Energy and economic activity are linked. That’s one of the big reasons that humans find it so difficult to share energy resources and the obligations that come with them. It’s unlikely that citizens of the rich world will willingly part with their high standards of living. It’s even less likely that the world’s poor will cease the push to increase their own.
- Ozzie Zehner, Author of Green Illusions
Dr. Guy McPherson talks about the real impact of Global Warming from Fossil Fuel Emissions
Presently, humanity depends heavily on carbon-based fuels but burning these simultaneously creates 2 major problems:
- Rapidly diminishing supplies of a finite resource
- Rapidly increasing levels of global warming
It is clear that these two issues are intertwined; a practical solution must address both issues at the same time. If allowed to get out of hand, either of these alone can become a major threat to our highly industrialized and globally interconnected civilization; if both occur together, the challenge may overwhelm our ability to effectively respond.
It is becoming increasingly clear that a lot of this energy fuels a needlessly overmaterialistic society which consumes empty goods and services that come at great environmental cost. We have some very real questions to ask about our crisis in values.
Finally, there is one further economic risk. Because so much of our future energy needs have been tied to carbon-based energy, our entire economy is facing a huge risk of a carbon bubble, one which will dwarf the financial crisis. When investors begin to realize the dilemma of unburnable carbon, fossil fuel companies share prices may drop like a stone in water.
It is clear that we face a complex problem with energy, economic, environmental and social dimensions and a viable solution must address them all at the same time.
To investigate Peak Oil or Global Warming further, go to these links:
Current World Energy Consumption
Infographic by directblinds.co.uk
Two Different Future Energy Pathways
There are two different schools of thought of how we can meet the future energy needs of our civilization:
The first school advocates a significant reduction of our consumption of energy, especially in developed countries which have the largest . One significant side effect is that this may result in zero economic growth – which some such as professor Tim Jackson, author of Prosperity without Growth argue is a good thing. What is equally problematic, however is that even if developed countries all agree to zero economic growth, the world’s two fastest growing economies are in the developing world; China and India. Will they and the rest of the developing world join the developed world to strive towards significant reductions in consumption or will they instead demand their turn to enjoy the same unsustainable levels of consumption that developed countries have enjoyed for decades?
The second strategy is to continue on a path of economic growth following historical trends. Due to the constraint of global warming and the possibility of Peak Oil, however we must rapidly replaced carbon-based fuels with carbon-free ones. This calls for massive scaleup of alternative energy sources. The International Energy Agency adopts this strategy in its 2012 World Energy Outlook and IEA 2012 Energy Technology Perspective. In the United States, the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Reinventing Fire program also shares believes that high technology will be ablet to come to the rescue and create the alternative energy technologies that will replace carbon-based fuels required to maintain continuous economic growth.
Do we Reduce Consumption or Continue a Path of Unsustainable Economic Growth?
It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.
- William Stanley Jevons
William Stanley Jevons was the English economist who first described the paradox now named in his honor. In his 1865 book The Coal Question, Jevons observed that England’s consumption of coal increased dramatically after James Watt introduced his coal-fired steam engine. Watt’s invention greatly improved upon the efficiency of Thomas Newcomen’s earlier design. Watt’s innovations eventually made coal a more cost-effective power source and lead to the increased use of the steam engine in a wide range of industries. This had the result of increasing the total coal consumption, even as the amount of coal required for any particular application fell. Jevons rightly argued that improvements in fuel efficiency tend to increase, rather than decrease, fuel use. The conclusion we can draw from this is that technological solutions often end up making the consumption problem worse, not better. While technocrats argue for the improvement of efficiencies, if we ignore histories lessons of increased demand that the efficiencies bring about, we can still end up with dramatic increases in consumption.
It is not clear that a course of economic growth similiar to the last 5 decades would be sustainable. Many environmental scientists feel that the ecological cost for doing so would jeapordize not only humanity but the collapse of the biosphere as we know it.
In his book Green Illusions, author and Sustainable Energy researcher Ozzie Zehner says we don’t have an energy crisis, we have a consumption crisis. The rich want to keep their spoils and the poor cannot stop striving towards them. Both these trends are responsible for increasing demand on dwindling fossil fuels and resources as well as pollution.
The mainstream media tows the line of centralized industrialists and continues to report growth as a positive quality and lack of growth (recession) as a negative social quality. What they fail to say is that what is good for the short term is disastrous for the long term because when the economy is growing, people are:
- spending more,
- consuming more,
- using more energy (to travel to work and in the embodied energy of the goods and services they consume)
- unsustainably depleting more
- and polluting more
From this perspective, economic growth can be seen as a genocidal make-work program which keeps people fed in the short term but at the expense of destroying the environment that sustains us in the long term. These sentiments are being echoed by global business figures such as investment advisor Jeremy Grantham whose references to selling short our grandchildren is the same message climate scientist James Hansen delivers in his book Storms of my Grandchildren. We must stop and look at our basic assumptions: is this strategy of economic growth really prudent? Is it truly sustainable? Economic growth puts people between a rock and a hard place; we are damned if we work and damned if we don’t. It’s fundamentally flawed and out of touch with reality because profit does not account for environmental stewardship.
Even if we win major support for alternative energy, we must still think carefully. The Boomerang Effect has demonstrated that making more clean energy available may simply increase our appetite for more energy, sustainable or not. As we now consider how the future of humanity will be powered, it is more important than ever before to apply a complete Life Cycle Assessment and a Cradle-to-Cradle approach to ensure that our future energy supply is truly sustainable.
The real solution will probably be a mixture of dramatically reduced consumption in developed countries along with sustainable development in developing countries. Tim Jackson’ research with the UK government (Prosperity without Growth) argues for a major reduction of consumption in developed nations while Kate Raworth of Oxfam advocates sustainable economic development in A Safe and Just Place for Humanity.
What is most important is to know what the right mix will be so that we can develop a concrete and achievable strategy for the future of humanity.
The Scale of Civilization’s Energy Usage
According to calculations performed by professor Nathan Lewis, Human Civilization currently requires about 13.5 Terrawatts of power per year to run our civilization (2001 figures from Powering the planet: Chemical challenges in solar energy utilization). A more recent Sankey Flow diagram shows the picture expressed in units specific to each segment of society.
Figure 6: 2005 Global Energy Usage
Future Requirements for Energy Supply
We can see from a number of projections that we face many issues trying to find an adequate energy supply to meet humanity’s future needs. Our energy demands are constrained by a number of competing factors including:
- global warming
- dwindling resource (peak oil)
Can Solar and Wind Scale Up to Meet Current and Future Demands as Oil Runs Out?
One hour of global solar insolation is enough to supply humanities energy needs for an entire year. Yet there are many factors that dilute that total energy and in reality, both these and the limitations of current technology mean that the vast potential of solar energy remains largely untapped.
Figure 7: Informal diagram of scale Energy used in the US (Source Ozzie Zehner, lecture: Solar Cells and other Fairytales , Center for Science, Technology, Medicine & Society at the University of California, Berkeley)
In the above diagram, we can see that while solar energy may have vast potential, currently, it is not cost effective enough to scale up to be a viable alternative to cheap fossil fuel. More thorough analysis can be seen here.
- Bucket represents 2011 US total energy consumption, equal to 100 Quads per Annum (1 Quad = 1 Quadrillion BTU’s)
- Small dot = 2011 US total solar capacity
- Large dot 1 = 100x current US solar capacity (the cost would bankrupt the US government according to Ozzie Zehner)
- Large dot 2 = 100x current US wind capacity
David Holmgren’s Model of Potential Future Energy Pathways
There appears to be two opposite pathways which humanity can take for our energy future:
- Continue consuming unsustainably high levels of energy
- Dramatically reduce our energy demands
As a framework for the future possibilities, we use permaculturist David Holgren’s model put forth in his groundbreaking 2003 book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. Holmgren, one of the founders of Permaculture states unequivocally that the illusion that we can continue with a business-as-usual scenario “appears only to have substance because generations of the world’s more affluent urbanites have been disconnected from nature”.
Holmgren’s book is similiar to the Limits to Growth Study in that it looks a various scenarios for our future and examines which one our society will likely follow. In Holmgren’s case, there are 4 options:
- “Techno-Fantasy” – the Business-as-usual technology model – unrealistic energy consumption (from fantasy sources) continuing to rise steeply from here into the future.
- “Green-tech Stability” – the mainstream environmentalist model – A plateau at our current rate of energy consumption. Man-made machines and contraptions would be the saving grace – hydrogen cars, solar panels, etc. Holmgren described this as “least likely”. Realize that this scenario attempts to merely substitute “green” tech for our conventional, with the ultimate goal being to perpetuate our current (extreme) level of consumption
- “Massive Crash” – survivalist model – Begins with the techno fantasy, then descends into chaos, with very little salvaged out of global civilization
- “Earth Stewardship.” - the permaculture model – The future well-being of people will depend upon a renewable resource base (water, soil), with less and less energy required as we move into future generations. Permaculture would be the “technology” for this descent culture – a gentle decline “like a balloon.” The symbol of this solar age would be a tree (Permaculture) rather than a solar panel (green stability version)
Figure 2: Future Energy Possibilities from a Permaculture Perspective (Source: Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, David Holmgren)
With persuasive argument, Holmgren eliminates the first three from the sphere of possibilities and provides a pathway for the fourth, Earth Stewardship that will provide a graceful descent from our current unsustainable energy society. This section provides readers with information to make his/her own conclusions.
Holmgren has little faith that scientific breakthrough can come fast enough to save us from peak oil. For example, according to Holmgren, PV panels are a waste of time in any situation other than off the grid tropics, citing the amount of energy to produce them makes them an unrealistic option for a reduced energy future. Holmgren’s conclusion, reached many years ago is finding support from researchers such as Ozzie Zehner, researcher and author of the book Green Illusions. Holmgren contends that trees are mother nature’s own astounding technology and the world’s most efficient solar collectors, having developed over millions of years to transform solar energy into usable energy, for fuel and so on, far more effectively than any solar panel we could ever make. Holmgren advocates solutions that work in harmony with the planet’s oldest technologies.
Support for Creative Descent
The following support a Creative Descent Approach:
- Limits to Growth
- The Transition Movement & Transition Network/Communities
- Global Footprint Network
- Alpen Adria University, Institute of Social Ecology
A New View of Energy
Energy is actually all around us but we have been spoiled by ready availability and cheap oil. As we move into the future, we must open our eyes to the energy bounty that nature blesses us with. By using these renewable sources wisely, we can avoid building our society on a house of cards.
Nature is full of Energy in one of it’s cycles: the Hydrological Cycle (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
The solution to breaking our dependency on fossil fuel energy lay in a fresh perspective and awareness of a fundamental physical law….the first law of thermodynamics. According this law, energy is neither created nor destroyed, but can only change from one form to another. In all the years that scientists have formed this law, it has not ever been violated.
When we perceive a change in any of our sensory fields, whether it is visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory or gustatory, a change in state is usually accompanied by some form of energy transformation. When we suddenly hear a loud sound, energy is being transformed from mechanical form to acoustic vibration in a fluid. When we see the light turn on, energy is being transformed from molecular and atomic energy to photonic and when we smell something delicious, molecules are interacting with our olfactory organs, moving from high density to low density region in a fluid.
With this new awareness of nature, we can begin to see where nature is changing and begin to gain an appreciation of just how much energy surrrounds us….all energy that we have never thought of using before because we’ve been spoiled by the availability of cheap fossil fuel.
When we say that “Nature is alive”, one way we can think about what this means is that energy is constantly in a state of transformation. The key to working harmoniously WITH nature is to identify naturally occuring sources of energy within our environment and channel those sources towards energy sinks…consumers of energy (usually us).