I’m getting increasingly annoyed at the prevalence of pseudo-environmentalism on Facebook, and more specifically the fact that many of my friends are joining these groups without any understanding of the science behind their claims.
It seems to me that pseudo-environmentalism has become the new religion – a doctrine that people blindly follow without really engaging their own minds. Blind faith is often dangerous, and just because something is being sold to you on the basis of being “environmentally friendly” does not mean that is necessarily true. In some cases your efforts may have no effect, in others they may actually be doing more harm than good. If you do not understand the implications of your actions, it is better to take no action at all than take an action which could potentially be harmful.
Let’s have a look at one completely laughable example: 10 Ways to Be an Energy-Efficient Facebook User, I wouldn’t really encourage you to click on that link because you’ll only be increasing advertiser revenue which is clearly what the entire article is aimed at doing – drawing traffic for the purpose of advertising. I’ll condense it all into one sentence for you: “Spend less time on Facebook”.
I’ll just give you one example of the absolute stupidity in that article:
“Hosting photos and video consumes energy, and most times the photos we upload to most services aren’t exactly works of art. It’s not that we shouldn’t share moments with our friends, but before uploading we should ask ourselves: is it worth it? Do we really need ten different versions of just our face? Do we need the minute-by-minute of a party or could we choose about the ten best pics? So share, but share with care.”
No, hosting photos and video consumes hard disk space, sitting there with your computer on deciding whether you really need to upload each photo consumes energy. If you want to conserve power whilst using your computer, follow this one simple rule: USE IT LESS!
Here’s another example, feel free to click on this link as it’s not generating anyone any advertising revenue (other than Facebook) – Blackout Facebook – this is a group aimed at convincing Facebook to change to a black background on the premise that it will reduce power consumption. There’s also a black version of Google called Blackle.
I would say that I have a pretty good understanding of how modern computer monitors work and I’m pretty confident that it doesn’t make any difference to power consumption what’s on the screen – the main part of the screen that consumes power in the vast majority of modern screens is the backlight, this will be on no matter what’s on the screen, the only way to reduce power consumption is to reduce the brightness of the backlight and this is not something that can be done by a website. In other words, on a normal TFT screen having a black background uses no less power than a white one.
Only on Plasma, OLED and old-fashioned CRT screens will the colour of the screen make any difference to the power consumption. Screens based on liquid crystal technology (like the vast majority of current TFTs) will have no measurable difference in power consumption.
Here’s one news article disputing the claim and here’s a a Youtube video conclusively proving there’s no difference.
I know these ideas (and Facebook groups) are relatively harmless, but the fact that people are blindly joining them without understanding the science is not a good thing. When the fate of the world is at stake and one false move could spell disaster, we wanna be absolutely sure that any changes we do make are actually going to help and not make things worse. Scientists have told us that global warming is a risk to our planet, and instead of taking a careful, considered and scientific approach to the problem, most people just seem to be flailing their arms around wildly. Doing this will not help and it’s liable to make the situation worse.
Seriously guys, I’m starting to lose respect for my friends when I see them joining these kinds of groups on Facebook. I’m actually starting to think I’m going to have to close my Facebook account because I can’t stand to lose respect for any more of my friends. It’s become fashionable to claim you’re “green”, and people see themselves as asserting their ‘caring’ nature by signing up to anything claiming to be helping the environment. I’ve got a piece of news that may come as a shock to you – just because something is claiming to help the environment does not mean it necessarily is, either because the person pushing it to you doesn’t fully understand the concepts, or in some more cynical cases, they’re actually just trying to sell you a product on the basis of it being branded as “green”.
Wearing your ‘green’ credentials on your sleeve does not necessarily make people think what a caring person you are, especially when you haven’t properly researched whether the thing you’re supporting is actually good for the environment. If you declare your support for something which is clearly technically incorrect (like Blackle), those more tech-savvy of your friends aren’t going to interpret that as you asserting your caring side, they’re going to interpret that as you behaving like a sheep, and a bit of an idiot. Sadly more and more of my friends are putting themselves into this category.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t care for the environment – I’m just saying that you better be damn sure that what you’re supporting is actually good for the environment before you declare your support for it. “Because it says so” isn’t a valid reason, many things claim to be good for the environment, a good proportion of them simply are not.
The reason a lot of this misinformation is about is because global warming and the environment has only recently entered the public consciousness, and in some cases scientists genuinely haven’t figured out what the most effective things we can do to help are yet. In some cases it’s not as black and white as you might think it is.
I will argue passionately against wind farms, and it’s not because someone’s threatening to erect one in my back garden, or even anywhere near me. I actually just believe that they do more harm to the environment than they do good, and this comes from a pretty solid understanding of the science and the maths, not some kind of abstract idea of being “environmentally friendly”. Just because some people are telling you that wind farms are the solution to the energy problem does not necessarily mean they are correct – it is okay to question people when they claim to be helping the environment – they may be wrong!
Sadly, the vitriol that comes from the pseudo-environmentalist hurd when you question one of their ‘beliefs’ is really quite sickening. I consider myself a scientist, and as such I’m always open to being proven wrong, if somebody comes to me with a well thought-out and considered argument against my position, I will always hear them out and I will never simply dismiss their belief without making some effort to rationally and logically disprove it. If they can provide a convincing proof that I am wrong, I will (eventually) accept that, I may argue passionately for my point of view right up until the very last minute, but when there is overwhelming evidence against me, I will admit defeat.
When presenting my opinions about wind farms, I’ve been met pretty much exclusively with anger, in most cases with dismissal, and in some cases with personal insult. I’ve had my argument called ‘utter crap’, and I personally have been called various names, all for daring to express a point of view that differs from the established pseudo-environmentalist dogma. And that’s what it’s starting to become, a dogma, a set of beliefs that its followers will not allow to be disputed. This is a seriously dangerous state of affairs, because what happens if that dogma makes some mistakes about the best course of action, and 20 years later we find ourselves in an even more worrying situation?
The only way we’re going to solve global warming and the energy crisis is with science, and that means you have to be open to hearing other people’s ideas – this is the very basis of science.
So what are my beliefs? Well, primarily I believe that nuclear power is the only real workable solution to the energy problem – it’s the only solution that will allow us to continue economic growth without completely fucking up the environment. Furthermore, as a landscape photographer, I don’t particularly want the landscapes I photograph to be peppered with wind turbines, particularly when I do not see them as a necessary form of electricity generation. When you can generate 500MW+ from a nuclear power station without causing any carbon footprint, why would you want to cover the landscape with hundreds of massive eye-sores that only generate a tiny fraction of that energy? To me, it’s as simple as that.
I’ve even done the maths:
UK’s current power consumption = 348,700,000 MWh/year.
Typical average output from one very large land-based wind turbine – 1MW.
8765 hours in a year, consequently one wind turbine outputs 8765MWh/year.
It would require 39,783 massive wind turbines to meet the UK’s current power requirements.
Consequently, if we were to replace all of our current power generating capacity with wind farms, and we were to assume that 50% of our 245000km2 landmass was suitable for wind farm construction (probably a very optimistic estimate) we’d end up with a massive wind turbine every 3km2 – in other words, wherever you are in the country, whatever direction you looked, all you’d be able to see is wind turbines, unless you were fortunate enough to live somewhere where there was no wind! Fuck that shit!
Building them off-shore would keep me happier as a photographer, but I don’t think it would particularly do the environment much good – think of all that concrete you have to sink to the sea bed just to support the things, surely that can’t be good for wildlife?
So I thought I’d create a Facebook group expressing these opinions, to see whether anyone actually agreed with me, and what response I would get from my own friends. I also wrote a long essay in the hope that I might be able to convince some of them to think twice before clicking the “Join Group” button on anything claiming to be ‘green’ or ‘environmentally friendly’.
I didn’t expect many of my friends to join – nobody wants to be seen to stray from the flock, and I’m sure most of them didn’t even bother to read what I’d written, none of them have commented on it. So far 22 people have joined and about half of them are people I don’t even know. The sad truth is, hideously ugly environmentally dubious wind farms are infinitely more palatable to people than nuclear power, which they’re still fundamentally afraid of, partly because they simply don’t understand it. I hoped to convince a few people to question their assumptions about wind and nuclear power, but apparently it’s an uphill struggle even to get them to read what I have to say.
You can read the essay below and join the Facebook group here. Even if you disagree with me, for god’s sake have an opinion of your own and express it, don’t just blindly join any group claiming to be eco-friendly!
This group is dedicated to those (like me) who believe that nuclear power is the only viable and sensible solution to global warming and the energy crisis.
In order to match the power output currently provided by coal and gas power stations, we would literally have to carpet pretty much the entire surface of the planet with wind turbines and photovoltaic (solar) cells ‐ don’t believe me? do the maths yourself, it’s not hard.
The majority of renewable energy sources essentially depend on the sun to drive them ‐ either directly in the case of solar cells, or indirectly via convection currents in the case of wind turbines. One figure pseudo-environmentalists like to quote is the number of watt-hours of energy falling on our planet’s surface from the sun ‐ indeed it is a very high number. The problem is in conversion efficiency ‐ current solar cells are highly inefficient, turning only a few percent of the sun’s energy into usable electricity.
Wind turbines are even more inefficient because the energy from the sun first has to heat the atmosphere, then the temperature differential between warmer and colder parts of the planet has to cause a convection current which we call ‘wind’, and this wind then has to drive around blades which then drive a generator. Energy is lost at every stage of this process. I’m just trying to explain why, although a lot of energy falls on our planet from the sun, it’s not possible to harness even a tiny fraction of it using current technology.
The truth is, current renewable energy sources are hideously wasteful of the energy that comes to us from the sun. Well, ‘what we lose in inefficiency, we can make up for in scale ‐ after all, the energy’s free’, I hear you say. The problem with this is that the inefficiencies are so large, the scales have to be absolutely massive to compensate ‐ renewables, particularly wind and solar power are tremendously wasteful of land ‐ one of the UK’s most precious natural resources.
When we’re talking about wind turbines, they have to be both very large and very numerous. In order to generate the kind of energy we need, you’re talking about erecting structures the size of large buildings, everywhere ‐ particularly in the countryside. If we’re talking about solar cells, in order to get the kind of power we need, we’re going to need to cover pretty much every available inch of land with them. If we’re planning on replacing coal and oil, these renewable energy sources are probably going to need to cover what’s left of our unused land and eat into our farming land as well.. that’s the land that provides us with food. Some countries have lots of spare infertile land, the UK is not one of them.
Now you can argue that it’s a price we have to pay to save the world. The thing is, you’re talking about destroying what’s left of our open spaces, our remaining natural beauty and the last of our countryside, for what? To save nature? You’re talking about destroying nature to save it. Here’s the dark secret that nobody wants to admit; when we talk about building massive large scale wind farms, we’re not trying to save nature, we’re trying to save ourselves from running out of oil. We’re talking about continuing to abuse the natural world for the sake of producing energy to fuel the growth of human civilisation. You call that environmentalism? I call it the continued rape of our natural world.
In truth the only types of large-scale wind farms that are likely to get agreement in the UK are the off-shore kind. Now these may avoid the problem of spoiling our view of the countryside, but instead we’re talking about sinking massive slabs of concrete onto the seabed. I’m not a marine biologist, but I would think this would have even more of an impact on the environment than hillside wind farms.
But there’s more to it even than that; building these massive wind turbines requires a lot of resources ‐ lots of concrete and steel for their physical construction, copper for the windings of their generators and lots of energy to move all those resources to the construction site and assemble them into a turbine. Creating photovoltaic cells requires baking silicon at a few thousand degrees for several days, in some cases requires the use of toxic heavy metals like cadmium. And all of this costs money, lots and lots of money. Building these renewable power sources is not free environmentally ‐ we’re using a lot of natural resources, a lot of energy and a lot of money to produce them, and like all power stations, they have a limited lifetime.
I’m not arguing that harnessing the sun’s power to produce energy is in itself a bad idea, of course I’m not. Harnessing the sun’s power is one of the most important goals for scientists today. What I’m arguing is that none of the current technologies allow us to do it effectively enough to be worth wasting lots of our dwindling natural resources and limited budgets on building, not to mention ruining our countryside with row upon row of ugly wind turbines in the process.
I’d be willing to bet that the most viable source of power from the sun is a yet-to-be-invented organic chemical process not dissimilar to photosynthesis ‐ in other words the solar cells of the future will be ‘grown’, or synthesised in a lab from just hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen. Plants have figured out a bloody good way to harness energy from the sun without all of the terrible drawbacks of current solar cells ‐ we’re pretty darn close to learning their secrets, and when we do, by all means plaster as much land as you want with the new solar cells. The point is, they’ll be so much more efficient that you won’t need nearly such a large surface area, and you won’t need to waste so many natural resources creating them because they’ll simply grow themselves out of our most abundant natural elements.
You might call that wishful thinking, but I would suggest that you read some of the most recent developments in the area of genetic engineering and quantum biology.
Of course biological solar cells aren’t the only promising future energy source. My bet is on nuclear fusion being the technology that allows mankind to grow beyond the limits of fossil fuel technology.
Let’s just have a quick explanation of Nuclear Fusion for those who don’t know:
Nuclear energy comes in two types ‐ Nuclear *Fission* and Nuclear *Fusion*. All current nuclear power stations are fission reactors ‐ nuclear fission takes a very heavy element (normally Uranium-235) and splits each atom into two lighter ones, giving off some energy in process. ‘Fission’ literally means splitting ‐ nuclear fission is the process of deriving energy from the splitting of an atom.
Nuclear fusion is the opposite ‐ you take two very light atoms (normally Deuterium and Tritium, both isotopes of hydrogen) and join them together into one heavier one (Helium). Nuclear fusion is the process of deriving energy from the joining together of two atoms. Fusion is the process that powers our sun ‐ not only that, but pretty much every atom in your body was once created inside the giant fusion reactor of a star ‐ fusion is the process by which all the heavier elements were created from Hydrogen.
There’s a number of problems with nuclear fission ‐ Uranium-235 is a rare isotope of an already rare element ‐ extracting Uranium from the ground is a risky business due to the obvious health risks, purifying it to extract the 0.72% that consists of the 235 isotope is a laborious and difficult process. Ultimately switching to nuclear fission would only buy us a limited amount of time after depleting the world’s oil resources before we depleted the world’s uranium resources ‐ however, this time is probably measured in hundreds of years (think how much uranium is currently in the thousands of warheads held by the US and Russia).
Any risk of nuclear disaster is pretty much eliminated with modern reactor design ‐ the problems that resulted in the Chernobyl disaster were down to very bad reactor design and the corner-cutting of the Soviet regime. In a modern reactor in a western country the potential for disaster is basically zero ‐ as designs are continually improved and refined, the tiny risk of catastrophe is getting smaller and smaller. However, to argue that it didn’t exist at all would be a lie ‐ it is merely an acceptable risk when faced with the alternatives.
And then we come to the problem of nuclear waste ‐ of course if we were comparing nuclear fission to the perfect green energy source, then this nuclear waste is a pretty significant negative in the nuclear column. However, the point is there is no green energy source that can even hope to generate the same power levels as coal, oil and gas ‐ nuclear is the only zero-carbon technology that even competes in the same scale.
Here’s the motherfucking crux of it ‐ no amount of windmills or solar panels will ever generate enough energy to fill the increasing demand. Right now we’re faced with the choice between fossil fuels and nuclear, renewables don’t even come into it. When we run out of fossil fuels, that choice is going to disappear and our only remaining option will be nuclear.
But let’s just compare nuclear (fission) and fossil fuels for a minute ‐ both depend on limited natural resources, one of which (uranium) is still in plentiful supply. Both generate highly dangerous waste ‐ if you’d like to argue that radioactive waste is worse than combustion products then I’d like to remind you that the pseudo-environmentalists are prophesying that global warming will cause the end of civilisation as we know it ‐ if that’s not equally dangerous as radioactive waste then I don’t know what is.
Then we have the fact that the waste produced from burning fossil fuels is a gas ‐ a gas that we are still continuing to just release into the atmosphere willy-nilly. It is true scientists are developing ‘carbon capture’ technologies, but doing this is difficult, it requires energy and it requires somewhere to put vast volumes of waste gasses. The problem is that the waste products are a gas by default ‐ this is in contrast to nuclear power ‐ the waste products are solid and when compared to the gases produced from combustion, they pale in insignificance.
To any pseudo-environmentalist who argues against nuclear power, I put this simple question: Where would you rather have your highly toxic waste products, in a box that you can bury in a hole, or floating around in the atmosphere?
And let’s just have a little look at the problem of energy demand and how it is that nuclear is the only power source that can hope to compete with coal:
One particularly worrying trend among pseudo-environmentalists is the suggestion that we should try to reduce our energy consumption. Let me explain why I think this is dangerous ‐ energy, more specifically the energy derived from fossil fuels has been the driving force in the technological revolution (and prior to that, the industrial revolution) ‐ mankind is currently enjoying a new renaissance ‐ a period in which technology is curing many diseases, lifetimes are extended, arts and culture are flourishing, quality of life and living standards are gradually increasing across the board, life is better now than it has ever been ‐ it is the cheap energy from fossil fuels that has driven all of these advances.
To suggest that we should reduce our energy consumption is like suggesting that we should return to the dark ages, that we should deliberately regress our culture and give up all of these advances we’ve made. Pseudo-environmentalists call this desire for continued economic growth ‘greed’, but it is not greedy to want to continue our current renaissance ‐ to continue to improve life expectancy, to continue to gradually eliminate poverty. Growth is one of the most basic attributes of all life, even single-celled organisms. If you watch a bacteria growing in a Petri dish it will continue to grow until it consumes all of its resources, and then it will die ‐ this basic behaviour is true of every life form ‐ it is absolutely fundamental to all life. To argue that we should somehow attempt to curb economic growth is like saying we should give up part of what makes us ‘alive’.
What we need to do is ensure our growth doesn’t risk tipping the natural balance of the world ‐ the reason so many plant and animal species are able to continue to co-exist is because there is a delicate balance between the growth of one species against the growth of another. Pollution as a result of fossil fuels risks upsetting that balance so we do need to do something about it, but that solution does not necessarily mean regressing our society to the point before the pollution began.
Reducing our energy usage is simply not necessary ‐ in a world where every megawatt consumed requires another square acre of land to be turned over to wind farms or solar cells then yes, reducing energy consumption is a priority. Not only is your ‘green’ energy going to destroy our environment, it’s also going to cause a regression to the dark ages, is that really what you want? Mankind has an ability to overcome its environmental limitations ‐ to jump out of the Petri dish and find new ways to grow and feed ourselves ‐ this ability isn’t unique to mankind, bacteria and viruses for example are constantly mutating to find new ways to survive in different environments.
Science has already provided us with a way to jump out of the Petri dish of fossil fuels ‐ we have a solution to the dwindling supply of oil, a tried and tested solution that is already available today ‐ the solution is nuclear power. It is nuclear power that will allow us to continue economic growth and extend this renaissance long into the future, and do it without having to turn over vast swathes of land to wind farms or solar cells. Nuclear power is by far the most environmentally friendly way of meeting our increasing demand for energy. Nuclear power is not simply an economic imperative, it’s a moral and social imperative too.
Now let’s explain how nuclear power is able to compete with, and potentially generate even more power than fossil fuels which are one of the most dense energy stores known to man. It actually starts with Einstein’s equation:
While the theory of relativity is pretty difficult to explain, the equation above is actually very easy to explain. What it says is that energy and mass (i.e. stuff, like atoms) are essentially the same thing and are interchangeable. You can convert stuff directly into energy, and you can convert energy directly into stuff ‐ if you think about it that’s a pretty powerful idea. But it gets even better:
The ‘E’ stands for energy, ‘m’ stands for mass (or weight) and ‘c’ represents the speed of light. Now if you were listening in high school physics, you’ll know that light travels pretty damn fast, in fact it travels the fastest it is possible to travel. 299,792,458 metres per second to be exact. So what Einstein’s equation is saying is that energy is equal to mass multiplied by the speed of light (which is a very big number) squared. In effect, for a tiny amount of mass, you can get a very large amount of energy.
And that’s how nuclear power works ‐ mass is being directly converted into energy, and that process produces a very large amount of energy for a very small amount of mass. So much so that the amount of nuclear fuel required is tiny compared to the amount of coal that is constantly poured into a coal-fired power plant, even though only a tiny fraction of the Uranium-235 fuel is converted directly to energy, the speed of light is so large, only a tiny amount of it needs to be. This is how nuclear bombs manage to be so powerful whilst still being small and light enough to go on a plane or submarine.
And now let’s revisit nuclear fusion ‐ you’ll remember that I mentioned that all current nuclear reactor are fission reactors, and that this has a number of drawbacks including scarcity of fuel, a tiny risk of catastrophic disaster and the main one ‐ lots of nasty long-lived nuclear waste. Some of the waste products from nuclear fission stay radioactive for thousands of years (although that is actually only a small portion of the total waste).
However, nuclear fusion promises to solve all of these problems. Fusion reactions are very difficult to get going and keep going, so there’s absolutely no risk of a run-away reaction causing a disaster, the main fuel is deuterium which is found abundantly in seawater and the volume of radioactive waste produced is much smaller than with fission, and more importantly, only stays radioactive for a couple of hundreds years instead of thousands.
What I’m trying to say here is that nuclear fusion is the power of the future, I can say this with a high degree of certainty. It has all the potential to generate massive amounts of energy without any of the drawbacks of current nuclear technology. Put your bloody windmills away and stop ruining the countryside, nuclear fusion will save us all.
That’s not to say there aren’t massive technical hurdles to overcome before it can be made to work on a large enough scale to actually generate power ‐ with nuclear fusion what you’re effectively trying to do is bottle the sun, but you have to bottle it in a container that doesn’t touch it at all ‐ if you touch it, the reaction will fizzle out ‐ this is why it’s inherently safe. The only way to contain the reaction like this is with giant superconducting magnets ‐ the most effective shape seems to be a doughnut or tokamak.
An international collaboration called ITER is currently under-way to build the last step before attempting a working power-generating fusion reactor. There’s a clearly defined roadmap to the commercialisation of fusion reactors but unfortunately it’s a slow process ‐ ITER won’t see ‘lights-on’ until 2018, and ITER is only there to provide data on how to build DEMO. DEMO will be the first power-generating fusion reactor ‐ once we reach that stage it’ll be full steam ahead towards rolling out fusion power generation worldwide.
We’re probably talking about at least 30 or 40 years before fusion power is a workable reality, so we’ve got an energy gap that we need to fill. I’m afraid that nuclear fission is the only way to do it ‐ it may be dirty but it’s a hell of a lot better than causing a run-away greenhouse effect.
Even filling the gap with nuclear fission is going to be a problem in the UK ‐ it takes time to build new reactors and many of our older reactors are reaching the end of their lifetimes, if we’re to decommission them whilst also reducing our carbon emissions we’re going to struggle to bring new nuclear power stations online quick enough to fill the gap. We should really have started building them towards the end of Tony Blair’s rein, as it is we’re still only in the early planning stages and progress is slow ‐ we’re at real risk of serious brownouts and power cuts, increased energy prices, energy rationing or perhaps even energy curfews if something isn’t done soon.
I’d just like to say one final thing on the name of this group ‐ a scientist would never call somebody who disagrees with them an idiot. The name of this group is a reaction to the group “Put a wind farm in my backyard if you like, because I’m not an idiot.” ‐ to me this group displays exactly the kind of pseudo-environmentalist mentality that we could really do without ‐ if you’re just going to join the flock of everyone else who’s saying the same thing without really understanding the issues yourself, and then call everyone who disagrees with you an idiot ‐ that’s simply not scientific, it’s dogmatic ‐ much like a religion ‐ you’re abdicating your own judgement and following group-think, and you’re doing it in a slightly arrogant and pompous way. Being an eco-mentalist doesn’t make you better than other people and it certainly doesn’t give you the right to look down upon people who disagree with you. Some may be idiots, but there are plenty who are not, I hope in this essay I’ve proven that you don’t have to be an idiot to disagree with wind farms, and that your own pseudo-environmentalism may in fact be doing more harm than good.
I care about the environment and global warming just as much as you, we just disagree on what should be done about it.