top of page

Bridging the Metabolic Rift

Leigh Phillips

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Chris Keefer  0:00  

Welcome back to decouple. Today I'm joined by returning guest. It's been a while though Lee. They welcome back Lee Phillips, author of austerity ecology and the collapse porn addicts, a defensive growth progress industry and stuff. And yes, I thought I would read out the whole title because I think it's gonna be a theme that still weaves itself through a lot of our conversations. And he's also the co author of the People's Republic of Walmart, countless articles. It's great having you back, man.

Leigh Phillips  0:29  

It's good to be back.

Chris Keefer  0:30  

As I said, it's been a long time I was trying to make a reference to you know, the archives. But we've reviewed some books together, I believe, Bill Gates. And I think Michael Shellenberger is book apocalypse, never. But we're reaching back a couple years. So anyway, great to have you back, Lee. We both just returned from the breakthrough dialogues, which is a very interesting yearly conference put on by the breakthrough Institute, down in Sausalito, California, really, really beautiful spot. And a lot of smart people showed up. And the theme this year was the metabolic rift. And you gave a keynote on the topic, which I thought was brilliant. So I wanted to have you on to to break it down and talk a little bit about growth limits, you know, mainstream traditional environmentalism and whatever the hell it is that we describe ourselves as, and wrestle with some of those tensions. So, once again, great having you here, really? I mean, why don't we just start off with a discussion of something brief, but just, you know, what is the metabolic rift? Where's that concept come from? What you know, what, what was the big man talking about the big bearded guy talking about?

Leigh Phillips  1:41  

So he was I mean, I wouldn't make the argument. Let me put it this way. So that there there are a couple of Marxist or supposedly Marxist that's not fair. They call themselves Marxist. self. Self ID to Marxist John Bellamy Foster and Paul Bearcat, who came up with the conception of the metabolic Rift, which is a supposedly a breach between the sort of natural cycles of the earth and, and, and capitalism capitalism is broken those that relationship between town and country and between man and nature, and he jumped only foster in particular has developed this idea through a series of books claiming that Karl Marx had originated this concept. And the evidence for that is presented in Marx's ecology and a few other books by John Bellamy Foster, a based on that there were a handful of footnotes in like the third volume of capital, a few other references elsewhere, it sort of throws are the ideas that is overthrowing Marx's Promethean Enlightenment ideas about that the one of the limitations of capitalism is that it limits production to that which is profitable. And imagine how much more we could produce if we organized according to need instead of profit. And so that the idea is to do what Marx calls the productive forces, that is technology, labor, land, everything that goes into the production and reproduction of society could be expanded significantly, under an economy that was not

Chris Keefer  3:30  

market base. And so this this idea of metabolic rift, as it's been leveraged by some self IDT Marxists is kind of maybe a way to echo the left turn towards, you know, environmental ideas of limits of maybe population constrained resource scarcity. So what when I when I first learned about the metabolic rift, I'm a pretty simple guy, I don't think well, in the abstract, the rift between town and country was sort of really one of fecal matter, just this idea that we are taking nutrients from the soil in food, bringing them to even small towns, but now you know, Metropolis sees mega cities and not returning those nutrients in the form of, of our shit and piss back to the soil. And, you know, I guess one of the big drivers that's just looking at Thomas Malthus is, you know, birth and death dates, and the guano trade. But why don't we make it real get out of the abstract by talking about about that sort of metabolic rift as it literally affects the food supply? And I think some of those, you know, I'm not sure I'm sure this is not the beginning of human thought about sort of staying within harmony with nature. I know, there's a lot of stories coming out of the indigenous world about not over harvesting certain things, but I think that was where in terms of the sort of modern European thinking about this, we have these concerns about population in particular and soil fertility. So I don't know if you can take us back to the heady days of Malthus, and then we can maybe chat about guano and nitrates and all that kind of jazz as it relates to the Ravens. Now,

Leigh Phillips  4:55  

one of the challenges here is that all that you have to do to solve that problem I mean, it's real that you exhaust soil fertility, you have to replenish the nutrients from somewhere. But those nutrients don't. They don't disappear from the earth. They're just in the wrong place. And so it's a matter of bringing them back and look at Denmark at the moment, they have some of the most progressive advanced legislation on nitrogen pollution. And that involves as a recycling of, of nutrient waste back to farms. So and you know, Canada, Denmark is still absolutely capitalist, although one could say that the solution to that is a non capitalist mechanism that it's it's a regulatory industrial policy, some form of limited form of economic planning, but still, nevertheless, economic planning that does solve that problem.

Chris Keefer  5:51  

Is this is this a moving the poop from the cities to the country kind of solutions that we were talking about are Yeah, that's okay. Yeah. Okay. No, it was it was really interesting.

Leigh Phillips  5:59  

It's fixing, fixing that, right, that's opposing that allograft. But I would also say that, fundamentally, even if that is the case, we would be running out of of nutrients, which that's that's way to oversimplify. But even if that were the case, the idea here is that underlying this idea of a metabolic rift that Marx didn't come up with is completely invented, based on by John, John Bellamy Foster on a series of a series of footnotes that really were the rest of the Marxist overheads is much more from a theory and it assumes that there is a set way for nature to be, that's that there's a purpose or a direction within nature, and that what's called ortho Genesis, A, which was critiqued, I talked about this in my in my talk, this was critiqued in a seminal essay 19, written in 1948, by Ernst Meier, an evolutionary biologist at North ologists. And if there is a set way for nature to be this, this runs counter to evolution. So it says there's a sort of holdover of a religious thinking that there must be some plan within nature. Well, where does that plan come from? It's at some sort of supernatural force. What we know from from evolution is that there isn't any sort of set way for it for nature to be but that nature is constantly dynamically changing in constant flux.

Chris Keefer  7:24  

And perhaps that humans aren't the first organism to come along and radically alter something like an atmosphere. Yeah. And and you're talking, you talked about the Devonian. I mean, there's there's kind of two fundamental processes that are going along in terms of kind of nutrient cycling, or chemical cycling. And that is, we're taking nitrogen out of the air, putting it into the ground through the haber bosch process, and then we're taking carbon out of the ground and putting it into the sky. But I did think that was an interesting and maybe we can, we can jump back deep into geologic time to sort of critique this notion of ortho Genesis to talk about things like mass extinction, which are kind of leveraged as you know, the boogey man if you if you do too much, if you're too promethium, you're going to trigger these kinds of responses. So maybe we'll jump there. I definitely want to I want to get back to some some Malthus and other things. But yeah, why don't we take a little trip to the Devonian to illustrate this concept or this the era of thinking in terms of ortho Genesis?

Leigh Phillips  8:19  

Yeah, sure. So earlier this year, I was I was in Morocco, in the Atlas Mountains, and I came across. It's a prioritized ammonite in bit of limestone. And

Chris Keefer  8:34  

this is a fossilized, what kind of creatures it

Leigh Phillips  8:38  

is a fossil fossilized ammonoid. So like, you know, not the sort of the spiral the most probably the most famous fossil that you can imagine sort of spiral gotcha patient like a snail isn't. And it's prioritized because privatization of fossils kind of happens in a sort of almost a unique kind of geochemical setting where there's sort of widespread anoxia there's a few other or basically lack of oxygen oxygen deficiency, few other different sort of attributes that need to happen for that need to be there for that time. But that's that's sort of the main thing. And the reason in this in this particular case, this this anoxia this oxygen deficiency event happened was because in the late Devonian was because plants conquered land in developed lignin, which is a polymer which is kind of stiff, which allows him to sit down roots to build trunks and branches. And prior to that, there was no there wasn't there were no plants on land, but they hug pretty much close to the shore and pretty low down because they didn't have any way to to to hold themselves up and so they had to be stay close to water. This was the first thing that allowed them to move inland, and also to compete against each other to shoot up and get, get more. More sunlight. At the same time that this happened, where plants are conquering land, creating these new in totally new ecosystems, new terrestrial ecosystems, those roots went down and broke up rock wet fissures and began to break up rock and created the very first soils. And then as a result of that, you know, precipitation streams wash off those like tiny broken up rocks for soils into the oceans. And of course, those rocks are filled with with with nutrients that those holes filled with nutrients. And then there's this massive sort of widespread algal blooms similar to what happens today when we have nitrogen runoff from agriculture from agricultural regions, and get what we call like algal blooms create dead zones. So these are basically ancient dead zones, but much, much, much, much more widespread than any any today and creating like vast swathes of, of ocean, particularly the continental shelf where life is, and all that life died, and then in turn, transformed the chemical composition of the atmosphere as well. And you created the first of the first, a snowball Earth, the first Snowball was created by another set of organisms cyanobacteria 2.5 million years ago, which, in both cases, both plants anyway, the sorry, the, this anoxic event was basically what caused the late Devonian mass extinction, there were two pulses, and we still don't know exactly the full contours of how this happened. But basically, if it is the case that life is supposed to be in a sort of Gaia hypothesis way, optimizing for the preservation of life, what we see here is that life actually create cause one of them is the big five mass extinction events, lead Devonian mass extinction event, resulting in this in 75%, die die off of 75% of macro macroscopic species. And then, of course, the great oxygenation event when the cyanobacteria first metabolized free free oxygen, putting oxygen into the atmosphere and enormous scale, radically transforming the chemical composition of the atmosphere and much more much more farther reaching way than what we're doing with with greenhouse gases. Again, that was, that was the very first mass extinction event isn't counted amongst the Big Five, because the Big Five were only macroscopic and this was this is microscopic, but it is we can infer from from proxies, that there was about an 80% die off of life at that point. So in both these cases, what we what we can see is that certainly it isn't humans that their very first species to be disruptive, it radically transforming life,

Chris Keefer  12:52  

right. And so you, you sort of I mean, probably referencing some other folks, but you posited this term rather than mass extinction, I believe, biological revolution and you kind of tie this into just almost this human story of mortality, that kind of life has to die to give forth new life. So maybe, maybe sell us on that term. And then I'll try and chip away at some of the thesis if I can.

Leigh Phillips  13:13  

Yeah, so Michael Benson, he's a paleontologist at the University of Bristol and probably one of the best paleontology departments in the world. His textbook, Paleo biology is used by university classes all over. So introductory textbook to not just paleontology, but paleo the ecology. So the relationships between organisms over time he is he argues that we should stop using this very sort of click Beatty, media, friendly term, mass extinction event and and really use the term biological revolutions that because each of these mass extinction events, resulting in a revolution of assemblage of species and you can't really say that the assemblage of species that happened before was any better or more worthy than the one that happened after when we look at death. It is very sad, but we can't be life without death. That and we accept that we should basically I think, have a much more mature approach to extinction. And not think of it as a so one sidedly a bad thing that we cannot have evolution without without extinction. It's part and parcel. So, yeah, I mean, it's not just the big five mass extinctions, but the big five or just the five biggest I mean, one of the, again, one of the problems with talking about the big five mass extinctions is that humans like big farms, we like top 10s We'd like to top 40 You know, it's, it's an artifact. In fact, there are dozens of a mass extinction events at the geological epoch level, and then there are hundreds 1000s Many, many, many more. I'm at a sort of narrower time period. And then of course, beyond that, it just sort of tails. There's no sort of radical break. There's just sort of what what's called background,

Chris Keefer  15:11  

something you said that really struck me because I'm a big fan of James Lovelock. And, you know, I'm sure there's, you know, loads and loads of complexity haven't melted, pour through all of his, his canon of works. But this whole idea that life, you know, operates as a kind of super organism and that life maintains the condition for life. It sounds like, you know, there's obviously been some abiotic mass extinctions, I think, the end Permian, you know, huge amount of volcanic activity or the dinosaur killing asteroid. But it sounds like more than a few of these, again, were both really biologic revolutions, you know, mass extinctions caused by organism does that. Is that true? Am I on?

Leigh Phillips  15:46  

That's true, there are at least two major, certain mass extinction events that were biologically caused. Peter Ward, Peter Ward goes so far as to say that they basically all are, I think he goes a little bit too far in the sense that three of the Big Five are indeed caused by large igneous provinces, but basically popularly understood as slightly wrongly understood as super volcanoes, but then the subsequent to that there are bacterial phenomena that exacerbate the situation. And so that's why Peter Ward says, actually, you can think of them all as as biomedical costs, but they're I think he's, he's confusing the the proximate with the the ultimate causation there.

Chris Keefer  16:29  

So suffice it to say that, you know, significantly altering the chemistry of the ocean in the atmosphere has pretty pretty cataclysmic effects on on the sort of species that exist, you know, and we can zoom out and I, you know, I was always a bit troubled by some of my biology teachers in university who seemed to have a very kind of a moral or an ethical perspective on things, you know, just zooming out and seeing life in the context of its, you know, billions of years of evolution and humans being a blip. And it led them to say some pretty, pretty shocking things in class, I remember, but obviously, you know, you're also approaching this, I think, with a pretty profound sort of moral system and ethical system grounded in your politics, etc. You know, things have changed in regards to how we might think about, you know, another species, in this case, homosapiens, triggering a biologic revolution. Let's let's kind of deep dive that a little bit because there is this and this was something that was dwelled upon a lot at the conference, this idea that the Holocene is this, you know, remarkable temperate period that coincides with, you know, the human agricultural revolution, which, of course, continues to sustain us at population levels that we've never seen before. And of course, this is, I think, a big part of what Stokes the anxiety of, you know, we've talked about wizards and prophets before, but fundamentally people that, you know, believe strongly in limits. So how do we approach this idea of biological revolutions? When we when we stop thinking, you know, from a pre human history where there's not really a moral system tied into it to one now we're we're pretty concerned about the human exceptionalism and the preservation of of the species in our young people, etc.

Leigh Phillips  17:56  

Right. So let's assume for a moment that we are pushing forward a sixth mass extinction. I think that's that's that's contestable, but let's just assume what is certainly true is that there is global decline in biodiversity. Let's also assume that, anyway, okay, let's leave it at that. For the rest of life on Earth, what we are doing is just another biological revolution, that we are just the latest evolutionary selection pressure, resulting in transformation of ecosystems, that evolutionary selection pressure is likely our extraordinary variability that we are constantly changing the conditions, it isn't so much any one particular thing, but we're constantly inventing new technologies that, that radically transform things and that is what the rest of life is, is having to adapt to. And so it's not, it's fairly unsurprising that the, the organisms that are thriving most in the the Anthropocene, in the human epoch, are those that are able to match our variability. So noorvik species, those who wants to thrive in an urban our human created spaces, that just intrinsically are also highly adaptable. What could happen is, we could kill ourselves up that this biological revolution could result in. And this is incredibly speculative for this moment, but could result in a series of organisms that dominate that are hardy weedy, very, very capable of sticking in place despite radical transformations. Now, that's from from a life from life's perspective. That's just interesting. That's just Oh, that's a new new assemblage for us. This is this would be terrible for humans to live through a mass extinction events last Biola Digital Revolution, the new set of spaces a new assemblage of species may be and conditions may be those conditions may be conditions that are not optimal for human human flourishing, or even human survival. And so this is why we need to care about climate change. This is why we need to care about biodiversity loss, nitrogen pollution, ozone depletion, which is now largely salted. And the other environmental problem is that there's a very rare, geologically rare set of circumstances that that allow us to flourish the last 11,000 years or so of the Holocene. And what we're in the business of doing is it's preserving those conditions or optimizing those conditions for us, we could probably deal with any level of of sea level rise or sea drop, but if it had already happened, but the thing is that most like something like two thirds of our cities are within three to seven meters of of sea level rise. So suddenly, New York and London and so on, and so forth, are swamped. And that's the reason that we don't want this to happen. We like this particular set of temperatures, much hotter, and great swathes around the desert, the center of the Earth where millions, billions of people live will have to move our bread baskets may be threatened by by drought, and by extreme heat events, undermining our ability to feed ourselves. This is why we care about these things, not because there is some zone on the earth that should be a particular temperature or in the polls have been much hotter with much more biodiversity. I mean, there have been palm trees and crocodiles and the Arctic in Alaska. Ironically, there was more biodiversity at that time. If biodiversity is good for its own sake, then surely we should be warming the world because then the argument there'll be there'll be more biodiversity there. But no, no, it's because we ourselves don't want that to happen. That we have humans that live in those spaces and their, their conditions their way their life ways their their infrastructure will be undermined by a warming Arctic.

Chris Keefer  22:10  

Something said that was very interesting in the in your talk was, you know, if we were heading into a new ice age, we'd actually be wanting to burn lots and lots of fossil fuels and sort of terraforming or Holocene forming our atmosphere to to maintain a desirable set of temperature. So clearly, we're needing to sort of, I guess, there was supposed to be mini ice age that we've kind of powered through and fairly overshot a little bit. But now we're needing to sort of move in the other direction. And I guess the fundamental tension again, getting back to this theme of, you know, environmentalists versus eco modernists, you know, wizards versus prophets, I don't like to set it up in these diametric opposition, because I think there's some, some subtlety in the Venn diagram overlap slightly. But the question is, you know, what is the framework under which we respond and try and, you know, solve these problems in as much as they're solvable? And I think, you know, the solution set of the traditional environmentalists did he grow Thurs is one of, you know, respecting natural limits of trying to dial back the clock, you know, in a pseudo religious sense, returned to the Garden of Eden, to harmonize. And then, you know, in the Eco modernist camp, we have one of decoupling of intensifying agriculture of rewilding, but, you know, in the talk, I remember you saying at one point, you know, once we've solved the climate change, do you I mean, that's, that's very optimistic. And I'm kind of curious, you know, because we sort of, as you're mentioning, to a large degree, we did solve the ozone problem, but obviously quite a different problem from climate change, like you say things like once we solve climate change, like, out of a true belief that we will solve climate change, or out of a sense of kind of, yeah, I'll let you answer.

Leigh Phillips  23:43  

Oh, yeah, I mean, my fundamental belief is that the pathway to solving climate change is not too different to that, to solving the ozone layer ozone depletion problem, which is a pivot away from just letting markets rip, live markets left to their own devices, that there's too much of a coordination challenge involved with solving this problem, it is much certainly the ozone depletion problem was limited, basically, one or maybe a handful of different sectors. Whereas this is almost every sector upon which industrial modernity space we have to transform. So it is much, much more and more complex, but a pivot to a form of broadly, let's call it social democratic economic planning, industrial policy built out of to support technology switching to do the research and development to to solve all those areas of the future for which there's still a great deal of uncertainty to build out the the infrastructure to ensure that it happens in a just manner which reduces the public opposition to those transformations, reinforcing trade unions and good community supporting family supporting incomes, making life better for people. And it will happen a lot faster than just due to left for markets to be left to their own devices. And I see that the inflation reduction act well, not perfect, not going far enough, I certainly would love to see a lot more emphasis on direct public ownership as part of the plan. But broadly, that's the strategy that I've been advocating, since I wrote my book.

Chris Keefer  25:24  

So I want to I want to push back a quite a bit, I think, but I mean, we I think we do share a lot of, you know, political views, and values, certainly, but And again, I think this drives back again, to these these questions of, you know, again, wizards versus provinces, archetypes of problem solvers. And I think, you know, the central tenet of the Wizard of the Eco modernists is, you know, problems happen. We solve them generally with technology, those problems are those solutions create new problems, and then we kind of continue in this this constant cycle of problem solving. But I think what underlies you know, and this is, I guess, this this is what separates us from these other species is this human exceptionalism, you know, bacteria in a petri dish, they don't have technology. But I think there's also, you know, economists, I think, think it's Steve Kean who, who argued that were completely neglecting the energy side of things and just kind of fetishizing technology, he has this quote, that really struck me very, very deeply in my wizardly heart, which was Labor without energy as a corpse, and technology without energy as a sculpture. And I think I've just through this podcast journey, and through the interviews and study that I've done, I just come to see the real special nature of fossil fuels of that carbon pulse, and just how non fungible a lot of what I'll call fossil fuel services are so I mean, big stationary things like generating electricity. Okay, we got nukes, right. You know, district heating, low, low levels of process heat, hey, we got nukes again, I'm sweating properly. So nuclear focus. But, you know, we had James Fleay on a little while ago talking about the links between liquid hydrocarbons, their constraints and what that will do to a kind of globalized economy. But, you know, I don't think this puts me in a Doomer camp as much as it kind of realist camp. I think that you know, human evolution, the origin of the human species is intimately tied to fire. And I think the you know, the the origin of modern humans is so intimately tied to fossil fuels that a true decoupling that would solve climate change on the scale of 8 billion humans to me, is starting to feel really unrealistic. And I'm, it's weird, but I'm really starting to find myself in an in, you know, of course, mitigate to the degrees, which are possible and scalable, but I'm really starting to find myself in much more of a kind of adaptation, right, and a kind of fighting back against a hostile nature rather than kind of a harmonizing. And it's a kind of dystopian view. But anyway, I'd love to hear your thoughts on on that.

Leigh Phillips  27:47  

Yeah. So maybe I can ask you a couple of questions. So because I have listened to those podcasts, and I do disagree with their analysis, what are the sectors that cannot be replaced with clean energy production?

Chris Keefer  28:04  

Well, I think like almost any sector can at the scale of a pilot project. But you know, the question is

Leigh Phillips  28:10  

not commercial scale global. Yeah.

Chris Keefer  28:12  

What are the ones that? Um, so I think, you know, synthetic fuels, for instance, I don't think are going to achieve the same sorts of Euro API's, which will have significant impacts on our abilities to move people and goods as easily. And, you know, certainly the inflation Reduction Act is a vehicle with which to subsidize these these new novel technologies and try to maybe make up make up for unfavorable era we eyes, but those subsidies, but just those subsidies, in turn, come from, you know, the incredible wealth that fossil fuels have indeed supplied to us so far. And we're seeing inflation starting to come down in some places in the world. And a lot of the analysis says what's pegged to energy prices coming down, but like, so much of the the kind of subsidies going to a lot of the rentier class, that's a whole other issue. But a lot of the subsidies are, I think, deriving out of the thinking of like, the 2010 to 2020 period where energy just got so dirt cheap interest got so dirt cheap that we thought we can just throw money at problems of physics and chemistry, and try and solve them big out of that sort of abundance. But, you know, things that I think are again, on a pilot scale interesting that are sort of boutique, decarbonisation efforts that the rich can afford, but frankly, I'm not convinced, and maybe we'll talk about some specific examples, but, you know, on the fungibility of E fuels or synthetic fuels for say jet fuel or for diesel,

Leigh Phillips  29:34  

yeah, okay. All right. So there, I think there are a limited number of sectors that would be affected by this. Aviation I think is one that we do need to be quite concerned about, but shipping at the end of the day, the industry is looking at methanol. Now that's still technically a fossil fuel, but for my understanding need to read it. We've read up more on this that it's it's much the emissions are much lower, and much more easily capturable At least that's my understanding. But even there, if we wanted to pay the price, and I think, ultimately we should be doing this, we could just do nuclear propulsion for shipping. Now, that's a huge political ask, but it's not a huge technological ask.

Chris Keefer  30:15  

I think it's I think it's an issue of cost, though. I mean, certainly, we could we could put some nukes on some very large shipping containers that may be viable, I still don't think it would match the affordability of, you know, bunker oil based shipping.

Leigh Phillips  30:29  

I'd like to see some numbers on that, because I am guessing that at scale, once you scale this up, that and this was one of the the initial claims of the nuclear age was that it would be electric power would be too cheap to meter. Right. Right. So I, I just like to see some numbers on that before I assumed that bunker fuel will always be cheaper than nuclear.

Chris Keefer  30:51  

Here's my pushback is, you know, the larger, more sophisticated navies in the world have thrown nukes on to aircraft carriers and submarines, but they haven't put them onto destroyers, frigates, you know, other classes of ships. So there's something special about nuclear nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers in terms of logistics of refueling, and the need to not have any kind of disruptions in their in their deployments. And, you know, there you have an environment where there, there are less regulations, frankly, and there's more of a pragmatism where you could make make nuclear propulsion more widespread, but it's not, it's not happening. And there's probably, like, more complex reasons than just purely the economics of it. But I, you know, again, I think there's these, again, sort of boutique is maybe to, to sort of slanted in a certain direction, but there's these, these these pilot projects, which which are deceptive to the popular consciousness, because they sort of convinced us that things are scalable. And trust me, I want to believe, I want to believe but I also don't want to be living in delusion. So that's why like, when I when I hear, you know, climate change is solvable. I mean, there's also the question of what solved I mean, is that getting back to whatever pre pre industrial levels of parts per million of co2 in the air is that, you know, staying within a, a temperature gradient, which which preserves, you know, a habitable Earth for our particular kind of, you know, form of industrial agriculture? I'm not sure. But like, What do you mean, by solving climate change?

Leigh Phillips  32:17  

I mean, I would say that solve climate change is solved when we are fully masters of the Earth's thermostat, and that we are no longer preventing suboptimal, average global temperatures, and we're now dialing back to whatever the optimal temperature is, for humans, either for that period, or maybe that changes over time. But we control that. I mean, I why I'm very optimistic and quite excited about the current situation is that I, like we are the generation or awesome the next generation, or the the generations of humans that move from accidentally terraforming the Earth into consciously terraforming of the earth, that we are becoming aware of our capacity to transform Earth's systems into and through that through consciously designing those earth systems. And that's a very exciting, revolutionary moment to be to be living. Just back to this, this this question of boutique or startups in pilot projects. And I absolutely agree that there is there's a lot of interesting stuff, and other stuff, which is like, oh, there's no way that's ever going to work. But you know, your your star that's attracted by the, all these, these these tax credits, what those tax credits are doing, it's trying to, it's not to permanently subsidize ridiculously expensive energy options or other technologies, because it's not just about energy indefinitely into the future. It is about taking things that are currently far too expensive to be commercially competitive, through the valley of death through to commercialization, to the point that they can be free on their own in the market or run by the public sector. But again, the public sector wouldn't be wouldn't exist simply to wouldn't be public simply to constantly subsidize them. That's the purpose of them. And through that process, we're figuring out what works and what doesn't work. There's enormous uncertainty at the moment, and a range of different sectors, particularly around hydrogen. We don't quite know yet which will work. And I think the one of the challenges one of the frustrations that I have with a lot of the green blob is that they assume that we have all the technologies ready to go and that is just evil capitalists. They're holding us back from from adopting today's technologies because they want to maintain their oil and gas profits. It is the it is the case that the oil and gas companies participate. I have read they're having a interest in delaying in lobbying to restrict any sort of legislation that might inhibit their their profits. And of course, Volkswagen famously engaged in active actively criminal behavior around with diesel paid. But it's a big part of the challenge is that there's a lot of uncertainty that we just simply don't know, for a number of sectors, I mean, to some really crude numbers. And I think there's probably about 70 80% of the economy, where yes, we already have the technologies. And it's about scaling them up taking them through to commercialization, and spend the quite a considerable amount of time to build the infrastructure to transform those, those sectors. And there's like maybe 20, to 30%, where there's still an enormous amount of let's say, that's still a very large part of the economy that is still deeply uncertain. I'm not confident in your presumption that those simply won't work in terms of ERL, its energy return on energy invested. I mean,

Chris Keefer  35:57  

and to be honest, I'm not 100% Confident either I have this kind of beginner's mind, this breadth of knowledge. And again, the depth is quite shallow in many areas, which is, again, why I rely on a lot of experts, and very much encourage people to feedback and critique and help explore my my consciousness and my journey. But I thought something you said there was really interesting in terms of, you know, the green blob, and this kind of conspiratorial thinking that, you know, all the technology is there, if only we could overthrow capitalism and get rid of the big evil corporations, then we just have solar panels and wind turbines and batteries everywhere. And but I think there's almost like a similar error of thinking in terms of a conspiracy theory that like, if only nuclear was unleashed from all of its regulations, it would be as good or probably even better than fossil fuels. Because in terms of consciously terraforming, the planet, the fundamental energy, the fundamental ingredient to drive that will be just gobsmackingly copious amounts of energy. And when you when you realize that a barrel of oil has the energy equivalent of five years of human labor, and that we you know, burn about 100 billion barrels of oil equivalents of fossil fuels, that's 500 billion years of human labor tied up, and I'm just trying to give a sense of the the size of these numbers, I'm just not convinced that there is a swap in a fungible source of energy, that can do even more than we can now because, you know, there's limits to how much we can TerraForm. Now, as you mentioned, it's still fairly accidental, we're starting to see some conscious ways to manipulate it, but like reversing some of these, these flows, like such as things like direct direct air capture, which I don't think anyone thinks is going to be viable in the near short or far term, mean, it requires just enormous amounts of energy. And if we're, if we're going to say, we're not going to use the most abundant, easy to access cheap forms of energy to do that, again, that that's, that's behind my pessimism, does that turn me into a degrowth? Or, or a Doomer? No, I feel like this, this compulsion to actively struggle and fight, you know, for my well to be very, not selfish, but you know, for my for my child's future, I don't think the response is, you know, to turn our backs on on technology and repent for our sins and go back to a miserable Garden of Eden, but it's probably going to be something that's less black and white, that's a lot more gray, where, you know, we are going to end up with a bunch of heating baked into the fact that, you know, there's a large number of economic activities that will be tied to fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. And so we start running out of fossil fuels. But, you know, it's it's, that's what I think we're I find myself in this kind of mushy middle between this camp of limits, and no limits, and, you know, again, humble journey are trying to figure out where I fit in all of this. But

Leigh Phillips  38:28  

I think what is true, is that industrial modernity wouldn't have happened without the discovery of fossil fuels, which is, you know, interesting from a sort of speculative fiction kind of way that maybe that's sort of the reason that we are confronted with the Fermi paradox is that there just happened to be at a particular time in the earth, laying down of during the Carboniferous of coal. And that if that hadn't happened, in that there's a particular set of certain geological and biotic circumstances allow that to happen. And maybe that isn't something that that is maybe that's uncommon in the universe. And that and you cannot develop industrial modernity without passing through that the certainly the scientific revolution that is, and the alignment is is essential, as well. But the daps a third sort of pillar there. But where I would push back a little bit is to think that fossil fuels are the last stage in our movement from using human muscle to animal muscle to flooding of streams and windows, to, to steam power, through to to oil and gas. And, you know, we've heard this before from people like that stuff, smell that you're moving up the ladder of energy density and the fuel that you're using. And at the end of the day, the reason that I'm excited about nuclear is not even because I think it really is a bit of a switch His army knife for climate change that does solve. So many, not all, but so many of our questions, but because the energy density, we are moving up the ladder of energy density there that I don't think that fossil fuels will be the last step in the ladder of expanding our capacity to engage in work. That's what energy is, I mean, in physics, all that energy is the ability to do work, when you say that available is worth what was it five, human

Chris Keefer  40:30  

five human years, at one point in years? So think about it, human ears are at a gram of uranium. Yeah, exactly. Right. And, you know, I'm, I agree with the kind of energy density markers, but you know, that's just one criteria by which to match energy quality. And, of course, you know, others are issues of, you know, transportability, you know, ability to produce very high temperatures and process heat applications. And, you know, the conversation with James Fleay was, was very interesting in terms of, again, just the very, the great difficulty of replacing liquid hydrocarbons. And we talked a little bit about nuclear propulsion of ships, you know, whether, what, what degree of the global fleet that could that could affect, but I'll maintain my view and try and develop it further and be able to argue it better that there are certain fossil fuel services which are not amenable to being replaced by by nuclear power to, you know, to my great sadness. Right, but, and, and I don't foresee it, and this is where I could be wrong, and why I find it interesting to talk to Mark Mills, I'm gonna have back on the podcast a little while is, you know, he's, he's, you know, a great realist, but he's also a huge optimist. And he says, Hey, I could be wrong, or, you know, new battery technology could develop, that could totally change my perspective. But you know, these things are our technological cycles that take quite a while to research and deploy,

Leigh Phillips  41:47  

I could be wrong, too. And it could be the case that fossil fuels in some for some sectors, something that are key and crucial to industrial modernity, were the last stage on of the energy ladder. But I'd really like to see some hard numbers on that,

Chris Keefer  42:01  

we should develop those, we should develop those. I mean, I think one of the things that I want to get back to the era before we run out of time, but you know, one of the things in terms of particularly constraints on on, you know, cheap, abundant, transportable energy, the liquid hydrocarbons, in particular, is this idea of, of globalization being permitted by liquid hydrocarbons, and I guess sort of US Naval hegemony, which which create the conditions for the free transport of goods on the on the high ocean, certainly with certain injustice is baked into it. But you know, an unprecedented era of global cooperation when it comes to commerce and transportation. And something that Peters I hadn't talked about in that context was the sort of, I believe it's four ingredients of industrialization that a country requires, if it were to exist in a vacuum to industrialize. And that would be things like, cheap energy in the form probably of fossil fuels at the current moment, minerals, food and cheap labor and how, because of the kind of era of globalization, we're in countries that have only one of those ingredients through trade are able to, you know, become industrialized countries through its through swapping in or importing or exporting and trading. And that's, I think, one of the the big sort of worries and preoccupations that, that were echoed by by James Scalia. But that's an aside back to the IRA and tax credits into this question of, you know, terraforming the earth and the governance structures involved. And I think you're an advocate of not for central planning, but for democratic planning, something that that strikes me, you know, with the IRA in particular, you know, with my sort of origin stories on the left, being, you know, pretty favorable to the idea of a large amount of planning within within an economy, but it's kind of like democracy itself, if you have an uneducated populace, you can have real problems in terms of good governance. And similarly, if you have a really under educated political class, when they plan, and they're far detached from the built world and material reality and engineering discipline, they can subsidize the wrong shit. And frankly, that's, that's a big part of the IRA, and what we see in Canada with our response to the IRA, the clean tech investment tax credits, I mean, we're just throwing dollar bills all over the place, you know, hydrogen actually gets gets the largest percentage of a tax credit, and I think is the least viable of the choices on the table. But amongst others, you know, wind, solar batteries are reaping huge amounts of subsidies. So I wanted to sort of do a little push and pull on that and discuss, I guess, in maybe I'm going to kind of closing a few minutes here, this idea of of questions of governance when it comes to trying to intervene in the market and intervene in in the environment.

Leigh Phillips  44:36  

Yeah, so there's a widespread misunderstanding that the purpose of the technology of democracy democracy is to come up with better solutions or to come up with the perfect solutions. No, democracy is the purpose of democracy is self governance. It's not correct solutions. There is no class of human beings that have it. Some superior understanding to other human beings about what the correct solutions are. You can have expertise that advise our elected decision makers. But how do you get the there are experts that are? How do you pick those experts? If not through democracy, then it has to be picked by a group of experts in expert picking well, how do you pick the experts and experts pick that you pick the experts who are experts in and It's turtles all the way down? Democracy is the only possible way that we have to, to do this other than dictatorship kings, lords bishops, and that was our that was the crucial revolutionary insight, the anti authoritarian insight of, of the Atlantic revolutions from the American Revolution, French Revolution, and and around the Western world was that those people aren't any better than the rest of us that they, they thought that they were that they had to do divine right of kings, or that God had picked the Pope. And there was a realization Oh, no, these people aren't any better than us. There's just us. And so in the process of debating in democracy, the process of debating what the correct solutions are, the people who form the majority may occasionally be the ones that pick the wrong solution. But then four years later, we have the potential to correct that. Or if we believe that they're the incorrect solutions to attempt correct, there is no other pathway, because there isn't some group of perfect all knowing individuals,

Chris Keefer  46:35  

when it comes to this tension, I guess, between planning and the markets, you know, the market is an excellent tool by which to communicate information, I'm not sure if we call it a technology of governance, if it fits within that, or to what degree these things meld together. But when advocating for more of a planning approach, or a total planning approach, I think one can become the victim of, of poor insight in a way that is far less optimal than, than the market itself. And I, you know, I'm surprising myself by saying these things, but I'm gaining an appreciation for the market, in contrast with some of the most ridiculous, you know, planned ideas that I'm hearing coming out of things like the inflation Reduction Act, and, you know, I had quite a while of being kind of in love with with Cuba. And I mean, I still have an appreciation for the incredible minds of Fidel Castro, who would pour through agricultural reports and really develop an incredible amount of expertise in fields like biotech, which Cuba invested in heavily even in the midst of their special period. Like there's examples of maybe some, some planning efforts, it I'm probably leaving out a lot of, you know, Nordic social democracies that did a great job in terms of that kind of melding, but yeah, I mean, how do you see those two things, interacting as the vanilla socialists that you are?

Leigh Phillips  47:54  

So I'm the fervent anti song. So I have no sympathy for Castro for the Castro regime at all, no admiration for its lack of free trade unions for lack of freedom of speech. The authoritarianism of the regime makes it those individuals who are in different particular economic sectors afraid of reporting bad results, because they might be thrown in jail. Therefore, there is poor information fed into the system, and that is what so the authoritarianism resulted in, in poor planning, it isn't planning that leads to authoritarianism. And that just that's just much more extreme within the Soviet, the historic Soviet case, the market question, what we are doing there when we allow markets to allocate to make our allocation decisions, we are passing off allocation decisions to an unconscious Lord, bishop, king, the that bishop, or king or lord is the market is the profit incentive. And so a market actor, if they are producing a commodity that we've discovered is harmful to society, or that they aren't producing enough burger producing too much off or whatever it happens to be. That market actor has an incentive to continue the production of that commodity to lobby to purchase to attempt to purchase elected representatives. Conversely, if there is a if there's an item of good or service, a piece of infrastructure that we know is beneficial to society, but isn't profitable or is even insufficiently profitable, there is no incentive for a market actors to to build that. So we have these these. You can think of market incentive as an unelected Bishop and an elected Lord governing us telling us what we're going to build or not build. And planning is a process of trying to Who to constrain that to direct that in service of, of humanity, that doesn't necessarily mean that planners, if they have poor information, or are just ideologically bound, or that there is insufficient state capacity, that there aren't problems there as well. But then those problems need to be solved as well. But we've got to recognize that the coordination problem that I've outlined there, particularly across multiple sectors, when we're trying to solve a particular grand problem is the markets are very, very poor at doing that. This is why for example, during war, governments, even the most fervently, free market, governments very quickly move towards more, more of a planning model bashing corporate heads together to produce a particular thing. Because if, you know, great example, it was during the Second World War, antibiotics were discovered in the UK. But the UK could have been taken over by by Germany at any moment. They also didn't have any industrial capacity for mass production of antibiotics. So they gave the secret, this incredible war secret to to the ally America, because they knew that America was farther away, was unlikely to be invaded by like Germany. And also crucially, they had the industrial capacity at the time, what we today call pharmaceutical companies, they're just sort of chemical companies. He goes to the chemical companies, and they've just completely uninterested. They don't know, the enormous uncertainty about this enormous risk, then and No, no, thank you. No, thank you very much. And so the state just tells them that bashes their heads together, brings them together and forces them to this, that there was a solution or a problem that society needed solving. And market actors had no interest in solving that problem, because they aren't in the market actors, when asked to remember, are not in the business of solving problems. They're only in the business

Chris Keefer  51:54  

of making money, generating generating wealth. And I mean, I guess I've genuinely

Leigh Phillips  51:57  

No, no, no, no, no, of genuine wealth, generating profit, okay? Because we can generate wealth in other ways. publicly owned utility is generating wealth for society, in a broad sense, but it isn't generating profit.

Chris Keefer  52:12  

It's the to, like either Hear me out for a second here, but And again, I hope this isn't boring to our listeners, because I feel like I'm a kindergartener right now, but it would seem that the two are linked in some way, shape or form its wealth that's maybe mal distributed, I think one could say, but the market might make accurate choices in terms of the physical viability of industrial processes in order to generate wealth that might be wealth. It's not seem to have broad utility, but it's still wealth, which is why maybe capitalism has been the best system that we've had at unleashing just sheer amounts of energy and productive forces throughout society. I don't know if that kind of grinds your gears the wrong way.

Leigh Phillips  52:50  

No, okay. So, I any, any Marxist, any proper Marxist will tell you that capitalism is a fantastic system, compared to all the other previous systems. When I was a baby, Trotskyist, I could have been blown over with a feather. When Sir older comrades said, you know, hey, city on, we're not anti capitalist, we want to transcend capitalism. Capitalism is fantastic, compared to all other modes of production, feudalism, slave society, hunter gatherer societies is absolutely incredible, productive breakthroughs. But it has these, these these, these problems, these limits that it only produces, what is what is profitable, rather than the simple things that are profitable is much smaller than the set of all things that are, are, are useful or beneficial. And so again, to go back to this question of wealth versus making distinction between wealth versus profit, not merely about redistribution. So in Canada, we have a public health care system. We it's not, it's not the same as when the government owns Air Canada or owned Petro Canada, where those were Crown corporations, we're going to be using some language that only Canadian so but basically a publicly owned company, that companies still produced a commodity in a market. The profits were then taken by the state and redistributed, but it was still a market after our public healthcare system is not a market actor is just producing a service for the people to use. In both cases, wealth is generated but only in the first case is profit generated. In the second case, the wealth that is generated is the benefit is utility to humanity to Canadians. Is

Chris Keefer  54:35  

that just the difference between a you know service economy or service institution versus a production institution and and to get back to this question of market versus planning and the market generating profit, wealth, whatever we want to call it, and it's not viable if it doesn't, or those capitalist companies are not, you know, on the converse side if we have a planning system, that is a funding a technology, which fundamentally does not create wealth and maybe confused as hydrogen as an energy source rather than a carrier and creates sort of disastrous economic circumstances which undermine, you know, all of the production and prosperity that will float social programs like health care education like that. That's the kind of danger I see with uneducated planning, and why I'm reluctantly, more pro market I'm not a market Fundamentalist by any means. But I'm, you know, I might, there's some shifting sands in my thinking going on. And again, I, it's good to come back to, you know, a dyed in the dyed in the red lefty to kind of, you know, bang my head off the wall with but what are your What are your thoughts on those two points?

Leigh Phillips  55:35  

We know that markets were not moving fast enough, we know that there's a range of technologies with a great level of risk and uncertainty, including small mature actors, for example, that market actors were we're not willing to move. Without public support, I think you're, that doesn't necessarily mean that just because we're moving from so we know that markets were not making the right decisions, or not making all of the right decisions. So there needed to be some some we needed to do something else, we need to some level of economic planning. That doesn't mean that economic planning is, let me put it another economic planning is a necessary condition, it isn't a sufficient condition. You also have to have well educated individuals that are connected to that have that sort of engineering discipline that are connected to industrial systems. And I think the current class of liberal left political elites are thoroughly disconnected from that.

Chris Keefer  56:46  

Give me no hope as planners, let's put it that way. So I guess one thing I'd add

Leigh Phillips  56:51  

is I would love to see is a bit let me put it, a delay that I've had before is the right often, at the moment with respect to climate change has the right technologies, but the wrong economics to make them viable. The left is the right economics to make them viable at the wrong technologies. So that's the sort of framework that I'm trying to get across. What we want is somebody who has the right economics, broadly social democratic, that is to say, more planning rather than less market. But that has the right technologies. And I think that that is basically what could be called Old labour in the UK. That was a social democratic ideology that was still a group of individuals. They're still deeply connected to industrial systems, through the trade unions. And that's the sort of decommodification that I that I that I want to continue to try to build. And then I think like, despite what you've just said, about your your frustrations with the Canadian response to the IRA, and I probably am sympathetic, deeply sympathetic with what you would say about because I've been reading their poor response as well. Ironically, you through, you know, Canadians for nuclear energy, and your deep links with the trade union movement, is doing exactly what I think should be happening. And what I'm what I hope will happen, ultimately, is that we will win the day. And we will transform not just with respect to climate change and industrial issues, but we will win the day and return the NDP candidate Social Democratic Party, to a sort of classic old labor position deeply rooted in the industrial working class, that does actually make the right choices of technology while still holding on to the right. responses with respect to economics.

Chris Keefer  58:31  

I'll never accuse you of not being a dreamer, Lee. But on both climate change, and the NDP, which I think face similar sort of Gordian knots of difficulty to to unravel, I guess, just one, that would be the perfect place to close it. But just one last thing I wanted to put in there as in terms of competent planning, you mentioned sort of wartime planning, it seems like you know, there's that classic gendered saying about hard, hard times, creating hard men who create soft times it's create soft men, which, you know, etc. But, but I mean, it does seem like, you know, we're heading into an epoch of harder times now created by soft individuals, which is the gender that soft individuals creating hard times and edit is interesting seeing the caliber of decision makers starting to change. People just out of sheer necessity. We can't screw up the energy filed there for let's put someone in office who actually understands energy has some connection to production has some connection to power generation. It is interesting that that blowback is tending to be coming from the political rights, certainly in Europe, probably here in Canada as well. You know, I interact a lot with the Progressive Conservatives here in Ontario who are pursuing probably the most pro nuclear agenda that I'm seeing rarely in the Western world. It's it's very, very interesting and heady times to be engaging with it and totally nonsensical in terms of how topsy turvy and upside down the politics are.

Leigh Phillips  59:56  

The challenge there is that you still have figures like that Putting up who articulate a just a sort of throwback to fetch, right? market fundamentalism, the kind of things that we need to rebuild the Canadian working class industrial working class to, to make people feel comfortable again, that they can have communities that are long lasting, that they have enough money to raise their family. That's a return to Fair Trade economics is just not going to do that what we do need is a strong state that is able to revive industry in Canada that is going to liberate our natural resources to cut the Gordian Gordian cut, to eliminate the risk with respect to an honestly here, I think that Ellis Ross in British Columbia, he's a member of the legislative Legislative Assembly for the Liberal Party, which is in British Columbia, despite the name is actually a conservative party's not late to the federal Liberal Party. I think they've just changed their name. They've just changed the name to BC united, which is kind of weird, sound like a football team. But and he's, he's indigenous. He was, you know, he's under the band Council, the highest nation. And he is all in on economic records, economic reconciliation, and he's very frustrated with the sort of noble savage romantic condescension. I think it's sort of soft racism there that thinks that indigenous people who want to actually develop natural resources are somehow betraying their deep connection to to the earth and saying, no, no, no, we just we want to, we want a good life, we want equality with the rest of Canada and And ironically, that pathway of recognizing there's a role for the state to, to to support that through tax credits. And and perhaps he doesn't go as far as to say, public ownership. Certainly, in terms of direction of that there must be like a third of jobs, whether it is have to be allocated to indigenous people for apprenticeships, and so on to lift them up. That's the sort of I think it's social democracy, what he's talking about, even though he is in the PC, Liberal Party, I think that we will see increasing pushback against both. When those when those figures in their parties do want that sort of perspective, and they rub up against the market fundamentalism. They'll be just as frustrated. They'll be politically homeless in the way that you and I are. And we have no choice but to rebuild that. That sort of classic old labour, industrial informed engineering, savvy, social democracy, there's no other path around us. Even if you you're pessimistic, and you don't think it'll ever happen. I don't think there's another way around.

Chris Keefer  1:02:49  

Yeah, no, I prefer to maintain the delusion of optimism. And you know, I share that that, that sense of being politically unmoored, or I forget the term you just used, and politically, politically, homeless, strong opinions loosely held. I think that's that's a way to sort of live it in these in these turbulent upside down topsy turvy. There's

Leigh Phillips  1:03:11  

a few there's a few figures, there's a few figures like I think there's some like graphic, I won't mention the name because this could be interesting to your international audience. But in Canada, do you think there's some figures that get this that are trying in the NDP to change this? I think even within the Liberal Party, I think there's a handful of figures that get this.

Chris Keefer  1:03:30  

Right. Well, it's this was a really fun back and forth great discussion learned a lot I've been, I've been meaning to

Leigh Phillips  1:03:35  

I love you pushing back on the serve to the fossil fuel stuff. Because it is it's a really crucial insight of that, like, we have to recognize how fantastic and wonderful Yeah, fossil fuels were. They were a great liberator,

Chris Keefer  1:03:48  

and continue to be in a lot of regards. But yeah, I just see that that Tethering and disentanglement is incredibly messy. With with the potential for, for big mistakes to be made. Again, not to put away the the serious issue of climate change, I think it's possible to hold both of those positions. And again, it's kind of like this Greek tragedy where they're, they're entwined or human humanity is so closely entwined with fossil fuel use at least modern humanity that we're gonna have to figure out and navigate the parts, we can disentangle the parts that we're stuck with. And I think that's again, putting me more into this this mindset of planning, right? Because it's probably not going to be profit based, but planning around adaptation, because ultimately, what it all boils down to, for me is, you know, in a Doomer census is minimizing it like we have to admit that there is a certain amount of fragility to having 8 billion people on the planet. It's a wonderful thing. I love children. I want to see more of them. They're great, right? But that does that does come with a fragility that comes with consequences of poor decision making poor planning or of running out of some crucial resource. But I think again, it's possible to hold several truths together and not just sort of take a camp because it the clothes fit well, for instance, you know,

Leigh Phillips  1:04:56  

I think that I mean, there were there were risks and fragility at every The volume of humans on the planet. The benefit that we get from more humans is the more problems can be solved.

Chris Keefer  1:05:09  

All right, well, let's let's leave it with that slogan. Humans are awesome. Thanks a lot, Lee for joining me. This is a little bit of a, you know, improv thing but I think I think we got through some really interesting points and hopefully the listeners will agree. Thanks for coming back.

bottom of page