Thursday, February 29, 2024

Q&A with Andrew Moore




Andrew Moore is the author of the new book The Decarbonization Delusion: What 3.5 Billion Years of Biological Sustainability Can Teach Us. He is a freelance science writer and communications advisor.


Q: Why did you decide to write The Decarbonization Delusion?


A: Because I was ever more concerned that human economies and civilization are making themselves more and more distinct from the biological Earth that sustains us. Using that word again, I wondered about the "sustainability" of this course.


I then realized that to understand the whole thing, one does really need to go into the details of how biology works so well with carbon compounds, and see whether we can learn any lessons in sustainability from that.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: It references two observations that I made.


1. Decarbonization is often seen as the drive towards the "perfection" of not relying on carbon for anything; that is clearly ridiculous when one considers how much of everyday life absolutely depends upon carbon and could not possibly be provided by another element because of carbon's special chemistry.


2. The aim of decarbonizing energy systems means replacing the energy-carrier (carbon) that biology has used so sustainably with something else, for which we have no experience, and no model from biology.


It seems to me a delusion that we can do such a massive switch in such a short space of time, or at all. In fact, the evidence is already mounting that we're failing even at the level of CO2 emissions seen globally.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you? 


A: I read hundreds of primary research articles in the peer-reviewed literature, and many feature articles, reports, bulletins, and webpages.


One thing that really surprised me is the energy, environmental, and human-health impact of battery manufacture. I knew it wasn't good, but I didn't realize that it was quite that bad... 


Another thing that surprised me, and gave me confidence in my title, is that waste material from products of the petrochemical industry is rapidly providing fuel for other industries -- notably the cement industry. This is actually strengthening, and not weakening our need for carbon-based fuels.


Hence I see a future where objects are made by the chemical industry from non-fossil feedstocks, burned for energy in the hard-to-abate sectors: these need constant heat via very robust technology (combustion mechanisms), and they are hence extremely hard to "electrify."


The CO2 should be captured at source (from the chimney), and re-made into useful objects -- preferably on-site to maximize efficiency. This represents an integrated economy of energy and material, exactly what biological cells and whole ecosystems do.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: That we need to preserve diversity of technology, particularly at a time of crisis where there are so many "unknowns" and "unpredictabilities." We seem to be panicked by climate concerns and industry angst into a situation where we throw all our bets on just a few cards.


Even hydrogen is very far removed from the "perfect" fuel that we often think of: biology realized that 3.5 billion years ago, and used carbon to carry it in convenient forms; the latest research even shows that hydrogen leakage has a strong, but indirect, greenhouse effect.


I consider openness to technology diversity very important, also because diversity (in the form of genetic diversity) is what enabled life on Earth to survive the ups and downs on this planet: cut your diversity to a minimum, and you can hardly respond when something unpredictable happens. Biology "knows" that; we must learn!

Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm working on a "pared-down" version of the book that anyone can read easily. The larger book can be nibbled at in stages, because I made very explicit section headings, basically telling people parts of the "story" in "word-bites." However, to be readable flowingly from cover to cover, it needs a bit of work.


Once done, I'll also have the book translated into German, because Germany is a very interesting case in point in the development of more sustainable economies.

Q: Anything else we should know?


A: No technology on Earth will "work" without large reductions in consumption. Having written this book, I am more convinced than ever that there is no such thing as "sustainable technology," but there IS sustainable behaviour with technology.


Nothing that I have written in this book is to be seen as a one-to-one replacement for what we're currently doing in terms of consumption. Any proposed more sustainable solution will only work in concert with larger reductions in consumption - basically buying more new things and using too much of everything. 


This takes us into social sciences and psychology, even into applied philosophy, because it gets at the heart of what most humans seek in life: "happiness." Sounds a bit crass, but it's true. How much do we need to consume to be "happy"? Answer: not very much.


I strongly believe in the development of technology for improved education, healthcare, and welfare. And I strongly believe in a new kind of materialism. 


To take a concept from a book named "All you need is less," I believe that we must care more for the things we have (that is materialistic!); look after them well; service them so they last; mend them when they break; use them sparingly; only buy new when we really need it, or it provides an uncontroversial environmental benefit compared with mending/keeping. 


I marvel at the skills of people in poor countries to mend things. They do it out of poverty, but we should do it out of environmental responsibility. Can industry survive such a paradigm shift? I think so, but it would need to embrace cradle-to-cradle philosophies and almost residue-less recycling, just as biology does.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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