Robert Metcalfe Is Wrong, Clean Technology Alone Will Not Work

by Marguerite Manteau-Rao

I got a sneak preview of Scientific American’s Earth 3.0 special issue on ‘Solutions for Sustainable Progress’. Mostly great stuff, with the exception of one article, that prompted me to write this rebuttal.

In ‘Learning from the Internet’, Robert M. Metcalfe, venture capitalist and Internet pioneer, expands on the dangerous idea that,

I don’t think for a moment that we’re going to conserve our way out of the energy crisis. Internet history shows that prosperity depends on abundant bandwidth. Prosperity (gross domestic product, per capita) is proportional to energy use. We are not going to lower per capita consumptionof energy in the U.S. We are going to enable the rest of the world to be as prosperous by using not less but more energy. We need to make energy cheap, clean and therefore abundant – really abundant, for a really long time.

Sounds familiar? This is the same kind of thinking endorsed in an earlier McKinsey study, and also to a lesser extent, by Al Gore in his Moon Shot Challenge speech.

Makes me mad. The average citizen is already confused enough. The last thing we need is more tenors in green tech and green biz to lull us into thinking that technology will get us out of our mess. Besides, I do not see what climate change has to do with the Internet.

We need to get out of this pervasive either-or thinking. Energy conservation and new energy technologies are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they are meant to work together. One without the other will not work. It’s a matter of simple maths, and of mitigating our risks, in the unlikely event that technology does not deliver on all its promises.


Marguerite Manteau-Rao is a green blogger and marketing consultant on sustainability and social media. Her green blog, La Marguerite, focuses on behavioral solutions to climate change and other global sustainability issues. Marguerite is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post. You can follow her on Twitter.
12 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    I haven't read the article (to my knowledge, I can't since it hasn't yet been published, but let me know if this isn't the case). But I think Metcalfe is onto something, and I don't think it's antithetical to conservation, per se. Solving climate change requires an enormous shift in how our economy functions, as we all know. Conserving the resources that we use today, while not making a technological shift away from our consumption patterns, will prolong many problems but not solve them. Sudan has some of the lowest carbon emissions on the planet today, but modeling ourselves to be like Sudan is not how we solve this crisis.

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Metcalfe is exactly right – the world needs more energy no matter what. Innovation will help us find ways to do it cheaper, cleaner and more efficiently. You are exactly wrong in assuming that global warming is a fact and it is extremely detrimental to the world that energy policy is driven by that erroneous assumption. Thanks again for another fact-less article.

  3. dredge999
    dredge999 says:

    I agree with you that we need both conservation and more/cheaper forms of renewable energy. However, was he saying that we SHOULDN'T conserve or just saying that conservation ALONE won't solve the issue?R

  4. Bob
    Bob says:

    Thanks for your comments on my SciAm piece, which is a short form of the talk I've been touring, which is called Enernet.Sorry to make you mad. Sorry to seem to be agreeing with Al Gore on anything.In that longer talk, I find that Global Warming is a bubble (like the Internet Bubble). And I suggest we drop green as our movement's color, switching instead to blue, as in blue skies and deep blue sea, where energy solutions are most likely to lie. I'm guessing that would make you even madder.Yes, we need and will have energy conservation and energy efficiency, but mostly, in the end, energy abundance.Making the analogy between information and energy, between bandwidth and power, histories of the Internet teach that decades from now we will be using not less energy, but much much more, squanderable amounts of cheap and clean energy, distributed and networked.What we need most right now is more science, and I'm pushing to get it from research universities rather than DOE labs. DOE was formed by President Carter 30 years ago to end US dependence on foreign oil. DOE's annual budget has grown past $20B. Are we now less dependent on foreign oil?Seeking technologies for cheap and clean energy,/Bob Metcalfe

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    It seems to me that the gorilla in this room is the carrying capacity of the planet. If you look at either the Stanford or the Stuart Pimm assessment of the planet's primary productivity, we humans use 40 percent. 40 percent of all the energy there is on the planet is now allocated to a single species (even worse, no one is quite sure where the tipping point is, or if we've already crossed it). So while we can talk about technology as a solution, it's not going to be a viable solution until we get our numbers back to something stable. Scientists tend to think the earth can hold around 2 billion humans. We're moving exponentially beyond that. So we need to both stop having children and we need to be developing new technologies or none of it is going to really matter. Unless there's something fundamental that I'm missing, it seems like without some sort of Paul Ehrlich perspective here it's not really a serious conversation.

  6. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Here is a fact. The energy in the US consumed at the "residential" level (i.e., at home and not counting cars) is ~11% of the total energy used. However, it is one of the most efficient areas of energy (~80%). Conservation is great and we should all do it. I turn off my lights when I leave the room, have added insulation in my house, etc. BUT don't think you will make a dent into the energy CRISES by everyone replacing light bulbs (which has their own cost both in energy and pollution during manufacturing).We need more energy and a new source might be helpful since we are already going as quickly as we can into every source we have (solar,wind, gas, coal, hydro, and all the rest). I don't know what the article will say but I bet that it will not mention thorium. Funny how a simple, clean energy alternative is not even know much less talked about among the "energy community".

  7. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    The problem with the idea that we can do without conservation is the immediacy and immensity of the problem that we ALL face. The world is warming rapidly. If we do not change our behaviour VERY SOON then we will make the earth uninhabitable for humans and almost all other species, as the change will be too rapid for evolutionary adaptations to take place.Of course we all hold the hope that we will find some technological solution to the huge problems that we face. But "blind faith" in technology does not actually make it happen, and realistic risk mitigation would also prescribe some relatively simple societal and behavioural changes, that we can DO NOW, that can lessen the chance of catastrophic climate change.Waiting for everyone to agree on the actions required is basically taking no responsibility for ourselves. Someone must lead the way and provide good examples for others to follow!

  8. Geoff Thomas
    Geoff Thomas says:

    A real answer to burning fossil fuels or Nuclear is Geothermal Hot Rocks, or as it is called in America, Enhanced Geothermal Systems, (egs). Awareness of this technology and that it is do-able now is gradually spreading, – it is also very compatible with wind, solar, etc as a geothermal power station can ramp up very quickly when for instance the wind dies away.A recent link with more info is http://www.google.org/egs/A poster I put together a while ago now for Australia ,http://www.empower.iig.com.au/gone/Geothermal2pages.pdf Here is a link to more detailed info ,http://www.geodynamics.com.au/IRM/content/faqs.htmlHope you all find it hopeful,Cheers,Geoff Thomas.Kuranda Australia.

  9. Anvil*
    Anvil* says:

    I'm glad someone mentioned Paul Ehrlich. The base problem is population, all other measures should be seen as prudent delays until nature corrects what we refuse to deal with. Smarter but still blind will fail. The trend is still to consume more and the technology is helpful but much as many really not "off" buttons on appliances, still not fully what they seem. The appearance being more important that dealing with the full reality (including cost) of he proper use of the technology and resources.So, I will work hard to help people prevent tons of CO2, conserve, reuse, and tread lightly, but that I had only one child will come to a greater effect overall.

  10. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Nuclear facilities, using thorium as a fuel source, could safely provide all of our domestic electrical energy requirements for centuries. This summarized Press Release proves that Washington is listening:Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Harry Reid (D-NV.) recently introduced legislation that would pave the way for thorium nuclear-fuel reactors in the United States. The Thorium Energy Independence and Security Act of 2008 would establish offices at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy to regulate domestic thorium nuclear power generation and oversee possible demonstrations of thorium nuclear fuel assemblies. Using thorium for nuclear power has a number of potential benefits over conventional uranium. As a resource, thorium is abundant in the U.S. and throughout the world. A thorium fuel rod would remain in the reactor about three times as long as conventional nuclear fuel, cutting the volume of spent nuclear fuel by as much as two-thirds. Also, thorium nuclear fuel would significantly reduce the possibility that weapons-grade material would result from the process. Finally, a thorium fuel cycle could be used to dispose of existing plutonium stockpiles, which is the national security goal. “Our nation has focused mostly on mixed oxide nuclear fuel cycles, and our regulatory structure reflects that,” Hatch said. “With the growing interest in thorium nuclear power in the world and in the U.S., it’s time we made sure our government has a regulatory infrastructure in place to accommodate this new generation of nuclear power.” Speaking about the bill, Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute said, “This legislation reflects an enlightened grasp of the importance of supporting nuclear power while suppressing nuclear proliferation.“This bill is a giant step for the United States toward the development of a safe, secure and independent energy future,” said Jack Lifton, business development and corporate communications Director of Thorium Energy Inc. (www.ThoriumEnergy.com). Thorium Energy is a resource company that owns property in Lemhi Pass, Idaho, where it is generally believed that the largest veins of thorium-rich minerals in the world are located. Analysis of the deposits shows them to be either the highest grade or in the top tier of the highest grade known anywhere on Earth. In October of 2008, The U.S. Department of the Interior U.S. Geological Survey stated that; Idaho Engineering and Geology, Inc. studied the thorium and rare-earth reserves of the Lemhi Pass area of Idaho and Montana for Thorium Energy, Inc. and Williams Investment Company. The thorium and rare-earth deposits in the region were initially examined by the U.S. Geological Survey and others, including the Idaho Bureau of Mines and Geology, Idaho Energy Reserves Company (IERCO), a subsidiary of Idaho Power Company, the Idaho Geological Survey, Tenneco Oil Company, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, and the U.S. Bureau of Mines. The Last Chance claims in Lemhi Pass, ID, held by Thorium Energy Inc., have an average concentration of 0.39% thorium oxide and 0.33% rare-earth oxide and a measured reserve of 16,425 tons of ore containing 194 tons of thorium oxide and 153 tons of rare-earth oxide. Measured and indicated reserves are 582,000 tons of ore and an additional inferred reserve of 330,000 tons of ore. Total reserves of the Last Chance vein deposit are 915,000 tons of ore containing 3,579 tons of thorium oxide and 2,977 tons of rare-earth oxide. These reports confirm that the Lemhi Pass region contains sufficient deposits of high-grade thorium reserves to provide the fuel requirements of the nuclear industry in the United States for several centuries.

  11. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Why isn't everyone getting behind thorium nuclear?Thorium could safely provide all of our domestic electrical energy requirements for several centuries.This summarized Washington press release proves that someone is listening:Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Harry Reid (D-NV.) recently introduced legislation that would pave the way for thorium nuclear-fuel reactors in the United States. The Thorium Energy Independence and Security Act of 2008 would establish offices at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy to regulate domestic thorium nuclear power generation and oversee possible demonstrations of thorium nuclear fuel assemblies. Using thorium for nuclear power has a number of potential benefits over conventional uranium. As a resource, thorium is abundant in the U.S. and throughout the world. A thorium fuel rod would remain in the reactor about three times as long as conventional nuclear fuel, cutting the volume of spent nuclear fuel by as much as two-thirds. Also, thorium nuclear fuel would significantly reduce the possibility that weapons-grade material would result from the process. Finally, a thorium fuel cycle could be used to dispose of existing plutonium stockpiles, which is the national security goal. “Our nation has focused mostly on mixed oxide nuclear fuel cycles, and our regulatory structure reflects that,” Hatch said. “With the growing interest in thorium nuclear power in the world and in the U.S., it’s time we made sure our government has a regulatory infrastructure in place to accommodate this new generation of nuclear power.” Speaking about the bill, Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute said, “This legislation reflects an enlightened grasp of the importance of supporting nuclear power while suppressing nuclear proliferation.“This bill is a giant step for the United States toward the development of a safe, secure and independent energy future,” said Jack Lifton, business development and corporate communications Director of Thorium Energy Inc. (www.ThoriumEnergy.com). Thorium Energy is a resource company that owns property in Lemhi Pass, Idaho, where it is generally believed that the largest veins of thorium-rich minerals in the world are located. Analysis of the deposits shows them to be either the highest grade or in the top tier of the highest grade known anywhere on Earth.

  12. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    The premise that Energy conservation and new technologies are not mutually exclusive is an absolutely correct construct. Coming up with new and sustainable energy sources doesn't mean that we can't find new ways to make technologies and products more efficient. The folks at the TCC have launched a new site called behindthegreen.org that is trying to stimulate a conversation between industry, the government and others on this very concept.

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