Pushing the Clean Coal Meme

Posted: April 16, 2014 in Advertising, Corporatism, Environment, Science, Technophilia

An article in Wired pushes the meme that coal, whilst claiming the lion’s share of responsibility for releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, can be cleaned up to continue to provide (mostly electrical) energy for everything we use. Pshaw, I say. Comments at the magazine’s website also call bullshit on the article, going as far as to baldly accuse Wired of shilling for big energy, and note that hundreds of similar comments following publication of the story have been purged. Pro-and-con debate on the subject lies beyond my technical prowess, though I have my suspicions. Most interesting to me, however, is what’s not said.

The implicit assumption is that energy demand must be met somehow. Totally and utterly outside of consideration is demand destruction, whether through pricing, metering, or simple unavailability. Sure, there’s 100+ years of coal still available to be mined (or harvested, or exploited, or <choose your euphemism>). Guess we have no choice but to go after it, right? The author does shed some hazy light on environmental and health costs from burning coal, especially in China where it’s worst, but nowhere is there a suggestion that we might stop burning so much of the stuff, which I find a serious omission. Instead, in true technophiliac fashion, an unproven innovation will rescue us from the consequences of our own behavior and deliver salvation (BAU, I suppose, including gadgety distraction if that’s your idea of fun) in the form of “clean coal,” namely, underground resequestration of CO2 released in the process of burning coal. Basically, it’s the equivalent of continuing to dig the hole we’re in by attempting to refill it with its own pollutants. And never mind the delayed effects of what’s already done.

The “clean coal” meme was risible on its face when it appeared a few years ago. Innovation notwithstanding, it continues to be primarily the work of fiction authors marketers and, I guess, stringers for Wired. Several coal ash spills and tonnes upon tonnes of CO2 added to the atmosphere (increasing year over year without stalling) since the meme was hatched are far more convincing to me than hopes of a technofix. Facts and figures make better arguments most of the time. I have none to offer. Instead, let me simply point to everyday sights (and smells inferred from the visuals) we confront. Here is an image from twenty years ago of the city where I live:

Here’s a more recent one:

These days are become a lot less exceptional. How far down this path do we intend to go? All the way, I surmise.

  1. Brian Miller says:

    Classic addiction patterns, we will use everything even though we know we are killing our body. Have you read David Holmgren’s “Crash on Demand: welcome to the brown tech future?”

    Click to access CrashOnDemandSimplicityInstitute.pdf


    • Brutus says:

      I tried reading it, but it’s too full of conjecture and policy/opinion reversals to take too seriously. For instance, he suggests a first and second collapse, but why not a stair-step one? Or why not one big, BIG lights-out event considering just how fragile things are? I can’t predict what will happen or when, but the likelihood of our ruining absolutely everything before we’re done is pretty good.

      • Brian Miller says:

        Fair enough. My takeaway was slightly different and perhaps shaded by my farming background. The permaculture crowd, of which he is a “leading light”, is a bit too optimistic for their own good. They hold a too firm conviction that their method of raising food is the key to supporting billions of people and mitigating the dangers of…well, us.

        OK, that is a bit unfair and simplistic. But, reading that one of these characters had thrown in the towel on any incremental change and was advocating undermining the economy by walking away a bit shocking. But what he advocates is completely unrealistic on a host of levels. Not the least of which is that we (the industrial culture) won’t give up any privileges until Mother Nature takes them away.

        So, I found the piece fascinating from the political viewpoint of how the movement of permaculture is wrestling with some of the same larger issues of climate change and peak resources. That one piece resulted in a host of denunciations that went on for weeks across the globe. You would have thought he’d advocated euthanizing all cats, not withdrawing from the global economy.

        BTW you have been in a prolific mood the past few weeks.

  2. Brutus says:

    My response was a failing of sorts. I didn’t approach Holmgren’s publication with any knowledge of him or the debate he sparked. Regular readers might recognize that I’m resistant to fame and celebrity as markers of authority.

    As to undermining the economy by walking away, a few individuals don’t accomplish much. Even boycotts don’t accomplish much. Similarly, the growing underclass in the U.S., who enjoy only limited participation in cornucopian lifestyles, don’t have much impact. Large demographic effects are felt by virtue of our sheer numbers notwithstanding how fully we use and abuse resources. As you point out, the real trigger for bringing down civilization will be when everything is taken away not by us but by Mother Nature — a process that has already begun (e.g., drought, loss of habitat, loss of biodiversity). Neither politics nor economics can change that outcome to any great extent.

    OTOH, walking away and doing no more harm than necessary is a fine option if one can get square with the hardships, including becoming a pariah. That’s highly unlikely to occur by choice except with a few outliers. I thought about it myself but then stepped back into the bosom of civilization owing to the realization that I’m wholly unprepared to go it alone and can’t muster the support and society to stay upright. That’s why I often call us all “ruined people”: we simply can’t accommodate ourselves to any other paradigm than the one we have.

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