The Gadfly Bytes -- May 10, 2005
LAST CHANCE FOR CIVILIZATION
|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)
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, we “eat 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, like 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 aside for another essay).
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, 250)
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 reports.
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 technology.
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 cost here).
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)," The New 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 Mifflin, 1992
Lovins, Amory and O.E. Bustnes, J.Koomey, Nathan Glasgow: Winning the Oil Endgame, Snowmass, CO: Rocky Mountain Institute, 2005. Downloadable at:
Partridge, Ernest: "The Oil Trap," The Online Gadfly, August, 2002,
Partridge, Ernest: "The Perils of Panglosism," Global Dialog, Winter, 2002. Online version: "Perilous Optimism," The Online Gadfly www.igc.org/gadfly/papers/cornuc.htm .
Price, David: “Energy and Human Evolution", Population and Environment, Volume 16, Number 4, March 1995, pp. 301-19 http://dieoff.org/page137.htm
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