No, it’s not some ferociously polluting corporation, or a dangerously powerful conservative politician or a candidate for the GOP nomination in the United States. It’s algae:
“We can engineer, humbly, like we have been domesticating plants for a long time,” one scientist told me. “We engineer the algae to do biochemically something quite different to what they’d be doing in the wild: they still take photons from the sun, and via biology, turn it into a useful captured molecule. We have them doing something similar but with stunning efficiency: it’s 40 to 100 times more efficient,” says Elbert Branscomb, chief scientist to the US Department of Energy.
There are (at least) around 60 startups hoping to produce oil and diesel biologically, with accelerated fermentation or photosynthesis techniques to produce an end product that is 100 per cent compatible with the existing infrastructure. Some, for example, tweak the algae to make them do photosynthesis anything from 40 to 100 times more efficiently. LS9 received $30m in funding and has a one-step process to convert sugar to create renewable petrol. It expects production within five years. If oil prices remain high, say over $40 or $50 a barrel, then it’s viable.
So why is this the biggest threat to the environmental movement?
But the greatest challenge cheap hydrocarbons poses is for people whose outlook is founded on what I call “End Times logic”. The most successful political movement in recent years is environmentalism, which expanded from specific concerns about pollution and conservation into an all-encompassing worldview, complete with very preachy appeals to changing parts of our lifestyles.
These ranged from “Don’t flush the loo too often”, to “Don’t fly for a weekend break”, to “Eat less red meat”. Very few politicians have felt courageous enough to contradict this. And the movement has achieved its ascendancy through urgent, apocalyptic appeals, rather than using calmer methods of rational persuasion which involve costs and benefits to be totted up. These new energy sources pose a profound problem: they saves the planet, and we carry on with minimum disruption.
I expect that one effect will be that environmentalism will become much more about everyday concerns such as pollution, and conservations again, back to where it started. But it grew into a vacuum, after the end of the Cold War, when great political ideas seemed to lose credibility. As a way of driving the political agenda, it will become currency without value. Buzzwords such as “sustainability”, founded on a resource-constrained view, will no longer be credible. People will simply laugh at them.