Bruce and bio-fuels

Via the Peak Energy blog, I just read this interesting debunking (at another “Peak Energy” blog) of Bruce Sterling’s recent bigging up of ethanol as a viable bio-fuel.

I’m not an energy scientist, but it seems like a duty for anyone claiming to be interested in where the world’s at to follow the energy debate as closely as they’re able. I read Sterling’s post a week or two ago, and had problems with it that I lacked the knowledge to properly articulate. The above post seemed to have the hammer skills to hit all the protruding nails that I saw right on the head. Both Sterling’s post and the rebuff are well worth reading to get the optimist / pessimist poles of the argument.

Or is that optimist / realist? Or realist / pessimist? Everyone thinks they’ve got the right attitude. Sterling and the switched-on WorldChanging crowd have a general party line of optimism, along the lines of Bucky Fuller and Robert Anton Wilson’s recognition of positivity’s self-fulfilling functional qualities. However, if optimism is taken on board in terms of functionality, there are obvious limits to it. If positivity gets in the way of improving matters, it’s lost its value. (If it’s taken on board in non-functional—“religious” or “fundamentalist”—terms, where it’s seen as the right attitude to things irrespective of what the situation is or how that attitude is affecting the situation, that’s another story. One involving people you really don’t want to be stuck in a lift with.)

I digress slightly. What caught my eye is the ethanol cynic’s take on engineering, apparently summing up the attitude of my friend Jim, who gained quite an overview of engineering problems during his stint as a manager of large-scale bottling plants, and from whom I learned most of what I know about large-scale energy issues. Talking about Sterling’s post, the ethanol cynic says:

What really concerns me is the lack of balance in these optimistic scenarios. A good engineer doesn’t live in the grandiosity of their future bridge or engine or widget—they make a pessimistic assessment of every single thing that can go wrong, account for them, or risk design failure. There are also physical limits that must be accounted for. Accounting for limits is not pessimism.

Firstly, just as I’ve discussed optimism as a functional approach, pessimism is seen here as a valuable tool in design and planning. If both optimism and pessimism are seen as functional tools, the argument might shift from being “Which one is right?” to “Which one is right for this job?” Naturally things are a little more complex on the personal, emotional scale. It seems important to recognise the irrational basis of optimism and pessimism on this level, and how this feeds into larger social fields; but we should also recognise how the two levels can be quite loosely coupled. Depressed people go into work with a “go get ’em” attitude, if necessary for a certain task, every day. Likewise, perfectly happy engineers are presumably capable of envisioning all manner of horrors as part of their job, to make sure these scenarios are averted.

Secondly, I always find it significant that it has to be constantly pointed out that recognising material limitations has no necessary relationship to “pessimism”. The dominant mindset of Western capitalism is a strange fusion of materialism and idealism. The “real world” is supposedly that hard, stubborn thing out there, all that matter to be exploited and moved around for fun and profit; yet in its heart of hearts—in economics theory—capitalism finds a way of disbelieving hard, stubborn material limitations that stand in its way.

Traces of this idealism are found in Sterling’s response to the proposal that ethanol takes more energy to make than it contributes to our society: “This is a largely academic distinction.” While we need to always keep a door open for new perspectives that contradict common sense, we really need to keep an eye on what creeps in. Bio-fuels will certainly provide a few threads for the energy patchwork we have to construct as fossil fuels dwindle, but we should let some judicious pessimism help us keep perspective.