All posts by Steven Smith

Have we entered the era of ‘de-growth’?

The financial woes of 2008-9 are expected to be minor compared to 2012 and beyond. My understanding of the state of global finances, based on discussion with people who understand the economy, combined with my knowledge of resources, food production,  technology and climate change, leads me to conclude that we are on the cusp of ‘peak growth’.

I am told that the default of several Euro-zone countries on their debt, and the collapse of the Euro, is inevitable. Too many countries have borrowed far more than they can repay and the wealthier countries cannot cover the losses. Someone (sorry I forget who) likened it to going out to a restaurant with friends and eating more than you can pay for. So what do you do when the bill arrives? Order more food!

For an informed economic perspective please read Philip Lawn’s earlier post, who describes the relationship between economy and resources thus:

The economy is a subsystem of a finite, non-growing ecosphere (Earth). The relationship between the economy and ecosphere is akin to one between a parasite and its non-growing host. Since the former cannot outgrow the latter, continued growth of the economy or continued growth of real GDP is biophysically limited irrespective of whether the growth is ‘economic’ or ‘uneconomic’.”

The financial crisis in Europe will spread to North America, Japan, South Korea and around the globe. China will be a key player because it holds so much debt in the form of American bonds and loans to Europe. It is impossible to predict how all this will play out, except that ‘recession’ and then ‘depression’ will be the result.

The historical way of battling out of recession is investment in consumption and growth. But investment requires confidence, and real growth requires energy and resources. The World has reached peak oil production and many other key resources such as fertilisers and metals are heading for peak production for two major reasons:

  • We have depleted the ‘best’ mineral reserves over the last 50 years of exploitation
  • Exploration, extraction, refining and manufacturing depend on oil

We have cherry-picked the best resources and from here on, it gets much tougher.

Now add to the mix increasing cases of extreme weather events such as drought, flooding and storms. These will hit food production and will cost money to rebuild damaged infrastructure.  Population growth and immigration will make further demands on finite resources to build new infrastructure.

In poor countries there will likely be more unrest as people go hungry, and in rich countries more unrest as jobs, people’s spending power and pensions decline. More unrest means lower productivity and more conflict between neighbours.

I have previously made the case that we are already constrained by resources here and here. I have also argued that alternative energy sources cannot maintain the current lifestyle despite hopes to the contrary, Moreover, we must be concerned that food production is seriously threatened.

So when I refer to ‘peak growth’ I mean that material wealth production per person is set to decline now, and absolute or total material wealth will decline in the longer term.

This analysis is not intended to be pessimistic or morose.

Quite the opposite! For one thing, carbon dioxide emissions might increase more slowly. Crises will help to force more realistic ambitions and changes in values. People will come to realise very quickly that continued consumption and materialism is neither possible nor desirable.

Whereas ‘recession’ and ‘depression’ are negative terms, I see ‘de-growth’ or ‘deconsumption’ as really positive.

Why should you be interested in helium?

Helium is the second most abundant element in the known universe, after hydrogen. Strangely, however, a shortage of helium will be faced in the near future (Scholes, 2011).

Why does the availability of helium matter?

It matters because it symbolises the dependency of modern society and future technology on fragile finite resources. And it matters in a practical sense because helium is used for many things, thus:

  • Production facilities for electronics, microchips, LCDs and fibre optics
  • Arc welding
  • Food packaging
  • Pressurising and purging vessels e.g. in rockets
  • Scuba equipment
  • Cryogenics: at -269 C liquid helium is the coldest medium possible
  • Supercooled magnets such as in MRI scanners
  • Science e.g. NMR spectrometers and gas chromatography
  • Infrared scanners
  • Weather balloons, airships and party balloons
  • Growing silicon and germanium crystals
  • Production of titanium and zirconium
  • Some gas-cooled nuclear reactors
  • The Large Hadron Collider at CERN

The main consumers of helium are:

  • MRI scanners, 28%
  • Space and Military Rockets, 27%
  • Welding, 20%

Once helium is released into the atmosphere, it floats off into space, lost forever. As the cost of helium rises, so will the cost of all the above products and services, and in turn, the products and services which depend upon them. The cost of helium has been kept artificially low because the US government has been selling off large reserves that it accumulated during the cold war. The sell off will be complete in 2015, then demand must be met by current production facilities, which do not yet have the capacity to meet current demand. One analyst suggests that helium prices should be increased 20-fold to preserve supplies.

Helium occurs in natural gas reserves, from which it is isolated and purified. Major reserves and production facilities exist in the USA, Algeria and Russia, and smaller ones are in Poland, Qatar, Australia, China, India and Indonesia. Helium production is linked to natural gas (methane) production, since the same rock formations trap these and other gases. The amount of helium in such natural gases ranges from 0.001 % up to 7% (in one rare case) and it is separated from other gases by fractional liquefaction at progressively decreasing temperatures and increasing pressures. Presumably the methane isolated provides the energy for helium production.

Although helium is created continuously by nuclear reactions occurring in the Earth, most of this is very diffuse and will escape the atmosphere. There is a rare isotope of helium, He-3, produced as a by-product of the nuclear weapons industry, and used in nuclear energy research. Ironically, the decrease in nuclear weapons production is threatening supply of He-3 for peaceful means. Some people suggest (tongue-in-cheek, presumably) that we will have to collect He-3 from the Moon if we are to have nuclear fusion energy on Earth.

Helium is of course just one among many examples of limited resources upon which modern society has been built, and which once released into the environment cannot be recovered. Another example is phosphate fertiliser, essential for food production.

My message, as always, is that current ‘rich-country’ lifestyles are ultimately unsustainable, so the only possible outcome is de-growth (whether by choice or not). The concept of sustainable growth and development is a myth propagated by those who would benefit from it.

There is irony in the fact that helium is named after the Sun (Helios), the symbol of sustainability.


Scholes C.A., Helium: Is the party over? Chemistry in Australia, October 2011, pp 20-22. Royal Australian Chemistry Institute.


The need for objectivity in the energy debate

I entered the debate on climate, energy and food because I am concerned about the planet and our future. Understandably, emotions run high and some views are extreme. At one extreme some people deny that the climate is warming and others deny that we are causing it, despite overwhelming scientific consensus to the contrary. Among such deniers are people in the business and political sectors, who fear the loss of livelihoods and prosperity.  

At another extreme I have come to realise that some people are apparently so fearful of climate change that they lose the objectivity needed to see the best way forward. These may be well-meaning socially-minded people who care passionately about the environment. They often come from a younger generation, arguably with a greater stake in the future. At this extreme, the view is advanced that a switch from fossil fuels to alternatives including wind and solar energy can simultaneously address the climate and energy challenges. The argument is further made that such a switch is largely a matter of policy decision and public education.

Meanwhile other commentators point out that alternatives such as wind, bio and solar energy are more expensive and less reliable than fossil fuel energy. This is extremely inconvenient for some environmentalists, so they may argue that this view is propagated by those with vested interests in the status quo. They point out as a counter argument that there is far more inherent energy in the wind and sun than we can possibly need, that it will continue in perpetuity and that using it does not liberate carbon dioxide into the environment. “All we need to do is harvest that energy”, they say.

The debate is unfortunately complicated by occurring at exactly the time in history when the human population is approaching its peak, and when the finite nature of resources has become obvious. Both extremes of the energy debate find these facts extremely inconvenient, so both are united in the over-optimistic belief that scientific ingenuity and investment in technology will find ways to maintain supplies of energy and essential materials, and feed a population of 9+ billion while not polluting the environment.

The objective assessment is that both extremes are wrong. The evidence says that fossil fuels cause climate change and alternative energies are more expensive and less versatile than fossil fuel energy. Building the alternative energy infrastructure will require large amounts of expensive and finite materials such as rare earth elements, and can only be achieved by consuming fossil fuels in mining, refining, manufacturing and transport. As the oil price escalates, so does the cost of all energy, of whatever type. Our present societies are built on the consumption of fossil fuels not only for mining, manufacturing and transport, but also for food production, chemical feedstocks, plastics, bitumen, communication, entertainment, leisure and fighting wars. The notion that we can simply change our source of energy to replace fossil fuels has become an ideology or faith, with many followers. Ironically many businesses are exploiting followers of this faith by selling them ‘sustainable solutions’ such as hybrid cars or solar panels.

Fossil fuels are still the most efficient and cost effective way of providing energy and resources for our prosperity. No nation is going to introduce policy to cut greenhouse gas emissions if it compromises its wealth and the employment of its people. Once the relatively easy measures have been adopted and deployed, actions to achieve more substantial reductions will not be tolerated by society due to the associated loss of prosperity and jobs. The debate about energy provision and reduction in carbon dioxide emissions needs to accept the realities. No amount of lobbying and campaigning is going to lead our society to willingly accept a wholesale switch away from fossil fuels to alternatives such as wind and solar in the immediate future.

The major energy companies have already planned for continued increases in fossil fuel consumption. One estimate is that $300 trillion will be invested in building cities to accommodate an extra million people every week for the next 30 years (mostly in Asia). This can only be done with fossil fuel energy. Some estimates anticipate increased global consumption of about 60% more fossil fuels (mostly gas and coal) by 2050, including increased consumption in the wealthy western countries. Building the infrastructure for a further 90 million Americans and 15 million Australians will require massive fossil fuel consumption.

The ‘green’ lobby does itself no favours by over-estimating the potential of alternative energy. Too much of it is wishful thinking, unrealistic and emotional. While they label as ‘deniers’ those who refuse to accept the reality that we are causing the climate to change, in return some deny the reality that fossil fuels are far more efficient and effective at providing energy than the sun, the wind or even nuclear fission. And they do not accept that alternative energy sources are finite, arguing instead that the resources used to operate a society based on non-fossil fuel energy can be recycled indefinitely with 100 % efficiency. The reality is that recycling of resources is inefficient, costly and dirty even in an energy-rich fossil-fuel world, and will be more difficult in a world fueled by solar and wind energy. So as we reach peak resources in the coming decades, the energy available to society will also peak.

These highly polarised and emotional arguments (‘denials’) hinder progress towards making sensible policy decisions that can improve our wellbeing. It is perhaps understandable when the effects of global warming are so potentially catastrophic, that concerned people pin their hopes on the energy of the sun. But unfortunately they are blinded by the light into thinking that the solution is simple, when it is not. The future should be bright, not when pinned on the false hope of using alternative energy to maintain the current materialistic lifestyle, but only when we realise that we will be forced to drastically change the way we live, arguably for the better.

Further reading and discussion

Hughes, J.D. Hydrocarbons in North America. In: the Post Carbon Reader: Managing the 21st Century’s Sustainability Crisis. Richard Heinberg and Daniel Lerch, eds. (Healdsburgh, CA: Watershed Media, 2010).

Kramer, Gert Jan and Haigh, M (2009) No quick switch to low carbon energy. Nature 462, 568-569.

Signals and Signposts: Shell energy scenarios to 2050 (published 2011).

Paul Hawken: The Red Queen Dilemma (2011)


The ABC of tomorrow’s world: Amphibians, Bailouts and Carbon

Three seemingly unconnected news items caught my attention this week, but they each tell us something about the stresses on our world.

First is the news that Air India is in big financial trouble and in need of a bailout.

Bailouts seem to be in fashion these days. We saw the need to bailout big banks and financial institutions in the USA and Europe during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008/9. More recently we have seen whole countries in need of financial bailouts to keep the Eurozone functioning. As I understand it, the USA’s ‘war on terror’ in Iraq and Afghanistan has been funded by borrowed money.

All of this tells me that the wealthy countries are living far beyond their means.

It raises the question whether institutions or countries should opt for austerity to ride out the tough times (as in Southern European countries), or try to grow their way out of financial trouble as is favoured in the USA (which means borrowing more, presumably). Ultimately we hit the buffers of resource constraints – the price of oil for example – which is presumably where Air India feels most pressure.

My choice is to live within my means.

Second is a wonderfully sharp quote from Professor Graham Farquhar from the Australian National University Climate Change Institute. When asked about the effectiveness of Australia’s new carbon tax, he said:

 “The aim of the carbon tax is to reduce Australian emissions by five per cent. In turn, the aim of that reduction is to put political or economic pressure to encourage or shame other countries to reduce their emissions by five per cent. If we are successful and all the countries of the world reduce their emissions to five per cent below what they would have been, then the anthropogenic climate that we would otherwise have seen in 2031 will be postponed until 2032.”

Now, this statement can (and will!) be interpreted in two completely opposite directions, depending which ‘side’ of the debate you come from. Either it means the effect of the carbon tax will at best be insignificant and we should abandon it. Or, we need to do far far more to cut carbon dioxide emissions so let’s increase taxes and introduce new legislation.

Take your pick!

Third, the news that scientists from Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) found three long-legged Borneo rainbow toads up a tree during a night time search.

Why so interesting? This toad is absolutely beautiful, has not been seen since the 1920’s and had never before been photographed. Check out the picture on the BBC website! The Global Search for Lost Amphibians in 2010, had listed the toad as one of the “world’s top 10 most wanted frogs”.

Dr Robin Moore of Conservation International said “It is good to know that nature can surprise us when we are close to giving up hope, especially amidst our planet’s escalating extinction crisis. Amphibians are at the forefront of this tragedy, so I hope that these unique species serve as flagships for conservation, inspiring pride and hope by Malaysians and people everywhere.”

My conclusion is that even if curtailing carbon dioxide emissions is too big a challenge, working to save forests and natural ecosystems is something that we can and must do.

Rare Earth Elements in oceanic mud – saviour of the new energy and electronics industries?

News outlets have recently been busy reporting a new paper in Nature Geoscience from a Japanese team documenting very large amounts of Rare Earth Elements (REE) in the mud at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

REE are essential for many new developments in electronics and future energy technologies, including solar voltaic cells, LED’s, electric motors, wind turbines and computers. They include lanthanum, praseodymium, neodymium, europium, terbium and dysprosium. A single wind turbine may contain a tonne of neodymium. The electric car industry cannot take off without REE.

Currently China produces 97% of global supplies of REE, and available resources for some REEs are measured in terms of just a few decades, even at today’s rate of consumption. It is expected that demand will soon outstrip supply.

Processing of ore can require leaching with hydrochloric acid or sulfuric acid (both of which are products of the petrochemical industry), ion exchange separation, solvent partitioning and crystalisation.  By-products and contaminants can be environmentally damaging. Among these are thorium and uranium which are risks to animal health and the environment. China currently produces most of the world supply of REE because it has cheap labour and low safety requirements.

There is concern that the replacement of fossil fuel energy throughout the world could be scuppered by a shortage of REE for alternative energy infrastructure.

The new study reports that at some sites the oceanic mud hold about 25,000 tonnes REE per square kilometre of ocean floor, so theoretically a mere 6 square kilometres would be enough to meet current world demands for a whole year. The total sub-oceanic REE resources could be about 100 billion tonnes, which is 1000 times more than the known terrestrial resources. The authors from Japan point out that such mud ‘may constitute a highly promising resource for the future’.

 So, is this discovery the saviour of the future energy industry?

A couple of things to note are firstly that so called ‘Rare Earths’ are not that rare. They are very abundant in the Earth’s crust (in similar amounts to cobalt and nickel). The problem is that they are distributed at low concentrations and are difficult to refine.

The second thing is that REE in ocean sediments have been known about for decades. What is new is the more detailed analysis of the distribution, amounts and complexity of theses elements in the mud.

The concentrations of REE in mud are not particularly high compared to terrestrial deposits, but if the mud is brought to the surface it may be easier to extract than terrestrial deposits, and the mud contains much less of the damaging thorium and uranium.

So if deep oceanic mud has potential advantages, does it have disadvantages?

Yes, the mud deposits are at depths of about 5000 meters. What will be the costs of developing technology and infrastructure to collect cubic kilometres of mud every year and transporting it to land for processing?

What will be the impacts on ocean floor life and ocean ecosystems of scraping up the mud?

Where will the waste be deposited?

 My conclusions:

The optimistic view of this ‘news’ is that a vast resource of REE has been documented, giving hope that we have the resources for large-scale alternatives to fossil fuel energy.

The more objective view is that this report in Nature Geosciences changes little, since we have known all along that there are vast amounts of REE in the Earth. If anything it highlights the fact that REE will be increasingly challenging to find, mine and refine.

Whether terrestrial or oceanic in origin, the mining of REE deposits and the processing into purified elements is fossil-fuel-dependent, potentially damaging to the environment, a health risk to workers, and expensive. As the price of fossil fuels increases in future, so will the cost of REE and the alternative energy sources on which they depend.

So called ‘clean’ or ‘green’ energy is more of a ‘muddy green’ and will be increasingly expensive to build and sustain in the long term as oil prices rise.  

Humanity should be looking at ways to reduce the demand for all resources, rather than scrabbling in the ocean floor mud for resources in a vain attempt to sustain the current model of growth and consumption. This will inevitably drive the continued consumption of fossil fuels and continued GHG emissions into the atmosphere.

Of course our industrialised societies will not willingly contemplate a deliberate slowing of growth. Mother Earth will take that decision for us.

 Reference and links

Y. Kato, K. Fujinaga, K. Nakamura, Y. Takaya, K. Kitamura, J. Ohta, R. Toda, T. Nakashima and H. Iwamori. Deep-sea mud in the Pacific Ocean as a potential resource for rare-earth elements Nature Geoscience. Published online 03 July 2011. doi:10.1038/ngeo1185.

Future Production of Food Crops

 The ‘green revolution’ and industrialisation of agriculture led to huge increases in crop production around the world. Now the pressure is on to feed 3 billion extra mouths in the next 40 years while the climate changes and the costs of energy and resources escalate. As a plant geneticist and physiologist, I see the future contribution to be made by plant breeders as valuable, but quantitatively small. Instead, changes in the expectations and actions of people will play the major role in steering us through some challenging decades ahead. Here I summarise some of the issues that will challenge food production and suggest that our greatest need is to recognise that ‘business as usual’ is not an option.

Breeding for yield

The ‘green revolution’ which combined (i) breeding of high-yielding varieties, (ii) the application of fertlilisers and pesticides, (iii) the increased use of irrigation and (iv) cheap transport fuels, led to huge increases in food crop production in the period since the Second World War. Global cereal production has increased three-fold per hectare and in developed countries using energy-intensive agricultural systems, yields of some crops have increased 5 or 10-fold per unit of land.

But what of the future? The IPCC in 2007 assumed global crop yield increases of 80% by 2050, continuing the trend of the post war era. But such increases in yields of some crops have already ceased. Yields of wheat have plateaued and while some gains continue to be made in maize and rice productivity, it is sobering to note that Chinese rice production only increased by 2% per hectare in the period 1997 to 2007 while in the preceding decade it increased by 17% (FAO 2009). Plant breeding has achieved an enormous amount but obviously there is a limit to how much more can be achieved. Modern soybean varieties intercept 90% of the photosynthetically-active solar radiation through the growing season and invest a whopping 60% of their biomass into the harvested seeds. There is no room for improvement there. We might be able to increase the rate of plant growth, but we do not know how to do that (Zhu et al., 2010).

Effects of climate change

Optimists point to the positive effects of increased temperatures and atmospheric CO2 levels on crop productivity in the future. While it is true that increasing the temperature and CO2 levels can increase plant productivity in some specific cases (depending on the type of plant and the place), the widely held view among plant physiologists is that any such benefits will be small, and will be outweighed by the negative impacts of higher temperatures, water limitations and extreme weather events (Ainsworth and Ort 2010; Long and Ort, 2010). Growing-season temperatures may be higher than the average (e.g.. a 3oC average rise could be 4oC in summer and 2oC in winter). U.S. maize and soybean production have been predicted to fall by at least 30% by the end of this century under the IPCC scenario with lowest temperature rise. Sporadic heat waves have serious effects on yields such as the +6oC heat wave in Europe in 2003 which saw record crop losses. Fertility and grain fill are adversely affected by high temperatures.

Effects of energy costs

Coupled with the increasing costs of transport fuels, chemicals and fertilisers as fossil fuel prices escalate, crop production per unit of land will be unable to keep pace with population growth and with the hopes of the people of developing nations. Major increases in crop productivity in developing nations are likely to be constrained by the increasing costs of implementing western-style industrialised agriculture. Thus, increasing demands for more food are likely to be met by clearing more land for agriculture, but such land is likely to be poor quality compared to the food bowls of the U.S. Mid West, Argentina or Europe.


World agriculture consumes about 100 million tonnes of nitrogen fertilisers per year. Most of this fertiliser is manufactured from natural gas by means of the Haber-Bosch process. The methane (CH4) of natural gas is oxidised to CO2 and hydrogen. The hydrogen is then reacted with nitrogen from the air at high temperature and pressure to form ammonia. This process consumes as much as 5% of the world’s natural gas production. And it puts at least 300 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. Eutrophication, soil acidification and emission of the greenhouse gases nitrous oxide and methane are other consequences of nitrogen fertiliser use.

We use 50 million tonnes of phosphate every year. China and the USA are the world’s biggest producers. The USA produces 19 % but 65 % of that amount comes from mines in Florida which may not last more than a few decades. Meanwhile nearly 40 % of global reserves are controlled by Morocco. The concept of ‘peak phosphate’ is real and we will see prices rise steeply.

Obviously such use of N and P fertilisers cannot be continued indefinitely (they are not ‘renewable’), yet without them, crop production in the industrialised nations will fall dramatically. From the perspective of the environment, using less is preferable. Breeders are already busy trying to select varieties that use N and P more efficiently but by using less, we may still need to compromise on lower yields.


Water dominates crop yields. Warmer temperatures mean more water held in the atmosphere and less rain on average. The loss of some glaciers due to global warming will deprive some rivers of their summer flow. So both rain-fed and irrigated crops will face challenges in the future.  Two targets for plant breeders are drought tolerance and water use efficiency. These are complex traits but some progress is being made to produce plants that can tolerate episodes of drought. However, tolerating drought and growing under drought are two different things.

Migration of crop production

There are two emerging geographical trends in crop production. The most immediate of these is the leasing of land in foreign countries to produce food for import. Korea’s Daewoo Logistics announced in 2009 that it had negotiated a 99-year lease on 3.2 million acres of farmland on Madagascar. That’s nearly half of the arable land, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and Daewoo plans to put about three quarters of it under corn. The remainder will be used to produce palm oil for biofuels. Other developed nations are following suit. In a very recent move, Bangladesh has announced plans to lease crop land in Sub-Saharan Africa in a move that acknowledges its precarious position on food security. It is likely that such arrangements will lead to future tensions between nations if they do not lead to the types of benefits both parties hope for.

The second trend is less obvious and much slower. With global warming, crop producing areas will migrate slowly towards the poles. Thus the wheat belt of North America is predicted to migrate northwards into Canada as temperatures rise. However soil quality further north is less good, so yields may drop. In Australia the wheat belt is moving southwards, but it does not have far to go before it reaches the southern ocean. Eurasia will see a similar migration and this will shift production from one country to its northern neighbour.


The shift towards high protein diets in developing nations makes further demands on crop production. China imported 1.1 M tonnes of soybeans in 1990 but 33 M tonnes in 2007 (from 1% to 15% of global production).  Meat production can require as much as 5 times as much land to produce the equivalent amount of vegetable food (animals convert plants into meat very inefficiently). Animal production also contributes to methane emissions.

Civil unrest, political instability and conflict between neighbours

We have already witnessed civil unrest resulting from food shortages in Egypt, The Philippines, Haiti and elsewhere. We have seen some countries impose export bans on some of their crop products, to meet domestic demands (such as wheat in Russia and rice in India). There is continued tension between India and Pakistan for the water flowing in the Indus and Chenab river systems – a strategically vital resource for both nations. Countries at war focus more effort on fighting than on growing crops. Whenever civil unrest or conflict develops, productivity is threatened. Wikipedia reports 115 wars since 1990. If food shortages become more acute, then more conflicts will be triggered, and food production will suffer further.

Other threats

Other threats include changes in the distribution and severity of plant pests and disease, rising sea levels, flooding, storms, decline in soil quality (eg erosion, salinity) and diversion of resources into growing energy crops for biofuels rather than food crops. It is ironic that the industrialisation of agriculture was hailed as the ability to transform oil (petroleum) into food, but now we consider trying to do the reverse.

The future

Business as usual is not an option for future food production. Science and technology can help but does not have all the answers. Improved crop varieties will be created but improvements are likely to be incremental rather than transforming. We will need to adjust to different food supplies and expectations. Seasonal food should be appreciated. We will need to make better use of the food we produce. The cost of food will increase with energy costs and people in the West should expect to spend an increasing proportion of their income on food. Presumably as food costs rise, people will be less wasteful. Reducing meat consumption will be beneficial. Growing diverse crops in local communities and regions will become more important. Food produced by ‘people power’ will become increasingly important, relative to food produced industrially. This raises the possibility that developing nations might be better adapted to produce food with low inputs, relative to western nations that are currently hooked on high intensity agriculture.  Continued economic growth is the biggest threat so we need to campaign for population control and less dependence on consumption of energy and resources, particularly water, fossil fuels and minerals.


How do we improve crop production in a warming world? Ainsworth EA and Ort DR (2010) Plant Physiology 154, 526-530.

More than taking the heat: crops and global change. Long SP and Ort DR (2010) Current Opinion in Plant Biology 13, 241-248.

Improving photosynthetic efficiency for greater yield. Zhu XG, Long SP and Ort DR (2010) Annual Reviews of Plant Biology, 61, 235-261.

Provocations for Discussion


Climate change as a symptom of the growth disease


Steve Smith, 13th May 2011


I am more occupied by the challenges of growth than of climate change.


I accept that climate change is an urgent and potentially catastrophic problem.


I fear that simplistic solutions such as promoting electric cars and wind farms will achieve little, except a different kind of growth, which will not only require fossil fuel energy, but may even stimulate consumption of fossil fuels.


As long as we are growing, fossil fuel consumption will continue apace (especially coal, since oil production has peaked and prices are escalating).


Coal consumption is increasing. Coal fired power stations continue to increase.


Australia and USA set to grow by 20M and 100M consumers

Economic migration is another form of growth.


Increasing costs of basic commodities raises the cost of living, pushes more people into poverty, increases the cost of finding and refining resources, transport, food etc.


The price of food is tied to the price of oil.


We see increasing civil unrest (which exacerbates some of the above problems, pushing prices up faster).


Efficiency gains are unrealistic – Jevons was correct.

See a truly excellent article by David Owen of ‘The New Yorker’


We cannot solve today’s problems with yesterday’s thinking


Simply growing a new energy sector is yesterday’s thinking.


Resources crunch


We cannot see or feel the effects of climate change (we rely on what the scientists tell us).


But we can see and feel the effects of increasing food prices, air travel, energy, water.

And the effects on jobs.


People will not act on climate change until it affects them directly. It is almost impossible to persuade people to treat the symptoms that have not yet revealed themselves.


Carbon pricing is currently tokenistic. We see how unacceptable a tax is to the Australian public and businesses. Exemptions, refunds or moving the emissions offshore are the order of the day (ie. achieving almost nothing).


But can people be persuaded to cut consumption and growth?


Most of today’s immediate problems are the consequence of too many people consuming too much stuff, not a problem of climate change.


Instead of trying to grow the economy by building new infrastructure, which will increase demand for more fossil fuels and resources, can a decrease in growth and reduced demand for resources slow the consumption of fossil fuels?


Can the resources crunch come to the rescue of climate change?


Treating the growth disease that we can all see developing, may be more achievable than trying to treat one symptom that has not yet had an impact on anyone. It might even effectively treat the climate change symptom.


Instead, most people advocate developing alternative energy in the hope that it can maintain current lifestyles and growth. But it cannot because of the resources crunch (see my previous STW entry).


Pushing for alternative energy sources is like bailing a boat with a hole in the bottom. We still sink. We still consume fossil fuels.


A new way forward


People and society should be educated about the limits of resources and how this will dictate future lifestyles. Not be told that non-fossil fuel energy will come to the rescue to sustain current life styles.


Continued growth and material wealth is not possible.


A future that does not depend on materialism and possessions is very appealing.


A future where what we do is more important than what we have.


What we do for each other, rather than what others can do for us.


Too Utopian? Unrealistic?


Does today’s lifestyle bring fulfilment and wellbeing?


How might changes in values be driven?


We have seen how cigarette smoking has shifted from the norm, to undesirable, to repulsive.


We may see similar responses to materialism. People who flaunt their wealth with expensive cars and big houses may become subjects of scorn.


Challenging circumstances can bring out the best in people.


Are there things that individuals can do to cut consumption and hence energy demand?


Stop flying overseas for holidays

Buy local produce

Eat less meat

Value services rather than goods

Job sharing

Stay-at-home parents

Stop buying gadgets

Community projects

Grow food


Technological solutions (the ‘ideal home’ concept of electronic management) is not the answer, but changes in values and expectations are.

Ask the neighbour, don’t buy a gadget.


Buy a small car and use it little. Don’t buy a hybrid.

Live in a small (but beautiful) house.

Play sports, don’t buy a wii, listen to a band, don’t buy a music gadget.

Share things.


Before you buy something, ask how it will improve the quality of your life or anyone else’s. Ask what effect it has on the planet (eg what resources and energy were used to make it?)


We still need modern technology:

Internet allows us to work at home, communicate

Health care


Advanced public transport




The resources crunch (increased prices, shortages and world unrest) will hit hard very soon.

This will be the time when society will accept change. Even willingly.

We should be prepared. Have sensible solutions ready.

Not give society false hope of technological or economic fixes to sustain the unsustainable consumption and growth.

Energy is neither renewable nor sustainable

The pressure is on to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to slow climate change. The way proposed by most people is to switch away from fossil fuels to alternatives such as wind, solar, tidal and geothermal. Such alternative energy sources are often described as ‘renewable’ or ‘sustainable’. This terminology implies to most people that such alternatives can meet our energy demands in perpetuity, without polluting the environment. This is wrong, and will lead to serious errors in policy making.

Energy generated for human use cannot be ‘green’, ‘clean’, ‘renewable’ or ‘sustainable’. These words are all part of the ‘greenwashing’ or ‘sugar-coating’ vocabulary used for the benefit of corporate or political interests, or simply words of misunderstanding. They have no foundation in rigorous scientific language or thought.

Put simply the Earth can be considered as an open thermodynamic system in terms of energy but a closed system as far as matter is concerned. The sun continues to radiate energy to the Earth, and energy is re-radiated to space, more-or-less at the same rate. Over a very long period of time (many millions of years) there is a progressive increase in entropy and a net loss of energy from the Earth to the rest of the universe but this natural process is not significant on time scales relevant to humans.

However, humans increasingly wish to convert solar radiation into different forms of energy such as electricity or fuel, that can do work. This can only be achieved by creating devices or machines to convert one form of energy into another and the resources for those devices come from the Earth’s crust. Those devices have a finite life span and depend on yet further infrastructure (transport, cities, factories, universities, police, etc.) to maintain and operate them, which in turn has a finite life span. Continued mining, refining and manufacturing is required.

The amount of energy captured from the sun by such devices can never be enough to restore the Earth to its original condition. This is determined by the second law of thermodynamics. So the process of mining, building and manufacturing, to convert and use energy, inexorably depletes and degrades the Earth’s mineral resources. It is irreversible and unsustainable. It makes no difference whether we consider solar, wind, hydro, coal, bio, nuclear or geothermal energy. They are all unsustainable according to the laws of physics.

The second law of thermodynamics also tells us that we cannot completely recycle resources that have been extracted from the Earth and refined for use (such as metals, helium or phosphate fertiliser). The greater the percentage we try to recycle, so the energy cost increases disproportionately. So whether the resources that we want to use are still in the ground or are in circulation above ground, human industry will inevitably dissipate and lose those resources.

The more people we have on the planet, and the more energy we use, the faster and more extensive is the degradation of Earth’s resources. Humanity is like a huge organic machine, using energy to mine and deplete minerals. The more energy that is put into the system, the faster the degradation occurs. Nuclear fusion energy, if it comes to be, might be particularly efficient at degrading our resources and environment (one effect of such technology may be to convert our lithium reserves into helium which will escape the Earths atmosphere and be lost forever).

Energy for human use is as unsustainable and non-renewable as mining. So to talk about ‘renewable energy’ or ‘sustainable energy’ is an oxymoron, as is ‘sustainable mining’ or ‘sustainable development’. The more energy we use, the less sustainable is humanity.   The sooner that people realise this, the sooner we can embark on the process of reducing energy consumption, rather than clutching at the straws of alternative energy sources to perpetuate the unsustainable.

In subsequent posts I will show that resource limitations are just decades away, not centuries, and that the scramble for resources will increase demand for fossil fuel energy.

Further reading

Johnston P, Everard M, Santillo D, Robèrt KH. (2007). Reclaiming the definition of sustainability. Environ. Sci. Pollut. Res. Int. 14(1):60-6.

Kleidon A and Lorenz R (2004). Entropy Production by Earth Systems Processes. In: Kleidon A and Lorenz R.D. (eds.) Non-equilibrium thermodynamics and the production of entropy: life, Earth, and beyond. Springer Verlag, Heidelberg. ISBN 3-540-22495-5

Our Common Future:

Brundtland Report

The Natural Step





Responsible Energy Reporting

Scientists and science communicators have a responsibility to report new research in a balanced and objective way. Exaggerated claims of the importance of fundamental discoveries and technological developments in areas such as alternative energy and carbon capture, lead to false expectations and poor policy. The message that should be conveyed is that science and technology is important to pursue, but it does not have the answers to deliver cheap clean energy in the amount that societies have come to expect from fossil fuels.

Until this message is conveyed accurately and responsibly, people will continue to live their lives of consumption in the belief that science and technology will provide for them. Policy makers will continue to avoid the realities of confronting climate change and energy provision because they have a convenient get-out clause provided by scientists who exaggerate the potential of their favourite new energy technology. The idea that scientists are going to provide technology that will give us all the energy we demand without emitting carbon dioxide is an aspiration, not a reality. By over-promoting a particular discovery or technology scientists are potentially doing more harm than good to the public interest and to the environment. It is time to call to account, those scientists and media outlets that do society this disservice.  It is time for energy researchers to act with the same sense of responsibility as if they were conducting cancer research.

At times when we face challenges and adversity, we welcome good news to give us hope and encouragement. Equally in good times we welcome more good news to reassure us that the good times are here to stay.  Good news sells newspapers, attracts audiences and generates income.  It provides our leaders with credibility and endorsements of their policies.

Good news from the science lab raises the profile of particular scientists, helps them to attract new research funding, new research students, tenure or promotion. Scientists have mortgages to pay and school uniforms to buy just like everyone else.

So what’s wrong with this?

When I read ‘good news stories’ in areas in which I can legitimately claim to be a specialist, all too often I see exaggerated claims for a new piece of information or new technology. Scientist and reporter working in tandem are responsible for this ‘hype’.

This exaggeration provides false hope and expectations in the minds of those looking for solutions to our energy or climate problems. It is misleading. Potentially dangerously so.

It also provides policy-makers, when confronted with a challenging question, a very convenient get-out clause such as: “Oh the scientists have made a breakthrough in X [technology] that will enable us to meet that particular challenge“, or “We have invested in a promising new technology to meet that challenge”.

It is time for us to stand up and say: “Science and technology does not have all the answers. Society as a whole must take collective responsibility and bring about change in our demands”.

Let me give you an example. In 2009 I published a paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry describing some features of energy metabolism in an alga (Chlamydomonas reinhardtii) that can convert sunshine into hydrogen (that was not our discovery, we just described some details).

What!? Sunshine into hydrogen? Simply add algae, water and mix. Surely this is the holy grail of bioenergy?

My university information office saw this publication and immediately wanted to write a ‘good news story’ for media release. My first reaction was yes of course; good publicity for us all.  ‘Scientists at UWA unlock secrets of hydrogen produced from sunshine’ or some such banner.

I contacted my co-author Ben Hankamer, at the University of Queensland to ask for his opinion and agreement, and these are the comments that came back: 

“there are so many [media] releases being made and unless they stand up truly as a breakthrough, people will become increasingly jaded with unrealistic claims.”

“the impression is one of this being ‘the solution’, when we all know there are many technical hurdles to overcome.”

I only had to reflect on this for a few moments to realise that he was absolutely correct, and that we scientists had to report our research far more responsibly. In other words, to go along with the hype of the media circus would have been irresponsible. I pulled the draft media release and my office was upset at ‘a lost opportunity’.

In 2010 I attended an international conference in Melbourne at which there was an evening public debate on the promise of biofuels and bioenergy. The meeting was chaired by the eminent and widely respected ABC science communicator Robyn Williams, and the author Tim Flannery (the new chair of Australia’s Climate Change Commission) was one of the contributors.

I am afraid that I found the whole tone unrealistically optimistic and not sufficiently critical of the opportunities that bioenergy can provide. In particular Robyn Williams cited the example of hydrogen production from algae as an example of a new breakthrough clean technology that can help to meet our future energy demands. My own view is that hydrogen production from algae is so limited that it could only ever provide us with a very expensive source of energy in small amounts.  But since I did not have the opportunity to state this, 100 people went away feeling good about the future of hydrogen from algae.

I subsequently found that Robyn Williams had interviewed Ben Hankamer in 2008, so possibly this one source of Robyn’s information and enthusiasm. The interview reveals that Ben was trying to be cautious with his answers, while Robyn was looking for something newsworthy.  Even Ben, who professes caution, was drawn into being overly optimistic.

Let’s be enthusiastic, but only when it is justified. Science communicators please take note. Offering false hope is a disservice to society.

Even when I venture outside my area of professional expertise, I can see obvious examples of exaggerated claims that give people false hope and policy-makers convenient escape routes. “Scientists discover new form of energy” proclaimed a headline in the Guardian newspaper. I looked at the original research paper and it became immediately obvious that scientists had discovered no such thing.

We must stop this hype.

Of course, the biomedical research sector has had to deal for decades with the issue of raising false hope. ‘New drug to beat cancer’, has given way to more responsible reporting, because for some people reading these reports it is literally a life-or-death outcome.  False hope in climate and energy research is just as serious as that in health, and reporting in these areas should adopt equally strict codes. Making mistakes and poor decisions in relation to the climate change, is a matter of life-or-death for ecosystems and species, including humans.

We should all monitor the outputs from such media offices and hold them to account if they make exaggerated claims that could lead to false hope, unrealistic expectations, and worst-of-all bad policy in the areas of climate, energy and resources.  Academic institutions must set an ethical example.

This is one area in which scientists can have a real impact on policy for climate change and new energy sources. Stop exaggerating in order to advance your own research field, and adopt a more objective and responsible approach. If you review papers or grant applications that make exaggerated claims, call them to account! Let us make responsible and realistic research that which attracts the funding and kudos, not the over-egged research.


Shelby Lin Erdman, CNN, March 16, 2010.

MIT researchers discover new energy source


Choi W, Hong S, Abrahamson JT, Han JH, Song C, Nair N, Baik S, Strano MS. (2010) Chemically driven carbon-nanotube-guided thermopower waves. Nat Mater. 9: 423-9.


Matthew T, Zhou W, Rupprecht J, Lim L, Thomas-Hall SR, Doebbe A, Kruse O, Hankamer B, Marx UC, Smith SM, Schenk PM. (2009) The metabolome of Chlamydomonas reinhardtii following induction of anaerobic H2 production by sulfur depletion. J. Biol. Chem. 284: 23415-25.