From Nick Palmer.
OPEN University Professor Adrian Demaid (JEP, 12 December) tells us of the 70s and 80s, when he, and his students of engineering systems, looked at the energy balances of waste disposal systems and came to the conclusion that incineration with power generation ‘beat all other strategies hands down’. He asserts that ‘energy accounting is still the best accounting method to deal with complex systems such as waste disposal strategies’ – well, he would, wouldn’t he.
He reminds me of the apocryphal physics professor who claimed that he could accurately forecast the result of any horse race using highly advanced mathematical modelling techniques. Unfortunately, the technique was rather useless and misleading because modelling the whole of race horse reality was too complex and, in order to work his calculations, he needed to assume that all horses were spherical and moving in a vacuum.
It is a similar story with Professor Demaid’s energy-accounting methods, which are useful for ascertaining the most efficient strategies within the context of a non-sustainable society, such as the one we live in. If he thinks they can be used to define the ‘chess moves’ that we need to transition to a sustainable society then he is very much mistaken, as the parameters and methods, and the underlying assumptions, of this method of accounting are far too narrow and simplistic to show us a viable direction.
Professor Demaid’s talents may be able to metaphorically count definitively how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but this misplaced academic excellence is akin to the sort of red-herring sophistry that fooled too many of the previous House when they voted to commission another incinerator, which clearly demonstrated that too many of our politicians have no idea of the situation that we are heading for, nor appreciate the strategies that will be needed to extricate ourselves from it.
Rue des Hamonnets,