Energy Literacy, Part II: Why Less Energy Is More

If we Americans still relied on human muscles to generate all the energy we happily consume, we'd each have 150 dedicated "energy slaves" working for us, all day, every day. Instead, we've been exploiting other forms of energy—mostly non-renewable and emissions-generating fossil fuels—for the past 150 years. But it takes increasingly more energy to make fossil-based energy, since the "easy" fossil fuels have largely been depleted and attention is now turning to sources such as oil sands. Compounding this problem is the growing sea of humanity that demands power.

Actually, there are many compounding factors, as author and Post Carbon Institute fellow Richard Heinberg lays out in the introduction, below, to Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth, a new book from PCI and the Foundation for Deep Ecology. We can't just keep feeding the machine, he argues. When it comes to energy, less is more—but becoming more efficient with our energy is not enough to turn this boat all the way around.

The book also includes essays from a long list of leading thinkers and writers on energy, emissions, consumption, efficiency, and the energy economy, including Wes Jackson, Wendell Berry, James Hansen, and Amory Lovins. In Part I of this series we spoke with the book's editor, Tom Butler, about green power's dark side, the power (and possible pitfalls) of energy ruin porn, and the population problem.

—Mary Catherine O'Connor

Derelict_coal_plantA derelict coal-burning power plant in Romania. Photo: Douglas Tompkins

INTRODUCTION: Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth

Energy is at the core of the human predicament in the 21st century. Extracting fossil fuels poisons landscapes, fragments habitat, and destroys beauty. Burning those fuels is changing the chemical composition of the global atmosphere and accelerating climate change. At the same time, spiraling fossil fuel prices—resulting from depletion of the highest-grade and most easily accessed hydrocarbon resources—have contributed to a worldwide financial crisis that threatens global stability. Not only are transport costs rising, threatening globalized supply chains, but soaring energy prices also drive up food prices, leading to increasing social unrest around the world.

As conventional oil and gas deplete, energy companies are forced to spend more and more to search for and produce resources that are farther afield, that are more technically challenging to access, and that pose serious risks to ecosystems. In their increasingly desperate search for “extreme energy,” oil and gas companies must operate at the margin of their technical capabilities. Under these circumstances, accidents are not only more likely to happen, but are often far more disastrous when they do: Recall the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and imagine a similar or larger accident happening hundreds of miles off the coast of Alaska in rough arctic seas. Indeed, the entire project of globalized industrial civilization—which took root and dramatically expanded during the 20th century as cheap energy drove production, trade, and population growth—now seems imperiled as energy and ecological limits come into view.

It’s tempting to take the micro-view and look for ways to target each of our energy problems with a technical fix. Can’t we improve the energy efficiency of vehicles, insulate our buildings, and develop renewable energy sources? Yes, of course. Can’t we regulate the fossil fuel industry better, and allow the vast, recently unlocked North American reserves of shale gas and shale oil to be produced responsibly? Possibly. We could do all of those things, and many more besides, to lessen the current energy economy’s impacts on natural and human communities—and still there would remain serious obstacles ahead.

Filed To: Media, Science, Nature

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