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Sustainable Society:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.







Natural Capitalism

Cannot Overcome Resource Limits


F.E. Trainer*

Julian Simon
Amory Lovins
From specific to overall gains?
The early gains are the easiest
Swings and Roundabouts
The automobile
The energy problem
Solar hydrogen
Natural Gas
Now consider economic growth
Hence the "four level factor problem".
The ideological significance
The Alternative Perspective




The dominant conventional assumption is that industrial-affluent-consumer societies can be made sustainable by technical advances which dramatically reduce resource use and environmental impacts per unit of output, and thereby avoid any need to abandon the present commitments to affluent living standards and economic growth. Two influential supporters of this general position are discussed, viz., Julian Simon and Amory Lovins. Most attention is given to the latter's assumptions regarding energy, which it is concluded are seriously mistaken. This critical discussion reaffirms the limits to growth perspective. It is concluded that sustainability can only be achieved by radical change to a fundamentally different society, identified as The Simpler Way*.

Since the publication of The Limits to Growth by Meadows et al. (1972) discussion of the global situation has been divided into two camps. The dominant and conventional position has been that industrial-affluent-consumer society can continue without major change in its fundamental goals and operating principles, such as its commitments to high material living standards, the market system, private enterprise, globalisation and economic growth. Within this position it is usually acknowledged that there are formidable problems, especially ecological deterioration, but it is assumed that these can be dealt with adequately by technical advance, tougher legislation and the normal adjustments of the market place. For example it is argued that as some resources become more scarce it is assumed that their prices will rise making it economic to shift to substitutes or to increase their production.

The minority position follows Meadows et al. in arguing that there are limits to growth and that the multi-dimensional global predicament (including ecological, Third World, equity, conflict and social cohesion problems) cannot be resolved without radical change in some of the fundamental social principles, especially the abandonment of the commitments to high material living standards, to the market system and to economic growth. According to this perspective plausible technical advances cannot cut the resource use and ecological impact per unit of output sufficiently to sustain present rich nation levels of consumption or gross economic activity, or extend these to all the world's people, let alone enable constant growth in the volume of production and consumption. This is therefore describable as a "technical-fix" position (although it is sometimes assumed that the market rather than technical change will bring about the necessary adaptations.)

Julian Simon and Amory Lovins have probably been the two most influential supporters of the general "technical-fix" position. The nature of their contributions differ considerably. Lovins provides much more detailed technical arguments and proposals regarding impact reducing ways. Most of the following discussion will focus on the recent highly popular presentation with P. Hawken and H. Lovins, entitled Natural Capitalism (1999).

Julian Simon
(Note 1.).

Simon's two most influential works have been The Ultimate Resource (1981) and with Herman Khan The Resourceful Earth, (1984). The concern in the following brief discussion is primarily to draw attention to the curious forms of argument evident in these works. Their weaknesses tend not to be recognised by many who are impressed by Simon's reputation and claims but who have not read his arguments.

Simon's core logic is simply to analyse solely in terms of previous dollar cost trends. "Historical trends are the best basis for predicting the trends of future costs." (1981, p. 27.) Both Simon's main books examine data on resource, energy, land etc. costs and find that in virtually all cases costs have fallen continuously, meaning that they have been becoming less scarce. This is taken to be a sufficient case for the claim that scarcities will not be encountered in the future.

The insufficiency of this general approach would seem to require little demonstration. Firstly the evaluation of some of the most urgent limits to growth concerns does not directly involve dollar cost calculations, most obviously regarding whether or not the greenhouse problem or the loss of biodiversity are becoming critical, or whether our ecological footprint is unsustainable. More importantly, often the concern is that there might be good reasons for believing that the future will be radically different from the past. This is especially so with respect to petroleum supply (see below.) In general the appropriate considerations are to do with our understanding of the systems in question and with whether or not these involve factors likely to make the future unpleasantly unlike the past. In many areas there are good reasons to think the future will indeed be quite different from the past, and in general Simon flails to deal adequately with these considerations.

Simon does not acknowledge the extent to which his optimism depends on access to large quantities of cheap energy. His discussion of energy is probably the least satisfactory element in The Ultimate Resource. It is actually difficult to discern what his argument is, but the conclusion is clear enough; "When will we run out of energy? Never." (1981, p. 90.) Again the inappropriate method of looking backward is used. '"The most reliable method of forecasting the future costs and scarcity of energy is to extrapolate the historical trends of energy costs..." (1981, p. 90.) After a flimsy discussion making little reference to estimated energy resources we are told, "In brief, there is no compelling theoretical reason why we should ever run out of energy, or even why energy should be more scarce and costly in the future than it is now." (1981, pp. 100-101.) Reasons for regarding energy as setting impossible problems for industrial-affluent-consumer society, and for seeing it as the issue most seriously undermining Lovins' as well as Simon's position are detailed below.

Regarding the general ecological problem, Simon simply asserts that in general the situation is improving. The discussion is superficial and involves some strange assumptions, notably that the best index of pollution levels is human life expectancy, and as this is generally improving we have no need to worry about threats to the global ecosystem. He gives little or no attention to the most serious threats to the global ecological systems, such as from the greenhouse problem, the loss of biodiversity or the disruption of the nitrogen, carbon and phosphorus cycles, which have virtually no connection with present life expectancy rates. Simon was mistaken in claiming that no atmospheric temperature rise would be detected before 2000. (1981, p. 293.)

Simon's analysis of land availability also reveals noteworthy reasoning. His basic argument is that "...as the poor countries get richer...the number of people needed to work in agriculture to feed the rest of the population will begin to fall - even though the population gets bigger...So much for a long-run crisis in agricultural land caused by population growth!" (1981, p. 227.) His point is that the absolute number of farm workers per unit of land decreases, which "...makes it clear that the combined increases of income and population do not increase pressure on the land..." (225.) But obviously the number of agricultural workers per acre is no indicator of "pressure on the land" In fact, modern agriculture with its very low demand for labour can be far more environmentally destructive than traditional labour-intensive agriculture.

The latter part of Simon's book contains a lengthy series of arguments in favour of population growth. People are "...the ultimate resource". The more of them we have the more good things become possible. Three remarkable arguments are presented. Simon dwells firstly on the improvements that have taken place as population has grown. "Population growth clearly leads to an improved transport system" (p. 193.) Regarding the availability of squash courts on his campus he explains, "If there comes to be more people there will immediately be increased demand..." and "...more and better courts will be built." (1983, p. 195.) It might be that unit costs for providing more courts decline but obviously total resource and environment impacts on the planet increase.

Simon also argues that the more people there are, the more knowledge and innovation that will be generated, hence the more technical advance...and thus the more resource savings...and indeed "...this contribution is large enough in the long run to overcome all the costs of population growth." (1981, p. 196.) Thus we seem to be expected to believe that as the American population doubled this facilitated innovations which actually reduced total resource and environmental impacts. However this has actually increased considerably.

Amory Lovins

For some 30 years the works of Amory Lovins have probably provided more substantial support for the conventional "technical fix" position than any other author. The recent widely acclaimed work with H. Lovins and P. Hawken, Natural Capitalism (1999), constitutes the latest detailed presentation of Lovin's general position. The book explicitly reaffirms the dominant assumptions that the major global problems can be solved by the implementation of better technologies and that there is no need to consider radical reduction in experienced "living standards" or abandon economic growth. The claim is in effect that we will be able to buy as many goods and services, drive as much, have current large and air-conditioned houses, travel by air as much, have as much international trade, air freight and shipping, etc, as we do now, because better technology will enable continuation of rich world experienced lifestyles through dramatic reduction in the associated resource demand and environmental impact per unit of product or experience consumed. Indeed Hawken, Lovins and Lovins argue that the technical changes will enable us to save the environment while making more money and raising the GDP. (p. 243.)

It is important to make clear the distinction between the "consumption" of services and experiences and the consumption of resources. Hawken, Lovins and Lovins make the valuable point that what matters is not having petrol to use but the ability to drive from place to place, it is not acquiring and consuming the materials that make up a fridge but access to the cooling service that a fridge provides, and it is not acquiring and consuming carpet materials but experiencing the service that carpets provide. Their argument is that consumption of these services and experiences can be maintained and increased while the overall consumption of resources and ecological impacts are markedly reduced . Thus we can avoid the confusion that would be generated by the statement "Hawken, Lovins and Lovins do not think consumption has to be reduced."

Lovins' arguments have met with remarkably little critical analysis and have been widely accepted, reinforcing the belief that the global problem is essentially due to the inexcusable failure to adopt the new technologies that are already available. Few contributors to the discussion of the global situation have so effectively reinforced the belief that we do not need to undertake dramatic reduction lifestyles and economic output, and the belief that continued economic growth is possible and desirable.

Natural Capitalism restates the general analysis Lovins has put forward in various publications, most recently in Factor Four. (Von Weisacker and Lovins, 1997.) It does not seem to add new lines of argument but it does provide up to date evidence in several of the areas his works have previously discussed. Its many detailed examples make it appear to be a weighty and convincing case driving home its basic thesis that in general sufficient answers already exist and that technical advance will soon improve on these. Indeed the book concludes that we have good reason to expect that the economic value that can be produced from a given input of resources can be improved by a factor of 10, and possibly much more.

It is beyond dispute that there is merit in increasing general understanding of the gains that can be made in the efficiency of resource use, and the book is likely to encourage and enable many firms to consider options which they might otherwise not have recognised. In many cases it is evident that moving to ways that reduce materials and energy use and environmental impact do not necessarily involve higher production costs. Indeed sometimes considerable cost reductions come with the shifts. The book is also valuable in encouraging whole system thinking, as distinct from the consideration of isolated elements. In other words, sometimes a complete rethinking and reorganisation of an approach enables total resource costs to be cut. A good example of this is in moving from the supply of goods, such as carpets, to the supply of the service that the goods provide (p. 139.) Thus some firms are now undertaking to maintain a carpeted floor space, meaning that they monitor, repair and replace carpet tiles as appropriate, and are thereby able to fully recycle the materials. The book contains many such examples of sensible practice, and of the desirability of considering radically new ways of meeting ultimate goals.

However when it comes to the fundamental thesis of the book Natural Capitalism is surprisingly unconvincing. Their basic claim is "...that 90-95% reductions in materials and energy are possible in developed nations without diminishing the quantity or quality of the services that people want." (p. 176.) In fact Hawken, Lovins and Lovins say that if the principles they are describing were applied everywhere "...they would reduce the total flow of materials needed to sustain a given stock of material artifacts or flow of services by a factor much nearer to one hundred, or even more..." p. 81. However, the book falls far short of having established that technology can solve the problems facing us and that radical change from affluent lifestyles and the current economy are not necessary. There are two main lines of criticism, the first being to do with what the possibilities Hawken, Lovins and Lovins discuss add up to, and the second being to do with the energy assumptions underlying their analysis.

From specific to overall gains?

Most space within the book is given to particular products or processes which demonstrate the potential for considerable savings in material and energy and/or environmental impact. However in general most of the references are to reductions only of the order of 50-80% i.e., up to a factor 4 reduction at best. For example, it is stated that the energy used by motors could be halved. (p. 246.), cars could save 70-80% of fuel now used and weigh one third to one half as much as present cars (p. 19.), and the introduction of the hypercar would reduce US steel production, but only by 10%, (p. 378), while increasing use of some high energy materials, such as plastics and carbon fibre. In general plastics are three times as energy intensive as steel. (Lawson, 1966.) The city of Curitaba, Brazil, is held up as a glowing example of the new technologies, but it is noted that the landfill volume has only been cut by one-sixth. (p. 301.)

It should be kept in mind that many of the references in the book are to US performance where energy use per capita is almost twice the European and Japanese levels, meaning that in general the associated reductions claimed to be possible would be much less in most other developed countries. For instance the hyper-car will weigh 1000 lb., which is a considerable reduction for the US but is much less significant in comparison with the present average weight of European and Japanese cars. Similarly the high US and Australian energy consumption rates are in part due to the much longer distances involved in these countries, for commuting, accessing shops, transporting and importing and exporting, and for leisure and holiday travel. Thus per capita energy use in these two high energy consuming countries could not so easily be cut to European and Japanese levels.)

The basic problem Lovins' works sets here is to do with how representative are the cases he discusses. It is one thing to focus on those instances where large reductions are possible but there may be many others where only lesser or negligible gains are likely. The question is what reduction can be made in the resource use and ecological impact of the total economy, and little light is thrown on this unless the potential for reductions in most of its components can be demonstrated and then added. Natural Capitalism leaves us quite unclear about what the reductions discussed and implied might add up to and therefore what proportion of current resource use and environmental impact technical advance might be capable of bringing about. It certainly does not provide a good case in support of the above claim that overall factor 10 reductions can be made.

In this context the discussion of specific products and industries where spectacular achievements are possible can be misleading. It is conceivable that where wastes are within the potential access of a firm, as is the case with carpet supply, a high proportion of the material can be recycled. However much waste is in a form wherein many metals, plastics and organic substances are mixed together making retrieval of particular items difficult. Even sorting before dumping leaves many items, such as electronic circuits, in which materials have been integrated in ways that make sorting problematic. Again the question is how indicative of the general situation are these selected impressive cases.

The early gains are the easiest

There is also the danger of being misled by evidence on the gains that can be made at the beginning of an era when serious attention is given to conserving, saving and recycling. After decades of profligate energy and resource consumption stimulated by extremely cheap petroleum, a form of energy that is of the highest quality (easily produced, transported, high calorific value, etc.) it is not surprising that there are now many areas in which enormous waste occurs and therefore in which there is huge scope for reduction. However in general the gains become more difficult at an exponential rate. To remove the first 10% of the pollutants from an engine exhaust might not be so difficult, but it will be much more difficult to remove the sixth 10%, i.e., to go from 50% to 40% of the original pollutant output. (Hawkins, Lovins and Lovins rightly point out that sometimes a jump to a different approach can enable a reduction associated with a reduced cost.) As will be made clear below, a sustainable and just society will require much more than a factor 10 reduction in total resource use and ecological impact, and it is likely that the difficulties will escalate disproportionately with respect to such large factor reductions.

Swings and Roundabouts

Economists often enthuse about the increase in business turnover and GDP resulting from, for instance the development of a new shopping mall, without attending to the associated loss of business turnover on the part of the small shops sent bankrupt by the opening of the mall, and the waste of their resources and labour. Similarly new technologies that save materials or energy in one department often increase such costs in others. For example Hawken, Lovins and Lovins claim that two-thirds of previously wasted wood can be used if laminated beams are made, but the net saving should take into account the increased cost of glues, handling, drying space, presses and other machinery. Lawson (1996) states that the energy cost of laminated beams is 22 times that of hardwood.

Similarly changing from carpet supply to supply of carpet services will reduce carpet throughput but it will also increase energy used by the service providers in travel and transport.


Understandably Hawken, Lovins and Lovins focus their case on those industries and instances where the most spectacular gains can be made. These tend to be in manufacturing, transport, lighting and space heating. However 70-80% of rich world national economic activity is within the service sector and the prospects for reductions in resource use here are less abundant. Certainly there is scope for significant reduction in lighting and space heating but consider the production and maintenance of short life-time business machinery and the associated rate of scrapping of integrated materials in items such as computer circuits, the provision of inks and toners, paper (given that the computerised office has not led to large reductions in paper use), lifts, catering and cleaning and the considerable energy costs associated with the need for frequent servicing of high tech office equipment.

Even purely knowledge-based services such as auditing, economic analysis, insurance, banking, legal services and consulting bring with them a large cost in offices, equipment and especially travel, both to work each day and to overseas conferences and consultations. It should therefore not be surprising that services actually account for 27% of the energy used in the Australian economy, despite its heavy reliance on agriculture, mining and transport. (Common, 1995.) Care needs to be taken regarding full accounting here; for example much energy in the service sector is electrical, so the primary energy going into electricity generation should be tallied.)

Especially important in the prospects for continuing economic growth in rich countries is the tourism industry, probably the world's most rapidly growing industry. Like many services this industry directly or indirectly involves intense use of materials and energy. Similarly, much of the business done by the insurance, retail, construction and banking industries is to do with production and sale of material items. Admittedly developments of the kind Hawken, Lovins and Lovins describe can reduce the materials costs of the item insured etc., but growth in the insurance industry will depend in large part on growth in the volume of production of such items.

Figures on the magnitude of the service industry can be misleading in overlooking the associated fraction of the domestic economy. To state that 27% of Australian energy use is accounted for by the services sector does not take into account all the materials and energy that the workers in this sector use in their domestic lives, and in their travel to work, purchase of work clothing etc. Nor does it take into account the energy required to build the premises, equipment, power supply and other infrastructures without which there could be no service sector. The "eMergy" accounting which is now beginning to inform the discussion of energy costing, is instructive here. (Odum, 1996.)

For example the full energy cost of solar energy pant will not just include the energy required to produce it, but also the energy required to produce all the factories, trucks, tools, offices, etc. that were required to produce it and would not have been produced had the solar plant not been built. Calculations of this kind can reveal that the construction of plant that initially seems promising will actually consume more energy than it can deliver in its lifetime. (Solar and wind plant appear to have acceptable though significant energy payback times, although evidence from full eMergy accounting is not yet available.) There is debate as to whether nuclear and biomass energy have positive energy accounts when eMergy calculations are performed. If a similar comprehensive approach was taken to the materials and energy costs of the service industries their real costs would probably be surprisingly substantial. Hawken, Lovins and Lovins do not deal with, let alone eliminate, the concern that for these sorts of reasons significant reductions in the materials and energy costs of the service sector will be difficult.

Without this full accounting some important facts and claims can be quite misleading. For example Hawken, Lovins and Lovins say of a particular carpet factory, "...the firm expects not to use another drop of oil." (p. 141.) Presumably this only refers to energy and materials inputs to carpet production and not to eMergy costs. Presumably much oil will still be used in building the plant, in transporting its workers every day and in travelling to sites where carpet is to be maintained.


There are some forces at work now tending to increase unit resource and ecological costs. For example goods are increasingly imported and transported a long way. As agribusiness takes over and drives out small farmers serving local markets the energy cost of food increases, because the markets are more global and distant, production methods are less labour-intensive, and there is an increased need for packaging and preserving. People are rapidly moving into cities now, where most per capita resource costs are higher (partly because lifestyles are much less ecologically sustainable, for example with respect to waste treatment.)They are opting for larger houses, and more resource expensive goods and leisure, especially more travel. Many functions and services once provided by local communities, such as care of aged and invalid people, counseling and support, are increasingly provided by institutions and professional people via more resource-expensive means. Because of diminishing returns in many areas it is taking increasing effort to produce a given item or unit. For example the shipping tonnage and energy use of the world's fishing fleet has increased much more rapidly than the world fish catch.

The automobile

Hawken, Lovins and Lovins' case rests heavily on their analysis of the automobile. Their argument is that the problems in this realm can be solved by shifting towards the radically new kinds of vehicles now being built, or on the drawing board. The "hypercar" involves light weight design and materials (few metals but mostly use of plastics), small motors which power electric drives, regenerative braking, aerodynamic design to reduce drag, and fuel cells. They make the important point that these car designs show how savings in particular areas can multiply overall gains. For example reducing the weight reduces the size of the engine needed, the braking capacity, and the road resistance, and several of these gains feed back into even lower need for engine power and weight.

However hypercar development is not likely to make much difference to the major and increasing fraction of the road transport energy consumption that is made up by trucking. While it is possible to design cars that are much lighter, thereby reducing most energy-related factors, energy demand in the trucking sector is determined primarily by the loads being carried and these are increasing all the time, per vehicle and in the aggregate. The same applies to the rapidly increasing volume of world trade.

Above all the vision Hawken, Lovins and Lovins put before us, involving the continuation of automobile use on more or less the present scale, depends on the development of the hydrogen powered fuel cell. Hawken and Lovins give no evidence of grasping the difficulties in the general energy realm and they endorse the common assumption that renewable energy sources can sustain industrial-affluent society and that the phasing out or exhaustion of fossil fuels need pose no threat to affluent lifestyles nor consumer economies nor economic growth. It is important therefore to outline here the basic reasons for concluding that this common assumption, and Lovins' long-standing optimistic position regarding renewable energy sources, are seriously mistaken. (For an initial statement of this position see Trainer 1995a.)

The energy problem

There are numerous tasks for which various renewable energy forms are presently viable and economic and there can be no doubt regarding the desirability of developing and adopting renewable energy sources as rapidly as possible. However the two energy forms that are most crucial for industrial-affluent society are electricity and liquid fuels, and it will be argued here that these cannot be provided in the required quantities to sustain rich world economies, or for all the world's people to rise to rich world lifestyles, let alone in the quantities that economic growth would require.

Firstly it should be noted that hydrogen, the energy source that will power the fuel cells in hypercars, is not an energy source; it is an energy carrier, similar to electricity, which must be produced by transforming some original energy source. The important question therefore is from what is hydrogen, or ethanol, to be produced in the very large quantities that would be needed to sustain rich world economies, even assuming much more efficient vehicles.

The most commonly assumed strategy involves the generation of hydrogen from photovoltaic electricity. Following is a brief indication of the rarely discussed difficulties this option involves. Despite making many claims for the viability of solar energy since the 1970s Lovins has not dealt with these issues.

Solar hydrogen
(Note 2.).

The average annual solar incidence in the USA is approximately 1900 kWh per square horizontal metre. However the USA is on average about 35 degrees North so the energy falling on each square metre of PV panels tilted 35 degrees towards the equator would be 2280 kWh/y. Kelly, (1993), claims PV operating efficiency in the field is 13%, as distinct from nominal ratings deriving from ideal laboratory conditions. (Actual performance experience indicates an even lower figure; see below.) The current commercial energy efficiency for the conversion of electricity to hydrogen is 65%.

On these assumptions each square metre of solar collection area will produce 192kWh pa, in the form of hydrogen, equivalent to 5.58 gallons of petrol. If fuel cells generating the electricity required to drive hypercar motors at around 40-50% efficiency are assumed, one square metre of collector will deliver energy to the wheels (or to household electricity supply) equivalent to approximately 2.5 gallons of petrol p.a.

The US uses 277 billion gallons of petroleum p. a. (Youngquist, 1997, p. 187, and U.S. Department of Energy, 2000.), although not all of it is used for transport. Therefore the solar collection area necessary to provide this quantity of energy in the form of petrol would be approximately 110 billion square metres, equivalent to 7% of the total US cropland area.

The cost of PV generating capacity is currently about $5 per watt, wholesale, and assuming 150W per square metre, the cost per metre is approximately $750. However this is only the cost of the panels and the "balance of system" cost is typically as much again per metre. (For systems that track the sun the cost is much higher although some 30% more energy is collected per metre.) Thus the cost of the PV collection system to replace US petroleum use would be 110 billion x $1,500, i.e., $165,000 billion, or $5,500 billion pa. assuming the plant has a 30 year lifetime. This averages $21 per gallon of petrol. (Note that the task of replacing US oil plus gas consumption would be 1.8 times as great as just replacing oil.)

There are several considerations which have not been taken into account in the above estimate, and which would greatly increase the real cost of fuel for the hypercar.

1. Operation and management costs for the generating plant, including keeping the huge collection area clean, would have to be added.

2. The actual performance of PV systems in the field can be well below expectations deriving from panel manufacturers specifications (13% assumed above) due to imperfect alignment, dust and water vapour in the atmosphere, dust on panels, aging of the cells, losses in wiring and inverters, and heating. 

3. Nominal ratings derive from ideal laboratory conditions. Data published in 1999 by BP Solarex (Corkish, 1999, Ferguson 2000a) on a 390 square metre system in the UK, an 805 square metre system in Switzerland, and on a 7960 square metre system in Toledo, Spain, 40 degrees North, show that over approximately three years the output of these systems was around 8-9% of the solar energy received by the respective collection areas. This factor indicates that the above cost figure based on a 13% performance efficiency might have to be multiplied by 1.5.

4. Energy dumping must also be taken into account. Electricity generated when batteries are full is wasted. This is not so when small scale systems feed a small proportion of demand into the grid, but there is a problem when a large fraction of demand is to be met from solar sources. If a system is designed to meet winter demand then approximately half the plant would be idle in summer when solar incidence is approximately twice winter incidence. This effect can be accounted as a reduction in actual PV cell efficiency in the field when performance is averaged over the year.

5. The energy cost of constructing the plant must be subtracted from its lifetime output before we can discuss the amount of energy it would actually deliver. The energy required for module production is usually claimed to be repaid in about 3 years (ignoring the issues raised in points 2 and 3 above.) However the energy cost of constructing large scale solar plant has been estimated theoretically at around one third of the (20 year) lifetime energy production of PV plant (Trainer, 1995a.) Ferguson (2000a) has calculated from the above BP Solarex data on actual three year performance of plants in Spain and Northumbria that the energy cost of system production would be between .25 and .38 of the energy these plants would generate in a 30 year lifetime. The full "eMergy" or net energy costs would be higher still. If the total eMergy cost of plant construction and operation is .3 of the energy it will deliver in its lifetime then the magnitude and the cost of the plant to deliver a unit of energy is 1.5 times as great as was assumed in the above estimate. (Roof-replacing PV panels or tiles have lower net energy costs; see below.)

6. The plant will not operate all the time.

7. The dollar and energy costs of the hydrogen producing plant, distribution systems fuel cells and other infrastructures have not been taken into account. The construction of fuel cell generating capacity equivalent to a 1000MW power station would be involved in the system under discussion.

8. Provision would have to be made for large scale energy storage, which would be more costly than for petroleum given the very low energy density of hydrogen, even in liquid form. The above simplified analysis taking an annual 1900kWh/m2 solar incidence does not deal with the problem of energy supply over the three winter months when incidence in many regions would be in the region of half the summer average. This again means either that generating capacity must be increased to meet winter demand, and then lie idle in summer, or large scale hydrogen storage capacity must be built to hold hydrogen generated in summer until it is needed in winter. (See therefore energy dumping above.) Because of the low energy density of hydrogen the latter option would not be realistic.

9. The cost of capital that would have to be borrowed to build the plant would probably double the final cost from the addition of the costs due to all the factors noted above.

10. The cost assumed above for the energy used to build the energy-intensive plant and infrastructure has been taken to be the present cost. This is significantly misleading. If it becomes necessary to build such plants in large numbers, e.g., when petroleum has become scarce, this will have to be done using energy produced by these plants, i.e., at a much higher cost than the cost of energy today. This factor would increase the cost figures in all the above items.

Combining these ten factors would seem to indicate that the real price of electricity or of fuel for fuel cells would be several times higher than that estimated above. Items 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 above point to the need to multiply the initial $165,000 cost by 4.

These figures are so large that plausible technical advance, such as more efficient PV cells and use of rooftop collection spaces (reducing balance of system costs), are not likely to bring costs down to feasible levels.

When discussing roof-replacing PV panels Hawken, Lovins and Lovins say, "...this innovation makes on-site solar power convenient and increasingly affordable for unsophisticated users." (p. 97.) This statement is literally true, but highly misleading. Consider the following approximate estimate.

Rooftop collection surfaces are fixed in orientation (as distinct from tracking systems) and on average rooftops differ considerably from ideal orientation and are subject to shading by other structures. It is likely that less than 40% of the surface of an average house roof would have an orientation enabling effective use as a solar collector in winter. Transmission loses are avoided but one then has the problem of whether the solar incidence at the site where the house is located is adequate. For instance in Sydney, 34 degrees South, in winter the solar incidence is only 2.78 kWh per day, compared to 4.25kWh per square metre per day in central Australia. Solar energy on a 12 degree sloping roof would be 3.3kWh/m/d.

Given this winter rate and the above 8.5% energy efficiency of hydrogen generation, hydrogen energy will be produced at .28kWh per square metre per day. To fuel an average Australian car via a 40% efficient fuel cell would require approximately 183 square metres of panels, costing $137,000, plus balance of system costs, plus the effect of the 8 factors listed above. Note that if the electricity needs of the house were also to be supplied by the roof another 100 square metres of panels would probably be required. The average house roof is probably under 100 square metres and therefore probably only about 40 square metres of it would be suitably aligned for solar panels, i.e., about 1/7 of the required area.

Use of roof-top replacing PV panels would eliminate the approximately one-third of the dollar cost of household electricity supply that is accounted for by distribution systems, but only if complete independence from the grid is assumed. This would mean the grid could not be used for "storage" and back up, and it would mean greatly increased generating and/or battery capacity at the household level to cover cloudy periods. In addition each house would have to have its own power conditioning equipment, e.g., inverter.

These considerations seem to decisively eliminate PV bulk supply of electricity on the scale required to sustain industrial-affluent-consumer society, let alone to extend to the Third World where most people average an income of under $2 per day. (The bulk supply task would add the energy losses in inverting from DC to AC power, some 8%.) The cost of a 1000MW solar plant located in a region like Central Australia, where solar incidence is around 4.2Wh per square metre per day in winter, and capable of delivering 1000MW in winter would be some 55 times the cost of a nuclear plant or coal-fired plant plus fuel for 20 years, again ignoring the nine additional factors noted above. (Trainer 1995a.) (A precise comparison would take into account the differences in capacity factors, distributional costs and especially the costs of externalities. For coal environmental costs have been estimated at c 40% of the retail dollar price.)


The other commonly discussed renewable transport fuel source is ethanol, about which Hawken, Lovins and Lovins express complete optimism, again without discussing the difficulties. They say, "Enough such biofuels are available to run a very efficient US transportation system without needing special crops or fossil hydrocarbons." (p. 32.) In fact they claim that from wastes alone enough ethanol for all could be produced. (p. 202.) Note that they also expect large scale use of hydrogen-powered fuel cells in buildings to generate electricity, meaning much greater demand for fuel than cars would create. (US electricity generation takes about as much primary energy as petroleum consumption.)

However an examination of recent evidence indicates that there is far from sufficient land to grow the quantity of biomass needed to produce the quantity of liquid fuel presently used. Ethanol optimists such as Lynd (1996) and the recent draft Beyond 2000 Report (Foran and Mardon, 1999) make the very optimistic assumption of a 20-21 tonnes per ha yield of biomass, year after year, from very large areas. There are locations where such yields are achieved. For instance sugar cane grows at 74 t/ha in parts of the US. But there are relatively few such areas and if biomass is going to replace petroleum extremely large areas of land will have to be used and the average growth rates will inevitably be far lower, especially with constant annual cropping.

Consider the following average growth and yield rates. World forest, 1.5-2 t/ha/y. US biomass and forest, 3 t/ha/y. US cropland, 6 t ha/y. Australian wheat (grain), 2 t/ha/y. Australian fodder 3.5t/ha/y. Australian agricultural produce, excluding sugarcane, 2 t/ha/y. Obviously the agricultural figures refer to the best available land an large scale use of other land would probably involve significantly lower yields.

Lynd (1996) and Pimentel (1984) state that about one third of the energy in biomass feedstock could be converted to ethanol. (Lynd believes the maximum likely in future will be 56%.) Foran and Mardon (1999) estimate that the methanol option (which in their view has about 2.6 times higher energy yield than ethanol) could yield a net 40 gallons of petrol equivalent per tonne of input. This aligns with Pimentel's estimate of 128 gallons of petrol equivalent per ha per year as the maximum likely. (This would correspond to a photosynthesis rate twice the agricultural average.) Note that these are gross figures; the energy needed to produce feedstock and ethanol from it would have to be subtracted.)

US petroleum use is 277 billion gallons per year. (Youngquist, 1997, p 187, and U.S. Department of Energy, 2000.) At 128 gallons per ha, 2164 million ha would be required if this demand were to be met from biomass sources. (At 200 gallons of petrol per ha the figure would be 1294 m ha.) US forest area totals 290 million ha, all cropland totals 190 million ha, pasture and grazing land 300 million ha, and total US land cover approximately 900 million ha. (Note again that to replace both petroleum and gas would multiply the magnitude of the task by 1.8.)

The contribution crop wastes and idle land could make is relatively small. Even taking Lynd's high yield assumptions US idle cropland could only produce 1/7-1/4 of US liquid fuel demand. (Lynd, 1991.) In another source Lynd reports that economically collectable agricultural wastes might yield the equivalent of 11% of US petroleum consumption. (Lynd 1966.) Crop and agricultural wastes are limited, energy-costly to collect, and should be returned to the soil. (Pimentel 1994, p.6.)

The above figures align with the conclusion Giampietro, Ulgiati and Pimentel and come to; "...none of the biofuel technologies considered in our analysis appears even close to being feasible on a large scale due to shortages of both arable land and water...biofuels are unlikely to alleviate to any significant extent the current dependence on fossil energy..." (1997, p. 588.) Pimentel points out that present US energy use is 30% greater than the total solar energy captured by all US vegetation. (Pimentel, 1998, p. 197.)

Hawken, Lovins and Lovins make no reference to any of these considerations and difficulties regarding the two crucial energy forms for industrial-affluent society, viz., electricity and liquid fuel. When they are taken into account there is a strong case for concluding that this fundamental assumption of Natural Capitalism regarding a problem-free energy future is quite invalid. Note that the implications extend far beyond the automobile. If there is a serious problem regarding energy supply those efficient carpet recyclers will have difficulty getting to and from the offices in which they wish to replace carpet tiles. Needless to say a serious energy supply problem would require complete recalculation of many of the materials saving innovations Hawken, Lovins and Lovins describe.

Natural Gas

Hawken, Lovins and Lovins say gas is abundant and will last at least 200 years ( p. 37.) Their claims regarding the availability of hydrogen and the potential improvement of electricity generating efficiency rely on the use of gas turbines, and fuel cells. Gas is also an important source of the polymers from which the hypercar is to be made, although other sources can be used.

The view of the availability of natural gas taken by Hawken, Lovins and Lovins is sharply contradicted by Campbell and Laherrere(1998) and several others (Duncan and Youngquist, 1998, Ivanhoe, 1996, Fleay, 1995, Youngquist, 1997) who estimate that world petroleum supply will peak around 2005-2015 and that world gas supply will peak a little later. If the most optimistic (and controversial) estimates of petroleum resources, from the US Geological Survey (2000), are taken the date of the peak is delayed only about 10 years. (It should be noted that these USG's figures are not estimates of quantities likely to be found; they are estimates of resources the could be found by 2030.) Fleay (1996) expects a 10 year plateau followed by a more rapid fall. The USGS 2000 estimates actually revise world gas Potentially Recoverable Resources down, to be less than petroleum in energy content. As oil availability declines gas demand can be expected to accelerate. Its use for electricity generation is rapidly increasing, leading some to predict an electricity crisis before a petroleum crisis.

 However gas cannot easily fill the gap as it is difficult and costly to transport long distances. Campbell et al expect large price rises when the peak of petroleum supply is reached and begins to fall below the demand curve which is presently rising at 2% p. a. By around 2025 Campbell expects supply to be down to half the present amount. This volume would be only 1/15 of the amount needed to provide the present rich world per capita consumption to all the people who will be living on earth in 2025. These geologists do not believe unconventional resources, such as tar sands and oil shales, can solve the problem. Campbell estimates that they can provide perhaps a steady 10 billion barrels p.a. for 70 years, compared with the 27 billion barrels used p.a. now.

There are therefore grounds for expecting a very serious liquid fuel problem within 20 years. with potentially catastrophic global consequences. (See < www.dieoff.org >.) Hawken, Lovins and Lovins give no sense of concern about this issue, essentially because of their faith in transition to renewable energy resources and their unsupported and highly challengeable assumption that gas is abundant.

Now consider economic growth

Simon and Hawken, Lovins and Lovins take for granted a growth economy. Natural Capitalism provides strong reassurance that there will be no need to question this society's fundamental commitment to constantly increasing the volume of economic output, sales, business turnover and investment. Indeed it is claimed that better technology can actually cut greenhouse gas emissions by 33% to 90% while the economy grows by 500% to 700% (p. 244.), i.e., up to a factor 70 improvement.

There is now a detailed and persuasive case that industrial-affluent-consumer society is grossly unsustainable being well beyond levels of resource consumption and ecological impact that can be kept up for very long, or extended to all people. (Trainer, 1999.) Yet the fundamental commitment within this society is to increasing production, consumption and the GDP, constantly and without end. The task Hawken, Lovins and Lovins have set themselves rapidly escalates when economic growth is assumed.

If 3% p.a. growth in output is assumed then the annual level of production and consumption will be twice as great every 23 years. If all the world's expected 9-10 billion people were to rise to the per capita "living standards" the rich nations would have by 2070 given 3% growth, total world economic output would be more than 60 times as large as it is today. For a 4% p.a. growth rate the multiple is more than 120.

These are the sorts of considerations which lead those within the "limits to growth" school to conclude that there is no realistic possibility of sustaining industrial consumer societies committed to economic growth. (Trainer, 1999.)

What about dematerialisation, and transition to a service economy?

Two common counter arguments here must be briefly considered. The first is the assumption that economic growth will increasingly take place in the service and information sectors and not in energy-intensive sectors such as mining, agriculture and manufacturing. However, as has been noted above, many services are remarkably energy-intensive. It is not plausible that an economy can treble or quadruple its service activity without significantly increasing its demand for energy.

The second counter argument is that modern economies are "dematerialising", i.e., reducing the amount of materials and energy they require. Crude figures on "energy intensity", i.e., energy consumed in the economy per unit of GDP, seem to confirm this. However there are good reasons for concluding that this is misleading and that dematerialisation is not taking place.

Firstly Gever et al. (1991) conclude that a significant proportion of the apparent effect is due to change to fuels of higher quality, e.g., gas rather than coal. (More economic value can be derived from a unit of energy in the form of petroleum than coal, or electricity than gas, because the former sources are more flexible, transportable etc.) Secondly there is a strong tendency for rich countries to increasingly import goods they once manufactured, meaning that the energy used in their production is not tallied as having been used in their economies. An examination of US trade figures provides impressive evidence for this claim. (Adrianse, 1997, US Department of Commerce, 1995, Trainer, (in press.) This energy is taken into account when "eMergy" accounting is carried out. Finally, the amount of garbage thrown out would seem to be an important indicator of the volume of materials and energy consumed and garbage generation per capita in rich countries is not falling.

It is therefore not plausible that the economy of a rich nation could continue to increase production and consumption at normal rates, for example rising to 8 or more times present levels of output by 2070, without seeing its present energy consumption multiply many times in coming decades.

Hence the "four level factor problem".

Those who believe with Simon and Hawken, Lovins and Lovins that it is possible to retain an industrial-affluent-consumer society based on commitments to free market principles and a growth economy are confronted by the need for reductions which multiply across the following four levels.

Firstly, in view of the evidence of alarming depletion of many resources and ecological systems, especially petroleum, forests, fisheries, the atmosphere, biodiversity, agricultural land and water, it would seem that the present aggregate global resource and environmental impacts and costs must be reduced dramatically before they become sustainable. Let us assume that only a factor three reduction is needed. (The above greenhouse and petroleum considerations indicate that factor 10 reductions are more likely to be required.) In energy terms this would mean world energy use would have to be cut to 2 billion tonnes of oil equivalent, and in view of the foregoing discussion even this would be a highly problematic goal.

However at the second level we have to deal with the fact of extreme inequality in the global distribution of wealth and resources. About 1 billion people in the rich countries are taking about 3/4 of the resources produced each year, such as petroleum. The rich world per capita average is about 5 times the world average. In other words those who think technical fixes can make the present affluent-consumer-lifestyles of the rich countries possible for all people, in sustainable ways, are assuming that an overall 3x5 or factor 15 reduction in resource and ecological impact per unit of output can be made. In energy terms sharing the 2 billion tonnes of oil equivalent among 6 billion people would provide about .3 tonnes per person, which is 1/15 of the amount per capita consumed in rich countries today.

But, at the third level we realise that world population is likely to multiply by 1.5, to reach 9-10 billion. To provide this number with the present rich world living standard in sustainable ways would therefore require a factor reduction of 3x5x1.5 or 22.5, i.e., to .22 tonnes of oil equivalent per person.

At the fourth level we have to deal with the implications of economic growth. If we were to add a mere 3% economic growth to the above considerations, then by 2023 when output had doubled we would have to achieve a factor 45 reduction, and by 2046 a factor 90 reduction, and we would have to go on doubling the figure every 23 years thereafter.

Hawken, Lovins and Lovins believe 3% growth can continue for 70 years, given that they state that an 8-fold increase in economic output is possible. As has been explained, rich world "living standards" would then be 8 times as great as they are now. If 9 billion were to share those "living standards" world economic output would be about 60 times as great as it is now. Unless Hawken, Lovins and Lovins are only concerned with guaranteeing high living standards to the few who now have them, they are obliged to show how an approximately 180 factor improvement (3x5x1.5x8) in overall resource use and environmental impact per unit of output is possible by around 2070.

It would seem clear therefore that the future for a socio-economic system based on determination to retain high material "living standards", increase them over time, and spread them to all people cannot be enabled by a mere factor 4 or factor 10 improvement in the efficiency of resource and energy use.

Many analyses have drawn attention to the savage implications of such multiples which come with the assumption of growth. They are central in the extensive limits to growth case that there is no possibility of all people ever rising to the "living standards" now characteristic of the rich countries, that such countries are on a grossly unsustainable path, and that the basic causal problem here is the commitment to an economy which must have constant and limitless growth in production and consumption. (Trainer, 1995a, 1998, 1999.)

The ideological significance

Simon and Hawken, Lovins and Lovins deliver the news that most people are eager to hear, from the government and corporate level down to the general public. They provide authoritative reassurance that technical changes can cut resource and energy costs sufficiently and that they can save the environment, all without any need to make drastic reductions in "living standards" or economic output. In fact they tell us that enormous growth in the economy, by a factor of 8 is quite possible. Indeed they reassure us that while making these changes we can also make a lot of money.

Whatsmore, Hawken, Lovins and Lovins tell us that there is no need to resort to government controls and social planning, because new technology will best introduced by the market, since the firms which innovate will cut costs and prosper, and those which don't will become extinct. Thus Hawken, Lovins and Lovins provide strong ideological support for one of the major premises of globalisation; the desirability, indeed the rationality of deregulation and free market solutions.

The Alternative Perspective

If the limits to growth analysis is correct in indicating that technical changes cannot reduce resource consumption and environmental impact sufficiently then logically the only other option is to try to move to lifestyles and systems which involve very low levels of per capita economic output and resource consumption. While this is obviously far from a politically acceptable option at present, a small but rapidly growing Global Alternative Society Movement has emerged, based on radically alternative development principles and goals of the kind that the limits analysis points to. "The Simpler Way" (Trainer, 2000) involves acceptance of much less affluent lifestyles, a high level of self-sufficiency in households, neighbourhoods, regions and nations, and therefore mostly small local economies, more cooperative systems, use of alternative technologies, and an overall economy which is not driven by market forces or the profit motive (although there could be a place for these) and in which there is no economic growth. The principles and current state of the Global Alternative Society Movement are detailed by Douthwaite, (1996), Schwarz and Schwarz, (1998), and Trainer, (1995, 2000). Approximately 1000 eco-villages are indexed in Federation of Intentional Communities (2000), and Hagmaier et al., (2000).

Advocates of The Simpler Way insist that it need involve no deprivation or hardship or reduction in high technology systems where these are socially beneficial, such as in medicine. An essential concern is the elimination of unnecessary production through simplified consumption and reorganisation of many functions. For example the production of most food within and close to settlements, through "organic" processes would eliminate most of the transport and other energy costs of food. Therefore many urban roads could be converted to agricultural and other community uses, especially development of commons such as orchards, forests, ponds, bamboo clumps, herb patches and workshops.

The decentralisation of much of the necessary industry to small scale local sites would enable many people to get to work on foot or by bicycle. The non-monetary sector of the economy could be greatly enlarged, involving recycling, domestic production, "free goods" from the commons, voluntary working bees and committees, and gifts and mutual aid. Many people living in eco-villages find that the only need to work for money one or two days a week while experiencing satisfactory material living standards via local economies with large non-monetised sectors.

The Simpler Way seems better described as a form of classical anarchism, as distinct from socialism; social control over the economy is assumed but mostly via local participatory assemblies, as distinct from via centralised states.

More problematic than the need for a radically different economy would be the acceptance of some values which clash with the Western tradition, notably the present commitments to competition, individualism and acquisitiveness, and the conception of progress. The prospects for achieving the simpler way are therefore not promising, but its advocates argue that if the limits to growth analysis is valid no other general conception of a just and sustainable world order is plausible. If industrial-affluent-consumer society has so grossly overshot sustainable levels of production and consumption that technical fixes cannot solve the resulting problems then a Simpler Way of some kind must be the general solution. As has been noted, perhaps the most unfortunate effect of Simon's and of Lovins' works has been to reinforce the impression that there is no need to think seriously about the need for transition to The Simpler Way.


Note 1. Some of the themes in this section have been discussed at greater length in Trainer, 1986.
Note 2. Some of the following themes have been argued in more detail in Trainer, 1995a.


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* Used with permission of the author.
See original at < http://www.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/D50NatCapCannotOvercome.html >.
Ted Trainer is the organizer of "The Simpler Way: Analyses of global problems and the sustainable alternative society" (... environment, limits to growth, simpler lifestyles, self-sufficient and cooperative communities, and a new economy.)
See at < http://www.arts.unsw.edu.au/socialwork/trainer.html >.

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