Civilization as Entropic Giga-Gizmo: Scaled Up Renewables vs Biosphere

"The impacts of a green energy future on biodiversity were not considered in international climate policies."

We need a conference on Entropy & its Discontents.

“…the impacts of a green energy future on biodiversity were not considered in international climate policies…” (OOPS)


as Entropic


We need to understand entropy and thermodynamics as at the root of all our emerging quandaries around “biospheric tipping points”, etc, especially the radical uselessness of “Sustainability” as an organizing frame going forward.

{For the moment we’ll skip a more philosophical discussion of different schools of thinking about Entropy (Maximum Entropy Production, etc), Prigogine, Kleidon, Dissipative Structures, Negentropy, Syntropy. But feel free to do your own digging. Entropy is the tendency of things to degrade and spread out, in a closed system.}

Sustainability in the 50+ years since Limits to Growth and Rachel Carson and Bucky Fuller has done — arguably — nothing to reduce the UN-sustainability of modern (post) industrial civilization.

On an average drive down an average city street, what can you see that is actually “sustainable” (over 7 generations, blablabla)?

Nada. At most you might see one solar panel, you might pass a Tesla, if that can be argued to represent something sustainable and not the pinnacle of a planet-spanning supply chain with a thousand invisible toxic waste streams. Maybe you will see a random planterbox with kale outside a trendy eatery. Otherwise, zip zilch zero.

Sustainability has made the Mega-Machine (Mumford) maybe 1% “less bad” while allowing all it’s most planet-chomping mechanisms to carry on unabated.

OK, if you’re an optimist and true believer in the green energy future, maybe 3% less bad.

And from an entropic frame of reference, there has never been any meaningful difference between Western liberal capitalism and bureaucratic / state capitalist systems, they amount to different means of distributing benefits, impacts and the decision-making process. Both are utterly addicted to externalizing the wastes of their productive activities, ie factories and cities.

The end result for the biosphere is the same: toxification of ecosystems, reduction of complexity aka loss of biodiversity, encroachment on presumed planetary “tipping points”.

After 50 years of Earth Days and activism and EPA pseudo-regulation, and corporate inhouse-warriors, insect populations are crashing all over the world. (According to dozens of different studies, and simple direct observation.)

Insects are a primary nutrient for birds. Everyone knows the risks of unpollinated crops. Mass starvation.

Is there any basis to think the latest catchphrase of Circular Economy will do any better? (There’s certainly some good ideas in it…)

Without using that fancy physics term almost nobody actually understands, above is essentially the same point made more crudely in the recent Michael Moore-sponsored expose, Planet of the Humans. At the moment, renewable energy forms make up a small fraction of global energy production. For renewables to scale up to fully displace fossil fuels, a staggeringly titanic deployment of mass and infrastructure would be required, with impacts on land, expansion of mining, and as yet unsolved waste disposal issues for fiberglass turbine blades.

The notion that “all of EU could be powered by one gigantic solar plant in the Sahara” is a red herring. It may be technically true, but not all of the Sahara is just sand dunes, and where would all those PV panels go at end-of-life – among other questions?

Coincidentally Max Blumenthal over at The Grayzone has just posted a piece on how the corporate green scene has worked to suppress the documentary from wider viewership. (Update: Blumenthal interviewed by Jimmy Dore.)

From Queensland Univ (AU) comes this new report that highlights the challenges anew:

Innovation needed to overcome biodiversity risks of renewable energy mineral mining

Researchers have warned that mining threats to biodiversity caused by renewable energy production could surpass those averted by climate change mitigation.

A University of Queensland study found protected areas, key biodiversity areas and the world’s remaining wilderness would be under growing pressure from mining the minerals required for a clean energy transition.

UQ’s Dr Laura Sonter said renewable energy production was material-intensive – much more so than fossil fuels – and mining these materials would increase as fossil fuels were phased out.

“Our study shows that mining the materials needed for renewable energy such as lithium, cobalt, copper, nickel and aluminium will create further pressure on the biodiversity located in mineral-rich landscapes,” Dr Sonter said.

The research team mapped the world’s mining areas, according to an extensive database of 62,381 pre-operational, operational and closed mining properties, targeting 40 different commodities.

They found that areas with potential mining activity covered 50 million square kilometres of the planet – 35 per cent of the Earth’s terrestrial land surface excluding Antarctica – and many of these areas coincided with places critical for biodiversity conservation.

“Almost 10 per cent of all mining areas occur within currently protected sites, with plenty of other mining occurring within or nearby sites deemed a priority for future conservation of many species,” Dr Sonter said.

“In terms of mining areas targeting materials needed specifically for renewable energy production, the story is not much better.

“We found that 82 per cent of mining areas target materials needed for renewable energy production, of which, 12 per cent coincide with protected areas, 7 per cent with key biodiversity areas and 14 per cent with wilderness.

“And, of the mining areas that overlapped protected areas and wilderness, those that targeted materials for renewable energy contained a greater density of mines than the mining areas that targeted other materials.”

Professor James Watson, from UQ’s Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science and the Wildlife Conservation Society, said the impacts of a green energy future on biodiversity were not considered in international climate policies.

“New mining threats aren’t seriously addressed in current global discussions about the post-2020 United Nation’s Strategic Plan for Biodiversity,” Professor Watson said.

The research team said careful strategic planning was urgently needed.

“Mining threats to biodiversity will increase as more mines target materials for renewable energy production,” Dr Sonter said.

“Combine this risk with the extensive spatial footprint of renewable energy infrastructure, and the risks become even more concerning.”

The research team included Professor Rick Valenta from UQ’s Sustainable Minerals Institute and lead of the Complex Orebodies program and Dr Marie Dade from McGill University.

The research is published in Nature Communications (DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-17928-5)

More info on massive scaling of renewables still required to meet just California‘s renewable goals:

Another meditation on same challenge with EVs.

(This post was entirely made and uploaded from an Android cellphone, powered by a gas-fueled Subaru Crosstrek in Mar Vista CA, with the help of an iced double espresso — all dissipative structures, arguably….)