The Terror of Deep Time

SUBHEAD: It's vital for humans understand the story in which we play our small but significant part.

By John Michael Greer on 21 September 2017 in Resilience -

Image above: The Andromeda galaxy behind a silhouette of mountains. From original article.

Back in the 1950s, sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote cogently about what he called “crackpot realism”—the use of rational, scientific, utilitarian means to pursue irrational, unscientific, or floridly delusional goals. It was a massive feature of American life in Mills’ time, and if anything, it’s become more common since then.

Since it plays a central role in the corner of contemporary culture I want to discuss this week, I want to put a few moments into discussing where crackpot realism comes from, and how it wriggles its way into the apple barrel of modern life and rots the apples from skin to core.

Let’s start with the concept of the division of labor.

One of the great distinctions between a modern industrial society and other modes of human social organization is that in the former, very few activities are taken from beginning to end by the same person.

A woman in a hunter-gatherer community, as she is getting ready for the autumn tuber-digging season, chooses a piece of wood, cuts it, shapes it into a digging stick, carefully hardens the business end in hot coals, and then puts it to work getting tubers out of the ground.

Once she carries the tubers back to camp, what’s more, she’s far more likely than not to take part in cleaning them, roasting them, and sharing them out to the members of the band.

A woman in a modern industrial society who wants to have potatoes for dinner, by contrast, may do no more of the total labor involved in that process than sticking a package in the microwave.

Even if she has potatoes growing in a container garden out back, say, and serves up potatoes she grew, harvested, and cooked herself, odds are she didn’t make the gardening tools, the cookware, or the stove she uses.

That’s division of labor: the social process by which most members of an industrial society specialize in one or another narrow economic niche, and use the money they earn from their work in that niche to buy the products of other economic niches.

Let’s say it up front: there are huge advantages to the division of labor. It’s more efficient in almost every sense, whether you’re measuring efficiency in terms of output per person per hour, skill level per dollar invested in education, or what have you.

What’s more, when it’s combined with a social structure that isn’t too rigidly deterministic, it’s at least possible for people to find their way to occupational specialties for which they’re actually suited, and in which they will be more productive than otherwise.

Yet it bears recalling that every good thing has its downsides, especially when it’s pushed to extremes, and the division of labor is no exception.

Crackpot realism is one of the downsides of the division of labor. It emerges reliably whenever two conditions are in effect.

The first condition is that the task of choosing goals for an activity is assigned to one group of people and the task of finding means to achieve those goals is left to a different group of people.

The second condition is that the first group needs to be enough higher in social status than the second group that members of the first group need pay no attention to the concerns of the second group.

Consider, as an example, the plight of a team of engineers tasked with designing a flying car. People have been trying to do this for more than a century now, and the results are in: it’s a really dumb idea.

It so happens that a great many of the engineering features that make a good car make a bad aircraft, and vice versa; for instance, an auto engine needs to be optimized for torque rather than speed, while an aircraft engine needs to be optimized for speed rather than torque.

Thus every flying car ever built—and there have been plenty of them—performed just as poorly as a car as it did as a plane, and cost so much that for the same price you could buy a good car, a good airplane, and enough fuel to keep both of them running for a good long time.

Engineers know this.

Still, if you’re an engineer and you’ve been hired by some clueless tech-industry godzillionaire who wants a flying car, you probably don’t have the option of telling your employer the truth about his pet project—that is, that no matter how much of his money he plows into the project, he’s going to get a clunker of a vehicle that won’t be any good at either of its two incompatible roles—because he’ll simply fire you and hire someone who will tell him what he wants to hear.

Nor do you have the option of sitting him down and getting him to face what’s behind his own unexamined desires and expectations, so that he might notice that his fixation on having a flying car is an emotionally charged hangover from age eight, when he daydreamed about having one to help him cope with the miserable, bully-ridden public school system in which he was trapped for so many wretched years.

So you devote your working hours to finding the most rational, scientific, and utilitarian means to accomplish a pointless, useless, and self-defeating end. That’s crackpot realism.

You can make a great party game out of identifying crackpot realism—try it sometime—but I’ll leave that to my more enterprising readers.

What I want to talk about right now is one of the most glaring examples of crackpot realism in contemporary industrial society. Yes, we’re going to talk about space travel again.

No question, a fantastic amount of scientific, technological, and engineering brilliance went into the quest to insert a handful of human beings for a little while into the lethal environment of deep space and bring them back alive.

Visit one of the handful of places on the planet where you can get a sense of the sheer scale of a Saturn V rocket, and the raw immensity of the effort that put a small number of human bootprints on the Moon is hard to miss. What’s much easier to miss is the whopping irrationality of the project itself.

(I probably need to insert a parenthetical note here. Every time I blog about the space program, I can count on fielding at least one comment from some troll who insists that the Moon landings never happened.

It so happens that I’ve known quite a few people who worked on the Apollo project; some of them have told me their stories and shown me memorabilia from what was one of the proudest times of their lives; and given a choice between believing them, and believing some troll who uses a pseudonym to hide his identity but can’t hide his ignorance of basic historical and scientific facts, well, let’s just say the troll isn’t going to come in first place. Nor is his comment going to go anywhere but the trash. ‘Nuf said.)

Outer space simply isn’t an environment where human beings can survive for long.

It’s near-perfect vacuum at a temperature a few degrees above absolute zero; it’s full of hard radiation streaming out from the huge unshielded fusion reactor at the center of our solar system; it’s also got chunks of rock, lots of them, whizzing through it at better than rifle-bullet speeds; and the human body is the product of two billion years of evolutionary adaptation to environments that have the gravity, atmospheric pressure, temperature ranges, and other features that are found on the Earth’s surface and, as far as we know, nowhere else in the universe.

A simple thought experiment will show how irrational the dream of human expansion into space really is.

Consider the harshest natural environments on this planet—the stark summits of the Himalayas; the middle of the East Antarctic ice sheet in winter; the bleak Takla Makan desert of central Asia, the place caravans go to die; the bottom of the Marianas Trench, where the water pressure will reduce a human body to paste in seconds.

Nowhere in the solar system, or on any of the exoplanets yet discovered by astronomers, is there a place that’s even as well suited to human life as the places I’ve just named.

Logically speaking, before we try to settle the distant, airless, radiation-blasted deserts of Mars or the Moon, wouldn’t it make sense first to build cities on the Antarctic ice or in the lightless depths of the ocean?

With one exception, in fact, every one of the arguments that has been trotted out to try to justify the settlement of Mars can be applied with even more force to the project of settling Antarctica.

In both cases, you’ve got a great deal of empty real estate amply stocked with mineral wealth, right? Antarctica, though, has a much more comfortable climate than Mars, not to mention abundant supplies of water and a breathable atmosphere, both of which Mars lacks.

Furthermore, it costs a lot less to get your colonists to Antarctica, they won’t face lethal irradiation on the way there, and there’s at least a chance that you can rescue them if things go very wrong.

If in fact it made any kind of sense to settle Mars, the case for settling Antarctica would be far stronger.

So where are the grand plans, lavishly funded by clueless tech-industry godzillionaires, to settle Antarctica? Their absence shows the one hard fact about settling outer space that next to nobody is willing to think about: it simply doesn’t make sense.

The immense financial and emotional investments we’ve made in the notion of settling human beings on other planets or in outer space itself would be Exhibit A in a museum of crackpot realism.

This is where the one exception I mentioned above comes in—the one argument for settling Mars that can’t also be made for settling Antarctica. This is the argument that a Martian colony is an insurance policy for our species.

If something goes really wrong on Earth, the claim goes, and human beings die out here, having a settlement on Mars gives our species a shot at survival.

Inevitably, given the present tenor of popular culture, you can expect to hear this sort of logic backed up by embarrassingly bad arguments. I’m thinking, for example, of a rant by science promoter Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who likes to insist that dinosaurs are extinct today because they didn’t have a space program.

We’ll assume charitably that Tyson spent long nights stargazing in his teen years, and so tended to doze off during his high school biology classes; no doubt that’s why he missed three very obvious facts about dinosaurs.

The first is that they were the dominant life forms on land for well over a hundred million years, which is a good bit longer than our species shows any likelihood of being able to hang on; the second is that the vast majority of dinosaur species went extinct for ordinary reasons—there were only a very modest number of dinosaur species around when the Chicxulub meteorite came screaming down out of space to end the Cretaceous Period; and the third is that dinosaurs aren’t extinct—we call them birds nowadays, and in terms of number of species, rates of speciation, and other standard measures of evolutionary vigor, they’re doing quite a bit better than mammals just now.

Set aside the bad logic and the sloppy paleontology, though, and the argument just named casts a ruthlessly clear light on certain otherwise obscure factors in our contemporary mindset.

The notion that space travel gets its value as a way to avoid human extinction goes back a long ways. I recall a book by Italian journalist Oriana Falacci, compiling her interviews with leading figures in the space program during its glory days; she titled it If The Sun Dies, after the passionate comment along these lines by one of her interviewees.

Behind this, in turn, lies one of the profound and usually unmentioned fears that shapes the modern mind: the terror of deep time.

There’s a profound irony in the fact that the geologists who first began to figure out the true age of the Earth lived in western Europe in the early nineteenth century, when most people believed that the world was only some six thousand years old.

There have been plenty of cultures in recorded history that had a vision of time expansive enough to fit the facts of geological history, but the cultures of western Europe and its diaspora in the Americas and Australasia were not among them.

Wedded to literalist interpretations of the Book of Genesis, and more broadly to a set of beliefs that assigned unique importance to human beings, the people who faced the first dim adumbrations of the vastness of Earth’s long history were utterly unprepared for the shock, and even less ready to have the first unnerving guesses that the Earth might be millions of years old replaced by increasingly precise measurements that gave its age in the billions of years, and that of the universe in the trillions.

The brutal nature of the shock that resulted shouldn’t be underestimated.

A society that had come to think of humanity as creation’s darlings, dwelling in a universe with a human timescale, found itself slammed facefirst into an unwanted encounter with the vast immensities of past and future time. That encounter had a great many awkward moments.

The self-defeating fixation of evangelical Christians on young-Earth creationism can be seen in part as an attempt to back away from the unwelcome vista of deep time; so is the insistence, as common outside Christian churches as within them, that the world really will end sometime very soon and spare us the stress of having to deal with the immensity of the future.

For that matter, I’m not sure how many of my readers know how stunningly unwelcome the concept of extinction was when it was first proposed: if the universe was created for the benefit of human beings, as a great many people seriously argued in those days, how could there have been so many thousands of species that lived and died long ages before the first human being walked the planet?

Worse, the suspicion began to spread that the future waiting for humanity might not be an endless progression toward bigger and better things, as believers in progress insisted, or the end of the world followed by an eternity of bliss for the winning team, as believers in Christianity insisted, but extinction: the same fate as all those vanished species whose bones kept surfacing in geological deposits.

It’s in the nineteenth century that the first stories of human extinction appear on the far end of late Romanticism, just as the same era saw the first tales that imagined the history of modern civilization ending in decline and fall.

People read The Black Cloud and After London for the same rush of fascinated horror that they got from Frankenstein and Dracula, and with the same comfortable disbelief once the last page turned—but the same scientific advances that made the two latter books increasingly less believable made tales of humanity’s twilight increasingly more so.

It became fashionable in many circles to dismiss such ideas as mere misanthropy, and that charge still gets flung at anyone who questions current notions of humanity’s supposed future in space. It’s a curious fact that I tend to field such comments from science fiction writers, more than from anyone else just now.

A few years ago, when I sketched out a fictive history of the next ten billion years that included human extinction millions of years from now, SF writer David Brin took time out of his busy schedule to denounce it as “an infuriating paean to despair.” Last month’s post on the worlds that never were, similarly, fielded a spluttering denunciation by S.M. Stirling.

It was mostly a forgettable rehash of the standard arguments for an interstellar future—arguments, by the way, that could be used equally well to justify continued faith in perpetual motion—but the point I want to raise here is that Stirling’s sole reaction to Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson’s brilliant fictional critique of the interstellar-travel mythos, was to claim dismissively that Robinson must have suffered an attack of misanthropy.

Some of my readers may remember Verruca Salt, the archetypal spoiled brat in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

When her father didn’t give her whatever she happened to want, her typical response was to shriek, “You don’t love me!” I think of that whenever somebody trots out the accusation of misanthropy in response to any realistic treatment of the limits that will shape the human future.

It’s not misanthropy to point out that humanity isn’t going to outlast the sun or leap breezily from star to star; it’s simple realism, just as reminding someone that they will inevitably die is an expression not of hatred but of common sense.

You, dear reader, will die someday. So will I, and so will every other human being.

That fact doesn’t make our lives meaningless; quite the contrary, it’s when we come to grips with the fact of our own mortality that we have our best shot at achieving not only basic maturity, but that condition of reflective attention to meaning that goes by the name of wisdom.

In exactly the same way, recognizing that humanity will not last forever—that the same Earth that existed and flourished long before our species came on the scene will exist and flourish long after our species is gone—might just provide enough of a boost of wisdom to help us back away from at least some of the more obviously pigheaded ways we’re damaging the biosphere of the only planet on which we can actually live.

There’s something else to be found in the acceptance of our collective mortality, though, and I’m considering exploring it in detail over the months ahead.

Grasp the fact that our species is a temporary yet integral part of the whole system we call the biosphere of the Earth, and it becomes a good deal easier to see that we are part of a story that didn’t begin with us, won’t end with us, and doesn’t happen to assign us an overwhelmingly important role.

Traumatic though this may be for the Verruca Saltish end of humanity, with its distinctly overinflated sense of importance, there’s much to be gained by ditching the tantrums, coming to terms with our decidedly modest place in the cosmos, and coming to understand the story in which we play our small but significant part.


In the Murk

SUBHEAD: Puerto Rico is back in the 18th Century, minus the practical skills for living that way of life.

By James Kunstler on 22 September 2017 for -

Image above: Before dawn a police car patrols as the hurricane hits in Fajardo, in northeast Puerto Rico. From (

Welcome to America’s first experiment in the World Made By Hand lifestyle. Where else is it going? Watch closely.

Ricardo Ramos, the director of the beleaguered, government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, told CNN Thursday that the island’s power infrastructure had been basically “destroyed” and will take months to come back

“Basically destroyed.” That’s about as basic as it gets civilization-wise.

Residents, Mr. Ramos said, would need to change the way they cook and cool off. For entertainment, old-school would be the best approach, he said. “It’s a good time for dads to buy a ball and a glove and change the way you entertain your children.”

Meaning, I guess, no more playing Resident Evil 7: Biohazard on-screen because you’ll be living it — though one wonders where will the money come from to buy the ball and glove? Few Puerto Ricans will be going to work with the power off.

And the island’s public finances were in disarray sufficient to drive it into federal court last May to set in motion a legal receivership that amounted to bankruptcy in all but name. The commonwealth, a US territory, was in default for $74 billion in bonded debt, plus another $49 billion in unfunded pension obligations.

So, Puerto Rico already faced a crisis pre-Hurricane Maria, with its dodgy electric grid and crumbling infrastructure: roads, bridges, water and sewage systems. Bankruptcy put it in a poor position to issue new bonds for public works which are generally paid for with public borrowing.

Who, exactly, would buy the new bonds? I hear readers whispering, “the Federal Reserve.” Which is a pretty good clue to understanding the circle-jerk that American finance has become.

Some sort of bailout is unavoidable, though President Trump tweeted “No Bailout for Puerto Rico” after the May bankruptcy proceeding. Things have changed and the shelf-life of Trumpian tweets is famously brief.

But the crisis may actually strain the ability of the federal government to pretend it can cover the cost of every calamity that strikes the nation — at least not without casting doubt on the soundness of the dollar.

And not a few bonafide states are also whirling around the bankruptcy drain: Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey, Kentucky.

Image above: In daylight electricity poles and lines lay toppled on the road in Humacao in southeast  Puerto Rica. From (

Constitutionally states are not permitted to declare bankruptcy, though counties and municipalities can. Congress would have to change the law to allow it. But states can default on their bonds and other obligations. Surely there would be some kind of fiscal and political hell to pay if they go that route.

Nobody really knows what might happen in a state as big and complex as Illinois, which has been paying its way for decades by borrowing from the future. Suddenly, the future is here and nobody has a plan for it.

The case for the federal government is not so different. It, too, only manages to pay its bondholders via bookkeeping hocuspocus, and its colossal unfunded obligations for social security and Medicare make Illinois’ predicament look like a skipped car payment.

In the meantime — and it looks like it’s going to be a long meantime — Puerto Rico is back in the 18th Century, minus the practical skills and simpler furnishings for living that way of life, and with a population many times beyond the carrying capacity of the island in that era.

For instance, how many houses get their water from cisterns designed to catch rain runoff? How many communities across the island are walkable? (It looks like the gas stations will be down for quite a while.)

I’ve been there and much of the island is as suburbanized as New Jersey — thanks to the desire to be up-to-date with the mainland, and the willingness of officials to make it look like that.

We’re only two days past the Hurricane Maria’s direct hit on Puerto Rico and there is no phone communication across the island, so we barely know what has happened.

We’re weeks past Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, and news of the consequences from those two events has strangely fallen out of the news media. Where have the people gone who lost everything?

The news blackout is as complete and strange as the darkness that has descended on Puerto Rico.


Reject Neofeudalism for Feudalism

SUBHEAD: Neofeudalism is not a re-run of feudalism. It's a "new and improved", state-corporate version of indentured servitude.

By Charles Hugh Smith on 20 September 2017 for Of Two Minds -

Image above: Detail of a tapestry depicting feudal era agricultural work in "The Twelve Months of the Year" by Master of the Geneva Boccacci circa 1470AD. . From (

"Democracy" (i.e. political influence) and ownership of productive assets are the exclusive domains of the New Aristocracy.

I have often used the words neoliberal, neocolonial and neofeudal to describe our socio-economic-political status quo. Here are my shorthand descriptions of each term:
  1. Neoliberal: the commoditization / financialization of every asset, input (such as labor) and output of the economy; the privatization of the public commons, and the maximizing of private profits while costs and losses are socialized, i.e. transferred to the taxpayers.
  2. Neocolonial: the exploitation of the domestic populace using the same debt-servitude model used to subjugate, control and extract profits from overseas populations.
  3. Neofeudal: the indenturing of the workforce via debt and financial repression to a new Aristocracy; the disempowerment of the workforce into powerless debt-serfs.
Neofeudalism is a subtle control structure that is invisible to those who buy into the Mainstream Media portrayal of our society and economy. This portrayal includes an apparent contradiction: America is a meritocracy--the best and brightest rise to the top, if they have pluck and work hard-- and America is all about identity politics: whomever doesn't make it is a victim of bias.

Both narratives neatly ignore the neofeudal structure which disempowers the workforce in the public sphere and limits the opportunities to build capital outside the control of the state-corporate duopoly.

The book The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 shed some light on the transition to a feudal society and economy. While the author is a fine writer, the subject matter doesn't lend itself to light reading.

The transition from the Roman legacy of centralized governance (empire, monarchy, theocracy, etc.) to feudalism (governance by local lords / aristocracy) was complex and uneven, and the author takes pains to describe the process and many variations that arose in a highly fragmented post-Roman Europe.

(Note that the Eastern Roman Empire, a.k.a. Byzantine Empire, endured until 1453 AD. I've written often on both the western and eastern Roman empires:
The "Secret Sauce" of the Byzantine Empire: Stable Currency, Social Mobility
(September 1, 2016)

Don't Diss the Dark Ages
(October 26, 2016)

In the Footsteps of Rome: Is Renewal Possible?
(July 24, 2017) 
Neofeudalism is not a re-run of feudalism. It's a new and improved, state-corporate version of indentured servitude. The process of devolving from central political power to feudalism required the erosion of peasants' rights to own productive assets, which in an agrarian economy meant ownership of land.

Ownership of land was replaced with various obligations to the local feudal lord or monastery--free labor for time periods ranging from a few days to months; a share of one's grain harvest, and so on.
The other key dynamic of feudalism was the removal of the peasantry from the public sphere.

In the pre-feudal era (for example, the reign of Charlemagne), peasants could still attend public councils and make their voices heard, and there was a rough system of justice in which peasants could petition authorities for redress.

Of course peasants usually lost to the aristocracy and monasteries, but at least the avenue of redress was at least partially open. This presence in the public sphere was slammed shut in feudalism.

From the capitalist perspective, feudalism restricted serfs' access to cash markets where they could sell their labor or harvests.

The key feature of capitalism isn't just markets-- it's unrestricted ownership of productive assets--land, tools, workshops, and the social capital of skills, networks, trading associations, guilds, etc.

Our system is Neofeudal because the non-elites have no real voice in the public sphere, and ownership of productive capital is indirectly suppressed by the state-corporate duopoly.

Various studies have found that politicians ignore the bottom 99.5% who don't contribute to their campaigns or crony-capitalist wealth (five quick speeches for $200,000 each is $1 million. Rinse and repeat.)

The vast majority of incumbents are re-elected, as they leverage their power to vacuum up enormous sums of campaign contributions that then buy the compliance of a cowed public.

As for ownership of assets-- small business startups have been crushed by soaring costs, heavy regulations and the dominance of cartels and quasi-monopolies enforced by the state.

The so-called middle class owns little to no productive capital; what it "owns" is a house, which is ultimately a form of consumption.

I say "owns" for two reasons: one, most households have a mortgage, so their ownership is still contingent on making monthly payments to a lender, and two, the government collects property taxes on the home regardless of the owner's income or ability to pay.

Compare this to taxes levied on business income: if the business has no net income, it owes no taxes. Not so with property taxes--they are the modern equivalent of "rent" paid to the feudal lord.

Note that the aristocracy owns productive assets while the serfs own housing and debt. This is not a flaw in the system, it's a feature of the system.

Democracy (i.e. political influence) and ownership of productive assets are the exclusive domains of the New Aristocracy. This is Neofeudalism in a nutshell.
"Under a scientific dictator education will really work -- with the result that most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution."
"The nature of psychological compulsion is such that those who act under constraint remain under the impression that they are acting on their own initiative. The victim of mind-manipulation does not know that he is a victim. To him, the walls of his prison are invisible, and he believes himself to be free. That he is not free is apparent only to other people. His servitude is strictly objective
- Aldous Huxley
Video interview of Aldous Huxley source of quotes (read the entire thread)

Grid Beam is Minecraft for real life

SUBHEAD: Grid Beam is a kind of LEGO, or Erector Set, for grownups who want to build real things.

By Kirsten Dirksen on 17 September 2017 for -

Image above: A computer workstation built by the Jergensons using the wooden Grid Beam system. Still frame from video below.

[IB Publishers note: The Unistrut metal framing system similar in application to the metal Grid Beam system. Unistrut was invented around 1920 by Charles Attwoodand is still widely used in the building industry for everything from hanging pipes above ceilings to framing out engineering projects. There are a myriad of components built for the 1 5/8" Unistrut beams. The big difference is unlike Grid Beam you cannot make the Unistrut beams is a home shop.]

Grid Beam is a kind of LEGO, or Erector Set, for grownups who want to build real things.

Its creators, brothers Phil and Richard Jergenson, have used it to create tiny houses, furniture, electric vehicles, bicycles and even a solar train car that made a 44-mile run on working rail.

The Jergensons grew up playing with modular toys- LEGOs, Meccano, Erector Sets, Lincoln Logs- and wanted to apply this technology to help people construct their own environments, whether car, bike or bed.

Phil’s daughter, Rona, grew up with a set of Grid Beam (then called Box Beam) and constantly re-modeled her room.

“My bed, I changed it out every week, my dad would come in and one time I would have a bunk bed with a slide, the next day I”d say I don’t really want another bed let me put a desk underneath it.”

The Grid Beam brothers operate an off-grid, solar-powered shop in Willits, CA (Mendocino County) where they manufacture and sell the hardware: 2x2 wood (or aluminium) beams with holes drilled through every 1 ½ inches, as well as, standard furniture bolts and accessories like wheels, bicycle pedals or feet for tiny houses.

Video above: A 28 minute video explaining Grid Beam system and examples of things the Jergenson brothers have constructed with it. From (

And given the consistent pattern of the Grid Beams, designs are easily replicated.

“If you just count the holes you can duplicate these frames just by looking at a couple of photos,” explains Phil.

“You can do anything for a fraction of the price. I see people being able to build their own tiny house and tiny electric car for easily 2 or 3 thousand dollars because that’s the cost of the components,” argues Phil.

“And when you build it yourself, if something should go wrong, you are the specialist and you are the one who can fix it.”


“How to Build with Grid Beams”


How (not) to run on renewables

SUBHEAD: How will we be able to rely on renewable solar and wind power to run our society.

By Kris De Decker on 15 September 2017 for Low Tech Magazine -

[IB Publisher's note: There are graphs and other images in the original article that are not reproduced in this posting]

Image above: Windmill in Moulbaix, Belgium, 17th/18th century. Photo by Jean-Pol GrandMont. From original article.

While the potential of wind and solar energy is more than sufficient to supply the electricity demand of industrial societies, these resources are only available intermittently.

To ensure that supply always meets demand, a renewable power grid needs an oversized power generation and transmission capacity of up to ten times the peak demand. It also requires a balancing capacity of fossil fuel power plants, or its equivalent in energy storage.

Consequently, matching supply to demand at all times makes renewable power production a complex, slow, expensive and unsustainable undertaking.

Yet, if we would adjust energy demand to the variable supply of solar and wind energy, a renewable power grid could be much more advantageous. Using wind and solar energy only when they're available is a traditional concept that modern technology can improve upon significantly.

100% Renewable Energy
It is widely believed that in the future, renewable energy production will allow modern societies to become independent from fossil fuels, with wind and solar energy having the largest potential.

An oft-stated fact is that there's enough wind and solar power available to meet the energy needs of modern civilisation many times over.

For instance, in Europe, the practical wind energy potential for electricity production on- and off-shore is estimated to be at least 30,000 TWh per year, or ten times the annual electricity demand. [1] In the USA, the technical solar power potential is estimated to be 400,000 TWh, or 100 times the annual electricity demand. [2]

Such statements, although theoretically correct, are highly problematic in practice. This is because they are based on annual averages of renewable energy production, and do not address the highly variable and uncertain character of wind and solar energy.
Annual averages of renewable energy production do not address the highly variable and uncertain character of wind and solar energy
Demand and supply of electricity need to be matched at all times, which is relatively easy to achieve with power plants that can be turned on and off at will. However, the output of wind turbines and solar panels is totally dependent on the whims of the weather.

Therefore, to find out if and how we can run a modern society on solar and wind power alone, we need to compare time-synchronised electricity demand with time-synchronised solar or wind power availability. [3][4] [5] In doing so, it becomes clear that supply correlates poorly with demand.

The Intermittency of Solar Energy

Solar power is characterised by both predictable and unpredictable variations. There is a predictable diurnal and seasonal pattern, where peak output occurs in the middle of the day and in the summer, depending on the apparent motion of the sun in the sky. [6] [7]

When the sun is lower in the sky, its rays have to travel through a larger air mass, which reduces their strength because they are absorbed by particles in the atmosphere. The sun's rays are also spread out over a larger horizontal surface, decreasing the energy transfer per unit of horizontal surface area.

When the sun is 60° above the horizon, the sun's intensity is still 87% of its maximum when it reaches a horizontal surface. However, at lower angles, the sun's intensity quickly decreases. At a solar angle of 15°, the radiation that strikes a horizontal surface is only 25% of its maximum.

On a seasonal scale, the solar elevation angle also correlates with the number of daylight hours, which reduces the amount of solar energy received over the course of a day at times of the year when the sun is already lower in the sky. And, last but not least, there's no solar energy available at night.

Likewise, the presence of clouds adds unpredictable variations to the solar energy supply. Clouds scatter and absorb solar radiation, reducing the amount of insolation that reaches the ground below. Solar output is roughly 80% of its maximum with a light cloud cover, but only 15% of its maximum on a heavy overcast day. [8][9][10]

Due to a lack of thermal or mechanical inertia in solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, the changes due to clouds can be dramatic.

For example, under fluctuating cloud cover, the output of multi-megawatt PV power plants in the Southwest USA was reported to have variations of roughly 50% in a 30 to 90 second timeframe and around 70% in a timeframe of 5 to 10 minutes. [6]
In London, a solar panel produces 65 times less energy on a heavy overcast day in December at 10 am than on a sunny day in June at noon.
The combination of these predictable and unpredictable variations in solar power makes it clear that the output of a solar power plant can vary enormously throughout time.

In Phoenix, Arizona, the sunniest place in the USA, a solar panel produces on average 2.7 times less energy in December than in June. Comparing a sunny day at midday in June with a heavy overcast day at 10 am in December, the difference in solar output is almost twentyfold. [11]

In London, UK, which is a moderately suitable location for solar power, a solar panel produces on average 10 times less energy in December than in June. Comparing a sunny day in June at noon with a heavy overcast day in December at 10 am, the solar output differs by a factor of 65. [8][9]

The Intermittency of Wind Energy
Compared to solar energy, the variability of the wind is even more volatile. On the one hand, wind energy can be harvested both day and night, while on the other hand, it's less predictable and less reliable than solar energy.

During daylight hours, there's always a minimum amount of solar power available, but this is not the case for wind, which can be absent or too weak for days or even weeks at a time. There can also be too much wind, and wind turbines then have to be shut down in order to avoid damage.

On average throughout the year, and depending on location, modern wind farms produce 10-45% of their rated maximum power capacity, roughly double the annual capacity factor of the average solar PV installation (5-30%). [6] [12][13][14] In practice, however, wind turbines can operate between 0 and 100% of their maximum power at any moment.

For many locations, only average wind speed data is available. However, the chart above shows the daily and hourly wind power output on 29 different days at a wind farm in California.

At any given hour of the day and any given day of the month, wind power production can vary between zero and 600 megawatt, which is the maximum power production of the wind farm. [6]

Even relatively small changes in wind speed have a large effect on wind power production: if the wind speed decreases by half, power production decreases by a factor of eight. [15] Wind resources also vary throughout the years. Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark show a wind speed inter-annual variability of up to 30%. [1] Yearly differences in solar power can also be significant. [16] [17]

How to Match Supply with Demand?
To some extent, wind and solar energy can compensate for each other. For example, wind is usually twice as strong during the winter months, when there is less sun. [18] However, this concerns average values again.

At any particular moment of the year, wind and solar energy may be weak or absent simultaneously, leaving us with little or no electricity at all.

Electricity demand also varies throughout the day and the seasons, but these changes are more predictable and much less extreme. Demand peaks in the morning and in the evening, and is at its lowest during the night. However, even at night, electricity use is still close to 60% of the maximum.
At any particular moment of the year, wind and solar energy may be weak or absent simultaneously, leaving us with little or no electricity at all.
Consequently, if renewable power capacity is calculated based on the annual averages of solar and wind energy production and in tune with the average power demand, there would be huge electricity shortages for most of the time. To ensure that electricity supply always meets electricity demand, additional measures need to be taken.

First, we could count on a backup infrastructure of dispatchable fossil fuel power plants to supply electricity when there's not enough renewable energy available.

Second, we could oversize the renewable generation capacity, adjusting it to the worst case scenario.

Third, we could connect geographically dispersed renewable energy sources to smooth out variations in power production. Fourth, we could store surplus electricity for use in times when solar and/or wind resources are low or absent.

As we shall see, all of these strategies are self-defeating on a large enough scale, even when they're combined. If the energy used for building and maintaining the extra infrastructure is accounted for in a life cycle analysis of a renewable power grid, it would be just as CO2-intensive as the present-day power grid. ]

Strategy 1: Backup Power Plants

Up to now, the relatively small share of renewable power sources added to the grid has been balanced by dispatchable forms of electricity, mainly rapidly deployable gas power plants.

Although this approach completely "solves" the problem of intermittency, it results in a paradox because the whole point of switching to renewable energy is to become independent of fossil fuels, including gas. [19]

Most scientific research focuses on Europe, which has the most ambitious plans for renewable power.

For a power grid based on 100% solar and wind power, with no energy storage and assuming interconnection at the national European level only, the balancing capacity of fossil fuel power plants needs to be just as large as peak electricity demand. [12] In other words, there would be just as many non-renewable power plants as there are today.

Such a hybrid infrastructure would lower the use of carbon fuels for the generation of electricity, because renewable energy can replace them if there is sufficient sun or wind available.

However, lots of energy and materials need to be invested into what is essentially a double infrastructure. The energy that's saved on fuel is spent on the manufacturing, installation and interconnection of millions of solar panels and wind turbines.

Although the balancing of renewable power sources with fossil fuels is widely regarded as a temporary fix that's not suited for larger shares of renewable energy, most other technological strategies (described below) can only partially reduce the need for balancing capacity.

Strategy 2: Oversizing Renewable Power Production
Another way to avoid energy shortages is to install more solar panels and wind turbines. If solar power capacity is tailored to match demand during even the shortest and darkest winter days, and wind power capacity is matched to the lowest wind speeds, the risk of electricity shortages could be reduced significantly.

However, the obvious disadvantage of this approach is an oversupply of renewable energy for most of the year.

During periods of oversupply, the energy produced by solar panels and wind turbines is curtailed in order to avoid grid overloading.

Problematically, curtailment has a detrimental effect on the sustainability of a renewable power grid. It reduces the electricity that a solar panel or wind turbine produces over its lifetime, while the energy required to manufacture, install, connect and maintain it remains the same.

Consequently, the capacity factor and the energy returned for the energy invested in wind turbines and solar panels decrease. [20]
Installing more solar panels and wind turbines reduces the risk of shortages, but it produces an oversupply of electricity for most of the year.
Curtailment rates increase spectacularly as wind and solar comprise a larger fraction of the generation mix, because the overproduction's dependence on the share of renewables is exponential.

Scientists calculated that a European grid comprised of 60% solar and wind power would require a generation capacity that's double the peak load, resulting in 300 TWh of excess electricity every year (roughly 10% of the current annual electricity consumption in Europe).

In the case of a grid with 80% renewables, the generation capacity needs to be six times larger than the peak load, while the excess electricity would be equal to 60% of the EU's current annual electricity consumption. Lastly, in a grid with 100% renewable power production, the generation capacity would need to be ten times larger than the peak load, and excess electricity would surpass the EU annual electricity consumption. [21] [22] [23]

This means that up to ten times more solar panels and wind turbines need to be manufactured. The energy that's needed to create this infrastructure would make the switch to renewable energy self-defeating, because the energy payback times of solar panels and wind turbines would increase six- or ten-fold.

For solar panels, the energy payback would only occur in 12-24 years in a power grid with 80% renewables, and in 20-40 years in a power grid with 100% renewables.

Because the life expectancy of a solar panel is roughly 30 years, a solar panel may never produce the energy that was needed to manufacture it. Wind turbines would remain net energy producers because they have shorter energy payback times, but their advantage compared to fossil fuels would decrease. [24]

Strategy 3: Connect Grids with Supergrids
The variability of solar and wind power can also be reduced by interconnecting renewable power plants over a wider geographical region. For example, electricity can be overproduced where the wind is blowing but transmitted to meet demand in becalmed locations. [19]

Interconnection also allows the combination of technologies that utilise different variable power resources, such as wave and tidal energy. [3] Furthermore, connecting power grids over large geographical areas allows a wider sharing of backup fossil fuel power plants.

Although today's power systems in Europe and the USA stretch out over a large enough area, these grids are currently not strong enough to allow interconnection of renewable energy sources.

This can be solved with a powerful overlay high-voltage DC transmission grid. Such "supergrids" form the core of many ambitious plans for 100% renewable power production, especially in Europe. [25]

The problem with this strategy is that transmission capacity needs to be overbuilt, over very long distances. [19]

For a European grid with a share of 60% renewable power (an optimal mix of wind and solar), grid capacity would need to be increased at least sevenfold.

If individual European countries would disregard national concerns about security of supply, and backup balancing capacity would be optimally distributed throughout the continent, the necessary grid capacity extensions can be limited to about triple the existing European high-voltage grid.

For a European power grid with a share of 100% renewables, grid capacity would need to be up to twelve times larger than it is today. [21] [26][27]
Even in the UK, which has one of the best renewable energy sources in the world, combining wind, sun, wave and tidal power would still generate electricity shortages for 65 days per year.
The problems with such grid extensions are threefold. Firstly, building infrastructure such as transmission towers and their foundations, power lines, substations, and so on, requires a significant amount of energy and other resources.

This will need to be taken into account when making a life cycle analysis of a renewable power grid. As with oversizing renewable power generation, most of the oversized transmission infrastructure will not be used for most of the time, driving down the transmission capacity factor substantially.

Secondly, a supergrid involves transmission losses, which means that more wind turbines and solar panels will need to be installed to compensate for this loss.

Thirdly, the acceptance of and building process for new transmission lines can take up to ten years. [20][25]

This is not just bureaucratic hassle: transmission lines have a high impact on the land and often face local opposition, which makes them one of the main obstacles for the growth of renewable power production.

Even with a supergrid, low power days remain a possibility over areas as large as Europe. With a share of 100% renewable energy sources and 12 times the current grid capacity, the balancing capacity of fossil fuel power plants can be reduced to 15% of the total annual electricity consumption, which represents the maximum possible benefit of transmission for Europe. [28]

Even in the UK, which has one of the best renewable energy sources in the world, interconnecting wind, sun, wave and tidal power would still generate electricity shortages for 18% of the time (roughly 65 days per year). [29] [30][31]

Image above: One hundred year old brig "Eye of the Wind" is still sailing commercially. From original article.

Strategy 4: Energy Storage

A final strategy to match supply to demand is to store an oversupply of electricity for use when there is not enough renewable energy available. Energy storage avoids curtailment and it's the only supply-side strategy that can make a balancing capacity of fossil fuel plants redundant, at least in theory. In practice, the storage of renewable energy runs into several problems.

First of all, while there's no need to build and maintain a backup infrastructure of fossil fuel power plants, this advantage is negated by the need to build and maintain an energy storage infrastructure.

Second, all storage technologies have charging and discharging losses, which results in the need for extra solar panels and wind turbines to compensate for this loss.

The energy required to build and maintain the storage infrastructure and the extra renewable power plants need to be taken into account when conducting a life cycle analysis of a renewable power grid.

In fact, research has shown that it can be more energy efficient to curtail renewable power from wind turbines than to store it, because the energy needed to manufacture storage and operate it (which involves charge-discharge losses) surpasses the energy that is lost through curtailment. [23]
If we count on electric cars to store the surplus of renewable electricity, their batteries would need to be 60 times larger than they are today
It has been calculated that for a European power grid with 100% renewable power plants (670 GW wind power capacity and 810 GW solar power capacity) and no balancing capacity, the energy storage capacity needs to be 1.5 times the average monthly load and amounts to 400 TWh, not including charging and discharging losses. [32] [33] [34]

To give an idea of what this means: the most optimistic estimation of Europe's total potential for pumped hydro-power energy storage is 80 TWh [35], while converting all 250 million passenger cars in Europe to electric drives with a 30 kWh battery would result in a total energy storage of 7.5 TWh.

In other words, if we count on electric cars to store the surplus of renewable electricity, their batteries would need to be 60 times larger than they are today (and that's without allowing for the fact that electric cars will substantially increase power consumption).

Taking into account a charging/discharging efficiency of 85%, manufacturing 460 TWh of lithium-ion batteries would require 644 million Terajoule of primary energy, which is equal to 15 times the annual primary energy use in Europe. [36]

This energy investment would be required at minimum every twenty years, which is the most optimistic life expectancy of lithium-ion batteries. There are many other technologies for storing excess electricity from renewable power plants, but all have unique disadvantages that make them unattractive on a large scale. [37] [38]

Matching Supply to Demand Overbuilds the Infrastructure

In conclusion, calculating only the energy payback times of individual solar panels or wind turbines greatly overestimates the sustainability of a renewable power grid.

If we want to match supply to demand at all times, we also need to factor in the energy use for overbuilding the power generation and transmission capacity, and the energy use for building the backup generation capacity and/or the energy storage.

The need to overbuild the system also increases the costs and the time required to switch to renewable energy.

Calculating only the energy payback times of individual solar panels or wind turbines greatly overestimates the sustainability of a renewable power grid.
Combining different strategies is a more synergistic approach which improves the sustainability of a renewable power grid, but these advantages are not large enough to provide a fundamental solution. [33] [39] [40]

Building solar panels, wind turbines, transmission lines, balancing capacity and energy storage using renewable energy instead of fossil fuels doesn't solve the problem either, because it also assumes an overbuilding of the infrastructure: we would need to build an extra renewable energy infrastructure to build the renewable energy infrastructure.

Strategy 5: Adjusting Demand to Supply

However, this doesn't mean that a sustainable renewable power grid is impossible. There's a fifth strategy, which does not try to match supply to demand, but instead aims to match demand to supply. In this scenario, renewable energy would ideally be used only when it's available.

If we could manage to adjust all energy demand to variable solar and wind resources, there would be no need for grid extensions, balancing capacity or overbuilding renewable power plants.

Likewise, all the energy produced by solar panels and wind turbines would be utilised, with no transmission losses and no need for curtailment or energy storage.

Of course, adjusting energy demand to energy supply at all times is impossible, because not all energy using activities can be postponed. However, the adjustment of energy demand to supply should take priority, while the other strategies should play a supportive role.

If we let go of the need to match energy demand for 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, a renewable power grid could be built much faster and at a lower cost, making it more sustainable overall.
If we could manage to adjust all energy demand to variable solar and wind resources, there would no need for energy storage, grid extensions, balancing capacity or overbuilding renewable power plants.
With regards to this adjustment, even small compromises yield very beneficial results. For example, if the UK would accept electricity shortages for 65 days a year, it could be powered by a 100% renewable power grid (solar, wind, wave & tidal power) without the need for energy storage, a backup capacity of fossil fuel power plants, or a large overcapacity of power generators. [29]

If demand management is discussed at all these days, it's usually limited to so-called 'smart' household devices, like washing machines or dishwashers that automatically turn on when renewable energy supply is plentiful. However, these ideas are only scratching the surface of what's possible.

Before the Industrial Revolution, both industry and transportation were largely dependent on intermittent renewable energy sources. The variability in the supply was almost entirely solved by adjusting energy demand.

For example, windmills and sailing boats only operated when the wind was blowing. In the next article, I will explain how this historical approach could be successfully applied to modern industry and cargo transportation.

[1] Swart, R. J., et al. Europe's onshore and offshore wind energy potential, an assessment of environmental and economic constraints. No. 6/2009. European Environment Agency, 2009.

[2] Lopez, Anthony, et al. US renewable energy technical potentials: a GIS-based analysis. NREL, 2012. See also Here's how much of the world would need to be covered in solar panels to power Earth, Business Insider, October 2015.

[3] Hart, Elaine K., Eric D. Stoutenburg, and Mark Z. Jacobson. "The potential of intermittent renewables to meet electric power demand: current methods and emerging analytical techniques." Proceedings of the IEEE 100.2 (2012): 322-334.

[4] Ambec, Stefan, and Claude Crampes. Electricity production with intermittent sources of energy. No. 10.07. 313. LERNA, University of Toulouse, 2010.

[5] Mulder, F. M. "Implications of diurnal and seasonal variations in renewable energy generation for large scale energy storage." Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy 6.3 (2014): 033105.

[6] INITIATIVE, MIT ENERGY. "Managing large-scale penetration of intermittent renewables." (2012).

[7] Richard Perez, Mathieu David, Thomas E. Hoff, Mohammad Jamaly, Sergey Kivalov, Jan Kleissl, Philippe Lauret and Marc Perez (2016), "Spatial and temporal variability of solar energy", Foundations and Trends in Renewable Energy: Vol. 1: No. 1, pp 1-44.

[8] Sun Angle and Insolation. FTExploring.

[9] Sun position calculator, Sun Earth Tools.

[10] Burgess, Paul. " Variation in light intensity at different latitudes and seasons effects of cloud cover, and the amounts of direct and diffused light." Forres, UK: Continuous Cover Forestry Group. Available online at http://www. ccfg. org. uk/conferences/downloads/P_Burgess. pdf. 2009.

[11] Solar output can be increased, especially in winter, by tilting solar panels so that they make a 90 degree angle with the sun's rays. However, this only addresses the spreading out of solar irradiation and has no effect on the energy lost because of the greater air mass, nor on the amount of daylight hours. Furthermore, tilting the panels is always a compromise. A panel that's ideally tilted for the winter sun will be less efficient in the summer sun, and the other way around.

[12] Schaber, Katrin, Florian Steinke, and Thomas Hamacher. "Transmission grid extensions for the integration of variable renewable energies in europe: who benefits where?." Energy Policy 43 (2012): 123-135.

[13] German offshore wind capacity factors, Energy Numbers, July 2017

[14] What are the capacity factors of America's wind farms? Carbon Counter, 24 July 2015.

[15] Sorensen, Bent. Renewable Energy: physics, engineering, environmental impacts, economics & planning; Fourth Edition. Elsevier Ltd, 2010.

[16] Jerez, S., et al. "The Impact of the North Atlantic Oscillation on Renewable Energy Resources in Southwestern Europe." Journal of applied meteorology and climatology 52.10 (2013): 2204-2225.

[17] Eerme, Kalju. "Interannual and intraseasonal variations of the available solar radiation." Solar Radiation. InTech, 2012.

[18] Archer, Cristina L., and Mark Z. Jacobson. "Geographical and seasonal variability of the global practical wind resources." Applied Geography 45 (2013): 119-130.

[19] Rugolo, Jason, and Michael J. Aziz. "Electricity storage for intermittent renewable sources." Energy & Environmental Science 5.5 (2012): 7151-7160.

[20] Even at today's relatively low shares of renewables, curtailment is already happening, caused by either transmission congestion, insufficient transmission availability, or minimal operating levels on thermal generators (coal and atomic power plants are designed to operate continuously). See: “Wind and solar curtailment”, Debra Lew et al., National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 2013. For example, in China, now the world's top wind power producer, nearly one-fifth of total wind power is curtailed. See: Chinese wind earnings under pressure with fifth of farms idle, Sue-Lin Wong & Charlie Zhu, Reuters, May 17, 2015.

[21] Barnhart, Charles J., et al. "The energetic implications of curtailing versus storing solar- and wind-generated electricity." Energy & Environmental Science 6.10 (2013): 2804-2810.

[22] Schaber, Katrin, et al. "Parametric study of variable renewable energy integration in europe: advantages and costs of transmission grid extensions." Energy Policy 42 (2012): 498-508.

[23] Schaber, Katrin, Florian Steinke, and Thomas Hamacher. "Managing temporary oversupply from renewables efficiently: electricity storage versus energy sector coupling in Germany." International Energy Workshop, Paris. 2013.

[24] Underground cables can partly overcome this problem, but they are about 6 times more expensive than overhead lines.

[25] Szarka, Joseph, et al., eds. Learning from wind power: governance, societal and policy perspectives on sustainable energy. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

[26] Rodriguez, Rolando A., et al. "Transmission needs across a fully renewable european storage system." Renewable Energy 63 (2014): 467-476.

[27] Furthermore, new transmission capacity is often required to connect renewable power plants to the rest of the grid in the first place -- solar and wind farms must be co-located with the resource itself, and often these locations are far from the place where the power will be used.

[28] Becker, Sarah, et al. "Transmission grid extensions during the build-up of a fully renewable pan-European electricity supply." Energy 64 (2014): 404-418.

[29] Zero Carbon britain: Rethinking the Future, Paul Allen et al., Centre for Alternative Technology, 2013

[30] Wave energy often correlates with wind power: if there's no wind, there's usually no waves.

[31] Building even larger supergrids to take advantage of even wider geographical regions, or even the whole planet, could make the need for balancing capacity largely redundant. However, this could only be done at very high costs and increased transmission losses. The transmission costs increase faster than linear with distance traveled since also the amount of peak power to be transported will grow with the surface area that is connected. [5] Practical obstacles also abound. For example, supergrids assume peace and good understanding between and within countries, as well as equal interests, while in reality some benefit much more from interconnection than others. [22]

[32] Heide, Dominik, et al. "Seasonal optimal mix of wind and solar power in a future, highly renewable Europe." Renewable Energy 35.11 (2010): 2483-2489.

[33] Rasmussen, Morten Grud, Gorm Bruun Andresen, and Martin Greiner. "Storage and balancing synergies in a fully or highly renewable pan-european system." Energy Policy 51 (2012): 642-651.

[34] Weitemeyer, Stefan, et al. "Integration of renewable energy sources in future power systems: the role of storage." Renewable Energy 75 (2015): 14-20.

[35] Assessment of the European potential for pumped hydropower energy storage, Marcos Gimeno-Gutiérrez et al., European Commission, 2013

[36] The calculation is based on the data in this article: How sustainable is stored sunlight? Kris De Decker, Low-tech Magazine, 2015.

[37] Evans, Annette, Vladimir Strezov, and Tim J. Evans. "Assessment of utility energy storage options for increased renewable energy penetration." Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 16.6 (2012): 4141-4147.

[38] Zakeri, Behnam, and Sanna Syri. "Electrical energy storage systems: A comparative life cycle cost analysis." Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 42 (2015): 569-596.

[39] Steinke, Florian, Philipp Wolfrum, and Clemens Hoffmann. "Grid vs. storage in a 100% renewable Europe." Renewable Energy 50 (2013): 826-832.

[40] Heide, Dominik, et al. "Reduced storage and balancing needs in a fully renewable European power system with excess wind and solar power generation." Renewable Energy 36.9 (2011): 2515-2523.


On the Road to Extinction

SUBHEAD: The devastating consequences of human superiority over Nature are abundantly clear.

By Elizabeth West on 12 September 2017 for Common Dreams -

Image above: Illustration of "Betrayal" by Mario Sanchez Nevado. From (

It is crystal clear—unlike the smoky skies where I live--to most of us who are willing to consider the facts: this summer’s ‘natural’ disasters have been seeded anthropogenically.

Wildfires in the northwestern United States and Canada, in Greenland, and in Europe are often referred to in the media as ‘unprecedented’ in size and fury.

Hurricanes and monsoons, with their attendant floods and destruction, are routinely described as having a multitude of ‘record-breaking’ attributes.

No one reading this is likely to need convincing that humans –our sheer numbers as well as our habits—have contributed significantly to rising planetary temperatures and thus, the plethora of somehow unexpected and catastrophic events in the natural world.

I’d like to include earthquakes, particularly those in Turkey (endless) and Mexico (massive), in this discussion, and while intuition tells me that there is a connection between them and climate change, research to support this supposition is just emerging, so for the nonce I will leave the earthquakes out of it.

Our proclivity for advancing our own short-term interests has made a mess of things from the beginnings of this current iteration of civilization.

Irrigating the Fertile Crescent, which was not very fertile prior to the ingenious innovation of bringing water from the mountains down into the dusty plains, opened the way for a massive increase in food production and a concomitant population rise. Cities grew and became kingdoms.

After a reasonably good run, though, irrigation led to salination of the soil and ultimately left it sterile and useless (for agriculture) once again. Many people and their livestock starved or were forced to migrate in large numbers. Great idea, irrigation.

The internal combustion engine seemed a brilliant response to the need to move more commodities more efficiently as the Industrial Revolution created both increased product and demand.

Though not necessarily so intended, the automobile initially offered humans wildly expanded freedom and ease.

It also led to pumping the innards out of the Earth, filling the atmosphere with CO2, and oil-grabbing wars that left hundreds of thousands of people dead. Another great idea with a few minor issues that did not get worked out ahead of time.

Plastic. Now there is an incredible invention. Tough, pliable, lightweight, eternal...this stuff filled a myriad of needs.

And conveniently, it could be produced using the fossil fuels we were already extracting for those internal combustion engines.

Sadly, we never imagined it would come to microscopic plastic filaments in our drinking water, our sea salt, and even our beer. Not to mention in the bellies of just about anything that lives in the Earth’s oceans.

The list of creative inventions designed to make our lives better is long and varied, but almost inevitably, given enough time, our interference (or improvements, if you prefer) upon the natural state of things comes back to bite us. And hard.

Fukushima could easily head up that list; most of us would have no trouble adding to the tally of follies flowing from Homo sapiens’ clever life hacks.

If you delve into the motivation behind these ‘advances’ there is generally a desire on the part of people to make life safer or more comfortable or easier in one way or another.

Maybe for themselves and their tribe, or their class, or their nation, but still—the impetus does not tend to flow from a place of malignity.

We simply use our big brains to see what is adversely impacting our species (or sub-group thereof) and devise a fix for it. How could that possibly go so wrong?

Hindsight, they say, is always more acute than foresight. Could this be because we do not understand fully how our world works? Is it possible that we lack a lot of critical information about the ways in which this planet’s life forms and forces are interwoven and connected?

Maybe our superior intelligence, while it has been billed as a powerhouse in the problem-solving department, does not really have the scope of vision that would ensure that problems—solved--stay solved?

Hmmm…might there be an issue with hubris here? And how do we solve that?

What appear to be straightforward challenges that should yield to linear corrections are in fact predominantly multifaceted and many layered. We see only what we see—because we do have limits in terms of perception-- and we act upon that.

No real fault there.

But you do something over and over and over and get consistent results, you keep being bitten by your brilliant solutions. Quick gains, long-term disasters: this is a pretty common human story.

Are we capable of examining it? Even acknowledging it?

 Of recognizing that our anthropocentrism and self-assurance may be doing us more harm than good despite (or possibly because of) our fêted cognitive capacities?

So here we are: the summer of 2017 with the arctic ice melting, the temperatures rising, the oceans rising and acidifying, our non-human companions on the planet going extinct like nobody’s business. We thought about ourselves from the get-go.

 From the beginning of known human history, we wanted better lives, longer lives, happier lives. For ourselves.

We used our gifts to reach for what we wanted, like toddlers, with no sense of the bigger world around us, no notion of the consequences of our actions.

No awareness of the unfathomable complexity and the perfection of balance represented by the environment we inhabit.

Or, no will to act from that awareness. Because in all fairness, someone has always pointed to it. Not everyone thought situating nuclear power plants on earthquake faults was a bright idea.

And no doubt there was someone back in Sumer who advised stridently against the moving of mountain waters to the fields in the valley.

But the collective, or the powers that own the collective, were not interested in anything that thwarted short-term gains.

We have careened along, from one improvement to another, many of them requiring their own fix a bit down the road. Now we look at super-storms and mega-fires and what do we see?

Unfortunately, as is almost always the case, we see our own interests and little else.

I have been perusing reports and commentary from a wide variety of sources and there is a lot of factual information: the size of the fire, how many miles per hour the winds are blowing, how many acres are still uncontained, or in thrall to the winds and rain.

Then, there are stories about losses. Photos and videos and details about homes destroyed, businesses wiped off the map, human injury and death.

But do we talk about the other life forms affected by these human-accelerated events in nature? In nature, I repeat. Do we read or talk or hear about the animals who die? The trees lost? The sea life and habitat ruined?

Yup, there are bits and pieces about the animals that belong to us, which are, like our houses and businesses and automobiles, more possessions.

Pets, livestock, even zoo animals are considered. How do we shelter the cheetah at the Miami Zoo?

Or what about the Cuban dolphins airlifted out of danger to a safe place on the opposite side of the island? Heartwarming, I suppose, and good for those dolphins, but what happened to the wild ones in the sea?

Here is the thing: we helped make these disasters because we always thought about ourselves and neglected to consider the balance of life. Because our needs were far and away more important to us than the spotted salamanders’.

And maybe that is true. Maybe our lives are more valuable than all the other lives. Who am I to say? I too am human and subject to the same hubris and shortsightedness as everyone else.

Still…if something is not working, I ask: why keep doing it? Even if you have no natural affinity for the pine martens who die in the fires or the sandpipers who are flung to their deaths in the monsoons, pragmatism would suggest a change in practice.

We can’t prevent the suffering and dying of wild life, and the Earth herself, when confronted by the unleashed forces of fire and water, but we can include them in our assessment of the cost. We might even grieve for them.

Their losses are indeed ours, and if we do not see them or their importance to our lives, if we continue to either ignore and/or dominate all other life on this planet, it won’t be long till we join them.

This piece of writing is, in a ridiculously small way, an attempt to acknowledge those losses that have gone unseen.

It isn’t much, but I invite you to join me in taking a few minutes to honor and mourn those who have died in this summer’s conflagrations and deluges.

We won’t know much about most of them, but we do know that they lived and we know that they died. And that we are all diminished by their deaths.


Walking on Lava

SUBHEAD: Promotion of collected writing from the Dark Mountain project by one of its editor's.

By Charlotte Du Cann on 11 September 2017 for Open Democracy -

Image above: Writer and artist Robert Leaver in his performance ‘Crawling Home’ in New York. Photo by Larrey Fessenden. From original article.

On a mountain in Wales in the teeming rain, we sit in a yurt packed with people, the five of us, on hay bales, dressed in black suits and bowler hats. One of us has a pack of cards up his sleeve, another an African folktale, another a guitar and a song by Nick Drake from the 1970s.

I have oak leaves in my hatband to signify an instruction circa 600 BC from the Sibyl who once guarded the door to the Underworld in the ‘Campi Flegrei’ outside Naples.

A link to the pre-patriarchal ‘uncivilised’ world, she guides a lineage of poets to the territory under the volcano where all deep transformations take place: Virgil, Dante, T.S. Eliot, Mary Shelley, Sylvia Plath. Denied immortal youth by the autocratic Apollo, her desiccated body kept in a jar, only her voice is still left for us to follow.

One of us, Dougie, stands up and invites the audience to take part in a demonstration of two figures from the ancient world: one is Chronos, the inexorable march of linear time; the other is a young man with a lock of hair over his forehead, who intervenes and interrupts him. His name is Kairos, and sometimes ‘Possibility.’

We’re giving a performance called ‘Testaments of Deep Time’ to introduce the work of The Dark Mountain Project—itself an intervention into the linear narrative about ecological and social calamity. As the rational world attempts to control the consequences of its dominant storyline, cracks have begun to appear.

Through those cracks, archaic, indigenous knowledge, hidden for safekeeping against Roman and other empires, slips through, and fleeting glimpses of another future reveals itself.

This encounter, we know, is what changes everything.

Dark Mountain was launched in 2009 to challenge the contemporary lack of response by culture makers to ecological overshoot in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Its manifesto was called simply Uncivilisation.

Many people picked up this gauntlet, recognising it, not as a challenge to a duel but as an invitation to explore a territory yet unmapped.

This invitation has led to collaborations with writers, musicians and artists; 12 books and five festivals; a year-long theatre workshop in Sweden; teaching encounters in the mountains of Spain and the moors of the West Country; and performances built around the celebrations of the solar year by the River Thames and the ancestral wilderness of Scotland—and now in Wales.

What distinguishes Dark Mountain from grassroots Earth-defending organisations and progressive movements is that it is a creative response to prevailing crises—and lacks an evangelical agenda to fix them.

The project’s manifesto can act as a frame, but there is no drive to act in the space that frame creates—no pressure to shut down power stations or convince your neighbour to stop flying, or your community to reduce its carbon emissions.

Instead, it provides a space that has room and time in it, where the 24/7 broadcast of progress can be switched off and other voices apart from the mainstream can be heard; it gives an opportunity to look at things differently, and for other slower realisations to occur—for interactions, connections and deep thought as a reader, listener or contributor.

‘Are you against environmental activism?’ I was asked recently by a television researcher. ‘No,’ I said ‘We’re not against anything. It’s a conversation not an argument. We’re a creative network.’
‘If this manifesto has travelled further than we imagined, one explanation is that it has helped people to get their bearings in a world where the thin, shiny surface of prosperity has cracked. Trying to make sense of our own experience it seems that we put words to a feeling that others shared... a feeling that there is no way through the mess we find ourselves that doesn’t involve facing the darkness, and being honest about the scale of the unravelling that is under way, and the uncertainty as to where it will end. A feeling that it is time to look down.’  Dougald Hine from the Introduction to the 2014 edition of Uncivilisation.
This rallying point, the agreement to ‘look down’ and acknowledge that we sit on a crater’s edge rather than a firm foundation, not only creates a different literature but also nurtures a very different feeling towards that literature and those who write it.

If there is one shared response to the contacts made by people towards the project it is the sense of relief and comradeship in a world where a possible eruption of the status quo is manifestly denied.

However there is no mantra or belief system to take refuge in here. Dark Mountain is a collective work-in-progress, initiated by ‘recovering journalists’ disillusioned by the green movement and its timid approaches toward change.

It doesn’t offer a road map for a sustainable future but can offer you a place by the fire, an opportunity to dig beneath the distracting surface of industrial late capitalism; to produce work that asks the question, ‘how can we reclaim the voice and body of ourselves that has been suppressed by civilisation for millennia. The deadline is never far away.

The fact is we all know that “the boat is leaking and the captain lied” as Leonard Cohen once sang; we know the statistics about climate change and acidified oceans and decapitated mountains. The news that the numbers of kittiwakes on St Kilda have plummeted or that the ancient trees of Sheffield have been felled pains us. We don’t numb out that pain, nor do we indulge it in the see-saw of hope and despair.

We know the Earth is not an abstract concept of environment or ‘nature’ and requires a very different relationship, one that wrests the material of life out of the hands of the ‘quants’ and economists and gives it due respect.

The question we face is always: what do you do when you know, when you allow yourself to see and feel what is shut out by the broadcast of progress? You can’t keep writing conventional love stories and detective novels, hoping that Hollywood will get in touch.

What kind of literature and art does this awareness produce? A diverse body of work that does not fit neatly into a monocultural, corporate bookshelf or gallery wall.

Inspired by the inhumanist poetry of Robinson Jeffers, its voices do not come out of a narcissistic and alienated highbrow culture, discussed by the chattering classes of Boston or London, but from a library of stones, from the desert and forest hermitage, from conversations around convivial fires.

This space is existentialist, ringed as it is by urgent questions about what kind of human being can be so numb or so dumb in the face of catastrophe; its tone is elegiac rather than triumphant.

In many ways it returns the artist and writer to their original function, as people who push the edge and keep the door of possibility open. People who embody and stand by their words, for whom those fiery brimstone fields are home.

It’s in this spirit that we’ve created a new work called Walking on Lava, taken from our first ten hardback journals as a showcase introduction. Following their shape it is made of work of contrasting voices and genres—poetry, flash fiction, essays, artworks, photography and interviews—and structured around the manifesto’s ‘Eight Principles of Uncivilisation.’

Here are Robert Leaver crawling along Broadway in New York on his hands and knees; Christos Galanis shooting a thrift store copy of the Iliad in the New Mexico desert; and Emily Laurens sweeping the brown sands of the Welsh peninsula in honour of the disappeared passenger pigeon and the millions of species now becoming extinct—testimony, encounter, protest art and praise song of a different kind.
‘I imagine the people I have seen on Broadway, and maybe the world over, feeling a weight on their backs, in their hearts and souls. Maybe this weight is the burden on modern life, the burden on being conscious in a world gone mad. Crawling seemed to be a way to maybe show compassion or solidarity, to make a metaphor of this collective burden we all share. Instead of crawling I could have curled up in a foetal position in perfectly chosen locations. But this crawl was never about surrendering. I went down and kept moving, kept pressing on as so many humans are doing every day. The idea has always been to keep on, to get through this journey, to make it home safe and sound.’ Robert Leaver – Crawling Home.
What happens when you get bitten by a squirrel, or when you return to your homeland now crawling with bulldozers and fracking trucks?

When the story you were told by your teachers and parents is broken, when the Earth makes contact with you, you may stumble upon art with a different kind of attention: a feral stew of roots and road killed pheasant in the highlands of Scotland, a dreaming woman carrying a horse in her womb in Cornwall, a meditation on graphite in the winter-wet Cumbrian hills.

Kairos, the daemon of opportunity, had a shaved head, meaning that you had to grasp the moment that faced you, for once the light-footed one had disappeared the chance to see in all-at-once-time had also gone also.

There are only so many opportunities to sense the volcano that rumbles beneath us. Rarely do we find the way to the cave where the Sibyl sits, or pay heed to those who struggle to return from the darkness of the Stygian lake.

We live, as Marshall McLuhan once noted, in a third world war of narratives, of competing controlled ways of perceiving the world, all of them hostile to people and planet. In the quiet, in the depths, in the wild places, in the struggle of our hearts, writers and artists—those who have always kept a true link to the wider, wilder world—are forging another story.

We hope that Walking on Lava will show how some of that new collective tale is unfolding.

Walking on Lava – Selected Work for Uncivilised Times is edited by Charlotte Du Cann, Dougald Hine, Nick Hunt and Paul Kingsnorth and published by Chelsea Green.