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A world without oil September 3, 2016

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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This was very intriguing – a podcast from Planet Money on NPR on what the world would have been like without oil. One historian and energy expert suggested that it could have taken a thousand years or more to get where we are now, our technological level, without fossil fuels. Perhaps as intriguingly the point was made that we’re more or less there at a place where we can now just about do without oil. Just about.

The overall series of podcasts was fascinating as the Planet Money people started out buying oil from a small producer in the US (a very small producer) and then working through aspects of oil as it is today.

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1. Jolly Red Giant - September 3, 2016

It is the case that the industrial revolution and particularly the development of US industrialisation was/is built on cheap energy. Whether it would have taken 1000 years is a matter for conjecture. The reality is that the fossil fuels exist and capitalism exploited the availability of fossil fuels to develop industry.

Industrialisation requires energy. Fossil fuels are no longer necessary. Cars can be powered by battery, urban public transport by electricity, national transport systems by maglev or electrified trains etc.

How can this energy be provided? Well plans have already been developed for a massive solar energy and wind energy farm in Morocco capable of supplying the entire energy needs of the planet through newly developed high voltage direct current power transfer technology (with a projected loss of 3% through transmission). The Morooco plans involve the use of natural gas but there is no reason why similar projects couldn’t be developed in other parts of the world to eliminate the need for the use of gas.

The possibility for the use of 1. Electric cars – which are capable even with today’s technology of lasting up to 50 years (eliminating the use of fossil fuels and the constant need to repair and replace internal combustion engines and th scrappage of ICE cars) and 2. Maglev trains which are capable (using vacuum tubes) of speeds in excess 3000km/hr that could replace air travel with high speed train travel.

The development of these technologies will not happen under capitalism – the capitalist cost would make it far too expensive for the extensive use of maglev (the current cost is approx $500million per KM) or the use of electric cars (competing car companies are trying to develop the same technologies without any cooperation – while ignoring many possible avenues for the development of battery technology).

To demonstrate – the provision, for free, of solar panels for every house in the country would dramatically reduce the use of fossil fuels in this country and the importation of fossil fuels. This could be further developed by the use of battery technology. At the moment for a householder to purchase the solar panels and the battery technology to power an individual home it would take 40 years to recuperate the cost. However, the ideal batteries to use (with current technology) for this storage is car batteries that have dropped below the normal capacity utilisation that would be necessary for car (these days it is 70% utilisation). However, while many have proposed this type of utilisation of this technology, there is an utter disconnect because of the nature of capitalism and the drive for profit.

The possibilities are actually endless – even on current technology. The ability of capitalism to utilise current technology and develop new technology is limited – indeed capitalism is an utter feter on the possible future developments because of the inherent contradictions of capitalism and the fact that capitalism is in a prolonged death agony with an inability to advance society. Globalisation is a further feter on any avenue to develop new technologies to progress society (in contrast to developing and maximising profit).

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Michael Carley - September 4, 2016

Re massive grid: where are you going to get the copper?

Re 3000km/hr trains inside vacuum tubes: believe it when you see it.

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2. Gavin Mendel-Gleason - September 3, 2016

Related post by Paul Cockshott: https://paulcockshott.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/energy-science-and-capitalism/

As per wind and solar. They just aren’t going to cut it. You need enormous amounts of material, of water, and of infrastructure which undermines the approach of increasing energy.

Nuclear is the way to go. A ball of thorium the size of your fist can power your whole life, and is very abundant at 9.6 ppm in the earths crust.

I actually don’t think this is a debate to be had, we’ll end up using nuclear. Those that don’t will simply not have enough power.

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EWI - September 4, 2016

Nuclear really isn’t viable without massive state subsidy, even apart from the environmental (and weapons proliferation) concerns.

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Gavin Mendel-Gleason - September 4, 2016

It’s not viable without states providing the finance as up front capital costs are enormous. There is no question there.

But so what. It’s more viable than any other source of carbon free power and there is an indefinite amount of it.

The weapons proliferation concerns for Thorium are negligible to non-existent.

The waste issue can be sorted if we are sufficiently interested to do so. Continuous reprocessing in a molten core is promising in my opinion.

In any case, (perhaps ironically) the only solution for nuclear waste is nuclear transmutation, and that means more nuclear research. Otherwise you’re basically agreeing to keep long lived waste around for ever.

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3. Jolly Red Giant - September 4, 2016

Nuclear is a non-starter – and anyone who thinks it is any kind of a long term solution is an idiot.

I spoke above about solar power and it potential – but that was just a demonstration of the possibilities. There are others – e.g. geothermal energy which not alone can provide unlimited heating but also can act to cool buildings in hot climates.

Renewable energy has only scratched the surface of the possibilities. Capitalism is incapable for offerin a sustainable renewable and energy conservation programme because there is no profit in in people NOT using up resources.

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Gavin Mendel-Gleason - September 4, 2016

Good argument re nuclear. It’s a common response of people who haven’t actually looked into the issue in any depth.

As per geothermal, it is in fact something which could provide a lot of potential power. However there are also likely pretty severe consequences if used in huge quantities as we’re talking about averaging the surface temperature with the core.

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WorldbyStorm - September 4, 2016

I’ve got to be honest, I’m dubious about arguments that capitalism can’t do x or y due to profit. Capitalism has been extremely adept at extracting profit from a range of areas one might not expect. And given scientific and technological progress under capitalism I’m equally dubious that it can’t occur in these given areas.

That said before we reach solar or renewables I’d wonder whether it is indeed possible to bridge the gap without nuclear. It’s funny. Ten or fifteen or twenty years ago people would be talking about fusion. But that is one of those technologies whose timeline for introduction is always x years in the future whenever it is spoken of. And still is.

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LeftAtTheCross - September 4, 2016

Capitalism has also demonstrably relied on massive long term R&D efforts of the state to develop and roll out step changes in technology. Without that leg up paid from the public purse the risk to capital of early investment on the scale required is simply too high. There’s a better return from safe bets. Capitalism certainly adapts, but only on terms that suit it, and it uses the state to pave the way. So cut out the middleman.

I don’t know I there are any silver bullets based on technology to the fossil fuel and ecological crisis. My suspicion is that globally we need to dramatically downsize the wasteful use of energy in addition to finding new sources of supply. This downsizing isn’t going to happen through market mechanisms. Or if it is attempted the inequality and side effects thereof will be severe.

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WorldbyStorm - September 4, 2016

Can’t disagree but then that’s part of the adaptability. It’s never ‘pure’ capitalism. It’s like Apple, massive effective subventions from governments, whether directly or indirectly to the private sector to get things done. Or large scale public projects like the Moon programme which lock into private sector enterprise. But my broader point is that hoping that capitalism cannot do something is probably pointless because as with a raft of contemporary technologies – air transport, communications, etc, it clearly can do pretty much all that is necessary and much more. The more important issue is how that is organised democratically and socially (not just regulated which is insufficient).

I tend to agree with your second paragraph. Only state and international intervention is going to work in relation to facing those crises. Left to the market and nothing will happen.

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4. Alibaba - September 4, 2016

I see that the environmentalist Michael Shellenberger said in ‘Pandoa’s Promise’: “I end up feeling like a sucker. The idea that we’re going to replace oil and natural gas with solar and wind, and nothing else, is a hallucinatory delusion.”

Of course it is inevitable that, in the struggle to impose lies about global warming for immedidate profits without a care about the world in general, or to propose rational schemes to deal with it to save the system of private profits in the longer term, nuclear power would be a likely option. That does not make it safe either now or historically.

That said, I remain unconvinced by the exaggerations of anti-nuclear activists. Take, for instance, the alleged fallout from the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl in 1986. We were told thousands died and hundreds of thousands more deaths and birth defects followed thereafter. A United National report (Unscear) concluded total fatalities of 50, mainly among emergency workers and some childhood thyroid cancers. Sombody is lying.

Some take the view it looks better to have the state pay private corporations vast trillions of taxpayers’ money to subsidise nuclear plants than to let the temperature rise 3 degrees more, but this would probably prove to be one more trick to strengthen the hold of profit makers, against any working class movements and their legitimate desire to make this industry safe. I don’t reject nuclear power. But I would support the fight to supress it in action if it is deemed to be dangerous, while keeping an open mind on what is can offer in positive respects.

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WorldbyStorm - September 4, 2016

I’d have very similar views to yours in regard to all of that. A sort of openness but also scepticism.

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5. Jolly Red Giant - September 4, 2016

One if the main reasons why the immediate death toll was not significantly higher from the Chernobyl disaster was because of the heroic efforts of a small number of workers and first responders who sacrificed their lives to contain the damage and give time for a mass evacuation of the people living nearby.

The WHO estimates that the total number of death that will eventually result from the disaster will number 4000 from the huge team of rescue workers who spent weeks evacuating the surrounding countryside and containing the leak and a further 4000 from the large number of locals exposed to the radiation from the plant. On top of that thousands of children were diagnosed with thyroid cancer and while most have recovered they are likely to have ongoing health effects from this. Coupled with the widespread poverty among the population, the health prospects of those who suffered exposure to radiation are lower than if they had never been exposed to radiation. Furthermore, the area around Chernobyl is and will be uninhabitable for a long time into the future.

It really doesn’t make any difference what advances are made in nuclear power technology – it cannot escape from the fact that it produces highly toxic waste (even if it is in much reduced amounts) and there is always the possibility, however small, of another disaster.

The most important point is that nuclear power is not necessary or needed. The possibilities for the use of renewable energy resources is potentially unlimited. Why would anyone support what is a potentially dangerous energy source rather than safe renewable sources?

Lastly – is capitalism capable of shifting from a reliance on fossil fuels to a situation of having energy supplied from renewable sources. Yes it could, but only if there was massive state investment for private global companies to take advantage of and it would inevitably at some time hit all the contradictions that are normal in capitalism. Switching the world economy from a reliance on fossil fuels to renewable energy requires global planning and democratic control – something not possible under global capitalism.

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