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Walter Russell Mead: The New Energy Revolution & The End Of Green Arrogance

Over a series of recent posts, I’ve been looking at the energy revolution that is changing the look of the 21st centuries. Some countries are losers, but the US in particular stands to make big gains at home and in its foreign policy.

On the whole, this news is about as good as it gets: trillions of dollars of valuable resources are now available to power the US economy, cut our trade deficit and reduce our vulnerability to Middle East instability. Hundreds of thousands of well paid blue collar jobs are going to reduce income inequality and help rebuild a stable middle class. Many of the resources are exactly where we would want them: in hard hit Rust Belt states.

World peace is also looking more possible: the great powers aren’t going to be elbowing each other as they fight to control the last few dribs and drabs of oil. Nasty dictatorships and backward-facing petro-states aren’t going to be able blackmail the world as easily.

But there is one group (other than the Russians and the Gulf Arabs and the Iranians) that isn’t sharing in the general joy: the greens. For them, the spectacle of a looming world energy crisis was good news. It justified huge subsidies for solar and wind power (and thereby guaranteed huge fortunes for clever green-oriented investors). Greens outdid themselves year after year with gloom and doom forecasts about the coming oil crunch. They hoped that public dislike of the Middle East and the costs of our involvement there could be converted into public support for expensive green energy policies here at home: “energy independence” was one of the few arguments they had that resonated widely among average voters.

Back in those salad days of green arrogance, there was plenty of scoffing at the ‘peak oil deniers’ and shortage skeptics who disagreed with what greens told us all was settled, Malthusian science. “Reality based” green thinkers sighed and rolled their eyes at the illusions of those benighted techno-enthusiasts who said that unconventional sources like shale oil and gas and the oil sands of Canada would one day become available.

Environmentalists, you see, are science based, unlike those clueless, Gaia-defying technophiles with their infantile faith in the power of human creativity. Greens, with their awesome powers of Gaia-assisted intuition, know what the future holds.

But those glory days are over now, and the smarter environmentalists are bowing to the inevitable. George Monbiot, whose cries of woe and pain in the Guardiannewspaper have served as the Greek chorus at each stage of the precipitous decline of the global green movement, gave voice to green grief at the prospect of a wealthy and prosperous century to come: “We were wrong,” he wrote on July 2,”about peak oil. There’s enough to fry us all.” Monbiot now gets the politics as well:

There is enough oil in the ground to deep-fry the lot of us, and no obvious means to prevail upon governments and industry to leave it in the ground. Twenty years of efforts to prevent climate breakdown through moral persuasion have failed, with the collapse of the multilateral process at Rio de Janeiro last month. The world’s most powerful nation is again becoming an oil state, and if the political transformation of its northern neighbour [a reference to Canada] is anything to go by, the results will not be pretty.

In other words, a newly oil rich United States is going to fight even harder against global green carbon policies, and the new discoveries will tilt the American political system even farther in the direction of capitalist oil companies.

Capitalism is not, Monbiot is forced to admit, a fragile system that will easily be replaced. Bolstered by huge supplies of oil, it is here to stay. Industrial civilization is, as far as he can now see, unstoppable. Gaia, that treacherous slut, has made so much oil and gas that her faithful acolytes today cannot protect her from the consequences of her own folly.

Welcome to the New Green Doom: an overabundance of oil and gas is going to release so much greenhouse gas that the world is going to fry. The exploitation of the oil sands in Alberta, warn leading environmentalists, is a tipping point. William McKibben put it this way in an interview with Wired magazine in the fall of 2011:

I think if we go whole-hog in the tar sands, we’re out of luck. Especially since that would doubtless mean we’re going whole-hog at all the other unconventional energy sources we can think of: Deepwater drilling, fracking every rock on the face of the Earth, and so forth.

Here’s why the tar sands are important: It’s a decision point about whether, now that we’re running out of the easy stuff, we’re going to go after the hard stuff. The Saudi Arabian liquor store is running out of bottles. Do we sober up, or do we find another liquor store, full of really crappy booze, to break into?

A year later, despite the success of environmentalists like McKibben at persuading the Obama administration to block a pipeline intended to ship this oil to refineries in the US, it’s clear (as it was crystal clear all along to anyone with eyes to see) that the world has every intention of making use of the “crappy liquor.”

Again, for people who base their claim to world leadership on their superior understanding of the dynamics of complex systems, greens prove over and over again that they are surprisingly naive and crude in their ability to model and to shape the behavior of the political and economic systems they seek to control. If their understanding of the future of the earth’s climate is anything like as wish-driven, fact-averse and intellectually crude as their approach to international affairs, democratic politics and the energy market, the greens are in trouble indeed.  And as I’ve written in the past, the contrast between green claims to understand climate and to be able to manage the largest and most complex set of policy changes ever undertaken, and the evident incompetence of greens at managing small (Solyndra) and large (Kyoto, EU cap and trade, global climate treaty) political projects today has more to do with climate skepticism than greens have yet understood. Many people aren’t rejecting science; they are rejecting green claims of policy competence. In doing so, they are entirely justified by the record.

Nevertheless, the future of the environment is not nearly as dim as greens think. Despairing environmentalists like McKibben and Monbiot are as wrong about what the new era of abundance means as green energy analysts were about how much oil the planet had.

The problem is the original sin of much environmental thought: Malthusianism. If greens weren’t so addicted to Malthusian horror narratives they would be able to see that the new era of abundance is going to make this a cleaner planet faster than if the new gas and oil had never been found.

Let’s be honest. It has long been clear to students of history, and has more recently begun to dawn on many environmentalists, that all that happy-clappy carbon treaty stuff was a pipe dream and that nothing like that is going to happen.  A humanity that hasn’t been able to ban the bomb despite the clear and present dangers that nuclear weapons pose isn’t going to ban or even seriously restrict the internal combustion engine and the generator.

The political efforts of the green movement to limit greenhouse gasses have had very little effect so far, and it is highly unlikely that they will have more success in the future. The green movement has been more of a group hug than a curve bending exercise, and that is unlikely to change. If the climate curve bends, it will bend the way the population curve did: as the result of lots of small human decisions driven by short term interest calculations rather than as the result of a grand global plan.

The shale boom hasn’t turned green success into green failure. It’s prevented green failure from turning into something much worse.  Monbiot understands this better than McKibben; there was never any real doubt that we’d keep going to the liquor store. If we hadn’t found ways to use all this oil and gas, we wouldn’t have embraced the economics of less. True, as oil and gas prices rose, there would be more room for wind and solar power, but the real winner of an oil and gas shortage is… coal. To use McKibben’s metaphor, there is a much dirtier liquor store just down the road from the shale emporium, and it’s one we’ve been patronizing for centuries. The US and China have oodles of coal, and rather than walk to work from our cold and dark houses all winter, we’d use it. Furthermore, when and if the oil runs out, the technology exists to get liquid fuel out of coal. It isn’t cheap and it isn’t clean, but it works.

The newly bright oil and gas future means that we aren’t entering a new Age of Coal. For this, every green on the planet should give thanks.

The second reason why greens should give thanks for shale is that environmentalism is a luxury good. People must survive and they will survive by any means necessary. But they would much rather thrive than merely survive, and if they can arrange matters better, they will. A poor society near the edge of survival will dump the industrial waste in the river without a second thought. It will burn coal and choke in the resulting smog if it has nothing else to burn.

Politics in an age of survival is ugly and practical. It has to be. The best leader is the one who can cut out all the fluff and the folderol and keep you alive through the winter. During the Battle of Leningrad, people burned priceless antiques to stay alive for just one more night.

An age of energy shortages and high prices translates into an age of radical food and economic insecurity for billions of people. Those billions of hungry, frightened, angry people won’t fold their hands and meditate on the ineffable wonders of Gaia and her mystic web of life as they pass peacefully away. Nor will they vote George Monbiot and Bill McKibben into power. They will butcher every panda in the zoo before they see their children starve, they will torch every forest on earth before they freeze to death, and the cheaper and the meaner their lives are, the less energy or thought they will spare to the perishing world around them.

But, thanks to shale and other unconventional energy sources, that isn’t where we are headed. We are heading into a world in which energy is abundant and horizons are open even as humanity’s grasp of science and technology grows more secure. A world where more and more basic human needs are met is a world that has time to think about other goals and the money to spend on them. As China gets richer, the Chinese want cleaner air, cleaner water, purer food — and they are ready and able to pay for them. A Brazil whose economic future is secure can afford to treasure and conserve its rain forests. A Central America where the people are doing all right is more willing and able to preserve its biodiversity. And a world in which people know where their next meal is coming from is a world that can and will take thought for things like the sustainability of the fisheries and the protection of the coral reefs.

A world that is more relaxed about the security of its energy sources is going to be able to do more about improving the quality of those sources and about managing the impact of its energy consumption on the global commons. A rich, energy secure world is going to spend more money developing solar power and wind power and other sustainable sources than a poor, hardscrabble one.

When human beings think their basic problems are solved, they start looking for more elegant solutions. Once Americans had an industrial and modern economy, we started wanting to clean up the rivers and the air. Once people aren’t worried about getting enough calories every day to survive, they start wanting healthier food more elegantly prepared.

A world of abundant shale oil and gas is a world that will start imposing more environmental regulations on shale and gas producers. A prosperous world will set money aside for research and development for new technologies that conserve energy or find it in cleaner surroundings. A prosperous world facing climate change will be able to ameliorate the consequences and take thought for the future in ways that a world overwhelmed by energy insecurity and gripped in a permanent economic crisis of scarcity simply can’t and won’t do.

Greens should also be glad that the new energy is where it is. For Monbiot and for many others, Gaia’s decision to put so much oil into the United States and Canada seems like her biggest indiscretion of all. Certainly, a United States of America that has, in the Biblical phrase, renewed its youth like an eagle with a large infusion of fresh petro-wealth is going to be even less eager than formerly to sign onto various pie-in-the-sky green carbon treaties.

But think how much worse things would be if the new reserves lay in dictatorial kleptocracies. How willing and able would various Central Asia states have been to regulate extraction and limit the damage? How would Nigeria have handled vast new reserves whose extraction required substantially more invasive methods?

Instead, the new sources are concentrated in places where environmentalists have more say in policy making and where, for all the shortcomings and limits, governments are less corruptible, more publicly accountable and in fact more competent to develop and enforce effective energy regulations. This won’t satisfy McKibben and Monbiot (nothing that could actually happen would satisfy either of these gentlemen), but it is a lot better than what we could be facing.

Additionally, if there are two countries in the world that should worry carbon-focused greens more than any other, they are the United States and China. The two largest, hungriest economies in the world are also home to enormous coal reserves. But based on what we now know, the US and China are among the biggest beneficiaries of the new cornucopia. Gaia put the oil and the gas where, from a carbon point of view, it will do the most good. In a world of energy shortages and insecurity, both the US and China would have gone flat out for coal. Now, that is much less likely.

And there’s one more reason why greens should thank Gaia for shale. Wind and solar aren’t ready for prime time now, but by the time the new sources start to run low, humanity will have mastered many more technologies that can used to provide energy and to conserve it. It’s likely that Age of Shale hasn’t just postponed the return of coal: because of this extra time, there likely will never be another age in which coal is the dominant industrial fuel. It’s virtually certain that the total lifetime carbon footprint of the human race is going to be smaller with the new oil and gas sources than it would have been without them.

Neither the world’s energy problems nor its climate issues are going away any time soon. Paradise is not beckoning just a few easy steps away. But the new availability of these energy sources is on balance a positive thing for environmentalists as much as for anyone else.

Perhaps, and I know this is a heretical thought, but perhaps Gaia is smarter than the greens.