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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Bootstrapping Sustainability

In today's blog, we're going to get physical.

Are you sitting comfortably? If so, stand up, please.

Now grasp your shoelaces between finger and thumb and pull vertically, as hard as you can.

That didn't achieve much, did it?

The process you've just attempted in vain is called bootstrapping:

The saying "to pull yourself up by your bootstraps" was already in use during the 19th century as an example of an impossible task. Bootstrap as a metaphor, meaning to better oneself by one's own unaided efforts, was in use in 1922. This metaphor spawned additional metaphors for a series of self-sustaining processes that proceed without external help.

It's the latter concept that I wish to explore here. The term is most commonly used in computing: bootstrap loaders (from which the term to "boot" one's PC arises), but also in a more interesting way, as in bootstrapping compilers.

Bear with me with this digression, all will be clear in a little while.

A compiler translates a computer language into the low-level instructions that your computer hardware understands. So, suppose we invent a new programming language, Z, and get clever and write a compiler in Z for Z. But, there's a slight problem with that. Z's a new language, no compiler for Z exists. We're not going to get very far with that "chicken and egg" problem. So we write a compiler for Z in an already-existing language, use that to compile our Z compiler written in Z, and use the resulting program to compile itself. Now we're there. We have a self-sustaining ecosystem in which all things Z are written in Z. The chicken has become the egg, so to speak.

Now here's the problem: bootstrapping sustainable energy and a sustainable society.

We clearly can't start with everything powered from renewable, nay, replenishing1, sources. We're not there yet.

Consider the construction of a wind turbine, a whole lifecycle:

1: Obtain the minerals and iron needed for its construction. Initially, that'll be from mining, later, mostly from recycling (though the entropy law puts limits on our ability to recycle, recycling can't be 100% efficient2). Diggers running on diesel fuel. That would have to change to the use of renewable energy only.

2: Transport the materials. More diesel. That would have to change to the use of renewable energy only.

3: Turn the iron ore into steel. We currently do that using coking coal3. That would have to change to the use of renewable energy only. Whilst electric arc and induction furnaces do exist, they're not on the scale required. Can they scale to the point where they replace coke-based smelting of iron? What energy efficiencies are involved?

4: Manufacture the wind turbine's components. Probably using a mix of fossil fuels and fossil/nuclear/solar/wind-generated electricity. That would have to change to the use of renewable energy only.

5: Transport to final site and erection. Using fossil fuels, electric vehicles, sailing ships, whatever. That would have to change to the use of renewable energy only.

6: Repair and maintenance.

7: Decommissioning, recycling, returning to step 1.

We could infinitely recurse here and consider the manufacture of the mining equipment, transportation vehicles, etc. Just bear that in mind.

So there's the problem. For a technology to be sustainable, every constituent component must itself be sustainable, powered by replenishing energy sources. Pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.

Wind turbines, solar photovoltaic electricity, and biofuels are all adding to the mix of "renewable" fuel sources available.


But is it?

Apart from a few voices in the wilderness (Howard T. Odum, Sharon Astyk, John Michael Greer, and Gail Tverberg come to mind), we've pushed aside the bootstrapping problem.

What does this mean in practice? The switch to renewables will save less fossil fuel than expected, and that getting our fossil-fuel consumption down to zero will be very difficult. We'll need to reduce energy consumption, not just substitute "renewables". Their hidden fossil fuel subsidies are going to be difficult to eliminate.

And we have to do all this within the constraints of whatever economics fad we're following at the time. Don't overlook trade deficits4.


This argument also applies to nuclear electricity as a substitute for fossil fuels. Though nuclear is the ultimate non-renewable energy source, being the only one which destroys matter.


A little thought experiment. Let's suppose we make real progress and get all transport and consumer use of energy onto renewables. How much fossil fuel would be used to produce and maintain that infrastructure?


1: "renewable" is not per se sustainable. Consider a forest chopped down for fuel. It's sustainable if the forest is regrown at the rate it is harvested. Hence my preference for the term "replenishing". Hydropower is another example. It's replenishing until the drought comes.

2: See Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, "Energy and Economic Myths", 1975

3: Let's not forget that it was Dud Dudley's and Abraham Darby's process for smelting iron using coke instead of charcoal which made mass-production of cast iron and steel possible. See Carl Higgs' "Sedgley's Men of Iron; Dud Dudley and Abraham Darby – Keeping it in the Family!" for an interesting commentary.

4: "It makes no sense to substitute imported wind turbines or solar panels for imported oil", writes Prof Judith Stein - Keynesian Stimulus Isn't Enough: The Great Recession and the Trade Deficit


This blog post is also the basis of a comment I've made at The Oil Drum, in response to Rembrandt's article "Thoughts on a Sustainable Human Ecosystem".

Postscript, Nov 17th

"Ruben", in a comment over at The Automatic Earth, draws our attention to a paper by Christian Kerschner, "Economic de-growth vs. steady-state economy" (.pdf), in which we're reminded of Georgescu-Roegen's point that sustainability is not possible, and that decline is the best we can achieve.

PPS, Dec 2nd

Interesting Low Tech Magazine article addressing some of these concerns: The bright future of solar powered factories. A bit short of evidence re scalability. It's not enough to say that we can smelt iron and produce steel using solar furnaces. We need evidence that the process can be scaled to an appropriate level.

PPS, June 8, 2012

Have a listen to Extraenvironmentalist Podcast #42 too. Seth and Justin talk to Ozzie Zehner about his new book Green Illusions which discusses the ecological impacts of manufacturing a renewable energy future.

PPS, Oct 27th, 2012

Nicole Foss, as always, says it so much more eloquently than I ever could: Renewable Energy: The Vision And A Dose Of Reality

PPS, Oct 28th, 2012

John Weber has done a much better job than me on this. His blog posts, Machines Making Machines Making Machines and Energy in the Real World are must-reads. (via his comments on Nicole Foss's article above). And, more recently, Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI)

PPS, Jan 30th, 2013

Dawn Stover's written a good Reality Check on alternatives to fossil fuels in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, (@BulletinAtomic on Twitter)

PPS, Feb 25th, 2014

Robert Wilson's written a good piece on this theme over at the Energy Collective: Can You Make a Wind Turbine Without Fossil Fuels?

PPS, Nov 19th, 2014

Gail Tverberg's on the ball in her post Eight Pitfalls in Evaluating Green Energy Solutions.

John Weber (who I've cited above) comments about the extreme resource depletion involved in rolling out renewables en masse, and asks us to Prove This Wrong.

PPS, Jan 22nd, 2015

Alex Smith's Ecoshock Radio has recently devoted three shows to Ozzie Zehner's "Green Illusions" and the issues he raises:

"Green Illusions" - Ozzie Zehner

Green Reality VS. Ozzie Zehner

Green Dreams - Future or Fantasy?

All worth a listen. To my mind, the second is the weakest, with Dan Miller all too glibly asserting that we can produce renewables technologies without fossil fuels. I've addressed that particular illusion above. It's harder than we think.

Recycling's not the answer, either, as I pointed out a while back on Twitter:

PPS, Dec 23rd, 2018

Low-Tech Magazine asks How Circular is the Circular Economy? 

"The circular economy – the newest magical word in the sustainable development vocabulary – promises economic growth without destruction or waste. However, the concept only focuses on a small part of total resource use and does not take into account the laws of thermodynamics."

Well worth a read.

PPS, Sep 18th, 2021

Thanks to a insomniac chat with @imightbeakulak on Twitter, I was reminded of the work of Dr William Rees and The Real Green New Deal project.

Their papers here are worth a read, though, ironically, the PDF has huge blocks of colour which makes printing it extremely wasteful of printer ink. Oh well.

Posted by Phil at 12:33 AM
Edited on: Saturday, September 18, 2021 11:35 AM
Categories: Comment, Environment