New Economy Journal

A Steady State Economy needs Renewable Energy

Volume 2, Issue 4

August 4, 2020

By - Dr Mark Diesendorf

Piece length: 998 words

Cover photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash
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Following the release of the Gibbs/Moore film, ‘Planet of the Humans’, an anti-renewable energy group has emerged from within an organisation promoting a steady state economy.

For many years the fossil fuel (FF) and nuclear industries have spread misinformation about renewable energy (RE). Although these myths have been refuted again and again, including here, here and here, they have resurfaced in the Jeff Gibbs/Michael Moore film, Planet of the Humans (POTH). The misrepresentations of RE by POTH have been refuted by journalist George Monbiot, science communicator Ketan Joshi, climate scientist Michael E. Mann, this author (a renewable energy researcher), and others.  The film added insult to injury with an unfair attack on leading climate activist Bill McKibben and several environmental organisations. The film has been welcomed by representatives of organisations that sow doubt about climate science and promote FF and nuclear power, such as the Heartland Institute, the Breakthrough Institute, the Global Warming Policy Foundation and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Of great concern is that the Gibbs/Moore film ignited a smouldering hostility to RE among a small group controlling the headquarters of the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE), based in North America. At this stage I should state an interest: I support CASSE’s mission, which is to advance the steady state economy with stabilised population and consumption, and am a member of CASSE NSW, Australia.

My fellow members of CASSE NSW and I were shocked to read in the CASSE Headquarters’ blog, Steady State Herald, a review article by the CEO Brian Czech endorsing and repeating the ill-informed attacks by POTH on RE, Bill McKibben and leading environmental organisations. Czech has qualifications in natural resource economics. Subsequently, many comments were made on the article in the Steady State Herald, mostly for and a few against the views expressed by POTH and Czech. As a RE researcher for over 40 years, I submitted an article to Steady State Herald, refuting the misleading material on RE in POTH and arguing that a steady state economy needs RE, but it was rejected by Czech.

Czech’s adulatory review of POTH was followed up another in Steady State Herald by human ecologist William Rees, stating that ‘Planet of the Humans does a great service in eroding faith in renewable energy... It achieved less than it could in undermining wind and solar power.’ He went on to present what he called ‘A Better Refute Against Renewables Replacing Fossil Fuels’. This ‘refute’ was based on the notion that Germany’s ongoing transition to RE is a failure because ‘fossil fuels still account for about 78 percent of primary consumption’. However, a comment on the post rightly pointed out that renewable electricity has already overtaken FF in the provision of public electricity in Germany, a success worth acknowledging.

Elsewhere, Rees’ blog states that we need ‘a reasonable amount of energy from renewable sources’, but doesn’t define ‘reasonable’ and also claims that RE cannot replace FF. Then he adds that ‘it’s really beside the point whether “100 percent renewable energy” is possible because any techno-fix would be disastrous given the prevailing cultural narrative and macroeconomic goals’. This suggests that Rees’ belief is the same as that of leading ecological economist Herman Daly, namely that human society should first transition to a steady state economy and only then transition from FF to RE.

This is a fine aspiration, but in practice it ignores current reality that the climate crisis has reached emergency status, that RE and energy efficiency are growing rapidly (although not fast enough) and so far only one government, Bhutan, appears to be possibly sympathetic to a steady state economy. Do Czech, Rees and Daly really believe that RE should be undermined and held back until such time as a steady state economy has been achieved? Do they understand that an economy with low throughput that’s still operating partly on FF is not a steady state economy? Because of the long residence time of CO2 in the atmosphere, almost any use of FF exacerbates the climate crisis.

It is hard to understand the support for POTH and the hostility to wind and solar power among these authors and their supporters. It’s true that POTH offers a few minutes (out of 100 minutes) of support for reducing consumption and controlling population. But this support is superficial and in substance doesn’t go beyond the obvious statement that infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible. The concept of a steady state economy is not even mentioned, let alone discussed.

As a result of the debate via comments in Steady State Herald and numerous email exchanges, Czech has published ‘a clarification’ stating that ‘some misunderstandings have come to light about the stance of myself, and by extension CASSE, on renewable energy’ and claiming that ‘CASSE and steady staters at large are all for renewable energy... [but oppose] the fallacious notion of “green growth” that has come to dominate pro-renewable political discourse’.

This ‘clarification’ is a welcome change from the previous anti-RE articles. Unfortunately, it goes on to paint supporters of RE as being so ‘passionate to save the planet that… they can be obsessive and zealous’. This description is not helpful in building bridges between different strands of the movement for an ecologically sustainable and socially just society. It also ignores the fact that many of the proponents of RE are leading energy researchers, while the critics of RE in CASSE Headquarters have no qualifications or peer-reviewed publications on renewable energy.

Instead of continuing to criticise RE and its supporters, it’s time for CASSE Headquarters to focus on its mission. At present, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, most of the world’s countries are  in recession – or, in other words, are economies with low throughput. What we need from CASSE are proposals for how to transition from this situation to a steady state economy with low throughput, in which everyone has at least a decent basic income. This economy should have low and declining greenhouse gas emissions.

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