Thoughts on Energy and Our Climate and Ecological Crises

All life is based on energy.  For all but the last one hundred and fifty years, every creature on Earth depended almost exclusively on renewable energy for its needs and wants.  But since the mid-nineteenth century...

humans have increasingly used the energy released from fossil fuels to supply not only their needs but also their wants. This has resulted in longer lives, better health, a panoply of goods and services that mark modern life, as well as the increase in population from less than two billion people to  eight billion today.

Desire for “growth and progress” drives our society. However, in addition to the benefits of the goods and services of contemporary life, we have become aware of pollution of lands, seas, and air as by-products of creating the good life. The pollution that is climate change has received most attention because its physical effects have been widely experienced directly. And scientists tell us that if extreme action to limit emissions from the burning of fossil fuels is not taken within the next couple of years, global warming will reach a tipping point  at which time unpredictable and irreversible changes in the natural systems of the Earth will occur. 

Therefore we have come to see that the good life has great consequences in the real world of matter and energy in which we are embedded. 

We have temporarily maintained the good life based on an economics created by human ingenuity that largely ignores natural ecology. It sees natural resources as unlimited or that technological advances in science and technology will find substitutes for earthly materials. 

Because science and technology have been so successful in making  fossil fuels useful, we have also looked to them to find technical ways to break free from pollution caused by burning coal, oil, and gas. Technology may be developed to eliminate or greatly reduce the use of fossil fuels and renewable energy sources may substitute for some fossil fuels. But technology does not address the economic, political, and social ways of implementing their possible solutions. 

Economists, politicians, and others in society have been unable to approach the problems of climate change and loss of biodiversity because they see the world, almost exclusively, in terms of the economic and political stories that played their part in creating the benefits of modern society. These outdated economic views demand that policies of growth must continue.

They are truly ignorant of the ways in which energy is embedded in the physical world and of how modern societies interact with it. (They are also ignorant of the impossibility of unending exponential growth).

Unless we immediately and drastically accept that environmental limits to the use of fossil fuels is part of the human story, the possibility of limiting climate change in the immediate future is impossible and  the tipping points in the Earth’s ecological system will be reached. 

The only possible way to slow climate change rapidly and to ease into a civilization that is no longer based on cheap or subsidized energy, is to tax heavily all fossil fuels at the point of their extraction or importation. Heavy taxation on fossil fuels before they enter the economy insures that every economic activity must be evaluated in terms of energy.

To make this tax possible, politicians will have to become leaders in convincing their constituencies that they must learn to prioritize their allocation of goods and services in an equitable way and to live with less. That will  also require political and economic leadership to see that  people do not suffer disproportionately from the inevitable consequences of  a radically new indirect tax. 

But what to do from the bottom up?  All of us must  understand that energy is basic to all life. 

We must recognize that our modern political, social, economic, and cultural systems are part of a natural ecology that is fundamental to all organic existence. Wherever possible, we must be aware of  how we disturb that ecology and act to restore or no longer disrupt it.

We must learn to live humbly and without hubris and to place limits on our material wants. If we do so, we will also need to find ways to live joyous lives within the limits of the natural world. 

We are animals who have evolved on this wonderful planet Earth. Because we are also conscious creatures we must discover human values that let us live, enjoy, and create societies that respect the human animal that has evolved in this, the latest period of the history of the Earth.



Further Thoughts on Energy

1. All energy requires energy to extract it. We have lived for the last decades ( our whole lifetimes) on the benefits of cheap oil (in terms of energy).

2. Fossil fuels are finite. We have reached the peak extraction of fossil fuels. All remaining fuels also demand more energy to extract them than the high concentrated fuel we have been living on.  

3. High energy fuels have allowed them to be transformed into expensive goods and services. These goods and services are not likely to be available in such great quantities as energy sources decline.

4. Renewable energy sources require much more energy to produce than do the non-renewable ones that have until now supported modern life. And  solar and wind power require new infrastructure that will have to be supplied by fossil fuels.  Further the technology for storing their energy when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow also requires new technology that will be supplied by non-renewable sources.  

Thus the hullabaloo about making the US pollution free in ten, twenty or so years is based on an inadequate knowledge of energy. It takes more energy to use diffuse solar energy and concentrate it to a usable form than it does to use already concentrated  energy  (fossil fuels).  Certainly the saving is in the less pollution from the use of renewable sources of energy.

5.Unless we act extraordinarily fast, the pollution of energy use from any activity (CO2, pesticides, clear-field agriculture, etc.) will greatly damage the Earth's ecology and change the course of evolution.  

6.  Steady growth of the economy cannot persist. (Exponential growth does not permit it.) Modern Civilization will change, no matter what we want. The physics of energy does not permit it.

7. We have to look beyond ameliorative measures (i.e.--conserve, preserve, recycle, electric cars, etc. ).The necessary changes will have to be much more radical.

8. Yet we must act on all of these ameliorative measures but also urge the immediate adoption of a Carbon Tax at the source of the carbon.

9.  Most of all: Our descendants need to find ways to live a happy life without massive amounts of goods and services.  (All goods and services are accompanied by bads and disservices.) 

Al Urquhart

Al is an Emeritus Professor of Geography and was a founder and director of the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Oregon. He is also a member of the Advisory Board at Job one for Humanity.


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