Sunday, October 4, 2009

Two paths to Copenhagen: Weinberg and Lovins

In 1975 Alvin Weinberg left his final post as an energy administer, that of energy programs research director for the Federal Governments, a post he only held for a year. Weinberg was not yet ready to retire, and founded his own think tank, the Institute for Energy Analysis, where he conducted long-range analytic studies of energy issues, until his retirement in 1984. During his year in Washington, Weinberg had attempted to alert Congress to the long range danger of Anthropogenic Global Warming caused by CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels. Much of his subsequent research at the Institute for Energy Analysis was focused on the consequences of choosing alternative energy paths. Shortly after his return to Oak Ridge,

Weinberg meet the youthful Amory Lovins, whom he invited to Oak Ridge to present his views.
Alvin Weinberg does not like what he hears

By the mid 1970's Lovins had emerged as a major force in shaping public discussion of energy issues. Lovins continued to exert great influence for the remainder of the 20th century and beyond. But in the mid-1970's he had just been released from exile in England. The termination of the of American involvement in the Vietnamese War meant that young Amory Lovins no longer needed to pose as an Oxford student in order to evade the American draft.

Early in the 1970's Lovins had been recruited by environmental firebrand, David Browers, to represent Browers' group, "Friends of the Earth, in the UK. Brower had by that time joined the anti-nuclear camp, and Lovins proved an extremely gifted anti-nuclear propagandist. Lovins had studied enough physics, to talk a good game with none scientist. In 1975 along with fellow environmentalist John Price Lovins published "Non Nuclear Future The case for an ethical energy strategy".

In December 1976 Alvin Weinberg published a searching review of the Lovins-Price book in the journal Energy Policy. Weinberg's critique of "Non-Nuclear Future" is telling. His language is precise and descriptive. No punches are pulled. Weinberg speaks of Lovins "Savage attack on nuclear energy, which is "more unrelenting for being couched in Lovins impeccable prose.Weinberg observes,
Despite its title, the book is not concerned with a non-nuclear future.
Then Weinberg quotes Lovins and Price, who justified the absence of an account of the non-nuclear future by claiming,
'To show that a policy is mistaken does not oblige the analyst to have an alternative policy.
Weinberg observed,
But this is inadequate. They are not dealing with a hypothetical issue but with a real one. It is not enough to point out the deficiencies of nuclear energy; one must deal with the situation that would arise if Lovins and Price were successful in their onslaught: should the society indeed turn away from nuclear energy, what then?
Weinberg waste no more ink in getting to the crux of the issue. Have Lovins and Price, or has anyone, presented a tenable non-nuclear future? And indeed this central question, which Alvin Weinberg asked 33 years ago, remains the central question for the Green paradigm.

Weinberg pointed three central issues for Lovins and Price, three foci - energy, centralization, and electricity - that curiously go much beyond nuclear fission. Weinberg quotes Lovins and Price:'
Low-energy futures can (but need not) be normative and pluralistic, whereas high-energy futures are bound to be coercive and to offer less scope for social diversity and individual freedom.'
And an
'energy-intensive society' leads to a highly centralized, highly bureaucratized high technology society very vulnerable to internal and external disruption.
Weinberg observed:
For them, energy itself is a villain: less energy is better than more energy, not merely because the environment can absorb only a limited energy load, But because society cannot handle it!
But why energy, Weinberg asks, and pointed to Hitler's use of the radio for political propaganda. The technology of mass communications was, Weinberg maintained a far greater threat to freedom than centralized poeert generation.

Weinberg pointed to another paradox. People who have access to high energy societies, have greater freedom in their control of their time. Lovins appeared to be disturbed by thermal generation systems, which are relatively inefficient. Lovins appeared to believe that waste heat from energy systems placed a heat burden on the atmosphere.

Weinberg pointed out that that CO2 from burning fossil fuels in generating plants would contribute 30 times as much heat to the atmosphere as the heat produced by thermal generation processes. Weinberg noted that there were trade offs between convince and efficiency in energy use, and that more efficient energy uses might require incontinent levels of capital investment. Weinberg acknowledged the importance of protecting the environment against disruption, but suggested that this was not an absolute value, and that there might well be situations where other values intruded. These might include human health, human life, and time.

Time was a repeated mantra in Weinberg's thinking about energy. For Weinberg, efficient time use requires energy. And the effectiveness of Weinberg's appeal to time efficiency must be judged by the answer to the question, how frequently did Amory Lovins travel by auto or by aircraft, when he had other less environmentally intrusive but slower methods of transportation available? Weinberg was not so impolite as to raise the issue, but Lovins had visited Weinberg in Oak Ridge in October 1976, and it is doubtful that he had made the journey by bicycle. Indeed I suspect that Lovins probably made the trip from Knoxville's McGee-Tyson Airport to Oak Ridge and back in Weinberg's car. Nor does Lovins bicycle from Colorado to Washington, when he testifies before Congress. Weinberg did not regard Lovins as a hypocrite because he chooses time efficiency over environmental protection. Rather Weinberg is making the point that in practice Weinberg and Lovins agree that time efficiency justifies intrusion into the environment.

In his response to Weinberg, Lovins claimed,
My social philosophy and values bear little resemblance to the ones Dr Weinberg describes.
In fact Weinberg's description was largely made up of quotes, words that that Lovins had written. Lovins attempted to argue that his book was not about the future but about ethics.
The bulk of the book is indeed best described by its subtitle, ethical energy strategy, but I am sorry that Dr Weinberg did not mention its long thematic Introduction, .Non- Nuclear Futures', perhaps the most important part of the book. Both there and (at far greater length) in ,Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?, (Foreign Affairs, October t976)
In fact much of Weinberg's review was directed to ethical issues that Lovins had raised. Did Lovins not notice this? Of course one of the rewards for being ethically obtuse, is that one does not have to argue questions about ones own ethical inconsistencies, in the course of debate on ethical Weinberg pointed out,
"time is precious, a limited resource,"
and added that
'one should be willing to exchange some environmental insult for the freedom to use time as one chooses. . . . such a choice is a free one freedom ought not to be sacrificed with the easy assertion that the heating of the atmosphere by waste heat is an imminent danger.
Weinberg repeatedly notes that Lovins neglect a significant ethical issue posed by the generation of CO2 by burning coal.
The Authors should compare the amount of heating from CO2, as well as the heat effluent from fossil fuel plants, with the heat from nuclear plants I must conclude that the authors regard net energy analyses a convenient device for casting nuclear in an unfavorable light. A feat they accomplished by attempt to accomplish by ignoring the really significant comparisons between nuclear and non-nuclear, of the same doubling time and relative effects of heat release and co2 release.
Finally Weinberg asked,
Can we really ignore CO2 during the coal burning, fission free bridge?
Lovins responded that he was worried about CO2, and professed to believe that so much coal was going to be burned anyway that CO2 emission reductions from nuclear power would not matter. Lovins offered no other remedy for mitigation of CO2 releases, perhaps relying on his famous foreign policy paper, which argued that burring coal in large power plants would gradually be replaced by more efficient micro power generators, something that still has not happened over a generation later.

We must also ask, "did Lovins really not notice that the questions about time and choice were directed against his ethical argument?"

Lovins claimed of Weinberg, "His values and mine are undeniably different." Yet was this the case? Not in the questions of efficient use of time, for Lovins had chosen in October 1976 to intrude on the environment by flying to Oak Ridge, the very choice Weinberg acknowledged he would make.

The real ethical issue then was not about such choices, it was about integrity. I must her intrude with the observation that Alvin Weinberg was a man of great integrity. Weinberg was fired as Director of ORNL in 1972 by the political and administrative establishment of the AEC, because Weinberg had refused to back down over nuclear safety. During the 23 years I spent in Oak Ridge as a boy and man, I never once heard Weinberg's integrity questioned. In the course of reviewing Lovins' book, Weinberg had not accused Lovins of bad faith but had pointed to questions, which if considered, brought Lovins' integrity into question. Weinberg had in fact paid attention to the subtitle of Lovins' book. What Alvin Weinberg pointed too in his December 1976 review of Lovins book was to point to its a deep inconsistency, its deep confusion. Lovins had built his entire “ethical” case for his opposition to nuclear power on special pleadings. Weinberg in effect challenged Lovins to demonstrate that his views were derived from a coherent ethical theory, whose tenants Lovins was willing to apply to himself.

Lovins chose to not respond to Alvin Weinberg in 1976, just as he later chose to not respond to Robert Bryce and David Bradish, Debate is not Lovins forte, sales is. Now there is nothing wrong with being a salesman, His sales pitch succeeded beyond all measure.

During the upward glide that took Amory Lovins to his 1977 meeting with Jimmy Carter, Alvin Weinberg invited to Amory Lovins to his think tank in Oak Ridge. There Lovins presented an early version of The Path Not Taken, and as Weinberg had done on many occasions, he began to question the young man. Weinberg found Lovins articulate, but "so wrong headed". Weinberg thought Lovins "longed for a simpler world". In his own way, Weinberg who regarded himself as a friend of Lovins, was far kinder to Lovins, than Vaclav Smil has been.

Weinberg's forte was to get the best out of scientists and thinkers. In doing so, he would first ask to hear what the scientist had to say, and then offer a response. At ORNL it was well know that if Weinberg offered you the criticism that you were wrong headed, you best ought to listen to avoid humiliation later own. Not that Weinberg would do the humiliation. Rather that the mistakes which Weinberg had caught would cause a scientist's career to suffer. But when your mistakes come from telling people what they want to hear, your career may flourish rather suffer.

It was Alvin Weinberg, a trained biologist as well as physicist, who understood ecology in a way Lovins never did. Weinberg understood the danger of CO2 emissions and had warned congress about global warming. During his brief stay in Washington, Weinberg pushed for CO2 research. When Jimmy Carter chose coal over nuclear power, Lovins did not utter a word of protest, but Weinberg wrote of the choice:
The difficulties and risks of the nuclear path we have been delineated often and in detail. Of these, proliferation of nuclear weapons probably poses the greatest risk, though-one must always remember that power reactors and chemical plants provide a sufficient, a not necessary, technical basis for proliferation. The major risk in the coal path is the possible CO catastrophic. In a way this is the coal analogue of nuclear proliferation: it is global, uncertain, possibly catastrophic. Thus we see the dimensions of the dilemma: the two energy systems upon which we are expecting to depend, at least over the medium term, are flawed to a degree that is at present essentially impossible to fully estimate, and that indeed may never be fully possible to estimate. To those who embrace coal as a fission-free bridge to a solar future, the CO question should inject a note of prudent concern: we can turn the phrase around and ask whether fission based on reactors of current design perhaps will have to serve as a coal-free bridge to a fusion, breeder, or solar future. We must also consider the possibility that both nuclear energy and coal will be judged by future generations to be fatally flawed and the question, "Can we make it on solar energy alone?" will have to be rephrased: "How can we make it on solar energy alone?"
There were consequences for using the cover Lovins provided as Weinberg understood. Although energy efficiency did improve over the next generation, so did CO2 emissions from electrical generation. Lovins, of course, never fought against coal the way he fought against nuclear. During the next generation Lovins triumphed, and Alvin Weinberg's concerns were largely forgotten. Yet if society seemed to follow Lovins lead, rather than Weinberg's, it was because society wanted to follow that path, not because of Lovins leadership or his prescience. Lovuns, unlike Weinberg was not gifted with foresight.


Atomic Khan said...

There is a big difference between two men. Lovins acted from his opportunistic self centered interest. Lovins would turn his coat whenever some opportunity presented itself. If he would represent frogs he would quack like a frog or quack like a crow if it was in his interest.

Weinberg acted from his genius and strong ethical position. He always stood behind what he believed in, never wavering from his conviction. that turned out to be correct. This is what I call super integrity!
Lovins was dead wrong with his anti nuclear propaganda. The world was cheated of better living standard that only nuclear power is capable to deliver. The environment is worse off because Lovins and his cohorts worked so hard to screw it up for humanity.
The time is coming when fanatics like Lovins are ignored and nuclear power is rising from unfounded hysteria. This is already happening in India where Indian government know very well that nuclear power from Thorium is the only way to elevate masses from poverty.
Lovins will fade into history as one of the idiots of 20th century

rmaltese said...

Charles I would love to see this picked up by a magazine like Utne or some widely read fringe magazine. It is very good and often wonder if the typos were fixed whether someone of significance would want to publish your postings. I say "fringe" because it is perhaps still has a targeted readership. But thanks for helping to expose Lovins. With your help Weinberg will return to the prominent position he deserves in history.

Charles Barton said...

Thanks for the compliment. This essay neeeds a few more drafts, in addition to editing by someone with better eyes than I have.

Soylent said...

Charles, if you want to get rid of the spelling errors:

Put the text through a spellchecker. You can get a spell checking plugin for firefox if you're not using a stand-alone text editor.

The spell checker will almost surely have a lot of false positives(e.g. it'd probably choke on uncommon names, abbreviations or slang); when you use the spell checker you cycle through the supposed spelling errors and correct the ones that are legitimate errors. Usually there is also some sort of white-list where you can add words to the vocabulary of the spellchecker(e.g. "Weinberg" or "LFTR").

The spell checker will catch only the most rudamentary errors in grammar, so you still need to proof-read. When proof-reading, hold down the control key and scroll the mousewheel upwards to magnify the font until the text is ridiculously huge. When you're done proof-reading, press and hold control and scroll downwards on your mousewheel to shrink it back to normal.

Charles Barton said...

Soylent, my biggest problem is that I have serious vision impairment. I have difficulty seeing what I write. I do use a spelling checker that but I cannot see well enough to read the options. What i need isa better pair of eyes.

Soylent said...

You can make the text a full inch tall with ctrl + mouse wheel up. If that's still hard to read you're legally blind and it would possibly be a good idea to get a refreshable braille display for computers while you still aren't completely blind.

If you find this comment rude or uncomfortable to respond to you can just disapprove of posting it and ignore it.


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