, how the great stores of methane clathrates have interacted with climate changes not only in the last million years, but also much further back. What do we know from the records of longer geological time? Calculations have revealed that even a small fraction of the probable reserves if they were suddenly released into the atmosphere could overwhelm the photo-oxidation (OH’) capacity of the atmosphere and thereby persist for long enough to cause a great pulse of warmth from trapped sunlight. Indeed it was a long time ago, about 55 million years ago, but something like this actually seems to have happened. The result then was to initiate a disordered carbon cycle that lasted 100,000 years and a ‘thermal maximum’ climate we would not recognise – the PETM[2].

1st personal insight: comparability of the present day ‘trace’ gases with the remote geological past

During the PETM both CO2 and CH4 were maintained over millennia at very high concentrations; methane at perhaps 5 to 10-fold those of the recent pre-industrial concentrations. Numbers matter. To recapitulate; CH4 levels in the last few decades are sustained 2.5-fold higher than pre-industrial concentrations. I will return to the PETM but let me introduce another ‘moment’ that was for me one of increased clarity.

2nd: the importance of the non-condensing ‘trace’ greenhouse gases becomes clearer.

Snowball Earth and the non-condensing gases

There was, a very long time ago, a Snowball Earth; a period that ended around 635Ma. Gas hydrate releases are mentioned as one of putative positive feedback mechanisms that brought this phenomenon to an end.

[i] Hypotheses accounting for the abruptness of de-glaciation include ice albedo feedback, deep-ocean out-gassing during post-glacial oceanic overturn or methane hydrate destabilization.

Scientific discussion continues about this interesting period, but for our purposes it is worth noting the reasons why we do not have a snowball earth.

[ii]  Ample physical evidence shows that carbon dioxide (CO2) is the single most important climate-relevant greenhouse gas in Earth’s atmosphere. This is because CO2, like ozone, N2O, CH4, and chlorofluorocarbons, does not condense and precipitate from the atmosphere at current climate temperatures, whereas water vapour can and does. Non-condensing greenhouse gases, which account for 25% of the total terrestrial greenhouse effect, thus serve to provide the stable temperature structure that sustains the current levels of atmospheric water vapour and clouds via feedback processes that account for the remaining 75% of the greenhouse effect. Without the radiative forcing supplied by CO2 and the other non-condensing greenhouse gases, the terrestrial greenhouse would collapse, plunging the global climate into an icebound Earth state (emphasis added).

Methane is only a transient ‘trace’ gas, but we know that in recent decades it supplies about 20% of the extra net radiative forcing that results from ‘our’ extra greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; a significant addition to the total greenhouse effect.

3rd: the enormity of the last few decades

Glacial and Inter-Glacial Periods over the last 800,000 years

Before our present Holocene interglacial there was the previous warmer Eemian (+1°C, 125,000 years ago), and before that the also warmer Holsteinian (400,000 year ago). Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rose then to levels similar to recent pre-industrial Holocene levels.

Figure 1 800,000 years of CO2 and CH4 concentrationscorrespond with timing of glacial/interglacial temperature fluctuations; from Hansen & Sato, 2011; Reference iv below

Personally, I only get the enormity of what has happened in the last few decades if I superimpose present CO2 and CH4 concentrations (respectively 392ppm and approximately 1800ppb[iii]) on the end of the above figure (Hansen & Sato,2011[iv]). Methane immediately after the end of the Younger Dryas event was at ~700ppb; dropped to ~600ppb by 5000 years ago; climbed to >700 again by the year 1750.)

I encourage you to re-enact my mental process and superimpose your own visualisation.

4th: comparisons over 5 million years are valid enough

A mere 5 million years ago in the Pliocene the ocean was about 25m higher than today, but temperatures were not greatly higher than those in the inter-glacial Eemian 125,000 years ago, or those just now. However, CO2 levels back then in the Pliocene were higher than in the more recent one million year glacial period; i.e. higher than pre-industrial levels in our Holocene (280ppm), but probably comparable with those of the last 10 years at 380ppm. (See discussion in Hansen & Sato, 2011 ref. iv). Quote:  

And regardless of the precise temperatures in the Pliocene, the extreme polar warmth and diminished ice sheets are consistent with the picture we painted above. Earth today, with global temperature having returned to at least the Holocene maximum, is poised to experience strong amplifying polar feedbacks in response to even modest additional global mean warming.

This is our world as it is emerging. ‘Our’ CO2, though, has the potential to go much higher than Pliocene levels, and is coupled at the same time with a sustained exceptional methane level.

….  ******  ….

I have collected a number of up-to-date studies that look at abrupt (millennial scale) warm and cold climate events that occurred both during and at the termination of the last glacial maximum. These studies consider the raised level of methane (see again Figure 1, above), that accompanied both the earlier warmer excursions and, finally, the glacial termination. The studies include an assessment of the stability of marine clathrates and whether sudden release of methane might have initiated the warm periods. Details are in my longer article located here. Despite conjectures about the ‘Clathrate Gun’ (a sudden instability of very large clathrate deposits) having initiated positive feed-back changes and thus acted as a prompt cause of rapid climate warming events, marine hydrates actually appear to have been generally stable during the glacial and inter-glacial periods of the Pleistocene. Nevertheless, clathrates over this time have been to a degree dynamic, especially in the Arctic. They either form or are released in response to changing pressure/temperature combinations as the temperatures of both ground and ocean adjust to the prevailing cooling or warming trend and as the sea level falls or rises; … I quote from my longer article:

There is much of interest discussed [refs.], but the take-home point just now might be that although past thermal shocks must have gradually de-stabilised some CH4 gas hydrates, thus both increasing chronic methane release and adding to warming events during de-glaciations, these shocks did not cause sustained runaway temperatures during the subsequent inter-glacial periods. Further methane-induced positive feedback did not happen. Vast reserves of CH4 and other near-surface carbon still remained. For example; the previous Eemian inter-glacial 125,000 years ago achieved a greater global warmth (about +1°C with reference to year 2000, according to ocean cores, see Hansen & Sato above), high enough to entail a 5m higher sea level than at present, but did not provoke a self-stoking methane/CO2 release sufficient to prevent later re-glaciation. In the last very few decades, however, humanity is administering a powerful thermal shock to a still warm inter-glacial by inducing concentrations of non-condensing greenhouse gases that are higher by a margin not seen in the past 2 – 5 million or more years.

For those readers who are interested in arctic methane and the basis for future studies, there is also in my longer article an introductory discussion of a very recent publication: “Gas Hydrate Formation and Dissipation Histories in the Northern Margin of Canada”, 2012. I have even more recently read this paper “On carbon transport and fate in the East Siberian Arctic land–shelf–atmosphere system”, 2012, which makes a strong case for future monitoring of these processes. As a ‘lay person’ I heartily endorse the authors’ case. Earlier papers by Nisbet, 2002, and Archer, 2007, are also worth reading and links are in my longer article.

….  ******  ….

5th: atmospheric methane levels, and their impacts, depend on the rate of release not on reserves

In my longer article I comment in more detail on the calculations and thesis accompanying the ‘Kilda conjecture’ published in the journal Nature Geoscience; Nisbet, 2009 [Ref V below].

Recent calculations have assessed the quantities and the rate of release that would be needed for a sustained methane-induced thermal shock to the climate, large enough to lead to a runaway effect. The present dissipation of clathrates (or other near surface organic sources of methane) to the air, is more likely to remain chronic and will probably contribute to sustaining the high man-made level of atmospheric methane, rather than, on its own, initiate runaway ‘positive feedback’. (It can be assumed that in the absence of very high sustained ‘natural’ levels, future atmospheric CH4 levels would rapidly reduce if methane release from fossil fuels was to stop.)

[v]The period between gas release events (repeat time) needs to be comparable to, or shorter than, the atmospheric residence time of the warming gas, otherwise the warming effect of one release event will fade before the next event occurs. [Emphasis added.]

The snag, though, it seems is the continuing very large man-made releases of both CH4 and CO2, particularly from remaining fossil fuels, and the raised CO2 concentrations that will continue long after most fossil fuels have been burned.

6th: requirements for a disrupted carbon cycle and sustained climate disorder can be described; for example, the Kilda conjecture

A massive climate impact, such as the start of a disordered carbon cycle of the size-order of the Paleocene/Eocene Thermal Maximum, PETM, would require a very large and sustained release of greenhouse gases.

Ibid ref V a recurrent release of greenhouse gases is therefore required to explain the much longer-term warming in the PETM. …

Even a large release from a single deep ocean clathrate deposit, perhaps if it occurred because of volcanic action unrelated to climate change, would not be enough to firstly interrupt and then promote self-sustaining disorder of the carbon cycle. I quote from my own longer article:

“In particular, single event methane releases have been examined [by Nisbet et al. ref V] as putative trigger events for a cascade leading to sustained high levels of atmospheric non-condensing gases. Single releases from sources such as ocean floor hydrates were/are not, individually, sufficiently large, nor did they recur frequently enough, to act as trigger events for subsequent self-sustaining high atmospheric concentrations, and these sources are rejected as explanations for the ‘PETM trigger’. The authors, though, identify one possible singular source of methane, the geologically brief Kilda Basin 55Ma. This basin apparently has no large modern parallel although some modern Rift Valley conditions provide qualitative parallels. The ancient Kilda Basin could have provided a single source large enough to suddenly overwhelm the atmospheric OH’ oxidising sink and thus prolong for many decades the atmospheric residence time of a massive methane release. Hence, the release could have been big enough to promote a subsequent very prolonged period of both high CO2 and CH4 concentrations. (It is possible that the Kilda Basin might have produced recurrent exhalations). Plausibly the trajectory to the inevitable PETM was begun in this way. The authors speculate:

Ibid ref V Unlike other suggested triggers, bursts of methane and carbon dioxide from Kilda could have been large enough, and could have been repeated frequently enough, to initiate the persistent global warming throughout the PETM. Could the comparable injection of modern anthropogenic emissions induce the same response from the planet? [Emphasis added.]

Remaining queries:

Thus, for now, my remaining query will be: Are ‘we’ the modern ‘Kilda Basin’?

Could ‘we’ be an initiating trigger like Kilda?

There are already signs of a disrupted carbon cycle as we lower the pH in the ocean.

Modern rising CO2 levels are rising more rapidly and changing the ocean more quickly than the slow changes recorded for the Pliocene a mere 5 million years ago when CO2 was last near 390ppm in the atmosphere. [See footnote[3] and ref[vi]]

The configuration of the continents, mountain ranges and ocean connections are different from those 55 million years ago. The PETM took (several) thousands of years to reach a maximum. We can hope our descendents are spared.

Personally I do not wish to even think about a future PETM equivalent, even if it is not imminent for a thousand years. The current human-induced mass extinction of biota and the emergence of a ‘New Climate’ are bad enough to contemplate, even with scientific caveats about uncertainty. There was a symposium in London at the Royal Society of Chemistry, Burlington House, November 2-3, 2010, and abstracts are available on-line. Presentations reviewed past Carbon Isotope Excursions, CIE’s, particularly the Palaeocene Eocene thermal maximum (PETM, 55Ma), when discussion centred on these past ‘greenhouse worlds’ and mass extinction events as analogues for future events and ecologies. I refer you to the set of symposium abstracts[4] and leave you with the safety instructions for Burlington House displayed prominently at the end of the programme ’flyer’;

If you hear the Alarm

Alarm Bells are situated throughout the building and will ring continuously for an evacuation. Do not stop to collect your personal belongings.


Notes 1 – 5 were added 2012; links are not functional 2020

[1] In remote geological time carbon became sequestered in very large persistent sinks of carbonaceous rock and in petroleum and gas deposits. Weathering, tectonic movement and volcanic activity release carbon from rocks, and seepage occurs from trapped “fossil fuels” and buried organic material, but since the last 10s of millions of years, the earlier sequestration has had the net ongoing effect of a reduced carbon gas level maintained in the atmosphere. Thus, more recent geological ages have experienced much lower levels of free CO2 and CH4 than those remote epochs when the largest ancient carbon stores were laid down.

[2] PETM: Palaeocene/Eocene Thermal Maximum. Configurations of continents mountain ranges and oceans have changed since then and the world now could have a different reaction to ‘trigger events’.

[3] I refer you to recent FAQs and programmes of research on ocean acidification; here.

[4] Past CIEs and future ecologies; Burlington House, London, 2-3 November 2010 ABSTRACTS HERE


References i to vi The link to Hansen & Sato is valid. I am indebted to the authors for the use of the image in Figure 1 above: atmospheric CO2 & CH4 over 800k years. The link in Ref. vi to the Abstract is also valid

[i]  Snowball Earth termination by destabilization of equatorial permafrost methane clathrate;

Kennedy M, Mrofka D, von der Borch C. Nature, 2008 May 29; 453(7195):642-5.

[ii]   Atmospheric CO2: principal control knob governing Earth’s temperature; Lacis A.A. et al. Science. 2010 Oct 15;330 (6002):356-9.

[iii] Global atmospheric methane: budget, changes and dangers; Dlugokencky EJ, et al. Philos Transact A Math Phys Eng Sci. 2011 May 28; 369(1943):2058-72.

[iv] Paleoclimate Implications for Human-Made Climate Change, Hansen & Sato, 2011, submitted for publication. FULL PAPER

[v] Kick-starting ancient warming;  E. G. Nisbet et al.; 2009, Nature Geoscience 2, 156 – 159 (2009)

[vi] The Geological Record of Ocean Acidification, Bärbel Hönisch et al, Science2 March 2012:335 no. 6072 pp. 1058-1063 ABSTRACT

Pedro Correa’s address to students at UC Louvain

In 2019 Spanish artist/photographer Pedro Correa gave a speech at the graduation ceremony for civil engineers at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, hosted by the Alumni Association of the University.  The speech was posted on Facebook by Notre Dame d’Arlon (https://www.facebook.com/IndaOfficiel/videos/2720326091527941) where it went viral, receiving over 8.5 million views.  It has also been shared on Correa’s Facebook page, where it has received more than half a million views, and where you can find the text of the speech in French (https://www.facebook.com/573820368/videos/10157048609750369/).  It is also available on YouTube with English subtitles at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2j4YkGuIsSw.

A lightly corrected copy of the automatically translated text from Pedro’s Facebook page is as follows:

Thank you to UC Louvain for giving me carte blanche to express myself at this year’s graduation ceremony on topics that (I think) have never been discussed before by civil engineer (themes like death, joy, burnout, Philippe Bihouix’s low tech).

And thank you to the young graduates for their enthusiastic welcome and feedback. I’ve been pushing it for a long time and I have proof of it every passing day: younger generations have everything in them to clean up the world we’re leaving for them.

Feel free to share to the engineers who were there, who asked me and with whom I have no contact …

Below is the text of the speech (note that the delivered address differs somewhat from the text Pedro has given, in particular the part in italics seems to be missing, but I have included it because of the reference to Bihouix):

————-

Good evening and congratulations to the freshly graduated engineers,

I also wanted to congratulate AILouvain for showing courage, not only by inviting me to this panel (which is already brave enough) but especially by putting at the center of these interventions and their conference programme terms like “meaning”, “happiness”, and “joy at work”, rather than those which were insisted on in speeches I heard at your age as engineer, such as “sacrifice”, “be serious”, “competitiveness” or “excellence”. So really thank you UCL for this refreshing opportunity.

I am all the more delighted to be here that I speak in the same place as one of my idols of the moment (some have idols filling stadiums, I have a French engineer): his name is Philippe Bihouix and during the lecture he gave here a few months ago he was already inviting you to leverage all your know-how not in high tech, but rather in low tech: those technologies that replace what’s happening today, but with simpler and more sober techniques. If what you’re looking for is meaningful and to use your engineering studies to reduce our ecological footprint to everyone, I really invite you to read his book: The Age of Low-Tech.

First of all, I assure you: I have not come to give you advice, let alone lessons. Doing a PhD in Applied Science only to finish up as a photographer/artist, I think this needs to be featured in the top 3 parent nightmares here …

But if I’m not going to give you advice, it’s mostly because I realize that we as the oldest have nothing to teach you, and on the contrary, we had better listen to you more. When I see the values of consumption, self-centeredness, competition and continuous growth, on which the previous two generations built the system we float in for now, and when I see the outpourings of solidarity, empathy, collaboration, and quest for meaning that shine deep in the eyes of young people today… I think you are the ones who can change direction towards a happier and more just society… and that you already have everything in you.

On the other hand, I’m going to start with a statistic I’m going to lay here, on purpose to scare you a little. This is very rarely heard, and in my eyes represents the canary in the mine that should alert us that something is going wrong: for five years now, Belgium has been spending more of the national budget on people with long-term sickness (essentially breakdowns and burnouts), than on unemployment benefits. So, this means that unlike being scared every day about unemployment, getting out of here you have a greater risk of getting sick or becoming depressed because of your job than of not finding any.

Passionate about personal development, I’ve looked at the causes of this data, and this result is finally not that that amazing. All scientific studies in neuroscience and happiness psychology are unanimous: placing anxiety terms like “serious”, “excellence”, “competitiveness”, or “sacrifice” at the centre of our lives, without placing any other essentials, like “joy”, “meaning” or “collaboration”, has been shown can only lead to sadness, fatigue, and in the end, sickness … burnout.

Some will lure you with contracts and big cars, and they will assure you that’s the ultimate proof of success. On my side, I can only talk to you with the guarantee of my own happiness when I wake up every morning to do my work, stay absorbed for hours without seeing time spent capturing moments of ephemeral beauty, and the happiness of my children with whom I spend long afternoons.

So, I can only share my experience, which was first to realize that happiness is working. Happiness doesn’t fall us from the sky by watching our lives flow on tracks built by others, rails that go on-ne-know-where, rather than practicing our own cravings.

My path started with this condition, I think, to listen to my own cravings, to listen to my inner voice. That inner voice is nothing mystical, it’s just everyone’s own voice, that authentic voice that has no account to anyone, that one that takes you to the guts. It’s very difficult to hear because since we were young we have piled up other voices over it: the voice of parents, teachers, advertisers …

When you look at children, you realize they still have that voice, their fair voice, and that’s exactly why they know just what makes them happy every moment.

We all have in us the voice that knows what’s better for us. It just takes work on yourself to hear and recognize it.

For me, it was faster: I took a shortcut and was able to avoid years of listening attentive to hear it. It’s a shortcut, of course, but I don’t wish it on anyone: it was to see my father die suddenly. He was 56, I was 29. He was strong as a rock one day, and gone the next day. We all know we are mortal, but it’s one thing to know that we are mortal and another to know we are going to die, and that it can happen from one day to the next.

At that moment my inner voice took a megaphone and pierced every other voice, to ask me every day very clearly: “Now that you know you could die tomorrow, would you have changed anything on that last day that you have just had?”

And it’s impossible to live like before when you ask yourself that at the end of each day. This awareness was painful at first. From there were first small changes, compromises, then bigger ones, and then little by little, that voice became a guide on the way to happiness.

To be happy, I also had to find sense. I think we need to make sense to all of us (and therefore our profession, where we spend 8 hours a day). Because our inner voice knows that we are all on the same boat, so happiness can only be achieved if our actions have a real impact on this boat.

And to finish, we also need courage, because in addition to hearing and recognizing your voice, you will also have to have the courage to listen to it, because it won’t always say obvious things to put in place, nor things that will please your surroundings.

I’ve often been told: “But what courage! It must not be easy to live as an artist!”. To which I would reply: “Because you believe it’s easy, for an artist, to live as a banker?”.

I will finish. And you understood it, I lied, I still gave you advice throughout this speech: not to listen to me. You are adults, you have your degree, life is yours. So, don’t listen to those from this expired world anymore, from this failure we live in. Don’t listen to me anymore, don’t listen to parents, don’t listen to teachers, don’t listen to ads or media anymore, and listen to yourself first.

The world no longer needs fighters, successful people, it needs dreamers, people able to rebuild and care… and most importantly, we all need today, more than ever, people to be happy.

Thank you.

Pedro Correa

Civil Engineer Graduation Speech 2019.

UCL. Louvain La Neuve

29/11/2019

UCLouvain – Université catholique de Louvain

Alumni Ingénieurs Louvain

And thank you to Hilario Sp and Fabien Pinckaers for sharing these stressful moments with me, with their exciting speeches.

—–

Twitter link: https://twitter.com/PedroCorreart/status/1206145111287042048

Nostalgia for 2012? Methane, Optimism, Pessimism, Low Tech and the Engineers

Nostalgia for 2012? Sounds a bit odd, but old age is like that it seems.

Reposted from https://www.blogger.com/blog/post/edit/5283988384988228344/5450006045359075000

I am glad to see that my tour of the methane horizon from 2012 is still hosted by Resilience.

https://www.resilience.org/resilience-author/phil-harris/   Nice picture they put up, by the way …

If the methane gas released each year is not destroyed at a fast enough rate by the atmosphere, it accumulates.  Prompted by Ugo Bardi it was a chance in 2012 to make an appraisal of the effects of likely upper and lower estimates of the combination of fossil fuel emissions and ‘positive feedback’ in the  natural environment, and to contemplate that key context for life ”The Carbon Cycle’. ‘Pessimism’ and ‘Optimism’, if you like. There was a lull in the CH4 accumulation when I was writing back then.

In 2012 despite the ‘Kilda Conjecture’ as a possible cause of the PETM carbon-cycle collapse about 55 million years ago, I judged that industrial civilisation’s version of the  ‘methane bomb’ was not likely to trigger a similar collapse within the human future.  The accumulation of atmospheric methane had stabilised during 2000 – 2006. Since then there has been a 9% increase but I still do not think this presages a ‘new PETM’. There remains of course within the limits of present knowledge an unknown risk  of a seriously de-stablised carbon cycle over the next centuries. Nevertheless, for now environmental ‘positive feedback’ seems a lesser part of the yearly CH4 release. Quote: “The [decadal] increase was primarily fueled by human activities—especially agriculture and fossil fuels,”  https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146978/methane-emissions-continue-to-rise   

The reality of Climate Change is ongoing, but there is more, much more, going on in the  immediate future it seems, that is also mostly promoted by industrial growth. There is a present enthusiasm in richer countries for the ‘next big thing’; the electrification of transport along with substitution for all fossil fuels via solar energy, which could perhaps enable the hydrogen economy and all the Hi-Tech to go with it. This vision is in my view arguably the most dangerous utopian fantasy yet! Net zero carbon enthusiasts please note.

Listen to the engineers! A recent key-note text is published in the anglophone world. It needed to be translated from the French. Many thanks go to Professor Chris McMahon for seeing the need and for doing it. http://www.transformingsociety.co.uk/2020/10/21/toward-an-age-of-low-tech-for-a-more-resilient-and-sustainable-society/  There is an interesting review at the publisher’s site under ‘Media’, with the link http://www.zprod.org/zwp/thoughts/the-age-of-low-tech/  

I hope to extend an archive of links to less well known studies such as those by Philippe Bihouix and Chris McMahon, and to sites created or read by members of a private discussion group. The site was started in response to the formation of this eclectic discussion group in what is still known as The British Isles. The site was called ‘Ecosophic Isles’ by the group. I don’t think the group do much in the way of ‘prediction’, and mostly take the reference to ‘Eco Wisdom’ with a pinch of salt!😉 There is also currently archived there a copy of a letter from some other  engineers to the UK Statutory Committee on Climate Change on the constraints surrounding electrification, which some of us found instructive.

https://wordpress.com/comments/all/ecosophic-isles.org

best

Phil H

Philippe Bihouix, low-tech and technoscience utopias

Philippe Bihouix is a French engineer who writes essays and books on environmental issues.  His best-known works are his 2010 book “Quel futur pour les métaux?” (What future for metals), which he wrote with Benoit de Guillebon, in which he discusses the scarcity of metals and the limits of the green economy, and “L’Âge des low tech. Vers une civilisation techniquement soutenable” (The age of low-tech: towards a technically sustainable civilisation), published by Seuil in 2014, in which he develops these themes and proposes concentration on low-tech technologies that consume fewer resources and less energy.  He has developed the ideas still further in his 2019 book “Le bonheur était pour demain” (Happiness was for tomorrow), again published by Seuil, in which he also critiques the various notions of utopia that we see today – the cornucopian utopias of abundance, the techno-slave utopias that machines will do all our work for us, and the anthropo-augmentist notions that humans can improve their performance through technology (the ultimate expression of which is transhumanism).  Below is a translation of an essay on these technocentric utopias that was first published in 2015 by the French magazine Revue du Crieur under the title “Les technosciences, ou l’utopie corrompue” (Technosciences, or utopia corrupted), and which includes some of the ideas developed in this latest book.

Chris McMahon

Technoscience, or utopia corrupted
A survey of techno-scientific hubris

by Philippe Bihouix

This essay was first published in French in the Revue du crieur, No. 2, October 2015 with the title “Les technosciences, ou l’utopie corrompue”. A web reference to the publisher’s page is https://editionsladecouverte.fr/catalogue/index-Revue_du_crieur_Na__2-9782707187987.html

Never before have we been so overwhelmed by announcements about scientific or technological breakthroughs and the future transformation of our industrial societies. It is difficult to distinguish between arm-waving and real breakthroughs, between fascination for the promises of a better world and concern about ethical questions or possible harmful consequences. Besides, is all this hype about technologies above all a sign of an era beset by doubt?

It is impossible to escape. Every week, in the general media and scientific publications, at international and corporate events, we see tub-thumping announcements and hear lively debates on scientific advances and the possibilities of revolutionary technologies. These include ‘green’ energy technologies based on smart systems, opportunities offered by big data in healthcare, even human-machine interfaces offering ‘transhumanist’ capabilities, as espoused by Google executives. The general tone is optimistic and confident about the innovative human species and the better world that awaits us through science, but there are also darker undertones, related for example to the impact of robotisation on employment or to ethical questions posed by artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation.

It is sometimes difficult to navigate the media jungle.  In areas that are by nature technically complex and hyperspecialized, our ability to understand and distinguish the virtual from the real, the imminent from the distant, the idea from its implementation, is inevitably limited. If we want to try to define better these new utopias, to separate truth from fiction, to regain a historical perspective – of course without imagining that we predict the future – we must try to understand what is posturing and what is scientific announcement, to help us perceive, from the current promises of a better (technological) world, what may really work.

Abundance, techno-slavery and anthropo-augmentism

Let us start by trying to put some order into this profusion of techno-scientific utopias, of breakthroughs that we are told are to come, by dividing them into different categories. The first is that of ‘cornucopian’ utopias (from the Latin cornu copiae, the ‘horn of plenty’): scientific and industrial progress that will give us access to new resources, often in prodigious quantities. These will make irrelevant concerns about the possible exhaustion of raw materials. As you would expect, in a world swamped every year by ever increasing demands on energy, raw materials and land, this category is particularly widespread.

In the cornucopian category, we have all the technologies that could provide energy in profusion, through novel means of production and storage, or through better utilization. Jeremy Rifkin’s Third Industrial Revolution[1], is based on creating, storing and sharing solar and wind energy in an ‘energy internet’. New low-cost and ultra-rapidly-charged batteries, like those of the Tesla company, will allow the massive deployment of electric vehicles and photovoltaic panels on homes.  Futuristic visions of the exploitation of marine energies envisage farms of tidal turbines or wave-energy devices. We have imminent progress on fuel cells and ‘cold’ nuclear fusion, on efficient modes of transportation, from solar aircraft to propulsion of container ships by kites . . . in short, ‘peak oil’, already delayed by the exploitation of shale gas and other unconventional fuels, will soon be the concern of another age. Instead of a calling for a necessary energy sobriety, ‘We demain’ – the French magazine ‘for a change of era’ – praises ‘Hyperloop, the train that will put Paris 35 minutes from Marseilles[2].

Non-renewable resources, such as metals, a priori available in limited quantities, will no longer pose problems since we can find them when needed in the oceans or in space. Astrophysicist Jean-Pierre Luminet believes that “the exploitation of the mineral wealth of asteroids, as projected by the company Planetary Resources, is inevitable. It will come to fruition in fifty to a hundred years, and there is no doubt that space factories will be constructed in the 22nd century”[3]. In the meantime, bio- and nanotechnologies will make it possible to design objects that are more frugal and more efficient, even completely biodegradable, inspired by nature using biomimicry. Enzymatic catalysis will replace the platinum group metals needed by the chemical industry, and nanomaterials will allow us to dispense with many metals. In the domain of water and agriculture, the prospects are just as enticing. Marginal land may be cultivated using genetically modified plants.  We have ‘green’ chemistry and biomaterials, farms of the future and even ‘steak printers’ – producing artificial meat from stem cells – in order to please the animal rights lobby . . . we even think we can tow 30 million-ton icebergs thousands of miles to supply potable water to countries with water scarcity[4].

The second category is that of ‘techno-slavery’ utopias. The meteoric evolution of information and communication technologies (through increased computing power, software design and permanent connectivity) and the increased capacity for miniaturization of equipment will enable human work increasingly to be replaced by machines, connected devices, robots and autonomous systems. Between lower equipment costs and the mass acquisition of data and its interpretation by data sciences the possibilities are immense – from the self-driving car to the robot cook that will prepare recipes to your taste, through to robot weed killers for organic market gardening and nano-medical robots that will practice non-intrusive surgery.

If some applications are already a reality – the State of Nevada has just licensed a truck that can operate (almost) without a driver, and drones are being used for agricultural crop monitoring – others are more distant. But, undeniably, we have also not yet understood the social consequences of this wave of digitization of companies, where insurance brokers, bank clerks and restaurant servers will be the new endangered species. Some projections, probably a little too alarmist (but who knows?) talk about millions of jobs destroyed in the coming decades[5]. As for the environmental consequences – increased energy needs, increased consumption of scarce resources, massive generation of unmanageable e-waste – almost nobody speaks about them, although Eric Drexler, nanotechnology pioneer[6] and founder of the Foresight Institute, warns us of the uncontrolled risk of making self-replicating nano-robots that may consume large quantities of resources and transform the Earth’s surface into a uniform ‘gray goo’ – a highly improbable prospect but indeed rather unpleasant.

The third category is that of ‘anthropo-augmentist’ utopias, which envisage humanity improving its performance thanks to technology: the development of human-machine interfaces, progress in therapeutic medicine, knowledge about the mechanisms of aging and regeneration. The ultimate utopia, but perhaps a logical conclusion, is that of the ‘transhumanist’ movement. At first, it might involve a ‘simple’ increase of human capacities – with or without eugenics, the ‘increase’ then occurring natively or with the aid of a few marketed devices, for example – but what is ultimately targeted is nothing less than immortality, through the progress of medicine, cloning, even the downloading of consciousness on digital devices … Laurent Alexandre gives a rather persuasive description of Google’s obsession, with executives (often in their forties) launched on a development programme in a race against the clock and with acquisitions of very ambitious companies (among others eight robotics companies in 2013 and three working on artificial intelligence in 2014)[7]. Google does not hide its thinking, and the recruitment of Raymond Kurzweil to its management team in 2012 showed the direction it is taking. He predicts that an immense revolution – which he calls ‘a singularity’ – will occur in a few decades: reality and virtual reality will merge, humans will be able to adopt different bodies, and multiply the versions of their minds[8].

For his part, the biologist and writer Joel de Rosnay imagines that it is possible that “intelligent robots will one day be endowed with sensitivity, empathy, capacity for abstraction, even intuition . . .”. But, instead of worrying publicly, like a number of influential personalities, scientists and business leaders, including astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and entrepreneurs Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Elon Musk (Tesla), who believe that the emergence of an uncontrolled artificial intelligence could be ”the end of the human species” (Hawking) and “our greatest threat to life” (Gates), de Rosnay proposes instead that “complementary evolution in symbiosis with digital machines and artificial intelligence” will lead humanity towards “an integrated and collective symbiosis” ensuring “complementarity between artificial intelligence and connected human brains” because “the intelligence of our brains, interconnected in symbiosis with robots, artificial intelligence and digital networks, is evolving at exponentially[9]. This jargon is typical of the brilliant but aging author of Macroscope.

We could also mention a fourth category, because the rise of ecological maladies makes it relevant, that of ‘restorative’ utopias: for example, geo-engineering aimed at curbing climate change (with the potentially huge risk involved in manipulation at a large scale of phenomena that are still largely misunderstood) or ‘yellow biotechnologies’ using modified bacteria to clean up soil or water.  There is even the possibility of reviving extinct species: for example, Mammuthus Primigenius, the familiar woolly mammoth, is at the head of the list to be revived, owing to the sympathy it provokes and the proper preservation of its DNA in a few frozen individuals, with an emotional thought for our ancestors who may have contributed, by over hunting, to the disappearance of part of the megafauna of the Pleistocene. What does it matter then that the last rhinos are used to make aphrodisiac powders! By freezing some embryos, in a while we can repair the damage. This category of utopias could easily be melded into the first three, because a ‘restorative’ economy is only one way to access abundance without undergoing, or at best managing, the hard-to-avoid consequences of exploiting the environment.

It is not surprising that this journalistic genre is flourishing and its promises are so attractive, even when some find them so extravagant. In effect, the three categories of techno-scientific utopias correspond to three parameters that are more or less at the heart of all human activity – resources (raw materials), work (their transformation) and intelligence (which makes it possible to design and guide this transformation).  These are reminiscent of a triptych already identified: land, labour, capital (human), in a nod to Marx, or to Polanyi and his ‘great transformation’ of land (rent) and labour (wages) into goods[10].

To put it another way, most technological utopias promise us abundance (availability of resources at will), idleness (machines working for us), power or capabilities (for oneself and others, thanks to increased capacities); that is to say, fantasies widely present in all the cultures, mythologies, morals and religions of the peoples of the Earth. This hubris has always been fought by the Ancients, but it continues to be found attractive. Temperance (one of the four cardinal virtues of Aristotle) opposes the desire for abundance. Idleness has never really been virtuous, unlike hard work (you will earn your bread by the sweat of your brow) or pride in accomplishment. As for power fantasies, they were always controlled by the recognition of the social interest in a certain balance between ambition and modesty, even a certain humility, “more useful than harmful” for Spinoza and to live “under the guidance of reason”. These are the moral questions facing our techno-industrial societies.

The technocritical tradition

As always, in scientific and technical fields, promises also have their dark side. It is therefore logical that the announced technological surge, whether real or in the making, leads to anxiety, reactions and attacks. Criticism of the influence of technology, and of the risks associated with it, is part of a long tradition. It grew in importance after the Second World War and with the advent of the atomic era: key voices were the historian Lewis Mumford and his ‘megamachines’[11], Günther Anders[12], Jacques Ellul and his ‘technician system’[13], the economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher[14] and his ‘intermediate technologies’, Ivan Illich and his ‘user-friendly tools’[15] and the environmentalist André Gorz and his denouncement of the ‘heteronomy’ of economic activities. All took a critical look at the evolution of our industrial societies.

In recent years, in the face of the accelerated development of new technologies and the convergence on NBICs (nanotechnology/biotechnology/information technology/cognitive science), new ‘technocritics’ have emerged.  The term itself has been coined by the historian François Jarrige, specialist in Luddite movements[16]. Unsurprisingly, there are environmental or health considerations, such as those concerning the manipulation of living organisms by biotechnologies, the massive dispersion of particles by nanotechnologies or multiple exposures to electromagnetic radiation.  However, there also more systemic reflections on the fragility or lack of resilience of increasingly complex technical societies, an argument made especially by those who are studying the consequences of peak oil and the risk of a decline in energy supplies, building in particular on the work of the anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter[17]. Finally, more and more voices have arisen to denounce technological influence and its cognitive, social, and even moral and political effects[18].  These include job destruction or loss of meaning at work, excessive individualization, dilution of ethical benchmarks, profound transformation of family and social relationships, development of security policies with the emergence of technological means of social control and generalized surveillance, today through the internet and mobile phone, and tomorrow through RFID chips and ubiquitously connected objects.

A litany that is already old

Technical utopias are not new. Between the publication of the founding work of Thomas More[19] and the end of the 18th century, utopias focused mainly on political issues – especially the fight against absolutism. The 19th century, highly techno-progressive, is fruitful in technological utopias, although it is the rather socially-oriented utopias (Robert Owen, Charles Fourier …), sometimes still of religion (Count de Saint-Simon), that predominate during the first half of that century.  This is understandable, given the social devastation of early industrialisation, with long hours, child labour and the absence of trade unions or worker power in the face of unbridled capitalism.  Among some of the pearls published is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) – enough to excite any ‘transhumanist’ ardour of the time. However, technical progress and the dazzling scientific achievements of the second half of the 19th century dragged utopia into the technical domain, especially through literature, from Jules Verne (Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 1864) to HG Wells (The Time Machine, 1895).

From that time, technology promises to make the world better, and even to end the class struggle that Marx was promoting. So, for example, William Winwood Reade, historian, explorer and philosopher, wrote in 1872 that thanks to “the manufacture of flesh and flour from the elements by a chemical process […] Food will then be manufactured in unlimited quantities […] Hunger and starvation will then be unknown”. These are already cornucopian dreams, while transhumanism is in gestation since, according to Reade, ‘[…] Disease will be extirpated; the causes of decay will be removed; immortality will be invented. […] These bodies that we now wear belong to the lower animals; our minds have already outgrown them […] A time will come when science will transform them by means that we cannot conjecture”. And “then, the earth being small, mankind will migrate in space and will cross the airless Saharas that separate planet from planet, and sun from sun. […] Men […] will become themselves architects of systems, manufacturers of worlds”[20]

At the beginning 20th century, science fiction became the utopian genre par excellence, affecting all technical and ethical fields, exploring to the very limits the negative side of technological or social innovations (as do Karel Capek or Aldous Huxley). After the doubts instilled by Hiroshima, technological utopia re-emerges and, in the wake of the American program Atoms for peace, we are promised toast and helicopters for all. ‘But atomic energy could also […] propel cars, with a small engine the size of a child’s balloon lasting ten or twenty years without recharging’[21]. For others, “ […] apes will lose their freedom and will be used for various manual work, as laborers become more difficult to find. They could, in particular, work picking fruit and vegetables[22]. There is here a curious resonance with a recent article by Usbek and Rica entitled ‘Le temps des Frankensinges’ (the time of the Franken-monkeys) in the magazine ‘that explores the future’ Usbek et Rica, because “the latest genetic discoveries make it possible to create enhanced primates[23]. Poor anthropoid apes, maybe they would like to replace our agricultural workers, but it is a little late to offer them this opportunity, because the intensive production of palm oil, even organically or sustainably, leaves them only a small chance of survival.  Their natural habitat – yesterday Malaysia and Indonesia for the orangutan, tomorrow Central Africa for gorillas – is being destroyed at great speed and replaced by monoculture plantations. In the years 1960-1970, the literature of science-fiction continued to hold the upper hand (with for example Philippe K. Dick or Isaac Asimov), accompanied by film productions and television series (with the ever-present fantasy of the ‘augmented’ human in the Six Million Dollar Man and his mate the Bionic Woman).

So, is there nothing new under the sun? While this may be true there does seem to be, in quantity as well as in ‘quality’, an undeniable acceleration. Is it mark of something common to all eras, a post-’end of history’ effect, or a consequence of the acceleration of our time described by Harmut Rosa[24]? Furthermore, as if things were not going fast enough, we’ve recently seen calls to go even further and faster, in the most perfect techno-optimism, in both the ‘accelerationist’ manifesto[25] and the ‘ecomodernist’ manifesto of some scientists from the controversial Breakthrough Institute[26], calling to discard the precautionary principle and restraint in order to adopt life-saving technologies, the first to bring down capitalism, the second to save the planet.

Some explanations of our times

Why do we observe today such a proliferation, to the point of saturation, of presentations and announcements, with a good many distinctly lacking in credibility?

There is, undeniably, a pure ‘volume effect’, as for aircraft accidents. Even as aircraft reliability improves and accidents per kilometer/ passenger transported become fewer and fewer, the explosion of global air traffic is such that, numerically, there may be more accidents. In the same way, we are every year more numerous; there are more universities, researchers, scientists, journalists, media, who communicate with each other practically in real time, with increased ease of communication and translation. So, an announcement of a ‘discovery’ by Australian researchers, provided that it has a well-chosen title or description and a subject that is a little controversial or sexy, will quickly be broadcast on a planetary scale, whereas it might have remained local, even unknown, barely ten years ago.

There is also the very organization of our society, which means that many actors in international networks have an interest in ‘proclaiming’ and showing that ‘the world is moving’: consultants who want sell you a project to change your outdated business model; economists and professors of management or sociology needing interest in their courses or publications; journalists subject to ever-stronger competition who are pressed to find flashy topics and headlines, under a pressure of time that does not facilitate critical thinking, taking a step back or adding appropriate comments; career scientists caught up in a race for peer reviewed publications and the capture of public or private budgets; diverse institutional actors surfing on the novelty effect and innovation – which is now truly a cult, with at its head the innovative entrepreneur (who now works in a team, in a project or network, in line with the ‘new spirit of capitalism’[27]).

Finally, it is not impossible that a certain feeling of stalemate (pollution, resource depletion, crisis of the Western model after a whiff of optimism post 1989-1991, problems with social networks …) combined with the tremendous exponential acceleration of new technologies, has made at the same time a discussion of technological alternatives necessary and credible. But some of the ‘technology gurus’ who preside today had their apprenticeships in the 1970s- 1980 or earlier (Joel de Rosnay, Jeremy Rifkin, Jacques Attali or, in more critical group but resolutely techno-optimistic, Michel Serres[28].. .): raised in the progressive era of Les Trente Glorieuses (‘the glorious thirty’ – the thirty years following the end of the second world war) and weaned on science fiction.  Maybe they just pursue their childhood dreams, which partly explains their delight in technological innovations, whatever they may be? Or are they animated by fear of growing older, of appearing retrograde and archaic, thus pushing them (in order to remain relevant in a dynamic world) to this cult of technology without limits? Most surprising, among these professional futurologists and these different ‘experts’ on success, is their ability to assert their certainties without expressing the slightest doubt – regardless of past mistakes – and to believe that the media aura comes as much from their learned tone as their ability to analyse and anticipate. It is true that people have always been fond of expertise, yesterday reading the entrails of chickens and today in the different media. We demain, in an article entitled ‘2015 seen from yesterday, 2065 viewed from the present-day’[29] gently pokes fun at the predictions from the 1960s of hover-cars in our time, and of inter-continental space travel, with less affluent travellers having to settle for supersonic and hypersonic flights.  But a few pages later it reports from Stanford University researcher Sebastian Thrun, who announces without hesitation that ‘by 2040, people will use more personal flying vehicles than cars for daily journeys ‘. See you in 25 years, but when bicycles are making a comeback in the centres of our cities, let us at least have the right to doubt it!

In the field of futurology, a little modesty would be appropriate, because in reality, real disruption is rarely foreseen. Certainly, the computing, modelling, gathering and analysis of statistical data will undeniably increase exponentially … and, of course, so will our understanding of many phenomena. But, unfortunately, the complexity of the world evolves too – for example the interconnection of economic systems through globalization – and systemic interactions are difficult to model. This makes any ‘forecasting’ particularly problematic.

Utopian promises

Let’s go back to our promises. Why will many of them never be realised? Essentially, because they neglect three major and absolutely unavoidable phenomena. First, contrary to appearances and what we might think given the regular appearance of new artefacts in our lives, our industrial system does not change as fast as that. It is based on major ‘engineered systems’[30] – energy infrastructure (power plants, networks, refineries), transportation (roads, railways, canals, ports), buildings, industrial equipment (chemical, petrochemical) and utilities (water treatment and purification plants), that are physically almost unchanging or very slow to move. So, are we still in the coal age – the first source of electricity – and of oil … This ‘installed base’ effect creates a severe inertia, and we must not be deceived by the speed of deployment of mobile telephony or the Internet. This is because it is comparatively straightforward to build a new macro-technical system onto others – and the new systems become interdependent with the old: for example, energy networks are now very much dependent on real-time data exchange, while telecommunications are themselves powered by electric power – but it is much more difficult to replace an existing technical macro-system. This is why, for example, apart from technical or financial issues, the deployment of a hydrogen-based energy network is far from being inevitable: the effort to replace pipelines, port facilities, storage areas, refineries, gas stations, etc., by their hydrogen equivalent, is much greater than it seems, and by comparison the installation of a few thousand mobile telephony base stations is straightforward. Small-scale prowess can be impressive, but to make a prototype smart or 3D printed house cannot be compared with transforming for example 30 million homes in France, and a successful laboratory experiment does not inherently lead to deployment of ‘depolluting’ and ‘bio-inspired’ technologies across a whole territory … most of the time, this step will not be taken. We can rattle on about possible ‘clean coal’ thanks to the capture and sequestration of CO2, but we already know that it will be impossible to re-equip the entire existing fleet of power stations and industrial plants, some of which have only recently been built, and cannot be modified, and whose expected lifespan is greater than 40 or 50 years.

Secondly, most ‘technological myths’ neglect the component of non-renewable resources which is the systemic link between resources and energy[31]. In theory, a gigantic amount of energy is available, but that which was abundant and cheap is becoming scarce, and to continue to produce or extract ‘new’ energy will require increasing amounts of resources, energy and metals of all kinds. There are still enormous amounts of gas and oil shale, of methane hydrates and solar radiation available … but these will take larger and larger quantities of complex equipment to recover, or capture and store. In the same way, metal ores are becoming less and less concentrated – again, the quantity is huge, but quality and accessibility are down – so needing more and more energy to be refined into metals.

The circular economy, based on eco-design and recycling, should be a solution to the shortage of metals, but it will only work partially. Significant quantities of resources are dispersed (e.g. dyes, various additives) and the bewildering complexity of our products (composite materials, alloys, increasingly miniaturized and integrated components) creates a mixture of materials that makes recycling without functional loss and degradation very challenging. Even when the waste is treated correctly, it is impossible to achieve 100% effective recycling. There are always yield losses and energy, technical, or economic limits. And the more the products are high tech, filled with electronic components, the worse this phenomenon becomes. Nanotechnology, for example, literally explodes the dispersive uses, with irretrievable metallic particles included in nanomaterials.

All the ‘cornucopian’ technologies come up against this wall of resources, this physical constraint. The world has not become ‘immaterial’ with the Internet: a computer or smartphone contains dozens of metals, including copper and silver (contactors, conductors), lithium and cobalt (batteries), tin (solder electronics), tantalum (capacitors), gold (microprocessors), ruthenium (hard disks), tellurium (flash memory), platinum, palladium, antimony, indium … storage in the Cloud does not make the electricity consumption of the Internet and its connected devices disappear – it is already 10% of all the world’s electricity[32] – and it is based on the very material fibre-optic networks (doped with germanium), transmission equipment and air-conditioned data centres. Many technical developments are overwhelmed by the famous ‘rebound effect’: the volume of data exchanged and stored has exploded, multiplying by a factor of eight in five years with a further tripling by 2017; and the advent of big data and the Internet of Things promises to continue to boost numbers in the future. Rifkin is wrong, the Internet is not free[33]: it can give the illusion of being free (open source, many MOOCs, collaborative sites …), but it must be paid for – through network access charges, collected by telecommunications operators, or, in such a way as to be invisible, through advertising – to cover installed equipment, electricity bills, the staff costs of cleaners or operators of data centres etc. And if you do not pay for a service, then you are not the consumer, but the product sold.

Thirdly, there is the question of costs, which includes the necessary physical resources (to return to previous point) or the need for labour and capital, i.e. investment in industrial facilities. How many of these technologies will be economically accessible to our societies? We already have great difficulty in financing the high-speed rail lines of the existing networks, so it is likely that the cost of Hyperloop (the high-speed transportation system mentioned above), for example, will be totally prohibitive, because of the acquisitions necessary to build a sufficiently straight line, necessary for such a speed of operation. Take robotisation: it works well where robots perform many repetitive tasks, such as on assembly lines, to reduce design, manufacturing and maintenance costs. But it is unlikely that a robot will come to unblock your sink or iron your laundry, simply because even if this could be achieved technically, the cost would be prohibitive compared to a plumber – even in Paris – or a maid. In ‘techno-slavery’ fantasies, we forget that a technological society such as ours needs, to function, to be pyramidal, technically and socially. In the world of robots and drones, we need human workers who repair, install and design them. We are far from the printer that prints itself or the robot that self-replicates and repairs itself. For this reason, a scenario of orbiting habitats for the hyper-rich as in the film Elysium is absolutely not credible: simply to use a helicopter or a private jet (not to mention of a space shuttle), it is not enough just to be veryrich, it takes a whole middle class, including pilots, engineers, mechanics, refinery maintenance operators, inventory managers, truck drivers … a middle class with dreams, with desires to be realised, his hopes of a better life for their children… Finally, to put robots everywhere, would deprive the wealthier classes of the pleasure (the need?) of seeing the other members of society being subjected to them, of asserting their power over others, especially in the field of services – the smiling waitress or the stuffy sommelier in the fancy restaurant.

All technological hopes seem to be allowed by Moore’s law (increasing the density of transistors in electronic devices), together with those of Kryder (on the density of storage in hard disks) and Nielsen (the transmission capacity of networks). Every day, 8 trillion transistors per second are made – 2.5 x 1020 transistors per year in 2014! For this, the most manufactured object on Earth, we approach in numbers the stars of the universe – estimated at about 1022, a few hundred billion stars per galaxy, in a few hundred billion galaxies – compare to our modest 100 billion neurons … it’s so dizzying that Kurzweil, anticipating these exponential curves, comes to imagine the point of ‘singularity’ somewhere around 2045. But nothing is less certain, for on the one hand it will be necessary to maintain the rate of technological improvement, and, on the on the other, while purely ‘computational’ or ‘statistical’ applications, such as medical interpretations, chess, machine translation, unmanned car, are close or already there, it is less likely that we will come to understand the complexity of living things sufficiently to create consciousness or emotion, or to download a human brain onto a computer. While the development of synthetic biology is progressing fast, we still falter in our understanding of very many of the mechanisms of life.

Back to the (probable) reality

In any case, the path to the ‘dream’ world will be long and costly. First, to make new innovations pay back within a reasonable time, companies will need to amortize their investments and pay their employees and their shareholders. So, to finance the colossal investments that will be required for the significant and uncertain research and development on the ‘augmented’ man of the future, they will have to find markets that are able to provide large, stable and sustainable investments without a quick return. Military applications therefore offer a completely natural means. Technological developments and military activities are intimately linked, at least since the discovery of copper, and it is certain that the first applications of the ‘augmented’ man are and will be financed and tested to make ‘infantrymen of the future’.

This is a long and expensive path, especially for the planet, because all these developments will be far from neutral in terms of resource consumption and generation of waste. Increased demand for scarce resources will accentuate the pressure of mining on ecosystems and the volume of electronic waste will become unmanageable. It already is, in fact, since a large part of the 42 million tonnes generated in 2014 (according to the United Nations estimates) is not processed in specific sectors and ends in incinerators or in landfill. Even when processed, many of these wastes are exported as used equipment – to circumvent the Basel Convention – and end up in informal recycling systems in Ghana, in India or China, causing irreversible pollution of soils and groundwater. The ‘solutions’ to environmental disorders based on new technologies must be examined seriously if we want to prevent them from becoming truly devastating; otherwise we risk continuing to destroy the biosphere while dreaming of unattainable exo-planets.

Finally, nothing says that the technologies developed will be accessible to all. Telecommunications give us a bad example by letting us believe that progress is always generalizable, physically and economically. But only a small percentage of the world’s population can take the plane, several decades after its ‘democratization’, while many are suffering from their environmental impact – either directly, from proximity to airports, or indirectly, in oil producing zones. Ivan Illich[34] has shown how the construction of a motorway or a high-speed railway line saves time for the users but causes loss to others who have to circumnavigate the infrastructure. So, maybe we can all become multilingual with a chip embedded or connected to our brain, but will we all become perfect and immortal? It seems hard to believe. And, beyond physical, financial or human resources, it will probably be necessary to retain elements of differentiation, such as the rivalry that is the engine of conspicuous consumption, driven by the very wealthy and then trickled down the social pyramid, as the economist Thorstein Veblen proposed in his theory of the leisure class[35].

Tomorrow, will you be a man, my son?

Beyond these promises of abundance and happiness – often for tomorrow or the day after – that have existed since the beginning of industrial civilization in the 19th century, another question now arises: that of the cognitive and social impact of new technologies. “Tomorrow, will you be a man, my son?” a Kipling advocating temperance and virtue might ask himself anew. It is undeniable that everything that makes us, or makes us Human – to be aware of what surrounds us, because Man is a social animal, built in otherness – nature, cities at a human scale, family relationships and social systems, value systems, the transmission of knowledge, etc., is disturbed, jostled, transformed, questioned and sometimes swept away by technological developments. These developments occur more or less quickly, but often in less than a generation, and are accentuated by the phenomenon of the shifting baseline, that is the inability to transmit to the next generation, in sufficient detail, precision or reality, in a word as lived, the reality of the world as it was. This is how the degradation of the environment does not necessarily become more obvious with the passing of time, because we ‘collectively’ forget and we do not sense the collapse, for example, in the numbers of insects or birds. Similarly, today we are unable to understand the real impact of technologies because we do not have the necessary perspective – we do not know, for example, what will be the effect on the youngest of the omnipresence of screens since the spread of electronic tablets.  If we project onto next thirty years the exponential technical and social acceleration of the last thirty years we cannot even guarantee the maintenance of the current functioning of our societies.

As science fiction has constantly conveyed, and as technocritical movements and some distinguished personalities remind us, technological danger exists. But it is less likely to be found in the Terminator’s takeover by machines and artificial intelligence, in The Matrix’s confusion of the virtual and the real, or in the grey goo of self-replicating nanorobots, than in Mad Max or Waterworld – in environmental disaster and widespread shortages – or, above all, in Brave New World’s eugenics and happy humanity, but suppressed dreams. The end of humanity to be feared is perhaps not the end of mankind, but of a good part of what has hitherto constituted us as human beings.

Technological promises, ever more numerous and extraordinary, will continue to occupy the media space. And it is also to be feared that the more the environment deteriorates, the more tensions are exacerbated, the more announcements of a better world will follow, a phenomenon well described by Bertrand Méheust in La Politique de l’oxymore (The Politics of the Oxymoron)[36]. Cognitive dissonance, the unpleasant state of tension provoked by ‘incompatible knowledge, beliefs or opinions’37[37], is just beginning.  It is a safe bet that these utopias, from now confined to the technoscientific field, flattering our lowest instincts, rid of all ethical considerations, of any human and political dimension, of any social or subversive reflection, of any potential for revolt, these ‘ready-to-consume’ utopias embedded in our technological systems, will flourish in a long twilight.

Translated by Chris McMahon, September 2018


[1]Jeremy Rifkin. The third industrial revolution: how lateral power is transforming energy, the economy, and the world. MacMillan, 2011.

[2] Lara Charmeil, L’hyperloop, ce train qui mettrait Paris à 35 minutes de Marseille, wedemain.fr, 29 juin 2015

[3] Jean-Pierre Luminet, Interview at Futura-Sciences, 22 Janvier 2013

[4] Hors Série La Vie / Le Monde, L’histoire des inventions: jusqu’où irons-nous?, 2015

[5] Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, Les classes moyennes face à la transformation digitale, 2014

[6] Drexler, K. Eric. Engines of creation. Anchor, 1986.

[7] Laurent Alexandre, La Mort de la mort : comment la technomédecine va bouleverser l’humanité, Jean-Claude Lattès, 2011.

[8] Ray Kurzweil, The singularity is near, When humans transcend biology. Gerald Duckworth & Co, 2010.

[9] Joël de Rosnay, Intelligence artificielle: le transhumanisme est narcissique. Visons l’hyperhumanisme. Published on the web site of Nouvel Observateur, 26 April 2015.

[10] Karl Polyani, The great transformation: The political and economic origins of our times, New York: Farrar & Rineheart, 1944.

[11] Lewis Mumford, Myth of the machine: technics and human development, 1967.

[12] Günther Anders, L’obsolescence de l’homme, Encyclopédie des nuisances, 2002.

[13] Jacques Ellul, La technique ou l’Enjeu du siècle, Armand Colin, 1954.

[14] Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, Small is beautiful: a study of ecomonics as if people mattered. Vintage, 1973.

[15] Ivan Illich, Tools for conviviality, Nueva York: Harper & Row, 1973.

[16] François Jarrige, Techno-critiques, Histoire des résistances au ‘progrès’ technique, La découverte, 2014.

[17] Joseph Tainter, The collapse of complex societies, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

[18] See for example the collected works at Pièces et Main d’oeuvre, http://www.piecesetmaindoeuvre.com

[19] Thomas More, Utopia, 1516

[20] Winwood Reade, The Martyrdom of Man, 1872

[21] Michel Ragon, Ou vivrons-nous demain?, Robert Laffont, 1963

[22] Pierre Rousseau, Histoire de l’avenir, Hachette, 1959.

[23] Usbek et Rica no. 11, Le temps des Frankensinges, March-April-May 2015.

[24] Harmut Rosa, Accélération, La découverte, 2010

[25] Alex Williams & Nick Srnicek, Manifeste accélérationniste, in the magazine Multitudes no. 56, 2015

[26] http://www.ecomodernism.org/

[27] L. Boltanski & E. Chiapello, Le nouvel esprit du capitalisme, Gallimard, 1999

[28] Michel Serres, Petite poucette, Le Pommier, 2012

[29] We demain no.10, 2015 vue d’hier, 2065 vue d’aujourd’hui, June-July-August 2015

[30] Alain Gras, Fragilité de la puissance: Se libérer de l’emprise technologique, Fayard, 2003

[31] Philippe Bihouix, L’âge des low tech, Vers une civilisation techniquement soutenable, Seuil, 2014

[32] Report of the International Energy Agency, More Data, Less Energy, 2014.

[33] Jeremy Rifkin, The zero marginal cost society: The internet of things, the collaborative commons, and the eclipse of capitalism, St. Martin’s Press, 2014.

[34] Ivan Illich, Energy and equity. London: Calder & Boyars, 1974.

[35] Hervé Kempf, Comment les riches détruisent la planète, Seuil, 2007

[36] Bertrand Méheust, La politique de l’oxymore, La découverte, 2009

[37] Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken et Stanley Schachter, L’échec d’une prophétie [1956],PUF, 1993

Natural History Museum letter to UK statutory Committee on Climate Change – June 2019 – copy

3rd June 2019

Committee on Climate Change

7 Holbein Place,

London,

SW1W 8NR

Dear Committee Members,

Re: Reaching net zero emissions in the UK by 2050

In the Committee on Climate Change’s May 2019 report1 the key conclusion is ‘that net-zero is necessary, feasible and cost-effective’. The report is laudable but we attest is only likely to be feasible if considerations are made on the resource implication of what is needed to achieve that goal.

A key component of the net zero attainment is for ‘all cars and vans to be electric by 2050’.  This further requires ‘all sales to be pure battery electric by 2035 at the latest’.  In the report the need for vehicle charging facilities and infrastructure to support this change are acknowledged, but it entirely omits the challenge of the metal resources needed to produce the vehicles that will lead to this revolution. 

There are currently 31.5 million cars on the UK roads. Between them they cover 252.5 billion miles per year2. In 2017 electric and hybrid cars accounted for about 0.2% of the UK fleet, so that clearly needs to change rapidly for this to reach 100% by 2050.  The stated challenge for all sales to be pure battery by 2035 is also a steep ask, given projections for vehicle sales, set to be around 2.5 million new vehicles per year.

Electric vehicles are resource hungry.  Although the body and chassis are largely constructed from the same materials as internal combustion engine vehicles, the drive train and fuel (comprising stored electricity in the form of batteries) demand a new range of metals.  An average battery electric vehicle with the next generation, low cobalt, NMC811 battery, will demand 6.6 kg cobalt and 8.4 kg of LCE (lithium carbonate equivalent)3.  In addition, the electric drive chain contains between 1-2 kg of neo-magnets, containing around 0.2kg neodymium and 0.03kg dysprosium.  Electric vehicles also need, on average, 90kg of copper for wiring to connect the battery and drive train.  It should be noted that a conventional car currently contains between 9 and 25 kg copper along with minor cobalt in structural steel elements and minor rare earths for the electrical systems.

To replace all these UK-based vehicles today with electric vehicles (not including the LGV and HGV fleets), assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation NMC 811 batteries, it would take 207,900 tonnes cobalt,  264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate (LCE), at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium, in addition to 2,362,500 tonnes copper.  This represents, just under two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production during 2018. Even ensuring the annual supply of electric vehicles only, from 2035 as pledged, will require the UK to annually import the equivalent of the entire annual cobalt needs of European industry.

If we are to extrapolate this analysis to the currently projected estimate of 2 billion cars worldwide1, based on 2018 figures, annual production would have to increase for neodymium and dysprosium by 70%, copper output would need to more than double and cobalt output would need to increase at least three and a half times for the entire period from now until 2050 to satisfy the demand.

This choice of vehicle comes with an energy cost too.  Energy costs for cobalt production are estimated at 7000-8000 kWh for every tonne of metal produced4 and for copper 9000 kWh/t5.  The rare earth energy costs are at least 3350 kWh/t6, so for the target of all 31.5 million cars that requires 22.5 TWh of power to produce the new metals for the UK fleet, amounting to 6% of the UK’s current annual electrical usage7.  Extrapolated to 2 billion cars worldwide, the energy demand for extracting and processing the metals is almost 4 times the total annual UK electrical output.

Furthermore there are serious implications for the electrical power generation in the UK needed to recharge these vehicles. Using figures published for current EVs (Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe), driving 252.5 billion miles uses at least 63 TWh of power. This will demand a 20% increase in UK generated electricity.  If wind turbines are chosen for this extra capacity, each GW of added power capacity for new generation wind turbines uses 4700t copper, 200t neodymium and 13t dysprosium8. Data shows that wind farms in the UK operate at about 40% of their nominal capacity9, so for the 63 TWh needed annually to fuel the EV fleet, 18GW of new installed capacity is needed.  Equating to 6000 wind turbines of 3MW capacity, these demand an additional 84,600t of copper, 3600t of neodymium and 234t of dysprosium.  If we are to power all of the projected 2 billion cars at UK average usage, this requires the equivalent of a further years’ worth of total global copper supply and 10 years’ worth of global neodymium and dysprosium production to build the windfarms. The solar alternative to wind is also resource hungry; all the photovoltaic systems currently on the market are reliant on one or more raw materials classed as “critical” or “near critical” by the EU and/ or US Department of Energy 10 (high purity silicon, indium, tellurium, gallium) because of their natural scarcity or their recovery as minor-by-products of other commodities. With a capacity factor of only ~10%11, the UK would require ~72GW of photovoltaic input to fuel the EV fleet; over five times the current installed capacity. If CdTe-type photovoltaic power is used, that would consume over thirty years of current annual tellurium supply.  Both these wind turbine and solar generation options for the added electrical power generation capacity have substantial demands for steel, aluminium, cement and glass which has been highlighted by previous authors12

It is clear that our move to a lower-CO2 society and industry has a significant resource footprint, such that the availability (and price) of raw materials will likely be a major limiting factor. The UK’s industrial  and environmental strategies will depend not just on novel technologies for energy generation, but on the discovery of new mineral resources, and more efficient extraction of a greater diversity and amount of elements and minerals from our mines.  This has to be achieved while reducing the environmental impacts and energy consumption of those extractive industries. Researchers in the UK are engaged in research to do just this – the recent “Security of Supply” programme funded jointly by NERC, EPSRC, Newton and FAPESP (https://www.bgs.ac.uk/SoSMinErals/?src=topNav) focussed on improving our understanding of how particular scarce elements become concentrated in particular ore deposits, and how we can better extract them. Across the programme, our research has identified potential sources for cobalt, rare earths, tellurium and more; modelled the impacts of mining seabed resources; calculated the environmental and energy footprints of competing REE resources; piloted cobalt extraction through novel bio-processing; and developed new “deep eutectic” solvents capable of recovering a suite of metals with low energy inputs and water consumption.

This research represents the tip of the iceberg. Over the next few decades, global supply of raw materials must drastically change to accommodate not just the UK’s transformation to a low carbon economy, but the whole world’s. It is essential to have timely and sustainable supplies of raw materials in quantities greatly exceeding current global mining and processing capacity. There is space for us to look again at the our own local mineral endowment; Europe has great potential for many of these commodities but the current economics, socio-political framework and export of mining from the developed world have led the world’s mining industry to seek minerals in more permissive tracts, a move that has itself led to risks in the supply chain13.  The UK itself has potential for some of the metals needed for these new vehicles, but currently we do not have a a clear measure of that local potential.  Society needs to understand that there is a raw material cost of going green and that both new research and investment is urgently needed for us to evaluate new ways to source these, potentially considering sources much closer to where the metals are to be used. 

We would welcome the opportunity to discuss the contents of our letter with the committee and work with interested parties to build on the useful research started through the SoS MinErals programme and seek solutions for the resource supply challenge that a ‘Net Zero’ pledge raises.

Yours sincerely,

Professor Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences, The Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD Email: r.herrington@nhm.ac.uk (corresponding author)

Professor Adrian Boyce, Professor of Applied Geology at The Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre

Paul Lusty, Team Leader for Ore Deposits and Commodities at British Geological Survey

Dr Bramley Murton, Associate Head of Marine Geosciences at the National Oceanography Centre

Dr Jonathan Naden, Science Coordination Team Lead of NERC SoS MinErals Programme, British Geological Society

Professor Stephen Roberts, Professor of Geology, School of Ocean and Earth Science, University of Southampton

Associate Professor Dan Smith, Applied and Environmental Geology, University of Leicester

Professor Frances Wall, Professor of Applied Mineralogy at Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter

References:

  1. Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming, 2019, report, UK Parliamentary Committee on Climate Change, London, May 2019, 275pp
  2. RAC Foundation https://www.racfoundation.org
  3. McKinsey & Co Metals and Mining June 2018 Report https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/industries/metals%20and%20mining/our%20insights/lithium%20and%20cobalt%20a%20tale%20of%20two%20commodities/lithium-and-cobalt-a-tale-of-two-commodities.ashx
  4. Dai et al. 2018 https://greet.es.anl.gov/publication-update_cobalt
  5. Energy Use in Copper Production, Rankin 2012 https://publications.csiro.au/rpr/download?pid=csiro:EP12183&dsid=DS3
  6. Piero and Mendez (2013) 10.1007/s11837-013-0719-8
  7. Energy consumption in the UK, 2015, UK Department of Energy & Climate Change
  8. Ayman Elshkaki and T.E. Graedel, 2014, Dysprosium, the balance problem, and wind power technology, Applied Energy, 136, 548-559
  9. Energy Numbers Info http://energynumbers.info/uk-offshore-wind-capacity-factor
  10. Hayes & McCullough, Critical minerals: A review of elemental trends in comprehensive criticality studies, Resources Policy, V. 59, 2018
  11. Hemingway, James (2013). “Estimating generation from Feed in Tariff installations” (pdf). Energy Trends. Department of Energy & Climate Change.
  12. Vidal et al. (2013) https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1993
  13. Herrington (2013) https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1947