We know the many circumstances that cause us to veer away from rationality; we understand enough to abandon this fossil fuel age with haste.​​

OPINION: Discussions of new alternative energy options such as “sustainable aviation fuels” and the wonders of green hydrogen are common in the New Zealand media, often touting their contributions to reducing climate change. Industry requests for government support often accompany these claims.

Are we considering these new technologies rationally? Or is this expansion of new technologies a symptom of a deep malaise we are ignoring?

We like to think of ourselves as rational and intelligent, and the many technical accomplishments humans have made over the past few decades seem proof enough. But we now also have considerable research evidence of how we do not behave rationally much of the time.

How we integrate scientists’ warnings about environmental destruction would appear to be an area where rationality and beliefs come into conflict for most of us. How we deal with these larger systems issues inevitably influences how we make smaller decisions, such as how we embrace alternative energy technologies, for example.

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Research has identified dozens of cognitive biases that evolved as cognitive shortcuts, and which distort our logical decision making; behavioural economics has demonstrated that we don’t always act in our own best interest, and many experiments show that emotional factors draw us away from the rational decisions dictated by game theory.

In addition to these examples of our behaviour not following logic and rationality is the fact that we are all children of a particular time in history, with a particular widely shared mind set or framework for interpreting the world we experience.

Let’s conduct a little thought experiment to get some insight into how our dominant mind set can distort our rationality. Think for a moment about Galileo, the 17th century polymath who made multiple and lasting contributions to what are now known as astronomy, physics and engineering.

Through astronomical observations and the application of logic and mathematics Galileo concluded that the sun, rather than the earth, was the centre of the universe, supporting Copernicus’ earlier observations. Because this conclusion went against the Church dominant mind-set of the time, he was tried in a court and found guilty.

His observations or logic were not found to be faulty. He was condemned as a religious heretic, and sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. The all-powerful Church saw his conclusion as contrary to the Bible and dangerous to the world view that gave the Church its temporal power.

Imagine for a moment that you lived in Italy during the time this controversy erupted. Would you have believed Galileo or the Church about the place of the earth in relation to the sun? Would you have spoken out to support Galileo’s scientific approach to understanding the heavenly bodies, or fallen back on the Church’s teaching based on scripture, and avoided the Church’s wrath?

It’s highly likely that most of us would support the status quo, despite the error; the social and institutional pressures would have felt more powerful than Galileo’s logic and observations. To this day we still speak of the sun rising in the east and setting in the west, although we know it is the earth rotating on its axis that gives us this impression – a disconnect between our rational knowledge and our immediate sensations, common beliefs and daily language.

Does this disconnect phenomenon apply to our current moment in history when there seems to be a major conflict between the science of environmental protection and our dominant economic paradigm based on growth? We seem to understand that our consumption patterns have serious environmental consequences, but we continue consuming at unsustainable levels.

Joseph Tainter is an anthropologist and historian who has written extensively on the collapse of civilisations. His empirical studies conclude that complex societies inevitably come up against limitations or constraints to the model on which they are based (think fossil fuels can no longer be allowed to power our economic growth). But rather than adjust or replace the dominant social model, the dominant institutions increase complexity within their model to ensure it endures as long as possible (think of all the new energy technologies competing to replace fossil fuels today). Inevitably, this increased complexity creates new problems and challenges that in turn are addressed with even more complexity (think of energy storage challenges and their costs).

Tainter noted that a common result is diminishing marginal returns as complexity increases. This involves using more energy and resources to deal with the problems that arise, but with less and less benefit for society because of the added complexities (think of the low net energy return of mostly renewable energy systems, and the lack of sufficient minerals to build enough renewable infrastructure). The limitations of the dominant paradigm are eventually reached and the society collapses.

The Church’s authority was the dominant paradigm in Galileo’s time. The title is currently held by an economic system and its related institutions that are all based on and require continuous economic growth.

There are very few examples from history where this dynamic has been avoided. Few complex societies intentionally changed their basic paradigm when faced with such limitations. The institutional impetus to simply keep trudging on won out and the societies collapsed. Will we be different?

The issue Galileo addressed did not have any immediate impact on people’s daily life or wellbeing. But the issues we now face have serious consequences for human civilisation. Tainter noted that as one civilisation collapsed people typically migrated elsewhere and joined or started a new social structure.

But today’s scientists’ warnings of ecological collapse involve global ecosystems – climate change, the sixth great extinction of species, plastics polluting the seas and the air, and so on. All these existential threats are as real for NZ as anywhere else. There is nowhere to migrate to.

The current science underlying these recent warnings is considerably more extensive and robust than Galileo’s recordings of celestial bodies. Yet today’s high priests, the bankers and economists, and the “market,” are telling us that our economic system is fine and quite capable of pricing in all the costs associated with the existential threats we face, and directing us toward solutions – market based, of course.

We are asked to have faith in the economic growth model as the best of all possible worlds, just as people of Galileo’s time were asked to have faith in the Bible as the arbiter of planetary movements.

And it’s easy for us to have such faith in the current system. It has delivered so many benefits to so many people, and all our institutions and values are oriented around this notion of prosperity through growth. It is what we all have grown up with, breathing it in from our earliest days.

The extent and powerful hold this dominant model has on us means we don’t refute the evidence presented by the scientists issuing the warnings, we simply ignore it. Or we compartmentalise it somewhere in the back of our brains, assuming that it cannot be quite right and that soon our clever scientists and engineers will come up with sustainable solutions.

We avoid, for instance, the issue of whether biofuels or green hydrogen are sustainable (they are not). Simply because they may be renewable does not mean they are sustainable, or even desirable.

Both biofuels and hydrogen (even green hydrogen) have very poor net energy returns for the energy invested in producing them. In fact, with hydrogen, the net energy return is always negative; it takes more energy to produce the hydrogen than the hydrogen can ever return. Hydrogen is not an energy source in itself, but an energy carrier; it’s like a battery, in that energy has to be put into it. There is always a loss of energy when energy is put in or taken out.

Arguments have been made that “waste” energy from hydro, solar or wind installations that cannot be used immediately, could profitably be converted to hydrogen for later use. Technically this is correct. But the more fundamental question is what is the best use for the excess power that sometimes occurs with various renewable energy sources? Hydrogen isn’t necessarily the best storage option in such situations, and the option of directly using such “excess” energy for other purposes should always be explored first.

Many types of biofuels also have a negative net energy return. But even those that are positive have energy returns so low that they are hardly worth the effort. Given the very low net energy return of even the best biofuels means that very large areas of productive land would be needed to produce the quantity of energy required to replace fossil fuels, which is what such exercises are ultimately about.

The above graph puts the net energy from biofuels in perspective relative to other energy sources. It is in the lower left corner of the graph, indicating that both the net energy return and the overall amount of energy produced is very low compared to the alternatives.

Both biofuels and hydrogen may well have some very limited niche applications, if produced from “waste” of one form or another. But they are not suitable candidates for replacing the fossil fuel energy we need to give up. As the above graph indicates, wind, solar and hydro are all superior in terms of net energy return. This graph also indicates the enormous scale issue we face in replacing the energy we currently derive from fossil fuels, expressed as Exajoules.

It would be much less destructive to the environment to simply generate power from hydro, solar or wind and use it directly than to convert such power to biofuels or hydrogen. Because of their inherent low or negative net energy dynamics, both biofuels and hydrogen are less unsustainable than fossil fuels, but they are still far from actually being sustainable. (Please forgive the awkward “less unsustainable” phrase, but it is more accurate that referring to biofuels or hydrogen as “sustainable,” or even “environmentally friendly” in comparison with fossil fuels).

Addressing the sustainability issue would force us to confront this deeper issue of the inherent conflict between our dominant social paradigm, continuous economic growth, and the scientific evidence of its unsustainability.

We are now smart enough to understand the many and powerful circumstances that cause us to veer away from rationality. Perhaps we could use these insights to challenge our shared dominant mind set and get serious about a genuinely sustainable future, and the very different role energy will play in it compared to the fossil fuel age which we must abandon with haste.

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