The Special Relationship
Deep in the heart of Texas, a small arrogant clique of ailing cold-war gladiators is busy fighting the last energy war, working to a master plan drawn up decades ago by America's military industrial complex. Their intention is to secure for America the world's dwindling oil supplies by ringing the last remaining oil fields with American military bases. As the only fields that really matter are in the Middle East, the USA is aided and abetted by Israel and its Jewish diaspora...or at least the Zionist wing of it. This is a marriage of convenience that will last just as long as it is politically correct for the American Mid-West to believe that good old farm boys from Kansas will be happy defending Jewish settlements in Palestine. Europhiles suffer from similar illusions in believing that the Galway militia will roll out of the pubs and volunteer as cannon fodder when Karelian tanks roll into Estonia.
Meanwhile at the rotten heart of Europe there are still bureaucrats so bedazzled by the lure of a centralised energy supply system for Fortress Europe that they continue to push a fifty year old technology already decades past its promised sell-by dates. No sane person believes that space heating at a hundred degrees can be sensibly supplied by boiling a super-charged kettle to the sort of temperatures best left ninety three million miles away at the centre of the sun. Indeed as early as 1923 John Burden Sanderson Haldane remarked that '...on thermodynamical grounds, which I can hardly summarize shortly, I do not much believe in the commercial possibility of induced radio-activity.
But that is only half of it. Fritz Schumacher was never one to mince words when it came to nuclear power. In his 1967 Des Voeux Memorial Lecture...see Small is Beautiful, Chapter 9 for the full text...he had this to say: 'No degree of prosperity could justify the accumulation of large amounts of highly toxic substances which nobody knows how to make 'safe' and which remain an incalculable danger to the whole of creation for historical or even geological ages. To do such a thing is a transgression against life itself, a transgression infinitely more serious than any crime ever perpetrated by man. The idea that a civilisation could sustain itself on the basis of such a transgression is an ethical, spiritual and metaphysical monstrosity. It means conducting the economic affairs of man as if people really did not matter at all.'
New Kids On The Block
In the last couple of decades a third set of players have started muscling in on this special relationship. These are the well-intentioned reformers from green parties around the world, vociferously supported by the woolly-minded fringes of the global alternative movement who believe that a United Nations led coalition of right-thinking Non-Governmental Organisations can grab the reins of our emerging One World Government and impose upon ordinary people the type of regime that Aidan Rankin in The Politics of The Forked Tongue refers to as 'authoritarian liberalism'. These noble souls truly believe that a planetary paradise will arise some day from the ashes of the fossil fuel age if they impose their version of Earth Summit and Kyoto Agreements on intransigent transnational corporations, reverse the clauses in the World Trade Organisation statutes and ban the burning of coal, oil and natural gas in cars, homes and businesses. They have a dream in which our hills are alive with the sound of wind mills and fields are full to overflowing with fuel crops instead of opium poppies. To find out all there is to know about this Third Energy Way you could do worse than struggle through the europrose in Hermann Scheer's compendium on The Solar Economy translated from the German original, Solare Weltwirtschaft, penned three years ago.
But recently a fourth set of players has started gearing up to launch itself upon an unsuspecting world. So unsuspecting in fact that despite privileged access to leading edge research as a member of the Deutsche Bundestag, President of the European Association for Renewable Energy, and General Chairman of the World Council of Renewable Energy, as recently as 1999 Hermann Scheer regarded the hydrogen fuel cell technology at the heart of the proposed new energy infrastructure to be no more than a rather inefficient way to store wind farm electricity surpluses. This may now have changed as there is clearly big money behind Jeremy Rifkin's ambitious attempt in The Hydrogen Economy to demonstrate that the reverse is the case. Rifkin believes that hydrogen will be at the heart of the future energy economy and that solar energy will be just one of several poor relations.
In clearing the ground for his sales pitch, Rifkin does a first rate job of pointing out the reasons that the oil and nuclear emperors have no clothes. And in doing so he also exposes the ignorance and arrogance of the Texan oil barons and provides powerful insights into the out-moded thought patterns pervading what Dwight Eisenhower once called, with strong misgiving, his military industrial complex. Edgy in the knowledge that al-Quaida is not the vast mysterious and formidable spectre, fiendishly capable, fabulously rich and incredible cunning, portrayed by their political paymasters, America's military planners twitch nervously in the certain knowledge that they will soon be fighting the wrong war in the wrong place against the wrong enemy. Meanwhile America's vast army of military contractors rampage through the global economy, punch-drunk from the massive budget increases nodded through the American Congress with hardly a dissenting voice after the dramatic events of 11th September 2001 and the subsequent puffing up of al-Quaeda and the invention of the Osama bin Laden legend. Here is the provenance of Rifkin's proposals.
In 1874 Jules Verne published Mysterious Island in which he gave voice to Rifkin's seemingly quirky notion of a hydrogen economy. 'Water' he wrote, 'will be the coal of the future'. Within a few decades the Stanley Steamer was a familiar sight on the bridges of New England refuelling from the streams running down the mountainsides. For several years these cars were serious competitors to their more complicated rivals with their explosion motors and sparse network of fuel suppliers. But Jules Verne meant something quite different. 'When America runs out of coal', he wrote, 'water is what they will burn instead. Water decomposed into its primitive elements, and decomposed doubtless by electricity, which will then have become a powerful and manageable force. Water will one day be employed as fuel, that hydrogen and oxygen which constitutes it, used singly or together, will furnish an inexhaustible source of heat and light, of an intensity of which coal is not capable.'
Fifty years later in 1923, J.B.S.Haldane continued the same thoughts in a lecture at Cambridge University. This is Rifkin's version of what he had to say: 'In four centuries, Britain's energy requirements would be met by rows of metallic windmills working electric motors which in their turn supply current at a very high voltage to giant electric mains. At suitable distances there will be great power stations where during windy weather the surplus power will be used for the electrolytic decomposition of water into oxygen and hydrogen. These gases will be liquefied and stored in vast vacuum jacketed reservoirs probably sunk in the ground ... In times of calm the gases will be recombined in explosion motors working dynamos which produce electrical energy once more, or probably in oxidation cells ... These huge reservoirs of liquefied gases will enable wind energy to be stored so that it can be expended for industry, transportation, heating and lighting as desired ...'
For Haldane, chemistry was the key. When trees are stripped from the hillsides of the third world and the charcoal used for heating and cooking (one of the most efficient methods of soil erosion yet devised by man) Nature gives up ten carbon atoms for each hydrogen atom. When coal is burnt just two carbon atoms go up in smoke with each hydrogen atom. With oil, decarbonisation goes further and reverses the hydrogen:carbon ratio from 1:2 for coal to 2:1 for oil. Natural gas takes this still further with four hydrogen atoms for every carbon atom. So what the world has been doing over the past two hundred years, Rifkin argues, is to deliver more and more energy with less and less carbon. The sensible way forward is to carry on down this road and go hell for leather for a full hydrogen economy.
Over the past few years this view has been steadily winning adherents in the boardrooms of the banks and the automobile companies. In their version of our hydrogen future the good citizen's civic duty will be to drive around the block for a couple of hours after work every night to charge up the global energy grid. No wonder the car makers love the idea. The PR hype will be coming to your Sunday supplements shortly. Rifkin's recent appearances in The Guardian should be seen as the opening salvo in a global war for control of these emerging global energy grids. But there is some sound evidence for his claims.
Small is Visible
Iceland, with a population of a quarter of a million souls, is a tenth the size of Wales but has the political independence that allows her to have some say in her energy future. She is already gung-ho for the Rifkin option. Within 20 years Iceland will have virtually eliminated fossil-fuel energy from the country and be running the entire economy on hydrogen. The plan is to first convert the country's fleet of cars, buses, trucks and trawlers to hydrogen and then use hydrogen to generate electricity and provide heat, light and power for Iceland's factories, offices and homes.
Behind this transformation of the country's energy infrastructure is Iceland New Energy which is the type of Private Finance Initiative (PFI) much beloved by New Labour and by the governmental participants in the Johannesburg Earth Summit. This particular PFI is a joint venture between Royal Dutch Shell, Daimler-Chrysler and Norsk Hydro who have gone into partnership with six Icelandic participants: The Reykjanes Geothermal Power Plant, the Reykjavik Municipal Power Company, a fertilizer plant, the University of Iceland, the Iceland Research Institute, and the New Business Venture Fund. The Icelandic participants control 51.01% of the venture. 'Well,' as Private Eye is wont to say, 'that's alright then!'
But unfortunately what this all comes down to is a choice between the lesser of four evils with each one being pushed by a different cabal of wealth and power grubbing global interests. Is there a fifth option that might allow us to say none of the above? I think there is, because whichever way the global cabals dodge and weave they cannot get away from Nature's truth which is that as much energy arrives at the Earth from the sun in forty minutes as the planet uses in a year. Haldane was making a similar point when remarking that '...if a windmill in one's back garden could produce a hundredweight of coal daily (and it can produce its equivalent in energy), our coalmines would be shut down to-morrow...'
Energy is not a scarce resource and never will be. The energy problem, like the water problem, is to get the right amount in the right place at the right time and in the right form. And virtually everything that needs to be said about the right form of energy was said by Avory Lovins in Soft Energy Paths fifty years ago and is embedded in the concept of energy quality. The real political struggle is always between interests and locality, but where energy is concerned the gods have thrown their weight on the side of locality. Local energy catchment has enormous economic advantages over any piping system the monopolists might come up with.
But energy is more than just an energy problem. The American economist, Ralph Borsodi was one of the first to really come to grips with the issue. He discovered in his lifelong experiments into the economic essence of the good life that the one thing that invariably made everything go to hell in a handcart was for the little individual to connect up to the market. It made very little difference whether this market was local, regional or global. In the long run the market itself was always bad news and 'Production For Use' was the only sane response. In the depression years in the United States many families responded to Borsodi's lead by turning their backs on the high life and heading for the good life back on the land.
Borsodi's underlying message has been lost but others have come along since the 1930s with different personal discoveries but much the same message. John Seymour has spent a lifetime understanding the nature of real wealth and this is why he believes fervently in his ideas of self-sufficiency.
John Papworth has spent a lifetime knocking his head against the brick walls built by the political intrigues of the rich and powerful and this is why he is convinced that competent receivers of power and wealth must be locality-based instead of being at the mercy and whim of outside interests. Sooner or later local people must grab what is theirs. The place people live is their home and it is theirs to do with as they wish. But to be able to, they must create democratic local institutions that are robust enough to ensure that the nexus of power never disappears over the brow of the hill. The natural limit is the parish boundary and the blood cells of a sane civilisation are its villages and urban parishes. Beyond these limits moral forces can no longer call to account the ways of the wealthy and powerful.
Fritz Schumacher also saw clearly what was needed and this was why he devoted so much of his time and energy to practical ideas like the Intermediate Technology Group, the Soil Association and the Scott Bader Commonwealth, decades before their natural gestation rates would otherwise have placed them on the reformer's agenda. And it was not just casual editing in Part II of Small is Beautiful that placed education as the first of all the resources. Hierarchies mattered to Schumacher for he knew that if they were not rightly set then it would not be long before the tail was wagging the dog. Of course industry had a need for resources and for energy resources in particular because 'if energy fails, everything fails'. But after education came land. And by land, Schumacher meant proper farming on good soil and with sound animal husbandry. Such esoteric notions like harvesting wind and growing barleycorn to feed society's mobility cravings had no part in Schumacher's thoughts on the subject.
But the ideas that will ultimately transform our local worlds lie deeper than any of their practical manifestations. One such idea is hidden deep inside Leopold Kohr's writings. Ivan Illich has grasped the quintessential essence of Kohr and has given it the name of social morphology. Here is Illich in his E.F. Schumacher Lecture at Yale University in 1994. 'I see Kohr as the one social thinker who picks up the biological morphology of D'Arcy Thompson and J.B.S. Haldane...Kohr discusses society in analogy to the way plants and animals are shaped by their size and sized by their shape...Kohr's thought resists reduction to any scenario of the future....nor is it oriented towards progress...rather he enquires into the form that fits the size...' Our energy requirements should take a certain form.
We need to think these things through much more carefully before rushing off after the latest brand of snake oil on the market.