These are my notes from "Reality Blind: Integrating the Systems Science Underpinning our Collective Future" by NJ Hagens and DJ White. This is a fantastic account of the past, present, and future of human energy and resource use and what it means for the economy. I feel this is some of the most important concepts for anyone to understand the basics of. It affects us all.
We conflate the virtual stories of our minds, with the physical reality of the real world. So, much of what we know for sure just ain’t so.
Reductionism is quite useful, but both dangerous and insufficient. A science-based worldview which looks at all the puzzle pieces at once can make sense of things. The important knowledge now resides between the disciplines.
We tend to focus just a year or two in advance, but the human story is a deep time story and our deep time future deserves a chance.
One suggested filter is whether a proposition conflicts with basic physical sciences like physics and chemistry. If it does, it is almost certainly wrong. Another filter is whether that proposition conflicts with the laws of thermodynamics. If it does, it is wrong.
The most useful mental tool a young 21 century human could develop would be to open their mind to the possibility that a lot of the stuff much of our species believes is not real, but that physical reality (subject to firm rules) is absolutely real.
There are physical rules of reality. We find and describe them with science.
Emergent effects in ecology are especially complex - scientists are largely unable to predict what will happen when an ecosystem is altered in some way.
The world we see is emergent from simple rules on smaller scales, just like this book.
The future is probabilistic. The relative probability of a class of futures changes constantly based on what happens in the Now. Futures move from the possible to the impossible (or inevitable) as one draws closer to them.
There are likely many different answers to a problem depending on where one draws the boundaries.
We do not know reality—we merely have a relationship with it. A relationship that, with effort, can be improved.
We’re all stardust, animated by our star. The elements which comprise us have been other things in the past and will be other things in the future.
The story of life is a deep-time story, as is the story of humans. We barely perceive the deep past and perceive the deep future not at all. But maybe we can.
We are related to all living creatures on planet Earth.
The “Gaia” theory introduced by James Lovelock in the 1970’s asserts that life generally tends to make the world better for other life, and that feedbacks occur which tend to restore balances.
This is salient because a sixth planetary mass extinction now seems to be underway, with species extinctions occurring at 100 times the standard rate and rapidly accelerating, as populations are suffering heavy losses.
Since the rise of complex life, there have been five major planetary extinction events. We’ve started what may be the sixth.
There’s a window of time in which plants and animals may, in principle, exist on Earth. It’s about half over.
We don’t so much have energy or environmental problems, as a human brain problem.
Evolution isn’t a charmed or magical process, it’s just molecules and energy doing an unusually complex downhill roll.
Evolution is not a “march of progress” but a drunkard’s walk through a minefield, roughly matching fortuitous accidents to changing circumstances.
Humans evolved to be small-tribe hunter-gatherers, and still react to the world primarily as such, even though recently occupying a very different world.
We are born with heritable modules prepared to react to context in predictable ways –the ‘agenda of the gene’. This ‘agenda’ is not set in stone but creates tendencies—in the same way water ‘prefers’ to flow downhill. Water can and is redirected. Our behaviors can be as well.
Evolution maximizes fitness, but fitness is an entirely retrospective quality; it has no plan for the future.
We don’t seek to maximize our fitness. We execute adaptations by doing things that feel good.
If it feels good to do, you really should think about why you’re doing it, because it may be irrational gene stuff.
Real-time decisions are made outside the conscious mind. Therefore, making rational conscious decisions is difficult….but possible.
The pressures of sexual selection from our past mold a lot of our current behavior.
We endlessly pursue physical wealth we don’t really need, for status which shouldn’t really matter. But we all do it.
We are curious and exploratory by nature. The anticipation of reward, not the reward itself, is what motivates us.
Most modern food, entertainment and other stimuli are much stronger, and thus more addictive, than rewards with which our ancestors were familiar.
Our evolved brains are very vulnerable to addiction and habituation, and we have created substances and pursuits targeted for just this effect.
When new desires increase more than acquisitions. This phenomenon is termed the“Hedonic Treadmill” (or Hedonic Ratchet).
We are easily habituated to higher and higher expectations and experiences, and retracement to baseline becomes increasingly difficult. This phenomenon applies to all sorts of biological and behavioral situations.
The conceptual error the philosophers were making was the assumption that selecting for “veridical perception” (physical truth) is equivalent to selecting for fitness, when in fact fitness is determined by the usefulness of perceptions, not their accuracy.
A workable interface must make you usefully blind to such complexity.
We evolved to be “wrong” - the world we perceive is not the physical world which exists. Yet for the first time we have learned this truth and so are not – in principle - absolutely limited by these built in “errors.”
Our minds are committees of specialized idiots.
The “interpreter” is the brain area that incorporates our feelings and behaviors into a consistent narrative and sense of self. While the interpreter may be the only conscious part of the brain, it isn’t as conscious as it thinks.
Belief in the reliability of the beliefs of others is the basis of global human society, regardless of how valid those beliefs are.
On the large scale, we humans are organized by the belief that the beliefs of others are entirely reliable.
Our thought processes are deeply affected by a list of cognitive biases as long as your arm.
We disproportionately care about losses more than gains.
We quickly resolve conflicting internal beliefs based on how they fit with our personal narratives, sunk costs and daily goals.
Basing one’s decisions on science and reality doesn’t make one an optimist or a pessimist:
rather, it provides an anchor to physical reality, which is in turn the most pragmatic way of achieving what would generally be regarded as optimistic outcomes.
It feels better to believe happy things uncritically. Uncritical belief in happy things eventually causes unhappy things.
We edit our beliefs to conform with those around us, not to conform to reality. This is unconscious and automatic.
It turns out that humans are generally able to hold 7 (+/- 2) pieces of information in short-term memory.
Our brains have limited short-term processing power and start to bog down after 4-5 concurrent chunks of information, and noticeably at 7.
We are programmed to value the present and heavily discount the future.
A related concept in the environmental sphere is “shifting baselines” which refers to the fact that everyone defines "normal" as the way things were when they grew up.
Each generation resets its baseline of “normal”, and thus becomes inter-generationally blind to significant changes.
We are hardwired to make emotional connections with individuals, not numbers.
The more there are, the less we care. Empathy, by default, is inversely proportional to the need for it.
We are blind to extinctions, despite living amidst and participating in them.
Today, the functional unit in the 21st century is a globalized economy of7.7+ billion and growing—a massive superorganism. Yet as we ’ll see, it’s a superorganism in size and resource use only, lacking awareness, strategy and consciousness. It will become more clear that it typically functions at the mindless level of bacterial tropisms in its search for energy and material.
Sociality is a way of becoming bigger than your enemies, competitors, and prey.
We’re fanatically loyal to whatever group we happen to find ourselves in and think bad things about those outside it. This may not be sane, but historically it has been very useful.
Biologist E.O. Wilsons states: “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.” Me over Us and Us over Them.
Selection happens at multiple levels of an evolving system simultaneously, with emergent results that cannot be easily predicted by genes and individual fitness alone.
Humans naturally differ in status and ability – but for most of our history we were intensely egalitarian.
(Contrary to economic theory) we are very sensitive to the feelings and well-being of others.
This sort of situation - the logical interactions between individual decision makers - can be analyzed as moves in a game, and this area of study has thus been named “game theory”. Interestingly, the simple rules of these games can - in some cases - lead to really bad emergent results on larger scales even when all participants make logical decisions.
The Tragedy of the Commons refers to a situation in which a finite or fragile resource is open to exploitation by many different parties with no accountability to one another and no immediate ‘downside’ to maximizing individual gain. This has cropped up many times in human history; large-scale examples are water resources, the atmosphere, fisheries, and grazing land, though anyone who has lived in a large house with roommates has probably experienced it to some degree.
We are continually faced with choices where the best outcome for the individual is the worst outcome for the whole (town, country, ecosystem, world, future, etc.) But paradoxically, humans cooperate more than microeconomic models expect us to.
Human genomes have changed little in the last 50K years, so humans have attained recent changes through cultural evolution.
The human gene agenda, when multiplied by a large population, creates the emergent property of a mindless superorganism. We’re all passengers and there’s nobody driving the bus.
Our brains are pre-programmed with evolutionary bias and delusion which was formerly helpful and is now destructive.
K-selected species are very vulnerable to change and are slow to adapt due to their long generation times and low reproductive rates. In contrast, r-selected species thrive on rapid change. This is why abrupt “mass extinction” events tend to cull out the K strategists in favor of the small, fecund opportunists. And this is why our warming and acidifying oceans are becoming increasingly devoid of vertebrates and increasingly filled with jellyfish.
Evolution has come up with very different strategies for r vs. K-selected species. Rapid environmental change enables the Rs to replace the Ks.
The carrying capacity of an environment, relative to a species, is the population size which that specific environment could, in principle, indefinitely sustain.
The total amount of photosynthetic energy captured by life is known as the Earth’s net primary productivity. This flow of photosynthetic energy sets an aggregate limit on plant biomass, and in turn, upon the biomass of the animals who eat plants and other animals.
And since humans are a species, the concept of carrying capacity also applies to us.
Environments impose upper population limits for all species based on space, energy and resources. These limits define the Carrying Capacity.
Liebig’s Law (an ecological principle named after a famous chemist) illustrates that an organism’s (or societies’) growth is limited by its least-available necessary input.
Though energy is the primary driver, growth in a system is limited by the least available input.
The graph of time versus population may fluctuate a great deal, and sometimes a population will approach zero. This is a bottleneck, with only two outcomes: The species recovers, but with lost genetic diversity, or it falls into extinction.
It turns out, the rules of thermodynamics are not only a basic aspect of reality, but are central to understanding life, which itself is a thermodynamic process.
The important aspect of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics for life is its loophole: while the entropy must increase on average, the process of entropy increase in a larger system may be used to reduce the entropy in a subset of that system. That means that life - which builds order from disorder - exists by being a participating intermediary in a process which creates more disorder than order. In the dry language of thermodynamics, this is called “work,” but it’s what animates life and makes it possible in a thermodynamic universe.
Life catalyzes entropy, maintaining its order by causing greater disorder around it.
Waste heat won’t flow out of our human bodies past a wet-bulb temperature of 95 ºF.
Energy is fundamental, and there are heat losses at every stage when work is done which cannot be usefully recovered.
Nature consists of food chains, scientifically known as trophic levels: organisms eat other organisms that are lower down the food chain, and in turn get eaten by organisms higher up the food chain, forming a pyramid.
Because every thermodynamic process must produce a certain amount of waste heat, consumers at each trophic level convert only about ten percent of the chemical energy they get from their food into their own organic tissue.
This embodied energy is a tiny fraction of the original solar energy input, because of the large thermodynamic loss at every stage of the life process.
It is thermodynamic energy flows that shape and control the life systems of
Earth, which means that once you understand these rules, all ecosystems make sense as interacting flows of energy and built complexity.
If you wanted to feed a lot of humans on an overpopulated planet, it would make sense, and probably would be a necessity, to do so with things on low trophic levels, rather than, say, lion burgers or tuna (or cows).
Due to energy losses, life is only about 10%efficient at creating biomass when it eats other living things. Trophic levels can be represented as a pyramid: there is far less biomass possible as the levels increase; always more mice than lions.
One of the most important drivers of evolution has been the ratio of energy returned on energy invested. The ER/EI is a very big deal.
A living system expends energy to get energy.There is a difference between Gross and Net. Net energy is what keeps living systems alive, and different sorts of life have different“net energy” needs to exist.
We swim in low-cost energy ubiquity like a fish swims in water.
A future in which energy is constrained is a future in which all other physical “consumables” will be constrained relative to today’s baselines.
We know what energy does, but not what it is.But what it does is just about everything.
Humans, and all human-created systems, are subject to the same energy limits as any living system.
The direct manipulation of fire is the only basically unique thing about man as an organism. All else is emergent from qualitative differences and context, and a matter of degree.
The agenda of the gene will always go for a greater number of miserable people over a lesser number of bright, long-lived healthy ones. That gene agenda has directed most human trajectories throughout history and continues to.
Agriculture channeled more food energy through human societies. When crops were good, this meant a surplus which meant higher human and livestock biomass.
Our “endosomatic energy” (what our body consumes and uses each day internally) is around 3,000 kilocalories or less. But our“exosomatic” energy – the energy we control and use outside of our own bodies is currently around 220,000 kilocalories per American per day (and50,000 per average human worldwide).
Each American consumes the equivalent of >400Big Macs per day of primary energy.
Our present and future are currently based on finite gifts from the past.
Life is the animation of minerals, and as terrestrial animals, nearly all the minerals in our bodies have historically come from soil.
Soil is much more than dirt. It is a living community densely packed with tiny animals, microorganisms, bacteria, fungi, insects and much more - all inconstant interaction. It’s composed of air, water, living organisms, various stages of decaying organic carbon, and finely-ground rock particles with an effectively huge surface area for the leaching of trace elements. For these reasons, soil is also inherently fragile, susceptible to losing its biodiversity and effectiveness, having its minerals depleted, becoming insufficiently aerated or hydrated, or washing away entirely in the rain and wind if not held fast by networks of roots.
The organic matter in soil increases when the deposition of plant matter exceeds decomposition. Perennial plant communities, especially biodiverse grasslands and their associated herds of ruminants, are largely responsible for building up organic matter in the world’s best farm soils.
Rising heat and drought tend to drive soil towards being a carbon source, which would make it a “positive feedback”for amplification of global heating.
Soil is the irreplaceable substrate for sustainable life on Earth. Recent human activities have greatly degraded it.
There’s a constant cycling of carbon between the atmosphere and biosphere, as plants assimilate carbon with photosynthesis and then release it again when they decay or burn.
Standing forests grow in volume by only about 2.5-3% per year. The volume in this 2.5% would be the amount of wood that humans could ‘sustainably’ harvest without depleting the present forest size.
Their roots help fracture silicate rocks, which maintains the ocean’s pH at levels allowing animals to use carbonate minerals for their skeletons.
Trees are more important than just a source of wood and fuel; they are crucial to stable ecosystems. At some point in the future, if humans long endure, trees will probably again become the main source of human exosomatic energy.
Fossil carbon and hydrocarbons are, in effect, solar energy, stored by plants and animals which lived long ago.
Most of the coal being burned today is “bituminous,” and that is now near peak and declining, leaving inferior coals which are only about twice as energy dense as wood.
Coal is far less useful than oil because it is a solid with lower energy density.
Coal is one of the five major pools of terrestrial carbon. Though it is getting more costly to extract, there is much more left than we can currently safely burn.
The way we define natural gas – as a fuel to burn - consisting of methane and natural gas liquids that include ethane, butane and propane.
A final source of natural gas is the anaerobic digestion of near-surface carbon in soil and permafrost by microbes. This biogenic gas is exclusively methane.
Pure (unburned) methane is 96x as potent as CO2 in causing atmospheric heating111 (methane doesn’t last very long in the atmosphere, with a mean time of 12 years before it reacts with hydroxyl molecules to turn into CO2 and water). But recent aerial data suggests that the leakage from well-to-power plant is 2.3% (above EPA estimate of 1.4%). The math works out that the current leakage rate, natural gas has HIGHER greenhouse impacts than coal because of these pipeline leaks and operator error/inattention. From a climate perspective, the fugitive methane emissions from operator carelessness can (and must) be remedied.
There are enormous amounts of methane now stored in arctic tundra which has started to melt; and in vast under seabeds of “clathrates” – methane ice – which can melt with changes in temperature or pressure. While CO2 might be the trigger, methane may function as the bullet. Increasing data now points to methane as the possible “smoking gun” of the Paleocene -Eocene Thermal Maximum(PETM), in which Earth temperatures jumped far higher than current CO2models can explain.
Natural gas – an important bridge, but to what destination?
One barrel of oil has the energy potential to do 700,000 watt hours of work, or about equal to a person working for 40 hours per week for over four and a half years! And each American uses about 60 barrels of oil equivalent per year.
Human economies are currently supported by a fossil army equivalent of 500,000,000,000 human workers.
In one hour, a barrel of crude oil can do the same work as over 2,500 human laborers. At $60 currently, that’s quite a bargain.
The two most important aspects of industrialization were the move to a higher-quality energy source and the substitution of human manual labor for machines driven by those new energy sources.
Stored carbon and hydrocarbons enabled a shift to industrialized societies served by what are in effect, armies of zombie energy workers.
When flying in a jetliner, you’re using energy more rapidly in that single vehicle on one trip than the energy that was originally sequestered by the entire planet in an entire day!
We price crude oil based on the cost to extract it, rather than its actual value. In so doing, we vastly trivialize its amazing utility - and its long-term scarcity.
Without a reconciled conception of the huge disparity between fossil energy’s cost of extraction and its amazing utility, any economic or ecological analysis is so deeply flawed as to be practically useless - this means pretty much ALL economic analyses now being done by humans.This will become clear as we go forward.
We take for granted being able to have the attributes of Superheroes or Demigods by using an incredible and irreplaceable substance as though it were unlimited.
The downside of using much less human energy (labor) is that we use more total energy (from fossils) – substantially more. We’re willing to use fossil energy lavishly to replace even small amounts of expensive human labor.
Net energy is not inherently cheap. It is hard-won by life, one molecule at a time. The last several generations of humans have come to think of it that way – cheap – despite hundreds of thousands of years’ experiences to the contrary - since they have been born into the brief “carbon pulse” period, analogous to an ant colony which happened to have a boxcar of sugar spills few feet from their mound. What we’re seeing here is the inherent wastefulness which arises by pricing energy as though it were inherently (and perpetually) cheap. Increasing degrees of industrialization make immediate human wants and needs the primary salient consideration, and so push the “utility” envelope far into diminishing returns.
We use large amounts of fossil energy to displace far smaller amounts of human labor.
During the past 100 years there has been a correlation of energy use and economic growth of over 99%.
What we see here is a ‘ relative decoupling’ between money and energy use (using 1.4%x less units of energy for the same GDP) but still extremely tight `coupling (~98.6%).
The oft-cited accounting showing reductions in energy intensity in countries, such as theUK and USA, neglect that these economies exported their energy -and carbon-intensive manufacturing to cheap labor regions.
Economic growth would be said to experience ‘ absolute decoupling’ if we were to increase GDP while decreasing primary energy consumption. Relative decoupling would be said to occur when total primary energy consumption grows but at a slower rate than GDP.
It’s no coincidence that money and energy use are tightly correlated. Energy is real and money ain’t. Energy is what makes things happen, so to the extent money were to become uncorrelated to it, it would mean that“money” was decoupling from the real world. When that happens, it isn’t always good news.
We use energy for every good and service that contributes to GDP. Energy use and economic growth are tightly linked. There is little ‘dematerialization’ globally.
Kleiber’s Law observes the energy metabolism of animals is proportional to their mass scaled to the ¾ power.
Modern human society can thus be viewed as a macro organism, whose energy metabolism increases at the size of the global GDP to the ¾ power. Larger animals – (and larger economies)-are more efficient, which is why they don’t scale 1 for 1.
Just like animals, human society has an energy metabolism linked to its size.
GWP is a poor metric of our well-being and cultural progress.
Our most central national statistic, GDP, might be more accurately labeled GDB – where the B stands for burning.
Half of the materials used each year are clay, gravel, sand, and other materials used for buildings and construction. Plants and trees used for food and fuel comprise 25% of the annual materials consumption. Metals account for 10% and the remainder are the fossil energy sources coal, oil, and gas.
The 2019 economy only recycled 8.6%
Abundant cheap energy allows us an abundance of almost all other materials. In fact, usable net energy is, ultimately, almost the entire story.
Traditionally, money has served three functions: a unit of exchange, a store of value, and a unit of account.
The things we want, use, and keep consist of real capital, which is what monetary capital indirectly represents.
Money – which is no longer tied to the physical world - is primarily a claim on future energy and non-renewable resources - the things which actually make the industrialized human world function.
But money is really an abstract claim on the future products of net energy.
Money is primarily an (imperfect) marker for real capital.
Given that ninety -five percent of actual physical work is today being done by fossil fuel energy rather than manual labor,131 “jobs”are mostly just an inefficient, ad-hoc system for distributing this fossil largesse (and very unevenly).
There is a more menacing undercurrent to this thought. Because the work accomplished using energy from fossil fuels is thousands of times cheaper than human manual labor, owners of capital (corporate CEOs, investors)find it cheaper to hire robots than human beings. Doing so improves earnings and creates cheaper products. Since “management” in market economies keeps profits rather than redistributing them, this improved efficiency comes at the cost of throwing people out of work (which then makes them unable to consume as much). When work is reassigned to a robot using cheap energy, the savings are redirected to the robot’s owners and away from those who were formerly part of the working class.
Most modern jobs are just an ad-hoc distribution system for fossil energy largesse.
Contrary to what most economic classes and business schools currently teach, over 95 percent of our modern money is created by commercial banks out of thin air.
Banks don’t allocate capital – they create it.
But if you accept the proposition that the total amount of recoverable natural resources is finite (and subject to declining returns) , and that money is a claim on the future use of these resources, then creating money with no tether to natural capital just decreases its value: the more money there is, the less it will buy in a more resource-scarce future.
Banks create money out of thin air with no reference to underlying natural capital.
Debt is a claim on future money, and therefore a claim on future energy and resources.
But if money is a claim on future energy and resources, and if future energy and resources are declining in quality and quantity over time, then debt does have significant implications for our future which are not explained in economics textbooks.
Our debt productivity - a measure of how much growth we stimulate for each additional dollar of debt created - has been inconstant decline these past few decades, with some periodic upticks.
Remember, to be able to pay back debt, you must earn more from investing it than the amount of the debt plus interest. If your return on investment is negative 85 percent, as has been the case with global GDP per new debt dollar since 2000,134 you are transmuting your real wealth into income and slowly (but surely) going insolvent. It’s as if you look at your bank account balance but treat it, instead, as your paycheck. In effect, we’re running a Ponzi scheme on our own culture. We are enjoying the spoils today and leaving the debt to our children and theirs.
Debt allows us to continue to consume high levels of resources today. Until today becomes tomorrow.
Eventually, once we burned through the geologically concentrated reservoirs of fossil energy and mineral ores that were the richest and the cheapest to exploit, economies became stressed. We were then forced to resort to borrowing money: not to grow the economy but to pay our current bills, much like a family living beyond its means.
Anything required to generate a return is a claim on future energy and resources.
The best we can accomplish by creating more money is to stimulate immediate energy consumption by making it seem more affordable in the short term. This, in turn, requires companies to hurry up and extract even more of our one-time endowment of low-entropy fossilized sunlight and high-grade ores. We don’t yet know exactly(although we can guess) at what point the amount of monetary claims on future energy and resource flows will exceed the physically -possible maximum size of those flows- the inflection point labeled “I” in the graphic above. When this crossover point is reached, energy depletion will increasingly manifest itself as financial chaos.
We can print money, but we can’t print energy.The more money we print today; the faster we consume, and the less energy and stuff we will have tomorrow.
Creating money alters human behavior, not the physical world.
Beyond a certain level of resource scarcity, all money becomes helicopter money.
Our existing underlying infrastructure, homes, industries, transportation supply chains, mechanical processes and all else, depend on built machinery that requires a huge amount of joules/kWh fossil energy input to substitute for each joule/kWh of human labor from our former, sunlight-based system. As energy prices go up, there is a“multiplier effect” which substantially reduces wages (or profits) and increases the price of stuff. If the cost of energy rises enough, many parts of our economic system would become money-losing propositions. As we were building these systems, we naively believed the price of energy would stay low; we expected abundance and low prices indefinitely.
As a rule, the more units of mechanical labor we added to replace the tasks humans formerly did manually, the higher the benefits when energy was (is)cheap, and the steeper the profitability decline when energy became more costly. High energy-intensive activities in modern civilization include air travel, aluminum smelting, cement manufacturing, fertilizer production, and many chemical industries.
Technology that utilizes thousands of times the energy that pre-industrial humans used to do manually is very sensitive to price increases of energy.
As fossil energy becomes increasingly less free, energy-intensive stuff will become increasingly more expensive.(Most of our current societal arrangements are energy intensive.)
The current societal story is that technology will allow us to get by with less energy and that with enough hard work, innovation, and time, the future will arrive full of clean energy services. We argue differently.
Modern technology can be separated into four types:
First, there are the inventions that combine fossil energy with machines to replace physical tasks that humans used to do manually.
Because fossil energy was so inexpensive, we used huge amounts of it (inefficiently, from an energy perspective) to raise the standards of living for many people. The combination of higher wages, higher profit margins and lower-priced goods rippled through a new global economy of “consumers” in a virtuous cycle of humans wanting, being able to afford, and buying more. This type of technology seemed - on the surface - like it “saved energy” because things became subjectively easier and more convenient. However, the reality was that the total energy used in our system increased substantially, as now there were millions upon millions of lawnmowers, automobiles and microwave ovens, each representing anew baseline of “perceived needs” for its owner, each having its own embodied energy of construction and each requiring continual fill-ups or incoming electricity to operate. Such technology sharply increased society’s overall energy metabolism, as these things would simply not exist without a large infusion of excess net energy.
Second, there are the novel inventions that create pleasing brain stimulation that we didn’t have before. Things like iPads, HDTV’s and video games.
This said, technology does not always result in more energy use. The third and fourth types of energy allow us to use energy and resources more efficiently and develop new energy technologies.
For the most part, more technology causes us to use more energy because most technology is ABOUT how to use more energy to provide things we need and want.
Technology uses energy. In the current global economic system, most technology improvements result in more energy use.
But there is an oft-misunderstood relationship between energy and technology. When inventions make a product cheaper or more efficient, or when new groundbreaking products are created, there is a rebound effect from increased consumption. Think about the aggregate impact resulting from such a scenario: 1) more people can now afford air conditioning and buy new air conditioners, 2) those people who owned an air conditioner, but hardly ever used it because of high energy costs, will buy a new one and use it more, 3) some people will save 50% on their monthly bills and, in turn, use that money to buy more stuff - take trips, increase their conveniences, etc. - all of which increases societal energy use, 4) staying cool will now be so cheap that some people will buy multiple air conditioning units per house, 5) some people will discard old (but usable)air conditioners (to be recycled or not) to buy lower cost but still resource intensive new ones, 6) some people will move to hot desert climates who would not have been able to before.
In economics this is referred to as the rebound effect, or Jevons Paradox (after economist William Stanley Jevons who correctly predicted that the invention of the steam engine would result in more coal use, not less).
Efficiency, thus, frees up available resources to build the entire civilizational mousetrap bigger. It is by being more efficient that we can grow faster, with growing energy requirements and new energy resources. The key point here is that everything in a society that generates GDP first requires an energy input, so most savings due to efficiency end up being spent on something else that also requires energy. The two in combination (whatever was more energy efficient plus whatever the “savings” was spent on)together take up more energy, which is the opposite of saving energy.Paradoxically, higher efficiency results in more energy use. At the civilization scale new interconnections and dependencies can arise. Air conditioning allows grandma to move to Arizona instead of living near the grandkids, who now must fly in an airplane to visit her.
If a country (or world) capped their throughput and pursued a different cultural goal and, for instance, allocated all efficiency savings towards protecting other species, or building basic infrastructure for the next generations, then the technology rebound effect would be smaller, or even non-existent.
In a free market system focused on optimizing profits, the net effect of making things more efficient is to increase total energy and resource use.
The direction taken by our society has been to increasingly invest energy in building complexity, and to build into our individual psychological baselines an expectation of “improvement” year-over-year, in terms of having gadgets that give us the ability to access sensations we didn’t have before.
In large modern societies, adding complexity greatly increases systemic risk.
Societies tend to solve problems by investing more and more resources into complex answers. But there is at tradeoff between complexity and resilience.
Money can be manipulated because it is just green pieces of paper and ones and zeros on bank hard drives; an elaborate structure of IOU’s based on a belief in unlimited future energy. The real energy and materials cost of resource extraction always goes up, (with periodic dips from new tech or efficiency) because humans mostly use the best, purest, and most accessible remaining resources first.
The energy price of extracting nonrenewable resources always goes up whether or not the money cost reflects this physical reality.
For humans to make things, we need pure, high-grade starting materials such as elements. There are two ways to acquire elements: either painstakingly separating diffuse elements which exist in the earth’s crust and oceans, or find someplace where geological processes acting over billions of years just happened to concentrate the elements we want, and to move it near enough to the earth’s surface that we can get at it. Elements in hugely higher-than average concentrations are called “ore,” which is the general mining term for something worth digging up, crunching up and extracting the desired elements from.
Some specific sorts of recycling can also save energy by treating the waste stream as “ore”.
Energy is the “master resource” because without it, we have no ability to acquire any other resources.
When we hear someone talking of “the cost of copper” we should immediately recognize there are two components: an energy cost and then“everything else.” While the “everything else” may go up or down depending on finance or technology or efficiency, the energy cost has been increasing and will likely always continue to increase until we arrive at some future steady-state economy using only solar flows. This is the case not just for copper, but for every mined element on this planet.
Because we use up the best first, all nonrenewable resources (including ores and minerals) are becoming more and more energetically remote.
All life is tied to the availability of water and its essential properties.
Specifically, fresh water:
- makes forests and land plants possible- makes crops possible- is necessary for animals to eat, drink and thus live- is necessary for human civilization for food and drink- is required for a huge percentage of human industrial processes, including mining and energy extraction- when mismanaged, leads to significant human health issues like diarrhea, cholera and water borne disease.And this may become a limiting condition, because:- we are drawing down ancient aquifers, in effect using fossil water, which will not soon refill- most freshwater is locked in ice caps, such as in Greenland and Antarctica, which will flow into the ocean when they melt- many rivers are seasonally fed by glacial melt, yet we are altering the climate to one in
which those glaciers may not continue to form in the winter- many rivers feeding huge numbers of humans are based on monsoon rains, which are also dependent on the current climate and will become less dependable if we alter it- desalination is done naturally by ocean evaporation and rain, but when done artificially on a large scale, requires a lot of energyIn the same way that “energetic remoteness” makes copper, king-crab legs, and uranium harder to find, many water shortages we currently experience are really energy shortages in disguise. The same amount of water exists now on Earth as has always existed. Energy limits can thus easily become water limits.
Water is life. And potable water where people live requires (cheap) energy.
Thomas Malthus' main failure was in not predicting something which had no prior analog: the human “carbon pulse” which harnessed growing amounts of exosomatic energy to plow more land, transport more food, and generally keep “population growth” going for another two centuries.
The problems anticipated by Malthus were held in abeyance by an unprecedented increase in food availability, leveraged by fossil energy, which has at this point ballooned the aggregate weight of all terrestrial vertebrates to over five times’ its prior value, while also allowing us to
remove sea creatures to the point of depletion.
Because his thesis was based on the fact that population increases geometrically (1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32…) while food availability increases arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4, 5...) This is true in a steady-state energy economy such as that which nearly always prevails. However, our tapping of fossil energy has caused food supplies to also increase geometrically for roughly the last two centuries, rather than leveling off, temporarily curtailing theMalthusian dynamic and allowing the population of humans and our livestock to balloon.
It took from the origin of our species roughly 300k years ago up until year 1800 to reach 1 billion humans on earth. Three hundred thousand years. We are now adding an extra billion humans to the planet about every decade, or roughly 30,000 times as fast as the average population growth of what was already one of the planet’s most successful species.
As long as ‘growth’ is our cultural objective, it is very unlikely we can solve the overpopulation (or climate) problems whilst maintaining GDP as our objective. GDP growth requires ‘consumers’ (who begin as babies, then children, then young adults) to pay for: teachers, diapers, toys, pensions, etc. Population, then, is another big problem downstream of growth.
Human population is now 7.8 billion, apparently en route to over 11 billion this century. This is mostly on the backs of fossil slaves many of which will be retiring this century.
The USA at $50,000 per capita GDP has over 49 times higher income of the average human in 1800. The unbelievable power in fossil fuels, combined with human creativity and increased demand for things, has caused a very sharp increase in wealth– as measured by stuff- in the last two centuries.
The average human is 14 times wealthier (measured in stuff) as our recent ancestors, due to radical “growth” in energy availability over the last century. This is temporary.
Since discovering fossil energy, our population and consumption have increased exponentially.
Exosomatic energy (outside the body) allows one to do just that: use arbitrarily more energy in a short time than would be possible for our bodies.
Think about that. To enable our vast array of modern “miracles” (like MRI machines, Netflix, rollercoasters, first-class cubicles with wine and cheese on 747s, golf championships, special gear to climb (and sleep on) Mt. Everest, go-carts, sky-diving, hospitals, cathedrals, retirement accounts, universities, and Twitter), we first have to invest in the finding, extracting, refining and distributing of fossil energy to enable all the rest of these activities. That investment now requires around 8-10% of all our energy after hitting a low of 5% in 1999. As we’ll see in later sections, the shape and size of our future exosomatic energy-use pyramid is going to change – perhaps significantly – in coming decades. One way this will happen is inevitable: the red section (energy required to find, procure and deliver energy) will become a higher percentage of the whole, and the height of the whole pyramid will decline. The central question is, which of the activities we’re doing now will we – as a culture – choose to “not do” in the future, as the rules of physical reality inexorably expand the red area to a larger percentage of the whole.
Our modern energy consumption pyramid is much, much taller than our ancestors’, and only a small -but increasing -percent of it goes to “getting” energy. This percentage will increase quite a bit this century.
Our college educations, our interesting and meaningful jobs that don’t have to do with growing food, our long life spans, extremely low death rates, and a 24-7 smorgasbord of fun and interesting things to do are a direct by-product of a huge and ongoing expenditure of surplus energy. Energy is the fundamental organizer and enabler of our society; therefore, energy privilege is the fundamental organizer and enabler of all our other privileges.
The ultimate privilege is energy privilege, and we in the Western developed nations are reaping the benefits.
There has always been status disparity, but not wealth disparity. We are evolved to both abhor perceived inequity and strive to do better than those around us.
Everyone reading this is extremely wealthy by absolute standards, even if on food stamps. From a deep-time perspective, we’re in the .000001%.
Oil in the ground is classified as either a resource or a reserve. A resource is oil that has been proven to exist and is technically recoverable, but that may not be economically or physically feasible to extract. A “reserve” is oil that is assumed economically profitable to recover at current oil prices.
As oil prices fluctuate, so too do world estimates of how much oil can ultimately be recovered. Put another way, there is very little $20/barrel oil left on Earth, but a whole lot of $500/barrel oil exists. But what sort of global economy could be based on $500 oil? Not this one – configured as it is to rely on cheap energy.
Once you eat your cake, it’s gone. And our fossil energy cake will be essentially gone in the next century or two. Perhaps far sooner.
We are now extracting over five times as much oil each year as we are finding.
We have over 100,000 active oil wells in the USA – more than the rest of the world combined. Given the critical importance of oil to our way of life, what we are doing is effectively ‘draining America first’.
Oil discoveries peaked 50 years ago and have been declining ever since.
It is the nature of depletion, that at any given time, we’re using the energy and infrastructure which was built or extracted when resources were better and cheaper - with the impact of present-day resource scarcity pushed off toward the future.
The dynamics of how NNRs become less available over time, both in specific deposits/fields/populations and globally, are characterized by a depletion curve. The essential point is, the distribution of natural resources follows a characteristic discovery and utilization curve, and these curves (which often look like a normal curve) may be averaged to give a rough prediction of the future availability of that resource per resource type/location. This is straightforward, yet we disbelieve it.
Natural resource extraction follows a characteristic curve shape for slowly regenerating resources. Best first. Worst last.
We generally must run faster and faster to maintain our current production levels. Drilling holes in the ground is not sustainable.
The world isn’t running out of oil, but human societies are running out of affordable oil.
One million barrels per day of ethanol manufactured from corn is also being counted as “oil production.” This so-called “oil” is the same stuff in whiskey, vodka, and beer: grain alcohol. From an energy standpoint, producing ethanol is an energy conversion, where we take soil, water, corn, diesel for the tractors and the combines, agricultural chemicals, electricity and natural gas for the conversion process, plus labor, and turn it all into ethanol at an ER/EI of barely over 1:1. Ethanol only has 68 percent of the energy, by volume, of crude oil. In addition to its lower energy content, other factors make ethanol a poor substitute for crude oil. Since it is water soluble, it attracts and absorbs moisture, solvents and cleaning agents, and degrades plastics. This makes it problematic for many engines, especially boat outboard engines and small engines such as chain saws, lawn mowers and electric generators. Despite all these problems, the use of ethanol in gasoline is federally mandated (as a result of Congressional lobbying), ostensibly on environmental grounds as it burns cleaner - but it could be argued the main beneficiaries are the ethanol producers in corn state economies.
In order to make it seem like there is plenty of oil, we have changed the definition of what is oil to include lower quality liquids.
There are two kinds of costs to this extraction and production: the financial (money) cost, and the energy cost. The financial cost is “whatever the buyers, and society, believe they can afford”, while the energy cost embodies absolute thresholds on just how worthwhile it is to go after any particular source of oil.
There’s the price the economic system can afford for oil, and the financial cost to extract and produce it. They may be very different. And they both ignore the inherent real worth of oil.
What society can and can’t do with oil depends on the financial and energetic cost, and as those costs rise, current levels of consumption will become increasingly difficult to sustain.
Our culture remains energy blind, believing not only in unlimited growth in the amount of goods and services available to future humans but also that technology perpetually can overcome limited natural resources. On the other hand (a.k.a. reality), technology is a vector to access lower and lower quality resources in a finite pool.
From a biophysical perspective however, using credit doesn’t create (much) new energy resource, but functions as a larger straw, pulling resource consumption forward in time.
By using non-renewable resources, particularly energy, we are effectively 'draining America first'.
Renewable energy sources currently depend entirely on the existing fossil-fueled global extractive, shipping, processing, and manufacturing system to be constructed.
The process of building “renewable” technology generates environmental pollutants that are harmful. They are built of materials that in some cases will be exhausted in a fairly short time. Many of them provide only intermittent power, and they all eventually break down and need to be built again from scratch.
Current solar panels are built to last 20-25 years, and their supporting electronics fewer. When they are replaced, the world will have less oil, lower quality ore grades, and other hurdles deriving from the limits to growth.
Mechanisms to tap direct and indirect solar flows are not renewable. They are rebuildable to the extent the energy, resources, time, and human prioritization can rebuild them.
There’s no such thing as renewable energy. There are mechanisms we can build which tap ongoing energy flows, which are at best rebuildable.
Not all energy is created equal. Some energy provides greater benefits to humans and economies than others.
Some energy-carriers are inherently higher-quality than others, and how useful an energy carrier is to you depends on what you are currently specialized to use.
Our exosomatic energy carriers vary in what they can do for us.
“Baseload power” means “on demand.” On a small scale your battery powered flashlight provides light “on demand” when the sun has set. On the large scale, we rely on potential energy carriers of some sort, be they fuels or batteries, to operate continuously and provide power over long distances. Baseload power is largely incompatible with simple kinetic - energy-based electrical systems, and when the process of conversion to and from potential energy systems occurs, it is lossy and costly.
Usable energy is either potential (stored) or kinetic (in motion). Our current society is heavily dependent on the former, though people lived perfectly fine lives in previous cultures using the latter.
Many kinetic energy flows are inherently diffuse. The total amount of solar energy which falls on Earth is far more than our society could use. However, at any given time that energy is spread over about 100 million square miles of surface. The energy we desire to use must be far more concentrated than that, so we need to come up with a way of collecting that diffuse energy, concentrating it, converting it to some sort of stored potential energy and transporting it to where the people are.
The various properties of energy sources to consider are: spatial distribution, intermittence, energy density, energy surplus, portability, transformity, storability, carbon intensity, complexity, waste streams.
The qualitative differences in the characteristics of energy and energy carriers are going to be very important to our future.
A project might make reasonable sense but not meet the necessary criteria for being a solution to a given problem. This is an inexhaustive list of qualities needed for a solution -- to kickstart your ability to discern what is likely to be a solution and what is not:
Energy affordability: Does it have a significantly positive ER/EI?
Energy quality tradeoff: Does it output energy that is roughly similar in quality to the energy required to create it? The irony is that you can use fossil fuels to build infrastructure that us es fossil fuels, but you can’t build more solar panels using only the energy from solar panels. What we are doing is making a tradeoff between high-density liquid fuels and slow payback intermittent electricity.
Energy investment thresholds: How much of society’s limited remaining burnable fossil energy would have to be diverted to build the new system? If the answer is “half of it,” that would be an important ramification.
Financial affordability: Can our current society do whatever it is without going bankrupt due to its cost? What are the odds of, and the mechanism for, funding it?
Mature technology: Is this based on some wildly speculative set of assumptions, such as dropping the launch cost of rockets into orbit by a factor of 100, or the development of materials that don’t yet exist?
Scalability: Is this something that works on a small scale but could not really be scaled up as the basis for a new world order, like cars with lithium batteries?
Durability and replicability: How often will it need to be rebuilt? And How much time will it take?: Is the time it would take to implement this plan roughly commensurate with the amount of time we have available before limits to growth, energy and materials discontinuities, irreversible CO2 thresholds are reached, etc.?
Political acceptability: Will society welcome this, or does it first require a benevolent dictator or something else highly unlikely?
Aggregate probability: How many improbable things must go right, on schedule, for it to work at all, and what will happen in the meanwhile?
There is what can happen, what can’t happen, and what won’t happen. Telling the first from the last is the tricky part.
Even if solar or wind power is at grid parity, it will be two to three times more costly to produce heat for industrial processes using solar-generated electricity than burning coal or gas.
About 75% of the seven billion barrels of crude oil used annually in the United States is used to produce gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and distillate fuel (heating). The other 25% results in a diverse array of petroleum products: crayons, pantyhose, heart valves, telephones, mattresses, helmets, glasses, toilet seats, fertilizers, aspirin, detergents, glue, garbage bags, fishing poles, shampoo, paints, fan belts, tires, condoms, luggage, anti-freeze, toothbrushes, tents, lipstick, tennis rackets, guitar strings, ammonia and other manufacturing chemicals, cameras, bandages, caulking, skis, roofing tiles, medicines, asphalt and many more. There is no simple or cheap non-fossil substitute for most of these products. (Note: if there were somehow a substitute for gasoline e.g. electric cars, we would still need the same amount of oil, as all the products listed above come from different fractions of the oil than the gasoline.)
The challenge in a 21st century, faced with lower-quality and costlier hydrocarbons (as well as carbon compounds that must remain unburned for ecological reasons), is that many of the heavy industrial processes underpinning our world economies cannot be easily replaced with electric substitutes. And we often forget: the non-fuel uses of fossil hydrocarbons may be their highest and most important use.
Solar panels are cool, but most things we (currently) do can’t be done and scaled affordably with electricity.
Fully one-third of all energy used in our society is neither heat nor electricity, but liquid fuels that power various vehicles which transport our goods (and us) around the globe to wherever we want to be and wherever we want stuff to be.
The main cost of moving things is friction-related energy loss of various kinds. Despite steel-on-steel (railroads) being almost 10x more energy efficient than rubber-on-concrete (trucks), virtually 100% of final-destination transport in the USA and most nations now occurs using trucks.
The USA currently has 95,000 miles of railroad track (which are mostly on a 0 to 1% grade, anything higher requires much more energy), and 25,000 miles of waterways. This contrasts with 4,100,000 miles of road187 – a complex body of asphalt and concrete arteries and veins bringing goods to stores near your home.
Trucking is a major, and oft-overlooked, issue related to oil depletion and a decarbonized future in the USA. Because trucks are quicker and more flexible, more convenient and better-suited to a fractal-packing system, and oil was essentially free for a while, trucks replaced trains.
Transportation of goods is another reminder of Liebig’s Law of the minimum – how do we get food, materials, equipment, to all the end nodes of the human superorganism using something other than liquid fuels?
There’s potentially a big trucking problem with keeping things moving once oil availability diminishes.
No matter what product you buy, it has embodied energy from each of dozens (or hundreds, or thousands) of steps – the many sub-processes of mining, manufacturing, processing, packaging, distribution, marketing, and final sale. Each link of this chain is connected by some sort of oil-based transportation.
When we consider the future options for our economies and environment, most attention is focused on how to supply “renewable” energy to our existing systems, “dropping it in” as a direct electrical substitute for the liquid fuels we now use. We spend less time considering how we actually use energy, how to develop workable substitutes for complex production processes, and how to restructure supply chains. In the pursuit of efficiency and lowest cost, we have dramatically increased risk. Given the magnitude, vertical and horizontal, of global industry, and the current requirement for liquid fuels at every step, it probably makes more sense to shorten these complex global supply chains than to simply decarbonize them. And ultimately, we’ll probably need to do both.
We are offered hundreds of thousands of product choices. Each of these has its own byzantine supply chain underpinned by fossil energy and transported via oil. We could be just as happy with fewer choices.
What such a renewable future will do to our society is two things. First, we will become much more dependent on the natural flows of energy (be it solar, wind or hydro), which means that we can forget about running continent wide industrial activities on a 24/7 basis. Second, any system built on highly variable renewable sources will at times provide “way too much electricity”, and way more than what we can store in batteries. This offers the opportunity to use this excess to produce combustible fuels (such as methane or even gasoline).
One way or another, the human future will be solar-powered. Solar-power devices are a great answer to many questions; just not necessarily the ones we’re asking.
Fission power has downsides all its own, but one significant upside: it is far lower in “carbon intensity” – CO2 emissions – than other methods of providing relatively stable baseload power. For this reason, many are calling for it to be greatly expanded, including the highly respected climate scientist James Hansen and other environmentally concerned people who consider it the “least worst” option in the face of genuinely scary CO 2 trends. Yet such a buildout is not happening. Fission plants are being constructed at roughly the pace old ones are being decommissioned.
Fission plants are a very big-ticket item with huge upfront costs and slow payback, taking many decades to recoup initial costs. The cost of the plant construction is far greater than the cost of the electrical energy generated over a plant’s lifetime. The costs and risks are generally offloaded to the ratepayers, who remain on the hook for indeterminate future costs, whatever they may be.
To make a dent in humanity’s CO emissions, we would have to embark on a massive project of building thousands of fission plants immediately while closing coal plants. There’s not even a hint of that happening, and it takes a long time to build such plants.
Fission power could be part of a low-carbon energy future, but it brings a lot of baggage with it. To do so, reactor construction would have to be done on a crash basis. Nothing like this is happening, and nuclear engineers don’t like the word “crash”.
There is, at present, no reason to think that fusion reactors are going to solve any of our upcoming energy problems.
Energy profit (net usable energy) dictates the type and scale of activities a society might engage in, because the “energy cost” of procuring energy is deducted from what may be used for other stuff. A 100:1 payoff on a dense liquid fuel offers significantly more cultural options than a 3:1 payoff on a heat investment.
The current scaling of “renewables” exists entirely within, and enabled by, an existing high-energy-gain society maintained by fossil energy. There is no free lunch!
At present, the human superorganism has self-organized around “global GDP growth” as its goal and neoclassical welfare economics as its playbook. Under such social organizing principles, the choice to build solar panels and wind turbines ends up not replacing coal, natural gas and oil, but just growing a bigger heat engine.
At least for the time being, what does happen with the scaling of ‘renewables’ is that some fuel (coal and gas) is saved from being burned while the sun shines and the wind blows. Yet there has been no detectable down-ratchet in fossil energy use as “renewables” have been added; either society has just found other energy stuff to do with the “saved” coal and gas, or it’s having the effect of slightly slowing the annual fossil energy increase. In the absence of a new cultural metric displacing GDP, modern renewables will largely function as FFEMs - fossil fuel extension mechanisms - as the infrastructure and capacity remains geared to 24-7 production/consumption of products in global supply chains.
With GDP as our current goal, scaling wind, solar, and renewables merely expands the burning of fossil hydrocarbons.
Renewable technology harnesses renewable flows of the sun. The flows are renewable but the technology to harness them is as complex and resource intensive as the construction of a Ford truck. This technology is better labeled "rebuildable", not renewable.
The vast majority of renewable energy is used to generate electricity. Only about 20% of global energy use is electric – the rest is transportation, heat etc. Some of that can be shifted to electric but not without costs. And some of it cannot be shifted (heavy ocean transport, steel smelting furnaces etc.)
Our armies of 500 billion human laborers power the global industrial and manufacturing engine. Many renewable energy stories have rosy forecasts that ignore the current heavy lifting done by these laborers, who will be retiring in coming decades.
Solar and wind power at the margin has gotten cheap –and viable – but we need to look at the full system cost that will require either fossil back up or batteries or other for when the wind doesn’t blow or sun doesn’t shine. Also, solar/wind is only cheap at the margin with low penetration. At high penetration, the costs skyrocket.
While switching to renewables is a very worthy objective, it is unlikely to happen within the short time frame we have - as many specific problems have not yet been resolved. These are: 1) How to stabilize an electricity grid that has not only 10 or 20% of variable renewables, but 60 or 80%. Current technologies are not suitable for this task, or way too expensive. 2) How to shift the majority of our activities to be directly or indirectly powered by electricity. We have electric cars, but long-haul transport, chemicals, and many industrial processes are not electric. 3) And most importantly, these scenarios use ‘money-in energy-out’ accounting, instead of ‘energy and materials in, energy and materials out’ analysis. It is highly unlikely we can maintain our current level of consumption (and GDP) in such a future where we spend ~15-20% of our efforts harvesting and delivering the energy we use, compared to 8-10% of today (and 5% of the recent past).
Due to many limitations, it is likely that economies will stop growing and start to shrink in the coming decade. The amount of the economy dedicated to energy acquisition will become a larger and larger share of our economic pie due to thermodynamic realities. This will likely mean, among other things: much higher prices for energy, many high-energy intensity processes and activities becoming less viable (e.g. public air travel, some heavy industry), and – if we don’t do something to prevent it - wider and deeper poverty as energy services become unaffordable to many. It is a critical point that - in our current situation – any combination of new renewables and depleting fossil fuels is now only available at a cost that is unlikely to allow continued ‘growth’ in the sense we have become accustomed to (without massive and unsustainable amounts of new debt). However, society will still have access to a great deal of energy and will still be able to amply cover for everything that is necessary, but the energy and natural resource inputs required to harness it will increase: in cost, scale, and complexity. We are transitioning from a several hundred year trend of higher energy quality (energy dense, storable, transportable, dispatchable energy) to one of lower energy quality (kinetic, intermittent, low-density) and one of considerably more complexity. Our biophysical reality is that - with or without renewables - our gas stations are being moved farther away. This doesn’t have to be a disaster, but so far, we continue to make decisions as if the gas station were still right around the corner. Net energy is what societies should be focused on, and most people don’t even know what it is. There is a relatively simple – albeit currently politically unattractive – path to a renewable energy future: We’re going to have to simplify our complex life.
“Renewables” could power a great civilization, but not THIS civilization.