The Gadfly Bytes --
May 10-, 2005
LAST CHANCE FOR CIVILIZATION
Ernest Partridge, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers.
||It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society
could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now
in the process of doing.
Elizabeth Colbert (2005)
I have optimism of the intellect and pessimism of the will.
Humanity is facing a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. The final
depletion of petroleum reserves is likely within this century. Without
this energy source, and with no alternative sources in place, the Earth
could probably not support half of the present population of six billion
souls. (Watt, 8-9) That remnant of humanity would subsist at a level of poverty
suffered today by the typical Bangladeshi. Furthermore, because
concentrated and accessible mineral and energy resources will no longer be
available, the “low-hanging fruit” having been harvested by preceding
generations, there can never be a restoration of industrial civilization.
Now the good news: this dreadful fate can be avoided.
And the bad news: there appears to be no political will in the United
States to effect a rescue.
Now that I have your attention, let’s examine the evidence.
It is impossible to comprehend the total reliance of our industrial
civilization upon cheap and abundant energy. Prior to the industrial
revolution, the “civilized” life of the small minority privileged
individuals, for example in ancient Greece and Rome, was built upon the
backs of hordes of slaves and draft animals. The use of bio-fuels (e.g.
wood) was essentially confined to cooking, space heating, and metallurgy.
Today, the average North American utilizes each day the energy equivalent
of two-hundred slaves (Price, 1995). Fossil energy transports his food thousands
of miles to his table. Petroleum products are the source of farm
fertilizers and they drive farm machinery. Because of the productivity of
fossil fuel driven industrial agriculture the average American farmer now
feeds fifty of his fellow citizens. In a very real sense, sense,
petroleum.” (Partridge, August, 2002) If the oil supply were to dry up with no
successor fuel at hand, most of our population would have to return to the
land to raise their own food, only to find that the fertile land had been
sacrificed to suburban sprawl or lost to erosion and desertification. In
addition, if one contemplates the energy expended to move us to and from
work, to extract and transport raw materials, to manufacture and
distribute consumer goods, to educate and employ the specialists required
to sustain a complex civilization, then one might begin to appreciate the
indispensable role of energy in the support of industrial civilization.
True, the wasteful average American uses twice as much energy as
equally affluent Europeans. But compare US energy consumption with that of
less fortunate individuals in the “developing world.” That Average
American uses about fifty times as much fossil fuels as the average
citizen of India, and about five times the world per-capita use. (Wackernagel
and Rees, 85)
Economic optimists such as the late Julian Simon,
to tell us that the world population of six billion is not all that much,
when we take into account the vast land area of the planet. Perhaps you
have heard, as I have, that the entire world population could fit
comfortably into the state of Texas. So let’s consider that example, as we
take out our handy pocket calculator. The area of Texas is 268,581 square
miles, or 171,891,840 acres. Divide that by six billion, and you have 0.03
acres per person, or about the area of an ordinary apartment: 1307 square
feet. This is, of course, allowing no space for roads, schools,
manufacturing plants, agricultural land, forests, watershed, etc. As for
parks, forests, lakes, and other recreational areas, fagetaboutit.
In point of fact, far more land is required to support Western European
and North American life-styles than the land of one’s personal residence.
To that personal homestead, one must add the aforementioned agricultural land, watershed,
roads, industrial facilities, schools, etc. required to fulfill the needs
of that resident.
Two Canadian scholars, Mathis Wackernagel and
William Rees (1996), have called this “supporting land” the “ecological
footprint.” They have calculated
the “ecological footprint” of the average American at 12.6 acres, the
average (Asian) Indian at one acre, and the world average at 4.4 acres.
Accordingly, the ecological footprint of greater Vancouver, BC, is roughly
equal to the area of Washington state. For all six billion human beings to
live at the economic level of the average North Americans would require
the land mass of three Earths. And finally, write Wackernagel and Rees,
“humanity’s ecological footprint is as much as 30 percent larger than
nature can sustain in the long run. In other words, present consumption
exceeds natural income by 30 percent and is therefore partially dependent on
capital (wealth) depletion.” (p. 90) And that depletion, of course, is largely the
depletion of non-renewable energy resources – primarily fossil fuels.
Bottom line: as the oil runs out and fuel prices soar, we’d damned well
better be phasing in other energy sources, or homo sapiens just might go
the way of the dinosaurs – without the nudging of a killer asteroid.
And note that I’ve said nothing so far about global warming. If we are
to believe the consensus conclusion of virtually all atmospheric scientists
(industry sponsored “biostitutes” excluded), global fossil fuel use must
be severely curtailed in advance of the natural depletion of petroleum
reserves if a climate catastrophe is to be avoided. (Lest I digress, this urgent topic must be set
Fortunately, we just might avoid the twin catastrophes brought
on by severe global
warming and the approaching end of petroleum energy. But to do so will
require coordinated global commitment, the best efforts and lavish public
support of a large cadre of scientists and engineers, and massive
investments in new technologies and infrastructures.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration is committed to a race in precisely
the opposite direction. The Bush response to the looming day of dreadful
reckoning is to starve research, development and investments in
alternative energy sources, and to bring that day of reckoning ever closer
by accelerating the consumption of fossil fuels. It’s as if Captain Smith
of the Titanic ordered that all lifeboats be tossed overboard, and then
directed the helmsman to proceed at flank speed toward the iceberg.
Fortunately, there is, in fact, an abundance of potential energy sources,
some already in use, albeit in minuscule amounts compared the usage of
depletable fossil fuels. And these alternative sources do not exacerbate
the global warming emergency.
All useful energy, nuclear, tidal, and geo-thermal power excepted, comes
from the sun. Coal, oil, natural gas, bio-fuels all contain solar energy
captured by photosynthesis and transformed into hydrocarbons. Wind energy
is generated by uneven solar heating of the earth’s surface, and
hydroelectric power is derived from solar-induced evaporation and
precipitation. Radiant energy from the sun, falling upon the earth’s
surface, can be concentrated through solar collectors, or directly
converted into electricity through photo-electric cells. Electricity and
elemental hydrogen are secondary energy sources – “energy conveyers,” to
use physicist Amory Lovins’ term – the primary sources of which are
any of the above.
All biomass and bio-waste contains recoverable fuel, though not all of it
is economically recoverable. Ethanol from corn is a newsworthy example
although, to be sure, as currently produced, it is a net-minus source of energy – i.e., more
energy is expended in its production than is recovered from the ethanol
itself. But this is an exceptional and solvable case, as the
Brazilians have demonstrated. (RMI 101-107) Dried biomass – wood, paper,
sawdust, corn-stalks, lawn cuttings – produces heat energy from burning,
though this is an inefficient and polluting energy source. A far better
source is the anoxic (“oxygen starved”) decomposition of biomass, which
produces such high-quality fuels as gaseous methane and liquid methanol.
The sources of this fuel are limitless, and need only be collected and
processed. “Slash” from lumber, corn stalks, vegetable oil and animal fat,
municipal garbage and sewage, feedlot manure – all this and more can be
sources of bio-fuels. Household and yard garbage (including leaves and
lawn cuttings), when dumped into land fills, decompose anoxically and
release vast amounts of methane, which, as a greenhouse gas, is thirty
times more damaging than carbon dioxide. (Schneider 21) But when captured
and utilized as a fuel, the combustion products of methane are water and
carbon dioxide – and benign CO2 at that, since the component carbon is
gathered and released from the ongoing biotic “carbon cycle,” and not, as
with fossil fuels, extracted from geologically sequestered sources.
In short, there is energy all around us. We need only develop and apply
the technology to put it to work for us. Still better, we have that
technology at hand, and are prevented by vested interests in the fossil
fuel economy and their patrons in the government from developing and
distributing these benign and “climate friendly” sources of energy.
Foremost among the objections to a conversion to a solar-biofuel-hydrogen
economy is cost. Fossil fuels, we are told, are the cheapest source of
energy, and as long is this is the case, renewable sources will be
excluded by the remorseless logic of the free market.
This argument is specious, for numerous reasons.
First of all, the cost advantage is temporary, to say the least. Now that
we have apparently reached the point of peak global oil production, and
now that China and India are entering the world petroleum market, the
price of oil must increase, suddenly and significantly, as demand surges
ahead of supply.
Second, the miserly investment in the research, development, manufacture
and infrastructure of renewables is the cause of the high cost of these
energy sources, which, in turn, provides an excuse for the failure by the
fossil energy establishment (including those oil industry alumni, Bush and
Cheney) to look elsewhere for future energy sources. Accordingly,
Third, as the critics of renewable energy cite the non-competitive
current costs, they neglect to make projections of future costs which,
through advancing research, development and economies of scale are certain
to drop drastically. Case in point: the cost of information storage in
personal computers. In 1981, when I bought my first personal computer, the
salesman tried to entice me to purchase a hard drive. “For only $2000,” he
told me, “you can put five megabytes of data on this hard drive.” This year, I bought an 80 gigabyte hard-drive for $150. – 16,000 times as much
storage capacity as the 1981 drive, at about 7% of the cost (in constant
dollars). Had automobiles followed the same cost-curve, I could now buy a
Hummer for a dollar. While there is no way that alternative energy costs
will drop in thirty years as much as computer data storage, they will
nonetheless drop dramatically, as in fact they have already. In 1979,
solar-power advocate Barry Commoner figured the cost of photo-voltaic
electricity to be approximately the same as electricity supplied by a gas
powered home generator: $1.63 per kilowatt hour. Residential electricity
at the time cost 3.5 cents / kwh. (9 cents in 2004 dollars). As Commoner
conceded, “the photovoltaic cell was hardly commercial.” (Commoner, 35) However, with
intervening improvements in technology, photovoltaic electricity is today
approaching competitiveness. In the twenty years from 1977 to 1997, the
cost of photovoltaic energy fell from $2 /kwh to 18 cents /kwh. (Youngquist,
Finally, the market can, and in fact must, be federally “shaped,” through
taxes and subsidies, to ease and hasten the transition from a fossil fuels
to a global economy based upon clean and sustainable energy. Free-market
absolutists will complain loudly about such “big government interference,”
all the while hoping that the public will not notice that industrial
agriculture, transportation and distribution systems, and the petroleum
industry all benefit from huge government subsidies. It is past time for
public officials to act in behalf of the public and future generations,
rather than the corporate interests that have “bought” them. If they do
so, public funds can be directed to research, development and installation
of renewable energy facilities – “priming the pump” to hasten the
establishment of an eventually self-sustaining renewable energy industry.
The financial and industrial resources are available to make this
transition. The oil companies must redefine themselves as “energy
companies”– not as adversaries and competitors of the emerging alternative
energy providers, but as facilitators, in search of newer and better
energy sources. Some corporations, notably British Petroleum and Shell,
are saying as much in their public pronouncements. But such PR
declarations are all too often belied by the R&D numbers in the annual
Because the impending end of the petroleum age is a direct threat to
national security, a sizeable portion of the military budget should be
diverted toward energy independence. For example, the aerospace industry,
corporations such as Martin-Marietta, Lockheed, Rockwell and Boeing, with
their state of the art facilities for producing aircraft and rocket
launchers, are superbly equipped to manufacture high-speed intercity rail
systems – by far the most energy efficient mode of transportation and
distribution. Anyone who has traveled on Japanese and European trains, as
I have, can only be dismayed at the dismal condition of American
railroads. Six years ago I rode the “Chunnel” train from Paris to London
– 220 miles – in less than three hours at speeds up to 140 mph, far less
time than a trip from central Paris to central London via air, with
transportation to and from the airports. Recently, NPR conducted an
experiment, with one staff member traveling from downtown Washington to
downtown New York via Amtrak (230 miles), and the other via air shuttle.
It was a dead heat, despite the inferior condition of Amtrak. With
trains of European or Japanese quality, there would be no contest, either
in elapsed time or in comparable per-passenger energy costs.
The United States must take the lead in the transition to renewable
energy, for if we do not, we can be assured that Europe and Asia will take
that lead, leaving us behind with a declining economy and standard of
living, as we desperately cling to an obsolete and uncompetitive
Can industrial civilization, at the level of development and prosperity
now achieved in the United States, Europe and Japan, be sustained without
the abundant and cheap energy now provided by the fossil fuels? Amory
Lovins and his associates at the Rocky Mountain Institute believe that we
can – and that we must. In an astonishing and hopeful report, Winning the
Oil Endgame, Lovins et al claim that “over the next few decades, the
United States can get completely off oil and revitalize its industrial and
rural economy.” (Lovins, et al) Moreover, they propose that this
transition to a “soft energy” future can be accomplished profitably
by private enterprise. (The 270 page report can be downloaded at no
Throughout his thirty year career, Lovins has been widely denounced as a
wild-eyed, impractical visionary. But because he has endured for three
decades, the passage of time has validated his work. With thorough,
peer-reviewed scholarship, Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute present
in their “Oil Endgame” report a plausible avenue of escape from the
impending economic collapse which must follow the sudden and permanent
loss of the fossil energy sources that now sustain industrial civilization. And
that is encouraging news, to say the least.
The RMI solution does not bode well for the investors in oil companies, if
those companies refuse to develop alternative energy sources. With the
future of civilization in the balance, the short-term interests of
petroleum industry investors should not be the controlling factor in
national and global energy policy. However, the choice between investors vs.
civilization is a false dilemma if the oil companies act as energy
companies and lead the transition to an economy based upon sustainable
energy. Moreover, the petroleum industry will survive the obsolescence of
fossil fuels, for there will be a permanent demand for petrochemical
products, notably plastics.
“Firms that are quick to adopt innovative technologies and business
models,” states the RMI report, “will be the winners of the 21st century;
those that deny and resist change will join the dead from the last
millennium.” (Lovins, et al, x-xi).
Unfortunately, the Bush-Cheney administration, totally captivated by the
short-term interests of the “awl bidness” has given no serious attention
and has proposed no significant appropriations in support of the transition
to sustainable and non-polluting energy resources. They have set us upon a
path to disaster. The Bush Administration, the Republican Congress, the
mainstream media, and the American public appear to be utterly unperturbed
by this prospect.
“Civilization,” wrote H. G. Wells, “is a race between education and
disaster.” At the moment, it appears that the American civilization is
staking its entire future on the losing horse in this race.
Colbert, Elizabeth: "The Climate of Man (III),"
Yorker, May 9, 2005
Commoner, Barry: The Politics of Energy, New
York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.
Gore, Al: Earth in the Balance, New York: Houghton
Lovins, Amory and O.E. Bustnes, J.Koomey, Nathan Glasgow:
Winning the Oil Endgame, Snowmass, CO: Rocky Mountain Institute, 2005.
Downloadable at: http://www.oilendgame.com/ReadTheBook.html
Partridge, Ernest: "The Oil Trap,"
The Online Gadfly,
August, 2002, www.igc.org/gadfly/eds/env/oiltrap.htm .
Partridge, Ernest: "The Perils of Panglosism," Global
Dialog, Winter, 2002. Online version: "Perilous Optimism,"
The Online Gadfly
Price, David: “Energy and Human Evolution",
Population and Environment, Volume 16, Number 4, March 1995, pp.
Schneider, Stephen H.: Global Warming, New York:
Vintage Books, 1990.
Wackernagel, Mathis, and William Rees: Our Ecological
Footprint, Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 1996.
Watt, Kenneth E. F.: "Whole Earth," Earth Day -- The
Beginning, New York: Arno Press, 1970.
Youngquist, Walter: Geo-Destinies, Portland, OR:
National Book Company, 1997
Copyright, 2005 by Ernest Partridge
Ernest Partridge's Internet Publications
Conscience of a Progressive:
Partridge's Scholarly Publications. (The Online Gadfly)
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field
of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at
the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He
publishes the website, "The Online
Gadfly" and co-edits the progressive website,
"The Crisis Papers".