The brown transformation — will we manage to get there?

Dieter Zinnbauer
12 min readNov 9, 2021

To avert galactic collapse, we must embrace a new, brown future — and embark on a most unprecedented and treacherous journey for all of humankind

We are at the brink of catastrophe. And this time is real.

The scientific consensus is sound, and its implications are ever more urgent: we are living well beyond our means.

The Earth’s galactical footprint is destroying any prospects for trans-planetary sustainability.

Our addiction to decentralized, zero-marginal-cost renewable energy and the near perfect vicious cycle of the circular economy has given us unimaginable riches. Humanity has achieved a level of inclusive, equitable prosperity that turns out to be too good to be true. By now there is no more point in denying it: evidence conclusively suggests that being green and being circular are overstepping galactical boundaries with dramatic consequences.

We selfishly hover up huge amounts of solar energy that upset interstellar energy balances. Our closed-circuit material life-cycles disrupt the entropic dissipation of matter and energy on which interstellar resilience and sustainability critically depend.

The era of the anthropo-galaxy is here, and it isn’t pretty. Here what needs to be done to get humankind and the universe back on track.

Deep cuts, big sacrifices — fossil fractures

It might sound radical, because it is: we will have to administer deep painful incisions to our planet, start chopping up mother earth at unheard of scale, in order to harvest the future-forward energy sources, our lifeline for a better world. You may not have heard of them. They come under labels such as oil, gas, or coal, soon to be household names in a future of hope. The transition will not be an easy one. Measured against our current green baseline we will have to acquaint ourselves with rather inefficient and problematic ways of extracting, producing, and distributing the brown energy of the future. On the route towards galactical responsibility we will have to disrupt vital ecosystems, raze vast forests and mountains, destroy habitats and towns, expropriate, and resettle communities, rethink entire economic sectors, from food production to tourism. And we will literally have to fracture the geological fundaments of our world with ensuing risks rather unknown. This is not a doomsday scenario but the inevitable sacrifice to propel us into a inter-stellar sustainable future.

Toxic land grabs

The scientific estimates for the implications of this transformations are a bit troubling. First, land consumption: replacing solar with coal for our brown future will gobble up 25 times the land surface for producing the same amount of energy over a 60 year time span.[1] And there is another challenge: converting these so-called fossil fuels into energy will entail burning them, thereby tripling air pollution levels despite our best efforts on filtering out pollutants and unfortunately losing an additional three million people prematurely.[2] This is as tragic as it is imperative for weaning us off our lethal green habits.

Innovation deceleration

Our green technologies have enjoyed unbelievable, exponential improvements through innovation. For example, solar energy tech today is more than 2000 times cheaper than when it was first commercially deployed in 1985 and there is no reason to believe that this Moore-like improvement curve would end any time soon. Yet, we will have to abandon this innovation hot zone and move into a relative innovation dead zone, switch to fossil extraction technologies that even when supported through much higher levels of subsidies are most plausibly not seeing any substantive cost reductions over time through innovation.[3] On the contrary, any kind of cost-savings through innovation are likely to be offset by rising costs for extraction as companies will over time have to move ever more expensive and complex extraction areas, once the low-hanging fruits of easy-to-access reserves are depleted.[4]

The resurgence of wide-spread energy insecurity

The challenges to inclusive and reliable energy security are at least as formidable. Most things fossil tend to be very physical, i.e. heavy and/or location-bound. Distributing these new energy resources to where they are needed is thus a big challenge and very different from today’s interconnected, decentralized power production clusters and distribution grids. A hugely expensive and accident-prone infrastructure will have to be built. Thousands of miles of pipelines, big fleets of super tankers will be required to move millions of tons of fossil fuels from their places of extraction to their intended places of consumption. We will have to get used to perhaps one or two really large oil spills every single year[5] that severely damage pristine ecosystems and tens of thousands of livelihoods every year Admittedly this stands in stark contrast to our decentralized, scalable energy production today. High production and distribution costs will mean that the current paradigm of energy security for all might not be tenable anymore. Projections suggest that a more costly fossil-fuel-centred energy grid even when directly and indirectly subsidized by more than USD 3 trillion annually might for both economic and political reasons fail to serve more than 750 million people at the bottom of the pyramid.[6] In these places adverse location, bad governance or low purchasing power makes decentralized, solar-focused mini-grids the much more plausible choice.

Explosive mobility

Essential changes at household level will also take significant effort to getting used to. A radical redesign of the car is necessary. It will transition us from rather silent, electric propulsion to what has been termed the combustion engine, a rather low-efficiency, noisy, high on wear and tear engine architecture. In essence, millions of little explosions will be triggered to move us forward, not exactly the type of hazardous machinery that you want to have near your kids, a sentiment that shaped the choice of electric cars over models with combustion engine already in the early 1900s.[7] But I assume we will be able to get used to this clearly inferior set-up. Admittedly cars will be bulkier, smellier, louder. They will also need more maintenance as they will contain 100 times more moving parts[8] and thus face much more wear and tear. And instead of overnight plug-in charging in our garage we will have to prolong our commute, take a detour, and actually spend time to refuel at smelly centralised fuel distribution points. This network of dedicated refuelling stations -more than 100,000 will be needed to service the US alone[9] — will be completely separate from our existing energy grid. And it will have to take up substantive stretches of valuable real estate in metropolitan areas while posing high risks of pollution and chemical accidents for their neighbours.

Fewer jobs, business monopolies and a paternalistic big state — the tragedy of the domestic political economy

The domestic political challenges to get us there will be huge. First, there is likely to be a jobs problem. Fossil energy is much more capital-heavy and labour-light than green energy. The best models available to date suggest that the brown energy era will in its full bloom employ significantly less people than is the case for our green status quo.[10] Even in the rather early days of our green revolution, i.e. around 2020, the biggest renewable-producing nation employed 3.4 million people in this sector, while the biggest oil producing country only employed 170,000 people.[11] It is some consolation that at least in the US brown jobs may be emerging in the very legacy areas of strong green job growth, but then again these new brown jobs are on average paying 20% less than their green predecessors. Second, we will have to bring the state and cartel-like business back in — currently a political no-go for many. Strong scale economies, network effects and massive sunk costs will make natural monopolies the natural organizational form for brown business. Cartels and monopolies will be the inevitable by-products and take us far away from the competitive world of decentralized green energy. All this in combination with site-specific fossil resources will raise the specter of a political resource curse at unprecedented scale and scope. Governments can purchase political support by showering windfall fossil profits onto important political constituencies, while at the same time eviscerating the public accountability and need for performance legitimacy that comes when public revenues need to be raised through broad based taxation of the population.[12]

Yet even with juicy monopoly rents on offer technological innovation and markets alone will not deliver. We will have to unleash a huge program of state interventionism. Credible projections suggest that even when up and running our new fossil energy systems will have to rely on direct and indirect subsidies to the tune of more than USD 3 trillion per year[13] to be viable and functional. And as mentioned earlier even then it will leave more than 750 million people underserved, as they are too expensive to reach.

Adding insult to injury, more inconvenient truths are on the domestic political horizon. We will have to stomach a new culture of prohibitions, inconvenient curtailments of our freedoms and our autonomy. Homeowners will have to be prohibited to run their own solar-powered heating systems, communities prevented from operating their own wind power clusters that have provided them with energy and extra income. Car owners need to be forced to abandon convenient, clean plug-in recharging of their vehicles to just name a few examples. Nudging will not suffice, a new culture of the “Verboten” will have to be instituted to bring about behaviour change at the scale and scope needed. Finding political majorities for this journey will be tricky. Giving up on the technologies of freedom and autonomy from community energy to home-charged mobility and ceding to a new culture of state interventionism will particularly rile libertarians and market liberals. Going brown will all to easily look like a leftist conspiracy to resurrect a paternalistic, overbearing state and stifle individual freedoms — we will have to work hard to bring everyone on board for this generational project.

Nurturing authoritarianism — the global political fall-out

There is no point denying that many of the geopolitical consequences of our brown future are somewhat suboptimal as well. Many of these emerging fossil energy producers — let’s call them energy majors, will hail form authoritarian regimes. This is partly because it is precisely in authoritarian countries where unfortunately a very disproportionate stock of our new global fossil energy reserves are located. In fact, we will have to face a situation where 13 authoritarian regimes control half of our global oil supply and thereby the main pillar of the brown energy revolution.[14]

The ensuing geopolitics will be rather ugly, ushering in a new resource nationalism, as well as new risks of political and economic extortion by supply oligopolies and along critical distribution arteries. Courting authoritarian regimes will be inevitable even it abets suppression, fuels combustible internal conflicts and corrodes democratic norms around the world. Now some may want to reject these gloomy trajectories by allowing for the possibility that deeper global integration will promote rather than undermine the spread of democracy in the longer term. Yet, more plausible than the hope for “doux commerce” is what some have termed the spectre of the political resource curse. High-rent fossil fuel monopolies will prove an irresistible boon for would-be-despots, providing the resources base to build and fortify kleptocratic authoritarian regimes rather than see them dismantled or discouraged by the elusive soft power of global economic integration.

A less abundant, less reliable lifeblood for our economies

Most unfortunately however will be the economic shock that comes with the imperative brown transition: none of these new resources come with the close to infinite abundance and close to zero marginal costs that we have enjoyed for so long and on which the economic fabric of our societies are built. Yes, the market mechanisms will help to some extent to match demand and supply. But energy prices will be much higher, much more fluctuating, much more susceptible to geopolitics and supply chain disruptions. The overall price tag for the next decades when moving from renewable to fossil energy security is likely to add up to more than 20 trillion USD.[15] An economic calculus of energy abundance will shift to one of scarcity and uncertainty. Business models across all industries will have to adapt to this inferior new normal. Massive losses in efficiency and productivity look inevitable. So does the demise of some industries whose energy cost structures simply cannot cope with these new adverse conditions.

Resetting the compass and the discourse — narrowing what counts

With all these adverse consequences the brown transition will show up pretty bad in our major indicators and indices for well-being and wealth, sustainability and resilience against all of which we set policy priorities and measure performance. From quality of life and psychological wellbeing to household income and natural resource depletion, the numbers will look rather bleak for a while. To not distract us from the task at hand — and avoid adding more fuel to the fire of public outcry -we might want to partly suspend and pragmatically narrow our comprehensive dashboard view of human progress. Better to just keep a narrow set of economic indicators in the public limelight and as guide to big-picture policymaking. Deal with the other collaterals back-stage, a bit more outside public view. Perhaps a new north star metrics that we call gross global product and that just narrowly tracks some aspects of economic activity without any negative externalities, natural assets depletion or the many other non-economic factors that make life liveable and policies worthwhile pursuing? Even if this numbers play is pure cosmetics, it will help make the brown transition and the contentious discourse around it a more manageable for the captains of industry and masters of politics and a bit less egregious for the citizenry.

Paradise lost — galactical sustainability restored

These are all rather unpleasant prospects. But there is no alternative.

Only a few precious moments are remaining to change the course of economies and societies for a resilient, sustainable future. The urgency in action and the profoundness of change that is demanded from us is unlike anything that human civilization has faced before. There will be massive pain along the way and the new endpoint will be substantively inferior — economically, politically, socially. We will have to rip up our ecosystems, burn toxic materials and poison our air. We will have to stomach a new business oligarchy and lots more state interventionism at the same time. We must learn to suck up to dictators and human rights violators. We will haemorrhage precious public resources year in and year out to prop up an energy infrastructure that will not provide the close to zero variable cost energy abundance that our current wealth is built on and that will not even be able to guarantee a floor of energy security for large swaths of humankind. And to add insult to injury, some scientists even believe that the inevitable shift to brown might risk messing up our atmosphere with catastrophic risks to lives and livelihoods further down the road.

Yet there is no other way to prevent galactical collapse. We need to go brown with all its economic, political, social, and earth-centred environmental costs and risks. Life will be different and inferior. Yet, we owe it to the galaxy and our long-term survival to step up. Business as usual is untenable. Brown must be the new green.

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Endnote: yes, this is selective, pop-science story-telling but I would suggest still less selective and less pop-science than many of the tired burden-of-transition accounts that keep on circulating in media and policy worlds.

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[1] https://www.gem.wiki/The_footprint_of_coal#How_does_the_.22land_footprint.22_of_coal_power_compare_to_the_.22land_footprint.22_of_solar_thermal_power.3F

[2] https://www.pnas.org/content/116/15/7192

[3] Adjusted for inflation, costs for fossil fuel extraction are estimated to have been rather constant for more than 100 years. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/energy/going-big-and-fast-on-renewables-would-save-trillions-in-energy-costs/2021/09/23/03c9e7f0-1c5a-11ec-bea8-308ea134594f_story.html

[4] https://www.generationim.com/our-thinking/insights/is-a-sustainable-world-an-inflationary-world-part-1-of-3-the-net-zero-question/

[5] https://www.statista.com/statistics/671539/average-number-of-oil-spills-per-decade/

[6] http://trackingsdg7.esmap.org/

[7] https://www.energy.gov/articles/history-electric-car; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_electric_vehicle

[8] https://www.ft.com/content/6febc4f0-46e1-4b00-b9f4-32c1f4d72279

[9] https://www.marketwatch.com/story/how-many-gas-stations-are-in-us-how-many-will-there-be-in-10-years-2020-02-16

[10] https://adamtooze.substack.com/p/chartbook-newsletter-17

[11] Mahdavi, P., & Uddin, N. (2021). Governance Amid the Transition to Renewable Energy in the Middle East and North Africa. In Low Carbon Energy in the Middle East and North Africa (pp. 237–262). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

[12] On the political resource curse generally see Moore, M. (2004). Revenues, state formation, and the quality of governance in developing countries. International Political Science Review, 25(3), 297–319. For an application to the renewable vs. fossil world in the MENA region see Mahdavi, P., & Uddin, N. (2021). Governance Amid the Transition to Renewable Energy in the Middle East and North Africa. In Low Carbon Energy in the Middle East and North Africa (pp. 237–262). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

[13] https://www.irena.org/-/media/Files/IRENA/Agency/Publication/2020/Apr/IRENA_Energy_subsidies_2020.pdf

[14] https://resourcegovernance.org/blog/three-ways-us-can-help-prevent-next-generation-oil-and-mining-corruption?

[15] https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/energy/going-big-and-fast-on-renewables-would-save-trillions-in-energy-costs/2021/09/23/03c9e7f0-1c5a-11ec-bea8-308ea134594f_story.html

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Dieter Zinnbauer

governance, innovation, justice, tech and cities — copenhagen business school — views all mine