Book review: The green utopia and social thermodynamics

Oil IT Journal reviews ‘The Utopia of green growth’ by French energy expert Philippe Charlez. The wide ranging, authoritative and opinionated work considers economic growth to be a product of ‘social thermodynamics’ which will make the energy transition a difficult goal. Charlez work concatenates a broad ranging and well-informed energy textbook with some rather outspoken politics.

Philippe Charlez*’s 500 pages ‘essay’, ‘L’Utopie de la Croissance Verte’ (‘Utopia’**) is subtitled The Laws of Social Thermodynamics. It covers a lot of ground and seeks to link a wide ranging physical and chemical analysis of the energy landscape and the climate situation with a social/thermodynamic theory of growth. His thesis is that growth is practically baked-in to modern society, and that finding an alternative is going to be extremely difficult. Charlez writes from the standpoint of a self-confessed right winger. The frontispiece to Utopia has a curt one liner that states, ‘protect the rich and you will enrich the poor’. Margret Thatcher would approve.

The first half of Utopia is devoted to a history of the world and the evolution of society and politics. Charlez displays much erudition, with references to the great philosophers and societal trends. It is a great read with food for thought on every page, which makes it quite hard to summarize.

Utopia is packed full of facts and figures relating to energy consumption and development. One telling graph shows the relationship between the Russian economy and the oil price. Energy is presented as the main feedstock of growth and of mankind’s development. Until the last decades of the 20th century, growth and energy consumption were in lock step, albeit with huge differences in developed and undeveloped countries. Environmental consciousness was raised by events such as the Exxon Valdez and Torrey Canyon disasters and by the rise of the green movement. At this juncture in Utopia, Charlez observes that the environment is a rich person’s ‘sport’ and that, although technology can minimize society’s impact on the environment, decoupling growth from its environmental impact is impossible, ‘in the long term, nature will show that Malthus was right’!

Charlez reviews of the laws of thermodynamics, extending them to ‘social’ thermodynamics. This leads him to dismiss both ‘no-growth’ Marxist societies and the contracting society advocated by some greens. ‘Green growth’, presented by some*** as the way forward, is considered a utopic notion. Again, Charlez displays his erudition, comparing Voltaire’s and Rousseau’s models of society, France’s 20th century dalliance with Marxism, and later attempts by French legislators to break with the ‘inevitability’ of the liberal model. Utopia is of an extreme granularity. There are facts, opinions and historical allusions on every page. Before we leave the thermodynamic chapter, one parting shot: society has two ‘enemies’, growth and morals! Morals were ‘invented my mankind to counter the natural laws of thermodynamics’. Strong stuff!

You may be interested to hear what Charlez, who is energy advisor to France’s erstwhile main right wing party Les Republicains has to say about the energy transition. The answer is, a lot! Again with great erudition and in a more straightforward manner that shown in his political analysis. There is still, in oil and gas circles, some debate as to the human origins of atmospheric CO2. Charlez gives this very short shrift, citing carbon isotope studies of ice cores that show ‘without ambiguity’ the post-industrial revolution human origin of atmospheric CO2. But is this the main cause of global warming? Charlez looks at other possibilities, Milankovic cycles, the sun, clouds to conclude … well that it’s complicated and that various feedback mechanisms contribute more to global warming than the radiation forcing of CO2.

Charlez takes a few swipes at the politics of the GIEC (the worst case 5° scenarios are unrealistic and should be removed). He divides the commentariat into three groups, the climate skeptics, the ‘collapsologists’ and the rest. The collapsologists (the Nostrodamuses of modern times) advocate a radical change in society which clearly does not meet with his favor. But what does he have to say about the climato-sceptics? He analyzes the skeptics’ arguments in detail to conclude that these do not stand up to scrutiny. What drives the skeptics is a polemical approach that is removed from scientific reasoning, with some even questioning the evidence of the ice cores. Today, such opinions are ‘marginal’ and disappearing.

The last chapters of Utopia discuss the four levers that can be actioned to limit global warming: limit growth, limit population, reduce energy intensity and ‘transition’ from fossil fuels to renewables. On growth, or the absence thereof, Charlez reprises his earlier historico-social reasoning adding in some comparative religion for good measure! He hits his stride with the introduction of ‘climato-gauchisme’, concatenating the green movement with left-wing ideology, with Greta Thunberg as its high priestess. Clearly this is not at all to Charlez’ taste. Instead he advocates, rather redundantly ‘sustainable and durable’ energy, citing with approval his old boss Patrick Pouyanné (TotalEnergies CEO) who said, ‘energy must be clean, available and affordable’. One cannot disagree with that!

Regarding energy intensity, things look more positive. Insulating homes and heat pumps (despite our own misgivings) are ways forward. He highlights the extraordinary worldwide energy consumption of the private motor vehicle. Energy use in a motor vehicle can be reduced by decreasing its weight, improved tire technology and reducing wind resistance. He cites anecdotally the efforts of the ‘Extinction Rebellion’ movement who protest by letting down SUV’s tires! This is ‘intolerable’ ethically but ‘sound science’ in so far as the vast increase in the number of SUVs, with their high air resistance is anathema to fuel efficiency. How fast should we be driving? Charlez recommends that the top speed on European highways should be 100kph (62mph).

The chapter on carbon neutrality, looking forward to 2050 begins with a quote from French bishop and philosopher Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, who observed ‘God laughs at those who deplore the effects of that whose causes they adore’, which sums up rather nicely the predicament we are all in today. The last couple of hundred pages are devoted to an analysis of carbon reduction and the energy transition. These include a shift to nuclear, biomass, energy storage, hydrogen and other ‘fixes’. All of which are evaluated objectively and none of which would appear to be a magic bullet. Utopia is so packed full of information and ideas that it is not just hard to summarize, it is hard to see what conclusion Charlez wants us to draw. The lack of an index (quite common in French publishing) does not make it any easier to see the big picture.

In sum, to our minds, Charlez is a great thinker and has put a lot into Utopia, almost every page calls for further debate. On the plus side, the science and commentary in Utopia would make an excellent text book for the energy transition. On the minus side, Charlez’ politics are often shrill and intrusive. Does ‘climato’ really have to be coupled with ‘gauchiste****’?

* Charlez’s LinkedIn page has him as Energy Expert at the Paris-based Sapiens Institute. His 35 year career with Total is somewhat hidden from view, on both LinkedIn and in the blurb for ‘Utopia’.

** L’Utopie de la croissance verte ISBN 2492545032.

*** Green growth is one of the OECD’s tenets for sustainable development.

**** left wing.

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