Soft Energy Paths

Those who follow the natural order flow in the current of the Tao. -- Huai Nan Tzu

The basic laws of nature have not been repealed. -- Eugene Odum

The energy problem, according to conventional wisdom, is how to increase energy supplies ... to meet projected demands. The solution ... ever more remote and fragile places are to be ransacked, at ever greater risk and cost, for increasingly elusive fuels, which are then to be converted to premium forms - electricity and fluids - in ever more costly, complex centralized, and gigantic plants. -- Amory Lovins

Traditionally energy planners have seen energy like a currency, where one source can be exchanged freely for another. The 'Energy Crisis' does not stem from a lack of energy but from a failure to match forms of energy to the real requirements of the consumer. -- Amory Lovins

The electricity companies of England and Wales are expected to accumulate net cash reserves of over £2 billion by the year 2000 and to shed over 20% of their workforce. -- Friends of the Earth

I tell people that if they make clear their fundamental assumptions about what is needed for a life simple in means and rich in ends, they will necessarily come to the conclusion that it is not the lack of energy consumption that makes them unhappy. They can then oppose nuclear power without having read thick books and without knowing the myriad facts that are used in newspapers and periodicals. -- Arne Naess

By and large, our present problem is one of attitudes and implements. We are remodelling the Alhambra with a steam-shovel, and are proud of our yardage. We shall hardly relinquish the shovel, which after all has many good points, but we are in need of gentler and more objective criteria for its successful use. -- Aldo Leopold

From the systemic point of view, the only viable solutions are those that are 'sustainable'. -- Fritjof Capra

A sustainable society is one that satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of future generations. -- Lester Brown

Environmentalists concentrate upon renewal energy sources, sometimes upon energy efficiency, but to concentrate upon either to the exclusion of all else may be well meaning but it is to miss the point. It is like the environmentalist who takes a trip in the car to drop a few bottles off at the bottle bank. Too often overlooked, renewable sources also have environmental costs. A more fundamental approach is to supply appropriate energy, energy that is matched to end use, and to supply it in the most cost effective, environmentally efficient manner.

The current energy path is a hard path. Hard paths are brittle. Brittle paths cannot survive sudden shocks and are liable to break. A soft energy path is one that is pliable, one that matches the energy source to the energy demand.

Consumers don't demand energy, they demand goods and services. Energy is the means to deliver these goods. Thus we don't ask how many kilowatts does each individual, community or factory want but how do we supply their goods and services. From the viewpoint of the end user there is no economic demand for oil, kilowatts, fissile uranium, but an abstract demand for energy upon which all our creature comforts depend. We should therefore supply the most appropriate energy in the most energy efficient way to meet those demands. Traditional thought, not only the faceless corporations and bureaucrats but also the environmentalists, has focused on the wrong issues.

Apart from a few bozos who cruise around for pleasure, most people don't travel around in the car for the purpose of consuming miles, but because they need some service and the car is the means of obtaining that service. Which is why most transport policies with the emphasis on car is bad, public transport is good, reminiscent of the mantra in Animal Farm 'two legs is bad, four legs is good' fails. That is not to say that no one recognises traffic jams, gridlock, pollution, energy consumption, global warming as bad, or the need for good, cheap, reliant, efficient public transport. As a generalisation these ills are recognised as bad, but this is an abstract problem, caused by others, of little consequence when late for work, getting the kids to school, going shopping or a night out at the theatre. Abstract problems caused by the selfishness of others, never ourselves. What people want is access to services. These services are remote, a process accelerated by modern planning practices of zoning and out-of-town shopping. Building more roads does not help, it merely serves to generate more traffic. Most people measure the viability of a journey by time, not miles. The converse to building more roads also works, closing roads leads to less traffic as the journey is no longer viable or alternative transport modes are used. The transport problem is a planning, social and resource problem.

Energy planners, partly through monopolies, partly through corporate control think in terms of Gigawatts, anything smaller is not viable, certainly not commercially viable. Consumption is generally measured in kilowatts or less. A rare exception are aluminium smelters which do require Gigawatts and some other industrial processes. In these rare cases a Gigawatt plant adjacent to the industrial process makes a whole lot of sense. Other than these rare exceptions there is a huge mismatch between generation and consumption.

There are many more of these mismatches. Most of what we conventionally think of as energy generation plants are nothing of the sort, they are energy conversion plants. They convert low grade energy to high grade energy, that is they are conversions plants with built in inefficiencies. The greater the ratio between high grade and low grade energy, then the greater the inefficiency. Not an inefficiency due to malfunction or poor design, but a theoretical problem as a consequence of the Laws of Thermodynamics.

Energy conversion in a electricity power station is the classic example of energy inefficiency. Energy is pushed uphill from a low grade source to produce electricity. In doing so power stations dissipate energy which we see as waste heat from a power station, a potential waste problem that has to be disposed of. In a typical power station 1/3 output as electricity, 2/3 as waste heat. if we now look at the end use, the final conversion output is low grade heat (usually only a few degrees above ambient). One of the worst examples we can find of a mismatch between energy usage and energy source in terms of quality of energy.

Focus on the end use. What do we want? We want low grade heat. Therefore generate low grade heat with electricity as the by-product (Combined Heat and Power). CHP schemes begin to approach 100% efficiency. The small scale means community friendly, large numbers means standard parts, easily mass produced. Conventional power stations are essentially one-off systems.

Electricity generation denotes another mismatch. At generation we can talk of Megawatts per square metre, consumption is milliwatts per square metre. Another mismatch is that of geography, generation and supply remote from consumption, the two connected by extremely fragile links (as every countryside dweller discovers in severe weather, or whole countries and regions discover during periods of geopolitical instability).

We can see this in the ludicrous state of wind generation The mindset says electricity, the mindset says Gigawatts, Megawatts at the very least. We thus have wind farms imposed upon the landscape. Few places are suitable because of the Megawatt mentality, wind being a very disperse energy source. Yet what do we have? Dispersed consumers. Wind, then, far from being a problem becomes the solution as it is also the distributor and its disperse nature matches that of the consumer.

Small wind turbines, a few kilowatts, are generally regarded as unreliable. This is to misunderstand reliable. It is true that they can not be relied upon to generate electricity 100% of the time or to generate sufficient all of the time but that is to miss the point. Whilst they are generating, each kilowatt output is a kilowatt not drawn from the grid, when in surplus power can be returned to the grid. It is also to focus upon electricity. The turbines can be used to generate rough electricity (not suitable for telecomms) but this can be fed into a load for space heating or pre-heating of water.

The focus is on wind generation of electricity. Traditional use of wind power was for mechanical power. Windmills for corn grinding, windmills for water pumping, water-mills for corn grinding, later for use in iron foundries. In the 1950s the countryside in Lincolnshire was dotted with windmills for draining the fens. In Cyprus, the countryside around Ayia Napa and Paralimni is dotted with windmills used to pump underground water for irrigation. Sadly few are now working, having been replaced by noisy, smelly diesel pumps.

Large-scale electricity systems are brittle. The whole system, grid, power generators, has at all times to be synchronous (frequency and phase). Pull down one part and it may pull down the rest. In the States brownouts and blackouts are common. In the UK these are on the increase due to the lack of maintenance. In the States power lines cut out when overloaded. This in turn caused power stations to cut out as they had no load. More lines cut out. Eventually the whole system collapsed. It took days to restore. Why? Any one part assumed the rest of the system was functional to kick start. Power stations drew from the grid to power pumps and other essential equipment. Cables drew power to circulate coolant. As the system slowly dragged itself up, it cut out again as parts became unbalanced and overloaded.

Hard, brittle energy paths are characterised by the following features (with due acknowledgement to Amory Lovins):

Interaction between supposedly independent systems requires further explanation. Superficially we appear to have separate supply systems (oil, coal, nuclear, gas etc), but this is not the case. Shut down the oil refineries and we shut down the power stations. In the UK this interdependence was seen with a series of damaging coal strikes, which shut down the power stations and resulted in a three-day week for industry and commerce. The government response was not to deal with the underlying social problems, but instead to first stock pile coal at power stations, then to destroy the coal industry and switch to oil, later gas. The country can now be held to ransom by a handful of oil refinery workers. The IRA for most of its history attacked human targets which left the government unmoved. It was only in the final stages of their campaign that they attacked economic targets. Had they attacked the energy supply systems at a few vulnerable points they could have brought the country to its knees.

If a hard energy system crashes we all suffer, the effect is widespread. Soft energy systems are extremely difficult to crash. If an active solar system fails it is something the local plumber can fix. In the meantime we can keep warm with a few woolly jumpers, go round to a friend's house for the afternoon.

The nuclear path is the hardest of the hard energy paths, it is also extremely brittle. Proliferation of nuclear power leads to proliferation of nuclear weapons. Calder Hall, the world's first nuclear power station was not built as a power generation plant, part of the atoms for peace programme, its purpose was the production of weapons grade plutonium. Heat generation was an embarrassing waste product until it was used to generate electricity. The nuclear plants themselves are a public danger, waste products, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl. Waste reprocessing multiplies the dangers. The spent fuel rods, designed to withstand the core of the reactor, would be best left intact and left suspended in cooling ponds. The necessary tight security leads to a loss of civil rights. From the viewpoint of a soft energy path a nuclear power plant offers the worst possible energy mismatch with the conversation of atomic energy (the equivalent of millions of degrees) to steam generation to produce electricity.

Within the UK, deadly nuclear trains transfer spent fuel around the country. The flasks leak and the radiation is six times the permitted level. The trains often remain stationary in stations, at Cricklewood, North London, the trains often remain in sidings for hours alongside residential housing. To make the transportation more 'profitable' it has been muted that the trains be used to carry food for major supermarket chains. It has been rumoured that trial runs of milk have already taken place. Local residents who have formed Cricklewood Against Nuclear Trains, have vowed to stop the trains whatever the cost.

In the UK, the electricity industry is being deregulated with consumers able to choose from a variety of suppliers. Friends of the Earth are advising consumers on how to choose the greenest supplier. To quote Amory Lovins, deciding upon the greenest supplier of electricity is 'somewhat like shopping for the best buy in brandy to burn in your car, or the best buy in antique furniture to burn in your stove. From the end-use point of view it is to ask the wrong question.' Unless electricity is the most appropriate form of energy for end use then it is not a green option.

We see similar confusion amongst energy planners - how to substitute one form of energy for another as though all energy sources are equal. When in fact what we should be doing is matching appropriate energy supply to end use. If the end use is low grade heat, then we look at the best options to supply low grade heat, not as at present generate electricity, throw away 2/3 of the input as waste low grade heat, then convert the high grade electricity to low grade heat at the final destination, then attempt marginal improvement by looking at various substitutes to be used to generate the electricity. Do we use gas or coal in our thermal power stations? Neither, the demand for electricity is already oversupplied. We ask what is the end use, and then supply the appropriate energy to match that end use in scale and quality.

Confusion could also seen on a news programme discussing the UK government's energy policy (or lack thereof) when a commentator referred to the choices between clean gas-fired power stations and dirty coal-fired stations. The real choice is neither.

When designing any energy system we have to look at appropriate energy, ask ourselves a number of questions (with due acknowledgement to Herman Daly):

We have to ask ourselves what energy we need, in what form, at what scale, then design our energy policies to suit. This would rely upon a mix, conventional and renewables, a reduction in primary energy demand, a shift away from the current obsession with electricity to the exclusion of all else.

By changing the mindset a viable, clean, resilient energy policy begins to emerge.

One of our greatest needs is low grade heat. We thus supply low grade heat directly. Electricity has its usage. As the highest grade of energy available it can be easily converted to other forms but that should be as a last resort. The prime use of electricity should be for lighting, telecomms, electronics.

Electricity is available at the flip of a switch, it is instantaneous. Its convenience is also part of its brittleness. There is no slack in the system, no reservoirs of electricity, no buffer stocks. Supply and demand are in exact match. Other sources are buffered, gas, oil, coal. A well insulated house also serves as a buffer. The input can be interrupted, but our house does not immediately go cold.

When we flip a switch, because it is so simple, we tend not to be aware of the complexity, and brittleness, that lies behind the ease with which we can flip a switch. This point was brought vividly home by Wolfgang Sachs describing the use of an electric food-blender:

Whirring and slightly vibrating, it makes juice from solid fruit in next to no time. A wonderful tool! So it seems. But a quick look at cord and wall-socket shows that what we have before us is the domestic terminal of a national, indeed, worldwide system.

The electricity arrives via a network of cables and overhead utility lines, which are fed by power stations that depend on water pressures, pipelines or tanker consignments, which in turn require dams, offshore platforms or derricks in distant desserts. The whole chain only guarantee an adequate and prompt delivery if every one of its parts is staffed by armies of engineers, planners and financial experts, who themselves can fall back on administrations, universities, indeed, entire industries (and sometimes even the military) ... Whoever flicks a switch on is not using a tool. He or she is plugging into a combine of functioning systems. Between the use of simple techniques and that of modern society lies the reorganization of a whole society.

A tungsten filament light bulb connected to a remote conventional power station provides light at 1% efficiency. If we require light, then provide light. The obvious low-tech solution during daylight hours is a window (also an ideal low-tech alternative to air-conditioning). Light pipes can be used to redirect light to more remote recesses of a building. Photovoltaic cells can be used to power low energy light bulbs. The local energy source is directed to where we need it, no distribution costs, no CO2 emissions.

A second major energy use is transport. This requires a complete rethink of transport policy from the ground up, looking at needs and how those needs can be satisfied. Why people are travelling from A to B? Not addressing the symptoms and simply changing how they move from A to B.

The UK imports strawberries from California in June, the height of the English strawberry season. The energy cost is 1.5 litres of aviation fuel per pound of strawberries. Over the last ten years there has been a 50% increase in the shipping of fruit around the country. English fruit growers have suggested that all fruit on sale should be labelled with a pollution factor to reflect the environmental cost of shipping. Sample factors would be English apples 1, Spanish plums 18, Zimbabwean green beans 200. Can tasty sugar peas air-freighted in from Africa for freshness really be described as fresh when one takes into account the air pollution? An additional factor is the environmental, agricultural, social cost of shipping food in from Africa where starving people are exporting food to overfed, pampered Europeans. Farmers markets are being established where farmers sell only local produce.

Electric cars are another myth. Yes they are clean and efficient, but only because we are looking at one half of the equation. All electric devices are relatively efficient, though there is room for improvement. An electric car looks clean and efficient compared with its oil powered equivalent but only because we are ignoring the power station. Take both together and they are both about the same. The only difference we have is that the electric cars are pumping out their pollutants some place else, which may have an advantage within inner cities but they are by no means clean.

No renewable sources are without problems. Large wind turbines, hydro-schemes, wave power are all with associated problems. There is no large-scale dam that has not caused major environmental and social problems. Many have half-lives that are measured in tens of years, some have silted up before the power generation has gone on stream. Wave power absorbs energy from the waves, this loss of energy impacts upon the shore, causing unpredictable changes.

Few places in the world have the tidal reach to be suitable for the mega-mindset, one of these would be the Severn Estuary. Were a barrage to be built across the Severn Estuary (as has been proposed on several occasions) it would be an unmitigated environmental disaster. On the other hand, with the large numbers of nooks and crannies and harbours dotted around the British coastline there are a large number of opportunities for small-scale power generation schemes.

Appropriate renewables is small scale. Micro-turbines laid in river beds. In England there are a large number of canalised rivers and canals. At each weir turbines could be fitted, the infrastructure already exists. Small wind turbines can serve individual communities. Buildings can be their own solar power plants.

Buildings can be solar powered. This does not even have to be active solar powered (ie with some circulating fluid), the building itself can be designed to collect solar energy.

Opposite where I live is a large building that houses the elderly. It is on a south facing site with two wings running southwards. An ideal position and aspect to design a passive solar building. The space in front of the building could have been a small lake, used in the summer to draw cool air across for natural cooling. An opportunity wasted.

Most buildings, especially office blocks, can be designed to be net generators of surplus energy, they can be used to deliver energy to the grid. Walls can be clad in solid state devices to directly generate electricity. Structures can be designed with natural chimneys with in-built turbines or used for cooling and ventilation.

In Tenerife, in the early 1980s, none of the hotels had solar heating. Now it is the norm to see solar arrays on hotel roofs. In Cyprus all the hotels have solar arrays on their roofs. It has become the norm in the Mediterranean and Middle East to see buildings with solar arrays.

Even in solar energy the mega-mentality is making inroads - large areas of the desert covered in solar arrays, huge parabolic mirrors focused onto steam boilers (coal-fired stations without the coal), Star Wars solar collectors beaming energy down to Earth.

One of the disadvantages of solar power is that we have too much in the summer and too little in the winter. A scheme planned for Kungälv (Western Sweden, population 6000) envisages a solar array of 120,000 square metres and underground heat storage in an uninsulated cavern of 400,000 cubic metres.

Oil is not just an energy problem, it is a geopolitical problem. Were the West to wean itself off its addictive dependence upon Middle East Oil, it would no longer be necessary for the West to support repressive regimes in the Middle East, to supply them with weapons (the cynical would say we would continue out of force of habit). The terrorists in the Middle East are not a few deranged Muslims (who at the end of the day are only fighting to liberate their own countries), but the CIA and US Fascism. A fraction of the cost of assembling the coalition forces for the Gulf War would have paid for energy efficiency measures to free the West from reliance upon Middle East oil, it then matters little who owns it as it no longer has a market.

Energy efficiency measures lead to major savings. The energy not used can then be used elsewhere leading to capital savings. Consider a power plant delivering a Gigawatt to a community (houses, offices factories etc). A similar community is planned. In conventional energy planning this would require a second Gigawatt plant. But were we to cut energy consumption in our first community by half, and design similar if not better saving into the second, then the now surplus output from our power plant is more than sufficient for both communities. In other words, when looking at traditional conversion plants, by using less, we actually make more available.

Energy efficiency is not simply looking at building insulation, it is looking at how to make all uses of energy more efficient. Are our machines running efficiently, are we using them efficiently, are we using the most efficient energy source (ie is it matched in quality to our use?). The new, more energy efficient refrigerators are a good example, though the public still has to realise that a small difference in purchase cost can lead to a big difference in running costs (the purchase cost often recoverable in less than a year).

Life cycle costs are rarely understood, yet alone appreciated, environmentalists are often in their zeal the worst offenders.

Energy efficiency needs changes in social attitudes. The family that drives around the corner for their morning paper, uses all manner of power tools to manicure a pocket handkerchief-size garden (much to the annoyance of their neighbours looking forward to a quiet afternoon in the garden), then drive off to the leisure centre to get fit.

Energy efficiency savings, because it is small scale and the result of many different individual decisions can diffuse into a community extremely rapidly. On the other hand to build a large power plant can take at least ten years, possibly twenty for a nuclear plant (design, planning inquiries, building etc). A large plant has a large environmental and social impact. Hand held calculators diffused into society extremely rapidly, as did personal computers a decade later. Large-scale developments of whatever type (power plants, roads, airports) are no longer acceptable and are leading to growing civil unrest.

As the following examples illustrate, energy spirals through soft energy paths, in a closed dynamic system the concept of waste is non-existent.

A fortuitous fire caused the replacement of the boiler system at S&W Foods (large canning company, Modesto, California). The new system extracted energy from organic waste (nut shells, peach pits, and other canning waste). The energy is used to generate steam, which is used to generate electricity, then used to clean fruit and sterilise cans. The surplus electricity is supplied to the grid. The new system saved an estimated 90,000 barrels of oil a year.

The Southern Swedish town of Linküping (pop 120,000) uses slaughter house waste and animal manure to power a fleet of buses. The organic material is first pasteurised then subjected to anaerobic decomposition for one month. The resulting solid waste is used by farmers. The biogas plant, the largest of its type in Europe, can power 80 buses or 2,000 cars. It eliminates an estimated annual production of 1.2 tons of nitrogen oxides and 30 tons of carbon dioxide for each bus. Similar biogas plants (using sewage as input, methane can also be extracted from refuse) can be used to feed combined heat and power plants.

A brewery in Namibia uses spent grain to grow mushrooms, then earthworms. The earthworms are used to feed chickens. The alkaline water (80% of the extracted ground water) is used to cultivate Spirulina (edible alga rich in proteins), then channelled to fish ponds where fish farming is practised. Manure from the chickens is fed into a biodigester which provides power for the brewery. It has been estimated that this integrated system provides seven times as much food, fuel and fertiliser and four times as many jobs as a conventional brewery (which would be a net consumer of power and a net producer of waste).

In Cuba, the illegal US blockade has forced a rethink of conventional intensive agriculture, highly dependent upon energy intensive inputs, and forced Cuba to implement large-scale organic farming. Approximately 1/3 of the 11 million hectares of agricultural land is still dependent upon agrochemicals, 1/3 is fully organic, the remaining land is in a transitional state (half agrochemical, half organic). The yields of the organic land are no less than that dosed with high energy inputs, that of the transitional land only half as much.

Traditional Peruvian farming communities practice sustainable agriculture that is so closely interwoven with the natural world that it is difficult to tell community, culture, agriculture and the natural world apart. Peasants collect seed from various places and adopt the growing plants as members of the family. In harvesting the potato crop, the old potato tells the new potato 'as I bred these human beings, I now pass this power on to you'. The meaning of life is not only to breed, but to allow oneself to be bred.

Soft energy paths resemble mature, well-balanced ecosystems. If an ecosystem is compared with a similar but degraded ecosystem, the pristine system is found to have a greater biomass, a larger number of closed dynamic cycles, plus it captures, stores and makes more efficient use of the energy flows through the system. Infra-red maps of mature ecosystems taken from space show them to be cooler than their degraded counterparts, that is they make better use of the natural energy flows, whereas the hottest spots are man-made or man-degraded.

Conventionally we dump our waste someplace else. In a closed loop ecosystem there is no such place as someplace else. The output of one process is the input to another, resources are used with maximum efficiency.

Soft energy paths require a paradigm shift into the arena of deep ecology. The philosophy of deep ecology moves away from the reductionist approach of modern science, where the scientist leaves morality outside the door of his laboratory, where the physicist develops better bombs, the medical researcher tortures animals in the name of medicine and the genetic engineer releases unknown organisms into the environment without a care in the name of profit, towards a holistic approach where we recognise that everything we do is interconnected, that we are a part of nature not apart from nature. We can see this with the humble bicycle. It does not stand alone, energy and materials flowed into it in its construction, ultimately it will be scrapped, riding the bicycle impacts on the local environment, the local community and generates social interactions.

Soft energy paths have the following features (with due acknowledgement to Amory Lovins):

A soft energy path benefits society. Soft energy paths are community scale. Community size projects can be controlled by the community. Hard energy paths are community unfriendly. Hard energy paths are controlled by global corporations. Hard energy paths siphon resources and money out of the community and destabilise the world economy, soft energy paths recycle resources and money within the community. Soft energy paths are part of the process of localisation, retaining control and resources within the local community.

The World Trade Organisation is placing ever more power into the hands of global corporations whose bottom line is greed and profit. Any step that transfers power back into the community is a step in the right direction.

A soft energy path, due to its cyclic, network nature mimics the natural world around it and is more in tune with its environment. It taps into natural energy flows, adapts them to our usage, then slightly degraded sends them on their way. This is the nature of all life, from the self-organising DNA sequence, through organisms, ecosystems, to Gaia herself.

Soft energy paths are appropriate energy paths. Soft energy paths are resilient energy paths. Soft energy paths are in tune with the environment. Soft energy paths are community friendly. Soft energy paths are sustainable.


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Gibby Zobel, Nuclear train 'to carry supermarket food', The Big Issue, 8-14 February 1999

This briefing paper was stimulated by a fundamental lack of understanding of energy flows by many environmental groups, with due acknowledgement to the ideas of Amory Lovins, James Lovelock and Fritjof Capra, three of the foremost thinkers of the late 20th century.
Gaia index ~ Gaia ~ Deep Ecology ~ Natural Capitalism ~ Localisation ~ Life ~ Carbon Wars ~ Energy Tax
(c) Keith Parkins 1998-2001 -- May 2001 rev 12